A streaming giant is anxious.
The logo hangs around Okja’s neat typographical font like an awkward friend surprised to be invited to the party with the cool kids. We’re a decade into the great Netflix experiment and its logo’s cramped lettering already connotes an experience: alone, in bed, being prodded awake with further watching suggestions. Its invitation to this particular party was hardly a surprise though. Netflix has been involved since 2015 in the production of Bong Joon-ho‘s latest, a movie about gigantic pigs and evil corporations featuring $50 million worth of special effects and name talent in the recognizable likes of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal. At its New York premiere last week at the AMC in Lincoln Square, the event merited appearances from Brad Pitt and Noah Baumbach too. It was a synergistic move on behalf of the streaming giant as the Pitt vehicle, War Machine, had just hit Netflix’s 98 million streaming screens two weeks ago, and the latest Baumbach film, The Meyerowitz Stories, will be joining it later this month.
“We don’t yet know what a great Netflix movie looks like,” mused Sean Fennessey over at The Ringer shortly after War Machine debuted to a critical shrug. In the time since the streaming service bought Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation away from movie theaters and directly within reach of the paying, clicking fingers of its millions of subscribers, there have been some forty or so feature-length pieces of original content, from Sundance darlings like Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore to many Adam Sandler movies. But while Netflix has claimed to have found rewarding success with Sandler’s work, it has yet to purchase a movie that feels necessary, the kind of films that you could imagine being told by a friend or an annoying stranger at a coffee shop that you have to watch. Accordingly, they have yet to land a major Oscar nomination (The White Helmets, a forty-minute piece on a Syrian humanitarian group, scooped the prize for Best Documentary Short Subject last year) or even a viral sensation on the level that they’ve accomplished with TV-length series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.
Which is what brings them to Bong’s movie about a child and her freaky pig that’s a metaphor for the cavalier nature of a carnivorous society. At a press conference last week on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in New York, the identifiable red letter name could be seen everywhere but remained unspoken by Bong or any of the stars who showed up to talk about how inspired they were. One man used the opportunity to turn instead to Swinton, whose hair was coifed like a wave of potentially firesome power, and wondered aloud “How do you do it?”
I found the absence conspicuous. Amazon, the Netflix competitor who had opened a strangely combative bookstore in the neighboring mall complex, had shown itself to be resoundingly conservative as a movie studio. The South Korean movie from a cult icon that it had bought last year, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, played in over a 140 movie theaters followed by a conventional DVD/Blu-Ray release in the US and was received rapturously by critics. Next to other Amazon purchases like Oscar-winners Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman, the competition could be read as a contest between quantity and quality. One Jim Jarmusch masterpiece versus six Adam Sander productions.
Okja, many are convinced, is a chance to change this. It happens to be, per our own Matt Hoffman who caught it at Cannes, a good movie. It is also Bong’s second movie to expressively engage in social commentary, and I would not be surprised if Netflix encouraged a comparison to be drawn to his first, 2007’s The Host. In addition to being one of the highest-grossing South Korean movies of all time, it was beloved by Western critics making a plethora of top-ten lists and fueling chatter about a remake at Universal. It was, most importantly, a movie that actively entered the lives of millions of people and is remembered as a high-water mark of South Korean cinema’s breakthrough in the West.
The political elements of this new movie are correspondingly what were stressed by Bong and his cavalcade of stars. One of them, Giancarlo Esposito, who, similar to his role in Breaking Bad, plays a nefarious meat industrialist, murmured that Okja was a movie with “something to say and just not something to blow up.” Lily Collins, who plays an animal rights activist in the movie, described how Bong distributed Animal Liberation Front pamphlets and handbooks to the cast. The movie’s New York premiere, like a Morrissey concert, was purposely meatless. Twice, Collins expressed excitement at the conversations moviegoers might have as they exited the theater.
And that’s the conundrum. The most recent message movie whose viral success and contemporary relevance any film production company would envy was Jordan Peele’s hyper-relevant thriller for our turbulent times, Get Out. I recalled the cheering that accompanied a particularly rousing moment at the very end. It was a perfect movie-theater moment, one meant to trigger the anxieties of a post-Ferguson world, and it inclined you to turn around and see how your local pile of vox populi was reading the scene.
Netflix’s philosophy is twofold, that of pushy Silicon Valley populism and giving the people what they want. Insisting that movies must, at first and are best, experienced in movie theaters is, after all, vaguely elitist, even if those theaters are friendly chains who post friendly content. If you don’t live in New York, LA or a handful of spots in between, what good does that do you? Movies, in Netflix’s estimation, are for Midland, USA as much as Paris; maybe that’s why Cannes crowds jeered at the roll of Okja‘s opening credits.
But Netflix also knows that the audience for a well-pedigreed foreign film that is probably very good happens to also exist in those very cities. There will be a limited theatrical release for Okja in the UK and, what-do-ya-know, it’s also playing at Glastonbury, the music festival that Radiohead is headlining. Over here, Netflix scored a small theater chain called iPic that David Ehrlich, at Indiewire, called “an Alamo Drafthouse for wealthy people who don’t give a shit about movies.”
Netflix is trying.