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How Will We Know When We Have Our First Streaming Masterpiece?

Netflix is finally making its prestige play in the movie world with ‘War Machine.’ But getting respect won’t be as easy as dropping a new movie in the lap of its 100 million customers.

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Netflix/Ringer illustration

"We must break free from the petty politics of the past. America is a nation of believers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics."

These are the first words we hear in Get Me Roger Stone, a Netflix-produced documentary about the titular agent provocateur of conservative American politics. The words are spoken by our president, Donald Trump, at last summer’s Republican National Convention as Stone looks on approvingly from the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena. The oppositional rhetoric is pro forma Trump — as much an awkward koan as a declaration lacking humility — but it is also a fitting statement of purpose for Netflix’s strategy this year. They have announced themselves as the outsider candidate — independently wealthy and not beholden to outside influence — that can upend our broken system of superhero claptrap and animated junk. Hail to the disrupters-in-chief.

This has thus far been the Year of the Netflix Original Movie. Which is not to say that 2017 has been the Year of the Great Netflix Original Movie. We don’t yet know what a great Netflix movie looks like. Get Me Roger Stone — a modest but compelling portrait of a backroom insider — may be the best film the company has produced. And that’s the problem. The streaming service has taken the lessons of its episodic television success — strategic releasing, relentless pacing, massive outlays of cash for premium talent — and begun to apply them to Hollywood’s biggest possible target: movies. It’s a Roger Stone–esque assault on an aging medium — constantly seeking the underutilized resource to exploit a broader ideal. Last month I tracked how companies like Netflix and Amazon have begun digging a moat around the world of independent film, securing a market share in a vulnerable phylum of the entertainment industry. This weekend marks the release of a new movie and affirmation of a new pursuit: War Machine, a Brad Pitt–starring $60 million satire loosely based on the late Michael Hastings’s account of the blunders of Army General Stanley McChrystal. War Machine is altogether different from Win It All, the scrappily endearing Joe Swanberg flick released in April, or Get Me Roger Stone. "You have a new player in the market willing to invest in material that is provocative," a person involved with War Machine told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, shortly after the deal was made. "[Netflix has] the money and need premium content to drive their subscription base."

War Machine is provocative in its way, a tonally blended metafictional portrait of a well-intentioned buffoon, by turns goofy and searing. It’s the kind of movie studios once gambled on — think Syriana or Behind Enemy Lines — but has become anathema to increasingly bottom-line-oriented corporate interests. But will it make people want to sign up for Netflix? This week on my podcast, The Hollywood Reporter’s Matthew Belloni noted that War Machine as a property had been floating around Hollywood for years — only Netflix’s gargantuan $6 billion budget commitment to original programming allowed for it to be made, along with three dozen more movies this year, ranging from the unusual doc experiment Casting JonBenet to this winter’s Bright, a Will Smith "Orc cop" film directed by Suicide Squad’s David Ayer. According to a recent analysis by Decider, "conservatively, Netflix has paid $240 million for four movies that will be released this year," which includes War Machine, Bright, the live-action anime adaptation Death Note, and next month’s Okja. By major studio accounting in this time of breathless IP warfare, $240 million is a small sum for four films with the potential to reach nearly 100 million subscribers worldwide. But it is the films themselves that raise unique questions about Netflix’s plan and how to understand success in this transitional period.

By comparison, Moonlight appeared on Amazon Prime this week, just three months removed from its dramatic Best Picture win at the 89th Academy Awards. In a different time, that would be a minuscule window from Oscars victory lap to Let’s stay home tonight and watch Mahershala Ali be great from the comfort of our couch. But regardless of the window, or the number of screens that A24 and Pitt’s Plan B were able to secure for Moonlight during its theatrical release, the film’s status as a great work of American filmmaking is not in question. The seven months since its initial release has been one of the most uniformly positive and uninterrupted ascensions in recent memory. Its arrival in a streaming environment is convenient, but it is largely incidental. The public consciousness about the film likely will not change. Moonlight is a masterpiece.

But what of something like War Machine, available in that same environment, exclusively, for the first time and in perpetuity? When I spoke with the film’s director, David Michôd, last week, he said he had not yet reconciled the feeling that his movie would not be shown in theaters, but also recognized that the only way he consumed movies was at home, often on Netflix. Of the 20 or so directors I’ve interviewed this year, a majority have expressed a kind of helpless acceptance when posed with the question about where they want audiences to see their movies. It’s almost always met with a sigh or a slightly pained expression. But it is a reality. And in the case of a film with ambitions beyond diversion, like War Machine, it’s difficult to know how to identify its place in the culture. Filmmakers say they look to word of mouth, the perspective of colleagues and friends, and sometimes reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is tracking War Machine as it would any film, though there are far fewer reviews registered to the movie than a typical Pitt vehicle. (It’s currently tracking at 57 percent. Not fresh.) The culture hasn’t caught up to the convenience.

