Here comes the Kevin James digital boom. Friday’s release of James’ latest film, Netflix’s “True Memoirs of an International Assassin,” marks a significant milestone in the 51-year-old actor’s career. After starring in more than half a dozen studio movies for Columbia Pictures — including two “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” films that together grossed nearly $300 million worldwide — James’ signature brand of family-friendly comedy has landed at Netflix, where 86 million subscribers will be able to watch “True Memoirs” from the comfort of their own homes.
While moving from the silver screen to the small screen might seem like a step down in some ways, there are plenty of advantages that come with doing a Netflix movie instead of a studio release. “I think more people will be able to see the film this way,” James told IndieWire in a recent interview. “And I don’t have to worry about box office in a way, which is nice.”
Indeed, there’s no such thing as a hit or a flop on Netflix, as the streaming giant doesn’t disclose viewership data. Instead, “True Memoirs” can really only be judged on the quality of its reviews, which so far have been decidedly negative. Directed by Jeff Wadlow (“Kick Ass 2”) and based on a Black List screenplay by Jeff Morris, the action-comedy stars James as Sam Larson, a mild-mannered aspiring author whose debut novel about an international assassin is published as a true story. When the book turns into a bestseller, Larson gets kidnapped and forced into an assassination plot by criminals who think he’s the real deal.
James’ move to Netflix comes two years after the streaming giant made a groundbreaking four-picture production and financing deal with his longtime friend an occasional co-star Adam Sandler. “He told me about how great they were, and Netflix was fantastic to work with,” James said, adding that Sandler is “doing phenomenal” with the company. “He’s finding a whole new audience.”
While Sandler’s movies may be viewed on Netflix by millions of people around the world, the two films he’s made with the company so far — 2015’s “The Ridiculous 6” and this year’s “The Do-Over” — have attracted some of the worst reviews of his career. But do bad reviews for Netflix movies even matter for actors like Sandler and James? According to one Los Angeles-based manager, the answer is not really.
“No one is hitting grand slams with Netflix, but you’re basically guaranteed to get up to bat and hit a double, and that’s pretty nice,” the manager said, adding that Netflix is a very safe play for actors. “You get paid upfront, you don’t have as much money and success, but you have no risk. No one will ever know your numbers, and you have the cache of being with Netflix, so it’s a win-win for an artist.”
Still, a decent paycheck combined with the knowledge that your movie won’t carry the stigma of a box office dud don’t necessarily add up to success for every artist. Bobcat Goldthwait started out as a stand-up comedian just like James before acting in studio comedies, most famously three of the “Police Academy” movies, and recently told IndieWire that commercial success isn’t what motivates him anymore.
“I’ve already been through the mill of show business and had some success and fame and money that went along with that, but that didn’t make me happy,” Goldthwait said. “What makes me happy is telling stories and connecting with people.” He added that after acting in some “really crappy studio movies,” he decided that getting behind the camera was the best way to get serious about comedy and storytelling.
On top of directing 2009’s black comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” starring Robin Williams, Goldthwait has directed documentaries like the 2015 Sundance entry “Call Me Lucky,” about comedian Barry Crimmins, and served as a director on several TV shows and stand-up specials. He’s also directed more than 250 episodes of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
One thing Goldthwait and James have in common is their enthusiasm for digital releases. “When I first started making independent movies, I was all about how many screens we were going to open on, and now I kind of wish we could skip that process and just get right to the digital platform,” Goldthwait said. “My movies are small and way outside the mainstream, but it’s exciting that when they hit the digital platforms, the person in South Dakota that actually likes my weird type of movies gets to see it and doesn’t have to wait for a year.”
Though James said he probably wouldn’t have signed on for a Netflix film 10 years ago, he cited the evolving viewing habits of consumers as the reason he changed his mind. “The world has changed so much and how people view content has changed,” he said. “It actually opens it up in a way, because Netflix is global.”
The fact that “True Memoirs” landed at Netflix might also say more about the streaming giant’s strategic plans than James’ career. The company bought the worldwide distribution rights to the movie at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, when it was just establishing itself in the world of original films.
“What they’re doing is moving in on the mid-range comedies and action-comedies, which is a very internationally friendly game,” one Los Angeles-based agent told IndieWire. “It’s probably because they want to push more into the international side of things.”
James also still has another year left on his first-look deal with Columbia Pictures through his production company Hey Eddie Productions, so his career making studio movies is by no means over. “Studios are a great place for big comedies,” James said. “I look forward to working in both areas in the future.”