Is Hol­ly­wood los­ing its grip on cinema?

To see many of the year’s best new films, you didn’t even have to leave your liv­ing room, says Rob­bie Collin

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

If Os­car night marks the end of the old cinema year, then the first great film of 2018 was one you couldn’t see in Bri­tish cin­e­mas at all. In­stead, it landed on Net­flix, with­out much fuss, on March 12. The film was An­ni­hi­la­tion: a gob-smack­ing cos­mic hor­ror star­ring Natalie Port­man, in which an all-fe­male squad of sci­en­tists ven­ture into a quar­an­tined zone where re­al­ity it­self seems to be com­ing unglued.

It be­gan life as an or­di­nary mid-bud­get stu­dio pro­duc­tion

– a $40mil­lion joint ven­ture be­tween Para­mount Pic­tures and Sky­dance, writ­ten and di­rected by Alex Gar­land, who was fresh from the ac­claimed Ex Machina. But af­ter some un­favourable test screen­ings, and Gar­land’s sub­se­quent re­fusal to blunt his baby’s weirder edges, Para­mount sold off the in­ter­na­tional rights and cut their losses with a half-hearted US re­lease, the box of­fice tak­ings from which didn’t even cover An­ni­hi­la­tion’s pro­duc­tion costs. Gar­land was dis­mayed, say­ing he had “made the film for cinema”. But cinema – the busi­ness, as op­posed to the art-form – didn’t know what to do with it.

Net­flix had been flex­ing some mus­cle in the film-mak­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion games for a while be­fore this – but un­like their in­stantly suc­cess­ful TV op­er­a­tion, some­thing about cinema seemed to elude them, and their pair­ings of big stars with bold direc­tors given blank cheques were click­ing less of­ten than not. They had ended 2017 with one of the year’s worst films: the fan­tasy thriller Bright, in which Will Smith played an ur­ban cop in an al­ter­nate Los An­ge­les awash with orcs and elves.

Twelve months on, the ground has shifted. The com­pany’s most re­cent film, Al­fonso Cuarón’s Roma, is 2018’s very best. And in the in­terim, there were the not-so-small mat­ters of new works from the Coen broth­ers, Ta­mara Jenk­ins, Paul Green­grass and oth­ers: The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs, Pri­vate Life, Out­law King, 22 July, Shirk­ers, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Be­fore, and Or­son Welles’s last mas­ter­piece, The Other Side of the Wind, which was com­pleted, af­ter three decades in le­gal limbo, on Net­flix’s dime. For the first time ever, you could en­joy a gen­er­ous cross-sec­tion of the year’s best new films with­out leav­ing your couch.

Mean­while, Net­flix made moves to en­sure that 2019 would un­fold along sim­i­lar lines – not least by pony­ing-up the $125 mil­lion bud­get for Martin Scors­ese’s 26th fea­ture, The Ir­ish­man, a true-life mafia drama star­ring Robert De Niro, Al Pa­cino and Joe Pesci. Talk­ing last week at the Mar­rakesh Film Festival, Scors­ese ex­plained that “no one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course, we’re all get­ting older. Net­flix took the risk”. You would be hard-pressed to come up with a grim­mer in­dict­ment of Hol­ly­wood in 2018 than the fact that a gang­ster movie di­rected by a hot-streak­ing Scors­ese, and fea­tur­ing the stars of Goodfel­las and The God­fa­ther, is con­sid­ered a bad bet.

Net­flix’s mo­ti­va­tion is sim­ple: it wants to be taken se­ri­ously, by the in­dus­try and its cus­tomers alike. Un­like tra­di­tional stu­dios, the com­pany makes money by grow­ing its sub­scriber base, which cur­rently stands at 137.1 mil­lion world­wide and 9.7 mil­lion in the UK. It doesn’t mat­ter whether an in­di­vid­ual film is a hit or not, pro­vid­ing the to­tal­ity of their out­put – on which they spent

$10 bil­lion world­wide this year – feels like a good deal to ex­ist­ing cus­tomers, and looks that way to prospec­tive ones. In the case of Roma, fund­ing a $15 mil­lion black-and-white, Span­ish-lan­guage his­tor­i­cal epic will do that – be­cause Cuarón could win the com­pany some at­ten­tion-grab­bing ad­di­tions for their tro­phy cab­i­net,

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