I can’t remember the last time a major studio released a summer blockbuster that wasn’t a sequel, prequel, reboot or adaptation of a comic book. This is particularly true of Sony Pictures, which in recent years has signed off on a string of horrendous duds, highlighted in 2015 by Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and Pixels. However, this doesn’t mean there are no good movie ideas out there for major studios to pursue — the problem is that they’re not pursuing them. And this is where Netflix comes in to rescue movies from Hollywood.
The Wall Street Journal explains that Netflix is producing several new movies that were turned down by major studios, including the recently released Beasts of No Nation.
“While major studios are focusing on international-oriented tentpoles like Jurassic World and Avengers and cutting back on everything else, Netflix and competitor Amazon.com Inc.’s entry into the movie business could signal a revival for prestige dramas and mid-budget star vehicles, albeit more on the small screen than the big one,” the Journal writes.
This can only be good news for anyone who’s a fan of quality movies.
I remember in the late ’90s when I was very pessimistic about the future of television. While there were quality shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons that dared to think outside the box, much of what passed for TV was quickly turning to game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire or, even worse, reality shows like Survivor. The major networks loved reality TV in particular because it meant that they didn’t have to pay for writers or actors — just find some exhibitionists who are willing to stuff bugs in their mouths on camera and watch the money pile up.
But then HBO gave us The Sopranos and it proved that there was still a market for smart scripted television that wasn’t afraid to make viewers think. This has spawned the so-called “Golden Age of Television” where stations like HBO, AMC and Showtime all took risks to produce quality original programs that didn’t have all their originality and quirkiness stamped out by major network focus groups.
Netflix has proudly carried on this legacy so far and by picking up TV shows that no other network would touch. Tiny Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was too risque for NBC, has become a big cult hit on Netflix even as NBC sinks further into the ratings dumpster with critical bombs such as Truth Be Told.
Now the hope is that Netflix can do the same thing for movies. Hollywood these days seems intent only on chasing the big blockbusters at the expense of more original movies that aren’t guaranteed box office winners. Netflix is taking movies that major studios have passed on and is giving them significant budgets. Brad Pitt’s military film War Machine, for example, received a $75 million budget from Netflix even though studios that received a pitch for it were wary of its prospects.
Netflix is able to do this in part because it doesn’t want to make movies that are all things to all people. Instead, it’s laser-focused on making movies and shows that will appeal to its subscriber base. The Forest Whitaker film The Last King of Scotland, for example, was a hit on Netflix even though it wasn’t a film that broke box office records when it was released. But because Netflix saw how well the film did with its viewers, it decided to take a chance on Beasts of No Nation, which like The Last King of Scotland is a political drama set in Africa.
While it’s still too early to tell how this will all play out, Netflix’s track record suggests that it’s going to be a very happy home from talented filmmakers who are frustrated by the bankruptcy of Hollywood’s current vision for movies.