Though Netflix had dabbled in feature filmmaking before with its Red Envelope Entertainment arm—which invested in independent films and documentaries like Sherry Baby, Helvetica, and This Film Is Not Yet Rated for its DVD business before shutting down in 2008—it made news this week by signaling its intent to make a bigger splash in the movie business. First came the announcement that the company, presumably so excited about our recent Movie Of The Week coverage of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would be producing a sequel and releasing it to Netflix and IMAX screens simultaneously, bypassing enraged theater owners. Then arrived a second bombshell in the form of a four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who released an official statement, presumably approved by someone older than 10, that he agreed to the deal because “Netflix rhymes with Wet Chicks.”
Today, Gregg Kilday from The Hollywood Reporter has an in-depth interview with Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos explaining the deals, and it’s a fascinating look at how the company’s decision-making is informed by its own data. To wit:
The more global we become, the more access we have to global behavior data so we can see what people are watching all around the world. In our earliest streaming days, we used to have the Sony output deal through Starz. We had almost all of Adam’s movies in the first pay window in the U.S. Today, we continue to have those movies in the first pay window in Canada. And then, through various windows that follow the pay window all the way to the deep catalog, we’ve licensed Adam’s movies in all of our territories. Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.
Sarandos goes on to describe Sandler’s appeal in less algorithmic terms—he’s “physical,” he’s “a highly relatable person on screen”—and his appeal to audiences overseas, and rather amusingly asserts that Netflix anticipates the four movies to be comedies. (Though he hastens to add: “We’d absolutely be very open and thrilled if he wants to take a more serious role in some of the projects and could extend beyond the four films to accommodate some of those films as well.”) Two observations:
• Netflix isn’t shooting from the hip on the Sandler deal. The phrase “global behavior data” leaves all creative considerations aside. That’s not to say that studios haven’t been aggressive in focus testing and polling in making its decisions for many years before Netflix even existed, or that their methods are not sophisticated in figuring out what projects to greenlight. But the level of calculation here is a striking example of how much companies like Netflix understand about its customers and how much that defies a more intuitive approach to making deals and approving projects. Though Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 seems like more of a gamble, given that the original film will be 15 years old by the time the sequel is released, Ang Lee’s martial-arts epic is a great example of the crossover blockbuster, combining East and West in both its production and its release. What’s missing from the Sandler deal is any indiction from either Netflix or Sandler that they give a half damn about the actual content of the movies; phrases like “Netflix rhymes with Wet Chicks” and “global behavior data” are not exactly inspiring.
• Though IMAX will get Crouching Tiger 2 on the same day as it streams on Netflix, Sarandos says of the Sandler movies, “You shouldn’t expect they will be released theatrically at all.” That’s a remarkable development, considering that Netflix intends to spend roughly the same amount of money as studios do on Sandler productions. (Guessing: $50 million for Sandler, $100,000 for production costs.) We saw this disruption years ago when Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner of Magnolia Pictures/HDNet films pioneered day-and-date releasing for movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, much to the chagrin of theater owners. (Cuban and Wagner solved this resistance from arthouses by buying the Landmark Theatres chain.) But the scale of Netflix’s endeavor signals the increasing irrelevance of conventional movie theaters in the distribution schemes of certain movies. Not only are the windows between theatrical release and home video collapsing, but the very notion of what is TV and what is a movie is also becoming blurrier. This is the next step in an ongoing evolution, and I wonder where (or if) it will end.