Is a ‘Netflix effect’ killing prestige films?
By Steven Zeitchik
Nov 29 2018
Netflix may be great for independent-minded filmmakers.
But it’s bad for a lot of the companies that produce independent films — and maybe the film business as a whole.
At least that’s the argument quietly being advanced by executives in parts of the movie industry — specifically the parts that produce and distribute the upscale independent movies that seize the public imagination this time of the year.
These executives are looking at some tough box-office numbers for their movies and pointing the finger at Netflix, which for the first time this year has dived into a prestige-film pool at which it once only sunbathed. The subject was on the mind of many industry leaders at the New York-based Gotham Awards earlier this week (where Netflix films were very much in contention). One even had a word for it: the “Netflix Effect.” As in, “it’s really difficult to open movies because of the Netflix Effect.”
Netflix, as your queue might already tell you, is going hard on the prestige-film business this year. That business is characterized by movies of a more distinguished pedigree, which come out in the fourth quarter in the hope of landing awards and critical attention, and thus eyeballs. (For the purpose of this story we’re counting such films from both independent firms such as A24 and studio specialty divisions such as Fox Searchlight, but not the big studios, which operate at a different budget level and barely make these movies anymore anyway).
In past years, Netflix had one or two such titles: “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “Mudbound,” “Beasts of No Nation.” But this year, the streamer is really going for it, financing, producing, distributing, campaigning for or otherwise getting involved with some of the most decorated filmmakers around. It has hired a large staff, including one of the most respected award consultants around.
The company has already released five such films this quarter, including Tamara Jenkins’s fertility dramedy “Private Life” and Paul Greengrass’s far-right thriller “22 July,” with Alfonso Cuaron’s awards front-runner “Roma” still to come. And that’s yielding what rival executives say is a certain effect.
The hypothesis is basically this: Because Netflix is now releasing these kinds of movies and then making them available to us in the convenience of our homes, it’s deterring us from doing what we’ve long done, which is come out and pay for similar movies in theaters.
Essentially, it’s a cannibalization argument. Netflix may be nobly investing in these movies. Greengrass, who also made “Captain Phillips” and “United 93” but switched to Netflix for his latest work, said at the Gothams that Netflix is showing “tremendous support of difficult films.” But the availability of these kinds of films at home helps ensure that people don’t want to leave it.
It’s as though everybody is a press person with access to their own online screening room. And we know how often those freeloaders pay for movie tickets.
(It should be noted that Netflix is releasing a few of these movies in theaters. But don’t be fooled by the headlines — the releases are of very limited scope. The company continues to hold to a principle that films should be on its service before or at the same time as theaters, a proposition most theater chains resist.)
If the argument of a Netflix effect is true, it would give the lie to the idea, put forth by the streamer and its filmmakers, that it is adding to and enhancing the market. In fact, it would make the opposite case: that these films could push the companies that have been making these movies for years to the economic brink.
The question is, is the contention really accurate? Are people less likely to come out to new upscale movies because titles of similar quality are suddenly available on Netflix?