Netflix, Will Smith bring the blockbuster home with 'Bright'

The action film starring Will Smith is one of the company's first movies available with the kind of visual and audio quality that normally deserves a big Hollywood premiere.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
4 min read
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As far as early film screenings go, this one's a bit unorthodox.

I'm in Hollywood to watch Netflix's "Bright," a buddy cop film starring Will Smith as a grizzled veteran and Joel Edgerton as his orc partner. (You read that right, a goblin cop.) The movie will be released three days before Christmas, but I get to watch it now.

Rather than filing into a traditional theater, I enter a small screening room on the sixth floor of Netflix's Hollywood offices. There are a half-dozen plush leather chairs decorated with throw pillows featuring the service's most popular shows. I lean back on an "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" cushion as another reporter plops onto a black Netflix-branded beanbag chair in the corner.


Will Smith stars in the Netflix action film "Bright."

Scott Garfield/Netflix

The point that Netflix is not-so-subtly trying to make -- as gunshots from the film reverberate in my ears through the Martin Logan audio system and crisp, clear images flash on the 77-inch LG OLED television in front of me -- is that you don't need the theater to get the blockbuster experience.

"Bright" isn't the first Netflix film to star an A-lister. Among other projects, Brad Pitt's "War Machine" arrived on the streaming service earlier this year. But "Bright" is Netflix's first original film to fit the Hollywood blockbuster archetype. It mixes a high-concept premise -- think "Training Day" set in a world where fantastical characters like orcs and elves live among us -- with a household name like Will Smith.

It's the kind of big-budget film that could fill theaters. (Well, maybe not this weekend.)

Instead, "Bright" marks Netflix's first significant attempt to upend the traditional movie model, similar to how we view its stable of shows such as "Stranger Things" as equal to anything from network and cable television. Netflix invited nearly a dozen reporters to meet with executives and the producer of "Bright" this past week to explain how the company's technology will help it replace the movie theater experience.

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While there are aspects of theaters that are difficult to replicate -- such as the huge screen or the ambiance of an enthusiastic crowd -- Netflix believes it can master key aspects like sound, video quality and even the promotion of marquee films.

"What you can do in your living room is as good as what you can get in a theater," said Richard Smith, senior product manager at Netflix. "It's a really impressive experience."

The caveat is that you'd have to pour several thousands of dollars into an impressive audio-visual setup if you want a true theater feel. But if you're willing to give up a little atmosphere, you can apparently get a lot of movie.

A true global launch

Rather than the usual splashy theatrical release, "Bright" will debut on the streaming service in 190 countries on Dec. 22. (It will also have a limited theatrical run in the US and UK.) The company hosted premieres over the past week, including one in an LA area theater.

That global scope was one of the reasons the people behind "Bright" opted to go with Netflix, according to Bryan Unkeless, one of the film's producers.


One of the screening rooms inside of Netflix's Hollywood offices. 


"It's exciting to be on the front lines of making a movie of this scope in a place that really feels like the future," Unkeless said during a roundtable with reporters.

Another appeal is how Netflix is promoting the film. While the company invested in billboards and movie posters, it's mostly focused on recommending "Bright" to subscribers.  

Chris Jaffe, vice president of user interface for Netflix, stressed that it's only pushing "Bright" to customers who are likely to be interested in the film. The company created a number of different hero images to suit the different tastes of its customers, similar to a strategy it used to promote "Stranger Things 2." With 109 million subscribers, those are a lot of potential eyeballs for the film.

Unlike movies that get a majority of promotion before release, Jaffe said Netflix plans to promote "Bright" for as a long as it remains on the service.

"Every night is premiere night for 'Bright,'" Jaffe said.

Unkeless said the Netflix model offered relief from the usual box office pressures, since Netflix doesn't disclose how many people watch its programming. The company is content to create movies and shows that are engaging enough to keep people subscribed to its service, and is notoriously secretive about how successful its programming actually is. 

Color and sound

Netflix spent a good chunk of the event talking about its use of visual technology like high dynamic range and Dolby Vision to ensure that its subscribers get the best possible viewing experience. Likewise, it used Dolby Atmos for dynamic sound effects.


A look at the difference between standard and high dynamic range, which affects the brightness and detail on the screen. 


Netflix has been vocal about its embrace of new visual and audio technologies. You don't need to know much about them beyond the fact that the visual tech brightens up the images while adding details, and the sound seems to come from different parts of the room.

Netflix said it has about 40 hours of programming in Dolby Atmos and 200 hours of programming in HDR, a step up above 4K content that had been the high point of video quality over the last few years. There are 1,200 hours of 4K programming on Netflix, and the company expects to see a similar adoption of HDR down the line. 

The company also employs color scientists and engineers who serve as consultants to filmmakers looking to use this technology. If directors aren't using it in their current films or shows, the advice often leads them to incorporate the new tech into future projects. 

"The enthusiasm that came from Netflix and their ability to support us with resources to make the right version of the movie far surpassed anywhere else we were looking," Unkeless said.

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