Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Netflix is attributed with democratizating global movie making in unprecedented ways, but has it really? Paper Lives and Yes Day provide an interesting case study.
A spokesperson for Netflix had once said in an interview, “For us, great entertainment is not just about exporting US content internationally. It’s about sharing stories from the world with the world.” This is foundational to Netflix’s global strategy of producing local original content, which also enables subscriber growth in local markets through avant-garde productions backed by Netflix.
In Turkey, Netflix has produced a number of original series and movies. In both categories, the most successful franchises have actor Cagatay Ulusoy as the lead protagonist, and the global viewership is undeniable. Even though the recent series Ethos is critically acclaimed and received high audience ratings, the lesser rated The Protector reached the highest MOVIEmeter of 10 on IMDb for a Turkish series and was the 10th most watched international series in the United States in 2020.
Paper Lives, a movie also starring Cagatay, shot towards the top of the ranks of Netflix movies worldwide, and was in the top 10 for 3+ weeks since it started streaming on March 12, 2021. In its first week, when it trended at #2, it was bested by Yes Day, a Netflix USA production starring Jennifer Garner.
These two movies offer an interesting comparison. Both premiered on the same day, both list the lead protagonist as a producer, both feature stars who are well known globally, both stories have a focus on mothers albeit in very different ways.
Jennifer Vs Cagatay
Jennifer Garner is a vocal member of the actors’ community in the United States, an activist for early childhood education and also serves on the board of Save the Children in USA. She’s been a presenter at the Oscars among other awards ceremonies, and had a high profile marriage with Oscar winning artiste Ben Affleck. Active as an actor since 1995, she shot to stardom as Sydney Bristow in Alias which aired 2001 – 2006, receiving several nominations along the way. Since then, she has been in several films and series, with IMDb listing 64 credits as an actress.
In comparison to Hollywood, the Turkish entertainment industry is not as well known in Western markets, but in reality is only second to US in its worldwide TV distribution. With increasing popularity in the Middle East, Latin America and now Europe, Turkish dizis (often cast as telenovelas) are better known than the industry’s full length movies.
Cagatay Ulusoy is a model turned actor who only entered the craft in 2011, after he got the lead role in the dizi Adini Feriha Koydum (“AFK”) a week after his win as Best Model of Turkey in 2010. The dizi went on to become hugely successful, with incredible global sales, and is now the most watched show on TV in Bangladesh, where the 67 episode series premiered in November 2020.
Contrary to the well-trodden path to Hollywood success traversed by Jennifer, Cagatay’s success has ridden an alternate route. There is plenty of literature available now that talks about the success of Turkish drama. In addition to the cultural appeal from its neighboring or fellow Muslim countries, its unexpected success in Latin America and other growing markets lies in the resonance with strong family and moral values, expressive male actors and complex plotlines rooted in love.
Cagatay’s popularity in all these markets with a predominantly female audience is extraordinary, with his role as Emir Sarrafoglu in AFK leaving a lasting impression among its legion of fans. Social media proliferation through facebook, twitter and Instagram has raised fan engagement with Cagatay’s work immeasurably and even though he remains elusive on these platforms, he boasts millions of global fans. In contrast to Jennifer’s 64, Cagatay only has 13 credits as an actor, including cameos and guest appearances.
Despite the significant career differences and reasons for popularity, it is interesting to observe the ways they collided with the release of their Netflix movies on March 12.
Known Vs Unknown
Riding on Jennifer’s activism as a parent and in childhood education, Yes Day has been in the news since at least mid-2018, when Jennifer was featured in an article on Motherly, talking about her 6th annual Yes Day with her own kids, a concept taken from the eponymous book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The movie and cast were announced in 2019, and filming started in November of the same year, long before shutdowns enforced by the COVID pandemic. Since then, she has appeared in multiple interviews, articles, and more, talking about the movie, with promotional activities picking up since December 2020.
The trailer became available on Netflix on February 10, and the LA Times review published on March 10, two days before it released on Netflix. Since its release, both lead actors Jennifer and Edgar Ramirez have been in several interviews and articles; director Miguel Arteta also participating in several interviews.
In contrast, the PR for Paper Lives, a borderless movie that looks at motherhood from a very different angle than the comic version in Yes Day, has been very quiet. The movie, initially titled Struggle Alley (Mucadele Cikmazi), was officially announced in early September, with the release date set for March 15, 2021. Filming happened at the height of COVID outbreaks, with limited crew, and we see calls for #EvDeKal (#StayAtHome) through some colorful graffiti during a pivotal scene in the show.
Information about the movie was scant, and apart from some social media shares by the director Can Ulkay and few other crew members during filming, very little information could be found about the movie except that the protagonist is the manager of a waste warehouse who finds a little boy that he wishes to reconcile with his mother. Leading up to the movie, no interviews are available of the cast and crew, vastly underutilizing Cagatay's popularity. One with the director Can Ulkay surfaced recently, after 3+ weeks of the movie trending in the Top 10 movies on Netflix. The name and release date of the movie changed just a handful of weeks before release, and its only trailer released on Netflix Turkey/ Netflix on March 1.
