On the Home Screen
How Netflix Won the Summer Movie Season
By Noah Gittell
It doesn’t take a professional film critic to notice that this year’s summer movie landscape has a dearth of options. Which would you prefer, a Disney animated movie or a superhero flick? If your answer is “neither”, I’ve got some bad news for you. The blockbuster season has been dominated by sequels and franchises for several years now, but never before have our options been so limited. In years past, you could always count on some counter-programming; independent studios would sneak a few thoughtful dramas, esoteric rom-coms, or documentaries in between the caped crimefighters. This year, they are barely a blip on the summer release schedule.
At least not in the cinemas. As Netflix continues to grow their roster of original films, they have begun to fill in the gaps left open by the major studios. You won’t find any rom-coms, star-driven comedies set in exotic locales, or breakthrough documentaries at the multiplex this year, you can at least find them instead on your phone.
Much has been written already about the death of the rom-com, with this spring’s star-driven flop “Long Shot” as only the latest example. But for the past two summers, Netflix has absolutely owned the genre. In 2018, the streaming services scored with “Set it Up” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, and this year, they have released “Always Be My Maybe”, co-written and starring comic actors Ali Wong and Randall Park as two childhood friends who reconnect as adults and embark on an affair that has both dramatic resonance and comic peaks.
The warm and funny film has also won accolades for its representation of Asian-Americans, who, despite the breakaway success of last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians”, have largely been reduced to broad stereotypes throughout Hollywood’s history. The script by Wong and Park is set in San Francisco, which features a robust Asian-American community never before depicted in mainstream film.
Star-driven films set in exotic locales — I call them “vacation movies” — have historically been a staple of the summer movie season. From the Orient Express to the far-ranging travels of James Bond, these films offer viewers who may not be able to get away a chance to live vicariously. But while many summer movies still take viewers overseas — like “Spider-man: Far from Home” and all the recent “Fast and Furious” movies — none of them make the travel look like much fun.
This year, however, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston take us to the French Riviera in Netflix’s “Murder Mystery”. It’s a lackluster comedy compared to the star-studded vacation movies of yesteryear, but it’s not bad for an Adam Sandler comedy. As a middle-aged couple who are framed for murder on a millionaire’s yacht, Sandler and Aniston displayed a nice, lived-in chemistry, and it’s worth watching for the luxurious scenery alone.
But if escapism isn’t your thing, you are probably longing for one of the breakthrough documentaries that have emerged each of the last few summers. Last year, the Mr. Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “RBG” earned tidy sums at the box office, but in 2019, the most buzzworthy non-fiction title is Netflix’s “Rolling Thunder Revue”, a film about Bob Dylan’s traveling variety show that began in 1976 and ran for several years.
Of course, it’s not entirely “non-fiction”, and that’s part of the appeal. The film by Martin Scorsese features ample concert footage (of a particularly animated Dylan) but also behind-the-scenes footage and modern-day interviews with individuals connected to Dylan that are entirely fictional. It’s a comment on Dylan’s ability to create his own legend, and it works beautifully.
“Rolling Thunder Revue” is a niche film in that it appeals very strongly to a certain segment of viewers — middle-aged dads? — and has little appeal to others. You could say the same for “Always Be My Maybe” and “Murder Mystery”. This is key to Netflix’s business strategy, which relies entirely on new subscribers, and it also helps them fill the space left by studios, which are increasingly seeking the broadest possible appeal. While many cinephiles like to complain about the death of the cinematic experience, anyone who is tired of superheroes, animated cowboys, or anyone else either fast or furious at least now have somewhere else to go.