The best movie of the year is only playing in few theaters in New York City. Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate yet epic Roma, the story of a young maid and the fracturing family she works for in early-1970s Mexico City, is a sweeping autobiographical film whose pellucid 65mm format and stunning set-pieces demand to be seen on the largest possible screen. And yet, most people in America who see Roma will watch it on their television. Only Netflix would give Cuarón the funding and creative control he needed to make his masterpiece.
Since its inception—but particularly since it pivoted to streaming video in 2007—Netflix has spent billions in pursuit of a single goal: to monopolize as much of its customers’ time as possible. “There are only so many hours of viewer consumption in the world,” The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey wrote earlier this year. “Netflix wants as many of them as possible.” Now, having conquered television and genre filmmaking, it is wading into prestige filmmaking. “Facing rising competition from Walt Disney Co. and other media giants entering the streaming business, Netflix is increasingly eager to lure filmmakers who want their movies to be shown on a big screen and get awards recognition,” The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday.
The movie business is ripe for this type of disruption. Over the last decade, industry consolidation has pressured the major studios to reduce their investment in prestigious, mid-budget movies in favor of more bankable, mega-budget movies—thus the increasing reliance on film franchises like The Avengers and The Fast and the Furious. (In the first three months of this year, Marvel’s Black Panther accounted for a quarter of all ticket sales.) Streaming services are stepping into the void, providing homes for directors who otherwise would have to choose between making superhero films or low-budget Sundance fare. Amazon Studios has already produced a major Oscar winner in 2017’s Manchester By the Sea, and Disney, which owns both Marvel and Star Wars, is unveiling a streaming service next year.
“There’s a lot of discussion around the way the movies are shown, whether or not they have theatrical releases or just go up on the platform,” director Joel Coen, whose The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was available on Netflix just a week after a limited theatrical run, recently told the Times. “But I think the more fundamental thing is that they’re the people who are stepping up and spending money on movies that aren’t Marvel comics movies or big action franchise movies and that type of thing.”
Netflix may seem like a savior to these filmmakers right now, but the promise is illusory. Streaming services are also under tremendous economic pressure of their own, such that they’re unlikely to commit for the long term to arty, mid-budget films like Roma and Buster Scruggs. They may temporarily slow the increasing homogenization of filmmaking in America, but they cannot reverse it.
For filmmakers like Cuarón, these are strange times. There has been a precipitous decline in the number of movies produced by major studios, which have abandoned ambitious and adventurous work—like Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men, which cost nearly $80 million to produce—and a host of genres, notably adult dramas and romantic comedies. Once upon a time, big studios pumped out relatively expensive Oscar bait—a diverse slate of middle-brow films like As Good as It Gets, Shakespeare in Love, Syriana—while taking risks on more unconventional movies. Blockbuster films were largely confined to the summer. Today, under pressure from the publicly traded multinationals, they’re focusing on expensive but enormously profitable franchises throughout the year.
Enter Netflix, which only began producing original content in 2011. It started with television shows, first the political soap opera House of Cards, before a slate of other diverse offerings—the supernatural nostalgia of Stranger Things, the animated comedy Bojack Horseman, the network-TV ready Adventures of Kimmy Schmidt, and the expensive Queen Elizabeth II biopic The Crown. Over the last five years, Netflix and Amazon have ramped up their movie production, with Netflix first trying its hand at slapdash comedies and genre films (it made a splash by signing Adam Sandler to a four-movie deal in 2014) and Amazon filling a void in independent cinema, producing Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, James Gray’s Lost City of Z, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea.
In 2018, Netflix will produce more movies than the six major studios combined. But the company has struggled to get its movies in theaters because it insists on a small window of exclusivity for theaters—or none at all. 2015’s Beasts of No Nation and last year’s Mudbound were released simultaneously in theaters and online, and thus, few theaters chose to carry the films. Roma will premiere on Netflix on December 14, just weeks after its theatrical release; it is showing only in a handful of cities. This strategy hinders Netflix’s ability to woo filmmakers and awards voters. “No filmmaker says, ‘Yeah, I want to make a movie for an iPad.’ They want people to see it on the big screen, and rightly so,” Karie Bible, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told the Times. “In order for it to be taken seriously by the [motion picture] academy, it has to have a theatrical release.”
