‘When in Rome’ but Netflix was, like, LOL it’s Roma now
Is Hollywood losing its grip on cinema?
If Oscar night marks the end of the old cinema year, then the first great film of 2018 was one you couldn’t see in cinemas at all. Instead, it landed on Netflix without much fuss on March 12.
The film was Annihilation: a gobsmacking cosmic horror starring Natalie Portman, in which an all-female squad of scientists ventures into a quarantined zone where reality itself seems to be coming unglued.
It began life as an ordinary mid-budget studio production – a $40m joint venture between Paramount Pictures and Skydance, written and directed by Alex Garland, who was fresh from the acclaimed Ex Machina.
But after some unfavourable test screenings, and Garland’s subsequent refusal to blunt his baby’s weirder edges, Paramount sold off the international rights and cut their losses with a halfhearted US release, the box office takings from which didn’t even cover Annihilation’s production costs.
Garland was dismayed, saying he had “made the film for cinema”. But cinema – the business, as opposed to the art-form – didn’t know what to do with it.
Netflix had been flexing some muscle in the filmmaking and distribution games for a while before this, but unlike their instantly successful TV operation, something about cinema seemed to elude them, and their pairings of big stars with bold directors given blank cheques were clicking less often than not.
They had ended 2017 with one of the year’s worst films: fantasy thriller Bright, in which Will Smith played an urban cop in an alternate Los Angeles awash with orcs and elves.
Twelve months on, the ground has shifted. The company’s most recent film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, is 2018’s very best. And in the interim, there were the not-so-small matters of new works from the Coen brothers, Tamara Jenkins, Paul Greengrass and others: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Private Life, Outlaw King, 22 July, Shirkers, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Orson Welles’s last masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind, which was completed, after three decades in legal limbo, on Netflix’s dime.
For the first time ever, you could enjoy a generous cross-section of the year’s best new films without leaving your couch. Meanwhile, Netflix made moves to ensure 2019 would unfold along similar lines – not least by ponying up the $125m budget for Martin Scorsese’s 26th feature, The Irishman, a true-life mafia drama starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Talking last week at the Marrakesh Film Festival, Scorsese explained: “No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course, we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”
You would be hard-pressed to come up with a grimmer indictment of Hollywood in 2018 than the fact that a gangster movie directed by a hot-streaking Scorsese, and featuring the stars of Goodfellas and The Godfather, is considered a bad bet. Netflix’s motivation is simple: it wants to be taken seriously, by the industry and its customers alike. Unlike traditional studios, the company makes money by growing its subscriber base, which currently stands at 137.1 million worldwide.
It doesn’t matter whether an individual film is a hit or not, providing the totality of their output – on which they spent $10bn worldwide this year – feels like a good deal to existing customers, and looks that way to prospective ones. In the case of Roma, funding a $15m black-and-white, Spanish-language historical epic will do that – because Cuarón could win the company some attention-grabbing additions for their trophy cabinet, perhaps including an Oscar for Best Picture. (The studio’s only two Academy Awards to date have been in the documentary categories.)
For cinemas, however, this ambition is proving a stone in the shoe that gets sharper with every step. What sets Netflix apart from Amazon Studios – the other mighty digital upstart, which was responsible for two more of the year's best films, You Were Never Really Here and Suspiria – is that they won’t play along with the custom of showing films on big screens first.
This is more than a matter of tradition or etiquette. Netflix’s ongoing feud with the Cannes Film Festival, which resulted in an 11th-hour ban from this year’s edition, is because the company’s business model clashes with the French “cultural exception” – a system of state support for the national film industry, funded in part by a box office tax. Cannes’ old rival, Venice, continued to embrace Netflix: six of their films premiered there this year, including Roma, which went on to win the festival’s Golden Lion award.
Cannes supremo Thierry Frémaux waspishly observed in October that Venice was absolutely right to court the company, “since we have decided to reject them”. Italian cinema owners complained the festival was promoting films they wouldn't be able to screen – a line of argument that, to me, gives the game away.
There were 74 features at Venice this year that had nothing at all to do with Netflix, a great many of which were very fine indeed. The nut of the problem is that the Netflix titles are the kind that cinemas (particularly independent, upmarket ones) love to programme.
Cuarón and company aren’t Netflix partisans. They only ended up there for the funding others wouldn’t provide, without which their films could not have been made. (Another studio declined to partner with Cuarón on Roma because of concerns over its lack of commercial appeal and “no-name” cast.) To paraphrase Scorsese, when you aim higher than most, risk is not a step you can skip.
Directors are reconciling themselves to taking money from wherever it comes – even though dispensing with brick-and-mortar cinemas is a cost that, for some, is sorely felt. At her screenwriters’ lecture at the Baftas (British Oscars) last month, Nicole Holofcener reflected on working with Netflix on her sixth film, The Land of Steady Habits, which popped up on the service two days after its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, again with no audible fanfare.
“When Netflix said I could cast anyone I wanted, I was like: ‘That’s the point: I want to make a movie I’m proud of’,” said Holofcener, the wry, observant writer-director of Friends with Money and Enough Said. “Now that I’ve done that, it is a very strange experience. It’s sort of like I made a movie and then it blew away. Like I don’t know where it is, and I don’t see people watching it.”
Does this actually matter, if people are watching it? (We’ll never know how many, as Netflix rarely releases viewing figures.) Personally speaking, it grieves me to see films like Holofcener’s drop through the cracks, when a properly co-ordinated launch, with reviews, would help guide it to the viewers who’d appreciate it most.
But, while the experience of seeing films projected with a great audience will never be topped, I’m not as certain as I once was that smaller screens diminish great filmmaking. While compiling a list of my 100 favourite films earlier in the year, I realised I had seen less than half at the cinema – and, well, they clearly still seemed fine to me.
What’s more, Netflix's once-staunch anti-cinema stance appears to be softening. They announced last weekend that Roma would be released in 600 cinemas worldwide, including 100 in the US, another 100 in Mexico, where it is set, and 15 in the UK, simultaneously with its appearance on the service.
To me, this makes sense. Surely no one is going to cancel their subscription to a streaming service because everything they want to see is on at the local picture house. The big question now is not what Netflix does next, but how everyone else responds, and whether they reflect on the creative practices that allowed Netflix to become a threat.
They would do well to watch Annihilation – particularly the scene in which a scientist is trying to comprehend the film's alien entity, this terrifying incomer shredding the laws of the universe to rainbow ribbons. “It mutated our environment,” he splutters. “It was destroying everything.”
“It wasn’t destroying,” Portman coolly replies. “It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
– © The Daily Telegraph