Netflix’s plans to release 80 original films in 2018 show how effectively the studio has tapped into audience anticipation.
Just when you thought Netflix couldn’t possibly throw any more money at original content, the company proves it isn’t playing by the same rules as everyone else. As reported by Variety, yesterday, as part of an investors discussion for the future of the company, Netflix content guru Ted Sarandos announced that the streaming giant would be releasing 80 original films in 2018, a little more than one per week. “They range anywhere from the million-dollar Sundance hit,” Sarandos explained, “all the way up to something on a much larger scale.” As part of this expansion, Netflix would also be allocating more resources to its content department, upping the budget from $6 billion in 2017 to $7+ billion in 2018. And with this new commitment to original films comes the inevitable question: can Netflix remain a successful and artist-friendly studio even as it scales up its operation?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Netflix’s unique approach to original films – or rather, the fact that it stays as far away from the creative process as possible. This is fine when you’re working with first-time directors like Macon Blair or Oren Uziel, whose debut films likely only cost a few million dollars between them, but the game changes considerably once you start operating as a major studio. In the Variety piece, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos points to upcoming releases like Bright and The Irishman as proof that the studio isn’t afraid to create “big-budget, event movie(s),” but with those extra zeroes comes an increase in accountability for all involved. If Netflix’s proprietary metrics don’t show that The Irishman is being streamed by active subscribers – or, perhaps more damningly, doesn’t lead to a spike in subscriptions prior to its release – common sense would dictate that things have to change. Netflix cannot continue to approach original movies the way it always have and operate a $7 or $8 billion dollar pipeline of projects. It’s just not possible.
Of course, there’s always the chance that we are underestimating the current marketplace for original content. Applying the old model to Netflix only values the studio’s films under the old system; what if Netflix has discovered the perfect way to monetize a concept that’s already been around for years? Back in 2013, The Dissolve‘s Matt Singer attacked what he described as “teaser culture,” quoting a piece by former IndieWire author Sam Adams on the “insidious and deliberate” way that Hollywood made kept audiences dissatisfied with current releases when there are upcoming releases left to see. “The only thing anyone has left to look forward to,” Singer concluded, “is looking forward to more stuff, and occasionally reminiscing about the days of futures past.” This tapped into an idea that has pervaded film criticism over the past few decades: the movies in theaters are nowhere near as valuable to studios as the movies weeks (or even months) away from release. In other words, the bird in the bush is worth two in the hand.
Unlike other studios, Netflix is in a unique position to monetize this trend. The studio’s bottom line is its subscriber base; it doesn’t need to sell movie tickets, line up distribution deals, or even dominate the news cycle the weekend the film is released, as long as fans are appropriately excited to see the film in theaters. A cynic might look at Netflix’s content model as a glorified SEO strategy, where the right combination of keywords – Scorsese, Ayer, etc. – are enough to keep fans from canceling their Netflix subscription. Here the promise of the next great Netflix movie doing more heavy lifting than the current great Netflix movies currently available to stream, and unlike the studio’s competitors, Netflix isn’t harming its earning potential by keeping its audience’s eyes solidly fixed on the horizon. It only helps them achieve their goal. And if Netflix cares less about the quality of the product than the frequency and generalized appeal of the product, then there’s no reason why the studio cannot continue to emphasize
It’s also worth noting that Netflix’s films tend to avoid the same degree of RottenTomatoes scrutiny that befalls traditional releases. On September 1, for example, Eli Craig’s Little Evil was released with a total of six (6) reviews on RottenTomatoes. That same weekend, Tulip Fever – the long-gestating flop by Justin Chadwick – hit theaters with 47 reviews, 43 of them negative. Gerald’s Game (47 reviews) preceded both Flatliners (54) and American Made (2017) by two days just a few weeks ago. And back in 2016, Mascots (42) was released on Netflix one day before both The Accountant (247). There are exceptions to the rule, of course – Bong Joon Ho’s Okja was reviewed 174 times, more in keeping with a high-profile theatrical release – but the same emphasis on undervalued talent allows these releases to fly somewhat under the radar and avoid the worst kind of critical consensus. Hell, The Ridiculous 6 may have a 0% on RottenTomatoes, but at least that 0% comes from only 34 reviews!
If you believe that Hollywood is now stuck somewhere between teaser culture and the Almighty Tomato – that people breathlessly anticipate upcoming releases and then cast them aside if the early reviews aren’t interesting – then you’d have to admit that the Netflix model has found a way to navigate flawlessly between both systems. Keep audiences enthralled with the next film in the pipeline while effectively ignoring success metrics like box office receipts and critical scores? It may sound like a horror show for many of us, but for Netflix, it’s the perfect competitive advantage for a struggling Hollywood landscape. One only hopes that some of the movies the studio releases along the way actually live up to the hype.