Last week I had an exchange with Kim Masters, a writer at The Hollywood Reporter:
The conversation was, as you can see, the result of a story about how Netflix was considering altering its system to date and providing some level of theatrical distribution for some high-profile movies coming out later this year. Masters’ point was that since so many filmmakers continue to covet theatrical release even in the age of streaming exclusives, Netflix would be wise to make such a course correction to continue attracting top-tier talent.
Her point is valid, that there’s still a great deal of cache put on theatrical release, with that being held up as the gold standard or ideal for any film. Many creators see this as the end goal, putting a lot of weight on having their work the big screen. That’s not universal, but talent like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, among others, have all made statements about how streaming movies aren’t “real” movies, a position that’s essentially in line with AMPAS and various other organizations.
But, while not knowing what the behind-the-scenes negotiations may have included, that model has attracted a bevy of high-profile talent to date. Just looking at this year’s release slate, we have new releases from:
- Duncan Jones (Mute)
- Jeremy Saulnier (Hold the Dark)
- Tamara Jenkins (Private Life)
- Paul Greengrass (22 July)
- Joel and Ethan Coen (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)
- Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
- Susanne Bier (Bird Box)
- David Wain (A Futile and Stupid Gesture)
That’s not an insubstantial list. Also, at least 10 of the roughly 60 original feature films released were directed by women. While 16% may not be a great percentage, it’s miles above the 3.3% that are coming from all the major studios combined this year. Also, Netflix has thrown significant promotional support behind movies like Set It Up, Like Father and will likely engage in similar efforts for some of the upcoming slate.
So here are the questions:
First, how much is Netflix going to have to bend to the theatrical wishes of top-tier filmmakers?
Second, is there more value in attracting top-tier filmmakers or working with a more diverse group of up-and-coming directors and writers?
To date the company seems to be trying to have it both ways.
On the one hand, it wants to bring out the big guns to compete against the blockbusters and prestige pictures that have been the bread-and-butter of studios for decades. These names carry a lot of weight in the minds of critics, who will see something other than the “ehh it’s fine” quality of film coming to the platform, and audiences, who will be encouraged to become or continue as subscribers because of the high caliber talent releasing new work there.
On the other, it wants to present a clear alternative to what studios have taken to releasing in theaters, which is largely one “event” movie after another with a few smaller flicks thrown in at the end of the year for good measure. There’s an identity it’s carving out for itself as the place where filmmakers can tell stories that don’t have the overseas box-office potential necessary to warrant studio attention, which is why you see a lot of “coming of age” and teen romance movies in its lineup, as well as some darker dramas.
It may be that there is no single path here. The key to retaining and attracting subscribers – the core goal Netflix has for all its content – may lie in a mix of material from both categories.
From that perspective, Netflix has the potential use the former to build up the latter. Through its powerful recommendation program, it can offer something from an up-and-coming filmmaker that may be a bit more off-the-beaten path and feature a more inclusive story after someone has enjoyed the latest Coen Brothers film.
The key is, of course, audience reach.
The Coen’s last feature, Hail Caesar!, opened on 2,248 screens in February 2017 but quickly dropped below 1,000 just four weeks into release because it couldn’t compete against Deadpool and other major titles that had more buzz and were more accessible by a large audience. Netflix, meanwhile, has 56 million subscribers in the US alone, who will be able to discover the movie at their own pace over months and years as it comes to their attention through internal recommendations or other means. And while it’s certainly available at your library for borrowing, it isn’t widely accessible for instant “hey, let’s watch [fill in the blank]” on demand viewing.
In short, it has instant massive and sustained audience reach.
That, I believe, is going to be the key to attracting not just those filmmakers with substantial name recognition but also those who are coming up in the industry now, as the conversation around the role streaming services play in the mix of movies produced is really heating up. They just want their movie to be seen and will have come up in an age when studios are eschewing anything that doesn’t hit all four quadrants globally, so won’t even have theatrical distribution in mind for their work because it’s almost an impossibility.
At some point too, the audience will be so hungry for new and diverse voices in film it will seek out the only place those voices are allowed to speak. That, if the current model holds, will be Netflix and other streaming services.