This is not exactly the ideal moment to be making a case for the power of movie theaters. They’re up against the ropes, hanging on by their fingernails — or, at best, fighting a stark uphill battle. Yet neither is it the moment for theaters to be throwing in the towel, or for the rest of us to be saying, “Wake up and smell the streaming! The age of theaters is over. No one wants them anymore. If they go out of business, it will just be putting an archaic entertainment form out of its misery.”
A lot of people — too many — now have a chip on their shoulder about movie theaters. And maybe a death wish. To me, there’s something lazy, and a little unseemly, about using the devastating but accidental event of a pandemic to say, in essence:
Let’s become a society of permanent couch potatoes! With our fabulous big TV screens at home, who needs theaters anyway? Just give me my Netflix and my Grubhub and I’m good to go! Or, rather, good to stay!
I’m sorry, but that doesn’t strike me as a particularly organic evolution of the entertainment landscape.
I bring all this up because Netflix just released a list of its 10 most popular original movies — not of the year, but of the five years that the company has been creating and streaming its own films. (The first one was “Beasts of No Nation,” in 2015.) The results are disarming and revealing, not to mention grist for the home-viewing-vs.-movie-theaters battle. And make no mistake: It is a battle. Not because consumers should be forced to choose one medium over the other, but because the mediums are now inescapably at war with each other: as personal and cultural habits; as cinema delivery systems; as forms of artistic expression; as capitalist models. Ideally, there’d be room for both, and economically the two would reinforce each other. (I predict this will happen.) But right now the competition is fierce, and it’s real.
Looking at Netflix’s 10 most popular movies list, I see a roster of films that, with rare exceptions, would have played like C-list formula entertainments had they been shown in movie theaters. The number-one film, “Extraction,” with 99 million views, is an overblown, undercooked pulp action movie; so is “Triple Frontier,” at number eight, with 63 million views; so is Michael Bay’s “6 Underground,” at number four, with 83 million views. “The Old Guard,” which cracked into the top 10 only after the list was first announced, is (as I said in my recent review) a perfectly okay “X-Men”-meets-“The Expendables” immortal-cutthroat-superhero origin story. “Murder Mystery,” which teams Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, is a comedy thriller with more star wattage than style or laughs. And on and on.
I could go through the list, one by one, and talk about why I think most of the movies on it aren’t very good. But I’m not sure what that would accomplish, or what it would say about Netflix beyond the fact that a great many of its subscribers like their entertainment big, simple, and billboard broad. And that’s not really news. (Just how much of any given film they’re actually sitting through we can’t know. But let’s give Netflix the benefit of the doubt and call a view a view.)
The real news emerges from all the films that aren’t on the list. Where is “Roma”? Where is “Marriage Story”? Where is “Da 5 Bloods”? Where is “The Two Popes”? Where is “Dolemite Is My Name”? Where’s all that quality that Netflix has been selling?
There’s one film of supreme artistry right smack in the middle of the list, and that’s “The Irishman,” at number 7, with 64 million views. Not shabby. Though given the film’s probable $200 million price tag, not stupendous either. You might have expected it to be a little bit higher.
To place “The Irishman” in context, there’s a film on the list I reviewed two months ago called “The Wrong Missy,” a bad-date-from-hell-comes-along-on-the-corporate-retreat comedy starring David Spade and the gifted Lauren Lapkus; it’s at number nine, with 59 million views, just tailing “The Irishman.” I was a fan — I liked “The Wrong Missy” more than just about any critic who wrote about it. (My review is embarrassingly high on the film’s Metacritic page.) But “The Wrong Missy,” amusing as some of it is, is the definition of a trifle. If you’d asked me, at the time, to place bets on whether it or “The Irishman” would rack up more Netflix views, I would have bet the farm on “The Irishman,” a movie hailed around the world as a Scorsese masterpiece, and one that, between awards season and a shoot-the-moon publicity budget, has had more visibility than any Netflix film in history.
Of course, “Roma” enjoyed that kind of publicity, too. It was also hailed around the world, and treated as a must-see event. Yes, I know, it’s an austere and slow-moving black-and-white art film set in 1970s Mexico City. But come on: As the end of 2018 approached, “Roma” became a global event. And the factor that put the global in that equation was Netflix. The whole world, it was said, was ready to see this film, thanks to the fact that the world’s most successful streaming subscription service had liberated it from the burden of having to play in theaters.
How many people saw “Roma” on Netflix? We don’t know, because Netflix hasn’t released those numbers. Maybe an expanded version of the most popular list (like #10 – 20?) will be forthcoming. As a critic, I would truly love to know how many views “Roma” got, and “Marriage Story,” too. But here’s the point. Netflix, along the way, created a mythology about these movies, suggesting they were going to be able to find audiences at home beyond what they might have in theaters. The question raised by the company’s 10 most popular movies list is: Did that actually happen? Or is it a mythology based on a fantasy?
If I were a film director, that’s something my enquiring mind would want to know. When it comes to consumers, Netflix’s 10 most popular movies list is nothing more than a mirror of their tastes. But directors, who are being lured to Netflix in droves, are doing so in part because the company compensates well (who’s going to argue with a fat paycheck, especially if you’re an independent filmmaker?), but also because the prospect of making a film at Netflix has been predicated on a kind of holy promise: If you make your film there, they will come.
The notion that “Netflix makes the films that other companies won’t” is true in certain cases, overstated in others. “The Irishman” was an anomaly, because of its fussy, exorbitant de-aging technology (which could have been done on an iPhone for peanuts, and might have looked two-thirds as good). In my opinion, it was a colossal mistake, in industry terms, for that movie to cost what it did. (Much as I love the film, it was mostly a bunch of men sitting around in rooms, talking.)
But does anyone seriously believe that if Netflix didn’t exist, Alfonso Cuarón would never have made “Roma,” or Noah Baumbach would never have made “Marriage Story,” or Spike Lee would never have made “Da 5 Bloods”? No doubt these filmmakers were given plush budgets, but what they were really given was a promise — that their films, liberated from theaters, would find a formidable audience. I’m not ragging on the tastes of Netflix subscribers; they have the right to choose, and enjoy, the movies they want. But what their tastes tell us is that Netflix may not be the natural home of adventurous filmmaking nearly as much as the company wants us to think it is.