Don’t Look Now, But Netflix Just Became a Traditional Studio
Netflix isn’t resting on its laurels in the wake of its first theatrical film release for Beasts Of No Nation. Yesterday, multiple outlets reported that the company would be ponying up $50 million to finance Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-Ho’s next film, Okja, with Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner’s Plan B co-producing.
It’s a relatively huge investment for Netflix, given that it’s for a single work rather than a multi-episode series. That’s not to say that the company has an aversion to spending money—they reportedly shelled out $100 million over the first two seasons) to get its first flagship original series, House Of Cards—or to spending it on film. In the past, Netflix has acquired exclusive streaming rights for several documentaries and indie films, and earlier this year signed multi-film partnerships with both the Duplass brothers and Adam Sandler’s production company for direct-to-streaming features. But this deal marks the next step in Netflix’s transition from a streaming library to a traditional, if cloud-based, studio.
Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation, the company’s first original theatrical film acquisition, barely made a dent in theaters—but Netflix bucked its usual policy of never commenting on viewership numbers to tout that the film had already been viewed three million times on the service. Meanwhile, Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer was a relative winner in both theaters and VOD: it wound up with a respectable $86 million worldwide box-office gross, and in the U.S. made more money in its first two weeks on VOD than it did from five weeks in theaters. Okja would seem to be a perfect opportunity for Netflix to ante up: even if it’s unlikely to have a hugely successful run in theaters, the company’s subscriber audience is hungry for more genre fare.
But this is different from the Beasts play for one fundamental reason: it’s not film acquisition, it’s film production. Netflix is (co-)commissioning a specific project, and thus has a heavy financial stake in the success of Okja, which will star Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Paul Dano.
With a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel and The Weinstein Company’s Marco Polo on Netflix’s release slate for next year, this isn’t the company’s first play with Asian markets in mind, but it’s the largest. “The moment that they began making their own films they had to recognize that they were without many opportunities to pursue international business,” says Alvin Lieberman, executive director of the Entertainment, Media, and Technology Initiative at NYU’s Stern School of Business. After all, most major film studios now make more money from international markets than the United States, and have adjusted the development process to accommodate that change.
There’s no word yet on whether Netflix will attempt to mount a similar limited theatrical release for Okja like it did with Beasts Of No Nation. But unlike the $12 million Netflix paid for the rights to Beasts, writing a $50 million check for an internationally recognized director of hit films like Bong Joon-ho tells everyone else that they’re not afraid to try again. (And with news today that Snowpiercer has been optioned for a TV adaptation, Bong’s profile has never been higher in the U.S.)
Of course, this is just one step. “Think of Netflix as a smallish production company with big budgets,” Lieberman says. “They’ve got the cash, but they’re not funding many films. The most they’ve funded is a few in a year. They may ratchet that up, but if they make a couple of losers—and there are people who question why they gave Sandler a four-film deal—it could come and bite them.” Then again, as Netflix chair Ted Sarandos said earlier this year after Pixels flopped at the box office, “we did our deal with Adam Sandler because he is an enormous international movie star.” As long as you can put people in the seats overseas, keeping them on the couch in the States might not be so bad.
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