Netflix fired another sizeable film onto its streaming platform over the weekend – but it’s another movie that feels like it’s part of its ongoing problem.

With surprisingly little fanfare in the end, this past weekend saw Netflix debut the latest of its sizeable movie investments: a new film called The Man From Toronto. It’s not a small film, nor a cheap one. But it feels an oddly quiet one.

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After all, this particular project seems to fit the Netflix formula, at least as said formula stood at the time the requisite bank transfer to pay for it was made.

Costing around $75m to make, it features two movie stars – Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson – along with a director behind a few hit films too. In this case, Patrick Hughes, who steered The Expendables 3 and The Hitman’s Bodyguard (along with its sequel). Furthermore, it’s an action comedy with a mismatched central pairing, and on the surface a fairly easy proposition to sell. A bit of comedy, a bit of action, some mistaken identity and a welcome choice for a movie night. A mainstream piece of fluff.

Glossing over the fact that critical reviews for the film weren’t glowing, what’s worth noting about The Man From Toronto is how fate nearly took it in different directions. Originally, the mismatched pairing was to be Jason Statham and Kevin Hart, before The Statham dropped the project (reportedly less than two months before filming was due to start, over sizeable creative disagreements) and Harrelson was signed up in his place.

Furthermore, it was a film that was developed and made by Sony Pictures. It planned to give it a theatrical release, and was made with that very much in mind. Yet – wouldn’t you know it – a series of Covid-enforced delays led to it ultimately looking for a streaming service to snap it up. Netflix duly obliged, and presumably rubbed its hands with glee at landing a new film with recognisable talent.

It arrives on the Netflix service then at a point where the streamer’s movie strategy appears to be in flux. It’s no secret that the firm is having a bit of a year, with subscriber numbers peaking and now starting to fall (and predicted to do so for some time). In turn, it’s been cutting back on staff and investments, as it looks to make savings now its bubble is starting to lose air.

The Irishman

The Irishman

As part of whatever Netflix’s new future will be, recent reports suggest that it’s moving away from expensive Oscar-bait such as The Irishman in favour of slightly more commercial fare. That also, it’s less interested in just pumping out forgettable cheap filler too. More than ever, it needs its films to land. For Netflix to be seen as the place to watch lots of amazing films, exclusively. The long term path to that is to make and fund the films, and it’s had some limited successes with this.

Yet it’s stating the bleeding obvious that it now needs to do more. With most movie studios now having their own streaming service (and Amazon buying up MGM), Netflix can no longer rely on deals for other people’s movies to flesh out its catalogue. Furthermore, the prestige and quality of the output of Apple TV+, Disney+ et al is setting a bar that Netflix doesn’t seem to be able to clear when it comes to the quality of the films it’s making. Netflix boasts higher subscription prices than most of its rivals, yet it’s a growing complaint that its own productions – particular in movies, outside of Oscar time – are being found wanting. The firm is backing effectively a film a week, yet how many of them can most of us remember? In its early years, Netflix felt like a home for cinephiles. Now, it feels increasingly tricky to find something new to watch.

Netflix realised this some time ago, reading correctly where the industry was going, Hence, the heavy investment in its productions. The quantity of films it’s making is clearly what it wants. The quality of them? Well, therein lies a problem. One that its recent films aren’t addressing.

In the case of The Man From Toronto, I’d argue at best it’s pretty forgettable. A bit of weekend movie candy, that’s gone out of your brain within an hour of the end credits. The chance of it returning to said brain are fairly slight. I wasn’t bored, but didn’t really chuckle (apart from a decent line about Hotmail), and it had a general vibe of ‘that’ll do’. That usually doesn’t stop Netflix from chucking a sizeable promotional effort behind a film, but here, it’s – from the outside looking in – being treated as a throwaway film of the week. Don’t worry if you don’t like this one, another’ll be along soon. A year ago, wouldn’t it have plastered this everywhere in the week ahead of release?

It’s easy to argue that The Man From Toronto was always intended for throwaway film fate. Yet still, that clearly wasn’t the case. Notwithstanding the star names, the other factor here is that when the film shot in 2020, the planned destination for the movie was the cinema. Sony was looking to give it a theatrical run, and gradually over time lost confidence in that idea. It opted to cash out with the Netflix option, and here we are. The surprise is that Netflix hasn’t gone bigger on it. But maybe that’s not where its heart currently is.

Spiderhead

Spiderhead

Its slate continues to be full, and it’s not been shy of decent films. We’ve had Spiderhead and Hustle in recent weeks, for instance. But looking down the list of the films the service has released this year, a decent number of them I’ve not heard of, and a decent number have never crossed my Netflix home screen either. The big ones ahead – Knives Out 2, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – will find eyes. But a large number of upcoming productions seem to be a bit more box-ticky. Happy to be surprised and proven wrong there.

Sony, then, is the one that’s likely the ultimate winner with this particular film. It holds the ongoing home rights for The Man From Toronto as part of the deal it cut with Netflix, and presumably the amount the streamer has parted with to debut the film has covered the costs of the project.

Netflix is hardly suffering with it either. As this is being written, The Man From Toronto is the number one movie on the service. Expect a blog post in due course from Netflix on how many eyeballs have spent how many hours watching the film. But also, don’t expect the film anywhere near its top ten in a month.

For it’s just not that special a film. And it does little arrest the feeling that Netflix is more interested in having something to show, rather than making that thing special. Every movie studio has wrestled with balancing its slate of course, and so it’s an extension of how things always where. Yet Netflix – and there’s no getting away from this, in the current climate – remains comparably expensive. It’s spending more on films and television shows than anyone else on Earth at the moment, and yet something’s amiss here: the quality control just isn’t there.

In the same time period Netflix has released half a dozen films, Disney+ focused on one TV series that garnered a whole lot more interest. That’s what it’s up against, and Disney will always have the fallback of a gigantic movie and TV library of its own during the tough times. Netflix doesn’t have that, yet. But the rate it’s going, it might end up with a sizeable modern catalogue, just where 99% of it is entirely forgettable.

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