If the movie , which premiered on Netflix this week, looks a little familiar to you, that’s on purpose. It’s the story of four kids, thrown together at summer camp in the middle of an alien invasion, faced with the task of carrying the one object that can defeat the aliens across war-torn Los Angeles.
It’s a fun ride through childhood friendship forged amid killer aliens and saving the world. Sound like a 1980s-style adventure, like what Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment used to make? Well, good.
Maybe you’ll see echoes of in its story of four kids on a road trip, or the vibe of and in the movie’s diverse tweens in science-fictional, action-adventurous peril. Sharper-eyed nerds will spot locations such as Courthouse Square on the Universal backlot (the clock tower in ) and the Sepulveda Dam used in and the closing credits of . These kinds of movies used to be a reliable product. “There were a couple of them every summer, and they were great, and I loved them. They were emotionally important to me,” says Zack Stentz, who wrote . “And Hollywood stopped making them.”
Now, though, digital streaming services like Netflix are upending of Hollywood’s business model. Small screens can do what big screens won’t.
Stentz had the idea for years ago—that he could modernize the kids-on-an-adventure trope of the 1980s by using summer camp as a tool to separate kids from parents and cell phones. Cue the aliens, and you’re rolling. “I told my agents about it in early 2016, and they said ‘Don’t. The studios aren’t buying anything like that.'” But Stentz, a veteran of the desperately underrated TV show and co-writer of and , couldn’t shake the idea. He started writing it anyway.
Two-thirds of the way to a finished draft, the show hit. “Suddenly everyone remembered how much they loved those ’80s movies that was Frankenstein-monstered out of the pieces of,” Stentz says. He finished his script and took it to a pal at the director McG’s production company, and they wanted to set something up at Netflix. That was early 2017. A year later, the deal was closed. “The crazy thing about Netflix is, when the deals are closed, there aren’t 10 more drafts with everyone giving notes,” Stentz adds. “They’re like ‘OK, go make it.'”
And they did. “We didn’t have the resources of a $150 million movie, but we had a 40-day shoot, which is not terrible, and an incredibly meticulous director of photography, so when you see it, it doesn’t look like TV,” Stentz says. He’s right; the budget was in fact just a tenth of that, but the effects gleam and sets look great. And a few long takes from the POV of the kids as they dodge explosions and aliens bring, as Stentz says, “real cinematic razzle-dazzle.”
All of which should make you ask: Wait, why’d they make this? is the kind of perfectly fun mid-list movie that, as Stentz says, used to get made all the time, but now isn’t. Why is Netflix reheating what seem like cultural leftovers?
Today, big studios—facing declining movie attendance overall—depend on massive franchises, cinematic universes like the Marvel movies to deliver billion-dollar grosses at thousands of theaters worldwide. “This squeezed out a huge number of genres and formats and styles, even those that were massive hits in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond,” says Matthew Ball, a digital media analyst, in an email. “This change in theatrical supply is separate from audience demand and interest in this content. Audiences still love rom-coms (which have been largely dropped by the major studios) and kid-focused adventure/thrillers.”
So Netflix is, in a sense, hitting ’em where they ain’t. It has to if it wants to sustain subscriber growth. (Netflix has a reported 139 million subscribers around the world already.) The company has the money to spend—a reported $8 billion for content—but can’t really compete with the and of the world, especially as the big studios draw those kind of movies back to create catalogs for their own digital streaming services, like the soon-to-launch Disney+. A Netflix spokesperson declined to make any of its executives available for comment.
Netflix grabs international TV series, makes its own movies, and in general vies for volume to appeal to a range of tastes, quality levels, and commitment to time in front of a TV. Every long tail, in other words. “HBO self-develops and produces everything they make, obsessively, slowly, and deliberately,” Ball says. “Netflix needs a lot of output. This means hiring experienced talent, such as McG, and trusting them to get it done.”
All of which opened the door for Stentz to amble in. “It means you have to check your ego at the door a little bit, because your movie’s not going to be debuting in 4,000 theaters, 40 feet high,” he says. “But it’s wonderful at the same time, because it means a lot more people are going to see it.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a hit; the sheer amount of new shows and movies that drop on Netflix (not to mention Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.) can mean new stuff gets lost in the tsunami. Stentz took the somewhat unusual step of going on Twitter and saying that he’d talk to reporters about his movie; that’s usually the kind of thing studio communications people handle (or quash). But now, even the definition of “hit” has changed. doesn’t have to outgross . It just has to be old-fashioned fun.