Netflix’s hit The Weekend Away is the kind of glossy thriller that Hollywood fell out of love with making – but audiences may yet be keen.
Currently sitting in the top five films on Netflix UK is a brand new thriller by the name of The Weekend Away. Based on the novel by Sarah Alderson – and she adapts it for the screen herself – it might not have enjoyed the flood of publicity that another film released that weekend received. But still, The Weekend Away is a modestly-budgeted film made in Croatia, and not an expensive studio-funded trip to Gotham City.
That notwithstanding, there was a time when this was just the kind of film that a big movie studio would have snapped up. Times, of course, have radically changed.
Watching it, it brought to mind the mini-phenomenon of sorts in the 1990s that took place in the halls of Paramount Pictures. Back then, it had hired its first female studio head, and one of the longest running too. Paramount wasn’t the first to have a female boss, with the late Dawn Steel heading up Columba Pictures for a short period of time in the late 1980s, infamously learning she’d been fired whilst still in hospital having given birth to her daughter. But the long run of Sherry Lansing as studio head at Paramount brought with it a change in the types of films it was making, and her influence was felt for some time.
In the early- to mid-1990s, this was an era when studios were generally making and releasing 20-30 films a year, and the requirement was for a good summer tentpole blockbuster or two, as well as a big Christmas movie. What Lansing did, as well as being the first studio to fully embrace co-financing movies with rivals, was introduce what became known as the ‘Sherry movie’. She limited the number of massive blockbusters, and instead actively chased projects other studios were less passionate about.
These were generally films that were costing between $10-30m, mid-budget by the parameters of the era, that were usually thrillers, and always had at least one female lead in them. This was very much against the trend of the day. She’d realised that nobody was making movies for women aged over 25, and decided to do something about it.
She was duly rewarded with a string of hits, with movies such as Double Jeopardy, Indecent Proposal, The Accused, The First Wives Club, High Crimes and such like. Not all hit, but even the ones that stumbled never left much red ink behind. Ashley Judd in particular was a regular on the Paramount payroll.
Hollywood fell out of love with the mid-budget thriller just as it fell out of love with mid-budget movies in general in the decade or two that followed. So much so that it’s become the exception rather than the norm if one actually ends up on the big screen. There are some that get through, but that’s generally when there’s a wildly popular book behind them, or a respected filmmaker: look at The Girl On The Train or Gone Girl for examples (the studio boss who greenlit those, Stacey Snider, acknowledged the legacy of the ‘Sherry movie’ as she did so). Instead, straight-edged thrillers have become more the specialism of television drama on screen, with the occasional bit of interest from studios.
The Weekend Away shows that this kind of film can still work though, and it very much fits the pattern of what Sherry Lansing was trying to do at Paramount around 20 years ago. It stars Leighton Meester and Christina Wolfe, is directed by Kim Farrant, and it’s a take it or leave it thriller that comes and goes in 90 minutes. It’s not going to threaten awards organisations, nor displace Marvel in terms of the size of its discourse. But it’s interesting it’s quietly found itself the size of audience if appears to have done.
The premise is simple enough: the tale of two old friends having a girls weekend away, and one of them promptly vanishes. Then it builds things up with a sort-of Agatha Christie template, as every character introduced gives you reason to doubt them, before the assorted twists are lobbed in. Can you guess who did what to who? No matter, it moves breezily along whether you can or can’t, and efficiently entertains.
I enjoyed the film, if you can’t tell. I knew nothing about it, can’t even recall seeing a single trailer for it. But perhaps going in cold isn’t a bad plan. The Weekend Away is not radical in any way really, but the Croatian setting gives it a little bit of distinction, and the leads are good. The plot doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but the thing is, while it was on, I was happily invested in it.
But I did think I wouldn’t have minded seeing this in a cinema. I used to see every film of this ilk I could on the big screen once upon a time.
The last studio film that got a cinema release which came anywhere close to the genre – at least to my memory – was Unforgettable, from Warner Bros. An ironic name, given that barely anyone has heard of it. It starred Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson, coming from the pen of Birds Of Prey and Bumblebee scribe Christina Hodson. Notably too it marked the directorial debut of long-time producer Denise Di Novi (who produced much of Tim Burton’s work, and recently turned up in the excellent oral history book of Mad Max: Fury Road).
I was one of the few who saw this in the cinema, and even back then – in 2017 – it felt like something out of its time. It’s not a great film, in truth, but I didn’t appreciate walking out that’d be all I was getting in the land of mid-budget thrillers for the foreseeable future.
But just like romcoms, they’ve become squeezed by the modern studio strategy. That every major studio now is chasing either hugely expensive franchise tentpole movies, or very economical horror films. There’s barely any room for anything in-between. Neither thrillers of this ilk nor romcoms tend to interest awards bodies either, and as such, there’s no money for them there either. And for those who have regularly enjoyed both, the chances of going to a cinema to enjoy one are low: heck, the Jennifer Lopez-headlined romcom Marry Me landing in cinemas ranks as quite the cinematic surprise this year (although it debuted simultaneously on streaming back in the US).
I wonder if a bit of the audience might be being shortchanged here though. That the major studios are so risk averse at the moment, the chances of getting something that’s not got built-in brand recognition earning any kind of budget are minimal. There’s only one studio making more than ten cinema films a year at the moment, and even that feels like it can’t last. And there doesn’t appear to be anyone like Sherry Lansing in a position of power willing to do much about it. Maybe the Jason Blum low budget, creative freedom model might work here: modest budgets, and moving romcoms and thrillers into a similar way of working.
For Netflix, of course, a film like this is perfect fodder, and who knows, it might be its natural home. But still: is there appetite for a broader range of films from studios to land in cinemas, and actually get bums on seats? Or has the world simply moved on too much?
Perhaps the latter, but looking back at the sheer range of thrillers that were devoured over the last couple of decades – and how popular they are when they pop up on streaming services – I can’t help but think somebody, somewhere, is missing a trick.
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