The trouble with saying that Netflix "pulled a Lemonade" when it announced the unexpected premiere of The Cloverfield Paradox after the Super Bowl this past weekend is that The Cloverfield Paradox is nothing at all like Lemonade. Invoking Beyoncé — she who has made the no-advance-notice album drop such a part of her brand over the last few years — has become a useful shorthand for describing any sort of major release, music or otherwise, that skips the standard marketing ramp-up in favor of a digital-age offering directly to consumers (and I've been as guilty of this as anyone).
But in the case of the third Cloverfield movie, making this comparison feels like it's letting Netflix get away with what was really a masterful act of turd polishing. Fans turn out for Beyoncé's albums without early promo because they expect them to be that good; they mobilize because of how invested they are in her an artist. On Super Bowl Sunday, Netflix was doing the opposite of mobilizing — it was counting on inertia, on being able to persuade subscribers who were already on the couch in front of the television that they might as well stay there for another 100 minutes or so.
To put it another way: Lemonade would be a great parallel to The Cloverfield Paradox if, after the recording of Lemonade, Columbia Records had been so dismayed by the results that it deemed the album unreleasable, and then Spotify came around and offered to take it off its hands for more than it cost to make — enough for the record company to walk away having made some kind of profit. That's pretty much what happened to the third installment of the J.J. Abrams–produced, loosely linked Cloverfield series. The movie was slated for a theatrical release from Paramount in April, until execs decided it wasn't worth sinking more money into marketing the troubled production, when it probably wasn't going to make any back in ticket sales.
Netflix was just advertising that it had the movie, period. Whether it was good or bad was incidental — what mattered was that it was there.
Traditionally, studios dump movies like these, giving them their contractually obligated run in theaters while trying to minimize the attention paid to and the advertising dollars spent on them. But instead of just taking the L, Paramount was able to offload it to Netflix, which is still working on making a name for itself as a platform for original movies, and ready to spend for a name-brand movie, dud or not. The streaming service bought the movie only to turn around almost immediately after and offer it to audiences with its Super Bowl stunt. What Netflix was touting with the 30-second spot that played during the game wasn't that it had this movie and it was good — half the footage was from the original Cloverfield. Netflix was just advertising that it had the movie, period. Whether it was good or bad was incidental — what mattered was that it was there.
Netflix didn't produce The Cloverfield Paradox, which is set on a space station where an international crew experiments with a particle accelerator in an attempt to solve a global energy crisis. But in some ways the movie — a sci-fi flick with a terrific cast, a terrible script that's cobbled together from borrowed fragments of better films, and some clumsily shoehorned-in connections to existing intellectual property — couldn't have been a more natural fit for the company’s oeuvre.
It's comprised of enough elements that seem worth your time (promising franchise, popular genre, a POC-heavy ensemble filled with rising stars like Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that the fact that the film itself is not actually worth your time doesn't seem to matter. At least not to Netflix, which touted this new movie as an answer-filled prequel to the first Cloverfield in a way that made you wonder how closely anyone there had watched it. Negative word of mouth might have tanked The Cloverfield Paradox in theaters over its opening weekend, but in the frictionless world of streaming, the fact that you would have felt cheated if you'd paid money to see it no longer applies. You've already paid for it, with your subscription fee. You might as well watch.
The film industry has been fretting for over a decade now about how digital availability is going to change everything — how people no longer want to bother with going out to theaters when there's so much to stream, how TV is eclipsing movies, how the general wealth of entertainment options at home has eroded the big-screen audience. And while that's all true, to some extent, we’ve talked much less about the way that shift — from actively choosing something to go out to see to making do with what's available — will affect what gets produced, and how.
Having to buy a ticket puts pressure on an individual movie to make all that effort and expenditure worth the while (well, unless you have a MoviePass, but let's see how sustainable that proves to be). Picking something to stream requires none of the same exertion or commitment — and you can stop halfway through, jump to something else, toodle around on your phone during the slower bits. For most people who pony up each month, a subscription fee isn't paying for access to any particular title, but to the idea of a library. It's all just convenient content.
