The Highwaymen and Netflix, Hollywood Killer or Rescuer?

Over the last couple of years the streaming giant has both invested in film and continued to shirk the old Hollywood rules of theatrical windows. They’ve circumvented the unspoken holiness of Cannes, AMPAS, and other institutions while making/buying/funding movies they don’t make anymore and budging from their own rule book just enough for Roma to break through the noise of Oscar v. Netflix. Is Netflix an industry killer per the worst of our premonitions, or are they coming to the rescue of lost genres and mid-budget dramas? Either way, their dual identities paint an intriguing picture.

Many regard Big Red with a sort of cultish adoration once reserved for Apple. They view the streaming giant as a great equalizer, giving poor folk greater access and giving filmmakers and creators freedom to experiment and freedom from the pressures of box office clout. This is all true. It’s also true that internet access can be an economic firewall and algorithms have replaced pure dollars and cents. And if Netflix were so concerned about film and the future of ALL cinema, as they claim, wouldn’t they follow the Amazon model? Offering a three-month theatrical window would be easy peasy, not to mention a way to appease the old Hollywood gods and eschew unnecessary controversy come Oscar season. They’re not some benevolent creator, only pure of heart and good intent. They’re a corporation with shareholders and quarter goals every year, and that means prioritizing a world where “I’ll Netflix it instead” is an ongoing tradition.

Every soul has a counterpoint, as Adelaide and family learned two short weeks ago. Netflix might operate like any other business, looking out for numero uno, but they’ve lived up to their angelic modus operandi in a single way: rescuing the mid-budget movie. Romantic comedies and $40 million dramas have all but disappeared at the multiplex, genres subject to the whims of an audience who’d rather watch ‘em and chill than spend forty bucks on a night out. Last summer Netflix went all in on the former, offering The Kissing Booth, Set it Up, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in a span of weeks. Recently, between J.C. Chandor’s military thriller Triple Frontier and the Bonnie and Clyde shoot-em-up The Highwaymen, it’s clear Big Red is going for big genres long forgotten by Hollywood standards. So far they’re doing a bang-up job too.

Frontier is a well-made, crackerjack action film with charismatic performers at the helm. It’s muscular filmmaking and all that that entails. Chandor employs speeding dollies among sweeping sets, be it the slums of Colombia or the slopes of the Andes, and the result is propulsive, often tense fire-play through the jungles and mountains of the far far south. The film enjoys a scope hardly seen on the big screen anymore, not for this price anyway. Mid-budget action films have been pushed aside for more superheroes, so it’s nice to see Netflix coming to the rescue, no matter their dubious intentions overall. And it’s a testament to their stated goals of serious filmmaking and free sandboxes that Frontier was made at all. For years it was stuck in development hell at Paramount Pictures, rotating through a series of stars.

The Highwaymen might pale in comparison to its counterpoint, the 1967 classic, but it’s a thoughtful picture of changing mores, post-Depression life, and the lingering toll on working-class families. Much like today, 1934 was a time of transition, between the old way and the new order, between cowboy law and crime scene investigation. Intentionally or not, Highwaymen posits a running truth, that people turn to celebrities (no matter how horrible their actions) in times of desperation. If people can adore two serial killers bucking the law, it’s not so unbelievable they’d adore a politician doing the same. Netflix’s good intentions have not been reserved for macho actioners only, with Set It Up freshening the romantic comedy and female-led Cam yanking the erotic thriller into 2018.

Time will tell whether the streaming giant continues to make good on their promises, to put their money where their mouth is for movies big (screen) and small (screen), or if they will double-down on their unspoken goal of upending the industry forever. Their release strategy for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Irishman will tell us much about where they’re headed in the next few years. Will they capitulate to the filmmakers who want their money but not their small-screen exaltation? Will they continue to compromise their fortunes for the sake of prestige and Oscar credibility? Either way, they’re a company at odds navigating an industry at a crossroads.

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