“Anyone but You,” starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell as romantic partners who hate each other, has become that all too rare thing, a sleeper hit. The film’s box-office success has surprised a lot of people — though not me, since I’m one of the only critics who liked it. I called it “a rom-com for the age of antipathy,” writing that “there’s something zesty and bracing about how it channels the anti-romanticism of the Tinder-meets-MeToo generation.” What everyone seems to agree upon is that the film’s word-of-mouth success should be sending a message to Hollywood: The rom-com is back, and studios should be making more of them. I’m all for that, though I’d say there’s an additional message there, one relating to the question of why the rom-com was allowed to slip away in the first place.
We know the answer to that, or should: The rom-com never went away — it just went straight to streaming, a state of affairs that everyone, a few years ago, seemed to think was just fine and dandy. All those cheesy made-for-streaming rom-coms were cheap to produce, with fan bases driven mostly by younger viewers (Entertainment: The Next Generation!). They even, on occasion, became franchises, as in the “Kissing Booth” series that planted Jacob Elordi on the map. So why, after exactly one box-office hit (“Anyone but You”) that didn’t even get very good reviews, is the bloom suddenly off the made-for-streaming rom-com rose?
More from Variety
Because as the four-year anniversary of the pandemic approaches, there are aspects to what went on during those four years that we’re still waking up from. Mythologies that were marketed to us like gospel. Most movie consumers want movie theaters to continue their comeback, but for that to happen the industry needs to stand up and admit something it hasn’t, fully. And that’s that the glory of the streaming world was deliriously oversold.
Remember when it was going to solve all our problems? You’d never have to leave your home, and who wants to go to those nasty movie theaters anyway? (repeat: cell phones sticky floors 25 minutes of trailers overpriced concessions hate it…). If the rom-com was now going to migrate to our living rooms, that was deemed to be a healthy state of affairs. In hindsight, though, you can see that for true movie lovers, our whole relationship to streaming was starting to evolve into a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
“Anyone but You” is just a synthetic romance with some frisson, yet it delivers something you can’t get at home: the electricity of watching two people fall in love, and fight about it, surrounded by an audience that can relate exactly to what’s going on. And audiences are going, “More, please” (which is what audiences tend to do). But what we should now recognize is that the industry that would serve that audience is, instead, still undercutting it through the ideology of streaming.
Take the following example. Last fall, Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” was one of the hits of the Venice Film Festival. It was a critical darling built around a charismatic performance by an up-and-coming star named…Glen Powell. Distributors were hot for it, and it was bought for $20 million. Now, here we are five months later, and Glen Powell is a star. “Hit Man,” set to come out in June, will take advantage of all the marquee capital that Powell built up in “Anyone but You.” Which is a distributor’s dream, right?
Wrong. Because it’s actually not going to happen that way.
“Hit Man” was bought by Netflix, so no one was ever going to see it in a theater. And no one will see it in a theater now. “Hit Man” was a festival sensation that had the makings of an indie hit, but now it will be another movie that vanishes into the Bermuda Triangle of the streaming ocean.
A year ago, coming out of Sundance, I wrote about this phenomenon with regard to two Sundance hits, “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son,” both of which were bought for $20 million (by Netflix and Apple, respectively). Now here we are a year later. I was right. The movies came out on streaming and caused zero buzz.
How many times is this going to have to happen before people in the industry — directors, producers, actors, executives — start standing up to say, “Enough. The streaming ‘revolution’ is hurting the future of movies.”
Just look at it this way. On a larger blockbuster scale, we had two movies come out last year on the same weekend in July, and everyone agreed that their simultaneous release — and success — marked a reckoning for the future of movies in movie theaters. “Barbenheimer” was a phenomenon in every way (cultural, artistic, financial), and the bottom line is that these two movies were deemed to have a seismic impact on the perception of what movies could mean to people. In a way, that’s all it takes.
Well, on the indie level, 6 to 12 movies over the course of a given year can have a comparable impact. If a film like “Hit Man” opens in the summer and winds up making, say, $40 million (which I think it could have), that means something. It becomes a signifier of audience enthusiasm the way that “Anyone but You” has become one. It fuels the enthusiasm for movies — to see them in theaters, to make them for theaters.
This year at Sundance, there were a handful of movies that had a chance to break out, but even as the bidding wars heated up, I kept seeing movies with audience potential — notably documentaries — eaten up by streamers. “Will & Harper,” the movie that traces a cross-country road trip by Will Ferrell and his long-time friend Harper Steele, as they meditate on the meaning of their friendship in light of Steele’s decision to come out as trans, is a powerhouse of a documentary that should be playing to packed houses across America. But nope: It’s another $20 million Netflix uber-deal. Will “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” picked up by Warner Bros. Discovery for $15 million, play in theaters? It’s not clear yet. (It should, but I have my doubts.) The skyscraper-scaling daredevil doc “Skywalkers: A Love Story’ should open on every IMAX screen in America. Instead, it will be seen strictly at home.
I do realize that we live in a capitalist world, and that no one is forcing these movies to be bought by streaming companies. If Netflix is ponying up all that money, the inevitable response needs to be: Why isn’t there a theatrical-release company that can compete? We know the answer. The streamers (Netflix, Apple) are tech companies that have more money than God. So they can outbid anyone they want.
But a part of me is asking: What do they want? Why is Netflix so eager to swoop in and pay the king’s ransom for movies that will make absolutely no difference to its business model? Is the company really that devoted to serving all those Glen Powell fans? Or is it that on some level Netflix wants to take these films off the table, so that some of the biggest potential breakout indie hits of the year end up not being audience movies at all? As a business model, theatrical may no longer be at death’s door, but it’s still surviving, movie by movie. Every hit matters, even small ones. Four years ago, we were being told that streaming would be the salvation of our entertainment society. But that’s starting to look more and more like a bill of goods. We shouldn’t be turning the genuine positives of streaming into a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where we bow down in worship to the very force that, more than not, is helping to crush the life out of cinema.
Best of Variety