The Land of Mid-Life Crisis Narrative on Netflix

“I couldn’t take it, so, uh… Yeah… something had to change.”

After starting the year with critical duds like The Cloverfield Paradox and The Kissing Booth, something had to change with Netflix’s original movie offering. The streaming giant did just that by offering ‘The Land of Steady Habits,’ a completely different movie trope starring the usually antagonistic Ben Mendelsohn. Three weeks after the September 14 release, Paul Giamatti, along with Kathryn Hahn, joined the club by starring in a similar, yet narratively-distinct movie titled ‘Private Life.’ Both of these comedy-dramas were screened first at festivals and received positive reviews from critics. The critics love how both movies utilize the tragicomic aspect of facing middle age breakdowns. The concept seems risky on paper, yet it works just fine to carry the weight of reviving the Netflix movie brand. So, what is it with Netflix and the release of great mid-life crisis narrative?

Source: Entertainment Weekly

The Land of Steady Habits tells the story of the recently retired Anders Hill who has difficulty navigating his new life. He got out early from the steady habit of commuting to his finance job, but is now stuck wandering at a Bath and Beyond store. He tries to make a connection with a fellow shopper there, but ends up having an awkward intercourse instead. Several minutes into the film, he goes to a party where people’s gaze and response to him coming leave a pretty clear impression on the viewer’s mind. He goes to have a conversation with his former acquaintance which contains a straightforward piece of mind.

“It’s a system of monstrous greed, and that’s the business. Save yourself. Do over the other guy. And don’t worry about the consequences. And for what? More toys? Bigger houses?”

The thoughts uttered by Anders is very mature and yet… complicated, giving us an indication that he may face an uncertainty in his future wants. He knows what the problem is, but he hasn’t fully realized the consequences of moving forward from that problem. Only by spending more time with his son and unexpectedly bonding with his friend’s son that he finds comfort in a future of unsteadiness. His interactions with the young end up giving him more perspective than any interactions with the old. The plot does not shy away from his interactions with the adults of course, but they usually end up in chaos.

Source: Vanity Fair

Private Life tells the story of a couple named Richard and Rachel who, now in their 40s, have drained almost every bit of their resources to conceive a baby. After countless doctor appointments, and people suggesting that they  should focus on adoption instead, it is clear that outside help is needed. At first, the couple is reluctant to do what their doctor suggests, with Rachel arguing the loudest while walking out of the doctor’s practice in a fast pace.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’ll have your… genetic contribution, and me, I’m just… I’ll just be… left out.”

This is the epiphany of the movie’s mid-life crisis narrative, having to accept and move on with the fact that you could only carry a child into your 40s with somebody’s egg. While in the middle of finding an egg donor, the couple’s life is turned upside down when Richard’s niece decides to crash with them. Sadie, Richard’s niece, leaves college in the pursuit of living like an aspiring writer in New York. What follows is a warm, almost parent-like, narrative that wraps its comedic timing into a blanket. The screenplay is so good and the performance of Kathryn Hahn is so nuanced, you almost forget that this is not Hahn’s real life. It’s a character’s struggle, one with a middle age angst that few films have delved into.

Let’s delve into something else first, shall we!

Source: Statista

The decision for Netflix to distribute films like Private Life and The Land of Steady Habit seems to have come from the identification of an untapped market for unique mid-life crisis narrative. Statista did an online survey to identify the share of adults who have a Netflix subscription in the United States by age group. Out of 2,201 participants in January 2018, the age group who makes up the most out of Netflix’s adult viewership consists of 18 to 29 year olds. Since information and communications technology (ICT) arguably had a boom in the 90s, it is not surprising to make 18 to 29 year olds the targeted market for streaming services like Netflix. They are the most technologically-woke generation which makes it relatively fast to adapt. Thus, the release and success of films such as To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is no longer a shock. This finding, however, leaves the other age groups, including the 30 to 44 year olds, as an unidentified market for visual entertainment targeting.

Source: Statista

What fascinates me the most regarding the data is the growth of the 30 to 44 year olds who chose to subscribe to Netflix within the span of 1 year. If we compare the percentage share of 30 to 44 year olds who have a Netflix subscription in 2017 with the one in 2018, there is an increase in 8 unit of percentage from 66% to 74%. This means that the number of viewers who could be targeted for a mid-life crisis narrative, due to their approaching age, increased significantly. Of course, this analysis should be taken with a grain of salt since the amount of respondents involved in the 2017 survey is only 2,177 people. It could be argued that within the range of 1 year, there are several people who exited the age group of, well, the living, thus making up for the change in the 2018 respondents. However, it is most likely that the subjects for the 2018 survey changes. It was still conducted within the market territory of the United States, but not with the same individuals since the technique of gathering the data may involve random sampling.

Source: Statista

A different set of data further supports the idea that 30 to 44 year olds make up the most appealing age group for Netflix to target. As a streaming service, Netflix is not the only one that provides a paid video on demand (VoD) subscription. Knowing the existence of competitions like Prime Video and Hulu, Statista decided to conduct a different survey regarding the amount of Netflix subscriptions within the VoD community. Out of the three age groups, 30 to 49 year olds are the ones who trusted Netflix the most in 2018. This interpretation, of course, is concluded from the relatively higher percentage of 78% compared to the other two age groups. The percentage   might have given a rough indication for Netflix to pursue its once untapped market for storytelling by buying and releasing films which involve a life crisis scenario around late 40-something characters.

All of the interpretations above should be taken with a grain of salt since it is only a descriptive statistic concluded with an assumptive interpretation. Films like The Land of Steady Habits and Private Life began production on March 17, 2017, which could explain their narrative success aligning with the growth of middle age viewers as coincidental. Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been any elaborate quantitative research which connects the empirical correlation between the share of the middle age market and the creation of quality mid-life narrative. Add to the fact that Netflix does not release the number of viewership, it would be harder to continue the analysis using further correlation.

Aside from the economics, there is also something quite different with the artistry of crafting a mid-life crisis narrative. Although it is a common event in anybody’s life, it is the least exposed on screen. Think about movies that circle around the idea of life and you would get Into The Wild, The Truman Show, or even a classic like The Shawshank Redemption for Friday night viewing. These are all great movies, but they do not explore the oppression that comes to mind with aging. Instead, they dance around a familiar formula of exploring life before it even begins. So what happens after it has seemingly ended? Mid-life crisis stories explore this by acknowledging the concept of lessons learned. Their narrative stretches on how those lessons may take a long time to implement routinely. In Private Life, it takes Rachel and Richard almost a year to let go of past options and to mature from their past mistakes. In The Land of Steady Habits, it takes Anders more than a few months to eventually accept the hardship that comes with letting an old steady habit go and focuses on moving forward. This kind of narrative drive feels like an extension of a coming-of-age storyline. It is an unwritten third act with life expectancies that general viewers are not often familiar with. Therefore, the mid-life crisis narrative is already appealing by its nature, regardless of the share of the targeted market that resembles a similar age group as the main characters.

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