You’ve probably never heard of “Breakout,” Columbia Pictures’ 1975 prison-break movie starring Charles Bronson. That’s to be expected — it’s a ‘B’ movie at best — but its successful release was one of the most important in film distribution history. Why? Because “Breakout” was released on 1,300 screens simultaneously, with national TV advertising. At that time, TV ads for movies were all but unheard of, and releases tended to be either initially exclusive in downtown theaters, or shown in different territories at different times.
Despite predictions that it was a waste of money, “Breakout” was an immediate hit. That convinced Universal to do the same thing for “Jaws” less than a month later, and that film’s massive success remains the most significant change in exhibition history. By creating the notion of a shared experience for 2 million people, it created the template for how most studio features are released today.
Now, we have Netflix’s stunning announcement in a Super Bowl ad that confirmed its release of “The Cloverfield Paradox” and its same-day availability. The third entry in the J.J. Abrams-produced franchise follows two released by Paramount to domestic totals of (adjusted) $102 million and $77 million, respectively.
The streaming platform spent $5 million on a 30-second ad for a movie with no stars, promoted with four simple words at the end: “Only on Netflix Tonight.” However, the real reason for that expensive, high-profile promotion was Nextflix’s continuing investment in rewriting the rules of film distribution.
Here’s what that ad and its placement really mean.
Netflix Can and Will Change the Paradigm
Netflix again showed that it is a force that makes its own rules and demands attention when it does. It took a familiar format — tentpole-movie advertising during the Super Bowl, often months in advance of release — and then switched the script, making the film available in the most-immediate version of now, the moment the Super Bowl ended. And since you’re likely already a Netflix subscriber, choosing to watch the film demanded minimum effort: All you needed to do was click the remote.
Netflix didn’t advertise its service, or even push for new subscribers. Putting a spot on the Super Bowl sent the message that it does what movie theaters do, only possibly with better value and greater convenience. It announced, rather than sold.
Netflix Advertised a Movie
Netflix gets most of its press from its original series. It has a vast catalog of features, nearly all from this century, many of which never received theatrical release. Choosing a film of negligible quality (not unlike 1975’s “Breakout”) to serve as the center of its $5 million ad purchase sends the message that it is serious about acquiring movies. This underlines a production slate that includes Martin Scorsese and the directors of films like “The Blind Side,” “United 93,” “Hell or High Water,” “Nightcrawler,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and “Moon,”with casts including Sandra Bullock, Michael B. Jordan, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Scarlet Johannson, and Chris Pine.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” received dreadful reviews, but that doesn’t matter much. No one invested effort to watch it, beyond spending another of couple hours in front of the TV, and it established the idea of a film advertised, announced, and available the same day.
Netflix Targets Minorities and International Audiences
Netflix made the unverified claim that its critically reviled Will Smith-starrer, “Bright,” was viewed by 11 million U.S. viewers in its first three days of release. To put that into perspective, that’s in the neighborhood of tickets sold to sleeper hits “The Greatest Showman” and “Wonder” in their entire releases.
Like “Bright,” “The Cloverfield Paradox” had a diverse cast and, in its case, an African-American director. (Ava Duvernay and Franklin Leonard were among those who celebrated the film and the ad on Twitter.) Its international stars included Daniel Bruehl and Zhang Ziyi. Those elements might have decreased its domestic theatrical appeal, but for Netflix they parallel its worldwide reach.
Netflix May Compete to Buy Mediocre Theatrical Releases
Lionsgate released “Winchester” this weekend from CBS Films to a bit over $9 million. It was a cheap acquisition ($3.5 million), but with marketing the cost could be closer to $20 million. With theaters paying only half the gross in rentals, it’s likely to make a small profit at best. This reflects the diminishing returns for routine genre and/or other mid-level titles, which make them an ongoing risk.
Netflix may see an opportunity to go after these kinds of titles. Presenting titles like “The Cloverfield Paradox” could satisfy some customers and elevate the brand. However, bland as they may be, they serve as valuable screen fillers and their absence would hurt theaters.
It’s Not Just Theaters Who Are Threatened
NBC’s Super Bowl ads also included TV shows broadcast after the game, and that Netflix ad stole thunder from the network’s own special episode of “This Is Us.”
Netflix has already upended video stores, cable, and broadcast; it can also steal from network television’s event programming. What if it sets its sights on sports? What if Netflix wanted NFL broadcasts, even the Super Bowl? The Academy Awards? (That’s one way to get that group to accept Netflix releases without a theatrical run).
Only on Netflix tonight. Four words that conveyed a lot, certainly much more than one forgettable movie. Should it strike fear in the hearts of movie lovers? As an increasingly dominant player, the reality is perhaps the only thing worse than Netflix making and releasing movies might be if it didn’t. At least Netflix has interest in two-hour, standalone narrative film making; that, and the still hoped-for better quality of its originals, should give some comfort.
Unless you’re a theater operator. For them, that ad offers no comfort at all.