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.
See Brad through the years:
Brad Pitt through the years
Whoa: Netflix actually paid $60M for Brad Pitt's politically charged military satire
136698 06: Actor Brad Pitt from 'A River Runs Through It' September 15, 1991. (Photo by Liaison)
204937 03: Brad Pitt in the film 'Legends of the Fall.' (Photo by Liaison)
341913 01: Actor Brad Pitt in the film 'Meet Joe Black.' (Photo by Liaison)
TORONTO, CANADA: Film star Brad Pitt rushes into the world premier for his new film 'Seven Years In Tibet' at the Toronto Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, 13 September. Pitt was posing for photographers when a group of women started to rush across the street towards him and he hurried into the theatre. AFP PHOTO/Carlo ALLEGRI (Photo credit should read CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP/Getty Images)
372599 01: Brad Pitt Stars As Joe Black In Universal Pictures Recent Release 'Meet Joe Black'. Pitt Stars Along With Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani Under The Direction Of Martin Brest. (Photo By Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Actors Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston arrive for the 51st Emmy Awards 12 September, 1999, in Los Angeles, California. (Electronic Image) AFP PHOTO / Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
369691 01: Brad Pitt And Julia Roberts Together For The First Time On Their First Day Filming Together In Dreamworks Pictures Action-Comedy, 'The Mexican' May 17, 2000 In Real De Catorce, Mexico. (Photo By Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 23: Hollywood actor Brad Pitt arrives at the london Premiere of his new film 'Snatch' 23 August 2000, in London West End. 'Snatch' is a movie directed by Guy Ritchie. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read HUGO PHILPOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at the premiere of 'Rock Star' at the Mann Village Theater in Los Angeles, Ca. 9/4/01. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Brad Pitt at the premiere of 'Panic Room' at the Loews Century Plaza Theater in Los Angeles, Ca. Monday, March 18, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Brad Pitt at the premiere of 'The Bourne Identity' at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, Ca. Thursday, June 6, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect
WESTWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 11: Actors Don Cheadle (L) and Brad Pitt attend the premiere of the film 'Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind' on December 11, 2002 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - APRIL 12: Michelle Pfeifer and Brad Pitt during Nickelodeon's 16th Annual Kids' Choice Awards at the Barker Hangar April 12, 2003 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Robert Mora/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - JANUARY 12: Actress Jennifer Aniston and actor Brad Pitt attend the Los Angeles premiere of Universal Pictures' film 'Along Came Polly' on January 12, 2004 at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
BERLIN - MAY 9: Actor Brad Pitt attends the official European premiere of long-awaited epic film 'Troy' at the Cinestar Cinema, Potsdamer Square May 9, 2004 in Berlin, Germany. The story is of two nations' battle after the prince of one steals the beautiful wife of the other. Precedes U.S. premiere tomorrow and international screening at Cannes, May 13. (Photo by Kurt Vinion /Getty Images)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 13: Actors Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom attend the Photocall for 'Troy' ahead of tonight's World Premiere showing, at the 57th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2004 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - DECEMBER 8: Actor Brad Pitt arrives at the Warner Bros. premiere of the film 'Ocean's Twelve' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre December 8, 2004 in Hollywood California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - JUNE 07: Actor Brad Pitt arrives at the premiere of 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' at the Mann Village Theater on June 7, 2005 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 20: Actor Brad Pitt poses at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association annual installation luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on July 20, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
DAVOS, SWITZERLAND: Actors Angelina Jolie (L) and Brad Pitt leave Hotel Belvedere in Davos 26 January 2006. UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie is in Davos for the World Economic Forum. AFP PHOTO ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read Eric FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 21: (EDITORS NOTE: THIS BLACK AND WHITE IMAGE WAS CONVERTED FROM ORIGINAL COLOUR FILE) Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attend the premiere for the film 'A Mighty Heart' at the Palais des Festivals during the 60th International Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2007 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
TORONTO - SEPTEMBER 10: Actor Brad Pitt attends 'Babel' press conference during the Toronto International Film Festival held at the Sutton Place Hotel on September 10, 2006 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MARCH 05: Actor Brad Pitt attends with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) a press conference following a meeting to discuss the 'Make it Right' project on March 5, 2009 in Washington, DC. The project, launched in 2007, helps to construct affordable and environmentally-sustainable housing for low-income residents of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans who lost their homes as a result of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 06: Actor Brad Pitt onstage during the taping of Idol Gives Back held at the Kodak Theatre on April 6, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 08: Actor Brad Pitt arrives at the premiere of Paramount's 'The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button' held at Mann's Village Theatre on Decemeber 8, 2008 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Oscar-nominated actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie arrive at the 81st Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California on February 22, 2009. AFP PHOTO Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 18: Actor Brad Pitt attends 'Inglorious Basterds' photocall at the Kursaal Palace during the 57th San Sebastian International Film Festival on September 18, 2009 in San Sebastian, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 03: Actors Brad Pitt (L) and Angelina Jolie arrive at the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Spyglass Entertainment's 'Invictus' at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Theater on December 3, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - JULY 19: Actor Brad Pitt arrives at the premiere of Sony Pictures' 'Salt' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on July 19, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
US actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pose as they arrive for the premiere of her movie The Tourist by German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in Rome on December 15, 2010. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
US actor Brad Pitt attends the press conference of 'The Tree of Life' presented in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2011 in Cannes. AFP PHOTO / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
US actor Brad Pitt and his wife, US actress Angelina Jolie, pose on the red carpet before the screening of 'The Tree of Life' presented in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2011 in Cannes. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 08: Actor Brad Pitt arrives at 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' premiere held at ArcLight Cinemas on December 8, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actor Brad Pitt accepts the Desert Palm Achievement Award onstage during The 23rd Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center on January 7, 2012 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images For The Palm Springs International Film Festival)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29: Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie arrive at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 22: Actor Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt pose at the 'Killing Them Softly' photocall during the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 22, 2012 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Actor Brad Pitt attends The Cinema Society with Men's Health and DeLeon hosted screening of The Weinstein Company's 'Killing Them Softly' on November 26, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Honoree Angelina Jolie (R) and actor Brad Pitt attend the 2013 Governors Awards, presented by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), at the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Hollywood, California, November 16, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Producer and actor Brad Pitt, winner of the Best Film award, poses in the winners room at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2014 at The Royal Opera House on February 16, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt arrive for the world premiere of Disney's 'Maleficent,' May 28, 2014, at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Brad Pitt and children Pax Jolie-Pitt (L), Shiloh Jolie-Pitt (C) and Maddox Jolie-Pitt arrive for the U.S. premiere of Universal Pictures 'Unbroken,' December 15, 2014 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: Actor Brad Pitt speaks onstage during the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2015 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for PSIFF)
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.