Annihilation: the Changing Model of Distribution

Following the surprise success of Ex Machina in 2014, writer/director Alex Garland was tapped by Paramount pictures to adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s science fiction novel, Annihilation, for the screen. With Garland’s post-Ex Machina buzz, an estimated budget of $55 million and seasoned stars like Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film was expected to follow the model of Arrival and Gravity: high-concept, female-driven science fiction films with the ability to cross over (i.e. awards potential and mainstream appeal). However, just a few months prior to its February 23rd release, Paramount announced that they have sold international rights to Netflix, who will stream the movie on its platform a mere seventeen days after its theatrical release in the US, Canada, and China. This announcement came on the heels of rumor that the film tested poorly with audiences, and that the executive producers, Scott Rudin and David Ellison, disagreed with one another creatively. Though the decision to pull the film from a worldwide theatrical release may seem harsh, it’s imperative to understand the greater picture.

Ellison, who has fared well with mainstream action films like the Mission:Impossible and Jack Ryan series, is said to have wanted Garland to rework the film so it was more accessible to wider audiences, and to make Portman’s character more sympathetic. However, the final cut of the film was given to Rudin (whose credits include more critically acclaimed fare like The Social Network, No Country for Old Men, and this year’s Lady Bird), who has stood by Garland’s cut of the film and opted not to take the studio’s notes. In an interview with IndieWire, Garland stated that when a studio “agree[s] to make the film, then it becomes like a contract… There’s a creative agreement. If people do have a problem, and that’s fine if they do, but the time to express that is early, not late.” And he’s absolutely right, in theory. However, there’s a reason only the most esteemed directors receive the final cut. With the massive cost it takes to produce and distribute a film of this magnitude, studios and financiers need the security of being able to test films with audiences and give notes that they think will make the film appeal to a wide audience. Are they always right? One need only look at the list of box office bombs (we’re looking at you, Battleship) to know the answer. However, consider that even with its success, Garland’s previous film made $39 million worldwide. That isn’t enough to cover the production cost of Annihilation, much less the P&A campaign required to launch a film at that level. Of the six films he has written and/or executive produced prior to Ex Machina, only one, The Beach, made enough money to cover the cost necessary to open Annihilation worldwide.

The reality is that when a filmmaker signs on to do a studio movie, he or she knows they are giving up certain freedoms in order to make a big budget film. Unless an advertising campaign was contractually agreed upon by Paramount, the studio held up its end of the deal by funding the film, giving the director enough creative freedom throughout to make the movie he wanted to make, and then standing by when Garland and Rudin refused to make changes. Should the studio be expected to risk millions more in advertising and distribution costs, when they don’t think the director’s cut of the film will turn a profit at the box office? That would be irresponsible, and would likely lead to even fewer films being made.

A final consideration before regarding the Netflix deal as punitive would be the gains one makes in terms of viewers when a film is available on a streaming service. As a filmmaker who has sold a film to Netflix and to a studio myself, I can say that it’s more gratifying to have a film that is widely seen, which is what the platform allows. Having your film play in theaters feels good in terms of ego, but having it be accessible to the masses is a wonderful privilege, and allows you to share in the experience on a completely different level. And isn’t that the point of filmmaking? In this shifting landscape of digital and theatrical films, splitting a film’s rights may provide greater opportunities for filmmakers to have their cake and eat it, too. You get to have a theatrical run, a large audience, and the studio is more secure and thus more willing to invest in your vision again.