Back when Netflix simply delivered mail-order DVDs, it was still called Netflix, anticipating the day when it would be a big internet presence. The name also forecast its plan to expand into original movies, drawing the type of premium audiences the company wanted to attract.
That day has arrived. Last October, the well-received Idris Elba war drama “Beasts of No Nation” became the streaming service’s first theatrical release. In February, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” arrived as the first feature film to premiere on Netflix and in theaters — cementing the company’s status as a significant force in Hollywood.
Even if they are expensive to produce, such original productions are valuable to its customers, creating what Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has called “a halo effect on the brand.”
That scheme, shared by other streaming services, is disrupting brick-and-mortar cinemas, stimulating the cultural life of the film industry and drawing viewers to watch movies across multiple media. It’s a trend with benefits, but also one that raises questions about the art of cinema.
Does it matter if a movie arrives in different formats? Can it still be considered a traditional movie if it never appears in theaters? The answer — from streaming giants, Hollywood heavyweights and growing internet audiences — is “yes.”
We are entering an era when movies created for the small screen are closer to traditional films, unlike the old network movies of the week — those insipid productions featuring familiar melodramatic plots or rose-tinted soft-tissue Hallmark Hall of Fame weepers.
It’s the content, not the platform, that matters most in today’s market.
Still, Amazon Studios shares the Netflix game plan to gobble up the world of theatrical films. The digital juggernauts are aiming to become theatrical tastemakers with the sort of quality work that makes people binge-watch TV shows. Because if there’s one thing tech companies know how to do, it’s read our data and fill our queue with stuff we’re looking for.
Something for everyone
Each aims to entertain almost everybody by making films for a wide variety of appetites and audiences, a return to the bygone era of going to the movies eagerly and having no idea what you were going to see. Netflix is producing upcoming theatrical features starring Brad Pitt (“War Machine,” an edgy satire of the U.S. effort to control Afghanistan) and Will Smith (a new cop thriller). And it’s halfway through a four-comedy deal with Adam Sandler — the first two releases, “The Ridiculous 6” and “The Do-Over,” being online only.
For alt-studios such as Netflix and Amazon, there is no guarantee that releasing their movies in theaters will succeed long-term. Small screen influencer HBO pioneered that approach, but ran into problems.
“It didn’t work,” said HBO vice president Jeff Cusson. “HBO explored this base about 10 years ago but chose to keep the films for their service alone and not pursue theatrical distribution.” The company, which has also expanded into the streaming market with HBO Now, still theatrically releases documentaries to support the filmmakers’ Oscar campaigns.
Oprah Winfrey’s upcoming starring role in the fact-based medical drama “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” might have drawn her fans into theaters, but HBO is producing it to pull them directly online.
Amazon, on the other hand, seems committed to theatrical releases, picking up offbeat movies from beloved indie directors Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen and Park Chan-wook. The studio flexed its muscle at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, presenting five new films. Amazon and Netflix each acquired distribution rights to half a dozen high-profile indie titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Netflix entered a bidding war battle royal there with five other studios for Nate Parker’s Oscar-buzzed slavery drama “The Birth of a Nation,” which ultimately went to Fox Searchlight for a record $17 million.
The blueprint, said veteran movie producer Ted Hope, who now heads Amazon’s film arm, is to create ways to exploit movies, which “have always been an excuse to sell popcorn.” At Amazon, Hope told Variety, CEO Jeff Bezos declares, “We make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the platform” and its broad-based e-commerce, entertaining users with the same commitment to customer satisfaction, broad inventory and low expenditures, selling less costly, more meaningful films.
Small screen’s golden age
These streaming powerhouses are not merely challenging each other; they’re raising the stakes for century-old Hollywood studios as well.
The majors increasingly rely on a pool of fewer, but larger, hits. Disney is home to the near-endless Marvel films, Warner Bros. to the relentless DC Comics universe, Paramount to “Transformers.”
But that megabudget blockbuster approach seems to be fading. For the fifth year in a row, U.S. box office demand has declined as stay-at-home adult movie lovers are ignored in favor of under-30 moviegoers. After a strong Aug. 5 opening that smashed the domestic box office record, “Suicide Squad” divebombed 41 percent the next day. Perhaps that drop-off persuaded Lionsgate to premiere the fourth and final installment of its “Divergent” series not in theaters but online.
The studios’ narrowing focus on the lowest common denominator has sent more filmmakers (especially screenwriters) to streaming and cable, alternatives widely praised as offering a golden age of creativity. Some industry commentators liken Hollywood’s current state to the model of the hedgehog and the fox. Once a “fox,” adaptable and adept at many things, the industry has become a “hedgehog,” good at only one thing: making franchise reboots.
With the arrival of the studios’ online rivals, the game has changed. Another analogy: Perhaps we are observing the evolutionary battle between giant, dominant, highly visible dinosaurs and the fast, clever, inventive little mammals that replaced them.
That echoes the sort of management Steve Jobs applied when he acquired a start-up animation house called Pixar to make the first computer-animated feature film. When “Toy Story” became a huge hit, rather than ordering Pixar to speed ahead and churn out several CGI films a year, Jobs let the film company maintain a relative snail’s pace, ensuring a slow but steady stream of superlative, award-winning movies.
That kind of creative encouragement has been largely dropped by hit-centric film studios, leaving deep-pocketed online streamers to pick up the slack.
Steven Spielberg revealed six months after the release of his superb 2012 historical drama “Lincoln” that it had been “this close” to opening on HBO instead of in theaters. When a titan like Spielberg moves from the silver screen to the home screen, times are changing.
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