With every new technological innovation, you’ll have fear and detractors, even in the entertainment industry. Vaudeville hated film. Silent film hated talkies. Film hated television. Broadcast hated cable. Film/television hated the Internet. Now, film/television hates Netflix. Instead of absorbing lessons from the past and deciding to work together (which they will eventually, as they always do), film/television have fallen back to their standard response: animosity.
And the core of this latest dispute? Adam Sandler. Adam “Stop Looking At Me Swan” Sandler.
From mail to streaming to original series programming, Netflix has been on the forefront of entertainment distribution since its launch in 1997. Over the past couple of weeks, Netflix announced its newest venture – forays into original film production/distribution. The first plan was to release the sequel to Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend), to Netflix and IMAX simultaneously on August 28, 2015. The news was met…less than enthusiastically by theater owners. Nevertheless, it marked an important step because, although Video On Demand releases have grown in popularity and respect, this was to be the first time a sole streaming service would be the exclusive home for a first run movie co-released in theaters.
Shortly thereafter, Netflix announced on October 1 an even more notable deal with Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions to make four feature films that would be released directly to the streaming service. Impressively, genuine Hollywood mogul Sandler will actually be starring in these movies and not just be using the arrangement to create vehicles for Nick Swardson and Kevin James. But this is not a co-distribution deal, this is a Netflix exclusive. No ongoing revenue, no opening weekend grosses, no opportunity to expand the audience by appearing on multiple platforms – just Netflix and Netflix alone.
Supposedly (with a heavy dose of rumor and Internet conjecture), this ran afoul of Warner Brothers, which backed out of talks to make Sandler’s western comedy The Ridiculous Six – which he’s been trying to get made since before Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was announced, and apparently has still been trying to get made despite the reactions to A Million Ways To Die In The West – shortly after the Netflix announcement.
Whether the deal failed because of Netflix or not, whether this endeavor succeeds or not, whether Sandler makes another movie after these four or not, the important thing to realize is that Netflix Studios movies were an inevitability. Once its original television programming became successful – and relatively quickly after it started, at that – it was only a matter of time before the online service moved into motion pictures. Premium cable channels such as HBO, the closest media cousin to Netflix, realized the potential of doubling down on original series and original movies early on, so naturally would Netflix follow suit.
So they go with Adam Sandler? It kind of makes sense. They need a legitimately big name to bring attention to this project. The first Netflix original programming that got any heat was Arrested Development Season 4. Sure, the end result lead to a myriad of conflicting emotions, but as a starting point, it was a smart move. It had brand recognition and cult fandom, which immediately earned it Internet and press buzz. The successful model of uploading every episode simultaneously enabled Netflix to move onto even more critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved fare such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, the latter of which drew added legitimacy being backing by big names in David Fincher and Kevin Spacey.
From a purely critical perspective, some might have preferred the House of Cards duo, but the simple fact is that Sandler is easily a bigger draw than Fincher and Spacey. Throughout his career, Fincher only had three movies break $100 million domestic box office (though two others topped $90 million), and two of them (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Seven, featuring Kevin Spacey, being the outlier), were something of disappointments. And Spacey? With the exception of his small role in Horrible Bosses, his presence in cinemas was very much limited in the decade preceding Frank Underwood’s rise. (Though to be fair, during that decade, he was the artistic director of the Old Vic in London.)
Between 1998 and 2013, Sandler had 14 movies that topped $100 million in domestic box office, including last year’s Grown Ups 2 ($133 million). Only three “Adam Sandler movies” (i.e. movies with Sandler sensibility, not ones he merely starred in) during that period did less than nine figures domestically. Only one, That’s My Boy, didn’t hit the mark globally. (The other two were the universally reviled twincest film Jack and Jill, which becomes genuinely compellingly the more times you watch it, and 2014’s attempted return-to-family-friendly-form Blended, co-starring two-time co-star Drew Barrymore.)
