After months of hype and an extended promotional campaign that saw its stars hitting the talk-show circuit alongside an inescapable array of cross-platform marketing, Netflix premiered their latest original movie, Bright. The fantasy-cop drama, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, had been the subject of much cynicism since its announcement, but it had also signaled a paradigm shift for the streaming service in a year where its cultural dominance became wholly assured - and it tells us a lot about their long-term plan.
This was a major deal for Netflix: A $95m genre epic – their most expensive original film yet – starring Will Smith, one of cinema’s most beloved modern stars, released during the Christmas season and bolstered by a wide-reaching advertising campaign aimed squarely at that much-coveted geek demographic. To say that it did poorly with the critics would be an understatement, and social media buzz wasn’t much better (and that doesn’t even get into the recent emergence of sexual harassment and assault allegations levelled at Landis). Then again, it’s hard to quantify how much stuff like that matters when it comes to Netflix. After all, this is the platform that’s seeking to change how film and television is made, consumed and influenced, and that means shifting how such work is considered a success.
We probably will never truly know how many people actually watched Bright. Netflix have made a habit out of not releasing solid viewership numbers to their service, although it is known that subscribership is rising steadily. If a traditionally released film flops, everyone will know about it in the trades or by browsing Box Office Mojo the following weekend. For Netflix, we can only guess, and even then, the scales aren’t equally balanced. A lot of people seemed to hate-watch Bright, but they still watched it, and the service will still count them as well as those who turned off before it finished. The saying goes that all publicity is good publicity, and with Bright, that may be the case. It takes effort to see a bad movie in the cinema, as well as increasing costs, but anyone with a Netflix account can sate their morbid curiosity with remarkable efficiency.
Regardless of its critical or commercial success – as well as such things can be quantified – Bright is simply another part of Netflix’s expanding strategy regarding its original film content. While the service has had remarkable success in the fields of television, stand-up and documentaries, winning multiple awards and attracting massive audiences, their movies have been a more mixed affair. They’ve had successes and made a mark on the festival circuit with offerings like Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories (which both premiered at Cannes), but they haven’t made as big a splash as the television productions. That’s beginning to change - Dee Rees’s drama Mudbound has seen growing success this awards season - but Netflix have always seemed a step behind their streaming counterpart Amazon, whose cinematic successes took them all the way to the Oscars. Bright probably won’t make it that far, but it appeals to an area where Netflix have much surer footing.
The service’s expanding strategy has more in common with traditional studios than you may imagine, and Bright is a big part of that. It’s a genre piece with a sizeable budget and a big star in the lead, not unlike much of the cinematic offerings of 2017 that have attracted the biggest audiences. For lack of a better term, that geek audience is a loyal and profitable demographic that every studio is after, but Netflix are on a clearer path to appealing to them. With a platform as vast and expansive as Netflix, they can offer those eager audiences two major things that the traditional system can’t – cost effectiveness and quantity. No other platform comes anywhere near as close to Netflix in terms of giving its subscribers the sheer number of things to watch and the variety of genres, styles and stories available. Bright is intended as the hook – a step up from much of their previous original offerings, which have been smaller budget affairs with less obvious genre trappings – but even for those who hated it, there’s a whole selection of other things to check out in its place. Don’t like Bright? Then why not check out some of the Marvel series or The OA or Okja or Gerald’s Game or Death Note or whatever takes your fancy at that particular moment? You need never leave the couch, and that’s exactly what Netflix wants.