- 17 Apr 19
In bypassing cinemas here, Ben Affleck shoot ‘em up Triple Frontier has positioned itself on the frontline of the looming conflict between Hollywood and Netflix.
The battle lines have been drawn between television and cinema. Or, more accurately, between streaming services and the big Hollywood studios. Steven Spielberg wants Netflix-backed features – he’s probably thinking of Roma rather than Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store, we suspect – excluded from the Oscars (the American Justice Department says, “not so fast”). “Fuck Netflix,” proclaimed Helen Mirren at a cinema owner’s convention recently. Promoting Dunkirk in 2017, Christopher Nolan couldn’t open his mouth without letting fly another anti-Netflix whinge. It’s an emotive subject.
But there’s another side to the debate, feels Triple Frontier director JC Chandor. Netflix’s hit new feature stars Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund as grey-at-the-temples military men, who put their unique talents to work raiding a drug lord’s villa in South America.
It was originally supposed to be distributed by Paramount but fell by the wayside (alongside Dick Cheney biopic Vice), when the studio rang the changes. Enter Netflix which not only bankrolled the project – but also gave the green-light to an opening 20 minutes filmed entirely in Spanish.
“They have that experience with Narcos,” Chandor says. “They realise their audience is sophisticated. The story, without its opening in Spanish, would not have made any sense. They are able, with their intense knowledge of their viewers, to know that all over the world people love this kind of thing.”
Netflix recently responded to Spielberg by saying it wanted cinema for everyone, not just those with the means to regularly go to the movies. The ongoing spat is part of the flux the business is going through, Chandor feels.
“We’re in this transition time, with big screens in everyone’s homes,” he says. “To see a screen as big as that… as storytellers, putting your head in the sand is not at good idea. We’re at a really tricky point. As storytellers for better or worse we are going to have to adapt.”
The biggest difference he has noticed as he himself crosses over is that he is sweating far less over box office. Actually he’s not sweating at all as Netflix does not share its ratings – not even with acclaimed directors.
“Normally these days right before a movie – you are so nervous. If your film doesn’t work that first weekend then it’s not good. My movies have always been more slow-burn – I haven’t had much box office success. My movies work on other platforms. Audiences now have everything at their fingertips and Netflix’s model is providing storytellers like me the opportunity to play with a bigger pallet.”
“It’s gotten so competitive – the volume of films receiving theatrical release has shrunk,” adds actor Charlie Hunnam. “When I came to Hollywood in 1998, the studio system was responsible for about 600 movies a year. Right now, we’re operating about 10 per cent of that. The consequence is that the opportunities for everyone who works in film rapidly reduces. That is based upon the trajectory of the expectations of grand spectacle. That grand spectacle is incredibly expensive to produce.
“There was a certain level of cooperation within the studios not to compete with each other within the weekend. Because of the enormous cost, there is a necessity for there to be a pre-existing awareness of the subject matter. So you have this cannibalising cycle which prevents original, daring programming being made for theatrical release. I’ve seen that trajectory very clearly in the last 10 years of my career.
“What the streaming platforms do is create a venue for that smaller, more original and more difficult material to get made – obviously as a participant in film-making, I love it and think it’s very, very valuable. I don’t think the two need to be in enormous conflict. They are for the most part providing different services.”
Chandor, as he says, has enjoyed critical acclaim more than ringing box office tills. Margin Call, his 2011 Wall Street thriller with Paul Bethany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and, erm, Kevin Spacey, went down will with critics, but didn’t really find its audience until home release. Ditto All Is Lost, his 2013 one-man-against the element parable starring a stoic Robert Redford.
Triple Frontier is different. It’s a beefy, not particularly brainy, action flick that harks back to the ’70s heyday of slow-moving shoot-em ups. There’s lots of Affleck and the gang creeping through the jungle, occasionally uncorking their machine guns.
However it functions, in addition, as a meditation on middle age – ravaged by life, our heroes feel all washed up – and as a critique of how the American military abandons the very people who have given it their entire adult lives.
“The whole industry in America has bifurcated,” says Chandor. “We have tonnes and tonnes of smaller films. And you have these other movies, which are Marvel and Star Wars, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The movies I’ve always loved are the ones in between – big, muscular, exciting, broad. Bigger entertainment that’s trying to say something.”
How would he feel if Spielberg had his wish and Triple Frontier was disqualified from the Oscars?
“I’ve chased awards before. Perhaps too far,” he says. “This isn’t that kind of movie. But this film was never intended to go down that road. It’s true that the theatrical industry and streaming TV are at loggerheads. The business needs to figure out these things. Any time you have a technology that comes in and blows everything away there are going to be changes.”
Triple Frontier is on Netflix now.
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