“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The final line in “Casablanca,” with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick commenting on the marriage of convenience with French Vichy Captain Renault, might serve for theaters and Netflix. The movie that’s testing that bond is not a cinema classic; it’s Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” an action-zombie movie made for Netflix, which will debut May 14 in nearly 600 theaters.
These include major chains led by Cinemark, which until now largely avoided the streamer’s films, and gives “Army” deeper nationwide theatrical access than any previous Netflix film. With its one-week jump ahead of home viewing, that’s a week more than “Godzilla vs. Kong” or “Mortal Kombat,” both of which were concurrent with HBO Max.
By current standards, it resembles a normal film release. It even comes with Thursday-night previews, just like other studios’ high-anticipation movies.
The apparent success of “Godzilla” and “Mortal” doing better-than-expected theatrical business while streaming has been an eye opener, and “Army” fits a similar profile of attracting younger, male audiences with significant Black and Latino interest. With those and others voting with their feet to see them in theaters, despite alternatives, it seems smart for theaters to showcase this one. If you’re going to play other films with same date or short-term windows, at some point the reservoir of anger at Netflix seems like a spiteful luxury.
“Army of the Dead” isn’t an awards contender. As such, it is rare among Netflix’s films to see any theaters outside Oscar season. For Netflix, the one-week lead also establishes a new precedent. Its awards-oriented theatrical releases had platform releases, with expansion over a three-week period before hitting the service. That’s a breakthrough in its own right.
Among the upcoming Netflix titles that could see a theatrical debut are those from Jane Campion, Guillermo de Toro, Antoine Fuqua, Adam McKay, and Richard Linklater, many of which are aimed at awards. The company has yet to win Best Picture or either of the lead acting Oscars; a higher profile in theaters might be key for future legitimacy. This year, when multiple contenders will be quickly available at home, it’s harder to see a reason to deny Netflix the same chance.
Sources indicate that Netflix ratcheted up “Army” advertising with a TV/cable buy that includes sports events like WWE, UFC, and NBA. (Ads close with a tag that notes theatrical and Netflix messaging.) A livestream interactive event May 13 will include the first 15 minutes of the film, just ahead of initial theater showings.
Netflix has figured out that there’s little risk of attrition. Even in the best of times, ticket buyers represent only only a small part of the potential movie audience. As Netflix increasingly finds competition from other streamers and PVOD, the appearance of being a hit in theaters — also the motivation behind reporting grosses — fuels interest.
For those theaters willing to play a Netflix film, it tells the public that the theatrical release still matters; that many people prefer them; and for a genre title from a director with a strong fan base with a film that looks like a fun and immersive group experience, they are the best place to do it. That message was true two years ago, but it was less critical. Today, it is essential.
This experiment could lead to more theaters playing Netflix movies in the future, or Netflix allowing more of their films to make theatrical debuts. Frustratingly, Netflix still refuses to play by the norms in not revealing grosses, although intrepid reporting will be able to discern at least some anecdotal information.
On the other hand, “Nomadland” and Searchlight managed to score big at the Oscars while stonewalling this information. Many theaters played the film while it was on Hulu — although the distributor refused to release even this information.
Theaters and Netflix will never have the relationship exhibition used to have with distributors. These days, no one does. But like Rick and Capt. Renault, more moviegoers may benefit now that they have started to figure it out.