Two summers ago ago, when Netflix announced it was backing Brad Pitt’s pricey combat comedy War Machine, the reaction in Hollywood was perhaps best summed up by the shocked-and-awed headlines of the press: “Game changer”! “Whoa”! “What does this mean for theaters?”! Their stunned surprise was understandable, given that Netflix’s only notable foray into original filmmaking by that point was a four-movie deal with boor machine Adam Sandler. Enlisting an Oscar-nominated, movie-star megalodon like Pitt—along with his production company, Plan B, which had recently won its second Best Picture Oscar with 12 Years a Slave—was a sign that Netflix wanted to invade the movie industry the same way it had overrun the TV industry.
A few years later, the concept of “a Netflix original film” is far less jarring, at least to viewers. Ever since the War Machine deal was made public, the company has charged head-first into the film business, with a mix of self-financed productions (the wonderfully shaggy revenge thriller I Just Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore); moderately pricey acquisitions (the bleak, brutal Beasts of No Nation); and a slew of cheaper festival pick-ups (the well-reviewed romantic caper Tramps). So far this year, Netflix has added a new original movie pretty much every week, including April’s Sandy Wexler, its third Sandler feature in a year and a half. To those who long ago either ditched or dialed back their theater-going in favor of streaming, Netflix has become just another logo that appears before whatever new thing you happen to be watching that night.
But what, if anything, does that logo represent? Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as the major studios added more niche divisions and the indie sector flourished, you could often tell what kind of movie you were going to get based on who was putting it out. Over the years, Miramax went from foreign-language powerhouse (Cinema Paradiso; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) to movie-brat romper-room (Clerks, Pulp Fiction) to the Höuse of Hallström (Chocolat, The Shipping News). Dimension was the place for brainy schlock (Scream, Mimic); New Line Cinema was where you went for mid-budget pulp and frivolity (Set It Off, Austin Powers). And Fox Searchlight was the studio most likely to try to stuff a mix-tape into your locker (Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite). These are reductive, era-dependent descriptions, obviously; every studio’s identity shifts over time. But they were identities nonetheless.
Netflix’s aesthetic philosophy, if one even exists, is far more elusive. Unlike competitor Amazon, which has spent the last year zeroing in on grown-up dramas (including theater-first hits like Manchester by the Sea and The Handmaiden), Netflix’s output…
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