Every film studio has a brand. Disney produces four-quadrant-ready spectacles, always family-friendly and rich in intellectual property. Warner Bros. goes for crowd-pleasing spectacle, too, but sometimes with a coarse edge. Paramount, especially when under former CEO Brad Grey, aims for movies that are almost art-house epics, when not making Transformers. But what does Netflix stand for? What can a moviegoer – well, a movie-streamer – expect from a "Netflix Original"?
Since the company began producing movies in 2015 – sometimes carrying the project from the idea stage to your living room, sometimes just slapping its logo on product acquired on the festival circuit – a "Netflix film" could mean anything and everything. Its efforts range from audacious masterpieces ( Okja, Mudbound) to genre diversions (The Babysitter) to terrible Adam Sandler comedies (The Ridiculous 6) to great Adam Sandler comedies (The Meyerowitz Stories). Perhaps with this Friday's release of Bright, though, Netflix has found its sweet spot: movies no one else will make – for better and for worse.
Netflix's biggest "original" bet to date, with the company reportedly spending upwards of $90-million (all figures U.S.) on its production. It stars Will Smith, easily the shiniest star to headline a Netflix film so far. And it comes from director David Ayer, a mainstream studio-minted director whose testosterone-fuelled projects fail with critics but dominate the marketplace (Suicide Squad, Fury). So far, so good, so duly expected, right? But then you actually sit down to watch Bright, and things become more complicated, unexpected, and, frankly, weird.
The film is essentially a cross between a down-and-dirty Los Angeles cop film – Ayer's speciality, given his work on End of Watch, Street Kings, and Training Day – and, um, Lord of the Rings. In Bright's world, humans have co-existed with all manner of Tolkien-esque creatures for thousands of years, yet the world has developed in a remarkably similar way to our own. L.A. is still a sprawling modern metropolis, but every now and then a dragon dashes across the smoggy sky, or elves flash their wealth on Rodeo Drive, or fairies get caught in bug zappers, or orcs get hassled by the law.
Into this upside-down world step a weary police officer (Smith) and the world's first orc cop (Joel Edgerton), who then stumble into a plot involving magic, gang warfare, and ancient prophecies. What's more, this genre-mash is illustrated by Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis with a hard-R attitude: the movie is littered with F-bombs and gratuitious nudity and intense violence.
In both its genre and content extremes, Bright seems like a film no major studio would go near any more. Surprises like Deadpool aside, studios either want projects that are dirty and cheap, or big and clean. (MGM and Warner reportedly pursued Bright, but offered about half of what Netflix committed to spending.) So Netflix will be the experimental lab for the unloved and difficult sells – which is perfectly fine with Ayer.
"Studios are in the tentpole business, the Marvels and the Star Wars. It's where the theatrical experience is going. But there is cool, original content that's being made well, and that's becoming Netflix's niche," says Ayer, speaking over the phone from a decidedly less-magical L.A. than Bright's. "Working with a studio, you have to make it PG, which means you soften every punch, you sand the edge away. Take that, and you lose the point of the project."
The point of Bright is decidedly odd. Part race-relations allegory (the police-targeted orcs are obvious stand-ins for African-Americans), part teenage fever dream (the prolific and polarizing Landis draws heavily from Gerald Potterton's Heavy Metal), part I-don't-even-know-what, the film is like David Ayer fan fiction from another galaxy and helmed by Ayer himself. It is bizarre, it is bloody, and it is extremely expensive. Which is another reason Ayer joined forces with Netflix.
"They actually give you the resources, because this is all economics. To deliver on a film of this scale and do it justice, I need a crew, I need trucks, I need actors," the 49-year-old filmmaker says. "There's a lot of overhead in filmmaking, and Netflix understands that. They're not chasing discounts. They give you the money you need to let you put it up on the screen."
But there is the lingering question of what kind of screen that might be. Due to Netflix's insistence on making its films available to stream the same day they are released theatrically, few big-screen exhibitors are willing to make room in their multiplexes, believing that Netflix's policy cannibalizes their business. Bright will not play a single Canadian theatre – but it will be available to stream in 190 countries, on any subscriber's (small-screen) device of choice.
"Oh, God, I'm not worried about that at all," Ayer says when asked about the lack of theatrical exposure. "As a filmmaker, you pour your soul into a project, and then it comes down to a horse race on opening day. If by 9 p.m. on Friday on the East Coast you're not number one, your film can die an ugly death. Here, my God,with 190 countries in every language, with 100 million potential eyeballs on this thing, that's staggering."
And if Bright flops? Well, the good thing is we won't really know, as Netflix isn't in the habit of releasing its viewership data, and there are no traditional box-office figures to report. But there is still the all-important word of mouth – and Bright's kinda-goofy marketing has not exactly endeared it to critics who are still recovering from Ayer's Suicide Squad. (When asked about the critical divide over that $745-million-grossing superhero film, Ayer says he "got hammered so bad out there" by the press, but that he makes films for "the people I know, the people I grew up with. Some folks don't understand it, and a whole lot of people do.")
So Netflix will work its magic, and Ayer will try to work his.
"When you're given that much responsibility as a filmmaker, it's sobering. You think twice about all your decisions," Ayer says. "Let's just say that if the movie didn't work, I wouldn't be able to point the finger at anybody but myself."
Bright begins streaming Dec. 22 on Netflix