Is the Netflix production model broken?

What’s wrong with Netflix originals?

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Did you know that [insert prominent director here] is making a new movie?”
Oh, sounds great! When’s the premiere?”
It’s going to be on Netflix.”
OH NO, DEAR GOD NO!!”

The above might be a conversation I’ve had recently.

The last couple of years, a number of interesting Netflix-original movies have been released, made by acclaimed directors and starring talented actors. Watching them and being somewhat underwhelmed by almost all of them, I began to wonder why that was the case.

They were all generally well-acted and technically competent, but lacking something. As I’ve started to notice this trend, I’m sad to say that nowadays, when I hear about an interesting director making a new movie and it’s going to be a Netflix production, I automatically lower my expectations.

The Netflix production model seems like an auteurs dream — a decent budget, some name-actors, little or no notes or interference...

Studio interference and “creative differences”.

We’ve all heard those kind of stories, right?

Here’s one of mine:

I recall a project I worked on in the mid 2000s, an independently produced horror-thriller with a big-name Hollywood actor, directed by a director-duo, and being distributed by a major studio. I worked as the assistant to the composer, hiring a small crew of musicians and writing some additional music, mainly dissonant pieces for the horror scenes.

During the sessions, which all went fine, I noticed the composer checking emails on his laptop with a grave look on his face. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, since I knew he had a ton of work ahead of him, and a tight schedule. A week or so later, I got a call from the composer.

He was being replaced.

I found out that the eleven (!) executive producers had wildly opposing opinions about everything, including music. Some loved it, others hated it.

Some of these executives had been present during shooting, standing over the shoulders of the young, but by no means inexperienced directors and questioning their abilities, along the lines of “are you sure you know what you’re doing?

This continued throughout post-production, were everything was questioned. One director called the composer in a highly agitated state, saying “they want to re-edit the whole thing, throw away the third act and….and…hang on, I have to breathe….

…and so on and so forth. Not an ideal situation to be creative in.

Bring us the Netflix model! Total creative control. No interference.

That sounds great, right?

So, digging deeper…

In several cases these Netflix-original movies seemed to have been a director and/or screenwriters pet-projects, spec-scripts that had been in gestation for several years during which the director or writer would’ve had time to polish the story to perfection. An ideal situation it would seem so, why the mediocre results?

I don’t want to call out any titles here but if you’re somewhat aware of Netflix’s recent output of originals (by acclaimed directors), you may have a general idea of which ones I’m referring to. And yes, I’m excluding ROMA here, since it is an exception to my thesis.

The Netflix model is a buyout model.

Apparently, the creators get a pretty sizeable sum up front, and in return they forfeit any profit participation. Could it be that this setup has creative drawbacks? I would imagine that it would reduce a lot of anxiety and stress from production, making the process more relaxed, the primary focus being getting the movie finished on time and budget. The marketing, distribution and exhibition issues are already taken care of. Box-office numbers are a non-issue. Recalls War Machine-director David Michôd:

”You’re still competing for attention, but as a filmmaker, it eases my anxiety and makes me braver knowing my whole career doesn’t hinge on how many people I hypnotise into coming on the opening weekend.”

But are all these accumulative circumstances having a positive effect on the product? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s missing, but watching these movies, I get a nagging feeling they’re somewhat underdeveloped. In some cases, they could have benefitted from another round of re-writes, in others, a re-edit.

Are Netflix originals audience tested/preview screened? I don’t know, and there’s not much information about the Netflix process on the web [if anyone knows more about this, please leave a comment]. I generally love understated and/or elliptical storytelling and dislike overexposition, but one movie ended too abruptly while another was so obscure that I failed to grasp even what was going on with the characters and how they related to one another. These movies, I feel, would have benefitted from test screenings, maybe had some addition dialog added to clarify things, perhaps some minor exposition.

Is something crucial getting lost in this lack of friction, the absence of creative back-and-forth between studio and filmmakers? When producing content for a streaming giant like Netflix, the movies are basically in profit even before the camera rolls. Does that mean that the stakes are too low? Is Netflix dangerously close to becoming a Roger Corman-esque B-movie factory? Churning out movie after movie, all with a reasonable standard but with the real gems far between.

In 1972, Directors Company was formed, bringing together Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin. They would each produce a movie for no more than $3 million, with total creative control. They wouldn’t even have to show a script. The venture was shortlived but partly successful. Bogdanovich’s PAPER MOON and Coppolas THE CONVERSATION, was financially and critically successful. Bogdanovichs second movie DAISY MILLER flopped. Friedkin wound up not making any movie for the company, citing the $3 million price tag too low for what he wanted to make. There were also other tensions within the group and the company folded after having made these three movies. The Directors Company’s original strategy was to foster a collegial atmosphere, a creative back- and forth, allowing the directors to give feeback about each others work.

Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here, something that maybe Netflix could try to implement when ordering content.

So what does all this boil down to?

Well, I suggest these calibration tools for the betterment of Netflix originals.

Test screenings

Test every new production in the manner of traditional cinema-released movies. The creatives don’t have to act on the result, and the director still has final cut, but the process might still give useful hints about potential changes. Maybe all this can be done online, with a subset of subscribers.

Feedback

In the manner if the Directors Company, try to cultivate a collegial atmosphere, even between different production entities. What if any new Netflix greenlight comes with a stipulation that the director and/or screenwriters are to give feedback and notes on three other current Netflix-productions, before, during or after their own project is completed? As with the test screenings, the receivers are not obliged to act on the feedback, but it may still serve as a guide towards a different (hopefully better) end result. They will, of course, also agree to subject their own movie to the same review process.

Some kind of conclusion…

So, all in all, my thesis has been that buyout models, too much creative freedom, and not enough interference, is bad for movie production.

So what about the troubled production I mentioned in the beginning, where the directors were harassed and my fellow composer replaced?

Surely that was a striking success?

Uh, no…

That movie pretty much disappeared without much trace. It is probably available on some streaming platform right now. Movie production is highly complex, and there are no easy solutions.

Maybe everything is as it’s always been. Mediocre films have always been made by good people with good intentions. It’s hard to make a movie, it’s harder to make a good movie and damn near impossible to make a great one. This basic fact is just more obvious now that we have such easy access to a larger volume of content than ever before.

I try to remain optimistic. I see a bright future ahead — The talent that Netflix employ, now temporarily blinded and bewildered by the freedom they’re getting, will reorientate themselves and begin top operate at an all-time high. Slowly the quality of the originals will start to improve — and they will be fighting each other at the Oscars.

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