Oscar intrigues notwithstanding, the urgent news in Hollywood is that green lights are flashing as the majors line up their new streaming bets. One problem: The creative community cannot quite figure out what that portends.
Not that long ago, new projects were aimed either at features or television, but today’s buyers have become a blur — the MPAA has even welcomed Netflix. As the players change, so do the slates: The majors decided a few years ago to abandon mid-budget filmed dramas and comedies and focus resources on tentpoles, but now those genre are welcome again in other formats.
Every mega-company has decided it can compete with Netflix, balancing library content with original programming, so the streaming platforms instantly have become crowded destinations for ideas once doomed. The Oscar nominations vividly demonstrate the impact of Netflix’s radical bets, but will new production schedules reflect an appetite for new directions (back to the ‘70s?) or will Hollywood again become reboot city?
Consider the announcements: Comcast last week promised that its new NBCUniversal ad-supported platform will be “robust” (a favorite word in the streaming business), its foray coming on the heels of initiatives (in some ways more ambitious) from WarnerMedia and Disney+. Meanwhile, Amazon insiders report formation of new strategies, and new units (including an eight-picture streamer deal with the Blumhouse horror factory). Smaller entities like CBS Films promise to re-invent themselves focusing now on streaming content. And along comes the new Endeavor Streaming unit emerging from the William Morris catacombs, adding an array of projected sports services. This week, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish announced the $340 million acquisition of Pluto TV “as an opportunity to create product at a broad range of price points, including free.”
The numbers are formidable: By one estimate Disney and Comcast together will spend $43 billion on content this year, accounting for two of every 10 dollars globally. How will Netflix respond to all this? “You’ll see us ramping up more than ever,” Ted Sarandos, chief content officer, assures us.
Although subscriber growth (up 8.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2018) now stems principally from overseas, Netflix is raising subscriber fees by 18% on its most popular plan and pledges to further boost production of films and TV shows. It has even decided to release its viewership numbers — “sharing cultural metrics,” in the words of Sarandos. Bird Box was viewed by 80 million households, the series Sex Education by 40 million.
While consumers will be paying more for their entertainment fare, exactly what will they be getting? Will a substantial portion of the new films, for example, represent a return to the sort of made-for-TV genre of a generation ago?
Disney+ has been reasonably transparent about its emerging production slate, which is being filled in part by Sean Bailey, whose prior responsibilities focused on film genres that the studio has since shelved. On first scrutiny, the overall slate, overseen by Ricky Strauss, would seem to cling to a mix of mainstream product and offshoots of tentpole fare. Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise is being “re-imagined” for Disney+. Some titles like Timmy Failure, with Craig Robinson, or Noelle, with Anna Kendrick, or a reworking of Lady and the Tramp on the surface seem like solid Disney fare. On the other hand, big bucks are being allocated for The Mandalorian, with Jon Favreau presiding over the live-action Star Wars series. Disney+ film development is carefully shaped to include more female directors like Julia Hart (Stargirl) and diverse casting.
Removed from the theatrical melee, Bailey’s team doesn’t have to come up with the magic campaign aimed at capturing opening weekends. Talk to the top marketing minds in the streamer business and they acknowledge they are still struggling to discover what elements will “open” their projects, even what criteria will spell “hit.” “Our first big question is how to focus resources,” observes one Netflix executive. “Which project merits the trailer and the billboards? Do you go by gut or algorithms?”
Netflix is still assimilating the success of Bird Box — its star in Sandra Bullock, the former Miss Congeniality, locked in a post-apocalyptic horror plot (kids are driving blindfolded around the world.) What did its success prove? That the brave new world of streamers needs brave new ideas fortified by brave new memes and algorithms. It remains to be seen who is going to interpret that conclusion to the creative community.