Thank God Netflix is giving filmmakers the chance to make movies without superheroes

A place for everything.
A place for everything.
Image: Netflix/Francois Duhamel
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“I didn’t want to make superhero movies, but I also didn’t want to spend my whole life working with a couple of million bucks and some gaffer tape,” David Michôd told the Financial Times (paywall). “And those were the choices.”

Those are the options Michôd had after his indie gangster film, Animal Kingdom, broke out in 2010, earning the writer-director critical acclaim and industry attention. But today, there are two kinds of films in cinemas—blockbusters like Star Wars and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that are watched by millions of people, and micro-budget movies that are seen by thousands of people and are swiftly pulled from theaters if they don’t find an immediate audience.

Netflix gives another option.

The streaming-video giant has a serious slate of movies marked for this year, including the Brad Pitt-starring War Machine, directed by Michôd and due out on May 26, that don’t always find themselves in cinemas nowadays. War Machine has the makings of a Hollywood movie—an A-list actor in the lead and a director with indie credibility in Michôd. But the satire, which is based on the best-selling book The Operators, depicts the fall of a controversial US army general against the backdrop of the Afghanistan war. It was too risky to command the budget it needed to be done right.

“We knew early on that we were making the kind of movie that doesn’t really get made by the studios any more,” Michôd told the Guardian.

Netflix, however, has the deep pockets and the built-in audience to support titles that may not have an immediate payoff. On Netflix, viewers discover movies over time as they’re browsing for something to watch. “With Netflix, the movie lives there,” Michôd told the FT. “You’re still competing for attention, but as a filmmaker, it eases my anxiety and makes me braver knowing my whole career doesn’t hinge on how many people I hypnotize into coming on the opening weekend.”

The movie was originally supposed to be distributed by New Regency. But the Hollywood distributor backed out in 2015 after budget talks stalled. That’s when Netflix jumped in and shored up the $60 million needed for the movie, which is being produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B.

Aside from a brief theatrical stint to qualify for awards, the movie won’t play in theaters. Most viewers will watch War Machine on their TV, laptops, or mobile phones—much to the chagrin of film purists. Netflix’s strategy of releasing films online—sometimes with no theatrical runs at all—has been the subject of much ire in the movie industry, and the cinema elite came down on the prestigious Cannes Film Festival when it selected two movie distributed by NetflixOkja and The Meyerowitz Stories—to compete this year for the coveted Palme d’Or, one of the highest awards a film can receive.

Neither movie will play in French cinemas, because of a rule there that requires subscription-video-on-demand services like Netflix to wait 36 months after a movie is shown in cinemas to release it online. Some were up in arms over the news. And the backlash led the festival to change the rules so that only films screened in French cinemas will qualify for the competition, starting in 2018.

Still, Netflix has no plans to reverse its course.“Why would we want to hold back a movie for an enormous number of people to enjoy throughout the entire country that a few hundred, maybe a few thousand people could see the film in Paris?” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the New York Times (paywall). “It seemed to me like the right thing to do was to give the people, our subscribers, who pay to make these movies, access to them immediately all over the world.”

Netflix has said recently that it would be willing to working with cinema operators, if they were open to working with it. ”We’re living amid a generation that has seen every great movie ever made on a phone, so I think we all have to come to grips with where technology takes us,” said Sarandos, of the Cannes backlash. But the industry doesn’t seem as willing to let bygones be bygones, if the showing at Cannes is any indication.

Okja reportedly opened to boos when the Netflix logo appeared, and its first screening was marred by technical issues. But the film itself, about a young girl who tries to save a massive, mysterious animal from a corporation, earned a standing ovation in the end. It’s exactly the kind of weird and complicated film that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.