Peter Bart: Netflix’s Festival Blitz Hints It Will Challenge Indies’ Awards-Season Turf

The Irishman Marriage Story The Two Popes

The advent of festival season, with its raves and rebukes, usually prompts a cautious optimism in the indie world; there’s action out there, perhaps even at the box office. This would be welcome this year, following a 6% drop in overall box office and a 45% plummet in the specialty sector so far in 2019.

However, a very different kind of “indie” is stealing much of the fest spotlight this year. In signing deals with Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, Ron Howard, Dee Rees, Steven Soderbergh and Guillermo del Toro, plus stars ranging from Meryl Streep to Adam Sandler, Netflix has ensured itself a major role in award season.

Buried in Netflix’s dizzying list of some 55 movies greenlit by Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber are several films that already seem implanted on “must see” lists – The Irishman and Marriage Story, for example. Never before has a single production entity accounted for such a massive detonation of product. What impact will this giant of the small screen have on the big screen?

Fifty years ago, the Hollywood studios were up in arms because the small screen had effectively confiscated 40% of its ticket buyers. Even Euro-centric film mavens were empathetic: the Venice Film Festival in 1974 bestowed Golden Lion awards on Charlie Chaplin and John Ford as a morbid display of pity for their fallen comrades in Hollywood.

Hollywood managed to pull a levitation act by the ’70s, finding a new audience for its re-imagined product. But now comes the Newest Reality: How widely will Netflix features play in theaters and on what terms? How many windows will Netflix be shattering and how many awards will it appropriate? The Motion Picture Academy, of course, has rumbled about awards criteria, but it can’t even figure a strategy for opening its new museum, no less taking on the streaming aggressors.

As analyst Jeff Greenfield puts it, “Netflix is in the subscriber happiness business.” Netflix stock sustained a 12% decline a month ago in response to a modest dip in domestic subscribers. Netflix quickly pointed out that its market share topped 87% in the U.S. and that it was expanding its overseas growth, even in kid shows.

While reeling from the Netflix product surge, Hollywood is also bewildered by Netflix’s marketing and awards strategy. “We put our product out there but we don’t try to trick anyone into seeing it,” as one Netflix strategist puts it. Translation: While the studios won’t greenlight a project unless its “sell” is clearly articulated, Netflix projects may sail forth without a “one-liner” or hot trailer.

Moreover, filmmakers at Netflix usually have no idea which executive, or executive committee, will endorse their print or social media campaigns. To all appearances, Lisa Taback, a marketing maven who oversees awards strategy, also sets the table on which films are slated for Oscar and Golden Globes pushes.

Nine films seem destined for major campaigns this fall including The Irishman, Marriage Story and The Two Popes, the latter a Vatican drama directed by Fernando Meirelles. Marriage Story opens theatrically November 6 and begins streaming December 6, while Two Popes opens November 27 and streams on December 20. The biggest push, to be sure, will be behind Scorsese’s $180 million opus The Irishman. It’s still unknown how many independent theaters will play the movie, or for how long.

But, further, no one knows, or may ever know, how many people will see it on Netflix or even in theaters. From the Netflix point of view, the mystery seems to be part of the magic. And for the indies, any jump in their numbers will be magic, even if it entails a partial surrender of their treasured fest turf.

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