Is Netflix becoming a dumping ground for risky projects?

The debate between streaming and the box office is nothing new. Take Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan’s The Interview, both released in 2014, as two early success stories of the dual format release: limited theatrical runs were boosted by simultaneous Video On Demand streaming.

Although the latter was more of a necessity (The Interview’s controversy prompted threats against screenings), the success of both films has drawn questions about the sustainability of the theatrical release model, and signified a move away from the traditional big screen experience towards the freedom of the home cinema.

That trajectory seems to be continuing under the streaming giant Netflix, which, in addition to producing its own content, has purchased distribution rights to major studio projects. On 4 February, the highly anticipated third instalment of the Cloverfield franchise, The Cloverfield Paradox, was suddenly released. Its marketing campaign consisted of a single 30-second spot during the Superbowl earlier that day.

Such a strategy falls in line with the franchise’s history of foregoing flashy trailers in favour of the buzz of viral marketing and fan theories, emphasising, like the films, what is not immediately revealed. On the other hand, however, it seems a little confusing – a theatrical release attached to JJ Abrams’ name (that guy who brought back Star Trek and Star Wars, anyone?) would be sure to bring in huge crowds, meaning that the decision to jump to Netflix instead might suggest a lack of confidence in the film.

It’s the same question that’s dogging the company’s planned distribution of the upcoming Annihilation: although it will be released in cinemas across the US and China, international audiences are limited to the web. It’s not a decision supported by the director, either. Alex Garland has stated the film was meant for a big-screen viewing experience, suggesting a bigger conflict between profitability and artistry in film. Paramount, the studio that made the film, might avoid high marketing costs, competition against big blockbusters, and the embarrassment of a box office failure, but the sale has wider implications for future releases.

By pre-supposing the film to be a dud, they reduce support for upcoming filmmakers, original stories, and films that demand engagement from their viewers. Annihilation, like The Cloverfield Paradox, boasts an A-list cast fronted by Natalie Portman, and follows Garland’s critically lauded debut Ex Machina, but it appears that margins are being prioritised over creativity and risk-taking.

Of course streaming services have their merits: a whole month of access can cost less than a single cinema ticket, and you can watch at a time and place that suits you. We all use them, simply because they provide us access to things we might not see anywhere else.  But sometimes there can be so much choice that content becomes lost through a set of algorithms predicting what they think you want to watch, disappearing into an endlessly scrolled grid of unremarkable title cards.

Meanwhile, as genre pieces and independent films lose out at theatres against the annual ‘insert franchise here’ blockbuster, our viewing choices become less and less our own, instead shaped by the budgets and returns of investors. None of that even considers the changing viewing experience, increasingly subject to the distractions on your viewing device of choice.

While content creators like Netflix should be celebrated for widening access to film and TV, that should not come at the price of innovation and diversity in the industry. Streaming services have huge potential to draw in and expand audiences for lower budget films, but they should not become dumping grounds for content that studios are afraid to market. The most important thing is that these films are made, but as long as studios continue to fund and produce unique and intelligent films, they must also make claims for why they need to be seen. 

Image: Scott Garfield / Netflix

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