Science friction: can Netflix figure out its blockbuster problem

The future hasn’t been kind to Netflix. In the last two months, it’s launched three science fiction blockbusters – Will Smith’s orc cop adventure Bright, the shock assault The Cloverfield Paradox, and the bizarre Berlin-set Blade Runner-riff Mute – each of which critics reacted to as though a cockroach crawled out of their TV (not one film managed to score over 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A fourth attempt, Alex Garland’s Annihilation, about five female explorers in a technicolor hellscape, received better reviews but Netflix still couldn’t win. It scooped up the international distribution rights from Paramount, who lost confidence in the Natalie Portman cerebral chiller and decided to release it theatrically only in the United States, Canada and China. Netflix rescued the film for foreign audiences … who grumbled that they’d be forced to squint at Garland’s giant, surrealist visuals at home on Netflix.

If Netflix could see into its own future, would it green-light each film again? Probably. It’s already given the go-ahead to Bright 2, and just awarded a first look deal to the heavyweight producer of Transformers and World War Z and snatched another major studio film from the trash bin when Universal dumped the planet invasion thriller Extinction. Plus, last Friday as Mute tested wary audiences already primed to ridicule Paul Rudd’s handlebar mustache, Netflix announced it had won an expensive nine-way bidding war to produce another costly sci-fi flick, Life Sentence, in which convicts have their brains wiped to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Directed by War for the Planet of the Apes’ Matt Reeves, Life Sentence repeats the same high-concept, name-brand fantasia that’s made Netflix duck tomatoes. And yet, the timing of the news feels pointed: Netflix knows exactly what it’s doing.

Beamed Reeves, “Netflix is at the forefront of a new age in how storytellers are reaching an audience.” Frankly, Netflix knows more than anyone about how people watch movies. However, the industry still doesn’t know much about it. Before Netflix, a film’s success or failure was gauged by three numbers: its budget, its opening weekend and its total global haul. But when Netflix launched its streaming service a decade ago, it began to horde more sophisticated information. Who exactly wants to watch a movie about an orc – not just which broad demographic, but which specific people sitting on their couch on a Tuesday? What are the viewing patterns even subscribers don’t recognize? The key words they search, the films that make them watch other films, the scenes that make them turn a movie off?

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