The Scrutinty Applied to Netflix is About Format

It’s been a notable couple of weeks for Netflix. In quick succession stories broke that the company would be losing Disney’s library (though there’s still some wiggle room there apparently), that it had acquired the rights to Millarworld’s various characters and IP and that it had signed a deal with TV powerhouse producer Shonda Rhimes. All this comes just a few months after the controversy over whether or not Okja, from director Bong Jung Ho, should be allowed to screen at Cannes if it wasn’t going to be released in theaters. And it’s all in the midst of continued hand-wringing over how the company is positioned in the entertainment industry, exemplified most recently by a cover story in Variety that asks the following question:

The story itself is a bit more evenhanded, going into popular topics that always swirl around Netflix, including debt loads, the quality of its original movies and more. But the main focus is the relationship the company has with the studios and networks who, to date, have licensed their shows and movies to the streaming service. Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos admits in the piece that he worries those sources will, for one reason or another, stop signing those licensing deals. That’s why, he says, the company has ramped up its efforts to produce original movies and programming, though the costs for doing so are pretty high.

There’s one thing that’s always bugged me about the angle stories like this have taken over the years and it’s related directly to the hand-wringing around Okja’s Cannes presentation:

We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Netflix just put movies in theaters.

I firmly believe that to be true. The reason Netflix keeps having shade thrown at it by the companies it gets content from is because it’s not playing by that rule. Specifically, it’s not playing by that one rule at a time when theatrical distribution is more important than it has been in decades to the entertainment industry. If DVDs and Blu-rays were still selling like hot cakes in retail, we’re not having this conversation because Netflix would just be another outlet and studios would still be raking in home video cash. But that’s not the case.

That’s why we keep being asked if Netflix is friend or enemy to the traditional Hollywood system while similar stories aren’t asked about Amazon. That company plays by the rules and puts their original productions in theaters six months or so before they come to the streaming service. It plays the same game on other areas, including licensing TV shows from networks and movies from studios and is producing its own slate of original TV-esque programming. The one differentiator is the theatrical distribution model and it’s that one tactic that brings Netflix in for more criticism from the industry.

Sarandos worries that networks will stop giving Netflix their TV shows, but that’s a concern that’s shared across many players. Over the last couple decades networks have increased the percentage of shows it produces through their own studios and stopped buying shows from others. That way they get to keep more of the profits, a system that is even more beneficial when it sells syndication rights to another channel or network owned by the same company.

That’s the game Netflix is playing, producing its own shows for its own platform. It’s the same game CBS is playing with “The Good Fight,” the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” and more that will be exclusive to the network’s own streaming service. It’s the game everyone is playing.

Netflix is providing a service to film and TV fans just like any other studio by giving creators a voice in a way they may not have otherwise had. Who knows if Okja would have been picked up by a major studio, and what kind of marketing and release it would have received if it had been. Who knows if a cable network would have been interested in “Ozark.” We know we wouldn’t have “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” without Netflix because NBC punted on it so many times the show had a permanent dent from the network’s shoe.

What we do know is that Netflix is continually praised by those who create original material for it. Director Ava DuVernay recently said the company gets the need for diversity in voices. David Ayer, who directed the Will Smith-starring Bright that’s coming later this year talked about relishing the artistic freedom he was given. Similar comments have been made about Amazon Studios, showing again the similarity between the two production houses.

There may be a conversation to have about the role Netflix plays in the entertainment industry, but it’s one that’s mostly centered around its upending of one particular tradition. I’m as big a fan of seeing movies in theaters as anyone else, but I believe a world where more creators are able to make movies/shows that are then available to a large audience – including those not close to the dozen theaters many smaller movies are often limited to – is one that benefits everyone.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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