On this side of the pond, however, filmmaker David Michod was being much more diplomatic, even though his new movie, “War Machine,” is a Netflix original.
“Something will come out of this tussle and I hope whatever it is it’s satisfactory to everybody,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to lose that battle, you know what I mean?”
Sure. On one hand, seeing a movie in a theater can be a magical, communal experience. But if the big studios are only putting money on blockbusters with the potential to play well overseas, many feel that Netflix could help the art form by bankrolling big-budget movies, with total disregard for ticket sales. Would “War Machine” — a $60 million military comedy that will only get a limited release in New York and L.A. — have even gotten made without Netflix’s help? It’s hard to imagine.
The movie, which starts streaming today, stars Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, the new guy in charge of cleaning up America’s mess in Afghanistan. The movie is a sharp satire but also heartbreakingly tragic at times. Pitt plays his character for laughs: He growls his lines, squints one eye and moves with the grace of a robot.
“We are here to build, to protect, to support the civilian population,” McMahon tells his underlings during what he clearly thinks is a rousing speech. “To that end, we must avoid killing it at all costs.”
The movie is a fictionalized take on the book “The Operators,” by the late journalist Michael Hastings, which chronicled Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s war effort in 2009 and 2010. He was relieved of his post after Hastings published a profile of him in Rolling Stone that made the commander look, at best, insubordinate. The movie also gets into the difficulties of winning a war through counterinsurgency. Even with the comedic elements, this isn’t light stuff.
“We knew we had a movie that was challenging,” Michod said. “It’s dense with information, it’s a political quagmire. On one level it’s an unequivocal kind of antiwar film and yet there are characters in it trash-talking Obama.”
This is not the kind of movie that would make big money at the box office. Contemporary war movies rarely do, unless they’re in the simplistic good-versus-evil mold of “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor.” The more nuanced or overtly political dramas, like “Lions for Lambs,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Jarhead,” couldn’t make back their budgets in domestic ticket sales. More recently, Shia LaBeouf’s “Man Down” made headlines when it grossed the equivalent of one ticket sale during its U.K. opening weekend (Granted, it only premiered in one theater, but still.)
But Michod doesn’t have to worry about ticket sales now. That’s not part of Netflix’s business plan. The company has poured money into new programming to boost subscriptions; if a Netflix movie is released in theaters at all, it’s the bare minimum to be eligible for Academy Awards, which is why “Beasts of No Nation”got a limited run in 2015. And even then, Netflix does “day-and-date” releases, meaning the film will stream the same day, leaving little incentive for subscribers to go to the multiplex. This, understandably, has frustrated movie theater owners. Filmmakers, too, have their concerns about making movies that can’t be seen in the immersive way only a theater can provide.
And yet the list of directors who are working with Netflix is only getting longer and more impressive, with the legendary Martin Scorsese signing on with his highly anticipated next film, “The Irishman.” It’s easy to see the appeal of working with the company, which has a reputation for handing over money without much oversight.
“Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final cut privilege, which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get,” “Okja” filmmaker Bong-Joon Ho said during a news conference at Cannes.
Like “Okja,” which is heavy on the special effects, “War Machine” was never going to be a cheap movie to produce. During a Tokyo news conference while promoting the film, Pitt said that without Netflix, “if it did get made, it would have been at one-sixth of the budget.”
Michod thinks the company is simply filling a gaping hole that was left after independent studios and specialty divisions, such as Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage, closed up shop. The Australian writer-director gained international notice with the release of his 2010 thriller “Animal Kingdom,” but his big moment felt bittersweet.
“I felt like I’d arrived at totally the wrong time,” he said. “People weren’t making those movies that I had loved from the late ‘90s and early 2000s … but those were the movies I was meant to make.”
When Netflix acquired “War Machine” two years ago, it seemed like a big get for the company. At the time, Deadline reported that the movie could do for the company’s film sector what “House of Cards” did for its series division. Plus, the movie boasted an A-lister with international appeal. But the benefits go both ways.
Michod is doing publicity, but he doesn’t feel like he has to sell the film the way he has with past releases. He also doesn’t have to worry about the articles that come out opening weekend, reporting on whether the movie surpassed or fell short of box office projections.
In that model, “the success of your film is the success of its marketing, not the quality of your film,” Michod said. “You know good films will always find their audience eventually but when the conversation is only about the money it’s made in a 48-hour period, then something feels like it’s out of whack.”
There’s something else he likes about Netflix — and it might not be a popular thing for a filmmaker to admit.
“If I’m completely honest with myself, the Netflix model completely matches my viewing habits,” he said. “For better or worse — and probably worse — I don’t go to the movies that much anymore. And I don’t have the excuse of kids or anything that everyone else seems to have. I just like being at home.”