‘Bright’ and Netflix’s Original Movie Problem

Will the streaming giant that revolutionized television be able to truly move beyond Adam Sandler films and lame action flicks?

Scott Garfield/Netflix

The process of watching Bright will leave you with a myriad of questions. Who is still buying movie pitches from Max Landis? How has David Ayer managed to lure Will Smith into two horrendous action movies? Why did I watch Bright in the first place? Exactly how much rosé will I need to forget I watched it?

But the most important question is: What the hell is Netflix doing?

Back in March, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said of the movie business, “How did distribution innovate in the movie business in the last 30 years? Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it. What Netflix wants to do is to unleash film. It’s fundamentally about growing the movie business.”

Bright, Netflix’s new $90 million original movie directed by Ayer (who made the equally awful, yet mildly enjoyable Suicide Squad) and written by Landis (who’s not only been accused of sexual-assault, but also has coasted on writing the screenplay for Chronicle over five years ago while turning out trash like Victor Frankenstein ever since), is a mess. It’s been dragged by critics and viewers alike, and it’s a wonder what contribution Netflix thought Bright would make to the film industry.

Netflix has been trying to make a dent in the film game for quite some time, particularly when it comes to awards and nominations. Their television series like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Stranger Things have racked up accolades and made the streaming giant a force to be reckoned with in the TV arena. Streaming is clearly the future of television and Netflix is miles ahead of the competition. The future of film, however, is still up in the air.

Netflix could make the case that it wants to provide quality movies to consumers in a landscape where the film industry is focused on reboots, sequels, and films from existing properties like the emojis on your phone. Films such as Okja and Mudbound seemed like steps in that direction. Okja further introduced Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) to American audiences with one of the year’s most gorgeous and heart-stirring films. Mudbound was another addition to director Dee Rees’ (Pariah) commitment to color the black experience with stories that the mainstream film industry rarely acknowledges. Okja has sadly faded from most serious awards conversations, but Mudbound is still circulating thanks to Mary J. Blige’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.

But then there are the various Adam Sandler films Netflix keeps pumping out and shit like Bright. Because nothing says “growing the movie business” like Adam Sandler comedies and bloated action movies. At this point, it appears as though Netflix is operating its film division the same way that any other studio would—which isn’t to say there’s not a place for those films on Netflix, particularly if viewers want them, but there’s no innovation in how these films are being made or distributed either (except that they’re available to stream whenever you want).

Furthermore, Netflix continues having the problem of purchasing high-quality films, throwing them onto their streaming service, and letting them get buried. It’s no doubt a boon for a filmmaker when Netflix buys their film, but if it’s not promoted the way Bright is, then what’s the point? No one will see the movie unless it’s championed by film critics who happen to discover it in their increasingly confusing Netflix queues.  

Netflix has dabbled in screening some of their films in theaters, but even that feels like them trying to play catch-up with the film industry. It’s definitely enjoyable watching a film in the comfort of your own home, though Netflix has yet to make that experience entirely unique to Netflix. They’ve yet to truly create any sort of events around their films the way they’ve created them around their television series—save for everyone hate-watching and live-tweeting Bright on my timeline this weekend.

Perhaps the solution lies in finding a way to blend their TV innovation with film. Gone are the days when television movies were big events, replaced by limited series with ten-episode orders that creators insist are “mini-movies.” They’re not—they’re television—and the real TV movie event seems to now be relegated to Hallmark and its cornucopia of Caucasian romances. A return to television movies, available to stream, but with both parts released on consecutive weeks, could bring the type of attention and conversation Netflix seems to crave for its films.

Granted, these aren’t films that could possibly be nominated for Oscars, but then again, neither is Bright.