Will Hollywood Be Annihilated?
Trigger warning; this is an unapologetically film industry-oriented column, but for me it’s an interesting subject.
The Netflix movie ‘Annihilation’ is making waves for all the wrong reasons, but may ultimately turn out to favour the mega-channel and give Hollywood a spanking. Here’s why.
The formerly unassailable studio system had dreams of global domination, but they’re fading; first came the end of shared-experience entertainment (theatrical exhibition) as personal viewing devolved and fragmented into a variety of formats. Then came the shrinkage of the domestic (US) theatrical market. Now India and China are developing their own independent studio systems for huge local audiences.
Meanwhile, Netflix had cleverly set out its stall as a purveyor of quality TV entertainment, but has reached a make-or-break moment; it can stay select or expand wide and fast, and to do that it needs a lot of new product. It can only produce a fraction of that itself, so it needs buy-ins. And along comes Paramount, one of the studios with whom it has struck a beneficial deal; Paramount films have budgets. Netflix gets big quality product. What if the studio sells direct to TV? Everybody wins.
Except they don’t, because Paramount realises it can dump all the movies it fears won’t make money, and although Netflix will gain volume it loses its brand quality.
Because here’s the strange anomaly; Movie companies don’t suffer brand damage. TV companies do. Warners can make ten bad films and nobody will start avoiding Warner films. If a channel does that, it’s undermined.
Netflix wants to forget it’s home entertainment and pretend it’s a studio (so does Amazon now). A few weeks back, Netflix caught a cold. Several of its bought-in films were rated very poorly. I actually thought ‘Mute’ was superb, but you had to think about it to get it. However, the press, scenting blood in the water, started enumerating the amount of bad product on Netflix’s EPG. It’s a non-story, but it stuck.
Paramount is dumping films to Netflix not because they are bad but because they’re not sure bets. They test weakly, they’re ‘soft’, they require a bit of concentration (and some are rubbish, like the film they rebranded as Cloverfield 3). This is also about regime change; studios routinely dump the commissioned films from outgoing execs. But while they rearrange deckchairs, the ship is taking water.
As far as cineastes are concerned, the new system is being misused, because films that were designed for cinemas are being watched on phones. But nobody cares about cineastes; they’re not big money.
Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ is the best example yet of what’s going wrong. It’s a terrific thinking-SF film, ie. it doesn’t have gunfire in it on every script beat. But it’s not a dead-cert box office winner. It’s an excellent all-female cast, it’s smart and carefully paced. It’s also exciting, just not in a guns-and-spaceships way. Intelligent films win awards but don’t fill studio coffers (although ‘Arrival’ did nicely). However, if Netflix turns ‘soft’ studio product around and makes hits of them, then Hollywood is seeding its biggest rival.
‘Annihilation’ hit screens in the world’s two biggest markets, the US and China, but everywhere else loses out. Paramount is happy to make more Transformers movies but if other studios follow the trend, films for adults will end up on small screens. To Paramount, the biggest sin it commits is to be slow-paced. To me, that’s its chief beauty; the gestation of an intriguing idea. It comes from a book by Jeff Vandemeer, a rather boring writer who nevertheless provided solid base material. Alex Garland has taken the plot core and directed a much better film. Paramount wanted to recut the feature, and Garland fought back.
And what of ‘Annihilation’ itself? The premise is simple. In effect, it’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ married to JG Ballard’s ‘The Crystal World’ (right down to the original’s alligator). In fact it’s so Ballardian it’s a miracle no-one has issued a lawsuit. But SF is full of ideas built on by others, and Garland is far more interested in the human effects of mutation. Like ‘Okja’ and ‘Mute’ before it, this is proper SF.
None of the above films can be seen theatrically in Europe. The rest of the world is being treated as America’s dumping ground. But this is a shaking-out process that will continue for some time yet. The prize being sought is global domination but as we’ve seen so many times before, that dream has surprising ways of being dissipated.