Netflix Took Control of the Film Industry During the Pandemic

With the pandemic still raging and movie theaters struggling to reopen, streaming services are becoming the main place for watching movies.

September 9, 2020
7 mins read

It is a humid August afternoon, and Robert Pattinson commands my laptop screen. He is prowling through the pews of a gothic south Ohio church in a powder blue suit, screaming with a delightfully unhinged accent about “deluuusions.” I have watched this Netflix preview several times now, and admittedly, I think about it a great deal.

The scene in question comes from the trailer for Netflix’s “The Devil All the Time,” and unlike most trailers being released right now, it features a concrete release date. Even as theaters begin reopening across the country, the effectiveness of audience safety measures will influence the scheduled release dates for upcoming blockbusters. For theaters, nothing is certain.

Meanwhile, streaming services are going about business as usual. If anything, they have seen an uptick in viewership. The continued outbreak of COVID-19 presents an opportunity for streaming services to control the conversation around movies for the foreseeable future, but the question remains if they will be able to rise to the challenge.

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The streaming successes of 2020 have felt eerily relevant. “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s epic about the journey of four Black Vietnam veterans, arrived just after the murder of George Floyd. “Palm Springs,” the surprisingly great “Groundhog Day”-esque comedy, perfectly emulated the repetitiveness of quarantine life. While the timeliness of their arrivals has played a heavy role in the success of these films, something must be said for their accessibility. They aren’t just relevant movies; they are the only movies available.

This will change in the coming weeks. Select theaters across the country will be opening for the first time since the start of the pandemic, at limited capacity. But as much as I have missed the theatergoing experience, there is nothing enticing about the premise of theaters reopening. Rollout plans to reopen from companies like AMC and Marcus Theaters sound complicated, dangerous and unnecessary.

Research has also shown that audiences have a lukewarm attitude toward going to the movies right now.  In a recent article, Variety cited a new survey from Performance Research, in partnership with Full Circle Research, that showed nearly twice as many people would prefer to wait the full 90 days to see a movie at home rather than see it in theaters.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in pockets across the country, it will be even harder to get people into theaters. Even prior to the pandemic, industry insiders were worried about the impact streaming would have on theaters. Now there is little doubt that streaming is safer and ultimately a better deal.

In an attempt to salvage their losses, AMC and Universal Pictures struck a historic deal to reduce the time between a film’s theatrical release to when it is available on video-on-demand to just 17 days. However, at $20, the cost of seeing a film early is still more than that of any monthly streaming service.

All of this points toward the continued success of streaming. Of the various streaming services that could potentially control this year’s cinematic landscape, Netflix is in the best position, and its executives seem keen on owning the conversation.

“We want an impactful movie every two weeks,” said Scott Stuber, the head of Netflix’s film division. This philosophy has pushed Netflix to release more movies than any major studio right now, and it has made it the most successful platform in streaming.

Netflix has been savvy with its production strategies, but its accomplishments are more impressive from a business perspective than from an artistic one. Films like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Set It Up” and “The Kissing Booth” carved out Netflix’s spot as a marketable platform for simple but entertaining romantic comedies.

Similarly, Netflix has seen success with low-concept action and comedy films led by bankable stars such as Chris Hemsworth in “Extraction” and Mark Wahlberg in “Spenser Confidential.” But these films fade from the public eye just as quickly as they appear.

Frequently, Netflix makes its biggest splash through memes. Internet culture has become essential to the way that films are marketed, though not always through the studio’s design. The critically panned “Bird Box” is Netflix’s second most-watched film, but it is impossible to separate its success from the stills of a blindfolded Sandra Bullock that flooded social media upon its release.

The same can be said for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” For all the acclaim that “Marriage Story” received, much of the conversation surrounding the film was derived from memes of Adam Driver throwing his fist through drywall.

Netflix is aware of this. The same day the “The Devil All the Time” trailer dropped, one of Netflix’s affiliated YouTube channels released the video “Robert Pattinson in ‘The Devil All The Time’ Saying Delusions for 10 Minutes Straight.”

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When I found that video, I was impressed, amused and slightly horrified. Brands have tried to use memes to advertise their products for several years now, but this usually comes off like Steve Buscemi pretending to be a high schooler. However, the foresight behind the delusions meme is impressively self-aware. Netflix’s awareness of how internet culture can be used to market its movies is deeply unsettling, but it points to further dominance over media culture.

In the next two months, Netflix will release several high profile movies that all have a good chance of becoming the next streaming success. The aforementioned “The Devil All the Time” drops on September 16, lead by an absolutely stacked cast. The film is directed by Anthonio Campos and stars Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough, Bill Skarsgaard, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Robert Pattinson.

Between the cult-like followings of Pattinson and Marvel alums Holland and Stan, “The Devil All the Time” shows promise of attracting a variety of audiences. This, in addition to the fact that Pattinson’s sermon has already blown up on Twitter, points to a broad reception.

Later in September, Netflix will release the movie starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill, “Enola Holmes,” and October will see the release of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” along with a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”

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