Netflix, the poster child of streaming services, has had a few setbacks as of late. They used to dominate the world of quality original content—and still continue to produce a number of widely watched, award-winning series such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Stranger Things”— but their competitors have upped their game. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” for example, both premiered last year to critical acclaim and garnered high ratings. Meanwhile, one of Netflix’s most well-known originals, “House of Cards,” has had a major fall from grace after an exposé revealed star Kevin Spacey’s history of abusive and predatory behavior towards young men and teenage boys. Netflix has already lost content to an ever-growing number of competitors, but their biggest competition is still ahead and looming close on the horizon as Disney finalizes plans for its own exclusive streaming service scheduled to debut in 2019. With so many competitors and a growing number of studios and networks choosing to make their content exclusively available on their own streaming services, original content has become more important than ever as a way to keep users.
In spite of increased competition and setbacks, Netflix has had a good deal of success with its original television programming. The company also has high hopes for the future, with famed television producers Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy now on board. The two producers, who have been contracted to work with Netflix and create exclusive content for the platform, have had much success with networks such as Fox and will likely improve Netflix’s original bracket. Even though Netflix excels in this area, however, it severely lacks in another: original films. It is now working towards cracking the code for these larger feature-length productions. Thus far, Netflix has mostly sought distribution rights to alreadymade films in places like the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. However, filmmakers behind the films that are well received at these festivals are often reluctant to make deals with the platform. Netflix has gained something of a reputation for burying or otherwise undermining the potential of would-be award contenders through the relative failures of films such as “Beasts of No Nation.” As such, the streaming platform has come to be known as something of a movie “dumping ground.” According to an article from Variety, Netflix acquired the rights to the recentlyreleased streaming film “The Cloverfield Paradox,” originally titled “God Particle,” from Paramount Pictures for an estimated 50 million dollars. However, this film, along with Natalie Portman’s upcoming science-fiction thriller “Annihilation,” which was acquired in a similar way, underwent messy releases and have not yet proven to be the successes that Netflix was hoping for.
Instead of buying the distribution rights to films that have already been made, Netflix has begun to dabble in in-house productions. The most successful thus far has been “Bright,” a sci-fi fantasy film starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton as a human-orc police duo in an alternate reality of Los Angeles where a wide variety of mythical creatures exist. Directed by David Ayer, the mind behind “Suicide Squad,” one can see how Netflix would believe that “Bright” will be a commercial and critical success due to the big names attached to the film. Netflix understood that giving the production team creative control over the project would not only entice the producers into making the film in Netflix’s name but would also make a film that was actually good. Many films in recent years that have had sufficiently large budgets, strong casts and rich source materials but still flopped at the box office, such as the case of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot, have cited interference from their production studios as a reason for the film’s failure. Differences of opinion between a creative team working on a project and the studio they work for over what will make a movie marketable and successful can often result in films that are disastrously disjointed in plot, theme and tone. Giving creative control to Ayer for “Bright” was important for the project to be able to take off and bring to life the vision that Ayer had in mind. He even enthusiastically announced during a panel for the film, “I was able to do my s*** here… I was able to tell my f****** story… I was able to do my thing.” While the film became one of Netflix’s most streamed programs upon its release last December, it was critically panned. The audience response, based on social media reactions, was more positive.
Through the release of “Bright” and the heavy marketing for the film on behalf of its stars—who underwent countless interviews and social media posts encouraging users to watch it—Netflix stumbled upon a golden ticket. It was able to gather more information on the viewing habits of its users. Through monitoring its viewerships habits, the platform was able to develop a system of profiling the user based on each movie or television show that was viewed on a given account. These profiles have enabled the streaming company to compile user-specific lists of television shows and movies that are most similar to what a user has already watched and liked. This specificity allows Netflix to directly market certain productions to users who would enjoy the show the most and, in turn, increase the number of people watching a specific show. “Bright” was one of the first major films that employed this tactic, and its release helped refine the system into something that could be used on a wider scale to help unite audiences with the films and shows they want to watch, no matter the scale of production. Prior to the release of “Bright”, a version of this system existed. However, it had been implemented on a much smaller scale and had not yet been combined with the social media presence and marketing by the stars of the productions. The creation of better content with more creative freedom for the producers and directors in combination with the new user-specific marketing strategy has created a formula that could help their original film department.
Netflix’s ultimate goal is to secure deals in which productions can be debuted in theaters and streamed at the same time as confirmed in a letter to shareholders published through an article on Fortune wherein Netflix mentions, “…our members are funding these films, they should be the first to see them…”. However, this goal is far off for the company. The most successful filmmakers strongly prefer their work to be seen on the big screen through a traditional theatrical release and are strongly opposed to compromising. For example, Christopher Nolan, the award-winning director of “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” stated that, “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” and referred to Netflix’s goal as “this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released.” For Netflix to able to debut films in theaters and through online streaming would require a massive overhaul in the way that productions are released, which would be changing the decades-old processes and norms for the film industry. Although Netflix still hangs onto the edge of obsoletion in the eyes of increased competition from other streaming platforms its discovery of a user-specific marketing scheme and its recent policy of allowing more creative control to rest in the hands of the production team, it might have just found a way to get back in the game.