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Annihilation and the cost of making movies in 2018

After concluding my viewing of Annihilation on Netflix last night, I was left with a few thoughts; most were about the movie and dissecting its many themes and questions, but the main one was in my mind since it was announced, late last year. Obviously, I am referring to the controversial deal between Paramount and Netflix; the deal that saw the rights of Annihilation handed over to Netflix for the international release of the movie, which meant that a large section of the world would watch this movie in their homes and on their televisions.

My initial feelings were mixed; I live in a place where movies such as Annihilation simply don’t get screenings; so on one hand, I was glad that I would get to watch Annihilation on a timely manner (even if I ended up watching it 3 months after its release) but, on the other, the complications of this could be terrifying. If movies are not even allowed the chance to thrive in theaters, because they are risky and demanding of the viewer, then sooner or later, these deals will be replaced by lower budgets and eventually won’t even be attempted. There is an argument to make that deals like this one, makes things easier for such movies, as a stable income that covers a portion of the costs, could be the controlled risks that studios would be willing to make, in order to justify more risky movies, but as soon as I saw the movie, that argument holds no validity. Regardless of what you think of the movie and its quality, Annihilation was made for the movie theater; which was the director’s biggest disappointment, with regard to this deal (http://collider.com/alex-garland-annihilation-interview/#netflix).

So, what does this mean for similar movies? Will they get similar deals? If Annihilation’s numbers are anything to go by, then it is very unlikely; some sites, like box office mojo (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=annihilation.htm), show that the total lifetime grosses of domestic (meaning the U.S.) and international (the movie did open in China, but nowhere else, as far as I can tell) are just above the production budget, which makes the Netflix deal and any other VOD income, profit. There are other sites that report the production budget around 55 million (https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Annihilation#tab=summary), but if that is the case, then the movie has been a financial flop, regardless of the Netflix deal. However, since the details on the Netflix deal are vague, I don’t actually know the figure that Netflix gave to Paramount and I don’t think it actually matters. Paramount isn’t in this industry to make a few millions of profit; they want to make dozens of millions of profit for each of their movies. So, regardless of whether Annihilation made a profit, it did not hit the standards studios are looking for, but that is not newsworthy; this has happened with a lot of similar movies, like the excellent Silence (which had a reported budget of 50 million but only made 23 in total, via http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=silence2016.htm) and there are two reasons for the continuous flop of “intelligent” movies, in my opinion: Firstly, they don’t bring people to the theaters, as many of them are just as enjoyable (if not more) at home as they are in the theater, and secondly, a lot of them don’t have the same buzz or hype that big franchise movies have, like the discussion and excitement that happens every time a Marvel movie releases, which drives people to the theaters, so they can be part of that discussion, or at least be free of worrying over spoilers. However, these are the causes which we, as a movie-going audience, should look at and understand that, a portion of the blame is entirely on us; we demand creativity and originality, yet we flock the theaters for every Star Wars movie and stay home when something different is offered.

Nonetheless, I think that the majority of the blame should be placed on the studios for a few reasons; firstly, the over-reliance on U.S. grosses earnings. A routine Google search of “why is domestic gross earnings more important to studios over international” will get you a variety of forums and articles explaining it; simply put, American studios have an easier time dealing with domestic theaters and getting better deals, while they don’t have to worry about exchange rates and  regulations of other countries. My issue with this, is that if a movie fails in the U.S. market (where the definition of failure is that it did not make a profit through U.S. sales alone), then it is automatically a “bomb” or a “flop”; to check this, simply type “blade runner 2049 success” on Google and look at the results: it is mostly articles on how the movie failed to meet expectations, how director Dennis Villeneuve can’t understand why it was such a failure, and a few reviews. However, the figures tell a different tale (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=bladerunnersequel.htm), one where an R-rated, niche movie, that was more artistic than blockbuster and had a 150 million budget, made over 100 million in profit. This is the same with other “financial flops” (as per Business Insider’s article http://www.businessinsider.com/biggest-box-office-bombs-so-the-year-2017-12#6-mother-1780-million-5) such as Mother! (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=mother2017.htm) and Flatliners (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=flatliners2017.htm). Admittedly, a lot of those movies did not make their budgets back, and even if they did, the cost of making a movie is only part of the whole expense a movie has to surpass, in order to be considered a success; however, some of these movies are branded as “failures” even if they, eventually, have made 26 million over their budget (like Flatliners) or 100 million over (like Blade runner 2049) and I think the reason is that they made that money internationally and not all of it goes to the studios-which brings me to my next point: greed.

A lot of these movies have suffered from greedy studios, who want everything to be a “golden chicken” and allow no room for everything else or reasonable profits; they all have to be the next big franchise. A good studio, at least for me, acts as the sensible one, in their relationship with artists and creators; you don’t want to limit them, but you don’t want to burden them or let their ambitions create an insurmountable obstacle. An example of a good studio, at least in this regard, is Blumhouse; there are the obvious examples of Paranormal Activity and Get out, who made 100s of millions in profits, but even when they have household names like M. Night Shyamalan, their budgets don’t get extremely high because the movies they make are mostly horror, which is a niche genre. Another excellent example, was The Shape of Water, which was excellent as a movie, but also of a reasonable budget (20 million to be exact) since, the name of Guillermo Del Toro may be a recognizable one, but the niche genre of the movie, should mean that the budget should be regulated and controlled, so that profit is a reasonable expectation. I can’t understand why Annihilation had a 40 million budget, or why Blade Runner 2049 had 150 million, since both of these movies are not blockbusters or for everyone, and they did not attempt to be for everyone either, which created a huge barrier towards success; I was not complaining that they both had money to spent, because they both used that money to make really good movies, but maybe a more reasonable budget would mean that they would be successful financially as well and push studios to make more like-minded movies.

Lastly, these movies seem to have been marketed as something they are not, which is a worrying trend that keeps coming back from time to time; I don’t watch trailers or promotional material from movies, especially if I’m going to see them anyway (with some exceptions, of course). But after finishing Annihilation, I let Netflix idle for a minute and it started playing the trailer, which was surprisingly bad; it had quick cuts, scary sounds, shooting and screaming throughout, which is not what Annihilation is about. Sure it’s scary, but I would call it disturbing or unsettling, rather than what was clearly marketed as: a fast-paced horror movie with action elements. This has happened with many similar movies like The Invitation and It comes at night, which has not really hurt the financial success of those movies, but it, nonetheless, harmed the buzz around those movies.

In conclusion, when people started lamenting the over-reliance on franchises and superhero movies, I was scared for other movies; but only for a minute, because where there is demand, someone will try to supply. Similarly, when news of the deal between Netflix and Paramount broke out, I was scared; but only for a minute. In both occasions, it became pretty clear-after the initial panic, had died down- that all movie genres and sub-genres still have a place in the modern market, they just have to adapt and figure it out. Yet, after the news had broken out and I did some research to have an informed opinion, I also figured out that both moviegoers and studios had some stuff to work out; we need to be better at supporting the movies we like, and studios need to be better at creating a sustainable business model for all movie genres that adapts to mainstream appeal and potential income, but does not limit the creative ambitions and abilities of their creators.

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