Netflix is making more films than other studios - and it wants Oscars

LOS ANGELES • Netflix has been making its own movies for years, but last year may be remembered as the time it truly became a film studio.

The company began last year by joining the Motion Picture Association of America, the Hollywood trade group that represents movie studios.

It went on to release nearly 60 English-language feature films over the course of last year, including Oscar contenders The Irishman and Marriage Story.

With a slate that includes its first animated feature Klaus, a Michael Bay action thriller and comedies such as Eddie Murphy's Dolemite Is My Name, Netflix has doubled or even tripled the output of Hollywood's biggest studios.

And, for the first time, the company's top executives are saying that movies will determine whether Netflix hits its financial targets last year.

"This fall was a nice culmination," Mr Scott Stuber, Netflix's film chief, said in an interview. "I'm very proud of this slate. I can look you in the eye and say we've made as good movies this fall as anybody."

Mr Stuber, 51, joined Netflix in 2017 after more than two decades working in the film business - first as an executive and then a producer.

Chief content officer Ted Sarandos asked Mr Stuber to build a movie studio from scratch, one that would rival any in Hollywood.

At the time, Netflix had released only a couple dozen original movies, most of them forgettable - such as the 2016 sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Adam Sandler's comedy western The Ridiculous 6 (2015). The company had to fill its slate with projects that had been cast aside by other studios.

Netflix's one movie that delighted critics, war drama Beasts Of No Nation (2015), earned no nominations at the 2016 Academy Awards - an outcome that many experts interpreted as a rebuke of the streaming company. It had resisted demands to release its movies in theatres before they appear on its service, angering cinephiles and movietheatre owners.

"It was a company built on television - that was first and foremost," said Mr Stuber.

In the 21/2 years since he took the job, Netflix has morphed into the largest movie studio in Hollywood, at least in terms of volume.

The company plans to release 50 to 60 films a year, and that does not include projects born out of other divisions, such as El Camino (2019), a spin-off movie from the TV show Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013).

The company has scored both critical and commercial hits. Bird Box (2018) and Murder Mystery (2019) were viewed by more than 70 million people apiece in their first month on the service, according to the company. Triple Frontier (2019) and The Highwaymen (2019) both eclipsed 40 million viewers. Six of the 10 most-watched new titles on the service in the United States last year were original films.

Still, it is hard to measure Netflix's success. The company is selective in what viewer information it releases and there is no reliable third-party data source. So, it is all but impossible to verify how any one Netflix project has fared.

Two facts seem clear, though. First, Netflix found a sweet spot making the kinds of movies other studios have abandoned: adult dramas, romantic comedies and action movies without superheroes.

Rom-coms such as To All The Boys I've Loved Before (2018) and Always Be My Maybe (2019) do not have the global appeal of The Avengers (2012), but they are infinitely rewatchable at home.

Second, the industry no longer views Netflix as an outsider. Filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach - all staunch defenders of classic cinema - have turned to Netflix to get their movies made.

And the voters for the Academy Awards have come around, nominating Netflix for 15 Oscars last year, including its first for best picture, best director, best actress and best screenplay. The company did not win the best-picture statuette, but took home its first prizes for something other than a documentary.

That could be as soon as this year. Netflix has two of the five movies with the best odds, according to Gold Derby, a site devoted to predicting entertainment awards. They include the current front-runner, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. The nominations will be announced on Jan 13.

The only group that has not yet embraced Netflix is theatre owners.

Though Netflix has relaxed its policy on theatres - allowing movies to appear on the big screen for as long as a month before they migrate to the streaming service - it has not appeased the world's largest cinema chains. They still refuse to show the service's movies.

But many movie studios, including Warner Bros and Universal Pictures, want to get their movies online sooner, too.

And many companies, including Walt Disney, are making movies that will not appear in theatres at all.

"It's not a Netflix-versus-theatre thing," Mr Stuber said. "The entire film business has to figure out the right distribution model that helps everyone."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2020, with the headline 'Netflix is making more films than other studios - and it wants Oscars'. Print Edition | Subscribe