Netflix showed us a new form of film distribution this past weekend. Now we need to update our streaming etiquette to match.
You can say this about Netflix: they aren’t afraid to take the big swing. The streaming giant’s decision to stealth-release a feature film with two hours notice was all anyone could talk about this past weekend; fans were excited to check out the latest installment of the Cloverfield franchise months earlier than they anticipated. And while The Cloverfield Paradox might not be the hit most people hoped for – I found it to be thoroughly satisfying science fiction pulp, even if the head critic ’round these parts felt otherwise – it also showed us how woefully unprepared we are for an era where movies can pop into existence.
So today I wanted to share a few helpful guidelines for how we talk about streaming movies like The Cloverfield Paradox. As Netflix continues to Net-flex its muscles in the future (sorry), these may help us make the most of our discussions and ensure we have some rules around surprise releases.
1. DON’T Live-Tweet a Movie the Moment It Drops
It should’ve been every cinephile’s version of hell: moments after Paradox appeared on Netflix, dozens of people in my timeline began to share their reactions to the film in real time. This character made a questionable decision; that plot device was particularly opaque; this sequence seemed directly lifted from another science fiction film. A film that was released into the world sight unseen – no advance screenings, no early buzz, no cryptic social media posts bending the studio’s embargo – was meticulously being spoiled minute-by-minute by people who choose their theaters based entirely on the enforcement of their texting policies. And no matter how many keywords I added to my ‘mute’ list, I eventually had to abandon social media altogether for the evening as little bits and pieces slipped through.
Look, I’m not going to hate on people live-tweeting a movie from the comfort of their own home. Not every movie experience requires the grim solemnity of a holy day of obligation; if tweeting about a movie as it happens provides you with both community and enjoyment, then by all means, share your thoughts. But if surprise releases become an increasingly common part of Hollywood’s streaming playbook, then recognize that it might be difficult for some to jump on a movie moments after it’s released. This isn’t a television show, where the release date is known weeks in advance, and people can plan accordingly; give people at least a few hours to adjust their plans and decide if they want to watch the movie for themselves. Oh, and if you must live-tweet a film? Include a hashtag with every post. That way spoilers won’t slip through others’ filters if you forget to use a proper noun or two.
2. DON’T Refer to Streaming Titles As ‘Direct-to-Video’
We’ve been using the phrase direct-to-video as a pejorative for decades now, and while plenty of films will never see the light of day outside of the VOD market, Paradox is hardly one of them. With a reported budget of $40+ million and a cast featuring some of Hollywood’s rising stars, Paradox is no less deserving of theatrical distribution than any number of January and February releases. It may not be a good movie, but there’s nothing cheap – intentional or accidental – about it, and implying otherwise strains credibility. Of course, calling Paradox, a direct-to-video caliber movie was never meant to be a dig at the film itself; for many, this is another opportunity to draw a line in the sand between traditional distribution methods and the unconventional methods displayed by Netflix.
No more. Referring to Netflix and Amazon Prime releases as direct-to-video quality is not only wrong, it keeps the conversation from moving forward. The relationship studios have with Netflix is considerably more complicated than a VHS premiere; how Netflix chooses to deliver its product is a subject that often consumes analytical and creative minds alike. And disparaging movies, because they appear on Netflix, ignores the fact that these films had an entire creative cycle independent of the medium. Let’s dig a little deeper into the production history if we’re going to make arguments about the value of streaming services. After all, you don’t hear anyone referring to new albums as library tape checkouts, right?
3. DO Question Why a Film Was Not Given a Theatrical Release
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize streaming sites like Netflix. Given all of the above, it’s fair to ask why Paradox didn’t get a theatrical release. I recently wrote about the shifting international landscape and why studios might favor Netflix’s payout over expensive global marketing campaigns; given its non-established cast and convoluted storyline, a movie like Paradox seems like the perfect film to release in theaters in North America and deliver online everywhere else. For all the complaints about its storytelling, Paradox is still a smart-looking science fiction film and deserved a chance to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s important to keep the pressure on Netflix, so they know there’s still a theatrical demand for some of its biggest titles.
Not to mention the lack of award season consideration. While fans may have been excited to see a brand new movie materialize out of thin air, Paradox‘s unconventional distribution means it will not be eligible for any awards tied to theatrical distribution. That means no technical award consideration for things like costume design, production design, and sound mixing, some of the film’s unquestioned strengths. As digital distribution becomes the norm for more of these releases, the Academy is almost certain to update its eligibility rules, but for now, Netflix and services like it have to be willing to support their artists come award season. After all, there’s no better way to close the credibility gap than by winning awards.
4. DO Pressure Netflix and Other Streaming Services to Release Viewing Metrics
And then there are the numbers. Netflix is notoriously cagey when it comes to releasing information about its films; back in 2017, Little Evil director Eli Craig openly admitted that he had no clue how his film was performing, even calling Netflix’s lack of transparency “weird” in an interview. This may be a welcome exchange if you’re a true Netflix original – a film developed and produced by the streaming service from Day One – but for films like Paradox, it can bring a frustrating lack of clarity to the numbers. Paramount decided to gamble by selling the rights to the film to Netflix instead of releasing the movie themselves. Did they make the right decision? Because Netflix will never readily share their audience data, we probably will never know.
That kind of secrecy isn’t great for business. Box office analysis is more than just noting which Marvel movie outgrossed which DC film; it’s about looking for trends in the data and letting audiences dictate (to a certain extent) the type of movies that get made. And without some transparency with regards to numbers, the competitive edge that Netflix offers – its ability to trade cash for fewer marketing and distribution-related headaches – will get wiped away as studios and audiences alike began to question the success of the products. We need to establish a new baseline for success with streaming services, and that starts with being able to see what existing shows and movies are doing. Otherwise, Netflix will just remain the man behind the curtain forever, until either they own everything or go bankrupt on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
5. DON’T Pretend That Streaming Services Will Be Undone By Any Individual Title
Here’s the final point. I’ve seen plenty of people note that Paradox was the downfall of the Cloverfield franchise and that it may kill the momentum that Netflix has for original releases. The first one could be true – something tells me the numbers will easily support another handful of sequels, though only a handful of people at Bad Robot may actually know that for sure – as I’ve mentioned before, Netflix care less about the success of individual films as it does its constant state of pre-release momentum. If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: our goal shouldn’t be to ignore Netflix as a distributor or create a world where everything is either theatrical releases or made-for-VHS trash. Let’s continue to poke and prod at Netflix until they feel the pressure to make something better because if we’ve learned anything from their decision to drop $5 million on a marketing test, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.