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Netflix spending a game-changer for Hollywood features

By Matthew Worley
Netflix spending a game-changer for Hollywood features
Robert De Niro stars in "The Irishman," one of many films Netflix has acquired. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- With the upcoming premiere of Martin Scorcese's The Irishman slated for Sept. 27, streaming giant Netflix once again is at the forefront of feature film conversation in Hollywood.

Boasting an announced budget of $159 million and a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, The Irishman is the streamer's most ambitious project to date.

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Yet, Irishman is only one of a handful of much-feted, big budget efforts underway at the company -- among them the forthcoming Michael Bay feature 6 Underground and the Dwayne Johnson vehicle Red Notice.

Netflix expects to produce 20 films in the $20 million to $200 million range for 2020, in addition to the dozens of lower budget features the company makes each year. Full-length features now account for more than one-third of viewing time on the platform worldwide, making the feature film business a key focus of Netflix for the years ahead.

"The thing that's going through everyone's mind is that Netflix is a home for the kind of movies that studios have decided to stop making," said Zack Stentz, writer of the 2019 Netflix release Rim of the World.

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"It's a huge topic of conversation right now. The major studios, by and large, seem to be down to doing the big [franchise movies], low-budget horror and occasionally comedy. Everything else is going to Netflix."

"Being raised a farm kid, I think of it as another place to sell our corn," said Todd Klick, screenwriter and author of Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs To Know.

"Screenwriters don't just have the major studios to go to any longer," Klick said. "In only the last couple of years, Netflix has arisen as this other entity -- massive in reach -- and writers now have an opportunity to potentially get their work out to millions of viewers."

Ironically, the 2008 launch of Netflix as a streaming platform coincided with the beginning of a downturn in the overall theatrical film market. The Writers Guild of America reports that both employment rates and income declined for feature writers between 2008 and 2013, but have risen steadily since that time -- an increase attributed largely to the impact of streaming services like Netflix.

One writer who was present for Netflix's entry in the feature business is Irene Turner. Along with co-writer Tommy O'Haver, Turner's 2017 Madalyn Murray O'Hair biopic, The Most Hated Woman in America, was produced by Netflix during the streamer's first year of feature film production.

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Before the company's entry into the marketplace, Turner and O'Haver faced difficulty selling the film. Yet, with Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo attached to star, the prestige-hungry Netflix signed onto the project, providing a home for an otherwise unlikely film.

"Madalyn Murray O'Hair fought to get prayer out of public schools, so it doesn't actually scream major studio release," Turner said. "But Netflix took it on. We only had an 18-day shoot, which is not a lot of time. But the great thing about Netflix is that the movie actually got made.

"When we were in production in 2016," she said, "they were still staffing up. We got no notes. They just didn't have time. I feel like that's changed now. They're starting to get more focused, and they're trying to figure out how to spend their money most effectively so that people will keep watching."

Though the budget on Hated was only $1.2 million, the streamer's feature-based spending has climbed dramatically since. The company spent more than $12 billion on original programming in 2018, with totals expected to top $15 billion in 2019. From that, an expected $3 billion will go to features alone -- a game-changing number for Hollywood screenwriters.

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"I wouldn't say they're 'generous' exactly, because they're not in the business of being charitable. But they are willing to spend," said Beau Bauman, executive producer of the forthcoming Netflix feature Let It Snow. "They know they're in a competition for quality, and they still have a lot to prove in terms of quality, so I think they're very determined to put money on-screen."

Yet, attracting quality talent can prove challenging without the benefit of theatrical distribution -- an unyielding requirement for Oscar eligibility. Lacking traditional distribution channels, Netflix has been forced to "four wall" many of its features, renting movie theater spaces directly from independent chains like Landmark or Laemmle. In 2019, that strategy paid off, garnering four Oscar wins for the streamer.

One writer whose work benefited from the company's four-walling policy is Michael Golamco, co-writer of the 2019 Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe.

"The beautiful thing was that we got like a week-and-a-half theatrical run," Golamco said. "So we got to see it with an audience and have that big screen experience. And then, at home, people were able to just click and watch it."

Though Netflix is notoriously closed-mouthed about streaming numbers, Golamco said that 32 million accounts viewed Always Be My Maybe in the first four weeks.

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"We want people to see the movie. That's all we care about. And there are usually two or more people watching in each home. So, if you think of that in numbers of eyeballs -- if that were a theatrical release -- that would be a huge global hit.

"In theatrical terms, if that were a $10 movie ticket, that's an extraordinary return," Klick said.

While the Netflix model is clearly one of growth, many analysts expect to see the streamer pulling back in the future. And with current estimates placing the company's debt at more than $12 billion, a belt-tightening seems probable.

"It's beginning to change a little bit," said Charles Parlapanides, co-writer of the 2017 Netflix feature Death Note. "What I've been told is that they're getting so many things brought to them now that they can be a little more selective.

"It's a changing marketplace. And they're beginning to recognize that, to some degree, they're one of the few games in town."

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