Jay and Mark Duplass (HBO)
Sometimes, when a movie is released, it immediately becomes a landmark moment in cinema, the sort of event that critics and audiences alike immediately recognize as important. And sometimes, as in the case of a little über-indie film called The Puffy Chair — a movie that helped launch not only Netflix’s original-content career, but also established one of the biggest indie-filmmaking duos of the ‘00s — it takes nearly a decade for its significance to be realized.
The film, created by then-unknown writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass, was modest in both budget and conceit: Costing a mere $15,000 to make, The Puffy Chair tracks two brothers (including one played by Mark Duplass) who embark on a road trip with an old recliner from Brooklyn to Atlanta with their girlfriends. A raggedy film whose low budget made use of then-emerging digital production equipment — and forced the Duplass brothers to recruit girlfriends and friends as cast members, paying them a mere $100 a day — The Puffy Chair was about as indie as it gets. And though it earned favorable reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, few would have predicted that the path of The Puffy Chair would predict and predate the modern indie-film distribution ecosystem, nor would they have guessed that the Duplass brothers would go on to become indie mini-moguls in their own right.
The film’s path to success was certainly slow-going. After over a year on the festival circuit, the Duplass brothers had not sold The Puffy Chair to a traditional theatrical distributor. That left them open to speaking with Ted Sarandos, who was heading up Netflix’s then-nascent efforts to acquire original material for what was then a DVD-by-mail service. Sarandos had a very small budget for the operation, which was called Red Envelope Entertainment, but the brothers were most interested in getting their work in front of as many eyes as possible, finances be damned.
The Duplass brothers and Netflix struck a deal, enabling the movie to get a small theatrical run before becoming available on DVD, both via Netflix and in stores. The Puffy Chair wasn’t exactly the sort of film you’d think a major corporation would want to build around. But Netflix believed in the film, and promoted it heavily during the two years that Red Envelope was in operation.
And, as it turned out, The Puffy Chair — what with its semi-improvised dialogue, verité-like camerawork, and decidedly low stakes — scaled perfectly to the home-viewing experience. It also was emblematic of a new kind of indie dramedy that emerged in mid-’00s, in which a young, narcissistic, and mostly unlikable lead character struggled to find happiness (or even semi-optimistic ambivalence) in their personal lives. The genre was dubbed “mumblecore,” and though that tag would provide the Duplass brothers — along with fellow filmmakers and collaborators Joe Swanberg (2007′s Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Andrew Bujalski (2002′s breakout Funny Ha Ha) — with a semi-helpful marketing shorthand, it would soon become an annoying restriction that would take years to shake off.
While Red Envelope paired The Puffy Chair with other relatively high-profile releases such as Super-Size Me and 2 Days in Paris, it was an idea too far ahead of its time: The division folded in 2008. But Sarandos stayed on, and today, Netflix’s second effort at original content — enhanced by streaming video and binge-watching — has been a smash success; the studio is a prolific creator of television (House of Cards and Orange is the New Black) and is moving into the movie space, with deals with Adam Sandler and Angelina Jolie. Netflix earned its first Oscar nomination for the documentary The Square in 2014, and will be back on the awards season trail this year with Cary Fukunaga’s Beast of No Nation, which stars Idris Elba.
As for the Duplass brothers, they initially kept things small after The Puffy Chair, creating tiny ensemble pieces like Baghead and The Do-Deca Pentathlon, the latter of which which helped pioneer the video-on-demand craze in 2012 after sitting in the can for two years. They had a brush with Hollywood, too, working on the Fox Searchlight studio film Cyrus (with Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly) and even landing a reported $7.5 million budget for the Jason Segel-Ed Helms dramedy. Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
But the brothers’ style didn’t gibe with the big-studio system. As Mark recalls in a new profile in Wired, the brothers flirted with taking a huge leap and directing an adaptation of the stage show Same Time, Next Year — which had originally been turned into a 1978 movie starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn — for super-producer Scott Rudin. But try as they might, their approach just didn’t jibe with the standard process in Hollywood at the time.
“We wanted to get two movie stars, pay them half a million apiece, and make the movie for $2 million,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, it makes $10 million and we’re a huge success. And they were just like, ‘That’s not our business.’”
Instead, the brothers hustled, networked, and forged their own system, creating an indie factory that produces several low-budget (but still lucrative) movies a year. Their eponymous production company, which they technically formed back in 1996, has developed into a part studio, part artistic collective, allowing them to finance small indies made by their friends and other filmmakers they admire.
By the end of this summer, the brothers’ 2015 output will include six movies, such as comedies like Adult Beginners, The Bronze, and The Overnight; dramas like 6 Years and Tangerine; and even the horror movie Creep (the brothers also debuted their new HBO series, Togetherness, this spring). And the brothers have reunited with Netflix — the company that gave them their first big break — for a series of films that will debut exclusively on the platform.
It’d be inspirational to see this approach as a conscious rebellion, and its success as a vindicating middle finger to the studio system that tried to reshape and use them. But the Duplass brothers aren’t so much ideologues or idealists as they are savvy, logical businessmen. “The average theatrical life for these movies is somewhere under 100 theaters, and it makes a few hundred thousand dollars, and everybody kind of loses a little bit of money when that happens, and everyone almost feels a little disappointed,” Mark Duplass told me earlier this summer. “You feel a little bit like a failure. Netflix is expanding into so many countries, and the concept of going day-and-date worldwide with the movie on Netflix, just slam it and every single piece of press hits all at one time, all around the world in one batch.”
The road trip at the center of The Puffy Chair was a hellish experience: The titular recliner went up in flames; multiple tears were shed; once-tight relationships were nearly severed. The characters didn’t take the obvious path, but emerged victorious nonetheless – kind of like the Duplass brothers themselves. With The Puffy Chair, they were mapping out their future — and the future of moviemaking — without even realizing it.