Thursday, Jan 18, 2018
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Is Will Smith’s Netflix movie a hit? It depends on how you measure

Will Smith used to be a dependable hitmaker. Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black, Hitch — it was one monster success after another.

Recent years have been more of a roller coaster for the A-lister, from his massive bomb After Earth in 2013 to the failed awards bid of Concussion a couple of years later. In 2016, Smith headlined Suicide Squad, which more than made back its budget. But that win came with an asterisk: It was savaged by critics and still no box-office match for the superhero competition at Marvel.

For Smith, an unqualified knockout is long overdue. The two-time Oscar nominee still has the boyish charm — the big grin and goofy ears — plus, he knows how to land a solid one-liner. And he’s trying to reclaim his place at the top, most recently with Netflix’s big-budget fantasy thriller Bright, which started streaming last month.

Only one question remains: Is Bright a hit?

The answer is complicated.

Measuring a film’s success used to be relatively straightforward. There wasn’t just one metric; some combination of variables determined what constituted a “hit” or a “miss.” A movie could be popular with critics, thanks to positive reviews (helpfully aggregated by sites such as Rotten Tomatoes); it could be a hit with audiences, based on tracking information (such as CinemaScore’s exit polls); it could have awards potential; or it could have mass commercial appeal, based on big box-office returns. Sometimes — as with American Sniper, for example — it might have all four.

With more than 109 million subscribers, Netflix doesn’t have to worry about box-office returns, which is why the company rarely releases its original movies in theaters, unless it’s trying to qualify for Oscars glory. That’s why the wartime epic Mudbound ended up on big screens the same weekend it began streaming. But a lack of theatrical releases also means no CinemaScore-type audience grades.

Meanwhile, Netflix doesn’t release viewership data — even if it’s probably keeping a close eye on the size of an audience for a movie that cost $90 million to make.

“In the case of Netflix, they have so much money anyway, it’s not about box office for them. It’s about the perception of them as a provider of new and innovative content, including big-budget theatrical style films,” said ComScore’s Paul Dergarabedian, who has been tracking box office numbers for 25 years. “Their currency is their reputation.”

It looks as if we need to find a new method for figuring out which movies are worth seeing. Netflix and other streaming services have changed the rules in entertainment, and this is just another way they’re making creators and consumers reassess the status quo.

Some Hollywood power players don’t seem to mind. During the Vanity Fair Summit in Beverly Hills in October, director Ava DuVernay, who worked with Netflix on her Oscar-nominated documentary The 13th, said she didn’t miss the measurement of box-office returns.

“I get a vibe,” she said. “I can feel the energy rolling in. It’s not hard numbers, but it is a general idea of how things go. I don’t need numbers to know.”

So how’s Bright’s vibe? It depends whom you ask.

We already know what critics think, and it hasn’t been good. Some have called the movie, directed by Suicide Squad helmer David Ayer, a retread of Alien Nation, thanks to its setting — an alternate version of Los Angeles — and its story, which revolves around a couple of police officers with wildly different backgrounds.

Smith plays Daryl Ward, a veteran cop who’s unhappily paired with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable under layers of blue makeup), the first orc to make the force. In this fantastical world, well-dressed elves are the 1-percenters who run things, and the orcs are the brutish bottom of the pecking order; humans hover somewhere in between. Meanwhile, cackling flying pixies are apparently the equivalent to rodents, which is how Smith gets to deliver the cringe-worthy line “Fairy lives don’t matter today” while bludgeoning one to death in his front yard.

Some reviewers have called Bright the worst movie of the year, which seems a touch hyperbolic considering that 2017 also spewed forth Transformers: The Last Night, Flatliners, and The Snowman, a thriller so awful that its own director acknowledged it was a total mess. But even the slightly kinder critics weren’t impressed with Bright. The average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 3.9 out of 10.

There are other ways to gauge success, though, and one is audience reaction, which has been much more positive. The problem? There isn’t just one place to find the data, and none of it is entirely scientific. On IMDb, Bright gets a 6.6 out of 10, while on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience rating is a rosier 4.3 out of 5. Netflix has its own five-star rating system, though there’s no easy way to see the average results. As of this writing, the movie had more than 1,700 reviews, most of which were three stars or above.

But can user reviews even be trusted? That question remains after audience feedback for The Last Jedi looked off. Even though CinemaScore reported an A, the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes results online were low. Ultimately a tech-savvy troll took credit for the discrepancy, saying he sent a bot army to tank the score. Rotten Tomatoes, meanwhile, insisted that the reviews were legit.

To muddy the waters, there’s also social media, where there’s no shortage of opinions on Bright, many along the lines of: Don’t listen to critics and see the movie for yourself. Big stars even weighed in, with some shade on Twitter from Chance the Rapper and an endorsement from Star Wars actor John Boyega:

“I found the way they tried to illustrate americas racism through the mythical creatures to be a little shallow.” — Chance The Rapper

“Lord! Just watched Bright! That was amazing !” — John Boyega

“We talk a lot about social media influencers,” said Mr. Dergarabedian, “and in this case they’ll have more influence than ever before in determining the fate or perception of these types of movies where there’s no box-office numbers for comparison.”

The good news for Smith and the rest of the Bright team is that people are talking about the movie. Earlier this year, Netflix released another star vehicle, War Machine with Brad Pitt, and it disappeared with little fanfare. The fact that critics panned Bright so completely only seems to be fueling online chatter. It’s the old “no publicity is bad publicity” adage in action.

So does Smith’s reputation take a hit for this as a critical misstep or get a boost from satisfied viewers? The question is still up in the air, and maybe that’s a relief for a blockbuster star who has so often been measured by the amount of money he can deliver on opening weekend.

Whatever the case, we’re going to see only more of these ambiguous hits and misses as Netflix continues to invest in original programming. In August, chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Variety that the company would be spending $7 billion on new content in 2018 — a $1 billion increase over this year.

That’s enough to pay for a lot of scripts, not to mention plenty of high-level talent.

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