Despite the recent hiccups, this is a remarkable feat for any performer that is made even more remarkable when you realize he’s doing it in his own type of movie. There is such a thing as an “Adam Sandler movie,” a comedy subgenre that he created and where he rules. You know the tropes. He’s always a man-child – sometimes the emphasis is on man, sometimes it’s on child, but the end point is the same. Unlike the Apatow-brand man-child, there is no underlying humanity or intelligence; it’s all base humor as its basest. Supporting roles will be populated by his friends (Rob Schneider, David Spade, Kevin James, heir apparent Nick Swardson, Colin Quinn who deserves better, etc.). It’ll have weird moments, but lack the dedication to or understanding of true absurdity that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have mastered. And, for his most recent fare, he’ll have kids to share in the zaniness.
Of course, box office grosses don’t tell the full story. There’s the production budget, which nobody can really know for sure due to questionable Hollywood accounting methods. However, over the past four years, four of his movies had ridiculous reported $80 million budgets (Boy had $70 million and Blended had $40 million), and they are essentially just Sandler sitting around making fart jokes with his friends. Sure Jack and Jill used 1990s sitcom split screen technology to create two Sandlers, but it’s a bit dubious to believe that cost more than twice the purported production budget of District 9.
Of course, production budgets are only a small piece of this pie. Marketing budgets can easily equal if not exceed the production budget, especially for studio tentpoles such as Sandler flicks. A movie topping $100 million seems less impressive when you realize a good portion of that is going towards advertisements.
But wait. There’s more. Sandler is notorious for packing his movies with product placement. His shilling makes the famous “Bow To Any Sponsors” scene in Wayne’s World look positively subtle. Jack and Jill had a Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement as the main plot point of the film. This funding can certainly defray costs before the film even hits theaters. And what happens when you throw in international box office, DVD/Blu-Ray sales, Video on Demand, cable deals?
So I guess that’s an incredibly long way to go to say, I have no idea if Sandler’s movies are profitable. Some are, some aren’t, some are a push. But studios continue working with him and funding his projects. He even has a big summer release coming for July 2015 – Pixels directed by Home Alone‘s Chris Columbus and released by Sony. And whether or not the movies make up their budget, $100 million takes are nothing to scoff at. Clearly, he has something of a fandom.
Some might see Sandler taking the deal as a sign that he’s losing his sway over the Hollywood elite and is retreating from the studios because they don’t want him anymore (an unfortunate and outdated stigma that was applied to filmmakers and actors during the rise of premium cable in the late 1990s/early 2000s). Or it could be a sign that he knows what he’s doing and is interested in being on the forefront of a new and untested endeavor as any, dare I say, auteur should want to be. I am inclined to believe the latter. It takes more than luck to be at the top of the comedy pyramid for essentially 15 consecutive years, and when you can command the budgets he does, clearly he has some sense that his man-child screen persona belies. He’s one of the biggest comedy stars of all time and still has to fight to get his movies made. Why not take a guaranteed four picture deal that comes with inherent publicity and attention?
But in the end, Sandler is just another producer/star. A major one to be sure, but not the man to bring down the Hollywood system (though how hilarious would it be if he was?). Broadcast and cable television have co-existed with Netflix, and neither of them have imploded. Moreover, they have developed a mutually beneficially relationship in some ways. The studios have co-existed with HBO Films for decades without Hollywood losing its power, even as major stars and directors take sojourns to the world of pay cable. HBO has the same limited access nature as Netflix, although their films would rarely rise to the level of a popular hit in the way a Sandler film could.
The entire nature of delivering and viewing films and series has changed tremendously over the past several years, but it’s still a very prestigious club. When throwing down the gauntlet, it’s crucial having a strong product or figure to get the media and public’s attention. It could be done with a particularly well received film or, more easily, with a name that everyone knows – a quality that Sandler definitely meets, far more so than a sequel to a 15-year-old martial arts film.
After that? Who knows. This initial launch may then be used to fund smaller projects or more prestigious larger ones. Sandler’s success could end up providing more experimental filmmakers with the opportunities to get their works made and seen. Or it could be a catastrophe that forces Netflix to nurse its wounds by focuses exclusively on original series, such as Daredevil and the rest of its four-series Marvel deal.
For all the talk about how this is the moment things changed, it probably isn’t. No more than Bojack Horseman caused the death of [adult swim]. Netflix Studios movies will be just another avenue in our wide and increasingly growing array of distribution channels. But there’s no better testament to the Internet or to history than applying “sky is falling” claims to this probable blip on the vast media landscape.