I was chatting with industry colleagues at an event this week when it struck me that virtually everyone around me was either working on a Netflix project or had a consulting link of some kind. It was an instant reminder of the formidable ubiquity of this secretive young company — one that seems to be undergoing something of an identity crisis: It either knows exactly where it’s heading and doesn’t want to tell anyone, or it’s simply spreading largesse in the hope of discovering its hidden strategy.
Netflix’s TV presence was amply demonstrated at the Emmys, when the company’s kudo count tied HBO for the first time. This was accomplished with the help of a fierce ad campaign followed by a pricey parade of thank-you ads. The Emmy spend inevitably raised expectations in a much more hazardous arena — movies. Again, Netflix would appear to have the ammunition for a major awards push — Roma, 22 July and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — but does it have the will or the muscle to overcome Hollywood’s institutional resistance? Netflix needs awards to recruit filmmakers and expand audiences, even if that may entail reinventing its release windows.
The Netflix forays have put Hollywood on its heels because they’ve impacted so many fronts. For example, network gurus used to put down the streamer’s comedy initiatives, pointing to its reliance on “taste clusters” — a system purporting to predict viewership by measuring the tone and timbre of audience feelings. But lately Netflix has quieted skeptics by signing the likes of Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld as well as pumping out a special every week. Typically, Netflix claims disinterest in demos and is silent on viewership.
Late-night programming has remained a struggle following the cancellation of Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale series, but Netflix is pushing back with shows from Norm Macdonald and Hasan Minhaj in the hope of creating new and potentially disruptive late-night binge viewing.
Netflix has even been in a buying mode in animation and children’s programming, focusing especially on international content. The streamer recently acquired rights to two Russian cartoons, Leo and Tig and Be-Be Bears, aimed at children as young as age 3. Documentaries, too, are receiving greater attention: At the Venice Film Festival, Morgan Neville testified, “Netflix has put docs on an even playing field and thus lifted their popularity.” His doc, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, was accorded banner attention there.
Movies, of course, still account for the flashiest news from Netflix, with the upcoming release of Martin Scorsese’s mob film The Irishman – its reported final cost excedes $200 million — and news of a reported $30 million paycheck for Ryan Reynolds to star in Six Underground, directed by Michael Bay. In preparation are high-profile films from Greg Russo and David Ayer.
Scott Stuber, the Netflix film chief, started his reign with a more modest agenda, but agents say he’s now in the market for Lord of the Rings-level fantasy and even superhero fare. One studio chief complains that the Netflix impact on his company has been disruptive. Demands on star salaries have increased, with several moving up to the $20 million-$25 million range. “Stars are so busy making Netflix product they don’t have time to promote their studio films,” says one studio chief.
Stuber himself, while chatty in his former job at Universal, has signed on to the Netflix corporate silence. At Universal his decisions ranged from the success of A Beautiful Mind to the problematic Battleship. At Netflix, he understandably shares Oscar hopes with such top filmmakers as Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), Ethan and Joel Coen (Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and Paul Greengrass (22 July), and has launched several initiatives to deal with the stalwart but still confused resistance of the Academy.
Streamer executives have been lobbying festival heads in an effort to underscore their filmmaker-friendly attitude. “Netflix really loves cinema and they’re fully aware of their behemoth position,” declared Julie Huntsinger, executive director of Telluride, which screened several Netflix films.
Netflix this week took full page ads to announce its selections at the New York Film Festival, including Private Life from Tamara Jenkins and Happy as Lazzaro from Alice Rohrwacher, as well as the reworked cut of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, screened earlier at Venice and Telluride (Cannes turned it down).
The Academy’s board of governors has been intensely debating Netflix’s ambitions and weighing how deeply to modify requirements for award qualification. The big question: Would Netflix qualify as “a good cinema citizen” if its pictures played widely in 12 or so key markets before moving into its streaming model? One influential studio chief believes Netflix pictures should play for a month in 12 key markets to qualify. Some Academy governors contend that, since several members have connections with Netflix, either through production deals or consultancies, their positions are compromised.
One side effect of all this: Netflix has ignited a new genre of streamer-centric humor — witness the Netflix gibes at the Emmy show or the growing list of facetious articles dealing with its mythic algorithms. The New York Times even ran its satiric report on a Netflix pitch meeting, with one executive shouting, “Jason Bateman?….Pay him $20 million just to sit down. We’ve got to get 5,000 new shows streaming by the next Emmy eligibility cutoff…” A Times writer, Glenn Kenny, described how he intentionally submits one weekend to “Netflix roulette”, letting algorithms channel him from show to show to encourage his binge-watching until he hears his mother yelling, “Go outside and get some fresh air.”
Netflix executives show no signs of wilting under the siege of streamer jokes. They clearly love their ubiquity — and even the confusion it triggers.