Paramount opened Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” in 2,012 theaters in the United States, giving domestic moviegoers the chance to see the science-fiction thriller on the big screen. Unfortunately, not many of them did — the movie barely grossed a quarter of its budget on opening weekend — but still, more audiences saw “Annihilation” in North American theaters than the number who will see it elsewhere: zero.
Paramount has been at the center of backlash since December, after it was confirmed that the studio had sold the film’s international rights to Netflix. “Annihilation” will be skipping theatrical releases and heading straight to streaming in territories outside of the U.S., Canada, and China, including in Garland’s own United Kingdom. Fans have predictably been in an uproar over the decision, but they’re missing the point: “Annihilation” was never going to be an easy sell, and Paramount’s decision to put the movie out in the first place was a near-radical maneuver for a studio of its size.
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Search the keywords “Annihilation” and “Netflix” on social media and you’ll see endless complaints criticizing Paramount for dumping the film on the streaming platform and robbing fans the chance to see it in theaters. The outcry is understandable and even warranted. A lot of what makes “Annihilation” so incredible is enhanced by the big screen experience, especially its score and sound design. Anyone who has seen “Annihilation” in the U.S. will tell you that watching it on Netflix just won’t be the same. But while anger from moviegoers is deserved, anger at Paramount is not.
Paramount reportedly came to the Netflix deal after test screenings made producer David Ellison nervous about the movie’s box office prospects. Reports mentioned he was nervous the film was “too complicated” and “too intellectual” to connect with mainstream audiences. As right as Ellison may be (and he definitely is right, as anyone who saw the film can attest), Garland and producer Scott Rudin maintained final-cut privileges and refused to take his notes to change the third act.
The Ellison-Rudin riff presented Paramount with two potential futures for “Annihilation”: Tamper with Garland’s vision to make the movie accessible for mainstream audiences or preserve Garland’s vision and find a way to minimize the financial risk of releasing an incredibly challenging studio film. The Netflix deal was an easy solution to the latter.
Many angry fans may not realize that the deal was made following one of the worst financial years in Paramount’s history. Nearly every Paramount release in 2017 was a financial loss, from “Ghost in the Shell’ to “Baywatch,” “Transformers: The Last Knight,” and “Suburbicon.” “The Last Knight” was the studio’s top grosser in the U.S. but it made a franchise low with $130 million. Along with “Daddy’s Home 2,” it was the only Paramount film to break $100 million domestically. Paramount suffered a similar fate in 2016, with few hits outside of “Arrival,” “Fences,” and “10 Cloverfield Lane.” The studio’s top 2016 grosser, “Star Trek: Beyond,” was also a franchise low in the U.S with $158 million.
In the case of “Annihilation,” the box office failures of “mother!” and “Downsizing” had to have made a lot of executives even more scared. “mother!” tapped out at $17 million domestically opposite a $30 million budget. “Downsizing” couldn’t even pass $25 million in the U.S. despite a $68 million budget. To be fair, Paramount’s marketing for “Downsizing” was virtually non-existent, but it’s not like the studio was going to pump even more money into the film after those disastrous “mother!” results.
One big takeaway: Studio-wide releases for these weirder, auteur-driven movies is not ideal — they’re the kind of movies that could benefit more from a limited release and slow-building word of mouth — but Paramount shouldn’t be slammed for trying. Hollywood is no longer the place where Darren Aronofsky can easily make a $30 million movie and open in 2,368 theaters nationwide; the fact Paramount committed to doing so is worthy of celebration. If the movie had opened in fewer markets and faced bad word of mouth, it would’ve faced an uphill battle expanding nationwide; instead, the studio forced “Annihilation” into many more U.S. theaters before the backlash started.
Similar to Aronofsky and Alexander Payne’s movies, “Annihilation”represented an auteur-driven risk carrying a large price tag at $40 million. In many ways, Paramount should be feted for allowing these directors to see their visions through on these budgets. Unfortunately, not even the star power of Jennifer Lawrence and Matt Damon could save “mother!” and “Downsizing” at the box office. Paramount took two risks and nobody showed up to support them. Anyone at Paramount had to realize following these bombs that “Annihilation,” another big-budget auteur effort with an A-list celebrity in the lead role (Natalie Portman), was far from a guarantee for financial success.
The results for similarly unconventional, artier fare produced at other studios weren’t much better. Just look at Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” The $300 million tentpole was a Warner Bros. release that didn’t even cross $100 million in the U.S. and resulted in an $80 million loss for Alcon Entertainment. Villeneuve made the blockbuster equivalent of an art house film and the financial results were devastating, even with the built-in “Blade Runner” franchise awareness. No wonder Villeneuve said he wouldn’t try it again.
All of these auteur studio bombs left Paramount with no choice but to sell the international rights to Netflix. It was the smartest decision from a business perspective, albeit a depressing one. The studio would have surely released “Annihilation” in theaters around the world had it known with confidence it could make its budget back. However, after the failures of “mother!,” “Downsizing,” and “Blade Runner 2049”, that logic just doesn’t hold up. Not to mention Paramount had closed out the previous year with a bomb from none other than Martin Scorsese (“Silence,” which earned only $7 million in the U.S.). Any studio executive would be rightfully terrified about releasing a film like “Annihilation” in 2018, and moviegoers have to take accountability for causing this kind of panic.
The key takeaway here is a self-reflective one. Audiences around the world should be mad they have to watch “Annihilation” on Netflix, but they should be more upset with their fellow moviegoers than with Paramount. If viewers are going to demand a studio release a film like “Annihilation” in theaters, then they’re going to have to show studios that films of similar makeup are not financial risks. Hollywood is a reactionary business, so if no one is going to show up to see the “mother!’s” of the world then studios are going to stop taking chances on them, or at least find a way to limit the financial risks of releasing them (hello, Netflix).
As it turns out, nobody in the U.S. really showed up to see “Annihilation” in theaters anyways. The movie grossed only $11 million on its opening weekend, which more or less means its chance of matching its $40 million budget is nonexistent in theaters. The film’s C CinemaScore also suggests it won’t be holding on well at the box office either. Paramount was right to fear audiences wouldn’t turn out for the film. Had the studio declined to sell off international rights to Netflix, it would be facing its third auteur-driven bomb in a row. Would Paramount really want to keep taking chances on challenging auteur visions if this were the case? (IndieWire reached out to comment from Paramount).
Allow the “Annihilation” Netflix deal to be a rallying call to movie lovers across the world. If we want studios to keep producing and releasing challenging films with big budgets and auteur visions, then we have to show up every time one of them comes to theaters. We have to go see “mother!” and we have to go see “Downsizing.”
Specialty studios like A24 and Fox Searchlight are not giving directors budgets over $20 million to make their visions (A24 did not produce Garland’s $15 million “Ex Machina,” for instance, while Guillermo del Toro had to keep his “The Shape of Water” budget under $20 million at Searchlight), which means studios remain the only home for giving someone like Garland a $40 million budget to put his vision on the big screen. Netflix has proved it will break out the wallet (“Bright” cost a reported $90 million), but its films don’t see the light of day in theaters. If moviegoers want to send a message to studios that they want to see these movies in wide release, they need to make the commitment to get out of the house and save Netflix for later.