‘Netflix Thinks Exactly Like an Old Movie Studio’

In a year of falling subscriber numbers and shaky stock prices, the streaming service is doubling down on expensive, risky blockbusters.

The Netflix logo in a life buoy
The Atlantic

The past few months haven’t been kind to Netflix, at least according to the news. The company’s stock price plunged amid news of lost subscribers; it has had mass layoffs; and after years of growth and rosy predictions, its domination of the streaming world no longer seems a given. Such a fragile moment might feel like an odd time to double down on making expensive blockbusters. But that’s exactly what Netflix is doing.

Since 2015, the streamer has become a reliable producer of original films that have permeated the culture: Don’t Look Up, Bird Box, Eurovision Song Contest, Roma, and Marriage Story, to name a few. It has attracted top-tier directors such as Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and Jane Campion. And it has amassed dozens of Oscar nominations. But these films seemed most interested in filling the gaps left by Hollywood’s major legacy studios, which had begun focusing on franchises with global box-office appeal. Netflix churned out rom-coms and grown-up dramas, as well as passion projects from famous directors who were having difficulty getting them made elsewhere. Although those films haven’t disappeared from the streamer’s offerings, lately you may have noticed that your carousel is full of expensive-looking original movies starring A-list actors and promising big-screen action in your living room.

Last year had the spy caper Red Notice, starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot, as well as Zack Snyder’s zombie thriller Army of the Dead; this year, the sci-fi family film The Adam Project entered Netflix’s most-watched rankings. Last month, a Hollywood Reporter story described the company’s new direction: fewer movies, on a larger scale, with a lot more quality control. It’s a fascinating pivot. Netflix thrived in recent years by giving viewers the sorts of movies that traditional studios were ignoring; now it’s seemingly trying to beat old Hollywood at its own game by having the biggest hits possible.

But where legacy studios frequently rely on sequels, remakes, or reboots—see the billion-dollar grosses currently being collected by theatrical releases such as Top Gun: Maverick—Netflix purports to be the place for newer, lesser-known franchises that are still aimed at a wide audience. For example, a few films you can expect to see on your homepage this year are the Ryan Gosling action thriller The Gray Man (directed by the Russo brothers); Slumberland, an adaptation of the Little Nemo comics character, starring Jason Momoa (directed by Francis Lawrence); and The School for Good and Evil, the Paul Feig–directed first entry of a young-adult fantasy series based on best-selling books.

Netflix’s approach is in part because the streaming service just doesn’t own the intellectual property that studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. do. “Yeah, I would love to have some of those [other studios’] titles,” Ori Marmur, a vice president of original studio films at Netflix, told me. “But conversely, it’s exciting that we can say to filmmakers, ‘You can make the first installment of a franchise, instead of breathing life into something that’s already existed.’”

Creating totally new movie franchises is becoming something of a lost art. Though the box office is rebounding impressively after two COVID-impacted years, the five biggest hits of 2022 so far are all sequels (save The Batman, which is essentially a reboot). “Think about E.T., Indiana Jones, Top Gun, Back to the Future. Those movies weren’t based on anything,” Marmur said. “You walk into a studio today, they’d say, ‘Okay, that’s great. But we want to remake this instead.’”

Marmur has been working in the film industry since the ’90s, but over time grew weary of studios only wanting “the lowest-hanging fruit” and balking at the notion of making anything original. Before he worked at Netflix, he’d struck upon an idea with massive name recognition that didn’t require any complicated rights negotiations: an action thriller called Escape Room. “It was free IP, because escape rooms are really well known,” he told me. “And I was met with, ‘Okay, great. Whatever you think this will cost, it has to cost less. And [to film it,] you can either go to Serbia or you can go to Cape Town.’” He picked Cape Town, and while producing the movie an ocean away from his family, Marmur got a phone call from Scott Stuber, Netflix’s head of global film, which eventually led him to join the company and focus on blockbusters.

One of the filmmakers who has since worked with Netflix is Slumberland’s Lawrence, who made three Hunger Games movies and is set to direct a prequel within that franchise. In between, he directed 2018’s Red Sparrow, a spy thriller starring the Hunger Games actor Jennifer Lawrence. (It was a critical and commercial disappointment, but I counted myself a fan, partly because the movie stood out from the repetitive superhero slog.) Since then it’s become even more difficult to push that kind of challenging, slow-burning, R-rated material onto the theatrical landscape. “I would never in a million years think that a studio would make Red Sparrow” now, Francis Lawrence told me, though the film came out only four years ago.

