These days, when we are edging toward the renaissance of every major entertainment conglomerate hosting a streaming platform of some kind, the calling cards of streaming services are their content. Not just the quality of the content, but the quantity of the content. Services like Netflix and HBO Max have staked a lot of their advertising resources promoting the amount of film and television shows that audiences would be able to watch on their platforms. In order to keep up with this constant arms race of content, these services must consistently produce exclusive new films and television shows of their own. With that need, a new phenomenon of production is occurring: streaming services throwing money at entertainment that the major studios have passed on for one reason or another.
This has taken all sorts of forms, whether that be screenplays that were stashed away for years or passion projects of directors that could finally secure funding under a streaming service or a film being sold by a major studio to a streaming service for one reason or another. Netflix, being the pioneer of streaming content production and acquisition, have put films online that have undergone all three forms of this production malaise that I am referring to. Some of their first films that they released, like Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (dir. John Lee, 2016) and Tallulah (dir. Sian Heder, 2016), are films that had scripts that were written at least a decade before their eventual release. They would eventually move into being one of the only studios to give a large budget and bottomless creative freedom to the passion projects of auteurs, as is the case with Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2018) and The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019) before finally moving into just outright purchasing films studios are wary of releasing, like The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah, 2018) and The Lovebirds (dir. Michael Showalter, 2020). This kind of studio dumpster diving or cash throwing has been aped by every major streaming service since the rise of streaming with films like An American Pickle (dir. Brandon Trost, 2020) (HBO Max), Coming 2 America (dir. Craig Brewer, 2021) (Amazon Prime), and Palm Springs (dir. Max Barbakow, 2020), but Netflix has been doing it the longest and is the easiest to look at analytically.
Since their move into original film in 2015, a multitude of Netflix’s original releases have had ties to studios. Their very first original in-house film production, The Ridiculous 6 (dir. Frank Coraci, 2015), was a film that had been originally developed by Sony, before entering, and subsequently leaving, talks with Paramount and Warner Bros. It would end up being one of the worst reviewed films of the decade, but number one in viewership in every Netflix market it released in. On the other hand, films that were critically praised, like The Irishman, Set It Up (dir. Claire Scanlon, 2018), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C. Wolfe, 2020), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2020), all were previously produced or developed by rival studios.
From what I can tell, the fact that Netflix picks up so many films that studios discard produces a wide range of films of varying quality. There is no indication that most of what they pick up is bad or that it is good, but, rather, that there is so much of it that there is no clear overall qualitative assessment to what they are putting out.
This is, on the surface, a good thing. Having a deep library of films provides viewers with a plethora of choices and gives them a larger chance to connect with something. There is no problem with having films that are considered “mediocre” or even “bad” because, in the end, bad films have fans and bad films provide qualified professionals with jobs. All people need is to be able to find the films on the platform.
Therein lies the problem, though, as with the bevy of films being scrounged up and acquired, it becomes almost impossible to be able to discover films that you were not already aware of or had not heard of through an outside source. When a platform acquires and produces so many films that studios disregard, it almost becomes a moot point to give some of them a second life. You are giving the films a chance to be seen, presumably, but they are being sunk by the sheer amount of other films on the platform. To give this a tangible example, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix purchased The Lovebirds, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Enola Holmes (dir. Harry Bradbeer, 2020) from studios that had them set for a theatrical release. Only Enola Holmes would crack the list of top 25 of all movies seen on the platform in 2020 (Newsweek, 2020).
This brings up an interesting question. Should Netflix stop buying so many abandoned studio projects? Superficially, the answer is no. These are projects that theoretically would never be made otherwise and they are helping to employ most of the industry workforce. But Netflix is obviously looked at as a thought leader in the industry. My concern is that when one platform vacuums up these second chance projects and few are big hits, it is giving other platforms a tactile example of failure when no one watches them. This makes me worried for the big passion projects, the big swings if you will, that already have a slim chance at gaining financing in the industry. When there is substantial proof that they are not doing well in relation to the other 500 movies Netflix has placed on top of them over the last 5 years, where do they go to get financed after the streamer acquiring them all decides they are not useful anymore?
Every film I talked about here is streaming somewhere.
Spencer, Samuel. “The 25 Most-Watched Movies on Netflix in 2020.” Newsweek, 30 Dec. 2020