Imagine a movie about the Eurovision Song Contest, telling the story of two musicians who get a chance to represent their country. Then imagine it stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, with appearances from Pierce Brosnan and Demi Lovato.
Although all these elements together seem like a random roll of the filmmaking dice, Eurovision is one of a number of films that Netflix is planning to release in 2020. A series of synopses of these films were released on Twitter, with A-list casts and plots that are so bizarre they sound like they would never have been commissioned if it weren’t for the streaming service: Charlize Theron plays an immortal mercenary; Mark Wahlberg’s ex-cop teams up with a convict-turned-MMA fighter to solve crimes; a group of siblings embark on a “high-flying adventure to find the true meaning of family”.
Viewers are gobbling up content on Netflix faster than it can be released. With users spending a billion hours watching the service weekly, a lot is needed to keep them satisfied. The sneak peek at what users have to look forward to this year shows that Netflix is up for making films that traditional companies probably wouldn’t touch. Streaming services, with their deep pockets and need for new films, are making riskier choices with their commissions – there’s never been a better time to turn your terrible movie idea into a reality.
In 2019, Netflix released 73 new films, not including documentaries – up from the 18 it released in 2016, its first full year of making original content. For movie studios, releasing so many films in quick succession would be suicidal. It would provide an overall boost in turnover, but it would also effectively shorten the time each release has to make an impact.
Fewer releases are just one of the reasons traditional studios are tied in to a model that doesn’t allow them to take risks. It’s vitally important that movies make a splash in the first weekend of release – which is key to making a profit through box office sales.
If a movie doesn’t do well in the first weekend, cinemas will pull it from the screens to make room for others. This makes it risky for studios when deciding what films to make, and means they gravitate towards the ones they know will do well because they follow current trends. “The studios are de-risking,” says Tom Harrington, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis. “That’s why everything is a sequel now. Everything is basically a superhero movie.”
Netflix hasn’t bothered with getting involved in making superhero movies, as it doesn’t need to care about the box office. Its customers don’t need to go to the cinema – they can watch Netflix Originals from their beds.
Instead, gaining and keeping members across the world who pay their membership fees is at the top of Netflix’s list of priorities. Growth in the US has plateaued, Harrington says, so Netflix needs to expand in other areas. With 44 countries in Europe, it’s a huge market for Netflix to gobble up. That’s why a film such Eurovision may work – it combines well known actors with a concept that Europeans know and love.
And if it turns out to be a flop? No one needs to know. Netflix famously doesn’t publish detailed statistics about viewership, and even if a movie doesn’t get the viewing figures that were expected it gets added to the big Netflix library anyway for users to watch when they like. “They’re getting value for a long period so they can branch out,” says Harrington. “They don’t have the same sort of risk sort of factors than if you make it directly for the cinema.”
While traditional studios have recently been unwilling to invest in certain genres, Netflix been credited with reviving the rom-com genre. A film like The Kissing Booth felt too adult for the Disney Channel, Ian Bricke, vice president of original independent film at Netflix told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, but was lighter than the same kind of movies that were being released in cinemas at the time.
Netflix was the ideal place to put it. Critics didn’t like the film – it has only a 17 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes – but it has been popular with Netflix users and a sequel is on its way in 2020.
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” says Tom Williams, chair of the film committee at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. He believes that Netflix has helped breathe life into the genre, perhaps as these films are better suited to watching with some friends at home. In the past, these scripts might have been rejected, or at best made it into the straight-to-DVD market – now they’re getting released on streaming services.
According to Netflix, only one of the ten most popular movies streamed on its platform in 2019 wasn’t an original production: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The list, published in December on the streaming service’s UK Instagram, encompasses a range of genres, from the big budget action film 6 Underground to the rom-com starring Rebel Wilson, Isn’t It Romantic. Secret Obsession was the ninth most popular movie, despite being slated by critics, receiving only a 30 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Netflix has enjoyed critical acclaim for some of its recent releases, particularly Roma and The Irishman, but by and large its films have been panned by critics, even if they’ve done well with audiences (according to Netflix’s own figures).
“I think it’s changing people’s content consumption habits,” says Williams. People are happier to watch terrible movies at home, and Netflix will keep making them in order to fill its library with new content – it’s a golden age for the budding screenwriter, but how it will affect cinema as a whole is still unclear, says Williams. “People are having to ask big questions about what a movie is and what is the value of the big screen experience.”
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