Michôd’s movie is not the first grasp for prestige in Netflix’s film strategy — in 2015, the service paid $12 million for the rights to service Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation, an impressionistic portrait of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. It failed to garner the awards recognition the company sought. Last year, Netflix turned to established properties, financing Pee-wee’s Big Holiday and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, recharged IP in search of a nostalgia receptor. It also continued to shepherd the comedies of Adam Sandler, who is credited (by Netflix, natch) with some of Netflix’s most watched properties. Theirs has been a mutually beneficial — if pricey — relationship. But what all of Netflix’s original films have in common is simple: A lot of people don’t think these movies are good. When the service removed its user star rating system earlier this year, the ratings for Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six were scraped from view — needless to say, they were never terribly positive, to say nothing of the movie’s 0 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. Sandler and Pee-wee were not prestige plays — they were merely road-clearing plows, creating a landing strip for the jets to come.

"If you look at the difference between what Netflix is doing right now and what we’re doing, we’re spearfishing and they’re drift-net fishing," FX chief John Landgraf told The Hollywood Reporter this week. "They’re scooping every organism off the bottom of the ocean. And they’re keeping them all now, but reason would say, at some point you keep the bluefin tuna and throw the others back."

Landgraf has publicly needled Netflix’s spending habits with regard to their TV lineups, but some studio executives are privately saying the same thing about chief content officer Ted Sarandos’s plunge into films. Landgraf’s statement is not wholly accurate, at least not with regard to movies, despite the weekly appearance of a new branded Netflix Original Film. Amazon Studios, by contrast, is praised for using its well-funded parent to produce unique original work from some of the best filmmakers in the world, and putting them in theaters first. Jeff Bezos’s megalopolis was rewarded with two Oscars last year for Manchester by the Sea, and already features a library of well-regarded films that includes Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-winning The Salesman, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. This week at the Cannes Film Festival, the world got a look at Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, paid for by Amazon. By aligning with Pitt’s Plan B production company and Michôd, or the visionary director Bong Joon-ho, Sarandos is staking his claim to a similar kind of credibility, though the projects slated have a different sheen to them. Amazon’s films feel not far removed from the work that the company’s head of motion picture production, Ted Hope, made as a producer in the 1990s. Netflix’s latest batch of films feel like dream projects come to life, paid for by a bank eager to seem interesting. Amazon is a department store with a production company; Netflix is a platform with a carousel of content. Treating movies in traditional fashion — not disrupting, but refining — and then selling them to the public has proved more effective so far. Roger Stone would be confounded by such a tactic.

Bong’s new film Okja — a fantastical satire of corporate greed and bioengineering centered on a superpig (seriously) — also made its premiere at Cannes last week, and with it came a new batch of streaming-centric controversy. Cannes jury president Pedro Almodóvar said that he would not consider Bong’s film for any awards because of its Netflix provenance. "I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen," Almodóvar said. In turn, Cannes has proclaimed that Netflix films will not compete for festival prizes starting next year. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings responded on Facebook with a Bannonesque decree: "The establishment [is] closing ranks against us."

In the game that Hastings and Sarandos are embarking upon, awards are the highest form of currency — to be recognized and celebrated is to succeed. That will now be impossible for Netflix at Cannes. (France, a cinephile’s haven, has different windowing policies for its movies — there is an enforced 36-month buffer between when a movie appears in theaters and streaming services.) Amazon’s success in two major categories at the Oscars — Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay — has affirmed its place in the conversation. Netflix — which reeled in its first Oscar, for The White Helmets, in the short-form documentary category — has not yet proved it can do so on a major stage. War Machine will not be that film, even though Pitt’s Plan B has produced two of the past five Best Picture winners. Okja is not prototypical Oscar material either — it’s not prototypical anything, really. It is an ambitious and mind-boggling stretch for the company — but not likely to be feted come February. Netflix is trying to replicate its TV strategy: spend its way into acclaim, a tricky gambit that has rarely worked in film. The Oscars are not the Emmys.

Just this week, in a rare moment of creative mortality, Netflix canceled Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, one of the most expensive and ambitious efforts the company has yet made. Luhrmann is a decorated and glamorous filmmaker. But he couldn’t make it work as a streamer. The prestige business, perhaps even more than the audience business, is tough to master. TV is the popular vote. Movies are the electoral college.