Aaron Sorkin's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'Paramount and Netflix
It makes sense that Paramount PGRE would sell Aaron Sorkin’s pretty terrific The Trial of the Chicago 7 to Netflix NFLX for $56 million. The $35 million-budgeted melodrama, about the eight defendants infamously charged by the federal government with conspiracy, incitement to riot and other charges related to anti-Vietnam war protests that rocked the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was intended to open in limited release on September 25 before going wide on October 16. That’s still essentially what happened, except the limited theatrical release was courtesy of Netflix and the “wide” release was its debut on the streaming platform, where it now ranks as the second most-watched movie behind Hubie Halloween. Paramount made money on the deal, but in the process, they lost a valuable awards contender and let Netflix take the likely glory for what would otherwise be a prototypical Paramount picture.
Paramount has been hurt worst among the major studios by the shifts in moviegoing tastes since late 2015. Not only have audiences who once went to the movies just to go to the movies migrated to streaming and VOD platforms, but the notion of what an event film or theater-worthy flick happens to be has changed. No longer is it enough for Tom Cruise to star as a fighter pilot or a race car driver. No longer is it enough for Morgan Freeman to star as Alex Cross in a pulpy detective thriller. Audiences no longer show up for movie stars, which means getting them to show up for original movies and/or new-to-you adaptations is increasingly challenging. If the movie isn’t part of a franchise with marquee characters, and that IP or marquee character isn’t enough of a draw, moviegoers don’t show up.
Sony and Paramount have struggled to maintain profitability and anything resembling cultural impact in a moviegoing environment where they once ruled via star-driven programmers (Adam Sandler comedies, Will Smith vehicles, Jim Carrey comedies, Tom Cruise dramas, thrillers starring some combination of Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson) and new and groundbreaking franchises (Spider-Man for Sony, and Transformers, Iron Man and the DWA toons for Paramount). Moreover, Paramount watched their prized franchises either collapse (Transformers and Star Trek) against the dominance of MCU and DC Films or end up elsewhere, with DreamWorks going to Fox and then Universal and Disney DIS outright buying the Marvel after Paramount launched Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. With little IP, Paramount either has to reassert itself as a viable studio for old-school movies or essentially cease to exist.
Rehashes of G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won’t cut it, and Tom Cruise can’t make Mission: Impossible sequels forever. With all the talk about movies from mid-to-late 2011 (Bad Teacher, Moneyball, The Help, Colombiana, Real Steel, etc.) being momentarily popular on Netflix, it’s worth remembering that Paramount absolutely ruled that year with $5.12 billion worldwide. They had the tentpoles (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor, Captain America, Kung Fu Panda 2) and the smaller-scale and/or non-franchise hits (Super 8, Paranormal Activity 3, The Adventures of Tintin, Rango, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, No Strings Attached, etc.). Meanwhile, Disney was relying entirely on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($1 billion) and Cars 2 ($562 million). That was also the last year before The Avengers, along with The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Skyfall reshaped the industry into its current IP-driven state.
It’s not that Paramount’s slate has been bad since 2015. I’d go to bat for the good-to-great likes of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Office Christmas Party, Silence, Star Trek Beyond, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, mother!, Downsizing, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Overlord, Instant Family, Annihilation, Crawl and Dora and the Lost City of Gold alongside correctly acclaimed/successful likes of Arrival, A Quiet Place, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Fences and Rocketman. But, comparatively speaking, the audience for old-school studio programmers, star vehicles and adult-skewing releases has essentially vanished almost overnight, while Paramount’s rivals have poached its IP (DWA), its franchises (Marvel) and frankly its template. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was a comic book movie done in the icy, sharp-cornered, tech-friendly style of Michael Bay’s Transformers and the Russos’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a superhero movie masquerading as a Paramount thriller.
Not only did the pandemic put a dent in Paramount’s theatrical ambitions for this Oscar contender, Paramount realized that the folks most likely to flock to theaters were not necessarily politically inclined to check out an unapologetically progressive political screed. So, yes, I get why they sold the film to Netflix. Especially considering its election-year topicality. But the picture, which boasts the usual snappy and impassioned Sorkin dialogue (and pacing) along with buzzy performances from (among others in a stacked cast) Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella and Mark Reylance, was supposed to be exactly the kind of picture that would again distinguish Paramount as the studio that once brought us movies like The Godfather, The Truman Show and The Wolf of Wall Street while still offering movies like Selma, Arrival and A Quiet Place.
Paramount earned just $564 million in domestic box office last year. Sure, the well-reviewed, all-star, crowdpleasing political melodrama courtesy of a marquee filmmaker might have actually broken out theatrically in normal circumstances, but it was a coin toss. However, over the long run, if Paramount can’t be relied upon to release movies like The Trial of the Chicago 7, Michael B. Jordan’s Without Remorse (allegedly going to Amazon AMZN ) and Coming 2 America (which they sold to Amazon for a reported $125 million), what exactly are they still doing in the motion picture distribution game? The sale to Netflix not only gives the streaming giant a huge Oscar contender and another feather in its cap, but further diminishes Paramount as the home of what was once proudly a Paramount picture. If they keep unloading their movies, reestablishing themselves may prove to be an impossible mission.