Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why Is Netflix's Movie Division Currently Failing?

This Friday see's the release of a solidly reviewed sci-fi dramedy from director Charlie McDowell called The Discovery. It stars Jason Segel, Rooney Mara and Robert freaking Redford and follows a few human beings as they cope with the titular discovery that the afterlife truly exists.

You may be wondering why exactly you haven't heard of this movie.

Well, that's because it's a Netflix movie. And it's not the first time a feature film directly from Netflix has basically gone unnoticed by the general public.

Netflix has been in the original movie business for a good long while now, releasing their first documentary all the way back in October 2012 and starting in on the original drama narrative films bandwagon in October 2015 with Beasts Of No Nation. These movies, aside from Beasts Of No Nation, forego theatrical releases entirely and just debut directly onto Netflix streaming. Since they've started getting into the movie business, their overall success in this endeavor has been pretty poor, to put it gently. In terms of awards, they've scooped some Best Documentary Oscar nominations and little else, with their narrative films coming up empty-handed at awards time.

As for people actually watching the movies they produce, it seems like their films come and go in a flash. A great article over at The Digital Bits by Adam Jahnke smartly noted how Netflix's refusal to put their movies on home video means many people just end up not even knowing they exist since a wide variety of customers get their movies from seeing them at retailers, the few rental shops left (like my local Family Video) or the library. To boot, these movies are cemented in people's minds when they come across them in these specific locations by the widespread marketing campaign studios put up for these films in their theatrical run, another element of cinema that Netflix foregoes.

This great essay got me thinking about my own long-boiling frustrations with the way Netflix handles their movies and I've got a couple of other theories for why Netflix's movies have failed to catch on. One of the biggest reasons for their lack of success in this field is marketing, where is the marketing for their movies? Yes, they can't show off trailers theatrically because their movies don't run in movie theaters, but where are the posters they can release online? Where's the social media promotion? How come they have separate Facebook pages for various Netflix TV shows like BoJack Horseman and Orange Is The New Black but not a page dedicated to their film division? You could have someone run a Facebook/Twitter/Instagram page for the Netflix movies division like the A24 social media feeds, which promote A24 movies while engaging with fans and getting the word out on their indie films by way of social media posts that are full of personality and passion.

Netflix seems to be correcting this a little bit recently, such as putting out a trailer for the Will Smith fantasy action movie Bright out during the Oscars ten months before its release, but they still do nothing to promote recent motion pictures like Imperial Dreams (they have a movie starring one of the lead characters of The Force Awakens and gave it absolutely no push) and I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore. Fare arriving very shortly like The Discovery and Sand Castle are also receiving muted marketing approaches that are doing those movies no favors. That's a huge miscalculation on their part, since they seem to think that exact same frugal marketing plan that they've been using for their countless TV is gonna work for their movies.

Problem is, Netflix shows are inherently more of an event and don't necessarily need the promotion. Netflix shows premiere on Fridays, where there isn't much in the way of new TV content on the broadcast networks or cable. Netflix plunking 13 hours of new TV content is obviously gonna dwarf whatever sitcom is airing that same night on the big four broadcast networks regardless of how much or how little marketing they give it. But when it comes to movies, they go from being the big fish in a small pond to being the tiniest fish in a massive pond. When Netflix movies debut on Fridays, they're premiering the same day as about half a dozen movies that are also opening in wide release (which means at least 600 theaters across the nation). Can a new two hour Netflix movie with no competition to give it awareness among the general populace really compete with not just the big blockbusters but even smaller dramas that have gotten at least some promotion like The Zookeeper's Wife or even limited release fare that's been steadily building buzz as it expands across the nation like Personal Shopper?

Even as Netflix ramps up its feature film division by hiring Scott Stuber to run all their motion picture operations as well as the release of movies like Okja, Bright and their likely big award season push for this year Mudbound, it's obvious there's flaws a-plenty in the way they handle their films that have them dwarfed by the competition. Maybe the companies CEO Reed Hastings should spend less time making childish and nonsensical derogatory comments towards movie theaters and work on the way they market and release their movies. As a fan of good cinema, I'm tired of seeing high-quality features they release like The 13th and Blue Jay getting ignored by the general public solely because of how Netflix obviously doesn't know the first thing about properly releasing motion pictures. The company may have forever changed how we consume television but Netflix has a long way to go before its even a notable player in the world of films, let alone someone whose changing the world of cinema.

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