In the latest skirmish of the streaming wars, Netflix has come out fighting. In a star-studded promotional video, the studio announced a staggering slate of original releases in 2021, with a promise to release a new film every week this year.
The studio’s level of productivity blows its competitors clean out of the water. In pre-Covid times, Warner Bros released 21 films in 2019, with Disney posting 19. True, the streamer doesn’t always have to contend with the additional costs associated with a theatrical release – or indeed the headache of cinemas not being open at all – but beneath the beaming smiles of its actors was a clear statement of intent.
The past year has highlighted the fragility of a cinematic ecosystem which relies on blockbusters regularly making more than $400m to strike a profit and keep cinemas afloat. Netflix can’t yet claim to be the saviour of the cinematic experience, but it is undeniably giving the industry a major shot in the arm – and something approaching stability in profoundly unstable times – through a commitment to producing original content of all sizes.
This year’s slate has its fair share of tent-pole releases. We will see the big-budget Red Notice, featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, released alongside the Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence-fuelled Don’t Look Up. But these are joined by films that lean much more into the company’s desire to increase the size of its awards cabinet. An adaptation of Booker prize winner The White Tiger stands out, while there is also the lockdown-inspired Malcolm and Marie.
As ever with Netflix, the note of caution is whether this generous model is as inherently fragile as the distribution pattern it is disrupting. A house of glass to rival the House of Mouse. Clearly, it depends on huge growth, but up to now, the studio has consistently provided it.
In the third quarter of 2020, the studio recorded $6.44bn in revenue, with the number of worldwide subscribers growing rapidly, yet this is all offset by a content bill which has been reported to be as high as $17.3bn in 2020. Combine this with the difficulty in ascertaining what each new release is worth in terms of attracting new subscribers and engaging others, and it may mean that Hollywood accounting has a new meaning.
Netflix is evidently throwing a huge amount of money at original content creation, much like its rivals at Disney. Yet the streaming giant’s move in many ways runs counter to that of its competitor, which used its recent Investor Day to expand existing properties. Yes, Disney+’s slate for 2021 is full of new series and films, but they often exist within established cinematic universes. From The Book of Boba Fett and Star Wars through to Wandavision and Marvel, the studio is using its platform to appeal to a loyal and devoted fanbase.
This is unsurprising given the two streamers are coming from opposite starting points. Disney was a film-making colossus long before it switched to streaming, while Netflix traditionally hinged on a competitive curation of others’ productions. As the two slide closer together, it makes logical sense that they are cleaving to their traditional strengths, with Netflix enlisting outside creatives and Disney bolstering existing IP (not to mention making the most of its big-money purchases). That said, the concluding chapters of To All the Boys … and The Kissing Booth nod towards Netflix’s increasing ability to string together film franchises, with sequels also mooted for the bigger-budget properties Extraction and The Old Guard.
While the paths ahead for both Disney and Netflix are taking shape, the direction of competitors such as Warner Bros’ HBO Max is still buffering. The studio’s decision to move its 2021 slate on to their own streaming platform – alongside limited theatre runs – caused ire among creatives including Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins. Wracked by the fear of another year of closed cinemas, the kneejerk reaction has seemingly also jeopardised the future of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune as a franchise. Away from this turmoil, those who collaborate with Netflix know exactly what to expect, even if it isn’t the fanfare of a theatrical run.
There will no doubt be concern that Netflix’s crowded slate will only reinforce TV and film’s saturated landscape. Gasping for publicity, films such as Mank, The Trial of the Chicago Seven and Da Five Bloods came and went on the platform. What’s more, Netflix’s increasing willingness to release some titles for short theatrical runs won’t be enough to single-handedly save cinema chains. But after a desperate year, their gargantuan support for the sector shouldn’t be undervalued.