There's been a gradual rise of "Netflix" as a verb, rather than a proper noun — synonymous with "curling up in front of a screen to watch something." Which is a testament to the brand’s dominance (in 2015, it was reported that the company was responsible for over a third of peak-hour internet bandwidth usage) but also to how people have started to treat whatever is on the service as what's available to watch. There are still sporadic bursts of stories about purges on the service as deals expire and licensing lapses and titles come and go, though media outlets don't follow those updates as breathlessly as they used to (maybe because it's harder to tell what’s leaving).
Netflix represents, for a lot of people, the practical limit of what there is to watch at any particular moment.
Those titles don't blink out of existence — they go to other streaming sites, or cable channels, or are available to rent, or are out there on DVD (remember DVDs?). That they're mourned as if they’ve been lost to humanity speaks to how much what's on Netflix represents, for a lot of people, the practical limit of what there is to watch at any particular moment.
The spread of streaming has led to this fascinating tendency to treat Netflix as a populist hero. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, while making it clear she hadn't seen The Cloverfield Paradox yet, threw her support behind the friends and fellow filmmakers of color involved in making it in a tweet on Sunday, in which she noted, "No advance press, ads, trailer. Straight to the people. Gamechanger."
At the Cannes Film Festival last year, jury members Pedro Almodóvar and Will Smith battled each other over streaming versus theatrical. The Spanish director spoke of his aversion to giving one of cinema’s most respected prizes to a movie, like Netflix entries The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja, that wasn't destined to be seen by most audiences on the big screen. Smith, who was starring in a Netflix project, Bright, lined up for later that year, argued on behalf of streaming; he insisted his children still also go to the theater, and that they "watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension."
Cinema-going for the artistic elite vs. streaming for the regular folks isn’t a binary that matches reality — all those snobs out there, making Marvel movies into global hits! — but it speaks to changes in viewing habits that film industries the world over continue to resist. The traditional structures are crumbling, new ones have to be figured out, and couples and friends all over the world are asking each other, "What do you want to Netflix tonight?"
Netflix has, so far, had a much better handle on making original series than making original films, because shows make sense with a subscription mindset — they're things you should want to binge, and that should make you want to stick around for new seasons. But who knows exactly what subscription-worthy movies should be like? Not Netflix, whose feature ventures have ranged all over the place, from purchasing the Oscar-nominated Mudbound at Sundance to signing an eight-picture deal with Adam Sandler, from sinking $125 million into Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Irishman to spending $90 million on Bright, its heavily-promoted attempt at the streaming equivalent of a blockbuster.
Obvious attempts to win awards aside, the service seems to be moving toward the strategy that led to the latter film. Bright is an algorithm-friendly concoction poised to catch viewers, in much the same way as The Cloverfield Paradox, who might stumble upon it from various directions. Directed by Suicide Squad's David Ayer, the movie straddles two popular genres, buddy cop and fantasy; it features an A-list star; it's the start of a franchise; and it has a terrible script that makes gestures toward edgy relevance ("Fairy lives don't matter today!") without actually having anything to say.
"The critics are pretty disconnected from the mass appeal," Netflix CEO Reed Hasting said on an investor call when talking about the gap between the critical drubbing the movie received and the huge success the company claimed it had with viewers. What that success entails is unclear, since Netflix doesn't make its data public, and so, unlike studios, doesn't have the world totaling up its box office wins and losses. But it's also hard to imagine Bright would have made any major headway in theaters, that it would have had much luck prying people out of the grooves in their sofa cushions.
It didn't need to. The bar is so much lower with Netflix, the ease so much greater, when something is already there and all you have to do is hit play. With the company slated to release around 80 original movies this year, it's staking out its own good-enough alternate movie universe, where a title that would probably have been a flop in theaters can be turned around and repositioned as a win for streaming. Who knows if it really was a win, or what that even means for Netflix, but it definitely got the company attention. It united large swaths of the country in watching one mess of a movie, for a mere $50 million. And while this latest addition to Netflix's firehose of content won't necessarily speed up the demise of theatrical releases, it's a reminder of just how powerful a force convenience is. In this brave new world, a film that wouldn't have been good enough to put on pants and venture outside for might be the perfect thing for a lazy Sunday night. ●