It’s a brave new world when a concept with blockbuster potential—like Bright, a cop drama featuring a movie star and an orc—is debuting on Netflix. Indeed, the streaming giant even has the King of Summer himself, Will Smith, fronting the project alongside his Suicide Squad director, David Ayer. And they sent both filmmakers to San Diego Comic-Con to promote an original film that the vast majority of people will only ever see on a television screen. If not something smaller.
It’s the type of business strategy that Christopher Nolan already famously decried earlier this week when he called the Netflix business model for film distribution “mindless.” The juxtaposition was not lost on a room filled with journalists at a SDCC press conference on Thursday. Indeed, much of the questions and answers dealt with the role of Netflix, and they were fielded with aplomb by the always game Smith, as well as Ayer, producers Eric Newman and Bryan Unkeless, and co-stars Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, and Edgar Ramírez. The group often noted that we are in the midst of a cultural shift.
But it came to a head when someone asked pointblank if any of them had anything to say about Nolan’s pointed criticism of the “pointless” Netflix model.
At first Smith defused the question with a polite laugh and artful dodge, “I think Mr. Nolan’s a wonderful director and I will not say anything that keeps me from being in his next movie… I don’t like your attitude about Mr. Nolan!” But after bringing the room down with perfect comic timing, Smith eventually circled back and gave a more thoughtful and conciliatory nod toward where the Dunkirk director is coming from.
“I think there are certain things that you want to see on a big screen,” Smith said. “I remember the Christmas that Avatar came out and our entire family rushed out on Christmas Day to go with the glasses and all that. So there’s experience, specifically the type of films that Chris makes. You want to see them in that space. It’s like the venue is a part of the experience.”
But he and Ayer also spoke at length about the Netflix business model, which they preemptively defended as freeing and part of what Smith even considers a potential new art-form.
“I have 16-year-old, a 19-year-old, and a 25-year-old at home,” Smith said. “So their viewing habits are almost anthropological. It’s a great study in being able to see they still go to the movies on Friday, Saturday night, and they watch Netflix all week. So it’s two completely different experiences, but it’s definitely a different experience. I don’t think anyone is trying to say it’s an identical experience.” He notes that it was only after he starred in Independence Day that he went from being “Will” or “Fresh Prince” to “Mr. Smith” when fans spotted him. Still, he likened to critiques to stage actors who were likely first put off about the new advent of acting for a camera.
Says Smith, “I’m sure the purists had that same kind of feeling, but it’s different. It’s not the same thing, it’s almost a new art.”
For Ayer’s part, it was a matter of making something fresh and original without the burden of studio constraints.
“Everything technological about this is as if it we filmed a major feature,” Ayer said. “For me, the real difference was there was a lot more freedom and creativity.”
His producer Eric Newman even confided that he does not think this movie would be possible to make with an R-rating at a studio. Smith likened it to the advantage of Netflix’s business model.
“[The] risk profile is different,” Smith explained. “So Netflix can make a hard, rated R movie for a $170 million. Studios can’t do that if the executive wants to be at work on Monday.” And, as according to Smith, Netflix can factor the hard math of their subscription base down to numbers that confirm artists can take lucrative risks.
“Because they work on the specific data, they know ahead of time that with the director of Suicide Squad, and with me at this point in my career, and they go through and have numbers on everyone. And they say, ‘Yes it works,’ and they go into [the movie] even before you shoot it. So it’s a completely different basis of how they work, and the trickle down is [that] between action and cut, we get to do whatever we want.”
For Smith that includes playing the racist cop for once, as his character in Bright is bigoted against his new partner in a world with magical realism: an orc named Nick (Edgerton).
Smith said, “It was spectacular for me, an African-American, playing a police officer that was racist against the first orc on the force. It’s like the flip of those social concepts and, you know, you just don’t get a lot of movies where you’re the racist. ‘Hey man, I don’t want no orc in my car!’
Brave new world, indeed.
Bright premieres in December.
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