On December 13, 2013, American singer Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth body of work, along with visuals dedicated to each song, was released in the early hours of the morning without any prior announcement or promotion, exclusively on the iTunes Store — in a move following the footsteps of David Bowie, who himself had launched his comeback single, Where Are We Now, without any prior warning during the January of the same year. “I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” she commented on her unexpected business technique. “I am bored with that.” The album went on the sale 617,000 copies in the United States in its first three days of availability, becoming the fastest-selling album in the history of the iTunes Store up to that point.
More than four years later, popular American film director Ava DuVernay tweeted that, quote, “#FilmTwitter is going to explode tonight. Something is coming that I can hardly believe. Lawd. History in the making.” Just hours later, Netflix announced during the Super Bowl LII that it would be dropping the latest entry to the J. J. Abrams’ science-fiction horror series Cloverfield, titled “Cloverfield Paradox” immediately after the game.
DuVernay commented on that “something”, now revealed to be the movie, again after the announcement on her Twitter account: “No advance press, ads, trailer. Straight to the people. Gamechanger.”
Cloverfield Paradox, which began its life as an idea named God Particle before it became a connection point on the timeline of J. J. Abrams’ ongoing franchise, is directed by the first time director Julius Onah based on a script written by Oren Uziel; and stars the likes of David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as its leads. I haven’t watched the movie, on the simple reasoning that I didn’t have time, but what I’ve heard from other reviews and the general population on the internet tells me that it’s an at best average movie with a convoluted, messy ending. In the end, the quality of the movie is both extremely relevant but also completely irrelevant to the conversation we’re going to have today, because in today’s discourse, Paradox’s importance in film history doesn’t only arise based on its quality: it mostly arises because of its position.
This is not the first movie to be “given” to Netflix because of the underwhelming performance expected from it at the box office. Even a movie that I cannot wait to see this year, Annihilation, is going to be find its distribution on the online streaming site for most international areas, except United States and China. The creative differences between the director and the studio executives are more to blame in that scenario, as it is believed that the creator’s decision of not making the movie more understandable or its characters likable is the reason why it is going to find itself directly on the small screen just two weeks after its initial release. Even concepts such as Direct to DVD, or TV Movies; are nothing new — Disney and HBO, and even Lifetime have been doing them for a long time.
So, why is Cloverfield Paradox is a gamechanger? Why should it be a gamechanger?
The discussion around the changing landscape of filmmaking, and its relation to digital streaming platforms such as Hulu, Amazon; and of course, Netflix, is, therefore, is not one that is born suddenly in 2017. On the contrary, movies were always an integral part of such sites, embedded in their DNAs: Netflix was a movie rental service long before the company made the decision to put out original creations of itself and reclaimed its place on the visual history, for the better or the worse. Nowadays, to talk about television or cinema without mentioning the site; because of its powerhouse qualities such as availability and multiplicity, as well as the role it has in the way our experience with visual storytelling is changing; is practically impossible.
But, it is also true that the discussion around the changing landscape of filmmaking, and its relation to digital streaming platforms such as Hulu, Amazon; and of course, Netflix, has come to a boiling point when looked from all aspects. 2017 was a rich year when it came to this discourse, and 2018 is looking like it is only going to up the ante. Christopher Nolan’s comments on how he would never do a movie for Netflix was a part of it, the infamous clusterfuck Bright was a part of it, and now Cloverfield Paradox is a part of it, too. The art of moviemaking, along with the business of it, is on a journey of change, and now we are witnessing what might be remembered as the turning point for it all. The entertainment industry, in all its angles, is directly in the eye of a tornado: this is true for television, this is true for music, and this is true for cinema. HBO’s attempt at creating “more than just a virtual experience” in its latest mini-series Mosaic, or Beyoncé’s sudden drop of her two latest albums are just some examples of this.
Netflix’s first clear attempt at leading a change in movie industry, at least as it was claimed by the company itself, came with Bright, a movie that seemingly no-one liked. And it is understandable that no-one liked this movie: it has no plot, no likable characters, a crumbling mythology, a dangerously on-the-nose allegory for the racial tensions in 21st century America sloppily integrated into it, no clear vision. It is also created by a company called Trigger Warning, and yes, we are in the darkest timeline, it appears. The funny thing in this whole garbage fire of a situation is that Bright wasn’t a movie that Netflix got dumped on by another, big studio: it was a movie that Netflix fought to have against the likes of Warner Brothers and MGM, and got its hands on it after a bidding that lasted two weeks.
Directed by Suicide Squad’s lovely David Ayer based on a scrip by Max Landis, which he said that he hoped could be the new Star Wars in a now deleted tweet, Bright follows a duo of cops in an alternate Los Angeles where supernatural creatures live among humans and there is magic, and stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton as its primary actors. It is said that Netflix has invested more than $90M for the supposed success of the movie, including $3M for the Landis script, making it one of the largest spec deals for a writer in years. I know, sad
Bright, in all perspectives, was expected to be company’s big leap into Hollywood. It was a fairly big budget movie, with most of the money spent on VFX and practical effects; and of course, marketing. And even-though it failed miserably on the critical side (with a twenty-nine percent on Metacritic and a twenty-seven on Rotten Tomatoes), according to Nielsen Records, it was still an above-average success when it came to numbers. The site believes that within its first three days of being on the Netflix, the movie gained over 11 million watchers, which would put it on track to having a $100 million box-office opening weekend based on the estimated ticket prices. Nielsen’s measuring technology is not the perfect formula for streaming sites, as it uses an audio-based content recognition specifically designed for TV to track SVOD viewing, which excludes mobile devices and computers; and also doesn’t cover areas other than United States. Netflix itself has disputed any third party provided estimations for their viewership amount, but even the imperfect numbers can tell us that the movie was not an overall loss for the site. So, in all honesty, the real question here comes not about the possibility of the success, but rather the reason behind the said success: would Bright bring the same numbers if it had a traditional theatrical release? Probably not.
Netflix’s biggest strength that it is a pay-for-all service. Some of its shows do bad, some do great: but for the most part, it doesn’t matter for the company as long as the production mentioned isn’t a complete failure, or its making is so expensive (looking at you, Sense8). The subscribers might just pay to watch Stranger Things or Narcos, but the money they spend on the site also goes for the likes of Bright. The availability of it all, the fact that you can just watch Netflix from the comfort of your house, or even of your phone, makes it even easier: many people watch even the worst shows or movies on there because they are just plain bored. In an era where “white noise” means putting something on while you’re doing your makeup or writing your essay, Bright is destined to watch at least by some people. Especially when its viewership is not limited by factors such as time or geography.
Cloverfield Paradox‘s implications for the film business in large is not limited by the exact borders defined by Bright or Netflix. Its comparative success, or the future results of that success lies more in line with what Beyoncé did, and Beyoncé wanted: the change how the creation is provided to the customer. Of course, there is still going to be some commerciality in it, of course it is still going to be expected to make money — but still, it will be different. We are living in a time where entire movies are being recorded on iPhones, it is unavoidable that the way we make movies, the way we watch movies, and the way we experience movies are going to change. Netflix may become just a big dump of bad movies as some say, and that is a normal outcome, not every project has to be successful: the company already has enough success to keep itself alive. Netflix may become the next big production company in Hollywood, too, also, just like it did with TV. In every case, it is an exciting combinations of probability to keep an eye on.