In its earnings report released Wednesday, Sony Corp. delivered very good news about its film operation: Sony Pictures enjoyed a third-quarter profit of $366 million, up from $3 million the quarter before. And Sony’s earnings boost came from a striking balance: The box-office performance of “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
As the debate over original films vs. superhero movies rages on, Sony’s success suggests that the impending demise of original filmmaking may be exaggerated. In fact, as Disney’s reign as franchise king continues, competitors are embracing the role that exemplary original films with A-list talent can play on their balance sheet.
“The event nature of having Leo and Brad [Pitt] and Margot [Robbie] in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ was essential,” Sony Motion Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman said in a recent interview. “You had to make a great movie … but that movie was not based on any IP at all. That is a pure original. Came out of the imagination and the headspace of one individual. Because even Disney will run out of animated movies to remake. And we have to be careful not to narrow our audience, not to think that there isn’t room for originality. I think there is. In the pursuit of that, movie stars are tremendously valuable.”
That said, any studio chief would give their eyeteeth for Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe; audience appetite for superhero movies shows no signs of fatigue. “Iron Man,” which launched the MCU in 2008, grossed $585 million worldwide. Eleven years and 23 movies later, “Avengers: Endgame” grossed $2.8 billion.
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However, Netflix proved that there’s another way. Can’t compete with Disney at the game it’s winning? Beat them at a different one.
“We have no IP, we have no library, we can’t remake things,” Netflix original films head Scott Stuber told The Hollywood Reporter. “We don’t have the great cachet that (Disney) has over there. So you have to say, ‘What is your opportunity?’ And your opportunity is filmmakers.”
It took some trial and error: Netflix’s first original film was “Beasts of No Nation,” Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2015 West African war drama starring Idris Elba. It found admirers, but it didn’t capture awards or generate a flood of new subscribers.
In 2020, Netflix will release 57 original films, far more than any studio, but most have more modest artistic goals. The streamer is credited with reviving the long-dormant rom-com category with film like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe.” It also builds in a handful of awards-centric original movies that see a brief theatrical release, like “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” — but none of these are meant to compete on the same stage as a multi-billion-dollar Avengers movie.
With streamers making original movies without concern for theatrical viability, and Disney owning the superhero box office, the remaining four studios must find a place in the middle.
For Sony, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” made sense with a director and stars who arguably are franchises unto themselves. However, Paramount couldn’t manage the same trick with Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” a Will Smith-starrer that showed off expensive visual effects. It might have been better for Netflix, like another critically reviled Will Smith sci-fi movie, “Bright.”
And, that was an option. Paramount has a deal with Netflix to distribute some films, like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Eli,” which the platform premiered last week. “Gemini Man” grossed $149 million worldwide against an estimated budget of $138 million. Netflix doesn’t report viewership figures, but Nielsen said 11 million American viewers streamed “Bright” in its first three days of release. A sequel is planned.
Sony is reportedly considering its own Netflix deal, one that could start with its long-developed “Masters of the Universe,” while Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal are all readying to launch their own robust streaming platforms that include straight-to-streaming films. Original or franchise, all roads lead to streaming.