Mute isn’t a very good movie. Duncan Jones’s latest sci-fi drama has flourishes of originality and some top-notch acting, but those moments of sharpness and specificity are surrounded by such generic filler that the entire viewing experience felt rather pointless. It’s a shame, because it had been one of my most anticipated films of 2018, and the early reviews hadn’t inspired much hope once they made their way through the ether. What starts out as intriguing, but mostly generic, quickly becomes a staggeringly misjudged genre exercise that’s both wildly sexist and utterly baffling on a basic filmmaking level. In other words, it was exactly what the reviews told me it would be.
Yet I still watched it. I still made the decision to log into (my parents’) Netflix account, search for the film - since it wasn’t on the main menu, as you’d expect from a new exclusive release - and spend the next two hours viewing it. Honestly, given the poor state of the general critical consensus and my own limited budget, I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to see the film in cinemas if that had been my only way of seeing it. There’s way more at my local arthouse that demands my attention. Fortunately, Netflix is flexible, and its business model is perfect for those movie lovers who default to laziness. When that happens, the quality of the product is almost redundant.
The dominant force in streaming platforms has a multi-billion dollar strategy designed with the intent to keep customers at home and watching their exclusives as frequently as possible. Not only are they willing to invest more money than anyone else in creating exclusive movies and TV shows for their service, but they’re eager to claim the top spot in every conceivable genre. Whatever your mood is, Netflix wants to have something available to scratch your itch. Ultimately, they want to encourage you to spend less time at the cinema and more time on your couch (as if any of us needed such encouragement). That requires content, of course, but also a plan beyond mere quantity.
We all know Netflix have that in droves, with dozens of new things to watch every month. Keeping up with it is almost a full-time job in the pop culture journalism world. Even the most eagle-eyed writers are guilty of missing a few new movies or documentaries now and then. Yet now, that strategy is being refined to help further their movie ambitions. It’s not enough to have hundreds of cool new movies year after year: You need to make some of those films A Big Deal.
Mute is one of the handful of Netflix original films that’s had some real marketing money thrown behind it. Outside of my TV and computer, this was a film that had some actual presence in reality, with posters on the sides of buses and some traditional press coverage. Like the consistently baffling orc-cop saga Bright before it, this was a film Netflix wanted you to be aware of. In that aspect, their approach was more in line with traditional studios than anything else, and they do that because it works. Whether or not you believe the admittedly difficult to verify Nielsen numbers, Bright was viewed enough times by curious audiences to make an impact (and greenlight a sequel). I’d hazard a guess that Mute may replicate that ‘success’.
The problem is that Netflix have so many original films to push and only so much promotional cash to do so. That and they don’t seem especially excited to get the word out about some of their smaller offerings. Last year, Macon Blair’s drama I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. By that point in time, it had already been picked up by Netflix, so you’d think they’d want to publicize this big award-winning piece of work, but it was quickly dumped on their platform with no fanfare and didn’t even make the front page for most of us. The same thing happened with Angelina Jolie’s truly stunning First They Killed My Father. After storming Telluride and picking up some of the best reviews of Jolie’s directorial career, it went to Netflix and barely made an impact. A lot of us didn’t even know it had premiered there until a week or so later. Dee Rees’ drama Mudbound fared somewhat better - after all, Netflix had shelled out $12m for it at Sundance - but their greatest hopes for Oscar glory still got a fraction of the promotional treatment the orc cops got. Even after landing four Academy Award nominations, many felt it was still being maligned by its distributors.
Like any studio or distributor, Netflix has to walk that line between being commercially viable and artistically legit. These two things are not mutually exclusive, but when it comes to budgeting for promotion, the rules stay the same: Go for the biggest audiences possible. Sometimes, that requires putting your eggs in the basket of high-concept genre fare. Other times, it means going for the biggest name in the room, as seems to have been the case with them acquiring Martin Scorsese’s next film, The Irishman. The most conservative predictions about that film’s budget - and the cost of getting the rights - lean towards $150m or more. This is not a guy who makes cheap movies, but Scorsese is an investment that goes beyond mere money. Scorsese is a name that brings clout to Netflix, the kind they never could have gotten from Adam Sandler exclusives, but it also suggests a unique approach that is immensely appealing to creators. Why worry about problems with the MPAA or international distribution or producer demands when Netflix seem to promise total creative control? Regardless of how big or small your film is, that’s an enticing prospect.
Netflix got The Irishman from Paramount, who are in a spot of bother these days. They also passed on The Cloverfield Paradox and international distribution of Annihilation to the service. Paramount’s troubles aside, this suggests a possible future for Netflix to build on, one where they work in conjunction with the traditional studio system to plug the gaps and distribute exciting films, often without having to put money down for the production itself. It’s a decidedly cheaper option than making $100m movies on the regular (although they did shell out for everything on The Irishman).
Netflix’s objective is simple but lofty: Make lots of movies, make them across the borders of genre, tone and budget, and offer more than anyone else can or will. It’s not an especially sustainable goal - Netflix’s debt is infamous, but investors don’t seem too worried, and their original content budget remains in the billions - but all they need to do is outlast everyone else. Mute is terrible, but it will barely dent their plans. After all, it’s a hell of a lot easier to see a bad movie when you don’t have to leave your house to do so. It’s as good a business strategy as anything else.