Despite a couple good-looking trailers, there have been warning signs that things are not all well with the upcoming Natalie Portman-fronted sci-fi flick Annihilation. The film is due to be released on February 23 in North America and China, but its studio, Paramount, has sold all other international distribution rights to Netflix, which will premiere the film abroad just seventeen days after its North American release. That’s an unusual move, and one that specifically looks like Paramount limiting the damage Annihilation can do if it fails. Their deal with Netflix offloads much of the production budget onto the streamer, and it saves the studio the cost of international advertising and distribution. If audiences in North America and China embrace Annihilation, then Paramount may end up with egg on its face, having sold out international box office on a potential hit, but if audiences don’t embrace the movie, then they’re going to look smart for cutting their losses.
It seems like the main issue with Annihilation is that no one knows how it will do. Apparently a test audience last summer didn’t respond well, which led to a clash between two of Paramount’s power producers, Scott Rudin and David Ellison. Rudin’s name you should recognize from frequent Oscar runs, and Ellison is the son of billionaire Larry Ellison. His sister, Megan, runs the indie-minded Annapurna Pictures, and is generally regarded as a savior of independent cinema with excellent taste. David runs Skydance, which bails out blockbusters and co-finances Paramount’s slate, including such hits as Geostorm. No one ever talks about his taste.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, after eating it with Geostorm, Ellison didn’t want another high-profile flop, and so demanded changes to Annihilation to make it more audience-friendly, thinking it “too intellectual” for the schmoes who go see movies. But Rudin stood by the director, Alex Garland, who previously made Ex Machina with Rudin, a sleeper hit and eventual Oscar winner. It’s not hard to see why Rudin would back Garland, given their previous success together, and he used his final cut clause to protect Garland’s vision. Then Paramount turned around and dumped the international release on Netflix.
Here’s where this gets even more inside baseball—Annihilation isn’t the only movie Paramount has dumped on Netflix recently. A surprise ad during the Super Bowl announced that Netflix would be releasing the next Cloverfield movie, The Cloverfield Paradox, immediately after the game. The previous two Cloverfield movies, Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane both did well, so it was surprising to see The Cloverfield Paradox—originally titled God Particle—sold off in such unceremonious fashion. So why all of a sudden is everything at Paramount for sale? Regime change.
Brad Grey was ousted early last year—he has since passed away—and Jim Gianopulos took over. Gianopulos seems very unwilling to suffer losses handed down from Grey’s tenure, and he dumped these two movies, both box office risks. The Cloverfield Paradox definitely would not do well in theaters—full review to follow but it’s not good. But Annihilation does not look bad. Weird? Yes. Very. But bad? “Too intellectual” is not the same thing as bad, and test audiences are useless anyway, I don’t even know why we’re listening to people who still go to malls. But this is the state of American cinema in 2018. Anything that requires the least little bit of convincing to get people to see is now too risky for theatrical release, and, ironically, a movie released on a streaming platform stands to gain a bigger audience than theatrical release.