In Defense of Netflix Original Films

In 2015, we were presented with this trailer. Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation was the streaming giant's first foray into live action film production. Up until this point they had created critically acclaimed television shows, like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, and they had put out some comedy specials for Bill Burr, Craig Ferguson, and Chelsea Handler (among others). However, this film was different.

Netflix wasn't just creating a film. With Beasts of No Nation, and with a high-caliber director like Fukunaga, Netflix was pushing what it meant to release a film. With no theaters, no DVD or Blu-Ray sales, and no marketing campaign beyond some social media outlets, they released a $6 million film to its, at that time, 57 million subscribers.

Beasts of No Nation received widespread social and critical acclaim. It promised a level of quality, too -- or, if not promised, at least insinuated -- which excited viewers. If Netflix could consistently release films of this quality, they could change the face of filmmaking, and of film distribution, forever.

As many know, though, that's not what happened. The next Netflix original film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny was panned by critics and audiences. Since these two films, Netflix Original films have oscillated between well received and panned, with the case often being the latter option.

Metascore Rating of Netflix Original Films

6 films have been omitted for lack of critical reviews

As you can see, the critical reception of these films is all over the place. While there are some standout entries (Beasts of No Nation, Tramps, Okja, I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore, etc.), many of these films receieve average, or below average, reviews.

To compound this, many Netflix subscribers leave poor reviews on these films, vocalizing their dissent for the film's quality, and -- sometimes -- for the concept of Netflix's venture to create original films for their subscribers. In fact, some subscribers feel that Netflix should stick to TV and streaming existing films, not creating films of their own.

This dissent towards Netflix, and their original films, was even seen at the Cannes Film Festival this year, when an entire theater booed Netflix's logo at a screening of Okja. Despite the director, Joon-ho Bong, being well regarded, and despite Okja's critical and social praise the Netflix logo itself was enough to cause outrage.

So we are presented with two questions:

  1. Why do so many people dislike Netflix Original films?
  2. What benefit do they offer Netflix subscribers, and filmmakers?
A still from Nic Mathieu's 2016 film, Spectral. Available on Netflix.

A still from Nic Mathieu's 2016 film, Spectral. Available on Netflix.

To begin, let's address that first question: why do so many people dislike Netflix originals?

From my perspective, it can be boiled down to two things: they are often poor in terms of quality, and nobody really cares about them.

As you saw in the chart above, many of the films that Netflix produces and releases through its platform are just "okay". Some are poor, some are great, but most get average reviews. Netflix also has a lot of users who are subscribing looking for films they want to watch. Whether someone subscribed to see The Avengers every night for the next month, or they subscribed because someone told them that Breaking Bad is available to watch, most Netflix subscribers aren't subscribing specifically to see original Netflix content.

As you can imagine, average films aren't going to persuade subscribers that the "Netflix films" venture is a valid one. I'm sure if you took a poll of the people currently subscribed to Netflix, most would advocate putting money towards other ventures (like their TV shows, which are doing very well, or towards getting more popular films available to stream) than they would advocate for funding Netflix original films.

And, to be fair, there have really only been two highly acclaimed, popular films that have challenged this notion: Beasts of No Nation, which was released way back in 2015, and Okja. The other 29 films that have been released with the "Netflix Original" descriptor often are not up to the standards of quality these two films are.

A still from Charlie McDowell's 2017 film, The Discovery. Available on Netflix.

A still from Charlie McDowell's 2017 film, The Discovery. Available on Netflix.

The other reason these films are often poor in quality is because they are being created by beginning writers and directors. Alistair Legrand, who directed the 2017 Netflix film, Clinical, had only directed one feature film beforehand. Emily Hagins, who directed the 2017 Netflix film, Coin Heist, is a young writer and director. She had made feature films previously, but this was probably her first time making a film that would be seen by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Karl Mueller, who directed the 2016 Netflix film, Rebirth, had only directed one feature previously.

Sensing a pattern?

