On the first floor of Madrid’s Villa Magna hotel, one thing becomes clear pretty quickly: Ben Affleck is quite a unit. Hands like plates, shoulders like a slab of meat. Just the type of specimen you need in the Special Forces, it probably reads in a long-forgotten field manual somewhere. But as he talks GQ Middle East through his role in Triple Frontier – the Netflix Original jungle heist – it doesn’t take too long to figure out where his real strength lies.
In just over two years, the movie has gone from abandoned project to Netflix power move. An unofficial signal of intent – fuelled partly by the star power of Affleck – ahead of streaming services from Apple and Disney that will arrive by the end of the year. The battle lines have been drawn. The war for your streaming soul has begun.
Of course if you ask Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, he’ll tell you that he’s more than up for the fight. “We’ve been competing with Amazon for 10 years,” he explained late last year. “We’re used to strong, heathy competition. It makes us better.”
Better means bigger when it comes to Triple Frontier. This is Netflix’s first stab at a major ensemble movie – Affleck is joined by Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garret Hedlund and Pedro Pascal. In some parts it’s been dubbed The Expendables with brains (admittedly tough on Dolph Lundgren’s degree in chemical engineering). But the truth is that if Triple Frontier is even half as successful as Stallone’s franchise – a fourth movie is on the way and an all-female spin-off called The Expendabelles (seriously) is in the pipeline – then it would be considered a roaring success.
To some, success for this movie is just seeing it on the screen in the first place. As recently as 2017, Triple Frontier was dead in the water. Originally with Paramount Pictures, it was intended as the follow-up vehicle for writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow to the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker. Initial cast notes in 2009 linked Javier Bardem, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn. A year later and Tom Hanks was tapped for a role, while Bigelow was taking big meetings with Will Smith, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Renner and Johnny Depp to fill the other four male leads.
News then broke of a project that Boal and Bigelow had been cooking up – one that ended up being Zero Dark Thirty, which meant a swift place on the back burner for Triple Frontier. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, issues with Paramount over the proposed budget surfaced, along with arguments over the potential casting of Smith (Paramount wanted him, Bigelow didn’t), before Boal and Bigelow finally moved off the project. In 2015, JC Chandor – Margin Call and All is Lost – was announced to direct, followed by word that Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali and Channing Tatum were all keen. The positive vibes didn’t hang around for long. Just a few months later, the entire movie fell apart.
Which is where Netflix came in.
Hollywood is a town filled with abandoned projects. Great stories that couldn’t get the right backing, scripts that never quite made it over the line. The finances involved are just too big to take major risk. But for those with deep enough pockets to revive them, there lies opportunity.
“There’s a huge financial burden on releasing a movie theatrically,” says Affleck. “You have to spend a lot of money on things like digital prints, marketing, advertising… it makes it difficult because you could say, ‘well, we think our movie has a strong appeal, but perhaps not quite across all demographics’. That makes it a doubt. Because of that aversion to risk in theatres, Netflix presents an opportunity for more diverse films to be made.”
But if Triple Frontier is a metaphor for just how difficult it is to get a movie off the ground in 2019, then it’s also a sign of how Netflix is changing the game when it comes to not just how we consume our media, but what gets made in the first place.
“The great thing about the streaming platforms – and particularly Netflix,” continues Affleck, now in full-on director/writer mode, “is that they identify what you watch and what you might like to watch in the future. It then gets marketed individually to you. This means that you can make a more interesting, creative product without having to worry about how it performs at the box office.”
Disney CEO Bob Iger - Getty Images
Nobody has mentioned the D-word today. We’re in town to talk Netflix, and big name talent has been paraded before us, but there’s an edge in the air. It’s been there for a while. It’s called Disney+. Last year, Disney CEO, Bob Iger, labelled streaming as the company’s ‘number one priority’ for 2019. It was no idle threat.
In March, Disney completed the $71bn acquisition of 21st Century Fox – a deal that houses Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel all under one roof. This was a double Disney flex, too, taking the big six Hollywood studios down to five, reaffirming its box office dominance and offering a considerable bulk-up in content for Disney+. The search for streaming high-ground isn’t just front-facing either, with Disney also close to a controlling stake in Hulu – currently one of Netflix’s main rivals. You’re basically looking at a pincer movement starring Luke Skywalker and Homer Simpson.
Of course, Netflix is chill. They simply point eyeballs to the numbers. Currently boasting 139m global subscribers – a figure up by 29m since the start of 2018 – in the last 12 months alone it has spent $13bn on content. But this is no frantic push to beef up a library that could be significantly depleted of big name favourites by the end of the year. There’s real quality amongst it: last year saw original programming receive 112 Emmy nominations, 12 Golden Globe nominations, and two Academy Awards to go with the other four statues the channel already has on its mantelpiece.
Such is its success that it’s actually started a side war all of its own. An old guard vs new guard battle, with Steven Spielberg leading the charge – something that’s all the more intriguing considering his role in the Apple TV+ announcement last month. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” said a bristling Spielberg – meaning you shouldn’t be eligible for Oscar selection, regardless of whether, like Triple Frontier, you also have a limited cinema release, too.
“The media likes to turn these things into personal conflicts,” says Affleck. “Now it’s Spielberg vs Netflix, but really it’s a technical question which will work itself out. I would be concerned if I thought streaming was going to make the theatre-going experience go away, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
But of course this is all just distraction from the main event. While Netflix’s aggressive original programming strategy has currently saddled it with a hefty debt – $8.34bn as of September 2018 – it simply sees that the loss-leader keeping it at the top of the pecking order. But while all eyes are on a straight up brawl with the obvious contenders, Netflix doesn’t quite see it that way.
Netflix has spent big on shows such as Ricky Gervais’ After Life
“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO…” read the letter accompanying the Q4 results last year. “Hulu is small compared to YouTube for viewing time.” That last point is particularly prevalent in the Middle East, with YouTube firmly on top when it comes to downstreaming content. As things stand, Netflix only accounts for around 12 percent of traffic.
Naturally, emerging markets are slowly but surely being targeted for domination, with Hastings reaffirming his dedication to programming for the Middle East with the soon-to-air supernatural drama, Jinn.
For some, the war is over before it has even begun. “Netflix has won this game,” says former Paramount and Fox CEO Barry Diller. “Short of some existential event, no one can get to their level of subscribers, which gives them real dominance.”
Those working on the Triple Frontier press junket in Madrid look the part already. A slick operation ran by a shadowy cabal dressed singularly in black. Most appear in a perpetual state of motion, like sharks with clipboards and walkie-talkies. Downstairs in the lobby, a beefed-up security detail loiters, suspiciously eyeing anybody with the temerity to wander in through the large revolving doors.
The intention is clear: if anybody wants a share of this operation, they’re going to have to take it by force.
Triple Frontier is streaming on Netflix