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Netflix, it’s fair to say, owns the fall festival season. Noah Baumbach’s streamer-produced White Noise opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, Aug. 31, and Sally El Hosaini’s true-life refugee tale The Swimmers, another Netflix movie, will kick off the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 8.
With four movies in competition in Venice — alongside White Noise, the company has Andrew Dominik’s buzzy Marilyn Monroe movie Blonde with Ana de Armas, Romain Gavras’ French drama Athena and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Mexican epic Bardo in the running — Netflix has a decent shot at claiming its second Golden Lion after Roma in 2018. All four films, as well as TIFF titles The Swimmers, All Quiet on the Western Front, The King’s Horseman and Tyler Perry’s A Jazzman’s Blues, also look like solid award-season contenders.
Germany has already picked Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of the iconic anti-war novel, to be its Oscar entry for the best international feature category in 2023.
Just don’t expect any of these films to be coming soon to a theater near you. Netflix will be doing small platform releases for a few of its festival darlings — akin to the two-week exclusive theatrical runs it gave last year’s Venice titles The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter and The Hand of God — and some international titles will get small local releases. Netflix and German distributor 24 Bilder will partner on a limited German bow for All Quiet on the Western Front, for example. But the streaming giant has no plans to expand its cinema experiment.
“No change. Streaming is the priority,” said one Netflix insider.
Many have criticized this online-focused strategy, claiming Netflix is leaving money on the table. It’s been estimated Roma, which followed its Venice win with an awards season sweep, winning BAFTAs, Golden Globes, DGA and Independent Spirit awards and on the road to three Oscars, including a best director nod for Alfonso Cuarón, could have earned $20 million-plus at the box office had Netflix done a proper theatrical release for the movie.
“Roma was a big miss that would definitely have done real business,” says Eric Marti, general manager, France for box office analytics company Comscore.
After posting disappointing results with subscriber losses for two straight quarters, Netflix appears to have a greater focus on the bottom line. The company has plans to add a cheaper, ad-backed tier to its SVOD service as a way to generate revenue and stem subscriber losses, and, in cost-cutting measures, has axed hundreds of jobs.
But, so far at least, Netflix’s business strategy does not appear to include a bigger play for box office. Theatrical releases for Netflix films continue to be mainly exercises in marketing and promotion for the titles’ online bows.
It’s clear that die-hard cineastes, as well as the independent theater owners around the world who cater to them, would love to see Netflix’s fall festival slate get the benefit of long theatrical runs before heading to the small screens.
With that unlikely to happen, the company could see a backlash akin to what happened in Italy last year around the release of Paolo Sorrentino’s Venice festival hit The Hand of God. Italian art house exhibitors protested that the local theatrical bow — The Hand of God went out on 250 screens in Italy via distributor Lucky Red, three weeks before its screening debut — was too small and too short for cinemas to benefit. While the release was the longest ever for a Netflix film in Italy and a wide bow for the streamer’s standards —Roma‘s truncated Italy release was for a mere 50 copies — critics noted that Sorrentino’s previous movie, Loro, was released as two back-to-back features by Universal on some 900 Italian screens.
Whether the cinema owners were right or not about how much money Hand of God could have made, had it been allowed to stay in theaters longer — Lucky Red, while not disclosing box office figures, says it was “satisfied” with the film’s performance — the “Netflix is killing cinema” argument has gained ground in Italy, in part driven by a very real decline in the Italian box office, which has yet to recover to pre-COVID levels. The Italian culture ministry has called for a mandatory 90-day theatrical window for all movie releases, with new regulations modeled on similar rules in France. The French regulations, which include a four-month exclusive theatrical window and complicated schedules for exclusive releases on pay-TV, streaming and free-to-air television, are the primary reason why Netflix has boycotted the Cannes Film Festival. (Andrew Dominik initially wanted to premiere Blonde on the Croisette). In the latest battle between theatrical and streaming, Disney in June said it would skip a theatrical release for its animated feature Strange World in France, opting to put the holiday release out exclusively on Disney+ in the territory.
But while theater owners love the exclusivity of a long window, there is little evidence it gets more bums in seats. European markets with the most flexible regulation around windowing, including the U.K. and Spain, have seen the box office bounce back fastest since theaters reopened.
“Whether a film works at the box office isn’t just about whether it is on a service or not,” says Gabriele D’Andrea, head of theatrical distribution at Lucky Red. “We released Roma, The Hand of God and The Power of the Dog theatrically [in Italy], so all these movies had the opportunity to connect with the audiences in theaters. This summer, because we didn’t have any new movies, we did a festival of Hayao Miyazaki films. Four movies, all of which are available on Netflix, grossed more than [$1 million] each.”
Instead of blaming Netflix, D’Andrea says art house theaters and distributors need to take a page out of their promotional playbook and learn to turn specialty releases into events. Ahead of the Italian bow of David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future, which went out on 250 screens nationwide, Lucky Red did multiple teaser events, including hosting a one-week retrospective of the Canadian director’s work in three iconic cinemas in Rome, Milan and Turin.
“It was part of our strategy to make the [new] film a premium event for a certain kind of audience, treating Cronenberg as a true [art house] brand,” D’Andrea says.
“You have to make films that engage people to come back [to cinemas],” says Kiska Higgs, head of production and acquisitions at Focus Features, which is hoping to wow Venice and the cinemagoing art house crowd with Todd Field’s classical music drama Tár, starring Cate Blanchett and Mark Strong. “Playing it safe is the death zone. Either they can come back or they’re not, but they’re certainly not going to come back if you don’t give them the films.”
Alex Ritman contributed to this report.
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