Film Poll: The Year in Performative Distribution

“Netflix will neither save nor destroy cinema. But its growing dominance demands that those who think about movies critically hold two thoughts in their heads at once.”


If you’d like to understand the conundrum facing film distribution in the year of our Lord 2017, look no further than Call Me by Your Name. Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel was quite literally the film of the year, premiering to wide acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January of last year and presented by Sony Pictures Classics, which had purchased the movie for $6 million shortly before the festival. Sony rolled it out slowly over the following twelve months, with play dates at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and the New York Film Festival in October. It picked up more praise over the next few weeks, and as it tiptoed into limited release over Thanksgiving weekend, the year-end lists and awards kudos began trickling in. Now, Call Me by Your Name has four Oscar nominations, four BAFTA nominations, and six Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. And, last but certainly not least, it came in fourth in the Village Voice Film Poll.

If only those accolades meant anyone went to see it. Sony gave the picture the de rigueur “platform” theatrical release, opening it in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, then gradually taking the film wider as it accumulated praise and buzz. But in contrast to Phantom Thread or Lady Bird (number one and number two, Best Film, respectively), which each spread from four screens on their respective opening weekends to over a thousand by their fifth weeks, Call Me by Your Name played eight weeks at fewer than 200 screens, only bumping up to 815 the week before its four Oscar nominations were announced. Somehow, the film’s box office take decreased the week after the Oscar nominations, and the week after that, it was dropped from 234 screens.

This information alters the high quality and considerable power of Call Me by Your Name not one whit; it’s still a potent, sexy, evocative piece of work, and will linger long after I’m done tsk-tsking over its mediocre receipts. But it says quite a bit about how we see movies now, and the speed with which we expect them to be at our disposal. By the time Call Me by Your Name finally crawled into so-called secondary markets, its buzz wave had long passed; the think pieces had been written, the reviews had been posted, and the full backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash cycles were over. The normals who were then finally allowed to see it may well have lost their enthusiasm for the film, and frankly, it’s hard to blame them.

A shift away from traditional platform distribution was probably inevitable, but the actions of a “disruptor” have no doubt expedited the perception that such a pattern is stodgy and out of step with our what’s-new-right-now culture. At that same 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased another fall prestige picture, Dee Rees’s Mudbound (number nine, Best Director). As Call Me by Your Name was creeping into four theaters in two cities, Mudbound was available for anyone with an Internet connection, in nearly 200 countries. That’s film distribution with the click of a mouse, which is refreshing for filmgoers who’ve grown used to the industry moving at the speed of molasses.

No industry player has more fully dominated the conversation about how we see movies now — what, indeed, a movie is — than Netflix. The trouble is, it’s a conversation that so often boils down to the barest, nuance-free basics, a question of good or evil, devil or angel, hero or villain. Netflix will, most likely, neither save nor destroy cinema. But its growing dominance demands that those who think about movies critically hold two thoughts in their heads at once.

In many ways, Netflix does a disservice not only to movies in general, but particularly to the movies it acquires and finances. Voice critic Bilge Ebiri’s pick for the best film of 2017, My Happy Family, was bought and streamed by Netflix, but good luck finding it; that film, like so many of the movies the service has picked up at festivals and even produced itself, was denied the smallest theatrical release, barely advertised, and is all but impossible to discover via the site’s notoriously nonresponsive user interface. The same fate has befallen the likes of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore., Tramps, Win It All, and Small Crimes. Even seemingly splashy Netflix originals (and Voice Film Poll faves) like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mudbound, and Wormwood only saw the barest of theatrical releases (thanks to the company’s exhibitor-unfriendly insistence on same-day streaming, which has resulted in boycotts by most of the major chains), and they were all soon disappeared off the Netflix home page in favor of the following week’s big new thing.

Yet it’s also important to note that, were it not for the deep pockets of the streaming giant, films like these may have never escaped the festival circuit — or, in the case of Okja and Wormwood, might not have been made at all. And if something like Tramps, a low-budget character study from the director of Gimme the Loot, is tossed into the pool with a sink-or-swim shrug by Netflix, rather than nurtured through a careful theatrical release by a distributor like Sony Pictures Classics or A24, its director isn’t complaining: Adam Leon told the New York Times that when he got word that Netflix had acquired his movie for $2 million, “I was literally crying in the hotel room. I was given so much opportunity by the people I worked with, and now it was going to work for them, and for all the people who invested in it.”

The trouble is, that tenuous paradigm may already be shifting. Netflix’s inaugural foray into franchise filmmaking, December’s Bright — a Will Smith–fronted “high concept” cops-and-aliens flick from the director of Suicide Squad — was a terrible movie but a mini-cultural phenomenon, critically derided but widely viewed, primarily because, well, it was there. Netflix claimed blockbuster numbers (without divulging too many specifics, as is its practice), and upped the ante on stunt distribution this month by acquiring Paramount’s troubled and long-delayed third Cloverfield movie, debuting its trailer during the Super Bowl and only then announcing that The Cloverfield Paradox would be available to stream immediately after the big game. It was a brilliant gambit for recouping its investment on a shoddy product — poor quality offset by immediate access. Put another way, it was the anti–Call Me by Your Name.

But if Netflix determines there is more subscription money and cultural capital to be made by betting big on “event” movies like these, the days of hefty paydays for the likes of Tramps, Okja, and Mudbound may be over. In 2016, Netflix and Amazon each bought six movies at Sundance; last year, Netflix left the fest with ten titles, and Amazon bought five. Neither service purchased a single film during Sundance 2018. Why? Reuters reports Amazon “plans to shift resources from independent films to more commercial projects,” and Netflix seems to be shifting to buzz-grabbing buys and originals like Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming gangster picture The Irishman.

So where does that leave the current theatrical distribution model? It’s hard to say. Boutique distributors like A24 and Neon (and Fox Searchlight, should Disney choose to keep them in business) may continue to find success with the carefully cultivated platform model that Sony used for Call Me by Your Name, though even those skilled curators couldn’t turn good movies like The Florida Project (number five, Best Film) and Ingrid Goes West into commercial successes. The traditional release-it-everywhere-at-once strategy of the major studios only favors the franchise-sturbation that’s become the cornerstone of their slates. If that approach eventually fails (a big “if,” mind you), and if the superhero movie of the late 2010s becomes the roadshow musical of the late 1960s, the current model may well be broken beyond repair; studios won’t just be able to substitute in hungry young filmmakers and forward-thinking executives to make it work again, as they did in the 1970s. Modes of consumption have changed, and expectations with them. Thus, as consumers, we’re less concerned with cinema than we are with #content — and less interested in whether it’s any good than if and when it’s there.