Academy Awards buzz is hard to bottle, but you know it when you hear it. For most movies, the Oscar bees start buzzing early on, turning awards chatter into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Bruce Springsteen said, though, you can’t light a fire without a spark. “The Report,” an explosive true-life political thriller starring Adam Driver at the peak of his intensity, has all the makings of an Oscar-buzz movie — and for a while, I was sure it would become one. (Annette Bening is terrific in it, too.) Driver plays the Senate investigator who uncovered and documented America’s extensive use of torture after 9/11, and if you ask me whether he gives a greater performance in “Marriage Story” or this story, I’d have to think hard and get back to you. In “The Report,” he is that good. The movie was written and directed by the veteran screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Side Effects”), who makes the kind of virtuoso transition to full-on filmmaker that Tony Gilroy did with “Michael Clayton.”
“The Report,” simply put, is a knockout, and when it was picked up at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for $14 million by Amazon Studios, the company that generated such awards traction with “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick” and “Cold War,” the film seemed all but assured of getting its shot. But guess what? “The Report” came out a little over a week ago, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it barely exists. I don’t mean that the movie bombed. I mean that it’s a tree that fell in the movie-tree forest and no one was there to hear it, so it didn’t make a sound.
“The Report” will be available soon on Amazon Prime, so you won’t have to bother going out to a theater to see it. Yet if you do want to see it in a theater (that is, if you want to treat “The Report” like it’s, you know, a real movie), you’re mostly out of luck. It’s now playing at two theaters in New York, and since I happen to live near the IFC Center, which is one of them, the film is literally on my radar. I’m betting it’s not on yours. Most people I’ve spoken to have no idea the film has even come out. It’s not going much wider, either, because Amazon has taken “The Report” and shoehorned it into a new strategy that we might call S&D. That stands for “streaming and dreaming” — dreaming, that is, of the breakout film you wish it could be, and that it might well have been in a world that’s now gradually…disappearing?
A good film, of course, doesn’t live or die by Oscar love. But for prestige crowd-pleasers released in the last two months of the year, that’s still a key barometer of whether or not a film gets out there. Out there being an admittedly ethereal concept that still matters a great deal, since we are, after all, talking about a popular art form. “The Report” wasn’t made to be some straight-to-VOD throwaway that people could greet with a shrug of indifference, and it wasn’t bought by Amazon for that purpose. So what happened?
You might call “The Report” a fluke, a case of a brilliant, gripping, high-powered movie that got twisted in the gears of a transitional moment. When it first sold to Amazon, that happened with the expectation that the film would have a fair chance to play in theaters. (You don’t spend $14 million on a movie you’re planning to dump.) But in the 10 months since, Amazon Studios has undergone one of those financial and philosophical rethinks that happen from the top down. The company is having a show-me-the-money! moment.
Under the leadership of Jennifer Salke, the former NBC Entertainment president who became head of Amazon Studios in February, the company has tilted its focus away from classic movie product in brick-and-mortar venues and more toward the new world order of entertainment suitable for home viewing. The fact that Amazon got stung over the summer with the release of “Late Night,” a comedy that failed to live up to the crossover-hit potential of its Sundance hype (it was purchased there for $13 million), may have influenced the decision to consign “The Report” to oblivion. “Sundance buzz? $10 million-plus purchase price? We’re not making that mistake again!”
Even so, the fate of “The Report” illustrates a trend that’s larger than a fluke. For unless I’m mistaken, this is the first major Oscar-bait drama not from Netflix to be given a token theatrical release on its quick way to a streaming platform. It still feels like the Netflix paradigm, because Netflix invented it. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been writing about the weird shadow life that even a super-high-profile Netflix film like “Roma” or “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story” can end up having. Sure, the chattering classes will talk about it. But how many people — in those scattered theaters, or at home — are actually seeing it?
We don’t know, of course, because Netflix doesn’t report those numbers, and Amazon, taking a page from Netflix, isn’t reporting numbers on “The Report” either. So maybe that’s the new paradigm: movies that are picked up for streaming, marketed as glorified awards bait, that then disappear into the Bermuda Triangle of a token “theatrical” release the company doesn’t, in its heart, believe in. True, it’s not as if absolutely zero people are seeing these movies. But compared to traditional wide releases, they have a blurry half-life in the popular imagination. And the place a film has in the popular imagination becomes a part of its meaning. Think of “The Godfather,” “All the President’s Men,” “Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Ordinary People,” “Back to the Future,” “GoodFellas,” “Schindler’s List,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Titanic”: films that became transporting shared events. Not every movie is that mythical, of course, but films like that represent the dream. A movie like “The Report” is the dream hanging on by its fingernails.