When Will Netflix Movies Finally Be Ready for Their Close-Up?

Netflix_Audience Angry_Illo - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Luke McGarry

After 18 months running the streamer's film unit, Scott Stuber seeks to emerge from TV's shadow with A-list fall features (Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Greengrass) and top star salaries (nearly $30 million to Ryan Reynolds), but some say he still hasn't "clearly articulated a strategy."

On Oct. 16, two months before the release of Netflix's biggest film, the $90 million Will Smith starrer Bright, chief content officer Ted Sarandos outlined the future of the streamer's movie division as one with potential for the "enormous scale that we have on the television side."

Ten months later, despite plans for 60 individual projects (80 counting international originals) to be released in 2018, the industry is waiting for a breakout hit from Netflix's film side with the cultural impact of its television series Stranger Things13 Reasons Why or Orange Is the New Black. Netflix's influence in TV is undisputed — the free-spending streamer drives the market and recently edged out HBO with 112 Emmy nominations. But its original films have yet to capture the zeitgeist, win Oscars or displace traditional studio tentpoles in the race for moviegoers' attention.

But Netflix hopes that narrative is about to change. With nearly two years on the job as chief of the film division, former Universal exec Scott Stuber, 49, is now overseeing the release of the first batch of projects he put in motion. Those include high-profile films from Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), Paul Greengrass (22 July), Ethan and Joel Coen (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and Orson Welles' reconstructed The Other Side of the Wind, all of which are premiering at the Venice Film Festival, which begins Aug. 29. "Roma will be the [key] film for Netflix because if they can't get it at least a foreign-language nomination, something is wrong, and filmmakers will stay away," says one person who has seen the film.

Observers see the coming year as a make-or-break time for Stuber to establish Netflix's movie chops. "They are in the 'experimentation' phase," says CFRA Research analyst Tuna Amobi. "They have a track record in TV, but investors worry that budgets can get out of hand in film. Investors want to see a track record of success in movies, but Netflix hasn't clearly articulated a strategy."

In a marketplace increasingly driven by known intellectual property, the streamer has few, if any, brand-name film franchises despite spending $8 billion this year on programming. So Stuber has essentially started from scratch. And Netflix's insistence on releasing its originals in a few theaters day-and-date with their streaming debuts is not popular with many filmmakers who want the fanfare and box-office headlines of launching in multiplexes.

Netflix counters that its films released in 2018 have been viewed 850 million times by more than 120 million accounts globally, but it continues to refuse to release specific consumption data about its 55.9 million paid subscribers in the U.S. and 68.4 million subscribers abroad. The streamer released 33 films in theaters last year, but on April 16 CEO Reed Hastings told analysts that "defining distribution by what room you see it in is not the business we want to be in."

Insiders tell THR that Stuber is looking to steer his film unit to be more selective and to avoid the volume business that has defined Netflix's TV push. He's aware his division has a reputation of taking projects other studios were discarding (or even packages that wouldn't make it through the front door of a major). His team now is telling agents and producers they want movies as big as Marvel superhero pics and Lord of the Rings-style fantasy fare or prestige projects they can campaign for awards. Netflix is also planning more rom-coms (like the buzzy Set It Up and The Kissing Booth), a genre that internal metrics show is massively watched and has been largely abandoned by major studios (save the current Crazy Rich Asians, which Netflix bid on but lost because its creators wanted the buzz of a theatrical release).

"They know they need to do what's described as a watercooler movie," says one studio producer who has competed with Netflix. "It's one of Scott's priorities."

Tentpoles may be on the horizon. On a July 16 earnings call, Sarandos teased that "we're also doing a lot of the big event films with A-list directors" but "it will take another year or so as we get into it." And Stuber is spending big when he needs to, committing between $150 million and $170 million for Michael Bay's next spectacle, Six Underground, an action film starring Ryan Reynolds that's being produced with Skydance Media and will pay around $30 million to Reynolds upfront.

Another high-profile bet set for 2019 is Martin Scorsese's long-in-the-works mob drama The Irishman, which has a budget said to be $120 million to $150 million. And sources say Stuber leaned on his relationship with Kevin Hart to land the comedy pitch Black Stallions, which Hart will co-star in and produce. "They are not like any other buyer," says a sales agent. At top film festivals, "buyers send a couple of acquisition execs to watch a movie. They have a guy show up with a computer who runs an algorithm."

Among properties it already owns, Netflix is developing a sequel to 2017's horror-thriller Death Note, which Sarandos has called a "sizable" success, with Greg Russo writing the script. Director David Ayer and Smith also are planning a follow-up to Bright, which was panned by critics but watched by 11 million viewers in its first three days, according to Nielsen.

One producer developing a project with the streamer notes a fundamental difference in working with Stuber's team. "Netflix doesn't develop from scratch, they like finished packages that fit the demographic bill and they are not marketing-driven the way the studios are," notes this producer. "There's a perception that they are hands-off, but they do give notes," says another producer with projects there. "But one difference is that at a loggerheads, the tie goes to the studio. At Netflix, the tie goes to the filmmaker."

Adds producer Brad Simpson, "The decision-making process at Netflix is more efficient than at the majors. At studios, you are usually dealing with a bureaucracy. At Netflix, there is speed." Simpson and Nina Jacobson, his partner at Color Force (Crazy Rich Asians), are making the drama All Day and a Night for the streamer.

Netflix is trying to get its messaging to talent as it woos top actors and filmmakers. In June, the company gave presentations at the four major agencies (Stuber was not present, say sources) extolling the global size of its audience. "They are being very aggressive in trying to lure filmmakers," says an executive at a rival studio. "They know for their rebranding to be successful, they need to get filmmakers of a certain caliber, they need to get movies of a certain caliber." Several sellers cite the June addition of experienced creative executive Ori Marmur, who ran producer Neal Moritz's company, as a positive for the streamer. And veteran studio exec Matt Brodlie, director of original films, is given high marks by filmmakers.

Netflix's dated release slate through year's end includes teen romance Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (Sept. 7), the Haifaa Al-Mansour-directed rom-com Nappily Ever After (Sept. 21) and Chris Pine historical epic Outlaw King (Nov. 9), which is opening the Toronto festival Sept. 6.

Undated films that are set to be released in 2018 include multiple dramas from notable directors such as Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark, Sara Colangelo's The Kindergarten Teacher and Nicole Holofcener's The Land of Steady Habits. Sarandos has also pointed to Christmas Chronicles from director Chris Columbus and Sandra Bullock starrer Bird Box, directed by Susanne Bier, as high-profile movies that will be released by the end of the year. Studio pickups include big-budget titles like the Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan sci-fi film Extinction (Universal) and the Andy Serkis-directed Jungle Book adaptation Mowgli (Warner Bros.)

To make its mark in film, contends analyst Steven Birenberg, Netflix needs to not only release movies widely in theaters but also with traditional marketing budgets. "Netflix movies get lost in the sea of TV shows on the service," says Birenberg. "People think of originals as TV shows when it comes to streaming services, so movies get lost in the translation."

Stuber, who declined to comment, is said to know that his next few swings are crucial. "In five years, with the movies Amazon, Apple and Netflix make, we will be looking at an entire new definition of what a movie is," says one Oscar-nominated producer, adding, "This is a watershed moment for Netflix."

Paul Bond, Pamela McClintock and Gregg Kilday contributed to this report. 

A version of this story first appeared in the August 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.