Netflix made a trip to Cannes’ Marche du Film, as the streaming service is looking to expand into the feature film market. They’ve already picked up Idris Elba’s Beasts of No Nation for distribution, and they have a deal to make and distribute Adam Sandler’s turds that no one else wants, but they want to be in the business of making feature films people will actually enjoy, so to that end, they went to Cannes. Coming out of that trip, they’ve just closed a deal to produce and distribute a project with Brad Pitt called War Machine, which is a fictionalized version of the book The Operators, about the US military brass’s swinging-dick days in Afghanistan. You may remember that as the book that got General Stanley McChrystal fired.
What really interests me here is Netflix’s involvement. The movie industry is on the brink of implosion, and Los Angeles is soaked in a palpable feeling of dread and uncertainty. Everyone knows what the problem is and no one wants to address it because it’s going to be a really f*cking unpleasant conversation that changes movies forever in ways we can’t evaluate as good or bad. The change that is coming—that is already on the doorstep—is so sweeping it’s unimaginable. For years I’ve compared the digital shift to the arrival of sound in early cinema, but we’re way beyond that now. Sound didn’t change how people watch movies, but the conversation we need to have means talking about making movies for an audience that no longer goes to the movies.
So far, the summer box office is bad. It’s barely topping last year’s record sh*tty summer and everyone is freaked out. After Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to beat The Avengers’ record on opening weekend, there was an effort to diagnose “what went wrong” at Marvel, but the answer is—nothing. Age of Ultron, if not a record breaker, is still a huge hit. It’s bound to be one of the few financial bright spots of 2015. The answer isn’t that anything went wrong at Marvel, it’s that something has happened to the audience—it’s shrinking. Domestically at least—international markets continue to expand—fewer people go to the movies each year, and this is the problem no one wants to talk about.
How we watch has changed forever, and a lot of that is because of on demand and streaming options at home. The obvious answer is not “make more blockbusters”, it’s “start making stuff specifically to be consumed at home”. Don’t get me wrong—there will always be movie theaters. People will always want to go to the movies if the visual experience is big enough that it demands the big screen (thus the sudden run on space movies). But the core movie-watching experience IS shifting, and it’s shifting away from theaters. We can bitch and moan about that, or we can start figuring out how to get new, hopefully original, content to audiences in ways that keep filmmaking a viable way to make a living.
Enter Brad Pitt and Netflix. There will still be some kind of theatrical run for War Machine in order to qualify it for awards consideration—although I suspect those rules will change sooner rather than later—but the movie is being made with the streaming audience in mind. The budget is around $30 million, in the range that rarely gets greenlit by studios because you can’t make money on mid-budget movies anymore. And Pitt is by far the biggest name Netflix has bagged yet, a star in his prime, making a topical film. This could be what the future of movies looks like, with talent deals shifting from multi-picture superhero gigs to content creation for exclusive, digital/streaming outlets. Come next year, if War Machine is a hit, the conversation may finally change…with Brad Pitt leading the way.