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Pick your favorite Hollywood maxim — William Goldman’s assertion “nobody knows anything” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that “not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”
The most famous sayings about creating content all come down to two points: 1) You need to get lucky; and 2) It’s really hard.
Projects that people are sure are going to work fail, and projects that people are sure are going to fail work. You gain insights here and there, but there is no playbook and no guarantees.
After successfully transitioning from a DVD rental mailing service into a streaming platform, Netflix could have continued to build up its library and offered the best content from all the film and television studios under one roof. All of the vagaries of content creation — the hits, the misses, the changing interests of the public, the sensitivities of talent — would have remained the burden of the movie studios and TV networks.
To get all this content, Netflix could have offered just one important element (other than money, of course) — a promise that it would not compete with the studios and would stay away from creating its own movies and shows.
Instead, Netflix is ignoring the path of blissful ignorance and has decided to try its hand at solving the whole equation. It keeps licensing content but has shifted its focus to its own original programming. Since it is now viewed as competition, Netflix will lose more and more of the other studios’ content and rely more and more on its own.
In the history of the content business, nobody has been able to create movies and shows that truly compete with the well-established majors. HBO has man-aged the best balancing act, but its licensed studio movies generate far greater ratings overall than its own programming. Girls might get all the press, but showing Kingsman over and over delivers the ratings.
Netflix is obviously still incredibly successful and powerful, hence the word “Anonymous” in the byline instead of my actual name.
But Netflix had a chance to be one of the great media companies of our time — a one-stop shop for any movie or TV show over 18 months old. Instead, it may have turned into just another network — just another competing content creator.
While William Goldman may one day write “Netflix knows something,” it is more likely now than it was five years ago that Netflix may go the way of Blockbuster.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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