Video stores don’t exist anymore, at least not in any real, meaningful way, but the legacy of the straight-to-video movies which used to line their shelves lives on. Regrettable VHS cheapies like Grid Runners (a Lawnmower Man rip-off) and Back to Even (a Lorenzo Lamas stinker) used to entice us with glossy covers and attention-grabbing titles, but we knew that to rent something which didn’t even play in theaters was to risk throwing your money away. Sometimes, that paid off; most of the time, though, you were stuck watching Sometimes They Come Back…Again.
Such movies still get made. Just browse VOD outlets like Vudu for proof of that. However, now Netflix is making (or acquiring) them, too, forging ahead with a dual identity as both the home of trailblazing TV and dumping ground for a lot of schlocky movies. As a result, that “Netflix Original” label is starting to carry two different meanings, but we’re still operating under the same straight-to-video principle here.
Back in the day, for example, if you rented a straight-to-video B movie you might have regretted it but it still cost you less than going to the movie theater. So, the reduced cost as well as the comfort of being able to see the movie from your home lowered the bar, allowed you to judge it differently. Similarly, Netflix’s Original Movies seem to be getting by on “Well, what did you expect?” It’s an impulse viewing option that cost you nothing.
[I should pause to acknowledge Netflix’s documentaries are usually quite stellar. In fact, 7 of the 10 best-reviewed Netflix Movies on Rottentomatoes are documentaries. This article, however, is focused on feature films].
Good movies (Mudbound, Okja, Beasts of No Nation, Gerald’s Game, The Incredible Jessica James), bad movies (Bright, The Polka King, Little Evil, Death Note, Open House, Fun Mom Dinner, The Cloverfield Paradox, some schlocky sci-fi movie starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Pena), in-between movies (War Machine, First They Killed My Father, Our Souls at Night, Whatever Happened to Monday?, 1922, Before I Wake, Girlfriend’s Day)….whatever. It’s all just content to Netflix. They know Disney is coming for them hard and other studios are pulling their content once deals expire. So, they have to stock up to the point that at least half of the content on the service is a Netflix Original.
In a race like that, who cares if what they make is traditionally “good”? It’s a Netflix movie, and for some people, filmmakers and fans alike, that’s good enough. As Cloverfield Paradox star David Oyelowo told Vanity Fair, “I don’t know what [all of this] means for the future of film. But I do know that I really like making films that real people actually see.”
That doesn’t mean Ted Sarandos doesn’t want prestige and respect in the film industry. In fact, as I previously discussed, he actively courts both, pouring millions into Oscar campaigns and spending aggressively to provide a platform for prestige dramas – Beasts of No Nation, Mudbound, The Meyerowitz Stories – which might have struggled to find an audience in the past. But, as Shakespeare in Love/Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti argued, “[Ted] has no shot at it yet. Not until [he] ups his game and makes movies worthy of an Academy Award will he win one. On the one hand, Netflix gives filmmakers all the freedom in the world. But that almost treats the movie as if it’s disposable. There’s always another one coming next.”
And Sarandos seems to walk a fine line between courting the taste-makers when their embrace will benefit him and spinning a “see, this is how out of touch critics clearly are” narrative when they reject him. For example, when Bright was blasted by critics he told reporters, “The way we look at it is [that] people are watching this movie and loving it and that is the measure of success. If critics get behind it or don’t, that’s a select group of social media influencers talking to a select audience.”
It’s a snobs vs. slobs defense which rings out throughout film history, and it’s perhaps an inevitable result of Netflix’s push toward being everything to everyone. Sarandos has to be Michael Bay, Roger Corman, a 70s-esque New Hollywood pioneer, and a Steven Bochco-esque hit-making TV producer all at the same time. So, he’ll take the good reviews where he can get him, but he’s also sitting on exclusive data telling him what is and what is not actually a hit for them.
Remember, critics scratched their head when Sarandos signed Adam Sandler to a multi-picture deal, but Netflix clearly had data indicating enough users would want to watch his movies. It was the canary in the coal mine warning that Netflix’s initial strategy of favoring niche, indie films targeted at cinephiles was changing. The days of rolling into a film festival and buying up everything in sight are over. They’ve done that and monitored how many new subscribers they actually netted from those efforts. A Sundance darling like I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore probably doesn’t move the needle the way a big budget Will Smith movie can.
In the wake of Bright and Cloverfield Paradox Forbes cautioned, “The company that started as a mail-order DVD rental service still has some work to do to not become the modern-day equivalent of straight-to-DVD.” For some audiences, though, this is all much ado about nothing. After all, the worst thing a movie can be is not bad but boring, and many of the Netflix movies labeled as “bad” are certainly never boring. But if this keeps up how long is it before the “Netflix Original” brand for movies becomes synonymous with all of the schlocky traits we used to associate with straight-to-video? If that happens, if it hasn’t already, will it even matter to the average Netflix user?
With all of that, I turn the question to you: what are some Netflix Original Movies you actually like? My list is led by Veronica,The Ritual, Mudbound, Meyerowitz Stories, and Gerald’s Game. What about your list? It’s okay if it includes Cloverfield Paradox and/or Bright.