Annihilation isn’t a small-scale drama; it’s a visually inventive sci-fi epic, the likes of which major studios have produced for decades. Paramount bowing out of its international theatrical rollout is another example of the industry shifting away from films that aren’t proven box-office quantities. Ironically, the same kind of Netflix deal is reportedly being mulled for another Paramount movie, God Particle, part of the loosely connected Cloverfield franchise. The other two Cloverfield films were hits for Paramount, but according to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio’s new CEO Jim Gianopulos has identified the $40 million–budgeted space thriller as a risk. “He sat down and looked at what is theatrical, what is not in this day and age,” a source told the Reporter. Paramount films like the upcoming Transformers spinoff Bumblebee fit the bill; God Particle and Annihilation, it seems, may not.
Paramount’s decision is partly motivated by internal politics, too. Annihilation was ordered by the late Brad Grey, the studio’s prior CEO, who was ousted in February 2017 after a string of flops. His replacement, Gianopulos, has less attachment to the projects Grey shepherded and is seeking to shore things up after the studio’s disastrous 2017. Almost all of Paramount’s big films last year—Transformers 5, Baywatch, Ghost in the Shell, and Monster Trucks among them—were financial failures, and the only major tentpoles it can look forward to in 2018 are Bumblebee and a new Mission: Impossible movie. But it’s rare for an upcoming film to lose theatrical distribution because of the failure of unrelated past projects; Annihilation, after all, had very little to do with Baywatch not connecting with audiences.
Annihilation and God Particle could be one-off casualties dumped onto Netflix as the studio tries to get its books in order. Or this could be the sign of a more worrying Hollywood trend, in which the very idea of a bigger-budgeted film that isn’t a guaranteed financial success is simply anathema to a big studio, with Netflix used as a last-resort, cost-saving measure. Another studio, New Line, has cut a deal with the service for an upcoming Shaft movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie Usher, in which the studios split the production costs and Netflix gets the international rights. It’s a model other studios could soon follow. But there’s a difference between making such a deal up front and doing it well after a movie has completed production. (There’s also a certain irony to Paramount collaborating with Netflix when the latter is openly intent on dismantling the model of theatrical release that the former relies upon for commercial success.)
When Garland made Ex Machina in 2015 and released it to strong reviews, healthy box office (it made more than twice its budget worldwide), and Oscar success, he seemed primed as one of the most exciting new voices in Hollywood. He was a perfect candidate to helm a bigger-budgeted studio film. Paramount’s demonstration of its lack of faith in Annihilation is a particularly chilling reminder of how risk-averse many big studios have become, and perhaps a sign to artists to consider taking their work elsewhere.