Movies have always been part of Netflix’s corporate DNA. Before reinventing itself as a streaming powerhouse, it was primarily a postal DVD rental company: not so long ago you might have added Men in Black to your Netflix wish list and waited a few days for the Blu-ray to plop through your letterbox. In 2017, the company isn’t posting Will Smith movies, it is making them. The genre-mashing urban fantasy Bright — a $90 million (Dh330.4 million) action thriller directed by Suicide Squad’s David Ayer and starring Smith as a crotchety LA cop partnered with an orc — launches worldwide on December 22.
With its veteran A-list star, splashy marketing campaign and synergistic tie-in soundtrack featuring Migos, Bastille and Snoop Dogg, Bright is perhaps the closest Netflix has come to delivering a movie that has the swaggering imprimatur of a genuine Hollywood blockbuster. But it is just the most high-profile addition to a busy-bee content pipeline that this year has delivered more than 60 movies — Netflix Originals, in its catch-all corporate parlance — that the company has either acquired or commissioned. In 2018, the plan is to increase that number to 80.
Even if you are a well-funded media upstart aggressively playing catch-up to existing conglomerates perched on plump movie back catalogues, aiming to release 80 films in one year seems almost decadent. In 2018, Disney will launch 12 films, including lavish new Marvel and Star Wars instalments. Warner Bros will release around 20. Even Blumhouse, the celebrated production house praised for churning out well-crafted genre hits on frugal budgets, has been averaging only about 10 films a year.
So why the headlong rush into releasing practically two new films a week? As media companies begin to realise there may be more value in ring-fencing their creative property rather than licensing it to third parties, even the world’s pre-eminent streaming service cannot rely long-term on leasing libraries of content from elsewhere. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Netflix execs have grasped the importance of being a vertically integrated company controlling every aspect of manufacturing, refining and distributing their product. They did bring us gripping drug cartel drama Narcos, after all.
When the company moved into making original TV programming in 2012, it could claim to be a genuine disrupter. The double-whammy of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black established a buzzy new model of bingeable TV consumption where entire seasons drop on launch day — a strategy that has since been adopted, for certain projects, by the BBC and Sky. Netflix also elbowed its way into serious TV awards contention in a remarkably short time: this year, it won 20 Emmys out of 92 nominations, second only to HBO .
Yet Hollywood has been more resistant to reward Netflix, essentially because the company has zero interest in the traditional model of theatrical distribution. While it may be supremely convenient for end users, bypassing the big screen entirely and going straight to video-on-demand alongside new episodes of Fuller House has annoyed old hands such as James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, who said that the practice “ diminishes movies “.
By contrast, Amazon’s rather less industrious film division seems to have taken an approach similar to the prestige arm of a major studio: films receive a modest theatrical release followed by a respectful window before being available to stream. So far it has seen them edge the awards wars: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which Amazon acquired at Sundance in 2016, was nominated for six Oscars this year and won two, including best actor.
Other potential rivals are beginning to stir. Disney, the franchise-hoarder currently squatting Smaug-like on Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and more, will launch their own streaming service in 2019. Netflix will require a healthy stockpile and turnover of original content if it wants to encourage its 110 million subscribers in 190 countries to retain their monthly subscription.
The avalanche of Netflix Originals, and the myriad ways in which they have been initiated or acquired, means that there is no such thing as a typical Netflix movie. This year the company brought us everything from Sundance hit I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore to Naked, the broadest of comedy vehicles for Marlon Wayans. It courted cineastes with Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) while putting noses out of joint at Cannes. It whiffed with manga adaptation Death Note but delivered disreputable thrills with taut little Frank Grillo thriller Wheelman. It has also extended its exclusive contract with Adam Sandler for another four projects.
So what is a Netflix movie? It’s whatever is next on a neverending schedule. This week it’s Bright. Sometime in 2019, it will be The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. In the self-mythologising and self-celebratory world of Hollywood, pushing a button to top up a Netflix content grid might lack a little romance. But for everyone else, it may be enough.
Don’t miss it!
Bright begins streaming on Netflix from December 22.