Over the last few years, Netflix has become a bigger and bigger target for the rest of the entertainment industry. Corporate giants have merged to become even bigger to counter the perceived threat the company poses, film festival organizers have banned its original features from competition and exhibition chains have ostracized those same films from playing at their theaters.
And then of course there’s the fact that nearly every media-specific streaming service that’s launched in the last two years is an attempt to counter Netflix’s massive influence and market share.
That pushback has coincided with the company’s efforts to attract some of the biggest filmmaking talent working today. In just the last two years Netflix has released new films from filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Duncan Jones, Nicole Holofcener, Alfonso Cuarón and others. Just this year there have been releases from Dan Gilroy, John Lee Hancock, Craig Brewer and more. Steven Soderbergh has had two new films debut on streaming while Noah Baumbach and Michael Bay have movies coming out between now and the end of the year.
The biggest of the big names is Martin Scorsese, whose latest film The Irishman becomes available for streaming this week. The three hour epic tracks the true story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) over the decades he worked with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and others in the organized labor and criminal worlds, which are sometimes hard to tell apart.
While Netflix subscribers will finally get to watch the movie from the comfort of their own home beginning this Friday, audiences in select theaters across the country have been able to find it for three weeks now. That release came without the support of exhibitors that still object to Netflix’s core business model and so available only at indie theaters or venues it “four walled,” industry parlance for renting out a theater for a showing.
As more and more big name filmmakers have either produced original features for Netflix or had their projects acquired by the company, the instances of theatrical release preceding streaming availability have increased. One or two select releases lasting only a week in theaters has become a half dozen or more titles getting three or four weeks before subscribers can watch them on their phones. This has been part of the pitch to those filmmakers, many of whom still value theatrical exhibition as the primary, if not only, way they’d like their movies shown.
To accommodate that shift the company has also shifted its marketing tactics accordingly, especially in the core elements of a movie marketing campaign.
Netflix’s original movies used to get what could generously be called “lackluster” one sheets. The poster for Little Evil starring Adam Scott and Evangeline Lilly is a rough photo collage, just like the poster for The Fundamentals of Caring. This lack of effort was understandable to an extent. They were never going to be displayed in theater lobbies but were just quick promotional artwork that was put online, sometimes just days before the movie came out.
Compare those to the posters for The Land of Steady Habits, Private Life or The Laundromat. The first two didn’t get theatrical showings, but working with well-regarded indie filmmakers means putting a little more design work into the marketing graphics. All three, among others, certainly convey a more emotional and/or thematic sense of the story and characters. In fact they’re sometimes better than the artwork for full-fledged theatrical movies from major studios. Not only that, but there’s more information about the cast, writer and director contained on the newer posters.
Similarly, the trailers for Netflix’s original films used to be rushed affairs, with little sense of what the story was about or insights into the arc of the characters. There was often only a single trailer that came out weeks, if not just days, before the film’s release. The trailer for Talullah popped up a month before the movie was available for streaming and the window was even tighter for To The Bone.
Things began loosening up in the last couple years. Many new titles now have trailers that come out two months or more before the movies are released, as in the case of Outlaw King, with the first trailer timed to festival debuts, and Bird Box. Those and other movies have even gotten two trailers instead of the one that was previously standard for Netflix.
The Irishman’s two-stage release exemplifies how the company’s approach to marketing via trailers has changed in recent years.
In advance of the limited theatrical release there was an announcement teaser in February that aired during ABC’s Oscars broadcast, placement surely designed to tweak the nose of the Academy whose rules Netflix is trying to follow to ensure awards consideration. Full trailers came in July and then September leading up to the theatrical release at the beginning of November.
Last week a “final trailer” came out as part of the push to support the streaming release just as the previous trailers were meant to support the theatrical release.
All those trailers end with reminders that the movie was coming to both theaters and streaming. The inclusion of theatrical release information is something that started in earnest in the second half of 2018 with trailers for movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Other more mainstream tactics employed by Netflix for The Irishman include the release of select clips, including one showing Pacino’s Hoffa upset at being shown a lack of respect and, just the other day, a featurette with the cast and crew talking about working with each other and the true story the story is based on. More have come out since, with additional online advertising being done as well to drive awareness and attention.
What’s apparent is that Netflix is beginning to take a more traditional approach to its movie marketing, hitting more of the big beats and using some of the same content types that have been employed by other studios for years now. The adoption of those tactics has coincided with the company’s outreach to major filmmakers for whom theatrical release are the norm, not the exception.