Will day-and-date releases catch on as the new norm?
Since it released its first film under the designation as a 'Netflix Original', the streaming giant has come under scrutiny from exhibitors and filmmakers for its unorthodox distribution plans for each of its titles. That first film, Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of NoNation came and went without much of an awards season push, though it did win the coveted Screen Actors Guild prize for Best Ensemble Cast. During its minimal theatrical run (mostly for the sake of awards qualification), the film was looked down upon by those in the industry, especially exhibitors who halted at the film's day-and-date release in theaters and on the streaming platform.
Beasts was practically boycotted and, despite strong reviews, failed to earn much of an audience. It slipped onto the streaming service without fanfare and has since quietly gone into the oblivion of great films that have been forgotten.
Years later, the streaming service-turned-production house has still failed at learning how to master the streaming world and the awards slate of other studios. Last year's Mudbound earned more accolades than Beasts, but still stuttered when it came to trophy gold. Netflix had a great launch of films at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where Okja was seen as a possible Palme d'Or winner. But, that fervor didn't continue into 2018, as the festival's programmers failed to allow Netflix to submit any film that didn't follow France's distribution guidelines, which typically require a film to run in theaters for a specific amount of time before it can be released for personal viewing.
Wanting to hold onto its strong customer base, Netflix has yet to see any benefit in having its product release in any other fashion that through its service.
With remarkable deals in place with awards season favorites, like directors Alfonso Cuaron and Paul Greengrass, the company is at the mercy of these greats to determine how to navigate the festival season, earn awards qualifications, and still treat the titles with the same streaming push of its other original products. If Netflix begins giving weight to prestige pictures over other content, it could hurt its prospects in the production space, seemingly calling out the quality or lack-thereof of some of its titles.
To pave the way for the future of the company, Netflix recently hired awards strategist Lisa Taback to help with the campaigns for Cuaron's Roma and Greengrass' 22 July. Both are now expected to get a more traditional release, beyond just the qualifying run in theaters in L.A. and New York, but still premiere day-and-date as streaming titles. Both directors are known for their sweeping visuals in their filmmaking techniques, which industry and film vets will say deserves a large screen viewing. Potentially, a longer and wider theatrical run, with at-home streaming still available, could work. It would come at a cost, though, which is something Netflix has yet to muster. Poor box office due to customers choosing to watch at home could provide bad press, despite how well-reviewed a title might be. On the other hand, building buzz around how many times a title has been viewed by at-home audiences would go against Netflix's current way of operating: never revealing the streaming numbers for any of its titles.
Something will need to be done, though. The content Netflix is creating and distributing is awards-worthy, as clearly seen with last year's Mudbound. But, without the right campaign and push, the anticipation falters, also seen with last year's Mudbound. Many insiders have remarked that if the studio had promoted the film the same way it did its other original content, perhaps more people would have seen the film. According to an article from The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix insiders have given no indication the streaming service will give up the day-and-date release plans.
Seeing how Netflix handles these films will be lucrative for Netflix's awards season chances (something many are watching after the service bypassed HBO as the most-nominated producer of content for this year's Emmys) and future deals for heavy-hitting producers, directors, and talent. Other streaming services, like Amazon Prime, will also be watching closely. So far, Amazon has released its original films, like Oscar-friendly Manchester by the Sea, in a more traditional format: to theaters for a typical run and slowly rolled out as a streaming titles and on digital download or disc for home viewing.
Both Amazon and Netflix have dogs in the fight this year, as far as awards are concerned. Netflix will be hoping for gold with Roma and 22 July, as well as Sandra Bullock starrer Bird Box and the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, getting a lucrative world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Amazon Studios will probably be pushing Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, plus upcoming titles like Beautiful Boy, Peterloo, and maybe even prestige horror flick Suspiria.
Once award nominations begin to be announced in a few months, we'll finally see how the industry as a whole is digesting the changing waves of production and distribution.