But Netflix has won over filmmakers like Cuarón with the promise of money and creative freedom for difficult projects. “We know full well that a Spanish-language drama—indigenous, black and white and not a genre movie—would have a great deal of difficulty to find space to be shown,” he told Deadline earlier this year. “I’m very grateful for Netflix because they have allowed me to work in this way.” Director Paul Greengrass, whose recent film 22 July, about the 2011 Norway terror attacks and their aftermath, was released simultaneously in theaters and online this year, recently praised Netflix for its “tremendous support of difficult films.”
Netflix gave Oscar nominee David Mackenzie the time and freedom to recut the historical epic Outlaw King after it received middling reviews—something a studio almost certainly would have prevented him from doing, given the time pressures facing films with theatrical releases. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I had a chance to go back in there and not be stuck in a position where the film was rushed for a festival and that was that,” Mackenzie told Indiewire. “That would have been terrible. It feels like a privilege to be able to completely control your own destiny on a film of this scale.”
Finally, Netflix can offer these directors a wide audience. While the company does not release its streaming numbers, Deadline reported that “sources close to” the film 22 July said that it was viewed 14.5 million times. That’s a staggering number of viewers for a difficult film that contains a 30-minute scene in which children are massacred by a white supremacist. Even if the number is somewhat overstated, it’s certainly a larger audience than a movie like 22 July could have attracted with a wide theatrical release.
This artistic independence is partly the result of Netflix’s aforementioned weakness—without much to offer in terms of theatrical distribution, it is leaning into creative freedom. But it’s also the result of its arms race with Amazon and Disney. Netflix announced that it would spend up to $8 billion in 2018 in an attempt to make its library 50 percent original programming in an effort to prevent other digital behemoths from stealing its market share.
These circumstances may not last very long. Netflix is burning through cash in an attempt to ward off competitors, but producing expensive movies with small audiences may eventually seem like not a great investment, regardless of their critical appeal—especially when genre flicks, like the highly successful (and cheap) romantic comedies Set it Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, proved to be big hits. Shut out from chain cinemas, Netflix could invest in a costly movie theater business, which would provide another revenue stream for movies like Roma, but that would be a significant leap—perhaps a greater one than Netflix’s pivot from mail-order DVDs to streaming video. (The Times reported that Netflix “considered buying a theater chain such as Landmark Theatres, but backed away from the idea because of the price.”)
Amazon, it seems, is already pivoting away from such movies. Having gained recognition as an Oscar-winning studio, the company has decided to forego $5 million investments in favor of $50 million ones. “Amazon wants programming aimed at a far wider audience as it pursues its central business goal: persuading more people to join its video streaming service and shopping club Prime,” Reuters reported in January. Manchester by the Sea’s two Oscars were nice and all, but what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos really wants is a blockbuster. On the hunt for its own Game of Thrones, Amazon is investing a reported $1 billion in a Lord of the Rings television show.
While Netflix has spent billions to become a streaming service with something for everyone, it’s easy to imagine them making a similar decision as Amazon, abandoning expensive and difficult films in favor of lighter, cheaper indie fare. Netflix is focusing on prestige content to prove the company’s value and long-term viability—to earn its place among the Hollywood elite. But Netflix may lose its luster with distinguished filmmakers when it joins that elite and then is forced to make the same decisions that the major studios have been making for the past decade, sacrificing quality for the bottom line. For now, two Silicon Valley giants are keeping prestigious filmmaking afloat, but not because they care about prestigious filmmaking. It’s part of a broader battle for market share, and ultimately the loser may be the filmmakers themselves.