Ahead of the Cannes film festival earlier this month, its artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, asked a good question: “What directors have been discovered by [streaming] platforms?” He called on journalists to name one. Nobody shouted out, “What about Vince Marcello, who gave us The Kissing Booth?” Nobody could name any at all, in fact. Cannes and Netflix have been engaged in their own saga over the soul of cinema in recent years but Frémaux raised an important point: streaming services have transformed the landscape to the point they threaten the very survival of theatrical cinema. But what are they building in its place?
The streamers have been very good at recruiting existing film-makers, including Cannes-friendly names such as Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho and Martin Scorsese. They’ve also done a good job of putting film-makers in charge of episodic series, such as Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us or Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad. But Netflix alone has churned out nearly 400 original movies in the past decade, and how many have really stuck?
On a related note, we might ask what significant movie franchises the streamers have given us. Teen romcoms are all that springs to mind: The Kissing Booth, A Christmas Prince and To All the Boys are all on part three. There are sequels in the works to smash-hit apocalypse thriller Bird Box, Chris Hemsworth actioner Extraction, directed by Sam Hargrave (a first-time director: found one Thierry!), and most promising of all, Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola Holmes. But looking back, quite a few streaming movies had that world-building “could be a franchise” feel about them but got nowhere: Will Smith sci-fi Bright, or last year’s superhero-ish Project Power. Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has admitted that “compared to Harry Potter and Star Wars, we’ve got a long way to go”.
The latest contender is Rebel Moon, a sci-fi directed by Zack Snyder. “My hope is that this also becomes a massive IP and a universe that can be built out,” he said. Never mind that Snyder nearly crashed the DC comic-book franchise, or that Rebel Moon is based on an old Star Wars pitch Snyder thought up a decade ago. Netflix are also spending $200m on spy thriller The Gray Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. “The idea is to create a franchise and build out a whole universe,” said director Joe Russo. Let’s see.
Is there something inherent to cinema that means it alone can establish trailblazing auteurs and long-running franchises? The shared experience? Quality-controlling festivals such as Cannes? Or is it only a matter of time before the streamers catch up? As Frémaux pointed out, cinema has been around for 125 years: “Let us see if in 100 years’ time we will celebrate the birthday of the platforms.”