Hey, Netflix: Let’s Talk VOD Domination

Amazing. Every hot take on ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ and VOD releases is wrong.

In a surprise move, Netflix and Paramount Pictures conspired to release The Cloverfield Paradox immediately following the conclusion of Super Bowl LII (Fly Eagles, Fly). In case you hadn’t heard. The takes were fast, furious, and immediately hot. What else could have happened after an evening fueled by beer, chips, and shouting? My Twitter timeline went straight from folks berating the referees and debating which team was cheating to slagging the new Cloverfield title. That’s all fine by me. Love, hate, or like movies as you please. Talk, debate, listen! Why, even at FSR, we’ve got differing opinions which run the gamut from Cloverfield being the definitive franchise for the internet age to space raspberries. I thought it was decent. What rubbed me the wrong way was how quickly this hot-take fest bled over into vitriol against VOD releases in general.

The social media hot take was that the new Cloverfield flick was something which clearly felt like a straight-to-video release or was comparable to a sub-par version of a made-for-tv type series. I suppose the paraphrasing of this boiled down to the question: was this dropped on VOD because it felt like VOD?

I refuse the fundamental terms of that discussion. Like Old Man Luke Skywalker said: It’s amazing. Everything about that construction is wrong.

Let’s go through some fundamentals about straight-to-VOD releases. While it is a rarity for a major studio’s film to go this route, it is not the road less taken. Most movies don’t get a theatrical release. Most of the movies which go straight to VOD don’t have the luxury of national or global marketing campaigns. This is especially a problem for independent films.

For the last year or so, I’ve made a project out of interviewing independent filmmakers about their hustle. The one constant in every interview, whether they were seasoned pros or first-time filmmakers, is this question: Where’s that money gonna come from?

Ingrid Jungermann (Women Who Kill) said:

“I took out a shit load of student loans to write my movie. I’m in crazy debt … This movie didn’t make any money. I didn’t make any money.”

Movies are expensive. And most independent films are being offered VOD-only distribution deals. In her case, she opted to pay for a limited theatrical run in order to qualify for awards. Which had some positive results! Her film was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award in the best first screenplay category. Unfortunately, she now has no funds available to use that nomination, or possible victory, in an advertising campaign to raise awareness.

Mattie Do (Dearest Sister) is a bad-ass filmmaker literally helping to create a space for Lao Horror to thrive. She debuted her film on the festival circuit. Eventually, it found a home at Shudder, in an exclusive deal.

Joe Lynch (Mayhem) smashed us all in the face with his last film. God damn, I was ready to get that rage virus in me and start burning buildings to the ground. (Please no one tell my corporate bosses.) Mayhem had a very limited theatrical debut followed by a brief run on VOD.  Since then, it’s been picked up as a Shudder exclusive.

Christian Stella and Jeremy Gardner (The Battery) released their second feature film Tex Montana Will Survive! free to the world after a crowdfunding campaign. These filmmakers are experimenting with the industry to find their space. They’re looking for a way, old or new, to generate some traction.

There are real artists out there struggling to get that traction. More than that, they are making some of our most interesting films while they’re doing it. Look at what Julia Ducournau did with Raw. Phenomenal work. More than half of my favorite 25 releases of 2017 were effectively straight-to-VOD. I’m not out on the arthouse ledge either. Most of these movies are casually accessible to any interested viewer.

Straight-to-VOD films don’t win awards. However, let me refer you back to Jungermann’s experience. Independent filmmakers are not being offered deals featuring theatrical releases. They have to spring for the qualifying runs themselves, or go without. Access to the medium is improving, but it is far from equal. They aren’t winning awards because most of them aren’t given the opportunity to qualify while deals are being struck.

VOD-only can have budgets measured in thousands to tens of millions, as in the case of The Cloverfield Paradox. They vary in subject, genre, style, voice, diversity, and much more. So, when I hear arguments predicated on what VOD releases feel like, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

What should we be talking about?

Let’s talk about Netflix.

First, Netflix isn’t perfect. They aren’t the savior of film. Their release terms for non-Netflix Originals basically swallow up those movies. In some cases, you would have to search for the title or you won’t see it while scrolling. In a perfect world, every movie would be consumed at the theater. And, everyone that invests time in their craft would be afforded the opportunity for people to hear about their art’s existence. Alas, capitalism and reality run roughshod over that dream. The truth is most movies are swallowed by anonymity.

Let’s talk money.

The listed budget for The Cloverfield Paradox is $45M. I don’t imagine Paramount sold it to Netflix at cost. But let’s work with what we know. Netflix, or perhaps both as part of the deal, also spent Super Bowl ad time money to drop the trailer and announce the impending release.

What else do we know about Netflix’s spending habits? Let’s just say filmmakers see the Netflix team at the festival and they get all “Hey, Big Spender”.

What should Netflix do? Remember Tony Stark in Iron Man 2? He dropped into that expo center and told a roaring crowd:

“Please, it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s not even about us. It’s about legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations. And that’s why for the next year and for the first time since 1974, the best and brightest men and women of nations and corporations the world over will pool their resources, share their collective vision, to leave behind a brighter future. It’s not about us.”

Netflix should drop in like the big spenders they are and define the conversation about filmmaking for a year.

They should start talking about cultivating the next generation of great filmmakers.

And they should spend that money.

Here’s what’s got me so excited. Just think about it. What could any of these small budget filmmakers do with a million bucks? Or, even three-quarters of a million?

Most of the indie films we shower praise on have a budget somewhere between $50K and $250K. The Cloverfield Paradox looks gorgeous. It should! It had a $45M budget. You know what? These micro-budget and small budget films also have the capability to look world class.

What if Netflix announced during Super Bowl LIII that over the previous year they had funded the development of 60 Netflix Originals from 60 different teams?

At the conclusion of the game, the first eight will go live. You like sci-fi, we got something for you. You like thrillers, you’ll love this. You got kids, check this out. Whatever they want to go after. We’ve got you covered.

What if those 60 directors were from a diverse background? I dig that Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American, is the director of a mid-budget sci-fi film like The Cloverfield Paradox. This initiative would have the ability to do more than introduce new voices, it could introduce diverse voices. Representation matters. Practically speaking, look at what a major driver of conversation that has been for the last year.

Then, imagine if every Thursday night for the rest of the year, Netflix were to drop an original film from one of those new voices.

I am in love with the idea of a surprise release. Some of my favorite film experiences are when I stumble onto something I don’t know anything about, haven’t heard any dozen people’s opinions about, and just let a story unfold in front of me. I dig that so much.

The Cloverfield Paradox acquisition and surprise release is a necessary first step. It’s proof of concept that this can provoke a reaction. The success of this experiment ultimately has very little to do with that movie itself. This conversation is essential. It opens the door to something that allows Netflix to focus on controlling original content in a space overfull with underappreciated talents waiting to explode. That’s what they want, right?

We need to be talking about how to advance the industry in terms which will allow increased access. Y’all are worried about the quality of straight-to-VOD when we could be thinking about how to fuck shit up.

Your move, Netflix.

William Dass :Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.