Netflix is a business, and their consumers want films they already like. It is very hard to get someone to watch a film they've never seen before (unless coaxed into it by a relative or a friend), and when you do manage to get someone to watch your film there is always the chance that they will be disappointed by it. Will Netflix lose subscribers over their original films? Most likely not, considering they still offer a huge library of popular films and TV shows that people love. However, they won't gain many, either. Or, at least, they won't gain many people who are interested in exploring their original films.

Now let's address the second question: what benefit do they offer Netflix subscribers, and filmmakers?

The theater nowadays seems less diverse than ever. People like to gripe about the influx of superhero movies, sequels, and remakes. They're not wrong when they point this out, either -- now, more than ever, Hollywood is cashing in on nostalgia and spectacle. On top of that, the costs at the theater are rising. Ticket prices are soaring, and many people -- who are trying to tighten the belt a bit -- cannot justify spending money, and time, going to the theater.

Netflix is in an interesting position, then, because they offer instant access to new, and beloved, films from all over the world. While most families may be content with Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, the more adventurous viewers will find interesting independent nuggets that make the monthly cost worth it.

Netflix original films are a way for Netflix to challenge theaters. Right now you can watch films that have already been released, but you can't watch films that are in theaters -- nobody can acquire those screening rights except for the theaters themselves. But if Netflix can create high quality, new, and exciting content for its subscribers, they can get people to stay home and watch their films. Instead of Joe and Jane deliberating about whether or not to see Fast and the Furious 57, they can sit on the couch and watch a brand new Netflix film from the comfort of their couch.

Furthermore, Netflix is much more adventurous itself in what it funds. Showrunners often are told to push the envelope, for example. Scripts that may seem absolutely ridiculous are funded. Directors are given virtually complete artistic freedom to make their film without a studio breathing down their neck, and back-seat driving.

That is an incredible freedom, both for filmmakers and for viewers. Viewers get access to interesting, new, fresh films, and filmmakers are allowed to create the art they want to create.

This does have its pitfalls, though, and we've already discussed the main one: quality. It's noble to want to provide filmmakers and audiences with the freedom to create and watch new things, but we often end up with poorer films as a result.

A still from Macon Blair's 2017 Netflix film, I Don't Feel at Home In This World Anymore.

A still from Macon Blair's 2017 Netflix film, I Don't Feel at Home In This World Anymore.

The Netflix original film needs to stay, though, for all the reasons people hate them.

It cannot be understated how important a platform like Netflix is for new, and unestablished filmmakers. The film business requires filmmakers to jump through hoops, and work within the parameters of the studio system. The independent scene is even more difficult, as it requires filmmakers to find funding of their own most of the time, in hopes that their film will get some sort of distribution deal at a festival.

By funding a wide variety of scripts and film ideas, Netflix is unleashing young filmmakers upon the world. They are providing their tool to promising individuals who otherwise may never have been able to make the film they wanted to make. Sure, those films may not be of the best quality. Sure, we may have to suffer through a few stinkers to get to a decent one. But you know, every time you watch a Netflix original film, that you are getting the pure, unedited vision from a filmmaker. You're getting purity in a way you know you're not when you go to the theater.

If Netflix were to end this venture, or to restrict it to established filmmakers, it would be defeating the purpose of the venture itself. If Netflix's aim is to create new, quality content that rivals what theaters offer, then they need young filmmakers. And by virtue of working with young filmmakers, there will be some poor quality films (and sometimes Netflix will make deals with people like Adam Sandler, which will make all of us scratch our heads).

The Netflix original is not loved by all, or by many, but it is cherished by the few who need it. Without Netflix producing original content, we wouldn't have films like Tallulah, or Barry, or Tramps, all of which are well reviewed, well received, well made films from young (or new), up-and-coming directors. Not every film will be a success, but when it comes to getting what we want -- great, original content -- we'll have to suffer a few losses every now and then.

Netflix still needs to work out its model, and its budgeting system. However, we need the Netflix original film available to us. Netflix is one of the few film distribution businesses that is providing new, and original, content to its subscribers. They are one of the few people standing up to the homogeny we see at the theater right now. That's not to say seeing a film at a theater should be dismissed, or avoided, but it's nice to know we have an extensive library of films at our disposal when we're too tired to make the trek out to the cinema.