Despite an impressive slate of upcoming films, Netflix still hasn’t found the answer to its mediocre marketing.
Two days ago, Netflix dropped a trailer for Hold the Dark, its new Alaskan-set thriller from Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier. The film, which promises violence and the occult in equal measure, managed to entice plenty of movie fans with its moody aesthetic. It also removed any doubt from Hold the Dark‘s place as one of the most highly anticipated movies of Fall 2018. The first spot for Hold the Dark offered something else, though, something surprisingly uncommon when it comes to film marketing and distribution: it gave Netflix a rare impressive trailer.
While it’s taken a few years for Netflix to (more or less) normalize as a Hollywood distributor, there are myriad other ways in which the studio stands out from its peers. Like most critics, I’ve written a lot about Netflix in the past, including their penchant for giving filmmakers unparalleled creative freedom, their willingness to distribute movies with questionable commercial prospects, and — perhaps most relevant to this article — their never-ending pipeline of upcoming releases. Remember: Netflix may have countless impressive shows and original movies, but no single movie on Netflix is quite as good as the one they’re just about to release.
Which is why I’m so surprised at the mediocrity of Netflix’s trailers. Movie fans tend to know which distributors lead the pack when it comes to a good movie trailer. No matter how good or bad any upcoming A24 film may sound on paper, I know that the company will cut a beautiful and atmospheric trailer that will A) suck in potential viewers and B) end up on dozens of end-of-year trailers lists. So where is the great run of Netflix trailers? If you grant the premise that Netflix’s business model requires a steady drip of anticipation and adrenaline, then it stands to reason that they would invest heavily in their trailers, and the results just don’t back this up.
Let’s start with some rough math. Over the past few years, movie sites have learned to use views within the first 24 hours of a trailer’s upload as an indicator of its cultural footprint, and you won’t find a single Netflix trailer anywhere on the list. This seems particularly egregious given Netflix’s February gamble with The Cloverfield Paradox, where the studio elected to release the entire movie on streaming the day it was announced. Granted, there must be plenty of people who saw the trailer premiere during the Super Bowl and just decided to watch it sight-unseen, but the fact that this movie trailer ranks nowhere near the top of Netflix’s trailer list seems odd, especially given the publicity it generated across a variety of movie sites. Where is the unbridled enthusiasm for upcoming releases?
While it’s a little less precise, we can also measure the qualitative impact of Netflix’s movie trailers by seeing where (if) they appeared on 2017 lists. Variety estimates that Netflix released more than 50 original features last year, which means plenty of trailers available for critics to choose from. Once again, the numbers let us down. There are no Netflix trailers on Empire’s end-of-the-year rundown, nor are any Netflix trailers featured on the lists created by The A.V. Club, ScreenCrush, Polygon, or, well, my own list here at Film School Rejects. Notable exception? IndieWire did include The Meyerowitz Stories in the very last slot, so Netflix was not entirely without love come the end of the year.
Then again, there is one kind of trailer that Netflix seems to do well: teenage romantic comedies. While the list of the most-viewed Netflix trailers is weighed heavily towards its television content, movies like The Kissing Booth (13.9 million views), #realityhigh (10.6 million), and To All the Boys I’ve Loved (5.3 million) each hold their own near the top. They’re good trailers, too: each showcases it young female lead and depicts how their anonymous high school life is completely upended by an unexpected dance with adventure. These aren’t the kind of movies that will generate big crossover audience appeal — or earn accolades for their intrinsic artistic value — but they are trailers that resonate, and resonate hard, with their intended audience. Which is exactly what a good trailer should do.
So what’s the message to take from all of this? It’s certainly easy — and probably more than a little fair — to claim that Netflix trailers suffer from the same kind of creative middle-of-the-road malaise as the films themselves. While Netflix may be targeting more interesting filmmakers than ever before and allocating incredible amounts of money to their original content, those two things are not a guarantee that the resulting trailers (and movies) will reward them right away. One thing’s for sure: for a distributor as laser-focused on their pipeline as Netflix, they cannot be happy with having suboptimal marketing material. Here’s hoping they buck the trend, and soon.