The screeners are arriving with a loud clunk and the Q&A schedule already is stacking up. The awards season has begun, and its noise level may reflect the biggest pop since the Harvey Weinstein incursion some 20 years ago. One reason: Netflix and its fellow streamers have decided that kudos are important to their growth, and the studio establishment isn’t inclined to play dead.
This is underscored by Netflix’s sharply revised release strategy for its Oscar contenders, especially Roma. The stakes are high: A sector of Academy voters has expressed doubt whether Netflix movies should qualify as movies unless they embrace a substantial theatrical window. The upshot: Netflix will now phase in Roma across 20 territories worldwide starting November 21, well before its December 14 release date on Netflix, accompanied by a formidable blast of marketing and promotion aimed at Oscar voters as well as ticket buyers. (Early releases also are scheduled for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs from the Coen Brothers and Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock.)
Netflix and its muscular competitors now understand that the quest for kudos is of ever growing importance to talent as well as audiences. If Netflix had followed its standard policy of opening Roma for only one week (at best) in theaters simultaneous with its opening on Netflix, it might have incurred resistance from Oscar voters. Even now NATO, repping exhibitors, calls the move “a halfway gesture.” Some exhibitors question how widely Roma will resonate with ticket buyers — they point out that it is a subtitled black-and-white movie with a downbeat theme and a soft third act. It is a critics favorite, however, impeccably shot, with a complex Atmos surround sound mix.
The Academy itself has made it clear that it doesn’t intend to dictate release strategy to Netflix, which acquired Roma but did not actually produce it (Participant Media was the producer; its president, David Linde, has fostered several films from Alfonso Cuarón). But Netflix’s ubiquitous presence already has had its impact in other important ways – witness its decision to buy up most of the billboards on Sunset Blvd and other key areas at a cost of tens of millions. Pages of the Sunday New York Times are dominated by ads from Netflix and Amazon; the major studios have all but vacated the space. Ad spending by all streamers (led by Netflix) climbed by almost 50% last summer over the previous year.
To be sure, this is all just the first act of the Theater of Disruption. Disney and Time Warner (which owns HBO) are reinventing their programming and marketing strategies while players like Apple, YouTube and Hulu are pumping big bucks into production. Even Walmart may play its hand. Disney’s streaming strategy, of course, would be powered by Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar in addition to assets acquired from Fox.
Netflix chief Reed Hastings has taken a famously “what, me worry?” attitude, arguing that “we only compete with sleep.”
Inevitably, a few skeptics in the investment community point out that Netflix, to fuel its growth, currently spends much more than it earns (it plans to release some 50 movies this year). Last week it said it would sell another $2 billion in bonds ($8.3 billion in speculative grade debt already adorns its balance sheet, but revenues for the past 12 month totaled $14.9 billion). “The business model seems unsustainable,” declares one finance guru — a theory that produces harrumphs from Netflix.
Some skeptics also claim Amazon Prime’s fast growth may soon hit a ceiling. Source estimate there are 97 million Prime members; Netflix presumably has 137 million subscribers. “The member count for Amazon Prime is reaching saturation in the U.S.,” asserts one Wall Street research firm. Unlike Netflix, Amazon movies often pursue more conventional theatrical windows.
Of course, programmers, not financial gurus, wield the keys to growth and they, in turn, urgently want to lure stars and star directors. The awards season provides a key measure of their achievements but it, too, has changed radically over the years. During Hollywood’s banner days, campaigning for Oscars was relatively benign. Studio employees received polite reminders from their bosses that voters were obliged to remain loyal to studio product.
Rules for campaigning changed sharply under the influence of Harvey’s Hammer. Suddenly movies like Shakespeare In Love were defeating betting favorites like Saving Private Ryan. Stars were hitting the campaign trail with fervor. Starting roughly 20 years ago, the policy of cramming contenders into the final weeks of the voting season became pervasive.
It is no accident that Netflix recently marshaled Lisa Taback and her skilled stable of campaigners to focus on its kudos seasons. Prospective voters in the U.S. and around the world will become abundantly aware of Netflix product and the talent that adorns it. That’s why the screeners are arriving with even a louder clunk this season, and the Q&A ritual will be ever more pervasive.