With Monday’s news that Netflix has acquired writer/director David Michôd’s upcoming satire “War Machine,” starring Brad Pitt, for approximately $30 million, the deal immediately struck a chord. Along with Netflix’s pick-up of recently cancelled teen drama “Degrassi” and last Friday’s release of the Wachowskis’ sprawling “Sense8,” the company is in the midst of yet another uptick in the scale and scope of its offerings. Should its competitors be worried?
In a word, yes.
“War Machine,” inspired by late journalist Michael Hastings’ “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” features Pitt as a character modeled after former U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and it’s his presence that marks the acquisition as Netflix’s most consequential incursion to date into the world of film. Certainly, the actor is a more reliable audience draw than Idris Elba, the lead in Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which Netflix recently scooped up for $12 million, and he’s far more likely to win over critics and tastemakers than Adam Sandler, with whom the company inked a four-film production deal last year.
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos didn’t stir up cinephiles resistant to the streaming service for nothing when he gave a keynote at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: the cash-rich company is increasingly willing to use its buying power to set the agenda in film and television alike.
The wide variety of avenues Netflix has pursued, from the production of popular original series like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” to their partnership with the Weinstein Co. on the August day-and-date release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend,” ensures that no one strategy can make or break the bottom line. If subscribers decide they’re not interested in nostalgic Netflix revivals of beloved series like “Degrassi” and “Full House,” they can easily turn to feature-length nonfiction projects such as “Virunga” and “The Square”; users who turn up their noses at “Bojack Horseman” or “Chef’s Table” are one click away from the service’s large, wide-ranging back catalog of film and television titles.
That said, Netflix’s burgeoning financial commitments are not without risk, especially as the ranks of its competitors continue to grow. Amazon has its own stable of auteurs—Jill Soloway, Whit Stillman, Woody Allen—producing original content. (UPDATE: And Amazon just scooped up Yahoo! (“Community”) and Hulu (“The Mindy Project”) have emerged as rivals in the rebooting of cancelled network comedies with cult followings. NBC (“Aquarius”) is testing binge-watching. HBO and PBS possess superb nonfiction slates of their own. Basic cable is home to three of the top five TV series on my ballot for Criticwire’s upcoming mid-year poll; FOX, which has the most popular show on television (“Empire”), has closed a three-year, first-look deal with New York-based theater and film producer Scott Rudin.
In other words, Netflix is spending a lot more money to face a lot more competition, as the industry searches for the next profitable paradigm in both film and television and the dividing line between the two media continues to blur. Might Netflix already regret its deal with Sandler, after the disastrous reception of “The Cobbler” and the controversy over “The Ridiculous Six,” which saw Native American actors walk off set because they were so offended by the script? Netflix creates revenue through subscriptions, not ticket sales, so the analogy’s an imperfect one, but doesn’t investing $30 million in Michôd, even with Pitt and his Plan B colleague Dede Gardner on board, qualify as a gamble? After all, the director’s “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover,” which received mostly positive notices, grossed barely $1 million apiece.
“War Machine” is a “game changer” in two ways, then. The purchase makes clear that Netflix is another horse in the race to produce, acquire, distribute, and/or exhibit fare that franchise-obsessed studios and broadcast networks largely ignore, yet it also means that Netflix is further out on a limb than ever. When movies and TV series are cheap, there’s no such thing as a flop, but for Sarandos and company those days may be over.