Netflix isn’t afraid of telling its creators what to do – but at what cost?

Adam Sandler was recently asked by the streamer to move the location of his new film from China to Spain, which could set a dangerous precedent

A couple of old screenwriter jokes. 1) A writer and a producer are crawling through the desert, thirsty, dehydrated, close to death. In the distance they spot a glorious sight: a shimmering oasis of palm trees wafting over a pristine pool of water. With their final ounce of life they run towards the pool, but just as the writer drops to his knees to drink, the producer unzips his fly and starts pissing into the water. “What are you doing?!” the horrified writer yells. The producer replies, “I’m making it better!”

2) How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? Producer: does it have to be a light bulb?

Movie studios buying scripts only to rewrite them beyond all recognition is nothing new. Often they’re buying the concept rather than the script itself, and once every director, lead actor, producer, secretary, stunt choreographer, osteopath, mistress and girlfriend within half a mile of it have all suggested “improvements” in order to feel ownership and authorship of the film, there’s rarely very much of the original idea left.

One scriptwriter on the Quora thread I nabbed those gags from explains that studios will usually farm a promising script out for revisions and polishing to a different writer, who only gets a credit if they change over 50 per cent of it. They recall the original script for Wes Craven’s 2002 horror They only included one word from the original script by the time it was released. And that was the title.

adam sandler
Adam Sandler attends the LA Premiere of Netflix’s “Murder Mystery” at Regency Village Theatre on June 10, 2019 in Westwood, California. (Picture: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

It’s no great surprise, then, that Netflix might ask Adam Sandler to change a location in his new film Hustle from China to Europe. In the film, Sandler plays a US basketball scout travelling the world to look for talent; on Netflix’s orders he now finds it in Spain rather than the Far East. “They were like, ‘Would you guys please make it so we find someone in Latin America or Europe?’,” Sandler told The Dan Patrick Show. “So the next thing you know, I’m in Mallorca.”

Now, there are no doubt plenty of examples of other movie studios shifting film locations to take advantage of lucrative or untapped markets – every new Bond is basically the chance for some city, principality or Caribbean tax haven to show off its best tourism assets by having Daniel Craig crash a rocket-firing speedboat through them.

The reasoning behind the Hustle setting change, however, felt frankly suspect. “Netflix is not in China,” Sandler explained. Hmmm. So the world’s leading streaming platform shuns content featuring even minor plotlines that’s set in territories in which they don’t operate? Quite petty, no? Quite limiting? We’re no longer going to be allowed insight, acceptance or understanding of countries or cultures if Netflix can’t sell it back to them?

As streaming opens up our viewing habits to take in TV and film industries from across the world, Netflix, it seems, is shutting off, cutting out and culturally ostracising any territory that doesn’t play ball.

'Money Heist'
‘Money Heist’ (Picture: Netflix)

Obviously this has worrying repercussions. In what purports to be a streaming age without barriers, whole cultures are being walled off, us-and-them style, on the whims of marketing departments. At a time when the world needs to find its common human bond – if we’ve got any chance of stopping the planet turning into one big Flaming Moe within a few decades, that is – the new arbiters of one of the greatest tools of global connection known to man are reinforcing age-old prejudices of difference, distrust and distance for the sake of profit alone. Surely we’re only one step away from them asking the makers of Money Heist to make their bank robber masks a little more Fu Manchu.

It’s not just Chinese culture that Netflix have scrubbed out of Hustle. Now that Sandler’s character goes talent hunting in Spain, he discovers real-life NBA star Juancho Hernangómez, who subsequently stars in the film alongside him. In the original script, of course, this major role would have been played by an Asian actor.

This raises the question of whether Netflix wanted the change made because, without the Far East’s biggest market to exploit, they feared western audiences would react badly to a Chinese actor in a prominent role. And that suggests a huge leap backwards in terms of cinematic inclusivity. For far too long, many Chinese actors given any sort of spotlight in the West have been cornered into martial arts/action roles. But you know what Netflix, it’s 2021, Xi Jinping controls us all via 5G now, we can handle one Chinese person in a sodding Adam Sandler sports drama.

The more you consider the decision, the more sinister it looks. We can but hope that Netflix’s creative worldview can start stretching beyond its commercial reach. And soon.

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