“I’ll wait for Netflix.”
They’re just four simple words, yet they have undoubtedly changed the course of cinema. They keep people from going to the theater. They keep people from dropping a minuscule rental fee on a VOD service. They keep people from picking up a Blu-ray at a superstore. And like it or not, those words aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
In changing the game, Netflix has also become somewhat of a cultural guinea pig for society-at-large, facing a consumer marketplace dynamic unlike anything before it. By marrying the aesthetics of cinema and home television, Netflix is attempting to curate a diverse content slate but with higher expectations than that of the conventional television network. In trying to check all its boxes, Netflix’s “on-demand” mentality provides near endless options for both the “Average Joe” as well as the vocal cinephile. By doing so, Netflix has put itself in a curious situation, one in which the approach to marketing, distribution and audience appeal seems to be perpetually in flux.
For instance, take the film Spectral, a sci-fi/horror/action hybrid produced by Legendary Pictures, the studio behind Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the upcoming Kong: Skull Island and Warcraft. Originally, Spectral was going to get a major theatrical push from Universal Pictures, with the studio seeing the potential of District 9 or Battle: Los Angeles from the innovative war flick, which pits soldiers against deadly supernatural forces. However, two months before its August release date, Universal pulled Spectral from its calendar, engaging with new distributors as they lost faith in a traditional theatrical run.
By November, Netflix acquired worldwide distribution rights for Spectral, buying the film outright from Universal as an exclusive feature film release for the streaming platform. Less than a month after the acquisition announcement, Netflix released the film, unveiling the trailer only a week beforehand. Less than a year after Spectral was unleashed for the world to see, the film has all but been forgotten, dropping out of the zeitgeist as the platform continues to release more and more original content. That’s not to say Spectral would have been especially relevant now had the film stuck to its theatrical release plans, but at least it’d be a part of a more lasting cultural conversation and not one of the minuscule lifespans of Netflix originals.
It’s an open secret in the entertainment industry that Netflix and similar streaming services have greatly devalued the film marketplace, attempting to provide more and more to satiate viewers whose viewing habits continue to grow. Entire television series can be watched, discussed and forgotten over a two-week period, while movies are added at such a rapid pace that it’ll likely be replaced on your home page within a week. In fact, the Netflix digital algorithm often time will hide films from your sight if they don’t match your viewing profile, which is certainly not conducive to finding new and fresh perspectives in the cinematic marketplace.
The latter point is an especially fascinating element to Netflix’s library, especially considering that most of their releases are outside-the-box content, for better or for worse. Of course, there are ways that Netflix will get you to watch these movies sight unseen, from generic or star-focused key art (condensing the impact of a full poster) to intentionally reductive or confusing loglines, to pairing the film with recommendations of more palatable films. I’m sure those who tuned into Spectral may have been surprised that it was nothing like London Has Fallen or Captain America: Civil War. But at the same time, there’s a weird backward logic to how it applies to Netflix’s originals, as if those who are persistently exposed to Adam Sandler’s Netflix productions will somehow be open to David Brent: Life on the Road or Christopher Guest’s Mascots.
But as strange as the whole system may be, there are some very real repercussions at play with these films that posit a dangerous ripple effect for the industry. For instance, let’s look at Osgood Perkins’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a slow-burn, dread-inducing ghost story that has more in common with Bergman’s Persona than Paranormal Activity. If you’re a horror fan, you likely know enough about the project, as well as the buzz around Perkins’ previous film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, to level your expectations correctly. But for the average moviegoer with a Netflix subscription, they may look at the key art or the synopsis for Pretty Thing and assume that it’s along the lines of supernatural crowd pleasers like, say, The Conjuring or Insidious.
While, theoretically speaking, this may not seem like a huge deal, this marketing strategy is one can that potentially ruin a filmmaker’s career. With the instant gratification culture surrounding streaming, those who are frustrated or disappointed that Pretty Thing or Mike Flanagan’s Hush aren’t like The Conjuring or The Strangers can let it be known on to scores of friends and family on social media or message boards. Though that reaction could have been more isolated in a pre-internet, theatrically-driven film culture, any project that features that filmmaker’s name or the film title on its marketing material can be instantly written off by scores of Netflix subscribers, turning a passion project into a scarlet letter.
In part, this might be because Netflix has a gallery mindset towards its content rather than individually nurturing and planning each new project. It may be naive to think Netflix certainly doesn’t have expectations towards original content, especially its series, but the company also has to keep its consumer base satisfied with cult classics, new releases and independent titles. But considering its financial model, Netflix could certainly continue even if only a fraction of its audience watched original content, as opposed to a theatrical release where—thanks to the rising price of advertising and distribution—the stakes of success are much higher.
Additionally, Netflix has proven itself to be extremely selective of their marketing pushes, which is to be expected considering the streaming service has eschewed the traditional ad-based revenue streams. In some cases, Netflix will go all-out for a project that has potential to capture the zeitgeist, as evident from their excellent Superbowl trailer for Stranger Things, while recent releases like Girlfriend’s Day, Clinical, Imperial Dreams and The Fundamentals of Caring are given little to no promotional push outside of Netflix’s presence on social media or automated app notifications. While it makes sense that Netflix would hype its Marvel TV properties, Black Mirror, or Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, the service seems perfectly fine to let audiences find their content based on word-of-mouth recommendations or their aforementioned algorithm. Untraditional as it may be, it certainly works; the money Netflix spares on advertising puts the service at an advantage over other distributors and studios as it has more operating income to produce and acquire films and television series.
Even with the service’s seeming laissez-faire approach to promoting its original works, Netflix does have a fascinating desire to be known as a prestigious, tastemaking studio, a label threatened by a saturated content stream. Whether it be major documentaries like Ava DuVerney’s 13th, experimental comedy series like Lady Dynamite or prolific streaming acquisitions for titles like The Bad Batch and Mudbound, Netflix wants to be seen more as a classically-minded production entity, well-rounded and cognizant of competing for the same awards as Paramount and Fox. And as the company takes bigger and bigger gambles, such as their $90 million Will Smith-starring fantasy cop film Bright or the $60 million Brad Pitt-vehicle War Machine, Netflix is attempting to steer its ship away from the guilty pleasures of reality television or low-brow comedy.
At this point, Netflix can continue to re-brand itself, regardless of consequence to contributors and production entities, because the streaming entity has the upper hand in the industry. With theatrical windows closing tighter and tighter and VOD still working out how to properly combat piracy, Netflix has exercised an unprecedented degree of freedom to massive success. By being cheaper and more productive than the competition, Netflix has seen audience growth around the globe, giving its titles—original or otherwise—worldwide exposure at a fraction of the cost of a major movie studio. Hell, at this point, manufacturer’s make Netflix a priority on Smart TVs, smartphones, gaming consoles and tablets; even cable companies have been in talks with adding a Netflix “channel” to listings.
But just because Netflix is the biggest, that doesn’t mean it’s the best. There’s still something to be said about Netflix staying in the Happy Madison business while Amazon racks up awards for Manchester By The Sea, or the growing frustration among filmmakers that their movie can be seen by millions worldwide and yet they still cannot make a full-time career from their craft. In the future, it wouldn’t surprise this writer if Netflix starts to focus more on personal responsibility towards its output, whether it be embracing their schizophrenic nature as home to art house cinema and Ancient Aliens or adding a greater human element to balance out its algorithm-based mismatches. At the same time, Netflix’s strategies have taken the company to unforeseen heights, so for now, the company will keep the gears moving as is, even if all normal marketing techniques and audience interaction methods continue to come crashing down.