Thanks to Netflix, Manhattan still has The Paris. The 571-seat theater, and the borough’s last single-screen outlet, is now under a long-term lease from owner Sheldon Solow. A November 25 Netflix press release announced that it planned to “use the theater for special events, screenings, and theatrical releases of its films.”
Sounds simple enough, but things rarely are for the distribution disruptor. While it’s expected that The Paris will host its annual lineup of titles seeking film honors, the Netflix brand is very broad. Next year’s standouts might include the “Rebecca” remake with Lily James and Armie Hammer, Dee Rees’ “The Last Thing He Wanted” with Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck, or Ryan Murphy’s remake of “The Boys in the Band.” The Paris also could play Michael Bay’s upcoming “6 Underground” starring Ryan Reynolds, or the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana,” which opens the Sundance Film Festival next month.
Here’s a closer look.
Netflix still isn’t interested in theatrical exhibition.
A week before Netflix announced its Paris lease, the Department of Justice also announced its plans to end the 1949 consent decree that blocked monopolistic studio practices, including owning theaters. However, the only thing these two events had in common was the timing of their press releases. Netflix was never a signatory under the consent decree — hell, Ted Sarandos wouldn’t even be born for another 15 years. The decree never prevented Netflix from owning theaters.
Another studio that didn’t participate in the decree was Disney. (At the time, it was too small to worry about.) And Disney is Netflix’s closest analog for theater ownership with its control of Hollywood’s El Capitan, which it purchased and rehabilitated in 1991 and has used to exclusively screen Disney titles ever since.
Similarly, Netflix does need a theatrical presence — to ensure its top films get reviews, to satisfy its marquee directors, and for awards marketing — but it doesn’t need to own theaters. Major theater chains remain firm in their enmity, but Netflix can cobble together the access. When “The Irishman” premiered on Netflix November 27, it expanded to 500 theaters in North America. “Marriage Story” is now available on Netflix, but its theatrical release is still expanding.
Would Netflix like more theaters? Certainly. But not enough to saddle the burden of operating a brick-and-mortar business.
The Paris is a guaranteed showcase.
For decades, a film that opened at The Paris was an important film. (Full disclosure: While working at Loews Theaters in the 1990s, I once programmed The Paris when Loews partnered with its owner.) As the saying went, it was the easiest theater to book six months in advance and the hardest a week out.
The Paris’ 58th Street address also serves New York’s wealthy, older Upper East Side — a loyal audience with a taste for high-end cinema, which in turn gave the films an air of prestige. It was the sort of theater that, back in 1985, hosted a year-long run of “A Room With a View.’
Now, that imprimatur belongs to Netflix (with extra credit for acting as theater’s white knight and saving it from redevelopment into a medical facility). Although Netflix will almost certainly continue to face resistance from theater chains, The Paris’ unparalleled visibility will soothe directors who might be frustrated that their films aren’t more widely screened. Netflix can now guarantee their films elevated placement and the flexibility to choose the date that makes sense rather than work around others’ bookings.
The Paris also has its challenges.
For now, Netflix is focused on its year-end prestige releases like “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” and “The Two Popes.” Of course, the theater can only accommodate one at a time. (So far, it’s hosted only “Marriage Story.”) This could suggest the potential for infighting as they jockey for position, but more concerning is how will it choose to operate a year-round cinematic institution.
Distribution veterans Spencer Klein and Lori Bandazian oversee theatrical distribution for Netflix, with former Warner Bros. head of distribution Dan Fellman as a consultant. It’s anticipated that Klein, a former film buyer, will play a key role in shaping programming for The Paris.
The Paris built its reputation over 70 years, and it remains to be seen how will Netflix choose to maintain it. A Netflix source said no decisions have been made as to future programming, and “Marriage Story” has an indefinite run. And it’s possible that the theater will offer non-Netflix films in the form of retrospectives dedicated to their directors.
Ultimately, leasing The Paris is a marketing tactic, not a revenue strategy; box office will only help defray costs. More concerning for Netflix is designing a year-round program that effectively evokes a brand that’s designed to mean everything to everyone.
Finally, because we couldn’t help ourselves, we reached out to multiple specialized distributors and asked: Would you now consider playing at The Paris? Responses ranged from a loud “Hell, no” and “I can’t even think of answering that,” to a surprising number who said they’d be open to the idea.
“Companies like ours can’t afford to look at this on a macro level, to forgo box office to make a philosophical statement about industry trends,” said Magnolia distribution head Neal Block, who added that he doubted The Paris would ever be an option. “Bottom line: Is it a movie theater? Are there seats and a projector, and will the proprietor pay their film rental and be reasonable to work with? If so, let’s go for it.”
There are evolving times. Netflix remains a disruptor. But a smart one.