In the wake of Prey, Anghus Houvouras wants to see more franchises embracing streaming premieres…
The latest entry to the Predator franchise, Prey, was released on streaming platforms this weekend and the response has been exuberant. This is the kind of critical and audience reception that every filmmaker and studio strives for. The only points of contention come from two very separate camps: the testosterone fuelled trolls who lose their minds whenever a franchise film features a penis-free protagonist, and those who absolutely love the film but were disappointed that they weren’t able to experience Dan Trachtenberg’s excellent entry into the series on the big screen.
For the sake of time, we’re going to focus on the second group as the first requires a level of disconnect from reality that I am unqualified to properly diagnose.
Prey is excellent. This action-horror hybrid is nail-biting, tense as hell, and extremely effective in every category. The action, acting, cinematography and storytelling is extremely well done. It’s also compact in a way that eludes most blockbuster franchise films – both in terms of run time and avoiding the need for pointless bombast.
Streaming services are in the middle of a massive paradigm shift. From Netflix shedding subscribers at an alarming rate to the dumpster fire generated by the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, the digital landscape is ablaze as studios wrestle with new challenges as the lines between the theatrical and the home entertainment become increasingly blurred.
Prey feels like one of the first salient examples of the digital release strategy working as intended. Taking a franchise that has had mixed results at the box office since the original released in 1987. Both critically and financially, the Predator franchise has always struggled establishing itself as a consistent, high-performing franchise for the studio lagging behind other mainstays from the same era like Terminator and Alien. The series never had the same draw and every subsequent attempt at a rebrand or reboot ended up a disappointment.
I spoke at length in my last column about David Zaslav’s controversial path forward for HBO Max and outright cancelling projects like Batgirl as they attempted to employ a more precise strategy for their DCEU franchises focused on overall valuation of brands over a perpetual stream of mid-level branded content.
There’s a sweet spot studios are still in search of; trying to determine the proper medium and monetary investment for their franchises that makes sense for fans and the financials. The first great choice was acknowledging that Predator has never achieved the kind of blockbuster status the studio had hoped for and that a theatrical release and the money required to market and promote the movie around the world would have been prohibitive to the film achieving a comfortable level of profitability.
Yes, that last sentence is something you’re far more likely to hear at a quarterly results call than from the mouths of rabid fans at a convention. I doubt someone’s going to stand in line to ask Dan Trachtenberg about the ROI of the film and the strategies behind the digital-only release. I understand those who love the movie and want to see it on a big screen come from a place of passion and I won’t fault them for it. However, I believe the success of Prey comes from a series of good decisions by the executives at 20th Century & Hulu.
Never forget the second word in ‘entertainment industry’ is ‘industry’. This is a business. Good business decisions benefit both the studio and the fans. So what exactly did they do right?
First and foremost, they didn’t get greedy. They didn’t try to turn Predator into a TV series, something I’m guessing that has been pitched over the years. They didn’t announce a trilogy of new Predator movies to be released over the next five years and an accompanying animated series spin-off. There was an understanding about what makes a good Predator story work.
Second, they didn’t ‘go big’. So many sequels suffer from grandiose delusions of being ‘epic’. The kind of critical creator error that leads to giant space beams shooting up to the sky and seizure inducing third acts that assault your senses. Less is more.
Third, they paired the right creator with the right property. There’s a lot of guesswork involved with finding the right creators to tell a story. However, taking Dan Trachtenberg after his success with 10 Cloverfield Lane and tasking him with making a smaller, character focused Predator movie makes a lot of sense. He knocked it out of the park.
Fourth, they stuck to their guns with a digital only release. I believe that Prey’s popularity is due to its availability on streaming from day one. They found the sweet spot for the Predator franchise. It’s not a series that requires $200 million production budgets and $100 million marketing campaigns which mean the film needs to bring in half a billion dollars to simply break even. And there’s absolutely no guarantee the excitement level for Prey would have translated into a successful theatrical release.
Even before the pandemic, the Predator franchise was not a massive success and when you factor in the extra lengths people would have to go to in order to watch the film at the cinema, it might have ended up being seen as another disappointment in a franchise that has struggled to find its footing. But as a digital release with a crazy level of hype from early screening, everyone remotely interested could sit down at home and enjoy the experience.
But at a more modest budget and in the hands of creative filmmakers who can tell an engaging, exciting story in the framework of a $50 million production, it can please fans of the franchise and make new ones. I’d love to see more movies like Prey in the hands of filmmakers who could thrive in this creative space. Think about how amazing franchises like Terminator or Alien could be if they stopped trying to make them into massive four-quadrant blockbusters that are considered financial and creative failures.
When you think about it, there’s a lot of franchises born of a simple, well told tale. The Terminator and Alien franchises didn’t start out as huge films. They were modestly budgeted movies that did something extraordinary from filmmakers who were able to find creative solutions to budgetary limitations. Perhaps there are some franchises that work better when produced at a smaller scale and don’t try to be billion dollar worldwide sensations. Maybe the best path forward to see these franchises flourish is to scale down the stories for the small screen.
People struggle with new paradigms. It’s a natural part of life. We’re so accustomed to the theatrical experience for some movies that considering a world where every future Predator movie premieres online feels like we’ve lost something. But I’d argue that getting more entries to the Predator franchise like Prey is a road map to success for both fans and the studio.
SEE ALSO: Read our review of Prey here
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