The movie-star system has existed, in some form, since the dawn of Hollywood. At first, big performers were contracted to particular studios, paid weekly salaries to “belong” to Warner Bros. or MGM, and given little control over the projects they appeared in. This approach fell apart by the 1940s following various legal battles. Under the new system, big-name actors and directors became free agents who could wield enormous influence by pitting studios against each other to bid for their services. The rise of the blockbuster in recent decades has slowly chipped away at that influence. These days, there are fewer and fewer major stars who can guarantee a massive opening weekend, as studios turn instead to popular franchises to attract audiences.
After his early cult successes in the mid-’90s (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer), Sandler became the kind of guaranteed financial draw that studios relied on for more than a decade. Starting with 1998’s The Waterboy, the former Saturday Night Live cast member made 14 films in 15 years that grossed more than $100 million domestically. Almost all of them were critically reviled—we’re talking movies like Mr. Deeds, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and Grown Ups—but it didn’t matter. Sandler’s brand as an A-lister was basically bulletproof.
In more recent years, that hasn’t been the case. Broad comedies like Jack and Jill (in which Sandler plays dual roles as brother and sister), That’s My Boy (a foul-mouthed family movie with Andy Samberg), Blended (a reunion with the Wedding Singer star Drew Barrymore), and Pixels (co-starring a giant Pac-Man) fell short of expectations. In the last five years, Sandler’s only genuine hits have been Grown Ups 2, a sequel to his comedy about overgrown men on vacation, and the animated Hotel Transylvania movies.
So it was hardly surprising when he signed his exclusive deal with Netflix, initially to create four original films for the streaming platform. To a major Hollywood studio, Sandler isn’t a sure bet anymore, especially since his films are expensive to make (usually budgeted for at least $80 million). But to Netflix, he fits the bill perfectly—he’s a proven star with the kind of algorithmic appeal the company has extensively cultivated. The Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has gushed about the performance of Sandler’s movies on the site, saying they’re among the most-streamed titles on the platform and that the initial four-picture deal has resulted in 500 million hours of viewing by subscribers (as usual, Netflix is reticent to provide more than cursory data on its viewership).
For Sandler, the attraction was simple: He gets to make whatever movies he wants, starring whomever he chooses, with no fear of box-office failure diminishing his brand. Yes, the attachment to Netflix does in and of itself seem like an acknowledgement that he doesn’t care anymore about being a traditional movie star. But he still gets to make occasional appearances in interesting indie films—he’s in Noah Baumbach’s upcoming project The Meyerowitz Stories this year—while confining his sillier work to streaming video. Or, as Sandler put it in a statement when he originally signed the deal, “When these fine people came to me with an offer to make four movies for them, I immediately said ‘yes’ for one reason and one reason only ... Netflix rhymes with ‘wet chicks.’ Let the streaming begin!”