When David Ayer strode across the stage of Hall H yesterday, he didn't sit down behind the placard with his name on it. He didn't stand at the long table, applauding the audience and waiting for the cast and producers of his new movie, Bright. No, the director walked past all that, straight to the lectern at the other end of the stage. He hugged the actor Terry Crews, who was there to moderate the panel—and then leaned over so he could talk into Crews' microphone. "Hall H!" he shouted. "This is the HOUSE OF NETFLIX."
"THIS NETFLIX HOUSE, BITCH!" Crews bellowed with glee.
Granted, Ayer pulled almost the exact same type of showmanship at the Suicide Squad panel a couple of years ago. This year, though, it resonated a bit differently. Before Thursday afternoon, Netflix had never brought a project to Comic-Con's largest, most prestigious venue. And it had certainly never promoted a genre movie. But by the end of its presentation, which highlighted both Bright and the forthcoming manga adaptation Death Note, it had sent a clear signal to Comic-Con's favorite studios: there's a new kid in the Hall.
Netflix has made no secret of its feature-film ambitions in recent years. Some of that has been for critical acclaim: In 2015, it booked a brief theatrical run for its first big original movie, Beasts of No Nation, in hopes of qualifying for an Academy Award nomination. Some of it has been to cement its global viewership: its gargantuan multi-picture deal with Adam Sandler has paid off internationally, even if US viewers seem underwhelmed by the result. This year, though, has seen the company shifting into conventional blockbuster territory with the $60 million Brad Pitt vehicle War Machine—and now, with Bright and Death Note, it completes a 2017 genre trifecta that began with Bong Joon-Ho's creature feature, Okja.
If the company's cinematic output has been uneven, though, its Hall H presentation mirrored that inconsistency. The panel for Death Note, which moves the manga's cat-and-mouse supernatural detective story from Japan to the US, felt awkward at times, even if enjoyably so. (Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield, who plays detective L, stayed in character throughout, spending more time picking up and chewing a Skittle than he did delivering brief, cryptic answers to questions. Lakeith Stanfield should be much more famous than he is.) While the movie's original casting announcements stirred some controversy for making the manga's protagonist, Light, white instead of Asian, new footage that depicted the first meeting between Light and the demon Ryuk showed the same glimpses of humor that the manga's original anime adaptation did.
The Bright panel, on the other hand, followed through on Ayer's bombastic entrance—mostly thanks to Will Smith, who has never missed a charisma check in his life. The movie is similarly unrestrained, blending the Los Angeles cop stories Ayer has made his signature with a high fantasy premise: Smith plays an LAPD officer whose new partner is an orc (played by Joel Edgerton), and who stumbles into an elvish crime web. Think Training Day meets Lord of the Rings. Seriously.
But the panelists' ceaseless jocularity wasn't just directed at each other—they reserved plenty of love for their employer as well. To hear them say it, Netflix could do no wrong. "I was able to do my shit here," Ayers said. "I was able to tell my fucking story. I was able to do my thing." (Again, he said something similar about Suicide Squad, and we know how that ended up—then again, Warner Bros., which owns DC Entertainment, also tends to be a bit more hands-on about its movies than Netflix. More on that in a second.) Need to shoot the movie in L.A. to get that authentic L.A. feel? Most studios would say "just try it in Atlanta," where tax credits have made it the location of choice for everything from Marvel movies to Fast & the Furious 8 to Dwayne Johnson's upcoming Rampage. Not Netflix! Worried about bowdlerizing your gritty, violent world for a PG-13 rating? Don't! Want to be given a pile of money to use however you want? Say no more, fam: Netflix.
"Netflix is gonna pull a lot of talent because they're so supportive," Ayer said at one point. "It's like 20 years ago." When Netflix was first getting into original content, it famously attracted high-profile creators by giving them creative control. That's how David Fincher and House of Cards happened. That's how Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black happened. That's how Arrested Development came back. That hadn't happened in television before—but it has happened in movies, when Miramax led the indie revolution of ’90s by betting on risky-sounding movies like Pulp Fiction, Clerks, and Trainspotting. If Netflix is bringing its hands-off development model to movies? And, as judging from Bright's $90 million budget, bringing a bag of money to genre stuff? Its transition to movie powerhouse might get a lot easier.
But back to first-time moderator Terry Crews for a second. After all, he'd just yelled his best Jesse Pinkman impression at more than 4,000 people—and he seemed to regret it immediately. "I think I went over," he said, laughing. "I think I won't be back."
Netflix will, though. That much is clear.
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