A Sneak Preview of 2018: Netflix Films and a Canine Secret Weapon

Posted December 28, 2017 9:57 p.m. EST

As 2017 grinds to a halt, two media business stories promise to have a substantial impact on streaming video. The Federal Communications Commission voted Dec. 14 to overturn Obama-era regulations on net neutrality, which, simply put, prevented internet providers from playing favorites in terms of speed and bandwidth.

The actual consequences may take time to become clear. Parties who argued against the FCC’s ruling maintain that, for example, without regulation an internet provider may block or slow user access to, say, Hulu and ease the connection to an entertainment service it owns or has an agreement with.

Which indirectly brings us to the other story: the impending merger of the Walt Disney Co. and certain major components of 21st Century Fox. This gigantic deal has inspired internet wags to imagine mashups of Mickey Mouse and “The Simpsons” and wax lyrical about the potential flowerings within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because, in the latter case, the Marvel franchises concerned with the X-Men and the Fantastic Four have been the property of Fox, while the Avengers, who constitute the plurality of superheroes, roost with Disney. Soon they may all share the same galaxy, or playpen.

But as the smarter business analysts know, superhero movies are relatively low on the list of concerns that animate this deal. No, this deal is about the future, about traditional movie studios trying to gain traction in the streaming market in the hope of overtaking established platforms.

Earlier this year Disney announced that it would let its licensing agreements with Netflix lapse and start its own streaming service in 2019. The Fox deal adds a substantial amount of content muscle to Disney’s intentions. We probably won’t see direct ramifications for consumers for a while, possibly not at all in 2018. But the business of streaming, already a complicated one with a lot of players, is going to get even more interesting, and probably ugly, over the next 24 months and beyond. So we’ve got that to look forward to.

But let’s peek at the bright side for now. Netflix recently shared with The New York Times its slate of original films scheduled from January until April. I can’t watch any of them yet, so I’m ill-equipped to assess them, but here are some titles that have potential.

“The Polka King, directed by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, arrives Jan. 12. As it stars Jack Black, one’s first surmise might be that it’s Black’s patch on John Candy and Eugene Levy’s Schmenge Brothers, polka-musician characters first seen on “SCTV.” It is not. Rather, it’s a fact-based comedy-drama about Jan Lewan, already the subject of a 2009 documentary, who combined music with a Ponzi scheme to realize his ambition to rule polka and make more money than anyone who had previously ruled polka had ever dreamed of. The movie was well received when it played at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

On Jan. 19, there’s “Step Sisters, a collegiate drama directed by Charles Stone III. Its plot linchpin is, yes, step dancing. Stone did a pretty good job with the 2002 Nick Cannon film “Drumline,” which was about a marching band, so he might do the trick similarly here.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a movie title born of a phrase well-known to devotees of the 1978 comedy milestone “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” It was coined by Doug Kenney, a comedy wunderkind with a genuinely unusual personality who was one of the movie’s screenwriters and a founding editor at National Lampoon. Fittingly the phrase serves as the title of Kenney’s biopic, directed by comedy stalwart David Wain. Based on the book by Josh Karp, it stars Will Forte and features a bevy of contemporary comedy figures playing the real-life performers who went on to fame with “Animal House” and “Saturday Night Live.” Joel McHale plays Chevy Chase, Natasha Lyonne is Anne Beatts, Thomas Lennon portrays Michael O’Donoghue and Seth Green is Christopher Guest. The movie has its premiere Jan. 26.

“When We First Met” (Feb. 9), directed by Ari Sandel and starring Alexandra Daddario and Robbie Amell, looks quite a bit more ordinary. The plot hook for this rom-com fantasy is that Amell, after what he considers a perfect first night with Daddario, is upset that he is relegated to “the friend zone” (official synopsis words, not mine), but he gets to travel back in time to alter the situation.

March brings a revival of the “Benji” franchise, with a brand-new film directed by Brandon Camp, the son of the series originator Joe Camp. It’s produced by Jason Blum, who founded Blumhouse Productions, a company best known for horror pictures such as “Get Out,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister,” “Insidious” and the attendant sequels. I doubt the prospects for a cute-dog-horror hybrid, though, and suspect a pre-emptive move to get a good children’s franchise going before Disney establishes its own streaming service.

March and April bring a couple of films with African-American themes and stories. “Roxanne Roxanne, which played at 2017’s Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to hit Netflix sometime in March, is about Lolita Gooden, who became a force in hip-hop under the name Roxanne Shante. Newcomer Chante Adams plays the rapper, while Nia Long plays her mother. Also featured are Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for “Moonlight,” and Adam Horovitz, the Beastie Boy known as Ad-Rock. The writer-director of this movie, Michael Larnell, also directed the well-received but little-seen 2015 film “Cronies.”

“Come Sunday, debuting April 13, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a graduate of Oral Roberts University whose ministry in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ was jeopardized by his “Gospel of Inclusion,” which, among other things, cast doubt on the concept of a hell of eternal torture. Adapted from “Heretics,” an episode of “This American Life” (one of the movie’s producers is Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of that radio program), the movie is directed by Joshua Marston, whose earlier pictures include “Maria Full of Grace” (2004) and “The Forgiveness of Blood” (2011), both of which showed a commendable sensitivity to cultural diversity.