Adam Sandler, Streaming Superstar

Why the comedian is flopping in theaters and thriving online.

Ridiculous Six still.
The Ridiculous 6, a Western spoof by Adam Sandler, has racked up more views in its first 30 days than any other Netflix movie.

Image by Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Netflix is trying to take over the world. Last Wednesday, the company flipped the switch to expand its streaming service to 130 more countries, including Russia, Poland, Singapore, Vietnam, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and India. Now, the only places where you can’t binge-watch Making a Murderer are Syria, North Korea, Crimea, and China, where Netflix is still working on convincing government censors to lift their digital blockade. The DVD and streaming service ended 2015 with 69 million global subscribers, and it hopes to acquire hundreds of millions more, with the vast majority of them outside the U.S.

Netflix’s global strategy is “downright utopian,” Bloomberg technology reporter Joshua Brustein wrote last week. The service is betting that “its algorithms are more powerful than the cultural differences between humans living in different countries,” he said. A 2014 BBC dispatch on the international export of American movies hit similar notes. “You have to start taking in other cultures and things that they value and how they view the world and incorporate that into your storytelling,” said After Earth producer Caleeb Pinkett. Said American film critic Matt Singer, “Movies have to be made as sensitively as possible so as to not offend any particular country.”

Or they’ll need to have a lot of poop jokes. As Netflix announced its global takeover, it also talked up its first big worldwide hit. The Ridiculous 6, a Western spoof by Adam Sandler, has racked up more views in its first 30 days than any other Netflix movie—original or licensed—ever did in its first month on the service, hitting No. 1 in markets around the world.

The film is in rare company in one other way: It has a 0 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, joining all-time non-favorites like Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.

In the film, the first of Sandler’s four-picture Netflix deal, the Grown Ups 2 star plays a white man raised by Native Americans, which means he speaks in guttural broken English and is magic or whatever. He can bust through a bank vault with some ancient tribal recipe, throw knives really fast, and turn into a tumbleweed because he’s “friends with the wind.” Rob Schneider plays a Mexican man who wears what’s essentially a racist Halloween costume (sombrero, striped poncho, stick-on mustache). Also, he loves tacos and leads around a pet burro who has explosive diarrhea and, at one point, fellates Taylor Lautner. There are two black characters in the film; one is a lazy thief and the other plays the piano. The women exist to have sex with male characters, give birth to additional male characters, contribute background cleavage to saloon scenes, or set up racist, misogynistic jokes. Women of Sandler’s tribe are named stuff like “Smoking Fox” (because she is hot), “Beaver Breath” (because she is not), and “Never Wears Bra” (because booooobs). A dozen Native American actors, along with the film’s diversity consultant, walked off the set last year. Again, this is the most-watched film debut in Netflix history.

But how impressive is that feat, really? There are reasons to be skeptical of Netflix’s claims. For one thing, we don’t know exactly what the company is claiming. Netflix is famously shy about revealing viewership numbers, and it won’t disclose just how many people endured this film.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations, though, point to an unimpressive showing. Netflix has said that television episodes make up two-thirds of all streams on the service, so we know that movies are relatively unpopular. And last year, Netflix volunteered that its original film, Beasts of No Nation, topped the streaming charts in markets all around the world after it was played 3 million times in its first two weeks of release. That’s a good showing for an indie effort, but it sets a low bar for a Sandler film. Last summer’s Pixels, for instance, brought in around 4 million viewers in its first two weekends in theaters, and that’s only counting American moviegoers who saw the movie on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Each of them paid the price of a monthly Netflix subscription to see it. And the film was considered a massive, embarrassing flop, finishing second and then fifth at the box office those first two weekends. But on Netflix, Sandler is a big fish in a little pond.

It almost doesn’t make sense to use streaming numbers as a proxy for a Netflix hit, given that Netflix and Hollywood are pursuing such different audience strategies. Hollywood chases “four-quadrant films,” movies that appeal to the whole nuclear family unit—men and women, older and younger than 25. The promise of Netflix is that it can divide viewers into thousands of micro-quadrants—from fans of critically acclaimed independent road trip movies to viewers of East Asian underdog films—and entertain them all as they scroll endlessly through its finely filtered catalog. But once the viewer watches all the movies and TV shows that Netflix has licensed to satisfy her particular niche, the site suddenly feels static and stale. Netflix’s solution is to puff up its catalog with the help of B-movie studios like The Asylum, which can write, cast, film, and CGI a quick-and-dirty Blockbuster knock-off on command. Netflix tells The Asylum which of its microgenres require more content—monster movies, family vacation comedies, submarine stuff—and the studio fast-tracks a title that can pop up under a popular search term or three: The Coed and the Zombie Stoner is now available for streaming.

One obvious limitation of this strategy is that Netflix viewers don’t just search for content by genre. They search for actors they recognize and like, and The Asylum can’t just snap its fingers and summon a new Adam Sandler movie. Now, with his Netflix deal, Sandler has Asylumed himself.

The Ridiculous 6 is a cheap knockoff of a Sandler studio film. It sounds impossible, but Adam Sandler movies can get worse. Both Sony and Paramount passed on The Ridiculous 6 before Netflix bit. When a studio does greenlight a Sandler flick, it pours time and money into workshopping and reshoots to clarify plot, punch up jokes, and give women something to do other than stand around in low-cut tops. One of the unheralded revelations from the Sony leak was how hard Sony’s Amy Pascal pushed Sandler to flesh out his female characters and steer clear of retrograde gender stereotypes.

