Clicked back to life: how Netflix is reviving forgotten film flops

News last week that Woody Allen’s latest, the Amazon-disowned A Rainy Day in New York, was the world’s number one film at the box office spread fast, mainly because of its inherent absurdity. Allen, a figure associated more with critical acclaim than commercial success, is currently outgrossing Pixar’s Onward with a film that might never see a US release, a bizarro turn of events that felt indicative of what’s become a very surreal year in film.

The overwhelming majority of global cinemas remain closed due to the ongoing pandemic and so Allen’s blockbusting triumph was the result of having just opened in South Korea, a country that’s far ahead in the knotty process of restarting its economy. Without real box office numbers to analyse, we’ve been forced to look elsewhere to find out what films people are watching and with its unparalleled dominance in the world of streaming, the best place to look is of course Netflix. While the platform still refrains from any regular form of data-sharing, it drops the odd humblebrag when something hits big and has also implemented a daily top 10 feature which allows us to at least see what shows and films are the most watched even if we don’t know how many people are watching.

While the list is often predictably led by the streamer’s latest high-profile original (in large part a result of it receiving the most aggressive on-site promotion), what’s become far more interesting to observe is the number of forgotten B-movies that have been nestling alongside, granted a second life for an audience arguably far larger than they’ve ever had before. In recent weeks, the US top 10 has included teen horror House at the End of the Street, action thrillers Sleepless and Den of Thieves, fact-based drama Soul Surfer, Single White Female rip-off The Roommate and sci-fi adventure Lockout. Each of these films shares a number of characteristics: a recognisable star lead, a wide theatrical release and a middling or underwhelming performance at the box office. So they land on Netflix and are met with a vague awareness of the film but with a stronger familiarity attached to the actors propping them up, the kind of combination that time and again has led to rental success in the past. Take 2017 for example. What was the most rented title of the year? Wonder Woman? Rogue One? Thor: Ragnarok? Nope, it was the Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant, a film that did solid business theatrically but blew up at home, consumers perhaps waiting for the most fitting price point for a film that didn’t demand the big-screen experience.

With Netflix, the psychology of what to watch is obviously very different, with no cost attached to each individual film, but with so much choice and with it being just one of many widely used services, strong viewership for every new addition is by no means a guarantee (higher-profile recent adds to US Netflix, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, District 9, Back to the Future, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Artist, all failed to make a showing in the chart). What’s revealing is to then see what does cause people to click en masse and how a mostly forgotten film that might be part of a cheap bulk acquisition can gain a new fanbase. An early sign of this came in 2015 when the Netflix arrival of A Very Brady Sequel led to an unusual viral afterlife for a comedy released almost 20 years earlier. The film, a well-received, tongue-in-cheek sequel to an update of the earnest family TV show, made less then $22m at the US box office leading to the third film heading straight to the small screen. Its cultural impact was minimal but within weeks of landing on Netflix two decades later, it was responsible for a flurry of memes from an audience who were most likely not born when it came out (Sure, Jan remains in rotation now).

We haven’t seen quite the same social media explosion just yet for any of the titles mentioned but without the standard May release schedule in place, a thirst for the new is stronger than ever. So now, rather than rushing to see Fast & Furious 9 or Black Widow, millions of Americans are instead watching House at the End of the Street, a poorly reviewed 2012 thriller starring a pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence. Shot in 2010 and then shelved for two years, the film eventually did average business on release but was promptly forgotten about as Lawrence’s star continued to ascend. But renewed interest (it’s been in the US top 10 since being added to Netflix on 7 May and trended on Twitter soon after) has led to film sites, eager for content, to post a deluge of clickbait pieces from Looper’s The ending of House at the End of the Street explained to Screen Rant’s House At The End Of The Street 2: Will It Happen? (spoiler: it won’t). The Jamie Foxx thriller Sleepless has seen a similar trajectory, lingering in the most watched for weeks after making only $20m in the US on release in 2017 (see: We Got This Covered’s An Underrated Jamie Foxx Thriller Has Been Surprisingly Popular On Netflix).

What’s encouraging for Netflix is that these successes have emerged from smaller companies, rather than big studios. The reason this matters right now is that the increasingly fractured nature of streaming means that individual studios are taking back their own movies for their own platforms. Pre-existing deals mean this hasn’t all happened automatically but soon, Disney+ will house all Disney films and some family-friendly Fox titles, Hulu will have other Fox movies including Searchlight, Peacock will take Universal films, HBO Max will have Warner and New Line titles and CBS All Access will take Paramount catalogue. It’s one of the reasons Netflix has been acquiring and producing so many “original” films to stock up, to fill up their homepage with enough reasons to subscribe before the great drought begins. This surge of clicks for films briefly leased from less prestigious companies, those unlikely to launch their own platforms, not only suggests to Netflix that there’s life outside of the big studios but also helps them to figure out the formula for their own future original films.

The platform’s two biggest success stories of late – Spenser Confidential, starring Mark Wahlberg, and Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth (now, allegedly, Netflix’s biggest two film premieres ever) – fall in line with the aforementioned B-movie hits: reviews were tepid and plotting was simple but both were anchored by a recognisable star and millions were happy to press play without further expense. Given the muted box office clout of both actors outside of franchise fare (Wahlberg stumbled with Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day and Mile 22 while Hemsworth couldn’t turn Bad Times at El Royale or In the Heart of the Sea into hits), it’s unlikely these films would have made a dent theatrically yet scored over 85 million and 90 million online viewers apiece. Netflix has responded to the success by giving the green light to an Extraction sequel, another Wahlberg action film described as a “blue-collar 007” and an action-heavy franchise-starter for another fallen star, Jessica Alba. Rather than wait for B-movies to receive a second life years after a big-screen release, Netflix is cutting out the middle man.