One of the biggest criticisms cinephiles have with Netflix is the streaming giant’s lack of marketing and promotion when it comes to debuting its original films. More times than not, Netflix original indies are not front and center on the homepage the day they become available to stream. The issue of Netflix burying indie films gained traction after “Mudbound” was nowhere to be found on the homepage on its premiere day, despite the fact the company paid $12.5 million for the title out of Sundance and committed to an Oscar campaign (read David Ehrlich’s “Netflix Keeps Buying Great Movies, So It’s a Shame They’re Getting Buried” for more on the issue).
While a majority of movie lovers are quick to blame Netflix for this recurring issue, Ava DuVernay is one filmmaker standing up for the streaming giant in the face of this criticism. Speaking to Vulture, the “A Wrinkle in Time” director explained that people criticizing Netflix for burying indies are missing the point that just being on Netflix in general is a major victory for filmmakers, especially minority directors. According to DuVernay, critics who believe Netflix is hurting indie film aren’t realizing how important the company is in increasing the exposure of filmmakers of color.
“When you talk about getting lost, [it] prioritizes a certain privilege that women filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and certainly women filmmakers of color — specifically black women — don’t have,” DuVernay said. “My concern isn’t being lost, my concern is being somewhere, period.”
DuVernay continued by saying “there are so many filmmakers who are gaining audience, who are asserting presence” because of Netflix picking up and releasing their films. To prove her point, DuVernay mentioned how Barry Jenkins’ career might have been different had his 2008 drama “Medicine for Melancholy” been made available on Netflix. The director argues more people would have seen “Medicine” and know Jenkins’ name had the film been a Netflix release and not a traditional theatrical release from IFC Films.
“People think he was just born with ‘Moonlight,’ but he’d already made this beautiful film that was released traditionally in the way that all these traditionalists demand that their films be released, in cinemas, through IFC. Most black people didn’t see that movie,” DuVernay said. “All kinds of people didn’t see that movie! If it was on Netflix, I’m telling you, they would’ve seen it. The point is for stories to be seen.”
Todd Yellin, Netflix VP of product, explained to Vulture that everyone’s Netflix page is different, which means just because one person isn’t seeing a Netflix original movie advertised on the homepage doesn’t mean another user isn’t either. Yellin said the complaints that Netflix buries some of its original properties is “frustrating” and “absurd.” The company uses its data-driven algorithm so subscribers are seeing on their homepage the titles they might enjoy most based on their previous viewing habits.
“It’s about getting that title to the right person,” Yellin said. “If we plastered the whole service and everyone got ‘Bright,’ what would happen to [a small documentary]? We are able to unlock audiences for titles that you wouldn’t expect. That argument applies as much to a big Shonda [Rhimes] or Ryan [Murphy] show as it applies to an indie film or documentary we’re also putting up on the service.”
Yellin pointed to DuVernay’s own Netflix documentary “13TH” as an example of the algorithm working to its full potential. The title may not have gotten plastered on everyone Netflix’s homepage right away, but it did get in front of the right people and continued to be promoted for months once other people’s viewing habits matched with the documentary. Yellin said “millions and millions” of people have streamed “13TH” to date and argues the same result wouldn’t have happened had it went to theaters.
DuVernay was most recently in theaters with “A Wrinkle in Time” earlier this year and is set to direct DC Comics’ “The New Gods” for Warner Bros. Before tackling the superhero genre, she’ll reunite with Netflix for a limited series on the Central Park Five.