For six years now, Warner Bros. has been trying desperately to get a Jungle Book adaptation off the ground. Cycling through names like Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the two-time Academy Award-winning director behind Birdman and The Revenant, and the talented and prolific Ron Howard, the studio had been developing a “darker” take on the classic Rudyard Kipling stories for years by the time motion-capture extraordinaire Andy Serkis had officially attached himself to the project as both a director and actor. Assembling a cast the likes of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Matthew Rhys, and Freida Pinto, the film was ready to be shepherded into production when, as seems to always be the case, Disney got the jump on them. Getting wind that a “dark” adaptation of the beloved story that Disney had already given the “feature film treatment” to was headed into production, Disney quickly assembled a cast and crew featuring Billy Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, and Lupita N’Yongo, all helmed by Jon Favreau, to bring their animated classic to the silver screen in the form of a live-action/CGI hybrid film. With their will, familiarity with the source material, and financial resources, Disney managed to finish their “live-action” Jungle Book before Warner Bros. and released the film to massive critical acclaim and financial success in 2016. The film managed to gross $966 million worldwide and effectively pushed back the Warner Bros. picture to October 19th, 2018.
Fast forward two years later and Warner Bros. releases the first trailer for the film. It immediately receives comparisons to Disney’s version, exactly what the studio was trying to avoid by pushing back the release date. Many criticize the making of the film, as well as the visual effects, which to many, look and feel almost cartoonish and unfinished. Things are not looking good for the picture, now titled Mowgli in another effort to shift focus away from the Disney feature and into more serious territory. However, everything comes to a head on July 27th when Deadline announces that Warner Bros. has sold the worldwide distribution rights of the film to Netflix.
I seriously debated writing a post when the news of this major deal back in July, but given that I had only started writing this blog at that point, I backed away from the story and left what I had of a draft sitting in storage for nearly five months. However, with the film finally being released, it felt appropriate to return to this article and discuss it. First and foremost, what this deal represents is the major shifts going on within the film industry at large. The rise of Netflix and the subsequent growth of streaming platforms as a whole has altered the foundations upon which film and television production are built. Suddenly, seasons of TV have become like books in that they are consumable both easily and rapidly within a period of a few sittings rather than over multiple weeks while waiting for new episodes. This convenience has drawn many people away from live/linear television, so much so that many Networks and Television Studios can no longer rely on normal Nielsen ratings nor DVR statistics to judge a show’s success. Instead, Networks and Studios have to factor in new information about how well shows perform on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as how much money the television studio can make by selling episodes to said streaming services (as an example, one such lucrative deal between Netflix and Warner Bros. Television studio is what has helped keep Gotham on the air despite the show’s consistently depreciating ratings; Netflix buys each new episode for $1.75 million). The impact of this can be seen in the fact that every single new show on the five major broadcast networks this season (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, and the CW) are all owned in-house to some degree by the Network’s parent Studio, all in the effort to make sure that any money from streaming deals comes back to the respective network in the end so that the Networks don’t have to completely rely on ad revenue for support. This is a very expensive venture at the onset, so to see every single network take it on signals be changes a foot.
In the film space, streaming has drastically altered the landscape by making moviegoing audiences more picky consumers. Nowadays, films can no longer be sold on the basis of the name talent attached to the project. When a person watches a movie trailer, they may be interested, but if the film cannot present a strong case that it must be seen in theaters, then the person is much more likely to wait until it becomes available to stream in a few months time. This has led to less and less people going to movie theaters, and in turn, the price of doing so only continues to rise. People are no longer compelled as much as they once were by certain actors in films or certain directors, with films having to rely more on brand recognition (be it the reputation of the studio or production company, as is the case with Disney, or the popularity of the franchise, as we see consistently with Marvel films). This was the situation that Mowgli found itself in. Despite the Warner production being in the works for a longer period of time, Disney’s Jungle Book being released first had already tainted Mowgli by branding it as “late to the party.” No one was exactly craving another “live-action” Jungle Book movie because they had already gotten one not long ago, and a pretty popular one at that (the film was also, admittedly, surprisingly good in my opinion, benefiting from a cohesive narrative in place of the original animated film’s series of vignettes). Due to this, as well as the tepid response to the trailer, Mowgli seemed poised to underwhelm at best, if not flat-out bomb at the box office. It was also not helped by the fact that no one in the cast had a very strong box office track record and that Warner Bros. “darker” approach to films has resulted in its share of misfires; just look at the eerily similar situation between Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Disney’s Captain America: Civil War.
