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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Netflix’s 2023 Movies Illustrate a Sad Fact About Streaming

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

This week, like a couple eagerly awaiting their nuptials, Netflix sent out a “save the date.” It came in the form of a sizzle reel, soundtracked by Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” and featured glimpses of all the big films the streaming service will be putting out this year. It was … fine? Like, sure, I’m going to watch that Extraction sequel where Chris Hemsworth throws an axe, and that one featuring Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill with a truly awful haircut. Maybe that Zack Snyder sci-fi thingamabob. But beyond that, these films do not appear awe-inspiring, or, as Rebecca Alter put it for Vulture, “they all feel even more generic somehow, like the Kirkland-label versions of movies.” 

Is this entirely bad? No. Action movies and rom-coms are fun! Netflix doesn’t have a lot of franchises like Disney does, so it’s gotta fill its airwaves with films capable of keeping people liking and subscribing. Ergo, B-level movies starting A-list stars—Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher in a quirky film from the writer of 27 Dresses (Your Place or Mine)! Gal Gadot doing some kind of Salt thing (Heart of Stone)! Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in a sequel to Murder Mystery (Murder Mystery 2)! (You’re forgiven for not remembering there was a first installment on that last one.)   

But, when you’re Netflix, you’re setting the tone, making the cultural artifacts of the era. Sure, every studio needs to produce a few sure-fire people-pleasers a year, but one of the early promises of Netflix—and of streaming broadly—was that it would provide a platform for independent films, for the wicked and strange. Yes, those movies still exist on Netflix, somewhere, but they’re not the ones that get hyped in sizzle reels. If these are the must-see movies of 2023, the ones viewers are supposed to set their watches by, it’s already shaping up to be a fairly by-the-numbers year. 

Watching Netflix’s teaser feels even more stark during this week. Not because this is the week when Reed Hastings stepped down as Netflix's co-CEO, but because it marks the start of the Sundance Film Festival. In previous years, Netflix and Amazon showed up with checkbooks open, ready to give top dollar to the next indie darling. There’s still some of that—Amazon picked up In My Mother’s Skin from Ma director Kenneth Dagatan ahead of this year’s fest—but Netflix has moved on to using the festival as a place to premiere its own films, like it did with the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana

Some of this, of course, is the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time during which Sundance and other festivals had to greatly restrict or cancel their in-person events, the places where movies—and their creators and stars—got the ever-elusive buzz needed to catch a streaming service’s eye. But now that film festivals are resuming live screenings, and going back to their indie roots, the emphasis seems to have shifted at Netflix. Coupled with similar shifts at HBO Max, it seems as though streaming is continuing to lose its edge—at a time when it really could be making a point. 

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