Netflix appears to have no such hang-ups. When the company signed Sandler to a deal in 2014, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos hailed Sandler as a “real global superstar,” particularly in “key markets” like Brazil, Germany, and the U.K. In a press release announcing the partnership, Netflix praised Sandler’s “prolific” pace, and quoted Sandler as saying, “When these fine people came to me with an offer to make four movies for them, I immediately said yes for one reason and one reason only: Netflix rhymes with ‘wet chicks.’ ” Sandler is getting a big paycheck, and Netflix is getting exactly what it paid for: fast, unfiltered, Z-grade misogyny.

Netflix’s heralding of Sandler as a “global” star is another case of exceeding low expectations. Several of Sandler’s films have brought in more money overseas than they did in the U.S., but a) they were flops in America and b) the U.S. population is small compared to all the people in every other country combined. Healthy foreign box office receipts shouldn’t be mistaken for universal appeal: Reviews of Sandler’s films are just as lousy abroad as they are stateside, even in the countries Netflix has held up as Sandler apologists. “I have literally no idea why Adam Sandler would be popular here or anywhere else,” British film critic Ben Walters told me. “It’s not like the French loving Jerry Lewis or anything.” A German critic called it “unpleasant,” explaining, “the running gag of the film is an incontinent donkey.” A Belgian journalist begged Netflix to “give him the bag of money he’s still owed, but please don’t let him make those other three films.”

Though one Brazilian reviewer described the Ridiculous 6 as “mental torture,” Sandler is genuinely popular in that country. When a Brazilian friend of Slate surveyed her Facebook compatriots on their attitudes toward Sandler, the dozen-or-so respondents signaled a deep affinity with the star. “He is considered a great actor,” one said. “People are entertained by his charisma,” said another. And on and on: “All his movies are great,” “He is very funny,” “I love him.” None of them had seen The Ridiculous 6, because they don’t subscribe to Netflix. Yet.

Sandler’s career redistribution—waning at home, trending abroad—could be a case of sinking to the lowest common denominator. The conventional wisdom is that comedy is too culturally specific to travel far and wide, but Sandler’s slapstick style and scatological fixations operate on such a subverbal level, they slip beneath the language barrier to reach tween males across the world. In Brazil, Pixels enjoyed a bigger opening weekend than Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but both were bested by Minions, a film starring cartoon aliens who speak a language that no human understands. “My character will be the easiest to translate, because he only makes noises,” Lost castaway and Ridiculous 6 star Jorge Garcia told audiences at the Sao Paulo Comic Con outpost, where he and his castmates were met with huge crowds.

Sandler’s Brazilian connection is no accidental cultural alignment. Telenovelas are such a popular and powerful form of entertainment in Brazil that they dominate the box office, too—when they’re not watching Hollywood imports, Brazilian moviegoers are catching cinematic adaptations of popular televised soaps like Vai que Cola and Carrossel. And Sandler’s shtick just happens to dovetail with a grab bag of traditional telenovela tropes: Elements of magical realism; plots that fixate on bloodlines, family quests, and miscellaneous daddy issues; and uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes, often targeting black and indigenous peoples.

The tropes of Brazilian soaps have been molded not just by cultural forces within Brazil, but by global economic pressures as well. Decades before Netflix flickered to life, the Brazilian soap studio Rede Globo sold thousands of hours of local programs to TV networks around the world, first in Portugal, then across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, until Brazilian telenovelas were being broadcast in more than 100 countries. International communications scholar Timothy Havens, charting the telenovela’s international rise, has noted two competing narratives about what it all means. While some scholars have heralded the globalization of the telenovela as a triumph of cultural pluralism, others see it as “the quintessential example” of a cultural artifact that degraded “from domestic cultural relevance to transnational commercialist schlock” in its bid to satisfy as broadly as possible. Telenovelas really exploded in the ’80s and ’90s, Havens writes, at a time when newly privatized European TV networks were hungry for content, and the soap producers “offered cheap, long-running programs that could fill air time.” Now Netflix is following in their footsteps.

The lesson of Ridiculous 6’s streaming “success” is that Netflix’s “utopian” vision for the future of television doesn’t require any kind of radical cultural sensitivity. In fact, it appears that one strategy for global dominance is to sell American films to foreign markets that appreciate the same stereotypes. There’s some evidence that movie studios vying for global audiences have had to tweak their products to accommodate the particular bigotries and cultural blind spots of various foreign markets. In one email exposed during the Sony hack, a Russian script consultant told the studio that Seth Rogen’s holiday romp The Night Before wouldn’t play well in his country due to viewers’ ignorance of Jewish American holiday traditions: “[I]t’s quite not obvious here that Jewish people do not celebrate Christmas,” he wrote. “I think most of Jewish in Russia are Christian (official statistic is not available).”

The ultimate explanation for the success of Adam Sandler’s Netflix deal is that he’s made his films available online at a moment when an increasing number of people are going online to find stuff to watch. Telenovelas exploded in popularity in the ’80s and ’90s because they “filled particular institutional needs at a moment when television sales and acquisitions businesses were looking to international sources,” Havens notes. Adam Sandler isn’t popular online because everyone loves Adam Sandler. He’s popular online because he showed up.