Peter Bart: ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ Will Be Netflix’s Latest Triumph, And Contradiction

This week used to be nail-biting time in Hollywood as the studios nervously unfurled their summer blockbusters and prayed for lines at the box office. That time is bye-bye.

To be sure, a few movies are still opening. I decided to drop by one pre-opening party this week to find Ted Sarandos, jaunty in sports jacket and jeans, cheerfully greeting guests at a screening of his company’s $150 million Eddie Murphy feature.

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No one was biting nails or counting lines.

Rambunctiously entertaining, Axel F defies blockbuster criteria even for sequels of museum vintage. At age 63, Murphy’s ingratiating smile has endured over the four decades since the first Beverly Hills Cop wreaked havoc, blasting down Rodeo Drive. Research reinforces the movie’s strong generational feedback.

The event this week delighted its audience on the big screen at the elegantly resuscitated Egyptian Theater in Hollywood – a combined Netflix/American Cinematheque restoration. It will open July 3 for Netflix’s 270 million sofa-bound subscribers worldwide without a theatrical release. By contrast, Bad Boys: Ride or Die from Sony Pictures is briefly thriving at the box office.

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Beverly Hills Cop thus represents the triumphs and contradictions of the Netflix universe, which presently reigns over an industry that some leaders describe as chaotic.

Reporters from The New York Times last week interviewed top entertainment CEOs and concluded that the best hope for Netflix’s corporate rivals was to “stop trying to be like Netflix.”

Only Amazon, the leaders concluded, has successfully mounted a robust challenge to Netflix domination. While competitors are trying to curb production budgets, Netflix will allocate some $17 billion on new product this year.

“It’s a tall order to entertain the world,” acknowledges Sarandos, the Netflix co-CEO. “It’s a challenge more of art than of science.”

To be sure, rivals are looking to a variety of strategies to challenge Netflix, pushing new advertising-supported tiers, expanding sports programming and advancing formulas for bundling. All are cognizant of Barry Diller’s warning: “The trap is to try to become Netflix,“ he maintains.

In the Times report, executives concluded that, all things considered, an entity would need 200 million subscribers to play the streamer game competitively. Netflix reports 270 million subscribers paying an average of $11 per month. That yielded operating margins of 28% and first-quarter revenue of $9.4 billion. A Deloitte study found that households are averaging $61 a month on four streaming services. Most want to reduce that spend.

Beverly Hills Cop represents an intriguingly eccentric weapon in the streaming wars. A generation ago it was billed as a “high concept” project fostered in the Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg era at Paramount – a challenge to conventional studio films. It was a theatrical hit.

A young comic who resonated on Saturday Night Live, Murphy was called upon to play both a comedic and action star. The plots of the movie and its sequels were unruly but entertaining, its star earning renown as both temperamental and “difficult.” “Eddie’s movies thrive on chaos and he generates it,” recalls one veteran of his projects.

The tough-minded and venerable Jerry Bruckheimer was brought in to bring some discipline to Axel F (he also produces Bad Boys). Several senior performers from previous Beverly Hills Cop films, like Judge Reinhold, were also brought in as ballast, the film thus offering a mix of geriatric villains versus youthful protagonists.

Beverly Hills Cop thus represents a characteristic adventure for Sarandos, the innovative network boss who turns 60 this summer. A dedicated cineaste, the convivial Sarandos also displays a talent for Cop-like cinematic chaos.

In restoring the grandiose century-old Egyptian, and the Paris in New York, Sarandos supports imposing locations for branding Netflix product, but also for reminding filmmakers of its sprawling ambitions. But with Beverly Hills Cop, consumers will have to follow the Rodeo Drive action from their home sofas.

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