Considering all the facts, the Netflix deal suddenly doesn’t seem so out of left field. By releasing on Netflix, Warner Bros. would not have to concern itself with a potential bad theatrical performance or excessive marketing costs as Netflix would cover those expenses. Also, without the financial burden of buying a movie ticket, many people would potentially be more inclined to watch the film, especially given the ease that comes from Netflix allowing you to stream a big-budget studio picture from the comfort of your home. Of course, there are also some drawbacks to this approach, primarily with stigmatization. Unfortunately, as hard as Warner’s publicity department may try, Mowgli (renamed Mowgli: Legends of the Jungle by Netflix) will always be looked at as having been “shunted to Netflix.” This badge of shame comes via an unfortunate association with subpar films, namely The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation. Both of these titles, each from Paramount, saw tumultuous productions and distribution issues. The Cloverfield Paradox, originally called God Particle, was meant to be a standalone sci-fi thriller before being retro-fitted so that it would tie into the budding new Cloverfield expanded film universe that J.J. Abrams was building after the successful release of 10 Cloverfield Lane. After quietly selling the film’s distribution rights to Netflix, the streaming company made a surprise announcement during the 2017 Superbowl that it would be releasing the film immediately after the game. While this splashy release strategy certainly got the film a lot of attention, it ended up being in vain as the film’s reviews were dismal, citing a ludicrous script that disposed of all logic (a sentiment with which I must, unfortunately, agree after having seen the film), and illustrated that Paramount more than likely dumped the film on Netflix after realizing the film would undoubtedly bomb in theaters. Its reported that Paramount actually ended up making money off the film thanks to Netflix paying a rumored $50+ million for the rights. Annihilation, another sci-fi film, this time based on a novel and starring Natalie Portman, also found itself in a similar situation due to behind the scenes disagreements between director Alex Garland and Paramount executives as well as the film’s financier. Fearing that the film was too “intellectual” for mainstream audiences, Paramount sold the international distribution rights for Annihilation to Netflix with the film only seeing a theatrical release in the US and China. While this film was much better received critically (I personally feel that it is one of the best films of the year), Paramount was clearly right to worry as the film ended up not connecting with audiences and bombed theatrically, though the Paramount likely didn’t take the hit nearly as hard since they were able to recoup part of the budget with the Netflix deal. In any case, the situation with these two films definitely doesn’t help Mowgli‘s image as it paints Netflix as a kind of graveyard for bad movies, making Mowgli out to be a failure before critics and audiences even have a chance to see it for themselves.
The original stipulations of the deal further pushed back Mowgli‘s release, this time to 2019, with the promise of a theatrical release for Oscar qualification that would include a 3D component. However, Mowgli‘s first-impression would continue to get mangled with the surprise announcement late last month that the film would now be released on December 7th (this weekend). Apparently, the film saw a limited theatrical release on the 29th of November, but I am positive that to many, my mention of this will be the first anyone hears of said release. Yes, at first by circumstance, and then by their own volition, Warner Bros. really bungled this film, and I must say that is it such a damn shame. I hear so many moviegoers nowadays complaining about how they want to see some risks taken with mainstream film. And yet, here you have a risky, interestingly executed film, backed by advanced visual effects and motion-capture technology, and coming from a major studio, that has unfortunately been made to look foolish. It’s a damn shame that risk overwhelmed the studio, especially because, in my humble opinion, this is actually a gem of a film. I will get into further detail in my review, but truly, I feel that this film has something special to offer in terms of subtle, thoughtful, patient, yet still engaging and family-friendly storytelling; and on a weekend where there is literally nothing coming out, I feel that Mowgli is more than worth a watch. Hopefully, even if Mowgli hasn’t made the best first impression, it can still find an audience to appreciate it for all it gets right.