Early last year, Universal Pictures won a heated Hollywood bidding war when it agreed to slap down up to $160 million to fund Dwayne Johnson’s upcoming action adventure blockbuster, Red Notice, based on a pitch meeting and Johnson’s star power alone. No script.
That included a $20 million payday for Johnson, an eight-figure check for director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Skyscraper) and what we assume to be significant salaries for Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, who would later join the cast. Yet on Monday, in the midst of a progress-to-production timeline lapse built into the contract, Universal pulled Red Notice from its 2020 release schedule and shopped the script to Netflix (NFLX), which had previously been an aggressive bidder.
Whatever pressure is exerting its force on this year’s underwhelming box office, Universal must have once believed that the triumvirate power of the Rock, Wonder Woman and Deadpool could alleviate it. And for a studio that has managed to keep pace in the franchise wars without the safety net of superheroes, a star-studded non-IP original action blockbuster was extremely on brand.
Now it’s heading to Netflix in one of 2019’s most glaring “Wait, what?” examples of deal-making. Shock, meet whiplash.
It’s possible Universal received the script and didn’t love what they saw on the page. The studio had distributed Johnson and Thurber’s Skyscraper last year, which disappointed with $305 million worldwide against a significant $125 million budget. Quality matters. Universal may have been struck with buyer’s remorse after committing $160 million to a would-be franchise launching pad not based on pre-existing material, especially in today’s risky theatrical landscape. Jordan Peele’s Us is the only film among the top-10 highest domestic grossers this year that isn’t based on established content or is a franchised sequel (we still love you, John Wick: Chapter 3). It’s hard to get audiences to buy a ticket to something new.
But on a long-enough timeline, IP is a non-renewable resource despite the deluge of sequels, prequels and reboots that flood our multiplexes every month. Every property has a shelf life and as studios exceedingly mine their own libraries for new features, the hope was that there would eventually be room for new titles supported by glossy stars and high-concept fun. If Johnson, Gadot and Reynolds can’t get an original blockbuster off the ground, who the hell can? That’s the $1 billion question that strikes fear into the hearts of every single studio executive.
From a traditional cinematic standpoint, this is a deflating and somewhat scary turn of events. But if you’re stationed at Netflix headquarters, you’re probably putting towels down right now to soak up all the champagne being popped. As we’ve seen with previous high-profile Netflix acquisitions, the streamer doesn’t need a title to be good necessarily, it just needs it to be attention-grabbing (see: The Cloverfield Paradox). Of course, Netflix wants to win Oscars as validation and to attract more A-list talent. But it doesn’t need to worry about box office dollars and marketing costs, it just needs to churn out a consistent supply of splashy originals to drive subscription growth and buzz. Acquiring Red Notice does exactly that. If it’s good, Netflix will strut its blockbuster bonafides and take one step closer to replacing the recently-acquired Fox as Hollywood’s sixth major film studio. If it isn’t good, Netflix will continue to champion itself as a home for films Hollywood doesn’t want to make. Even if it’s out nine-figures, it still wins.
Yes, this does seem to fly in the face of the recent report from The Information that stated Netflix was reigning in its spending on risky films. But this is also the same streaming platform that has teased a “cinematic onslaught” complete with 90 movies per year and $200 million blockbusters. Their business approach is basically the shrug emoji.
Is this good for the consumer? It depends on what type of consumer you fancy yourself. Purists can reasonably lament the exceedingly narrow theatrical model and bemoan non-adventurous ticket buyers for putting Hollywood in this position. They can scorch digital earth over the traditional industry’s risk-averse tactics and point out that the cycle will never be broken without an eventual chips-in-the-middle move. Streaming connoisseurs, on the other hand, can trumpet this move as further mainstream validation while Netflix adds a huge title to its arsenal whether it’s good or bad. Those viewership numbers within the first 72 hours of Red Notice‘s release are going to be big regardless.
In the end, a star-studded blockbuster seemingly tailor-made for the big screen will instead be available on Netflix. It will reach more people, but fade from the zeitgeist quicker.