Look, I get it. We all dislike where a lot of the film industry is going right now. Everything is being cannibalized, reheated, and served to you again like it’s just as good as the original thing it’s based on. A lot of people are desperately searching for somebody, anybody to take on the monolith of the film industry just like everyone is searching for somebody to defeat the Golden State Warriors this season. That’s okay. It’s okay to root for an underdog, but you have to understand who the underdogs are in this situation, and Netflix isn’t one of them. What I’m talking about was a lot of the chatter surrounding the dropping of The Cloverfield Paradox at the Super Bowl on Sunday. It was hailed as a brilliant and game-changing move for the streaming service, as they simply showed a commercial (the first that anyone had seen) that announced the drop and did it after the game. It’s unheard of for a movie to circumvent the hype and instead show the movie immediately after announcing it. Maybe it will change the game, but there’s more to this movie than that.
This movie was not a Netflix original, it actually started as a script completely unrelated to the Cloverfield universe (which is a good time for me to add that I’ve never seen any of the Cloverfield movies) and was repurposed by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company at Paramount. The film was titled “God Particle” for a long time, and it was going to be released at some point this year. However, Paramount looked at test-screenings and tracking and decided to cut its losses on the $40 million movie, selling it to Netflix. While there are many defenders of The Cloverfield Paradox, reviews have pretty harshly critiqued a lot of it, and audience scores haven’t looked all that great, either. So what does this actually mean? It means that Paramount knew it had a stinker on its hands and thought that they would lose money (remember, marketing a movie usually doubles its total production budget but is always undisclosed) if they distributed it regularly. It was dumped in basically Disney Direct-to-DVD fashion and Paramount made up a perceived loss while Netflix could pound their chest for a while. That, to me, is not the move of an underdog.
Building on this, let’s talk about Netflix’s entire strategy here. Netflix does not want to produce niche content. They do not want to be known as a place where you can find content that suits many small groups’ differing tastes. They want to be a titan. They want to be a tastemaker and have literally everything they produce be an event, just like every other studio. Because they want this, they resort to the exact same tendencies that every other major studio is following right now. Cinematic universes are in? That’s the entire reason they make the Marvel shows. People like Game of Thrones? Let’s give them Bright (brushing aside the horrible TV clone Marco Polo). Do you like nostalgia content? How about one of the most blatant, laser-focused pieces of “those were the days” nostalgia in recent years with Stranger Things. The Cloverfield Paradox is the exact same situation. JJ Abrams is one of those surefire names that everybody wants on their project. Netflix is going to leap for that, even if it’s table scraps, because his name and Cloverfield’s is hot right now. Because that’s what drives subscribers. Each property that I’ve just named suffers in some way from poor craftsmanship, bad storytelling, or just laziness in general, but what does it really matter when they seem to be having unmitigated success?
But what do you mean when you say successful with Netflix? It certainly seems that they are, but they outright refuse to release any kind of viewing numbers for their properties, and the measure of success for a subscription-based streaming service like this is…hazy. Plenty of people have tried to speculate about viewing numbers for recent releases, but there are so many factors working into this. What counts as a view? Is somebody who turns a program on, watches it for ten minutes and says, “nope” an actual viewer? How long does the average viewer watch a specific title before shutting it off? How do views on a title equate to monetary success? How are they getting so much money to produce original content? And, most importantly here, what is the endgame? What I mean by this is at what point do they think they will slow down, if they think that at all? It’s such murky waters that thinking about it for long stretches of time kind of makes your head spin.
Anyway, let’s get off that particular line of questioning. I’m hoping that this all doesn’t come across as “Netflix is actually bad for the film industry,” because that’s not what I’m trying to say at all. Competition in every industry is extremely important, and just a little while ago Netflix was only a DVD rental service. They should get a lot of credit for building the company to what it is. However, championing them or Amazon Prime as the harbingers of death and destruction for movie theaters and regular studios isn’t that great of an idea. What you have to remember is that so much of the business end of film is about image. The reason that Netflix seems like an underdog, fighting the good fight against the establishment, is because they want you to see it like that. Underneath the surface, they are pulling all the same tricks just in different ways. Which, in my mind, is kind of a step backward for them. They pioneered television show streaming with House Of Cards. It may seem like a slam-dunk now, but it was a huge risk when they tried it. It was a forward-thinking step for them, which is why what they’re doing now is sorta weird. They’re basically saying that they want to be a bigger, but lesser version of HBO that takes tenuous releases by major studios and rebrands them instead of getting the streaming rights to the major ones. Is that game-changing? Probably not.
However, there could be a movie that comes out on the platform that’ll really blow our minds soon. Martin Scorsese has a new film coming out (with a huge price tag, sheesh) that might be interesting, and perhaps some money will fall into the hands of somebody (maybe you!) who can actually change the industry. If that happens, then good on the filmmakers who did it. But please, don’t worship the big red logo because it’s not the same as the other logos. Life’s far too short to root for companies to win out like it’s sports.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.