‘Annihilation’ and Film Distribution in the Age of Netflix
The acclaimed science-fiction film saw a troubled rollout that highlights the unique status of streaming services within the Hollywood system

illustration by Josh Gates

Annihilation was undoubtedly one of the best movies I saw in 2018. It’s a creative, nuanced exploration of self-destruction (among many other themes) within the framework of a science fiction thriller. It’s led by a mostly female ensemble cast, centered around one of Natalie Portman’s strongest performances in recent years. The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, a significant figure in contemporary science fiction filmmaking, and tells much of its story visually, through gorgeous, haunting images. But you wouldn’t know that, looking at the film’s rollout.

Paramount, coming off a difficult 2016 and 2017, secured a deal to let the streaming platform Netflix release Annihilation internationally, providing the studio some financial security at the loss of the film playing in theaters outside the United States and China. Unfortunately, this is a film that deserved to be seen on the big screen. Garland has said his reaction to the Netflix release was “disappointment,” adding that, “it’s got pluses and minuses, but from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it—[it was made] to be seen on a big screen.”

Esteemed critic Matt Zoller Seitz ranked the film his second favorite of the year, writing, “The last ten minutes may be…the only attempt at a 2001: A Space Odyssey type of mind-blowing, conversation piece ending, post-Kubrick, that actually sticks the landing.” But that ending may be part of the reason for the film’s unconventional international release. According to The Hollywood Reporter, David Ellison, one of the film’s producers, became concerned after a poor test screening and wanted to alter Natalie Portman’s character and the ending to better appeal to mainstream audiences. Another producer, Scott Rudin, defended Garland’s vision. Fortunately for the film, Rudin had final cut, but Paramount, with cold feet, decided to dump the film on Netflix internationally.

illustration by Josh Gates

Annihilation opened in fourth place at the domestic box office, ultimately earning $32 million domestically and $10 million in China, apparently only barely breaking even of its reported $40-55 million budget with the Netflix deal taken into account. But there is an argument to be made that the film could have reached a far broader audience, even in the United States. The uneasy studio promoted it minimally and lifted the press embargo only days before release (despite the fact that the film went on to be critically acclaimed, currently holding an 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). All this, because the studio did not know how to market this movie. Or worse, they did not care.

Zoller Seitz, with a touch of passive-aggressive sarcasm, wrote on RogerEbert.com that the Netflix deal allowed the film to be profitable, “while relieving Paramount of the burden of figuring out a clever way to build interest in a movie that didn’t have any obvious hooks. I mean, aside from the fact that it’s a haunting, hypnotically powerful film that seems to stir deep introspection in anyone who watches it with an open mind and brings their own point-of-view to the experience.”

“Paramount left money on the table,” Seitz concluded.

While studios see Netflix as a competitor in the theatrical space, Annihilation serves as a prime example of how the streaming company also presents an additional option for studios with films that they are worried about. To some studios, the high-spending Netflix is a way to guarantee they’ll earn back at least some of a film’s budget—a more notorious example being Paramount’s decision to sell the disappointing sequel The Cloverfield Paradox to Netflix after concerns about the reception of the film.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make smart, original genre fare in the contemporary studio system. As studios become increasingly reliant on tentpole blockbusters from familiar brands, and moviegoers have increasingly compelling options to watch at home, films like Annihilation will continue to struggle at the box office and, perhaps more significantly, struggle to get there in the first place.

This is where Netflix has an opportunity to leverage the current state of the movie industry to their advantage—if they can figure out how to correctly navigate the theatrical releases that fans of movies and the people who make them still desire. Take the Oscar Best Picture contender Roma, for example.

“I would work with Netflix in a second. They have delivered way more than what they promised. I am so pleased,” Director Alfonso Cuaron recently told Deadline Hollywood. “I made a movie that on paper seems very unlikely and very difficult. It’s a drama, it’s not a genre film, it’s black-and-white, it’s in Spanish and Mixtec. When it was presented, the actors were not recognizable. It was like something that could have ended in just one theater in LA, and one theater in New York, and one theater in several cities around the world. Does Netflix have anything to do with this presence? Yes they have a lot to do with this presence.”

Netflix is still figuring out how to handle theatrical releases, with most major movie chains holding firm on traditional theatrical release windows that the streaming service will not go for. Roma in some ways forced the issue for Netflix, and in delivering the film to as many independent theaters as possible and acting more like a traditional studio in many ways, Netflix earned itself Oscar credibility and an ally in one of the most acclaimed auteurs of contemporary cinema.

It is yet to be determined whether streaming will be more of a positive or negative influence on the moviegoing experience. Netflix has the opportunity to promote more artistic risks as they engage with the theatrical space, or simply drive studios to take fewer risks as more consumers continue to stay at home. Regardless, after the troubled release of Annihilation, it is not too surprising that Garland’s next project is an eight-episode television drama for FX.

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