Can Netflix Save Indie Filmmaking?

I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore

In the past few years, Netflix has evolved from a simple streaming service to a powerhouse in indie movie distribution. Dropping multiple feature-length productions from critically acclaimed filmmakers – including the offbeat comedy-drama Win It All from mumblecore director Joe Swanberg and the brooding Sundance thriller I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore from first-time director Macon Blair – Netflix has become a breeding ground for independent film.

Meanwhile, the theatrical landscape appears more and more inhospitable for features that seek to explore new narrative territory or upend mainstream expectations and tastes. For the most part, if a film doesn’t fall into a clearly defined genre – be it action, comedy, horror, or one of the many cinematic universes – there seems to be very little room for fresh films to be made and seen by a wide audience.

It's hard to imagine a movie like The Graduate being a blockbuster success in the 21st century. Despite being a significant box office draw when it saw initial theatrical release in 1967 – generating $754 million at the box office at the time on a $3 million budget (when adjusted for inflation) - the twenty-second highest grossing motion picture in North America would likely be somewhere at the bottom of that same list if it were to debut in 2017.

Save for the Oscar-nominated independent feature that miraculously manages to garner attention (as was the case with last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight,  which went on to earn $65,046,687 at the box office on a $1.5 million budget) smaller movies typically have a harder time of it at the multiplex. With many moviegoers opting for the entrenched supremacy of the superhero film and the extended movie universe template, filmmakers hoping to make money off original screenplays had better hope that their movies play well to Academy voters.

Moonlight Screenshot Quiz

Even more recently, this kind of built-in failure in indie film distribution came to a head at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Making the top headlines was the premiere of the forthcoming Netflix production Okja, an original monster movie written and directed by celebrated South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Initially, many Cannes panelists were reticent to consider the Netflix distributed production for consideration for the Palme d’Or.

Front and center of a lot of this debate was panelist and award-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who initially refused to consider a Netflix project as he would any other film being screened at the festival. Citing the distinction between the theater experience and the more recent move to streaming original productions at home, Almodóvar led what could be considered a seminal defense of what should constitute the moviegoing experience in the early 21st century.

Despite being booed initially for its status as a Netflix feature, Okja has since gone on to receive a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was considered for the grand prize at Cannes. Ultimately losing out to the Magnolia Pictures-distributed Swedish satire The Square, Bong’s latest just released on Neftlix, and will probably reach more viewers than the formerly cited Palme d’Or winner will in its respective theatrical run stateside.

 It’s no secret that movie ticket sales in the U.S. are suffering – with recent reporting finding that the summer 2017 box office is down by ten percent since last year. And after suffering an especially dismal turn out over the course of this past Memorial Day weekend, the movie going experience is quickly becoming a less desirable way for domestic audiences to spend their hard earned dollars. Despite continuing to make back considerable bank over seas, even some of the biggest Hollywood productions - such as the disheartening flop that recently befell King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - are struggling to tread water in a contemporary media marketplace otherwise dominated by streaming services such as Netflix.

Ahn Seo Hyun in Okja

However, several network TV series – most notably Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead - have seen a significant uptick in regards to popularity that at times appears to supersede the prominence of major theatrical releases. In addition, Netflix has developed what is perhaps one of the most widely seen original series in recent memory with the premiere of Stranger Things from last year. For many, the plethora of viewing options available at home – both online and off – are far more attractive than making the trek out to the theater, where exorbitant ticket prices and reserved seating can be off-putting to the casual consumer.

Considering all of that, it’s easy to understand why a prominent director like Bong Joon-ho would decide to make the move to Netflix when it came to securing distribution for his next film - particularly in terms of reaching American audiences. Despite being the critically heralded writer and director of such contemporary movie masterpieces as the 2006 genre film The Host and the 2013 science-fiction drama Snowpiercer, Bong’s move to Netflix with the release of Okja marks an unmistakable shift in the way that American audiences consume and interact with movies.

In 2013, Snowpiercer opened to the tune of $171,187 among American audiences, with an average take of $21,398 per theater. This followed a long struggle with U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company, who at first told Bong to cut 20 minutes from the movie's runtime and, when he refused, only gave Snowpiercer a limited release in about 100 theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, Bong’s English language debut enjoyed a stronger performance overseas, and became the tenth highest-grossing release in its country of origin. In addition to other foreign markets that typically outperform the U.S. in terms of ticket sales, Snowpiercer went on to earn $82,195,262 at the international box office. After that bad experience, it's easy to understand why the director turned to Netflix for the release of Okja.

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