Here in Philadelphia, the Netflix movie Triple Frontier opened in theaters — actually a theater — on Wednesday, and it will be available on March 13 to the streaming service’s 130 million or so subscribers.
In the old days, Hollywood movie studios would have called that a platform release. But in the old days, Hollywood movie studios would actually have made Triple Frontier, an action movie about ex-military operatives raiding a drug dealer’s compound — superficially a heist picture but one that broadens into a complex inquiry into the moral hazards of for-profit, privatized covert operations.
In fact, just a few years ago, this project was kicking around Hollywood — written by Mark Boal and attached to director Kathryn Bigelow (the writer and director of Zero Dark Thirty) and star Tom Hanks.
But it went nowhere, which tells you something — when Oscar-winners Bigelow and Hanks can’t get a movie made (Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy were also interested), it probably can’t be made, at least not in Hollywood as currently configured.
“The fear in the marketplace is so palpable, the cost of releasing a movie is so daunting, that unless your name is [Christopher] Nolan or [Steven] Spielberg, no one’s listening to you. There’s very little opportunity for original storytelling left in Hollywood, and that’s just a fact,” he said. “If you talk to anyone else, if they’re being honest about it, they’ll tell you the same thing.”
Which is true. Directors complain about it all the time, usually off the record. One exception was Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler). When he was in Philly to promote the Denzel Washington-starring Roman J. Israel, Gilroy talked candidly and with some frustration about trying to shop Velvet Buzzsaw — about a supernatural force taking revenge on the art world for profitting off the work of an unknown artist — around Hollywood before going to Netflix. It’s great that Gilroy got it made, but bad for Philadelphians who might have wanted to see it theaters. It didn’t play here, and it started streaming Feb. 1.
Netflix has become a refuge for filmmakers like Chandor and Gilroy, who also enjoy creative latitude under the Netflix banner. Chandor said he was able to make Triple Frontier the way he wanted to make it, with a reasonable budget, a good cast, location shooting in South America and Hawaii, stunt work, and helicopter crashes.
But the existential problem of the movies in the middle has created friction among streaming services, Hollywood, and exhibitors. It’s surfaced in the recent dust-up surrounding Oscar nominations. Spielberg is pushing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to require streaming services to have a bigger in-theater footprint to qualify, which many see as an attack on streaming in general.
For those sponsored by Netflix, Spielberg’s comments seemed out of touch, both with consumers and with the obstacles facing less exalted filmmakers. Chandor was talking with a high-profile director, whom he preferred not to name, who found it a bit “rich” that Spielberg, who can get any movie financed and distributed (even Ready Player One!) was going after Netflix.
That echoes pushback from director Ava DuVernay, who used social media to remind Spielberg that Netflix and Amazon have often been inclusive in ways that Hollywood has not. Netflix, she noted, is still the only distributor to give one of her movies, the Academy Award-nominated documentary The 13th, wide international distribution.
Netflix may be a step ahead of Spielberg. The service took the unusual move of distributing its Academy Award favorite Roma to hundreds of theaters during the film’s Oscar run-up. And it reportedly plans to do the same thing with Martin Scorsese’s prestige picture The Irishman in the fall. I don’t know whether the theatrical run for Roma helped Netflix’s Oscar campaign, but I strongly suspect it helped folks connect with the movie. Virtually every person I know who saw it at home couldn’t finish it. Most folks who saw it in a theater — where director Alfonso Cuaron intended it to be seen — were more impressed.
We commit to movies more completely in theaters. I know I certainly do, though I’m pushed harder each year to screen more movies at home because it saves distributors money, via streaming screening links. I push back, because I don’t think I’m giving those movies the same due consideration as those that I get to review in the theater. I appreciate it when Netflix makes the effort to screen something like Triple Frontier in theaters, but most viewers won’t have the same experience.
Chandor, incidentally, says there’s another benefit of working for Netflix — he doesn’t sweat the opening week as much.
"I’m not in a panic about my career ending if the box office doesn’t come through because there’s a snowstorm in Texas. That stuff can become really penal, especially if you’ve spent three years working on something. I’m a lot more relaxed now,” he said.
He’s not so relaxed about the future of what he calls “movies that live in the middle,” like Triple Frontier and Velvet Buzzsaw — two-hour dramas pitched to adults and suited to theaters. Triple Frontier in particular is an action adventure that benefits from big-screen exhibition.
Chandor sees the value of the theatrical experience. In fact, he helped restore a theater near his home in Bedford, N.Y. (along with other celebrities, like Glenn Close). He enjoys watching movies there with his family and helps program the content.
At the same time, he accepts reality. The way consumers relate to movies is changing.
“You don’t even want to know how my daughter watches movies,” Chandor says, joking. Even for more discriminating viewers, technology is narrowing the gap between the home and theatrical experience.
For $400, you can get a large, high-quality flat-screen TV that does a decent job of bringing even widescreen movies into the home, he said. On the other hand, he sees the in-theater experience as an essential element of movie-watching indefinitely. But right now, theaters are dominated by big-budget franchise pictures, and his movies in the middle, like Triple Frontier, are under threat. So are theaters. They’re increasingly dependent on wheezing franchises that — in Chandor’s view — audiences have started to distrust.
“Look at what they did with Star Wars: You see the diminishing returns. Audiences are way too sophisticated now, and they have so many options. We have to return to original storytelling, and we have to make theaters part of that,” he said.
Chandor said innovation — probably some product or service or delivery system not yet available — will resolve these issues. And he has some ideas. For instance — a cinematic cable or streaming product like Game of Thrones could migrate, on a limited basis, to theaters.
“Most people will want to watch at home, but I think there is a sizable group who would want to hang out with other fans in a community setting and watch Game of Thrones and have that in-theater experience,” he said. “The idea would be to make movie theaters a new kind of destination, like an Apple store, where people would want to go and just hang out. I think there will be a widening of on-site content that will be available.”
The current bickering, mired in existing parameters governing content and distribution, won’t help.