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As Netflix Subscriber Growth Declines, Will Free Movies Become the Next Strategy?

"To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before" is the latest Netflix title to be offered for free — followed by a pitch to subscribe.

netflix to all the boys i've loved before

Netflix is letting non-subscribers watch “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” for free.

Netflix

Netflix has faced three straight quarters of declining US subscriber growth, most recently missing its forecast for Q4 when it added 423,000 domestic subscriptions. International growth continues to exceed expectations, but some analysts say this is a sign that the streaming king may be reaching the ceiling for stateside subscriptions — and that’s before the launch of Peacock and HBO Max.

In an effort to win over some of those Americans without a subscription, Netflix made one of its most high-profile movies available to everyone, for free — and more could be on the way. On Tuesday, Netflix made its 2018 release “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” available to watch on its platform via a special link for the US and some other territories — the day before the sequel to the wildly popular teen rom-com landed on the service. On the free-streaming landing page, visitors have two chances to sign up for Netflix. After viewing the movie, there’s another message as the credits roll, imploring them to join now to watch “everything on Netflix that everyone’s talking about.”

netflix

Netflix’s strategy seizes a cultural moment born from its exclusive programming. According to the company’s selectively released viewership numbers, 80 million people watched “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” shortly after its premiere (with the caveat that it’s unclear what “watch” means by Netflix standards). Whatever those stats, the film was also a social-media sensation, skyrocketing the Instagram followings of its stars: Lana Condor’s follower count jumped from about 100,000 to 5.5 million, while Noah Centineo’s increased from 800,000 to 13.4 million.

Netflix hopes to cash in on that buzz with “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You,” which also presents a perfect opportunity to hone in young people who don’t have access to a Netflix account. It sounds like a perfect conversion funnel: Watch the original movie, love it, convince your parents to finally sign up for Netflix, then watch the sequel and become part of the conversation.

This isn’t the first time that Netflix tried the freebie route; last fall, it made season 3, episode 1 of “The Crown” available for UK viewers. It’s not one that it would treat casually — content is its most valuable asset — but there’s a long history of getting buyers hooked on a free sample. Yes, they’ll give you a taste of heartthrob Centineo, but the full experience will come at a cost. It’s a move that wouldn’t have worked, say, for “The Irishman” — the latest film, for free, from a cultural touchstone like Martin Scorsese would have interested plenty of people, but what would then entice those people to sign up?

It’s likely Netflix will continue to sparingly offer non-subscribers free movies in the hopes the offer will convince specific groups of holdouts to subscribe. But don’t expect the long-established streamer to give away much more.

A similar, more generous strategy, was employed by Apple when it launched Apple TV+ in the fall. It gave viewers a chance to watch two episodes of each show, including “The Morning Show,” before they had to sign up for a free trial. But unlike Netflix, Apple TV+ had no viewership base.

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