Sunday, June 4, 2017

The impact of Netflix distribution - on the director

I listened to an episode of The Slate Culture Gabfest this week that was recorded a couple weeks before that, in which they interviewed Adam Leon, the director of one of my favorite films from a couple years ago.

In 2012 Leon directed a small indie slice-of-life called Gimme the Loot, which featured two teenagers on an Odyssey-like trip through New York's outer boroughs. It played festivals in 2012 but was released properly in 2013, landing it among my top ten films of that year.

That may be Leon's last film with a "proper" release.

The subject of this interview was how Leon's new film, Tramps, has gone straight to Netflix. Tramps isn't very dissimilar from Gimme the Loot in subject matter or scope -- it also features a young man and a young woman on an Odyssey-like adventure in New York and New Jersey. The budget would have to be comparable, even with the presence of a known actor, Mike Birbiglia.

The big dissimilarity is the change in the cinematic landscape since 2013. Nowadays, films go straight to Netflix with such regularity that it almost doesn't even undermine their credibility anymore. (Almost -- I think they're still shaking off some of the stigma of no theatrical release, and will be for a couple more years.) But when Martin Scorsese's next movie is expected to have a day-and-date premiere on Netflix (while likely also having a theatrical release for awards consideration), you know that the whole model has shifted.

Leon discussed how that model has shifted, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this shift. It was an interesting conversation, and I'd invite you to listen to it, except that I doubt you will go and pick up a new podcast just for this reason, so I'll summarize it here in just a moment.

The other reason a post about this is timely is because the Slate interview prompted me to put Tramps on my Friday night schedule, having been the thing that made me aware of the film's very existence. Watching it only 48 hours after first learning about it also underscores one of the benefits of the business model. Instead of having to try to find this in an indie cinema somewhere near my house -- and probably not finding it here in Australia at all -- I can get it with a click of the mouse on my computer, or in this case, a touch of the remote control on Netflix through our TV.

So yeah, Leon talks about how it's great to have a wide array of people tweeting about his movie just days after it premiered on Netflix, from all around the world. He talked, for example, about how there were a lot of people in Guatemala who seemed to like it. (Or was it Venezuela? Some Latin American country ending in A.) If it had been released theatrically, no one in Guatemala or Venezuela would probably ever see it. Now, they're seeing it immediately, and they're tweeting about it. And he's reading the tweets, resulting in instant warm fuzzies, instant validation of what he's done. (And of course some people dissing it, but that's the internet -- you take the bad with the good.)

That's the good news. The bad news is, he has no idea how many people have actually seen his movie, and probably never will.

In response to a direct question from one of the hosts -- Leon probably wouldn't have ventured this information himself -- the director said that Netflix would probably never tell him how many views his movie gets. Netflix is notoriously secretive, so this revelation is not some kind of violation of a confidentiality agreement between Leon and the company. One of the best known things about Netflix is how it refuses to show the man behind the curtain of its wizardry. Netflix has never provided an open accounting of anything, from its famous algorithm to its number of views to its profitability. They're a bit like the Donald Trump of streaming services, refusing to show us their tax returns.

But it really sucks to be a filmmaker and have only a vague sense of how many people have actually seen your movie.

Then again, I suppose the history of cinema has been a story of progressively less certainty about the number of eyeballs you're getting. In the olden days, when a movie theater was the only place you could see a movie, you got a pretty good idea just from the number of tickets sold. You could probably add another one or two percent for sneak-ins, and that would be your real total. But with video rentals, you couldn't be sure if that movie was being watched by one person or five, and with streaming and especially pirating, now you really have no idea. Especially if companies like Netflix refuse to tell you.

So the issue is, how does Leon convince somebody to give him money for his next movie, if he can't demonstrate that the last one was a hit?

If it's just making their money back, he can tell a studio that Netflix bought his movie for x amount more than it cost him to make it. But a movie like Tramps can never really be revealed as a "smash hit," a little indie that could, if it only plays on Netflix. Maybe the point, the tacit acknowledgement, is that in this day and age, nothing could make Tramps a "smash hit" so the vagueries of its success don't matter anyway. But sometimes, studios want to hire a director around whom there is a buzz because he took a small property and made it huge. Maybe Adam Leon is simply never destined to direct the next Ant-Man movie based off that kind of success.

But one gets the impression, to hear him talk, that Adam Leon doesn't care about things like that. He's content to make small character studies that deliver on their simple premises in really satisfying ways.

And I do hope he gets to make as many of them as he likes. He did also list that as a benefit, that without studio notes he can make a movie however he wants. And without having to travel the world on press junkets to promote his film, he can just get right to making the next one. However, I do imagine this is another good news/bad news situation. Sure, press junkets can be tedious. But there's probably also something exciting about them, especially if you are unaccustomed to them, and especially because it exposes you to a segment of your public face-to-face, and not just over Twitter.

Since I know that Adam Leon does thrive on Twitter mentions, as perhaps the only real currency available to him and in the absence of anything else, I hope that he also sees blog posts like this one. Because here's another voice in the crowd praising his work. I don't love Tramps quite to the extent that I love Gimme the Loot, but that's an incredibly high standard, as I chose Loot as my eighth favorite film out of the 128 I ranked in 2013. But it's more than a worthy follow-up to that film, and I wasn't the only one in my house who thought so.

I'd been wanting to show Loot to my wife first, and had actually planned to do that on Friday night, having heard Leon say it was also streaming on Netflix. Well, that would be American Netflix. It's not on here, but that's okay, because my wife suggested we just go straight to Tramps. Since she was a bit tired (the 82-minute running time was a real draw for her), I wasn't sure how much she'd liked it when we finished, and ventured only "That's a really nice little film, isn't it?"

"That's a great little film," she returned.

Here's to great little films, and I guess, also to Netflix for providing us the exposure to them.

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