Last week, Blonde arrived on Netflix. Director Andrew Dominik’s film arrived amid a sea of controversy. The title has been a lightning rod for internet anger since it was first announced that it would be an NC-17 depiction of the life of movie star Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas), with some critics even preemptively refusing to watch it. Blonde is a polarizing and divisive film, one that generates strong opinions even among those who haven’t watched it. It’s also part of a dying breed.
Blonde is a challenging and confrontational piece of work that asks its audience uncomfortable questions about the nature of celebrity and the way in which the entertainment industry commodifies its subjects. It is not a conventional biopic, but instead an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ nearly 1,000-page postmodern exploration of the star, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction.
It is a bold and indulgent piece of work from an avowed auteur. Dominik is arguably responsible for two of the great American films of the 21st century: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly. Blonde is assured and self-aware, constantly reminding its audience that they are watching this story filtered through a camera lens; the aspect ratio and the color timing shift dramatically even within scenes.
To put it simply, Blonde won’t be for everybody. That is okay. Not every film has to be for everyone. There is value in ambitious artistic statements that lack obvious commercial appeal. Blonde is also not an absurdly expensive film. When asked about the movie’s commercial prospects, Dominik told Vulture, “They’re paying $400 million for movies. A little $22 million movie, it’s not going to break the bank for Netflix.” He is not wrong, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.
There have obviously been seismic shifts within the film industry over the past decade or so. Blockbusters have cannibalized the theatrical space, all but destroying the notion of theatrically released mid-budget movies aimed at adults. There are always films that sneak through, but the box office performance of something like Three Thousand Years of Longing often feels like a cautionary tale. Dominik’s own Killing Them Softly failed to find an audience in theaters, bombing dramatically.
A lot of these mid-budget adult-skewing movies shifted into television, becoming prestige miniseries. Under the Banner of Heaven was originally developed as a feature film, before eventually morphing into a limited series. The same is true of Netflix’s smash The Queen’s Gambit. Sometimes this shift worked out well, and sometimes it didn’t. After all, some stories just work better as two-hour movies than they do as eight-hour television shows.
Some of these projects went to emerging streaming companies. Studios like Netflix were eager to work with established auteurs and opened their coffers to fund the sorts of movies that older studios would have bankrolled even a decade earlier. These included historical epics like David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King and gritty dramas like Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. These studios had huge reservoirs of cash and could fund these movies without worrying about box office.
Of course, the streaming services weren’t funding these movies out of the goodness of their hearts. To quote David Zaslav quoting Jerry Maguire, “This isn’t show friends; it’s show business.” The streaming services hoped that a more diverse pool of content could attract a wider base of subscribers, that working with established filmmakers might buy them some credibility within the industry that they had disrupted, and they also really wanted to win awards.
These sorts of discussions inevitably characterize these movies as loss-leaders, as the movie industry equivalent of having to eat one’s greens. In reality, these sorts of movies were very popular until quite recently. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed performed well enough that there were rumors of a sequel. With Shutter Island, he gave Leonardo DiCaprio the best opening weekend of his career to that point. The Wolf of Wall Street was a three-hour-plus ode to excess and a commercial smash.
Still, whatever cynical motivations streaming services might have had for commissioning these sorts of projects, there was a lot to be grateful for. Netflix was responsible for greenlighting movies like Dee Rees’ Mudbound, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.
These may not all be masterpieces, but they are undeniably all films that now exist that never would have happened without Netflix’s deep pockets. In some ways, Blonde feels like the culmination of that movement, the result of Netflix executives giving a blank check to a director with a distinctive vision and entrusting them to see that vision through without any notes. Blonde is much more antagonistic than any of the aforementioned films and a lot more assertive in its artfulness.
For a few years, the streaming services essentially kept the high-profile and reasonably budgeted auteur film on life support. To many of the people who objected to Scorsese’s criticisms of what franchise films were doing to the marketplace, Netflix’s willingness to greenlight projects like Mank or Marriage Story was proof that the sky was not falling. Things couldn’t be as bad as the most cynical prognosticators observed. Surely the streaming gold rush would last forever.
However, as critic James Poniewozik presciently argued, “Netflix is not your friend.” This honeymoon period was always going to end. Just as the modern blockbuster boom squeezed these mid-budget adult-skewing movies out of theaters, the same sorts of pressures would inevitably come to bear on streaming services. When these companies felt the crunch, these sorts of titles would be the first to be seen as disposable in the rush towards blockbuster success.
Netflix reacted to the plunge in its share price earlier this year by canceling diverse and prestigious projects, like Ava DuVernay’s planned adaptation of Wings of Fire and Meghan Markle’s animated project Pearl. Coverage of the company’s internal restructuring reported an intention to move away from “expensive vanity projects,” alluding to films like The Irishman. This doesn’t seem to extend to corporate vanity projects like Adam Sandler movies or would-be blockbusters like Bright.
After all, it’s worth wondering whether these sorts of projects are truly any less reasonable investments than Netflix’s push towards high-budget blockbuster releases like Red Notice and The Gray Man. The Gray Man is the most expensive movie Netflix has ever produced, and it only spent eight days at the top of the streaming service’s charts. Its total number of hours watched is not that much greater than that of The Irishman. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Netflix can have both.
It is also worth noting that these films were commissioned as a push to be the first streaming service to win the Best Picture Oscar — and so secure the company’s perceived dominance of the space. This year, Apple TV+ became the first service to take home the award, for its low-budget indie Coda. It was a particularly embarrassing moment for Netflix, given that Jane Campion’s more lavish and expensive Netflix-funded The Power of the Dog was the favorite just weeks before the ceremony.
For those watching the mechanics of the industry, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Martin Scorsese was originally developing his follow-up to The Irishman at Netflix but had to shop Killers of the Flower Moon around to Apple TV+, suggesting the streamer wasn’t eager to repeat the experience. Similarly, Joel Coen followed up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs at Netflix by releasing The Tragedy of Macbeth as part of a deal with A24 and Apple TV+.
There is a sense that these relationships are not a priority, that Netflix isn’t eager to maintain the long-term partnerships with directors like Scorsese or Coen that Warner Bros. had with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, or Christopher Nolan. That said, Spike Lee recently signed a multi-year deal with the streamer, even if he doesn’t appear to have a project in development. So has Noah Baumbach, who has made three films with the streamer, including this year’s White Noise.
The movie industry is in upheaval. Whenever it comes out the other side, it will look very different. It is impossible to predict what will happen in any greater detail. To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” There will obviously be director-driven projects at Netflix in the years ahead, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be quite as assured as Blonde, a film that at times pushes the creative freedom that the streamer affords into the realm of self-parody.
Even beyond the wider context of what is happening at Netflix, Blonde feels vaguely elegiac. This is the story of an individual chewed up and spat out by a ruthless system. It’s a brazenly anti-commercial film that seems to serve as a limit case for this model of film production. In its cynical and tragic portrait of an old-fashioned mode of movie-making, Blonde might itself draw down the curtain on a more modern approach to film production.