Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Respecting the new distribution channels

It takes a lot for an old curmudgeon like me to change my ways/rules about something, especially when it comes to something as sacred as my year-end movie lists.

But even old fogeys sometimes have to wake up to the changing cinematic landscape and incorporate it into their manner of viewing the world.

Used to be -- in fact, it was up until now -- that I would only allow movies onto my year-end list if they played theatrically in the year in question. They didn't have to play theatrically in the United States -- that's a change I've also reluctantly made, since moving to Australia -- but they at least had to play theatrically somewhere. Festival environments don't count, unless it was me that saw it at that festival. Such as The Witch at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival. Even then, though, I knew The Witch would play theatrically, it just hadn't done so yet. So that made things easier.

So-called straight-to-video? It got left off my year-end list, if I even deigned to watch it at all.

But Netflix and other streaming services are changing how we think about the previously unbridgeable gap between cinematic releases and video releases. Twenty fifteen was a big year in that regard, as Netflix debuted its first film to which it had the exclusive distribution rights: Beasts of No Nation. Beasts threatened to cause me to have this internal discussion back then, but let me off the hook by actually getting a nominal theatrical release in order to qualify for awards consideration. (Which worked, as Idris Elba actually received a Golden Globe nomination.) But one of its next prominent exclusive releases, the Adam Sandler ensemble comedy The Ridiculous 6, received no such corresponding theatrical release (since, as might be assumed, no award nominations were expected for it, except possibly the Golden Raspberries). In large part because I didn't know what to do with that movie vis-a-vis my year-end list -- but also because I knew it probably sucked -- I just skipped it.

But it's a brand new year now, and Netflix figures to give us dozens of exclusive features this year, if its massive commitment to its own television shows is any indication. And Adam Sandler makes kind of an instructional case study in how we should start to consider this content, formerly stigmatized as merely straight-to-video. In the past there was the assumption that if something went straight to video, it was because there was not sufficient demand for it to get released theatrically, nor a sufficient assumed quality about it. Nowadays, though, big stars are committing to deals to have their movies released exclusively on the small screen. Not that Sandler is anyone's idea of a guy at the peak of his career, but his movies still generally make money at the box office, and you'd assume they'd continue to do so. Instead, Netflix snapped him up, meaning his next four movies would be exclusive to the streaming service, starting with Ridiculous 6 and continuing with The Do-Over, which is set to premiere a month from tomorrow.

So it seems useful to start thinking of Netflix as more than just a dumping ground for unwanted movies. I mean, I don't think anyone ever thought of it that way -- but they definitely thought of movies that didn't get theatrical releases as garbage looking for a dumping ground. Netflix has worked overtime to demonstrate that its content represents a certain level of prestige, even if Sandler himself has never had that word associated with him. He has been A-list, and that's what Netflix wants -- an A-list status.

That brings us to the movie I watched last night. Mike Flanagan's Hush played at this year's South by Southwest film festival, then was picked up by Netflix and debuted on the streaming service less than a month after its March 12th world premiere. It seems like this is going to be an increasingly common distribution model. The film has a 67 Metascore (though I didn't like it at all), so it's obviously not just somebody's trash being dumped as quickly as possible. In fact, the mere fact that it has a Metascore lends it a certain legitimacy in and of itself. Netflix looked at this movie and thought that it would work for their demographic (which is computed by all that metadata they get from their users), so they scooped it up and made it available to viewers as soon as possible.

In the olden days, I would have discounted this movie as straight-to-video and just never given it a second thought, much less a viewing. I mean, it definitely won't qualify for the Oscars this year, another loose determining factor in the films that qualify for my year-end list. But nowadays, I think I'm forced to accept it as just as legitimate as another trashy horror that plays in theaters for two weeks and slinks away with heaps of critical scorn and a 19 Metascore. Hush's director, Mike Flanagan, directed Oculus, a horror I loved from two years ago that definitely played theaters, and the film also features John Gallagher Jr., star of such mainstream films as Short Term 12 and 10 Cloverfield Lane. (He likes movies with numbers in the title, apparently.) If it walks like a duck, then gosh darn it, I guess it is one.

So you'll be seeing Hush on my 2016 year-end list. You won't see it very high on that list, but if you go down far enough, you'll find it.

I don't know that I'm swinging the gates open wide. Like, I still don't know if I'm going to watch any of Sandler's Netflix movies this year. But at least now I'm open to considering the applications of these movies for inclusion among the esteemed (or not so esteemed) ranks of the films I list from #1 to #whatever at the end of each year.

Whether that helps them or not is another question, but there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

I guess when you're a blog that reaches as few readers as mine does, there's no such thing as bad anything.


Wendell Ottley said...

Netflix had certainly changed the game for both movies and TV series. It wasn't that long ago you had to wait a week between episodes of your favorite show. Now you can watch a whole season all at once if you choose. As for movies, Beasts of No Nation is the one that turned the tide for me because it's theatrical release was purely obligatory. It was still a brand new movie that I could watch in the comfort of my own home without paying anything extra on top of the small fee I already pay for the service. And it is a high quality film. I look for the trend to continue and expand as their competitors follow suit.

Derek Armstrong said...

The quality of the filmmaking is high in Beasts of No Nation. The quality of the film? Not as sold on that. But yeah, it was a big moment.

I do like having "real" movies to watch right away on Netflix ... I just have to modify my definition of what constitutes a "real" movie.