Annihilation is now on Netflix around the world, and it has only grossed $26m in the States against its $40m budget. Reviewers in places like the UK and Australia are chiming in and expressing astonishment that such a moving work of artsy sci-fi would be denied a worldwide theatrical run by a clearly moribund film studio like Paramount, which should have nothing left to lose at this point. Meanwhile, Annihilation’s director, Alex Garland, has read the signs of where the industry is heading and just jumped ship from film to TV. He will write, direct, and executive produce a Silicon Valley drama for FX. Three years ago, he became a DGA-nominated director and Oscar-nominated writer for Ex Machina; now he’s set to make his first TV series.
And Charlize Theron just retired from acting, Gwyneth Paltrow manages lifestyle brands, Reese Witherspoon is a big shot TV producer, Jessica Alba heads up a consumer goods company, and the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese’s next projects – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for the Coens, The Irishman for Scorsese – are going straight to Netflix.
Point being: The film industry has been in turmoil for years now. You either adapt and become a part of the future (embrace streaming, learn to live with micro-budgets, find work on TV, etc.), or you check out completely and try something else. In that environment, good on Garland for finding a project in a space more amenable to his sensibilities, but bad on Paramount for not even trying with Annihilation.
But, hold on here, was Paramount really in the wrong? Annihilation, about a group of women, led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman, plunging past a mysterious, possibly alien energy field which ultimately acts as a metaphor for cancer, depression, and maybe even infidelity, is a wonderfully fascinating movie. But is it really a theatrical play in 2018? Paramount’s new boss, Jim Gianopulos, said no, selling the film to Netflix everywhere around the world other than the US, Canada, and China. He also made that same move with The Cloverfield Paradox. There, the film’s bad reviews justified his decision; here, Annihilation’s strong reviews make Netflix look like the real winner.
With Annihilation, however, it’s possibly a debate of what we want to be true versus what probably is true:
What we want to be true: Audiences still crave mid-budget movies, challenging movies, original sci-fi – all the good stuff the studios used to make but abandoned long ago.
What probably is true: No, they don’t. Audiences want big, disposable blockbusters, things based on other things they’ve heard of, and horror movies in the theaters. That’s what they’ve been trained over the years to expect when they go to the cineplex and it’s what ends every year atop the list of highest-grossing films. Everything else either has a better counterpart on TV or can simply be waited out and viewed once it hits streaming in a couple of months.
Sure, mid-budget efforts like Baby Driver or Girls Trip will occasionally come along and catch fire, but they don’t make enough to mean anything to the stock price-conscious conglomerates which own the studios. Furthermore, they don’t have any additive value (there’s no Baby Driver theme park ride, for example, although maybe there should be). That’s why the studios hardly make them anymore, and those that do get made have a very low success rate at the box office.
And that’s just mid-budget movies in general.
Challenging movies, the ones that quickly gain a reputation for being perhaps too cerebral to play in Peoria, have an even tougher go of it, regardless of budget or genre.
8 years ago, that particular cultural hook worked for Christopher Nolan’s Inception. It doesn’t hold any much weight anymore, though.
Or, indeed, this?
Or how about every A24 horror movie that ends up being mismarketed as having conventional scares when it’s really a slow burn of metaphorical dread? Looking at you, The Witch and It Comes at Night.
Movies like this are tough to market because, really, they have to be seen to be fully understood. To market Annihilation, for example, as a kind of smarter version of Predator gives the wrong impression as do any shots of Portman firing at monsters. Then again, to say Annihilation is this year’s mother! would also be misleading because for two-thirds of its runtime it has a far more conventional narrative than mother! ever does.
That’s probably why, according to the latest TotalFilm issue, the decision to sell Annihilation to Netflix started after a test screening last summer. Film financier David Ellison deemed the cut he saw to be “too intellectual” and wanted to make changes, but producer Scott Rudin (who is also producing Garland’s FX series) had final cut approval, resisted and backed Garland’s vision just as he had done with Ex Machina. Gianopulos, in the end, seems to have backed Ellison’s conclusion, but rather than force through changes he simply recouped the costs through a huge deal with Netflix which freed him to up to treat the film’s domestic release like a specialty play where a comparison of gross to budget doesn’t matter considering the tens of millions Netflix shelled out.
We wish Gianopulos wasn’t right. As TotalFilm put it, “In the days of cinematic homogenization and calls for more diversity on-screen, Annihilation promises a weird horror-thriller-sci-fi written and helmed by a director with thought-provoking form, a top-of-their-game all-female cast, visuals crafted by the team behind Ex Machina and big ideas about disease and mutation.”
And maybe Gianopolus is kind of wrong. After all, what about Arrival, the true counterpoint to all of this? That, too, is a female-led piece of sci-fi which challenges its audience through a deceptively non-linear narrative, and it legged it out to an impressive box office run, a $203m worldwide total split almost evenly between the US/Canada and everywhere else. Its primary star, Amy Adams, is well-known, just like Natalie Portman. Its premise – an alien invasion – is just as familiar to films fans as Annihilation’s – overmatched soldiers/scientists Predator/Aliens their way through a familiar, but hostile land. Maybe Paramount should have moved Annihilation to November awards run just like Arrival did two years ago when it ended up with 8 Oscar nominations.
There are various reasons that might not have worked out the same way. Timing, after all, is everything. In Arrival’s case, a thoughtful sci-fi tale about a woman saving the world through her mastery of language and ability to overrule the more aggressive voices in the room resonated as a therapeutic experience for some at a time when Donald Trump had just defeated Hillary Clinton. Would Annihilation have found some cultural wave of its own to ride? Would coming out in the heart of awards season changed the way people looked at it? Or is it, ultimately, to niche and impossible-to-categorize no matter where you put it?
What’s done is done, though.
Annihilation is a gift. It’s a project Garland managed to sneak through the studio system off the goodwill built up by his first movie even though a dollars and cents view of Ex Machina reveals its was far from a box office hit. Some directors, like Christopher Nolan, follow that same career path toward mainstream breakthroughs; others get just one or two shots at it and never manage to move past being an acquired taste for cineastes, bloggers, and certain studio executives who still pine for the days when they made movies instead of simply managing brands. What Garland does next will be something worth watching, that’s for sure, but in the here and now thanks to a risk-averse studio and opportunistic streaming giant the entire world can see Annihilation for next to nothing.
If you are one of those people experiencing it for the first time through Netflix, ask yourself this: would you have paid to see it in a movie theater? We all had the chance to do so here in the States and hardly anyone chose to support. Would it have been different everywhere else? Or is Hollywood just getting better than we’d like to believe at giving us the entertainment we actually deserve based on what we choose to support?