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What Should Netflix Do? Three Words: ‘Drive My Car’ (Column)

With its renewed focus on "right-sized budgets," Netflix could tighten its belt and help the film community all at once.

“Roma”

Netflix

When you live in the insular bubble of film-festival gossip and industry chatter, it’s the friends outside the business who gauge which stories are really gaining traction. They’re the ones who blew up my phone inside the Dolby Theatre with Will Smith questions and asked me if “The Batman” was worth their time. This week, the layperson contingency had a more practical request: Was it time to nab some Netflix shares? 

I can wax poetic about my socks more than stocks, but Netflix’s godawful first-quarter performance does merit a hot take relevant to the future prospects of film culture, the chief concern of this column. For Netflix, it might even present an opportunity.

It was only seven years ago when Netflix elbowed into the specialty market for international cinema with Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2015 “Beasts of No Nation.” Two years later, Netflix became the biggest spender on the festival circuit with its $12.5 million acquisition of “Mudbound,” stimulating competition from other deep-pocketed streamers; today, it’s the headquarters of auteur passion projects that traditional studios would never support, from “Roma” to “The Irishman” and “The Power of the Dog.” 

These chapters in Netflix history had a net-positive effect in keeping original filmmaking relevant in a sea of homogenous content. Sure, they overinflated the market and overspent on awards campaigns (and weren’t alone in that), but from a cultural standpoint I’m a Netflix cinema fanboy. When I made an appearance on ABC News this week to address Netflix subscriber woes, a framed “Roma” poster sat over my shoulder.

Faced with a collapsing stock price, Netflix needs to pivot and fast. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, global TV head Bela Bejaria said the company was seeking “right-size budgets depending on what the creative dictates.” While that might doom some of the costly shows in its pipeline, the scaled-down approach presents a real chance to carve out a niche with international cinema.

Hear me out: The studio could go back to acquiring festival movies — the very best of the circuit — and quickly assemble a library of top-shelf cinema with direct relevance to its current needs. It doesn’t have to spend a lot to do that: Set aside $10 million for Cannes and aim to acquire the 10 best movies there, whether or not they contain known quantities. For a company that spent $19 billion on content last year, this is probably the easiest guarantee of ROI you could ask for.

The bottom line makes it clear that Netflix must provide quality to lure subscribers and keep them. Movies can help achieve that goal, but they don’t have to mean outsized festival offers for Oscar-friendly fare or in-house productions of heavy-hitting auteurs. The vast majority of first-rate movies that break out of the festival scene and develop buzz over time could be acquired for the equivalent of Netflix couch change — if it was willing to meet them on new terms. 

These days, the most exciting festival gems require delicate release strategies and long runways to find popularity on streaming platforms. One extreme example: “Drive My Car” faced meager offers out of Cannes but strong critical response, and enjoyed an exclusive life in theaters for many months. By the time it hit HBO Max in March, it was a historic Oscar nominee and an arthouse hit. There were no billboards or TV advertisements; the effort to get this talky, three-hour meditation on the language of grief involved a ragtag group of veteran exhibitors and distribution entities that built a lean campaign out of social media and press. Sources tell me the entire theatrical release cost under $1 million.

It’s hard to make the case that the Japanese-language “Drive My Car” would be an obvious success on Netflix, even with its powerful Asian contingency. But if “Drive My Car” can follow a steady path to streaming, consider the potential for many of the exciting cinematic possibilities eager to get out into the world, many of which are much easier sells.

Drive My Car

“Drive My Car”

Janus Films

This year’s Cannes Film Festival is loaded with movies that could stir up conversations around the world, especially as audiences grow more comfortable with subtitled fare (a phenomenon aided by Netflix’s own “Squid Game”). I can’t tell you yet if that means the daring story of a psychopathic spiritualist in Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” has potential appeal to a sufficient number of Netflix subscribers, or if they’d rather settle into timely neorealist character studies in the latest offerings from Belgian duo the Dardenne brothers (“Tori and Lokita”) or Romania’s Cristian Mungiu (“RMN”).

OK, maybe all of that sounds like a pipe dream to some of you. But these filmmakers bring real emotional stakes to their work, and I would argue their appeal has been undervalued by bigger companies.

They also may cost more than a lot of risk-averse specialty buyers are willing to pay, but not much by streamer standards, and could do more to make Netflix feel special than whatever David Fincher gets a blank check to make next. Acquiring such films provides an opportunity for audiences to see the world through the aesthetic framework of international storytellers for whom quality is the bottom line. Taking such films on in the wake of festival acclaim would allow Netflix to outsource its problem — but only if it’s willing to adopt that slow-burn “Drive My Car” approach and let these films accumulate a gradual life in theaters that builds the sense of specialness that yields appreciation on the service. 

The modus operandi might go like this: Scour the festivals. Buy the best movies that critics adore. Partner with small-scale exhibition entities to further validate their significance over the course of several months. Within a year, fickle Netflix audiences would notice an alternative to the parade of forgettable rom-com titles and begin to recognize the service as one they could rely on to deliver something different.

This requires a radical new approach to theatrical distribution that Netflix has not been willing to take before, but would still involve far less investment than, say, wide releases. It also risks creating a managerial traffic-jam, as each release would require working with outside contractors who may or may not gel with Netflix’s agenda. But I’m not here to solve inevitable bureaucratic headaches. These are minor roadblocks for savvy managers to sort out, especially with such potential upside in play.

FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, file photo, a person displays Netflix on a tablet in North Andover, Mass. Amazon is taking on Netflix and Hulu with a stand-alone video streaming service. Starting the week of April 18, 2016, customers can pay $8.99 a month to watch Amazon’s Prime video streaming service. Previously, the only way to watch Prime videos was to pay $99 a year for Prime membership, which includes free two-day shipping on items sold by the site. The video-only option won’t come with any free shipping perks. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Netflix remains the biggest global streaming entity.

AP

Netflix is still ahead of the game when it comes to market penetration, and a greater investment in supporting first-rate global cinema would boost its standing with audiences around the globe. And if discerning audiences start to notice better movies on Netflix throughout the year, hey, maybe some of my non-industry friends will discover them, too. It just needs a different strategy for which movies it takes on, and how it maps out the process of releasing them.

Of course, I realize that Netflix’s algorithmic process for decision-making (and a need to win over audiences who actually like dopey game shows about cakes) might supersede a nuanced gamble on arthouse cinema. That’s why other stakeholders in this equation need to advocate for it: Filmmakers dead-set on theatrical should be lobbying for Netflix to help them get where they need to go. Exhibition consultants who work closely with arthouse divisions need to lobby the streamer to hire them for input on theatrical strategies. Every movie demands a different plan. Sales agents should work with Netflix on more complex deal structures that lay out handcrafted release plans built around prestige value rather than costly awards campaigns alone. In the end, they will have a library of movies that people will want to see.

And if Netflix doesn’t budge, this jockeying could be redirected to another deep-pocketed streamer willing to recognize the value at hand. Paging… Apple? It couldn’t hurt.

I know there are many factors left unconsidered here, including the complexities of dealmaking on titles with pre-sold territories and the pressure to deliver surefire hits on a massive scale. But there is gold in these streaming hills, if only we keep chipping away to find it.

I encourage readers to get in touch with their own ideas for how to take advantage of Netflix’s subscriber woes in ways that could benefit those of us who want to see the right movies succeed, wherever they wind up: eric@indiewire.com

Browse previous columns here.

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