Since stepping into the spotlight, Darren Aronofsky has been a director saddled with controversy. Though, perhaps "saddled" is the wrong word in this case: film after film, Aronofsky proves that he not only attracts controversy, but welcomes it with open arms.
His newest endeavor is no exception. Mother! came to mainstream attention with a terrifying, if vague, trailer dropped just a few weeks before it would roll into theaters. Audience expectation (at least from dedicated Aronofsky fans and film nerds) was high, so when the film was branded with the dreaded F from CinemaScore, it looked likely that the Black Swan director would be dragged before Paramount and crucified.
But then something strange happened — something that betrats common notions of Hollywood suits and studio mechanics. Paramount's president of marketing and distribution, Megan Collins, defended Aronofsky against the onslaught of criticism, going so far as to say that not all films should be easy-viewing and that, "...everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don't want all movies to be safe." In short, they were opting for art over money.
The Post-Netflix Age Of Film
To really understand this seemingly sudden shift in tone, one need look no further than our own streaming services. After all, Netflix and Amazon have been posing themselves as threats to the studio model for years now. Ever since Netflix debuted House of Cards back in 2013, it has been chugging away towards a lofty future, one that will no longer see a dominance of a market long held and financed by a handful of massive studios. The dig at Netflix by Paramount could understandably be seen as the bark of a dog backed into a very tight corner.
Take last year's Academy Awards, for instance. The contentious Best Picture race aside, one of the big moments came when Amazon, formerly a website for buying bulk diapers and batteries, took home three Oscars.
It's not hard to see why. These companies, beyond their inherent broad audience appeal, have a real appeal for talented, artistically-minded filmmakers. Woody Allen, who has now made two films with Amazon, says as much.
"Amazon is a perfect example of a company that’s so successful that someone like me is peanuts and chump change. These guys make billions. They’re worth billions and billions. So I come along and I make films for a pittance. So they can reach in their pocket and say, 'Give it to him and shut him up,' ... And if it loses a few bucks they couldn’t care less. And the people up there like the quality of my work. They like the films. Not everybody does, but they do."
In short, they don't need your movie to make money — they just want it to be good. But if Amazon is looking to be a player in the film studio game, Netflix is looking to blow the whole thing up. Instead of opting for the movie theater route, Netflix has, traditionally, released its films via its service and (for the most part) left it at that. Audiences may choose to access their films at their leisure, and aside from the monthly fee, there's no price of admission. This has been, according to several directors releasing films through Netflix, a welcome change to the film-release model.
"Macon Blair, Charlie McDowell, and Jake Johnson...were all relieved that their movies, none of which were guaranteed hits, didn’t have to deal with the judgment passed on films that fail to catch on in theaters."
Undoubtedly, it will not stop there. With Netflix recently buying up a sizable chunk of last year's Sundance catalog, it's slated to stay at the forefront of independent film distribution, ensuring a steady influx of artistic types and die-hard film fans to their service. But perhaps more important than this, it means that the kinds of films that your average film viewer has ready access to will diversify from the standard superhero popcorn fare. Suddenly, the proliferation of indie films will no longer be relegated to the art house, but will be streaming into millions of homes across the world. Traditional film studios will need to play catch-up.
The Rise Of Artist-Friendly Studios
Of course, some film studios have been hip to this paradigm shift for a while now, and there are a select few that have almost exclusively distributed and produced films by capital "F" filmmakers. Two names that have been flashing across theater screens for a number of years now are A24 and Focus Features. The latter is perhaps best known for one of 2005's more controversial films, Brokeback Mountain, but it's the former that has really made its mark recently, and which has taken the film community by storm.
A24, the studio behind last year's Best Picture winner, Moonlight, and a whole host of other awards-show fodder (The Lobster, Room, It Comes at Night, Good Time), has firmly established itself as an artist-oriented studio. It's been distributing and producing features that appeal to the kinds of audiences that wait for Criterion Collection sales and know the difference between Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman.
But more importantly, the studio has been well-praised for its hands-off, un-studio like approach. Earlier this year, GQ Style ran an article bringing together a long list of A24 collaborators to extoll the company's virtues and hammer in that this is the kind of crowd every filmmaker and actor wants to work with.
Certainly, A24's movies don't make the big bucks like the major studios (as of now, Moonlight is their highest grossing film, with a worldwide box office take of roughly $65 million) but it's disruptive nonetheless — drawing a young, culturally aware audience that demands more from its movies than the larger studios are known for providing.
The Future Of Big Hollywood
But where does this leave those big studios? If the reaction by Paramount to the audience controversy over Mother! is any indication, it means that traditional Hollywood executives are loosening their ties a bit and coming to terms with the idea that the way they've always operated may not be sustainable. Moreover, it may mean stepping back and allowing filmmakers more creative control, before, during and after the movie is made, as seems to be the case with Mother!
Since its release and since hearing complaints lodged at the movie born of intense audience hatred, Aronofksy has held his ground, defying what was once thought of as the single most important factor in the whole Hollywood studio machine: the paying public. But with Mother!, Aronofsky and Paramount seem to have made some unholy pact, one in which the latter is actually listening to the desires of the former. Perhaps studios really are catching on to the importance of intellectually stimulating films. Or, perhaps they're growing increasingly afraid of losing their best assets to up-and-comers like A24 and Netflix.
After all, some directors are already demonstrating that they don't even need the help of big studios to be profitable, let alone artistically free. Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh's fiercely independent outing, has already surpassed its relatively low $29 million budget.
For some time, Hollywood has underestimated the viewing public, and so we have been spoon-fed a heaping amount of craptastic time wasters, ranging from bottom of the barrel comedies to explosion-happy directorial efforts, neither of which Mother! could ever be accused of being. But the more the old way of doing things is challenged, the more studio executives begin to realize that there is another way. Paramount may be one of the first, but it will certainly not be the last.
Do you believe that film studios are slowly shifting towards a more artistically-minded model? Let us know in the comments below!