Is Will Smith's Bright Hollywood's Most Polarizing - And Significant - Release Of 2017?

Netflix is financing films at levels well above what other studios were willing to spend. Bright kicks it to another level, though. A way higher, more expensive, more star-studded level

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Is Will Smith's Bright Hollywood's Most Polarizing - And Significant - Release Of 2017?

Will Smith in Bright.


Washington:  Two critics often yield three opinions, but you'd be hard-pressed to find takes as divergent as those on offer for the new movie Bright, which comes out Friday.

"Fantastic. ambitious yet astonishingly well-executed . . . brilliant," wrote Variety.

"There's boring, there's bad, and then there's Bright, a movie so profoundly awful that Republicans will probably try to pass it into law over Christmas break," said Indiewire.

Those reviews come from two respected trade publications. And they encapsulate how uneasily the entertainment business is grappling with Bright and what it represents.

Directed by David Ayer, Bright is a bona fide big-budget Hollywood release. It features a shiny hook - a police drama in a supernatural parallel universe - stars Will Smith and cost between $90 million and $130 million to produce, depending on which insider one believes.

Ayer is a polarizing figure in his own right, having directed the beloved gritty cop drama End of Watch and the maligned superhero ensemble adventure Suicide Squad. But the most divisive aspect of Bright is who produced it: Netflix.

The upstart studio paid more than $3 million just for the script, by the hot screenwriter Max Landis, and decided to make Bright a fixture of its feature-film efforts.

Those efforts aren't, well, dim. You may think of Netflix as the go-to place for hit serialized shows like House of Cards and Stranger Things. But it's really, really intent on dominating the feature-film business, which is why it hired the producer and former Universal executive Scott Stuber, who has suggested he might make as many 50 or 60 movies each year (the average big Hollywood studio makes a fraction of that) and spend the kind of money studios usually only spend if there's a Marvel character involved.

Netflix has already been willing to open the checkbook for Brad Pitt's Stanley McChrystal-inspired drama War Machine and the Bong Joon-ho monster mash-up Okja, financing them at levels well above what other studios were willing to spend. Bright kicks it to another level, though. A way higher, more expensive, more star-studded level.

This all despite the fact that no one can see it in theaters; Bright, like all Netflix movies, doesn't follow traditional release patterns. A Will Smith action movie at the holidays would normally open on 3500 screens and be accompanied by a television-marketing blitz. Bright is on your home-screen because of an algorithm.

And that's why it's so significant: Netflix believes that it can justify high costs of film without theaters or, more important, the assumptions that underlie the theatrical business. You don't need consumers to pay $15 and commit to the multiplex, executives for the company argue. And you certainly don't need to use traditional marketing mediums like prime time broadcast ad time. Since we're not trying to get people to see movies in theaters, we don't need to do any of this, they say.

"Movie theaters are strangling the movie business," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently said, calling owners an "oligopoly."

And what about the roughly half of all domestic ticket sales that typically go to studios? Since the Netflix model is not based on profits for individual films but overall subscriber attraction and retention, P&L's on individual movies don't matter, they argue.

Emphasis on the "they." Mainstream Hollywood is skeptical - making movies without worrying about profits sounds an awful lot like the dot-com bubble, their counter goes. And a movie without promotion is a film buried; you need to offer audiences a chance to discover a film where they're used to discovering it.

"Everyone I know can't stop talking about Bright," said a high-ranking studio production executive who did not want to be identified because they were speaking of a competitor. "But is it just people like us? Or is my family in the Midwest going to be talking about it over Christmas too?"

(In this sense polarizing reviews help - at the very least it gets people talking. Many of those reviews, it should be said, tend toward the Indiewire.)

If Netflix is right it means they have built a better mousetrap, cutting out the middlemen with whom they must share profits and freeing them up to plow more of that money into the films.

Or, as rival studio executives privately grumble, is the company simply overpaying for movies they can't afford, and at budgets other studios would never agree to?

In a way even the widely disparate reviews are a reflection of the company's business approach. Netflix is famously creator-friendly and gives far fewer notes even on a big-budget film than a typical studio - that's how it attracted figures like Michod and Bong in the first place. That means a movie like Bright will look a lot more unfiltered, a lot more like what it wants to be than most other Hollywood fare. A Netflix movie is a business construct, but it's also a creative category.

What it isn't is easily measurable. Because there's no box office, there's no way of knowing how many people see a film. Only Netflix knows, and they don't tell, not even the filmmakers. Will Bright be watched by a million people, 100,00 people, or ten million people? And how many of them will subscribe to or stay with Netflix because of it and the slate of which it's a part?

No one knows that either. Netflix likes it that way. And the rest of Hollywood is left conflicted, certain this isn't a viable business model while scared it might be.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)


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