A Chinese space epic like The Wandering Earth hitting Netflix so unexpectedly raises a lot of questions. The question is why would Netflix release one of the most successful films of the year with little to no promotion?
The title of “Netflix Original” has become something of a cautious achievement in 2019. A Netflix Original once stood for a high-profile show or movie that would only be available to watch with a Netflix subscription. Think shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, any of the Defenders shows, and of course Stranger Things. These titles among others helped boost the name power of Netflix Original to a household term we are mostly familiar with.
However, as Netflix continued to grow as the monstrous streaming service it currently is today, the money coming in gave the service an excuse to purchase the streaming rights to movies from across the globe, increasing their international pull as a result. Successful foreign films such as South Korea’s Train to Busan and I Saw the Devil, Thailand’s Bad Genius, and the works of Mexican director and Oscar winner, Alfonso Cuaron, have found a home in American Netflix, gaining the opportunity for increased mainstream exposure in the process.
However, something about Netflix’s release strategy gives the impression that the company has become so big that they do not know or have simply forgotten how to properly promote their international movies and shows. Out of the previous examples listed, only Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma was able to enjoy a strong promotional campaign during Oscar season, with Netflix proudly standing behind their first big break into Oscar glory.
The rest of the movies listed not only did not have a strong promotional campaign for their releases on Netflix, but were dropped on the service rather unceremoniously with hardly a peep about the film’s release.
The films were successful in their home countries, but treated with the same gusto as a direct-to-DVD movie in the bargain bin at Walmart. This is a fate that has also seemingly been reserved for the latest international release on Netflix: the Chinese space epic known as The Wandering Earth.
A Chinese sensation
If The Wandering Earth sounds familiar to you at all, it might be because the massively successful run at the Chinese box office made waves that were felt even here in the West. The Wandering Earth is in fact a Chinese sensation, casually breaking box office records to become not only the highest grossing film of all time in China, but it currently stands as the third highest grossing film worldwide in 2019, only behind Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame with a stunning $700 million worldwide.
A movie this successful should be huge news for a Netflix acquisition, right? Netflix had worked quick to buy the streaming rights for The Wandering Earth shortly after its impressive release and though they did not give an exact date at the time, it still seemed like it was a huge deal for Netflix to acquire the most successful Chinese film in history. With a strong promotional campaign and a predetermined release date to get everyone hyped, Netflix could’ve done wonders for exposing the film to a mainstream Western audience.
What did the film get instead? A surprise drop onto the service with practically no advertisements to be found this past Monday. This was after a short announcement of the film’s release date to be set on April 30th, which was pushed back to May 6th for some reason. But either way, The Wandering Earth is now on Netflix and hardly anybody even knows about it. Netflix Asia released a trailer to promote the film for Eastern audiences, but nothing else has been said about it from the West.
What’s even stranger about The Wandering Earth‘s release is Netflix’s lack of promotion even when it’s already available to stream. Normally, new Netflix films have some degree of front page exposure, such as in the Featured section of Netflix Originals and on Recently Added content. But looking on there, the film is nowhere to be found. The movie, despite being new to the service, is already shuffled to the back of the lineup, forcing people to search it up by name to find it and if they’ve never heard of it, there’s next to no chance of ever finding the film on there.
Netflix vs. Eastern films
The lack of promotion for The Wandering Earth continues a disturbing trend of Netflix outright refusing to promote international films on their social media and promotional campaigns. That doesn’t mean they won’t mention the films, but they might as well not even try. International films, for all of the success they’ve endured in their respective countries, are forced to fight their way through prioritized movies and shows to get a chance at receiving the spotlight, even if only for a brief moment.
Aside from a small trailer for The Wandering Earth, none of the films I’ve mentioned even have a Netflix trailer to promote their releases. Bad Genius, Burning, Train to Busan, and the 2015 Sion Sono film,Tag, have nothing to go off of outside of brief mentions on social media from the streaming giant. The combined promotion of all of these films, The Wandering Earth included, don’t even compare to the level of promotion for a film like Extinction, which received the full trailer treatment despite no real buzz behind the film before its acquisition.
Netflix seems to harbor a deep sense of favoritism for its more “home-grown” material over films that have proven to be successful outside of Netflix. Outside of some MCU and classic blockbusters to bring in a larger crowd, Netflix is beginning to brand itself as a legitimate film distribution company, no doubt inspired by Roma’s successful Oscar campaign. But the company seems to still willfully ignore the other foreign films in their catalog, which may stem from their successes without Netflix.
A success story buried
The Wandering Earth was already a success before its Netflix acquisition, but its treatment by Netflix is a complete contrast to the service’s treatment of Roma, which may be easier to promote thanks to its Oscar fame and the name recognition of Alfonso Cuaron. If the material is something more overtly “foreign”, Netflix doesn’t even seem to bother with putting faith in it. It’s sink or swim for these foreign movies, but if it comes to Ted Bundy, Netflix is gracious enough to toss some flotation devices to help it survive.
Writing this, it’s easy to see why Netflix wouldn’t want to promote foreign films on their sites for Western audiences. The West still harbors a strained relationship with foreign films, often ignoring them when they get a typically limited release in the States. Outside of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Amelie, and Spirited Away, foreign films do not receive as much love and the same was true for The Wandering Earth, which grossed just over $5 million in the States.
But at this point, the hesitation to promote their international catalog has almost turned into blatant burial courtesy of Netflix. The Wandering Earth may not be completely embraced by American audiences. Some may be completely turned off by its Chinese atmosphere and it’s perfectly natural to not enjoy the film. But Netflix has taken away the chance to even properly judge the film by burying it under loads of more “prominent” Netflix originals, never receiving a fair shake at the spotlight.
The Wandering Earth is a film that is, from my understanding at least, absolutely beloved by Chinese audiences and having it watched it, it puzzles me to see why Netflix wouldn’t promote a crowd-pleasing space epic to American audiences. We enjoy our fair share of crowd-pleasers, so taking a chance on the space adventure drama is totally justified. Netflix is essentially branding this film as unimportant by their standards despite the major impact it made on the box office.
Netflix may have a bevy of successful shows and movies to promote, but they are at a point where they can determine a film’s success solely on their stamp of approval. But that stamp is nowhere to be found for any of its Eastern films, no matter how successful the film may be. Netflix takes pride in promoting diverse content for American audiences to see, but the hesitation to back up their claims with The Wandering Earth and its Eastern contemporaries shows that the service still has a LOT of growing up to do.
The Wandering Earth is available to stream now on Netflix. Have you seen it? Were you able to find it on the front page or did you have to search by name? What are some of your favorite foreign films on Netflix and why? Sound off below!