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A Brief History of All the [Expletives] Netflix Doesn’t Give About Its Original Movies

Nobody can explain Netflix’s ‘hands off’ approach better than the filmmakers who worked with the streaming giant.
By  · Published on October 6th, 2017

Nobody can explain Netflix’s ‘hands off’ approach better than the filmmakers who worked with the streaming giant.

It’s now been a few years since Netflix began its grand experiment in original content, and somehow, we’re no closer to parsing out our feelings about the streaming giant than we were in 2016 or 2015. For some, Netflix represents the destruction of film distribution as we know it; for others, it is a lifeline to independent film communities around the world. But as good as we are about discussing Netflix’s prospective audiences or impact on the industry, we often leave out one of the more important parts of the conversation: what is it actually like to make a movie with Netflix as a filmmaker?

Take Little Evil. A few days ago, SyFy published an interview with filmmaker Eli Craig discussing the winding road his film took to its Netflix distribution. While Craig is ultimately very grateful to the streaming giant for funding his movie – the director makes it clear that it would have labored in development hell at Universal Pictures had Netflix not intervened – there are a few comments that stand out. One is that Netflix doesn’t seems to offer much in the way of input during the production process; according to Craig, the company was content to let Craig and his crew “do [their] thing,” suggesting that the creative team was given a great degree of autonomy than he originally expected. But this creativity cuts both ways; Craig also admits that he “doesn’t know what the real numbers are” for his film’s performance, even going so far as to call their lack of transparency “weird.”

Anyone who has kept a close eye on Netflix for any extended period of time know that the company is extremely tight-lipped about their analytics, but to hear a filmmaker express some uncertainty over their movie’s performance is… more than a little odd. Should we be supportive of an approach that divorces filmmakers from the results-driven element of the industry? Or should we worry that Netflix views film production as more of a transactional relationship than a creative partnership? To explore what we know (or what we think we know) about Netflix and movies, I decided to dig into some old interviews with Netflix filmmakers. The results are predictably amusing.

Adam Wingard – Death Note

Like Little EvilDeath Note was in the midst of a difficult pre-production process at a major studio and trying to juggle a major disconnect between budget, genre, and tone. To hear director Adam Wingard explain it, this is all part of a bigger push by Netflix to find visionary films that don’t fit neatly into studio buckets. “They want to be doing theatrical films that could play to a mainstream audience,” Wingard told The Verge back in August, “while at the same time doing something off-center.” Much like Little EvilDeath Note was also moments away from being dead, with Wingard noting that Warner Bros. had chosen to “put the movie in turnaround like two days before [they] were supposed to go into official pre-production.” Death Note is another film whose ultimate audience seems a little difficult to pin down, walking a fine line between a thriller, horror film, and coming-of-age story all in one go. In other words, the perfect target for Netflix’s new acquisition model.

Oren Uziel – Shimmer Lake

Read enough interviews and you’ll see a few people carefully dance around Netflix’s hands off approach. Shimmer Lake director Oren Uziel is far less interested in mincing words. “I don’t know how to say this, but [Netflix] truthfully doesn’t give a shit,” the filmmaker told Collider this June. “They’re not worried about anything that maybe someone else would. It’s like, ‘Just go for it. Do what you want to do.'” Unlike Death Note or Little Evil, though, Shimmer Lake was acquired while the film was already in the middle of production. Netflix made its purchase decision after seeing a “simple reel” of dailies that Uziel and his crew had already shot, meaning that Netflix joined the production while it was already taking form. For any other distributor, this would be a tremendously risky move with a first-time filmmaker, but for Netflix, this is further proof of (ahem) all the shits they just don’t give.

Macon Blair – I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Like Uziel, Macon Blair was an industry veteran stepping out of his established role to direct a film. Blair, the star of the 2013 indie breakout Blue Ruin, made the leap to directing with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, and despite the potential for catastrophe in that scenario, Netflix could seemingly be barely bothered to check for updates. “Once they got on board, they would call just to say ‘hello,'” Blair told Dirty Movies in February of this year. “They did not interfere with the creative side of the filmmaking. They were very ‘hands off.’ They also gave us a huge amount of space.” For Blair, this flexibility was absolutely paramount to his transition into directing, as the filmmaker was too busy trying to make his film “not suck” to think about potential audiences or distribution deals.

David Michôd – War Machine

Just because Netflix doesn’t seem to care much about the production process doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of production concerns. To hear War Machine director David Michôd describe it, Netflix did have one very specific technological ask during filming. “The only stipulation I got during the whole process was, ‘You can’t shoot on film, you have to shoot 4K,'” Michôd told moviefone earlier this year. And while War Machine is certainly playing in a deeper end of the pool than films like Death Note and Little Evil, it was still a complex and genre-ambigious movie that needed Netflix’s hands off approach to bring the whole thing together. “It’s complex and it’s politically complicated and it’s tonally mental,” Michôd explained, “and it couldn’t be made cheaply.” And still, even with all of that going on, Netflix’s only note was to avoid a 35mm shoot so they could digitally preserve the film for future generations.

Bong Joon-ho – Okja

If there is a poster child for genre-bending in Hollywood, it might well be Bong Joon-ho. The South Korean director has made a career out of movies (The HostSnowpiercer) that avoid easy categorization, so the same “hands off” approach that Netflix offered less established filmmakers would be just as desirable for a film like Okja. Like Michôd, though, Bong was required to abandon any plans he had of shooting in 35mm in favor of a digital format. “Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final cut privilege,” Bong explained to Variety earlier this year, “which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get.” In that way, perhaps Netflix is the great equalizer. You can be the director of your country’s Academy Award submission (Mother) or a writer stepping behind the camera for the first time and they’ll treat you exactly the same: do whatever the hell you want as long as you shoot it on digital and check in occasionally.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)