After spending almost a year on the glitzy festival circuit, where it steadily gathered acclaim and generated awards chatter, one of 2017's most powerful films will finally be released this Friday. But it won't be playing on any big screens in Canada. Or in many American theatres, either. Instead, Mudbound will be available on Netflix, ready to digitally unspool on whatever device you choose to employ.
And it is on the streaming service where director Dee Rees's remarkable period drama will live or die – via either the company's discoverability algorithms or however much the Netflix folks decide to promote it over its extensive back catalogue and other "original" offerings. (Based on a sample size of one, I can safely say that Netflix is quite eager for me to watch McG's dreadful horror-comedy The Babysitter; not so much, say, Noah Baumbach's four-star The Meyerowitz Stories. This has given me great pause regarding my viewing habits; am I as big an idiot as Netflix thinks?)
Mudbound, which follows two Mississippi families struggling to adjust to a new era following the end of the Second World War, is a stellar achievement, worthy of every kudo thrown its way since its Sundance debut this past January. Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell deliver riveting performances, and Rees's nuanced direction proves she's one of the industry's brightest talents. Yet it is an open question – and a $12.5-million (U.S.) bet on Netflix's part – whether any of Mudbound's players will receive the attention they deserve, especially come Oscar time.
That is all due to the film being AWOL from theatres. Netflix acquired Mudbound after it played Sundance, paying the aforementioned figure for the privilege of distributing it any which way they please. Yet because of Netflix's insistence on making its films available to stream the same day they're released theatrically, few traditional exhibitors are willing to make room, believing (not incorrectly) that Netflix's policy cannibalizes their business.
That means Mudbound will only screen in 17 locations across the United states, mostly in boutique cinemas (iPic, the Laemmle theatres in Los Angeles) and art houses (IFC Center and BAM in New York). American giants AMC and Regal are sitting this one out, as are all Canadian exhibitors, according to a Netflix Canada representative.
Typically, a 17-theatre release wouldn't be that odd for a film such as
Mudbound – at first. A platform-style release – several key markets, concentrated on art houses and higher-end cinemas – would be employed to build word-of-mouth and test out marketing strategies. Ideally that would be followed by expansion, and exhibition that isn't restricted by all-but-in-name boycotts by the AMCs and Regals of the world. That doesn't appear to be the case with Mudbound, and its success – that is, its ability to remain at the top of the cultural conversation, to generate that all-important seasonal Oscar buzz, to show the world that it's a creative endeavour worth consuming – could be felled by its lack of exposure.
Yet Netflix doesn't appear interested in traditional success. The company paid millions for the film, but it has deep pockets. The film is only playing those 17 theatres so it can be eligible for Academy Awards consideration – according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a movie needs to play "at least seven consecutive days … in a commercial motion picture theatre in Los Angeles County" – but it's an open question as to whether Oscar success would even drive subscriber growth, the company's top priority. Despite the rash of Academy voter-targeted ads Netflix has taken out for Mudbound – the movie graced the cover of Variety the other week – it feels as if the company is paying lip service to the idea of awards bait, or simply testing the "For Your Consideration" waters.
Not that Rees seems to mind, at the moment.
"It's about people simply being able to see it," she told me this past fall, when the film played TIFF. "Even with [my first film] Pariah, more people have seen that on Netflix than will ever see it in theatres. … Whether you're in Louisiana or Ohio, you can see this right in your living room, and you don't have to pay $40 to go out. It's just you and the art, and you can view it on your own terms."
Netflix's ability to reach audiences is unparallelled – 51.2 per cent of U.S. households subscribe to the service – and any eyeballs that find Mudbound will be rewarded. But this is also a film that deserves the option of a big-screen experience. It is a sweeping, epic story that is best experienced in the womb-like conditions of a darkened theatre. It deserves to be talked about in the lobby, to be discussed afterward over dinner or a drink. It deserves the exposure that only a cinematic experience can offer. (The same might be said of Netflix's next big prestige picture, Martin Scorsese's 2018 drama The Irishman, which is reportedly facing the same theatrical situation as Mudbound; Netflix was unable to offer a comment on the situation when reached this week by The Globe and Mail.)
For now, though, until Netflix and theatre owners come to a new understanding – or, really, until the movie industry flips itself over to an entirely new model of disruption – Mudbound deserves a spot in everyone's Netflix queue. Or at least, higher than The Babysitter.