It’s not every day you can accuse schlockmeister Uwe Boll of making sense. Enraged that he couldn’t even crowdfund his latest film, Boll — the visionary behind such disasterpieces as Postal and Alone in the Dark — went viral and vented his spleen on audiences, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and pretty much the movie business in toto. But among all the German-inflected expletives, a bitter, envious Boll spewed something vaguely true about investors playing the prestige film game: “They all lose their fucking money!” Fortunately for Boll’s cardiac health, he obviously hadn’t read the other Brad Pitt headline, the one that actually has people talking: Netflix just made its biggest bet on feature films by giving the brightest star in Hollywood’s firmament $30 million for his new passion project, David Michôd’s War Machine — with Pitt himself set to star.
If you’re wondering why Pitt making another movie has Hollywood all agog — isn’t that, like, the natural order of things? — it’s because of the inadvertently relevant point made by the ranting Boll. When it comes to financing films,1 investors are essentially playing a glitzy game of dice. The only things you’re guaranteed are tickets to a premiere, an excuse to park your yacht at Cannes, and a shot at an Oscar.2 The side effect just happens to be that audiences get movies as we ideally conceive them: stand-alone works with characters that actors want to play, stories that directors want to tell, and meanings that critics want to critique. What such high-minded films need in order to get made is often, to be blunt, a willing sucker.
In the noblest sense of the word, as opposed to the franchises that fill studio slates with little more than a title and release date.
Assuming you can find someone else to outlay even more money for a marketing campaign loud enough to get everyone’s attention.
Except, ever since the financial crisis, suckers have been in short supply. As a result, movies mostly come in two sizes now: micro-budget Sundance hopefuls destined for a day-and-date release3 or bloated IMAX 3-D extravaganzas that make vertiginous stacks of cash by transmuting our nostalgia for a beloved property into global gold. But that leaves out a whole middle range of movies trying to tell original stories with no hope of a sequel on more than a shoestring budget. The kind that stars like Pitt and Clooney want to make so badly, they’ll flip over the whole damn card table if they have to.
When a movie is made available in multiple venues — theaters, VOD, PPV, DVD, what have you — at the same time.
Enter Netflix. The digital kingmaker that changed the TV game has been taking potshots at feature film for a while now: funding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend; giving Adam Sandler a four-picture deal; and picking up True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. But where others dream of box office gold, theatrical receipts for Netflix are just a cherry on top of the money-sundae. Subscribers are its meal ticket, and the only way to keep us paying a monthly tithe is to dangle new titles before us to replace the studio product that constantly disappears from the queue. Thus, Netflix plays the barbarian at the gates of the traditional way of making movies, i.e., a heavily marketed theatrical release followed by a three-month window before a film is available to buy or rent. Not incidentally, that’s the same failing structure that has resulted in the event film/art film dichotomy we face today.
You could practically feel the joy in Netflix’s press release about getting to play in the big leagues with Plan B, Pitt’s company. In the Hollywood ecosystem, Plan B is one of those apex predators of quality material4 — a sleek, refined jaguar that pounces on all the sexiest material, like, say, the latest Michael Lewis book. In short, while Hollywood’s snobs could scoff at Crouching Tiger 2 (“a sequel no one wants!”) or Adam Sandler (“a least-common-denominator star past his prime!”), War Machine was a much-pursued commodity with excellent bona fides that many would kill to make — if only the numbers worked out.
The inimitable Scott Rudin being another.
But these days, when owning films doesn’t make sense to anyone but the wonkiest cine-nerd, they just don’t. If you want a telling sign of the times, just look at another auteur opus that Pitt and Plan B shepherded through the system in 2007: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In those headier times, it, too, was a hot property by a rising director and became a film I find magisterial and sublime. Much like War Machine, it cost roughly $30 million,5 but its worldwide gross ($15 million) was half that, with less than $4 million made in America. The difference between then and now: Warner Bros., an actual movie studio, funded it. But that was a lost era when folks bought DVDs, and all of that extra wealth gave studios enough financial slack to lose money on art as penance every now and then.
And keep in mind modestly budgeted movies like these get made only with Pitt taking nothing near his usual acting quote, usually in favor of back-end profit participation.
Ever since the world economy got sideswiped, such films have switched to a Medici-like patron model, where rambunctious, deep-pocketed angels like Megan Ellison throw money down the movie-hole just to let their favorite auteurs make films. Unfortunately, as Mark Harris put it, “The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.” And eventually, even billionaires tire of losing money, even if there historically has been a significant element of romance in Hollywood patronage. Netflix, however, doesn’t have those problems. It doesn’t need to worry about a film making its budget back as long as the company keeps attracting more subscribers. And it’s not the only one: In January, Amazon hired indie film workhorse Ted Hope to produce 12 features starting this year. If anything, the Brad Pitt deal is a gauntlet thrown at all the other streaming services competing for our loyalty and dollars: I’ll see your original series, Amazon Prime, and raise you one Sexiest Man Alive.
In most ways, this is a hopeful development — an almost inevitable evolution in how we get prestige films. Given Hollywood’s herd mentality, Netflix should find no shortage of passion projects knocking on its door.6 And having another buyer for high-quality material theoretically increases the budgets one can raise, allowing many more good films to get made — quality films that studios wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole because they barely make films anymore. And honestly, Netflix will make movies that might otherwise languish in a New York or L.A. art house available to people across the country. But it comes at a price: the theatrical experience. Unspecified in the deal was the nature of the promised theatrical release, but it’s not hard to guess given how day-and-date releases have become the norm that it’s likely a few nominal weeks in a handful of theaters to qualify for Oscars. And that is a type of shame, another sign that prestige films are an aging art form, like opera or live theater, that will eventually get pushed to the snobby margins of our culture. We’ll never lack mega-screens for the latest Marvel megillah, but if you can catch even Brad Pitt from your couch, outside those pre-programmed pop cultural events, we’ll have fewer and fewer reasons to ever leave it.
In the meantime, it’ll keep rescuing canceled TV series every few days.