BREAKING: As expected, Scott Stuber has joined Netflix, where he will steer the streaming service’s aggressive move into feature films. According to Netflix, Stuber will head the development, production and acquisition of high profile film properties that will premiere on the streaming service. These are star-driven projects that were once the exclusive domain of studios and indie theatrical distributors.
This is a big hire for Netflix chief content offer Ted Sarandos and CEO Reed Hastings. Stuber, the former vice chairman of worldwide production at Universal, was also being courted aggressively by Viacom to replace Brad Grey as chairman of Paramount Pictures. Sarandos has been very selective in trying to fill this post and in some ways, you could look at this as a better job than the one at Paramount. It is certainly a disruptive pursuit, an opportunity to create a new version of a film studio, with a company that is enthusiastic and ready to pay what is needed to be competitive. While Paramount’s suddenly tenuous position with two Chinese companies that signed on to co-finance one-quarter of its film slates raises questions about the studio’s ability to fund big films, Netflix has the resources to step up and win projects that are putting it on the map as a real alternative for major stars, directors and their agents.
That is already happening: beyond the expanding deal with Adam Sandler to make comedies exclusively for Netflix, the upcoming Netflix slate includes War Machine — the David Michod-directed film that stars Brad Pitt, Meg Tilly, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Lakeith Stanfield and Sir Ben Kingsley — and the David Ayer-directed Bright, the Max Landis-scripted sci-fi police procedural that stars Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry and Edgar Ramirez. There are numerous other films on the slate with lower wattage stars. To get those Pitt and Smith-driven films that were being bid on by studios, Netflix was willing to step up and pay premiums that included salary quotes, plus an estimated upfront buyout of back end participation. That pushed the investment in Bright to over $90 million. The streaming service is engaged right now in a tug of war for The Irishman, the Martin Scorsese-directed mob drama that will star Robert De Niro. That project had originally been earmarked as a Paramount feature, with most offshore rights acquired by STX Entertainment in a $50 million splashy deal at the last Cannes Film Festival. Netflix also made the splashiest buy at Sundance last January, paying $12.5 million for the Dee Rees-directed Mudbound, a period drama that is expected to be launched in Oscar season. Netflix and rival Amazon Studios were the busiest buyers at that festival, including a deal for Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press.
Stuber’s task will be to use his strong relationships with talent and agents to continue that momentum and convince top stars and filmmakers of the viability of Netflix as an alternative for studio-caliber films showcased on a streaming service that has an audience of over 93 million subscribers in 190 countries that voraciously binge-watches TV series and films. As earth shattering as it is to imagine a Scorsese mob reunion with De Niro on a streaming service instead of a movie screen, a Netflix berth takes the onus off Scorsese for budget and box office performance. He just has to make a good movie. Netflix still doesn’t disclose how many people watch its films, and there is less glare on production budgets (the Scorsese film will cost over $100 million), or P&A that makes all but superhero and genre films a big risk.
Part of the strategy will be a willingness for window-dressing simultaneous theatrical openings to qualify for awards and ease the egos of stars and filmmakers, even though Netflix’s priority is clearly its streaming service. None of the major theater chains likely will touch these films, but Netflix can cobble together enough screens to get that job done. The revenue from those theatrical releases is inconsequential to Netflix, which can spend big on movies that are justified not by P&L statements, but by churn rate and monthly subscriber fees.
Also, Netflix does minimal development, but an expansion in that area is logical if it is to be competitive for big ticket books and branded properties that will need scripts and packaging. Its highest profile films to date, whether it was the Cary Fukunaga-directed Beasts of No Nation, War Machine or Bright, were acquisitions of finished films or fully packaged projects ready to go into production. Stuber has been developing projects his whole career.
Stuber will leave Bluegrass Films, the Universal-based production shingle he started and partners in with Dylan Clark. Clark, a former production president of Universal, will take over the reins of that company which has produced such pictures as Ted and its sequel, Central Intelligence, and Safe House, and is prepping a remake of Scarface that will have a director set after a rewrite by Joel and Ethan Coen is turned in. Bluegrass has a TV component that will continue with Jamie Tarses. As an exec at Universal, Stuber managed such pictures as The Fast and The Furious franchise, A Beautiful Mind, Seabiscuit, Jarhead, 8 Mile, and The Bourne Identity and Meet the Parents franchises.
Stuber’s move had been expected since he last week pulled himself out of the running for the Paramount chairman job. Netflix announced his deal this morning, including canned quotes from Sarandos and Stuber.
Said Sarandos: “Scott is well known and respected in the film industry. His innovative work and strong talent relationships should help accelerate the Netflix original film initiative as we enter into a new phase of big global productions with some of the greatest directors, actors and writers in the film business,” said Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. “This is an unprecedented time of change and opportunity and we look forward to having Scott lead the way as we help evolve the way films are made, distributed and celebrated around the world.”
Said Stuber: “Netflix is at the forefront in changing the way entertainment is enjoyed throughout the world, bringing a greater variety of stories to more people than ever before,” said Stuber. “It’s an incredible opportunity to work with a company with such reach and that stands for such diverse quality content for global audiences. I look forward to expanding the foundation and brand Netflix has built with visionary and commercial storytellers.”