Filmmaker of the Year: Netflix

In which we honor our streaming overlords and all the talent they empowered in 2018.

Netflix

Filmmaker of the year is a distinction we bestow here with a bit more flexibility than the rest of our end of year coverage. The best movies are limited specifically to films, best performers to the standout actors, and so on. “Filmmaker,” though, is a bit more fluid of a term. Past years have seen us honor producers like Megan Ellison, directors like Ava DuVernay, and studios like A24, and there’s no reason why an actor or composer couldn’t earn the accolade in years to come. There were numerous talents in the running this year, but we ultimately settled on a somewhat atypical choice.

Netflix had a pretty spectacular 2018 by any conceivable metric. They increased their already staggering subscriber base, they upped the number of original movies and began premiering some in limited theatrical runs, they continued to attract big names as creators and directors, they wisely passed on the opportunity to pick up the disastrous Holmes & Watson, and they made great strides towards being a reputable content producer capable of delivering Oscar-worthy films. And on February 24th of next year, they’re going to win an Academy Award (or three) for their Netflix Original film, Roma. That’s no small potatoes.

Netflix has been a fixture in most movie-goers’ lives since 1998 when they began their DVD mail-order rental business with a mere 925 titles available, but seven years later they were a behemoth entertainment option home to 35,000 movies. They were a massive success in an industry with a ticking clock, and they wisely stayed ahead of the game with their shift to online streaming in 2007 that cemented their place in homes around the world. How many homes? As of October 2018, their subscriber base numbered over 137 million users worldwide — and I do mean worldwide as the only countries they’re not officially available in are China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea. That’s an impressive foothold on our movie-watching time, and if 2018 showed anything it’s that they can only continue to rise from there.

It’s one thing to offer access to existing movies, and it’s another to actually acquire, fund, and produce them directly. It’s here where Netflix earns the “filmmaker” moniker as 2018 saw them give a home to numerous directors and creators both established and fresh behind the ears. For every commentator or critic lamenting the service’s “replacement” of the traditional theater-going experience, there’s a director or writer praising Netflix for giving them the money and freedom to make the film they wanted to make. A short list of 2018’s more notable releases includes Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, Gareth Evans’ Apostle, Duncan Jones’ Mute, and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark. Even the previously dead Orson Welles jumped at the chance to work with Netflix and delivered The Other Side of the Wind.

The first three of those titles were also given a limited theatrical opening which, while small, is an important step towards rebuffing one of the service’s biggest complaints. If it pays off for Netflix, and as stated above it most definitely will when Roma wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (or Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, etc), we can expect an even more notable effort going forward. They’ve already received past Emmy nominations/wins for shows like House of Cards, The Crown, and Stranger Things, and last year Netflix won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Icarus. Roma‘s inevitable win will see the floodgates open further as they invest in more quality cinema — and continue to actually release it to the cinemas.

Netflix Artsy

Not all of their Original Films have been winners, of course, but for every Adam Sandler comedy, we get something smaller, riskier, or unexpected. Cam is a smartly compelling and sex-positive thriller about cam girls and identity. The Night Comes for Us delivered 2018’s best action movie directly into our veins where we could experience again as many times as possible. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before shared the headlines with the big screen’s Crazy Rich Asians as part of the year’s long overdue “Asian summer.”

The past week alone has seen Netflix make more strides with two new titles. Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, an adaptation of the best-selling novel starring Sandra Bullock, played to 45 million subscribers in just seven days. That’s their biggest premiere week ever for an original film. They also debuted a new feature-length episode of Black Mirror called Bandersnatch, and while that’s significant enough the damn thing is a legitimate “Choose Your Own Adventure” movie with viewers controlling the path of the story through onscreen choices. The latter film shows Netflix as continually moving forward with their ambitions, and 2019 is already stacking up to be another banner year.

Netflix has inked production deals with Mark Millar, Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, Harlan Coben, and more writers and creators promising multiple titles from each across the next few years, and the films they already have on tap for 2019 are immensely exciting and promising. We’re getting J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, Ciaran Foy’s Eli, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, David Michod’s The King, Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted, Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass, Joe Lynch’s Point Blank, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Hell, we’re also getting not one but two new films from Steven Soderbergh with High Flying Bird and The Laundromat. This is an embarrassment of potential riches, and the success they’ve had in 2018 is integral in allowing Netflix to keep their original content going into next year and beyond.

An October 2018 report showed that 15% of all internet bandwidth around the world consists of Netflix users streaming content into their homes. That’s an astounding number revealing just how big the Netflix phenomenon truly is. There’s plenty to criticize about Netflix, from nitpicks to legitimate concerns, but it’s disingenuous and maybe a little snobbish to discount the effort they’re making to give other filmmakers a home. They could easily rest on their laurels and on reliable content like popular sitcoms from the 90s to carry them towards increased profitability, but they’ve instead shown a real interest in turning that money around and investing in creating new content — that you can then watch alongside every episode of Friends.

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