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
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,