Despite such a stark difference in the PR and preparation for the movies, and the disparate filming challenges, the streaming ranking speaks volumes about the success of Paper Lives relative to Yes Day, which only supersedes in overall rankings of movie viewership. While trailers for Paper Lives is available in multiple languages and, combined, has millions of views, Yes Day’s Netflix trailer on YouTube had not reached even a million as of this writing. Unexpectedly, there are multiple positive reviews of Paper Lives in USA alone, with many more out of Latin America, Europe and South Asia. Paper Lives trended as the #2 Netflix movie worldwide for a week, and at its peak trended in 62 countries.
The success even took the filmmakers by surprise.
Roots of Success
Looking at the heat maps of where the movies trended two weeks after release, one can see that Paper Lives remain popular in Latin America and Middle East, the traditional strongholds for Turkish drama. Some surprise countries where it also trended for a while are Iceland, Jamaica, Slovenia, Malta, Finland and Norway. The Scandinavian countries and the ones in Northern Europe have been surprising, even though Italy, France, Spain, Greece and more have had a growing following of Turkish drama for some time. Hollywood movies, on the other hand, are known the world over, and Yes Day trended in all major English speaking countries, Russia and in parts of Africa as well.
There have been many exploratory articles and research that has tried to understand this unprecedented popularity of Turkish drama. Being firmly embedded in the growing English speaking audience for the genre, I have also postulated theories in the past. And much of it lies in the reverent retelling of very human stories, taking the time to scrutinize the minutia of the human experience, and often leaving the interpretation to be subjective. It intelligently invites the audience to introspect on the themes, and many of the higher quality Turkish dramas will not attempt to mask important questions under slapstick comedy or the obvious.
Yes Day versus Paper Lives also illustrates some of these contrasts. In this age of labels such as “Tiger Moms” and “Karens”, Jennifer takes a look at draconian parenting from the children’s perspective, and through a seemingly profound decision to give the kids a “Yes Day”, where the parents agree to say Yes to everything the kids ask, she illustrates an attempt to ‘liberate’ the children who feel they are being ruled by a dictator at home. Predictably, the decision leads to fun moments and realizations on both sides about the challenges of being a kid and being a parent. Some cultural diversity is also thrown in by making Edgar Ramirez's character be of Hispanic descent, and blending in some Spanish dialogue between the parents during some heated moments. I didn’t really need to watch the whole cliched movie to understand the message, and I found myself skipping through a number of the predictable skits, acting choices and dialogues.
Paper Lives, on the other hand, helmed by handsome Cagatay who has played admirable hero figures in his handful of prior roles, goes into the unexpected world of waste collectors who have made their lives on the streets and/or in the squalor of abandoned buildings. Looking scruffy and unkempt compared to his glamorous appearance at awards functions, the focus quickly goes into understanding the character, his environment and his choices.
Against the grandeur of Istanbul, as the stories of the typically overlooked personalities unfold, it is easy to get drawn into the personal struggles of the protagonists, whether they are insinuated or visualized fully. It makes us wonder about motherhood and the sacrifices one may be forced to make if embedded in a patriarchal system. It makes us see the effects it can have on lives of men as they find themselves in difficult situations. There are many possible interpretations of introduced themes and, what to many may seem as a film that is trying to do too much, seems to me as a film that blends in details that are all related to the central issue of our responsibilities towards our forgotten children, our duty towards protecting the sacred mother child relationship, which in turn can have multitude of positive societal ripple effects.
At a broad level, while both the movies induce reflection on parenting and children, what Yes Day does in a frivolous manner that is formulaic and well-understood in Western moviemaking, Paper Lives does in a heart-touchingly artful manner that steps away from the expected. And it is because of this form of character driven storytelling that Paper Lives stands out as a great blend of an independent filmic experience interposed with elaborate cinematic frames more reminiscent of big budget films.
Road to International Recognition
South Korea is an increasingly powerful source of global entertainment through its K-Dramas and K-Pop. When South Korean movie “Parasite” won both the Best International Film and the Best Picture award at the Oscars last year, it marked a historic beginning of the modern era of films, as well as providing a worthy nod to the formidable entertainment industry from the Asia Pacific.
With Netflix now considered a major production house, a Netflix movie regardless of borders can be eligible for similar accolades.
As the 2020 Oscar Nominations got announced a few days ago, Netflix’s Mank leading the charge with 10 nominations, it opens possibilities for all sorts of movies that can get shortlisted for all sorts of categories. With this unexpected success with Paper Lives, I wonder if Netflix will consider entering the movie in the foreign film category, set design, original screenplay and/or can it even try for the main prizes at other prestigious awards ceremonies in the West? Obviously something about the movie leaves an impression with millions of its supporters, marking an unexpected triumph for a little known movie. And while it is not of the caliber of Parasite, perhaps it serves as a worthy enough film that allows a nod to the global popularity of Turkish entertainment and help to showcase this unique form of storytelling that touches our hearts so deeply.
By being cast against a typical Disney-esque feel good movie such as Yes Day, which doesn't pretend to have any awards aspirations, perhaps there is already an automatic discounting of the depth of story told through Paper Lives. There are many dimensions to manage from Netflix's delivery point of view to ensure a production's success but will Netflix support its foreign productions with the same valor they extend to their American productions such as Mank? Will they assess their foreign fare with the same kind of critical eye towards ensuring a quality product supported by the kinds of budgets extended to their US productions? When they are able to do so, which they haven't yet, only then can we truly make the claim about (fair) democratization of global content.
For now, Netflix has created a gateway for the world to merely discover gems of good storytelling from lesser known corners of the world.
(c) mh/ @entrespire - twitter
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