Netflix Is Paying Lip Service to the Theatrical Model — And Possibly More
Netflix appears to be learning that even when they pay top dollar for movies by top talent, the movie will not sell itself. (Netflix may be run by people committed to a formula, but they aren’t stupid.) The next few months should see a real increase in the attention they pay to the legitimacy gained by a theatrical release.
Some upcoming Netflix deals include a contractual obligation for a level of parallel theatrical play (though not advance play, unlike Amazon’s model). At a minimum, this could involve New York/Los Angeles showings for awards qualification. It’s a tip of the cap to the need for theatrical play, and in particular how coverage from established movie critics legitimizes a film. This is a more extreme example of what has driven film for decades: With marketing costs, theatrical releases are usually loss leaders at best, with profit coming from later revenues.
The Current Distribution Model Needs the Challenge
Theatrical release strategies, for both studio and specialized, have little changed from the launch of the day-and-date, wide-release model in the mid-’70s. For specialized distribution, what was always been a staggered release changed to a quicker, wider model since the Weinsteins changed the world in the mid-’90s.
However, none of this squares with the 21st century’s reliance on social media — as an entertainment competitor, a platform, and a marketing tool. Phones will always dwarf the number of theater screens, both in number and ease of access. And specialized films’ staggered release dates means trying to catch different audiences at different times — a real challenge when attention spans are short, especially among younger audiences.
Currently, studios debate exhibitors over reducing the three-month theatrical window. Meanwhile, that leaves an opening for Netflix and the immediacy it offers for all its films. That’s a much bigger threat than the Screening Room, which proposed charging $50 plus equipment costs to enable households to watch the latest Star Wars and Marvel hit day and date. If Netflix viewers can get films like Scorsese’s “The Irishman” for only the monthly fee, it wins.
Netflix Offers a Wealth of (Hard To Find) Choices
Netflix appears to have too much choice, shoddily managed. There’s little apparent effort to manage its massive catalog beyond the algorithms. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot there.
You missed the films out of Toronto, Sundance, South by Southwest, Cannes? Increasingly, titles that haven’t opened in theaters show up on Netflix, albeit with little fanfare. There’s more films appearing online than in theaters — exponentially more, if you live outside New York or Los Angeles. Getting into a top festival is now an almost certain entry to Netflix, thus guaranteeing some level of art life. (Amazon also has noted this with the launch of its prix-fixe Festival Stars program.)
This is particularly true among some of the most valuable distributors’ subtitled films high on 2016 critics’ 10-best lists, like “Cemetery of Splendor,” “Aquarius,” “Sunset Song,” and “Chevalier.” Kino Lorber, Strand, and Film Movement are among those whose limited releases (which rarely gross more than the $100,000 in theaters) show up quickly.
Also, Netflix’s willingness to showcase films in languages other than English is vastly different than the theatrical reality, even among specialized venues. Given its global presence, it also houses a large amount of local-interest films that never reached festival interest in North America. That also makes for a certain amount of dreck, but there’s also films of interest from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, France, Spain, India, and Turkey. Similarly, much of American indie film — particularly titles that feature women, minorities, and LGBTQ communities — would have little traction for many other countries and get exposed to more viewers.
Sometimes, random checks of Netflix listings can reveal a major find. One can’t get much more niche than master French director Jacques Rivette’s 1971 “Out One” in its original 12-hour version. It ranked high on Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade poll of all-time great films. It finally received very limited American exposure in November 2015, and was initially available on Blu-Ray at a list price of $99.95. Now it’s available to all of Netflix’s millions of subscribers for no extra charge.
Smaller players in the streaming world, like FilmStruck and MUBI, have business models that draft off of Netflix’s dominance, and its failure to highlight specialized titles. These cinephile-aimed streaming sites are far better curated and have great range (including older films ignored by Netflix). With more players interested in bidding for rights to these films, that can at least provide more short-term revenue for future ones.
Ultimately, there’s significant fear that Netflix will drive alternatives out of business. However, Netflix is showing and making real movies at a time when the perils of independent film are pushing filmmakers to move into non-movie formats. Perhaps the only thing worse than Netflix plunging into movies, would be a Netflix that decided movies are dying and it wants to put its billions elsewhere.