That’s likely one reason Netflix’s huge platform has become more and more appealing to these established big-budget filmmakers. Sure, a Netflix movie won’t get a wide release in theaters, but at least the company will take a chance on an expensive project that many legacy studios won’t. “You know, I’m not positive that a movie like When Harry Met Sally would work theatrically anymore. It’s, like, a great romantic comedy. But is it big-screen worthy now in 2022?” Lawrence pondered. That line of thinking seems pervasive in Hollywood, where romantic comedies are rarely pushed out in cinemas anymore but are a cornerstone of many streaming libraries. Yet the filmmakers I talked with for this story were mainly concerned with simply being able to make their movie, regardless of where it screened. “[With any of my films], I just want people to see it and to connect to it,” Lawrence said. “That’s the reason that I honestly don’t mind doing a movie for Netflix versus a traditional theatrical studio. Because ideally, you’re still getting into people’s lives.”

Feig, who has made sci-fi blockbusters (Ghostbusters) and action comedies (Spy), but also smaller-scale dramedies such as A Simple Favor and Last Christmas, did not see working for Netflix as an acknowledgment that the theatrical experience was in trouble. “I’ve heard my whole career … ‘Oh, the theater movie is going away.’ It’s not going to happen. Everybody wants a group experience. And every time we’re proven right because look, they’re all flocking to theaters now,” Feig told me. “I think the one difference [about making a movie for Netflix that] we’re all hyperaware of is when you do a movie in the theater, you’ve got them for at least 20 minutes.” In other words, hitting the “Stop” button on a Netflix movie is a lot easier to do than getting up and leaving a screening early. But Netflix seems to be gambling that viewers will stick around longer with a film that feels like an event.

Part of what makes a blockbuster attention-worthy, however, is its popularity: Success begets more success. Netflix has to deal with the awkwardness of conveying the popularity of its films in the absence of ticket-sale numbers. “For several years they were famously judging viewership by starters, as they called them, people who watched a minimum of [a certain number of] minutes,” Shawn Levy, the director of The Adam Project and a producer of Stranger Things, told me. “That was a dubious metric, I think we’d all agree. And in the last year, they switched to run-time minutes viewed, which is a better metric, but imperfect in different ways.”

Netflix’s overarching goal is clearly to make huge movies that become part of the zeitgeist—not just arty movies that win awards but the kind that future adults will remember from their childhood. Levy touted some of The Adam Project’s big numbers—it’s already the fourth-most-watched film on Netflix ever, despite having only come out in March, and “over 30 percent of the people who watched it have already rewatched it,” he told me. “My goal for Adam Project was more than a data-point success. I wanted to feel this movie penetrating the culture.” Is The Adam Project part of the zeitgeist? How would we even go about measuring its influence?

One of Netflix’s biggest problems is that its original programming has lost novelty from the company’s early days. The streaming service is one of the biggest in the world (though subscription numbers seem to have passed their peak) but functions as a sort of public utility: Everyone has to use it to attain a baseline cultural literacy, but its offerings don’t always feel special. Making star-driven blockbusters could help new Netflix releases feel like an event again, the kind of branding HBO Max and Apple TV+ are trying to give to their own titles. “Look at Jordan Peele. Jordan Peele’s movies are events, and they don’t cost that much,” Feig told me. “And that’s what you want. Where people are like, ‘Oh my God, I have got to see that’ … Netflix thinks exactly like an old movie studio. They want hits.”

Marmur doesn’t deny that Netflix shares part of traditional Hollywood’s mentality; he just thinks the environment he’s nurturing is a little different. “There are a lot of obstacles that used to give me a lot of anxiety as a producer. The notion that if the film didn’t post big enough numbers in the first three days, maybe it’s perceived as a failure,” he said. The Netflix approach to blockbusters is different: Each new release doesn’t require a massive opening weekend for the company to be viable, even though high viewership numbers seem highly valued by the organization.

Name-brand actors and high-concept plots have driven Hollywood success for generations, so why shouldn’t that work for Netflix? Chief content officer and co-CEO Ted Sarandos touted Red Notice and The Adam Project on a recent earnings call, along with future blockbusters such as The Gray Man and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel, titled Glass Onion. But these titles don’t yet have the instant name recognition of, say, a Marvel franchise. The counterargument, of course, is that those kinds of projects also would have realized their potential on a big screen. Even if Red Notice pulled in viewers for Netflix, it felt deeply unmemorable on my TV. Older studios are facing the same dilemma from an opposite angle, trying to strike a balance between drawing people to theaters and keeping them interested in the many streaming services that they own (Hulu, Peacock, Disney+, and so on).

“Other places are hamstrung because they’re run by companies where movies are not their core business,” Marmur said, referring to Big Tech companies with streaming services, such as Amazon or Apple. Film and TV “is our core business. This is all we do. We don’t sell any other thing.” At Netflix, blockbusters are becoming a pillar of the company. They are one of the most important ways to dominate the zeitgeist in a world full of streaming services. The next few years will be the biggest test of whether that pillar can hold.