Whoa: Netflix Actually Paid $60M for Brad Pitt's Politically Charged Military Satire

Pitt Sarandos Split - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Pitt Sarandos Split - H 2015

Pitt and director David Michod were rebuffed by the film's original backers over potentially polarizing material in the adaptation of Michael Hastings' book 'The Operators.'

A version of this story first appeared in the June 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Adam Sandler is one thing, but how did Netflix land Brad Pitt? Turns out, money talks.

In April 2014, actor-producer Pitt announced he would star in Plan B's adaptation of the late Michael Hastings' book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan who was forced to resign after mocking Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama officials in Hastings' 2010 Rolling Stone story.

What wasn't publicly known was that Pitt and edgy Australian auteur David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) wanted to make a satirical comedy, not a mainstream, dramatic biopic that would appeal to the U.S. heartland as Clint Eastwood's American Sniper did. Their movie, War Machine, could easily irk conservative audiences.

The film had been set up at New Regency and RatPac Entertainment, but even though New Regency made 12 Years a Slave with Plan B, the backers wanted Michod and producers to lower the proposed $60 million to $70 million budget. The filmmakers balked, putting the project up for grabs, and Netflix revealed June 8 that it had swooped in and grabbed War Machine. CAA, which represents Pitt and Plan B, brokered the deal with Netflix, while Michod is repped by UTA.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos was willing to pay the $60 million the filmmakers wanted, according to a knowledgeable insider, debunking reports that pegged the price at about half that. "It's great for the specialty film business, since people might be more willing to see challenging, liberal-leaning material in the comfort of their own home [rather] than in a movie theater," says a source close to the deal. "More people might actually see the movie this way."

Or, as Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland tells THR: "David Michod and Brad Pitt are known for the fearless and exceptional intelligence of their work, which is why War Machine will be a great treat for Netflix audiences around the world."

And Netflix, which won't reveal budgets, doesn't have to worry about the same things a studio does. "You have a new player in the market willing to invest in material that is provocative," says another person involved with the film. "They have the money and need premium content to drive their subscription base."

The move comes after Netflix has been relatively quiet at festival markets since it ramped up its push into original films in 2014 with Sandler's four-picture deal, although it did plunk down $17 million in Berlin earlier this year to pre-buy worldwide rights to Jadotville, an Irish war drama starring Jamie Dornan.

And outside of the festival circuit proper, Netflix paid $12 million for rights to Cary Fukunaga's African war drama Beast of No Nation, starring Idris Elba (look for the movie to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September in hopes of an awards run).

Such a huge investment in War Machine likely signals a commitment to film similar to the one the streaming service has made to TV, which has helped it lure 62 million subscribers. Michod starts shooting in August for a 2016 release on Netflix and in select theaters.