This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Luke Hinton.
At the start of the year, the world’s most popular streaming service, Netflix, announced that a new original film would come out every Friday, and there are some real Hollywood A-listers on their slate. From The Rock and Gal Gadot in Red Notice, to the recent announcement that Marriage Story’s Noah Baumbach has signed an exclusive deal to write and direct for the streaming giants across the coming years, Netflix has never pumped out this much content – but of course, quantity doesn’t guarantee quality. For example, when was the last time you heard somebody talking about Outside the Wire?
The first western Netflix original film released in 2021 came and went with a whimper, despite boasting a star-studded cast headed by Marvel’s own Falcon, Anthony Mackie. Taking a glance at the Netflix homepage, you have to dig around to find it even just a month or so after its release. But this isn’t the only example of a Netflix Original coming and going faster than you can say “binge-watch”: instead, it seems like a concerning trend, where Netflix doesn’t give its films the attention they need.
Marriage Story is, in many ways, the glaring exception that proves the rule. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical drama, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson as a loveless couple, is not only a powerful, tender film, but a bona-fide awards darling. It was nominated for six Oscars, including a win for Laura Dern in the Supporting Actress category, and marked the third time a Netflix original was nominated for Best Picture, a year after their first, Roma, and alongside The Irishman – with both undoubtedly contributing to a spike in subscribers in the latter part of 2019. But, for a streaming service that prides itself upon releasing a veritable onslaught of original content, how come only three of its hundreds of original films have achieved this accolade?
A lot of it boils down to the varying approaches Netflix applies when producing original content. On the one hand, films like the aforementioned awards successes have hundreds of millions pumped into them to attract top talent. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a gangster masterpiece that reunited genre heavyweights Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, is an example of a film that simply wouldn’t have been made without Netflix. The film had been in the works since the 1980s, but was cast into doubt when Paramount dropped its financing in 2017 as the budget escalated into the realm of $125m. It ultimately cost somewhere around $200m, and that budget combined with a three-and-a-half-hour runtime is something that major studios simply couldn’t sustain in the current theatrical model. Crucially for Netflix, the gamble paid off, with over 17 million US Netflix users watching The Irishman in its first five days of release, and more than 26 million watching worldwide.
This accommodation of renowned Hollywood names is undoubtedly what has helped Netflix to establish itself alongside the traditional studios. Without their willingness to spend so much, it’s unlikely a film like The Irishman would’ve been made – at least, not in the long-form manner it was released in – and for a company that spends tens of billions a year on content, it’s crucial that they get some return on their investment. It also seems like industry heavyweights like Scorsese are now willing to harness streaming services, with his next film, Killers of a Flower Moon, set to release on Apple TV+.
Yet for every film with a lasting legacy like The Irishman or Marriage Story – with both receiving Criterion releases in the past year – there are countless other Netflix Originals that fade out of cultural discussion. Outside the Wire isn’t just a one-off: highly-anticipated releases like David Fincher’s Mank fell out of conversation mere weeks after its release, despite being warmly received. But why is this the case? For a service as widely-used and accessible as Netflix, surely its films should remain in conversation for longer – after all, it takes only a few clicks to watch their latest release, made even more convenient than traditional cinemagoing in the past year or so.
It boils down to the business model that Netflix opts for: one where content is king, and without new releases, the hype could just as easily die down. This is why their new-film-a-week promise is so intrinsic to their success: it’s about providing the ability for subscribers to log on each Friday night and find something that wasn’t there the day before. Without that, the freshness of Netflix’s content may fade away. Something like Mank was so hotly-anticipated – the return of David Fincher after six years – but with users able to access it from home, it’s likely that most of the people that wanted to see it had done so within the first week. That Netflix homepage is arguably their greatest asset – exposing their millions of subscribers to whatever content they want to promote – and if their goal is getting as much content out there as possible, it makes sense that freshness is imperative to success. Yet, equally, it can be their downfall: the algorithm, like that of YouTube’s, shows recommendations based on a user’s viewing habits, meaning smaller and more niche films are more likely to be shunned from view, unlikely to ever be discovered by the majority of subscribers. Similarly, the sheer difficulty of finding a film that’s not on the homepage – unless you know what you’re looking for and can directly search for it – means if it’s not on your version of the homepage, you’re almost guaranteed to miss it.
This presents a troubling scenario where the lasting legacy and impact of individual films are rarely considered, and more often than not, don’t really exist. As mentioned, nobody’s talking about Outside the Wire anymore – it has already been knocked off the homepage – and this is frighteningly representative of the less-than four week lifespan any Netflix Original is expected to have. Of course, a lot of this boils down to each user’s individual algorithm – if you aren’t into action, Outside the Wire may never have popped up – but for directors like Scorsese and Fincher, the potential for their film to simply disappear from the main page in a matter of weeks can’t be good enough. These filmmakers produce work designed to be discussed, dissected and debated over time, but when placed in an algorithm that emphasises recency over quality, it seems unlikely that they’ll receive such retrospective attention. With Netflix notoriously coy when it comes to announcing viewing statistics, the fact that we were told how many people watched The Irishman but not Marriage Story, may suggest that the latter earned a number that was less than desired.
All of this puts filmmakers in the Netflix system in a precarious position. There’s a toss-up between having their film promoted directly to millions of screens across the world, with an algorithm that all-but ensures mass viewership, against the trade-off that they’re just one of hundreds of annual releases that all need promotion, meaning sooner rather than later, they’ll lose that spot on the homepage and fade into a chasm of content that grows deeper by the week. Netflix needs to learn from the enduring legacy of hits like Marriage Story and The Irishman as proof that audiences are willing to engage with art across longer periods of time than their monthly subscription fee, that we each want content that withstands the test of time and is not simply designed as short-term entertainment. With the company seeking a coveted Best Picture win this year – in an Oscars season that should be dominated by straight-to-streaming films – now is the time to carve that legacy by proudly headlining their greatest original hits, instead of letting them slip by the digital wayside.
Written by Luke Hinton
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