Tide for Netflix’s original films is beginning to change for the better


James Cole Clay // Film Critic

Netflix before 2017

Keeping up with Netflix is impossible. There is simply too much to delve into, and that has always rendered me paralyzed with choice. This isn’t a good problem to have. Despite the streaming conglomerate giving a diverse array of filmmakers and creatives a chance, the quality seems to be lacking in some spaces, mainly in the their original film department.

Sure, STRANGER THINGS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, HOUSE OF CARDS, MAKING A MURDERER and THE CROWN have entered the cultural zeitgeist in a big way. But I challenge you to name as many Netflix original films.

It could be because they are all treated as disposable. The company has publicly struggled to find their footing on this front, especially compared to Amazon Studios, who achieved Oscar gold this year for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.

Netflix original films started off with a promising bang when they released the Cari Fukanaga-directed BEASTS OF NO NATION in 2015, which was critically well-received (check out our 5-star review), but the limited theatrical run was a bust and the film took home no awards. I’m not saying I have the code to crack how to get folks to come out to a film that’s streaming at home, but at least show the film a little respect. It’s a shame, because if that film was released by, let’s say, Fox Searchlight, there’s a chance it would still be in the blogosphere and transcend being a disposable piece of content, especially in the public eye.

You can find a full list of Netflix’s original films here.

I remember being at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin earlier this year and speaking with festival-goers about the Netflix films WIN IT ALL and MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA. They screened at the festival’s largest theater, a 1,200 seat auditorium called the Paramount Theatre. While they are decent-enough films, this was a laughable notion for a company who can handle their own marketing and don’t need the exposure. The most egregious part of the whole quibble was the fact that Netflix was doing nothing to make this theatrical experience feel special for the audience. The screening happened, there was barely any hype, and it all fell on deaf ears. True, these two films could have reached 10s of millions of subscribers, but Netflix refuses to release their streaming numbers. I haven’t heard anybody mention either of these films since the festival, and from there, off they go into the vacuous void that is the Netflix dashboard.

Left, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler star in the Noah Baumbach-directed THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. Courtesy of Netflix.

The turn of events

Same goes for Adam Sandler’s four picture deal with Netflix — including THE RIDICULOUS 6, SANDY WEXLER and THE DO-OVER. There’s hope for the quality of Sandler to improve, however. He’s will be starring in upcoming Noah Baumbach-directed comedy THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (available on Oct. 13), starring opposite Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman.

As teased in this article’s headline, this brings me to the tide finally changing for a company.

Our Features Editor Preston Barta and myself cover the other Austin-based film festival Fantastic Fest each year. You may have even read our coverage. Three of the festival’s most surprisingly good premieres were Netflix originals: WHEELMAN, GERALD’S GAME and 1922.

Preston assured me to stay optimistic as 1922 and GERALD’S GAME were both Stephen King adaptations and had quality actors such as Thomas Jane and Carla Gugino starring in the lead roles. I bristled and tagged along to enjoy something cheap with eye-rolling fun. But I was completely misguided.

GERALD’S GAME completely wrecked me emotionally. This film directed by horror maestro Mike Flanagan (HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL), has much more than creepy scares that a spooky clown can give. This is a film you can watch right now, at home — and buy and large, its better than most films that are at the multiplex today. This would be a risky project to throw into theaters as it’s not really suited for a general audience to fork over their $12 bucks, and it’s far too good to be pushed out for a measly Video On-Demand release. This is a bold film about healing yourself from deep trauma, and Netflix is the perfect place for such a touching story. The film will get an audience and has already received rave reviews (currently at 92%) on Rotten Tomatoes.

Same goes for the brisk action film WHEELMAN, which hits the streaming platform on Oct. 20. It’s an 82 minute action film set in a car. How bad could it be?

In my experiences, these type of films are derivative and forgettable. This is where short-sidedness gets in the way as this was easily one of the more daring and creative action films I’ve seen since… uhh, I don’t know… just recognize it’s a spectacular film that creates its own space in the pantheon of guy-behind-a-wheel films.

Directed by a production assistant turned filmmaker Jeremy Rush, WHEELMAN is an incredibly cinematic film that will never play on the big-screen. From its sound design to cinematography to a familiar, yet engrossing performance by Frank Grillo (THE PURGE movies), this is another testament that’s shows Netflix is finding their film identity in a tiny $5 million dollar picture.

Ahn Seo-Hyun as Mija, a young Korean girl who raises super-pig Okja in the mountains with her grandfather. Courtesy of Netflix.

Push for awards

OK, enough about what you can’t see yet. Let’s focus on Netflix’s push for Academy approval. Netflix has always sent out industry screeners to their documentary films. For those who aren’t familiar, movie studios send out “For Your Consideration” DVD titles every year to press/industry members in hopes they will nominate their projects for end of year consideration. It’s often fun, but it’s as overwhelming as cramming for finals.

Among the first screeners to be sent out this year was Netflix’s OKJA — a fun E.T-esque fantasy film by Korean auteur Bong-Joon Ho. Having the screener come so early was a fabulous marketing move for Netflix as it got critics talking again about a film that came out early in the summer. Finally, the streaming giant is wielding its powers for good. I mean, arthouse and genre fans liked to have their egos stroked as well in terms of taking the more risky projects seriously. Not to mention, there were screenings set up across the nation in preparation for its release.

It was controversially shown at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, which many film purests (sic) boooed the film seeing Netflix as a constant threat to the theatrical experience. I do feel like it needs to be said that Netflix isn’t against the theatrical experience; they just want to release their projects day and date, which goes completely against the 90-day theatrical window companies such as AMC, Cinemark and Regal won’t budge on just yet.

In summation

Netflix has become a necessary evil. My pretension tells me to write off the company that is essentially the Walmart of movie watching. The streaming service can be a daunting task to navigate as they have probably thousands of titles, and we often find it easier to watch our favorite episodes of THE OFFICE and PARKS AND REC. However, Netflix has the capital to give filmmakers like Ava DuVernay (13TH), Baumbach, Flanagan and Rush the time and money needed to actualize their creative projects.

So, if this is the happy medium we are trying to strive for between another Sandler fart movie and a tale of a woman finding the strength to confront her past, I’m cautiously all for the change.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.