In a bizarre move, Paramount has made it abundantly clear that it has little faith in Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s forthcoming film, Annihilation, having opted to skip a theatrical release in all markets except in the U.S. and China following poor test screenings late last year. The notion that the film is “too intellectual” for the average viewer is one that’s been prevalent in the media in the past couple of months since the news hit, and it’s a mind-boggling one to say the least. Garland himself is unhappy about the move, adamant that the film’s visual style is meant for the big screen despite conceding that the near immediate release on Netflix internationally will see it reach more viewers.
It is in many ways a polar opposite situation to the one we’ve seen post-Super Bowl. The Cloverfield Paradox was a seemingly precise and calculated marketing ploy that’s garnered wide-spread approval for its brazen disregard for the rules of film marketing in modern times. Annihilation, by contrast, brings to light the concern that streaming is continuing to damage the cinematic experience. Whilst it would be premature to proclaim that cinemas will die out – it certainly didn’t happen to novels and bookstores when e-books reached popularity – it is concerning to see a film with a reportedly intelligent concept and execution met with contempt by its own distributor. It’s also a baffling reason, should it be true, when we take into consideration films such as Arrival (a Paramount release itself) and Blade Runner 2049; the former was a critical and commercial success while the latter was, admittedly, a box office let down, but both films earned their place on the big screen. They’re just two examples that suggest such concerns are nonsensical.
It highlights a continuing hesitance for studios to put trust in the creators that they’ve hired or the tales that they’re telling. Garland may have gotten lucky. Much of the concern for Annihilation seems to have come in the aftermath of its production as opposed to many current and recent examples where studios have jumped in before things had become irreversible. Solo: A Star Wars Story famously lost its duo of directors over tonal disagreements with producers over at LucasFilm, bringing in Ron Howard to finish things off and shepherd the film to completion the way the studio wanted it.
Of course Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe has been peppered with negative reports of studio tinkering, with the resulting Justice League being very much a product of two contrasting visions mashed together, something that turned out better than it probably had any right to be. Heck, the number of directors that have entered and then exited DC projects at this point rivals the amount of superhero films released in this past decade, and those that stick around often have a hard time of it. David Ayer’s suicide Squad is widely regarded as a mess of a film and Ayer had only six weeks to write a script for the picture given that its release date was set in stone. Many editors had a hand in the post-production phase, and Jared Leto went on record stating that much of the content he filmed as the Joker has been left out of the final cut. That may have been for the best, but it indicates a starkly different film to the one that was initially written up.
Annihilation conversely became the child in the middle of feuding divorcees, with Scott Rudin (producing credits on films such as The Social Network and Lady Bird) at one end and head of Skydance Productions (a co-financier of Paramount’s slate and whose company is behind films such as Terminator: Genisys and Geostorm) David Ellison at the other. Rudin sided with Garland after Ellison voiced concerns over the film’s intellectual and complicated nature and several changes he wished to make in order for it to appeal to a wider audience. Rudin fortunately, had final cut, ensuring that Garland’s vision remained unhindered.
So where does that leave the Natalie Portman-starrer, which has found itself in a predicament that hasn’t really been seen before? It’s a film with the big screen in mind, according to Garland, and based on early reviews it could well be a masterpiece. Garland earned the faith of the studio following Ex Machina, the low budget sci-fi film that took everybody by surprise and more than doubled its budget at the worldwide box office. Annihilation highlights a worrying trend the film world when it comes to smart, mid-budget films and how well they can do in a climate that sees big-budget blockbusters hitting the screen all year around.
Curiously, the controversy may just drive more people to seek out the film regardless of whether the reviews are good or bad. Ellison’s comments may make it all the more enticing to film fans itching for smart science fiction movies that can complement and contrast with the extravaganzas we’re gifted on a near-monthly basis. It’s disheartening to know that a potential gem has been denied an opportunity to flourish on the big screen, but perhaps there’s solace in the fact that more of us will get to see this film immediately. That way, we can make our own opinions on whether Ellison has any reason to make such blunt comments, and whether the film loses some of its spark because of Paramount’s actions.
Source: The Hollywood Reporter