Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Netflix Flirts With a New Idea: “Big” Movies at Your House, the Same Day They’re in Theaters

ted movieNetflix made a splash this year by creating its own TV shows and delivering them over the Web. Now it’s toying with the same idea for movies.

This summer, the company announced that it in addition to TV shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” it would start spending money on modest movies — documentaries and stand-up comedy specials — which would debut on the service.

Now Netflix is floating the idea that it will foot the bill for a “big” movie, which would appear in theaters and on Netflix at the same time.

During the company’s earnings call last week, content boss Ted Sarandos said the company was interested in breaking into movies, and that investors should “keep [their] mind wide open to what those films would be and what they would look like.”

This weekend, Sarandos got more explicit. In a speech hosted by Film Independent, the nonprofit behind the indie film Spirit Awards, Sarandos said Netflix could start delivering new movies to its subscribers by doing the same thing it has done with its original TV shows, and becoming a first-run distributor.

“What we’re trying to do for TV, the model should extend pretty nicely to movies. Meaning, why not premiere movies on Netflix, the same day they’re opening in theaters? And not little movies — there’s a lot of ways, and lot of people to do that [already]. Why not big movies? Why not follow the consumers’ desire to watch things when they want?”

Good logic. And hard to imagine how that will work.

But presumably that’s Sarandos’s point — Netflix wants to show that it can do it, at least once, and put pressure on the rest of Hollywood to change.

And there’s some nice symbolism here, too: Netflix started out delivering movies via DVD, which it could do without Hollywood’s permission. It eventually moved into a digital TV show service, at least in part because it couldn’t get the studios to let it distribute their movies over the Web. Wouldn’t it be cool if Netflix could start to end run the system and deliver movies that way, too?

As Sarandos notes, it’s already possible to see some art house movies at home, via distributors like Apple or Time Warner Cable, at the same time they’re in theaters. (Sometimes even before they’re in theaters).

But almost all major Hollywood movies follow a rigid “windowing” system, where they show up in theaters first, then on DVD and “on demand” services, then on pay TV (and sometimes Netflix), etc.

Films studios themselves have expressed interest in tweaking those windows, so movies could migrate more quickly from theaters to other venues, but theater owners, who play a big role in movie marketing, have been fiercely opposed to any changes. (See: “Tower Heist” or “Alice in Wonderland.”)

And I can’t see Sarandos convincing any studio with a traditional blockbuster that needs conventional theaters to change course anytime soon. If you want to see “Thor: The Dark World” on November 8, you’re still going to have to visit the box office.

So perhaps Sarandos has a different definition of a “big” movie in mind. Or maybe some other clever end run around the system.

Feel free to watch his speech below (don’t be scared off the by 44-minute counter on the YouTube clip; his prepared speech only goes 22 minutes, and if you need to go fast you can speed up to the 19-minute mark) and reach your own conclusions. For now, Netflix reps aren’t offering any additional comment.


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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of Pets.com would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”