This week saw Netflix release The Cloverfield Paradox, a film that had completed production in 2016 and was - according to its writer, Oren Uziel - difficult to market as a standalone film.
In an interview with Collider.com earlier this week, Uziel explained that the decision to make it a part of the Cloverfield franchise was primarily done as a marketing exercise and as a way to push through and connect with audiences through the means of familiarity. "It’s not a guarantee; the cast is different, we don’t know exactly what we’re getting, but if that stamp of approval of being part of the Cloverfield universe is enough, that’s a huge win," explained Uziel.
Paramount received $50 million from Netflix's boundless coffers for the film, and saved them the embarrassment of another commercial and critical failure after a year of several, high-profile flops. The film now stands at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of 54%. Metacritic rates it at 37%. By any stretch of the imagination, the film was a failure waiting to happen, and tacking on the Cloverfield name reads like a shallow attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
This isn't the first sci-fi film Netflix has taken on that major studios have balked at. Duncan Jones' long-awaited sci-fi gumshoe noir, Mute, is due to reach the streaming service at the end of this month. In a deal announced just yesterday, Netflix purchased another brainy sci-fi film from Universal, this one written by Arrival scribe Eric Heisserer and directed by Ben Young, best known for directing festival hit Hounds Of Love.
Not only that, Netflix will release another sci-fi film that originally began life in Paramount - Alex Garland's follow-up to Ex Machina, an adaptation of Annihilation - in international territories whilst the film will receive what's likely to be a limited release in the US.
While the outcome and reception for these films isn't yet clear, experience tells us that cerebral sci-fi in this vein never does well with mainstream cinema audiences. Blade Runner 2049, the vaunted sequel to Ridley Scott's classic, was considered a box-office bomb despite the plaudits it received from critics and audiences alike. With a production budget of $150 million, Blade Runner 2049 mustered $259 million in the global box office. How much was spent on marketing remains a mystery, but a tentpole film like this, a conservative estimate would put it anywhere in the region of $50 million.
With the dawn of franchises and CGI spectacles, it's harder and harder for sci-fi films - the kind that Netflix has been buying up of late - to make a dent in cinemas. If audiences see a sci-fi film, they expect explosions and the kind of over-the-top action they'd see in something like a comic-book movie. 2013's Gravity, which may have had the trappings of a sci-fi film, was really just a survival thriller in space. The experience of the film demanded it be seen in a cinema because of the scale of every set-piece in the film.
While the likes of Mute and Annihilation may loan themselves to the idea of a cinema being the intended medium, the fact is that there's little space for their kind anymore when they're sandwiched between Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and horror entries and the like. It's a shame, because these films - if given the chance - could benefit from a cinematic experience. Early reviews for Annihilation are hailing it as a complex masterpiece. It's no surprise that studios are dumping out films that are deemed too risky to release, and the numbers don't lie that leaden sci-fi films such as these won't set box-offices on fire.
Maybe they never did.
2001: A Space Odyssey was largely derided by the mainstream press on its arrival, and were it not for some creative thinking in terms of how it played in certain cinemas as a roadshow event (almost like a touring musical group), it would have brought about the end of MGM. The film is widely recognised as one of the most groundbreaking achievements in cinema history. What would have happened to 2001: A Space Odyssey today? Would MGM just take the decision to dump it out on Netflix? And what would audiences have lost if it had?
Obviously, you can't compare 1969 with today's marketplace. The sheer volume of content means that studios and filmmakers have to come up with new ways to break through to reach viewers, and film studios have more competition now than they ever have, and are more likely to base a decision to greenlight a film on cold, hard data rather than instinct or vision.
And while that lack of imagination may mean more audience-friendly fare in the multiplexes, it'll mean that one-off, original, sci-fi films will still have a life - just not in cinemas.