Alex Garland’s next film after his critical success Ex Machina will be the sci-fi thriller Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson. Deadline recently reported that Paramount and Netflix are on the verge of striking a deal that will give the streaming service international distribution rights just three weeks after it premiers in the US (with Paramount handing distribution for US, China and Canada – kinduva bummer, as it would’ve been cool to catch Annihilation on Netflix straightaway). This move may be controversial as many view Garland’s directorial debut (Ex Machina) as somewhat of a hit based on how well it was received and pushing its international distro to Netflix might be seen as a downgrade. This decision actually makes sense for Garland’s second film as Ex Machina was not the financial success needed for a studio release these days. Even on the paltry budget of $15MM, it only made $25MM domestically and an additional $11 internationally – not exactly a money maker.
That’s not to say Garland’s work hasn’t been historically boundary-pushing and evocative. Beginning as a writer, Garland’s track record isn’t the most financially successful (save for 28 Days Later which really blew up at the box office), but his work has always been viewed as intelligent and unconventional. Obviously 28 Days Later revitalized the zombie/infected genre, inspiring numerous films to this very day (15 years after its release). Teaming with director Danny Boyle again for Sunshine, Garland wrote one of the more thoughtful and enthralling sci-fi thrillers in recent memory. While Sunshine didn’t originate the genre, films like Arrival attempt to capture that same magic, but fall short in characterization and story. Unlike 28 Days Later, Sunshine was not a financial success ($32MM worldwide). In 2010, he wrote the screenplay for the adaption of Never Let Me Go, which did well with critics but wasn’t exactly a commercial film.
Two years later he wrote the screenplay for Dredd. If any film written by Garland was going to become a financial success it should have been Dredd. Released at the early point of the comicbook movie boom and (aside from Karl Urban’s American accent) an adaptation that stayed fairly close to the coveted source material. Aside from that it was a tightly written, well-produced action film that, to this day, is still a personal favorite. It is replete with amazing (and largely practical) action sequences, deft characterization and one of Lena Headey’s best performances ever as the villainous Ma-ma. Budgeted at $35MM, it barely made $45MM worldwide. Dredd will live on (in my memory at least) as one of the best action films that the major movie going audience missed out on completely. Largely seen as a marketing/promotional failure, the film sold over 750K units on home video – in its first week alone. Along the way, it found its audience but not amidst the cluttered “go big or go home” climate of the modern box office which seems to largely favor mega-blockbusters with familiar characters or the occasional low-budget indie flick – the mid-range/mid-budget, R-rated film however doesn’t fare as well.
Which brings us to Ex Machina. Garland’s directorial debut based off a script he wrote from no previously existing material. This wasn’t adapted from a previous franchise or some popular book. As previously discussed, the film didn’t exactly drive movie goers to the theater and really – no one expected it to. Garland’s quiet, subversive exploration of consciousness and the morality surrounding artificial intelligence isn’t exactly Iron Man 5 in terms of cinematic curb appeal. His reputation of being a resounding critical success and moderate (at best) financial success was exemplified perfectly with his directorial debut. That’s not to discredit his work in the least – in many ways Garland is the thinking man’s Dennis Villenueve when it comes to sci-fi. Where Villenueve’s Arrival or BR2049 give the appearance of being thoughtful or insightful and hide behind absolutely gorgeous cinematography, Garland’s films seem to tackle similar subjects in a much more complex (often to the point it seems impenetrable to many movie goers) and nuanced manner.
As such, the possibility of a Garland sci-fi film going straight to Netflix for international distribution shouldn’t be a surprise at all. In fact, it is more of a shock that Netflix didn’t make a bid to co-finance the whole thing as one of their Netflix Originals. When you get right down to brass tacks, the Hollywood studio system is a suffocative creative environment more often than not. It is a high stakes business where only “to big to fail” type movies are really given any chance of survival. Sure the occasional indie-hit slips through, but that’s an outlier in an otherwise stagnant, repetitive, franchise-driven industry.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? If you look at the history of Garland’s cinematic work it’s easy to see that films like Ex Machina and Annihilation will have a hard time finding its audience amongst the spandex-clad, big pecs, big tits, big guns movie world we currently find ourselves in. Could Annihilation slip through and become the next Get Out (in terms of unexpected financial success)? It’s not likely. In the end the question has to be asked: Is Netflix the best place for creators like Garland? Netflix has been a bastion for films that want to find an audience outside of the festival circuit but don’t have the star/franchise power to make a dent amongst the big studio releases. There’s a certain cache associated with being a “Netflix Original” that can get significantly more eyes on a film that would otherwise be overlooked. Would films like Okja, Mud Bound or even the campy Baby Sitter have found an audience beyond those who trek to SXSW? Possibly, but with it being readily available to Netflix subscribers, many more people who either don’t keep up with indie film news or aren’t in a large enough market to screen these kinds of movies are much more likely to stumble across it and find something that might expand their cinematic palette or just entertain the heck out of them. Even films like the mid-budget sci-fi mystery What Happened To Monday would have been lost to the direct-to-VOD market. Imagine if Joe Lynch’s manic delight Mayhem (which starred Steven Yeun in his first post-TWD feature) had popped up next to TWD on Netflix? It’s fair to say a goodly number of people would have been MUCH more likely to check it out.
These are just a few examples. The VoD market is quickly becoming less a dumping ground for cheap films and more of a safe haven for interesting/original films that would get buried at the theaters (see: Shot Caller, Mom and Dad, Paint it Black). The question of whether or not Alex Garland is one of these filmmakers who would be better suited for the Netflix environment of heightened creative freedom (and less pressure to be “marketable”) is definitely a relevant one. When you look back at his filmography, it seems like he’d be better positioned for success by opening up distribution to help create a more even playing field in terms of his (potential and current) audience being able to find his work.
The future seems to be in the hybrid distribution method that Annihilation and the upcoming Shaft film are going to try out. A limited domestic theatrical release combined with exclusive digital distribution rights seems like a more profitable route than attempting to fill a theater for your unconventional film when superheroes, sequels and reboots are throwing millions at marketing and promotion that same weekend. It would be even better if it were available on VoD shortly after its theatrical release, but one step at a time. And it is a compromise for the purists out there who still believe that the theater experience is somehow superior.
Garland’s Annihilation is definitely a movie to be excited for as its type is a rarity these days, but based on his style and audience-appeal one has to wonder if Netflix negotiating the international distro rights is just a first step towards getting him on board to make a full-on Netflix Original without the strings of a major studio holding him back.
Don’t @ us on twitter – we don’t really care that you think the theater experience is far superior. It’s not, guys. It’s 2018. TVs and sound systems are way better now and you don’t have to deal with rude people talking, parking, etc the whole time. Move out of the past. Also, we’re on Twitter @Official_FAN