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Netflix made more films than any other studio. Now it wants an Oscar.

  • Author: Lucas Shaw, Bloomberg News
  • Updated: December 31, 2019
  • Published December 31, 2019

Al Pacino, right, in "The Irishman." (Netflix)

LOS ANGELES — Netflix Inc. has been making its own movies for years, but 2019 may be remembered as the year it truly became a film studio.

The company began the year by joining the Motion Picture Association of America, the Hollywood trade group that represents movie studios. It went on to release nearly 60 English-language feature films over the course of 2019, including Oscar contenders “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.”

With a slate that includes its first animated feature “Klaus,” a Michael Bay action thriller and comedies like Eddie Murphy’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” Netflix has doubled or even tripled the output of Hollywood’s biggest studios. And for the first time, the company’s top executives are saying that movies will determine whether Netflix hits its financial targets in 2019.

“This fall was a nice culmination,” Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film chief, said in an interview. “I’m very proud of this slate. I can look you in the eye and say we’ve made as good movies this fall as anybody.”

Stuber, 51, joined Netflix in 2017 after more than two decades working in the film business — first as an executive and then a producer. Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos asked Stuber to build a movie studio from scratch, one that would rival any in Hollywood.

At the time, Netflix had only released a couple dozen original movies, most of them forgettable — like the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Adam Sandler’s comedy western “The Ridiculous 6.” The company had to fill its slate with projects that had been cast aside by other studios.

Netflix’s one movie that delighted critics, “Beasts of No Nation,” earned no nominations at the 2016 Academy Awards — an outcome that many experts interpreted as a rebuke of the streaming company. It had resisted demands to release its movies in theaters before they appear on its service, angering cinephiles and movie-theater owners.

“It was a company built on television — that was first and foremost,” said Stuber, a 6-foot-4 executive who brought a fat Rolodex to Netflix from producing movies such as “Ted,” “The Break-Up” and “Central Intelligence.” Many of his past collaborators, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and director Peter Berg, have since signed on to make movies for Netflix.

This image released by Netflix shows Scarlett Johansson, left, and Adam Driver in ’Marriage Story. ’ (Netflix via AP)

Film flood

In the 2 1/2 years since Stuber took the job, Netflix has morphed into the largest movie studio in Hollywood, at least in terms of volume. The company plans to release 50 to 60 films a year, and that doesn’t include projects born out of other divisions, such as “El Camino,” a spinoff movie from the TV show “Breaking Bad.”

The company has scored both critical and commercial hits. “Bird Box” and “Murder Mystery” were viewed by more than 70 million people apiece in their first month on the service, according to the company, while “Triple Frontier” and “The Highwaymen” both eclipsed 40 million viewers. Six of the 10 most-watched new titles on the service in the U.S. in 2019 were original films.

Still, it’s hard to measure Netflix’s success. The company is selective in what viewer information it releases and there’s no reliable third-party data source. So it’s all but impossible to verify how any one Netflix project fared. The company points to its continued subscriber growth as evidence of success, but critics note that Netflix still borrows money to fund its productions.

Two facts seem clear, though. First, Netflix found a sweet spot making the kinds of movies other studios have abandoned: adult dramas, romantic comedies and action movies without superheroes. Rom-coms like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe” don’t have the global appeal of “The Avengers,” but they are infinitely rewatchable at home.

The sequel to “All the Boys” is on the slate in 2020, along with movies from George Clooney, Spike Lee and Ryan Murphy, creator of “American Horror Story.”

Second, the industry no longer views Netflix as an outsider. Filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach — all staunch defenders of classic cinema — have turned to Netflix to get their movies made.

And the voters for the Academy Awards have come around, nominating Netflix for 15 Oscars last year, including its first for best picture, best director, best actress and best screenplay. The company didn’t win the best-picture statuette, but took home its first prizes for something other than a documentary.

Jonathan Pryce, left, and Anthony Hopkins star in ’The Two Popes. ’ (Peter Mountain / Netflix)

‘You did it’

“When I saw Ted Sarandos after the Oscars, I said, ‘You did it, you got over the hump,’” said John Sloss, who produced “Green Book,” last year’s winner for best picture. In other words, the Academy is ready — when the film is right — to give Netflix its top prize.

That could be as soon as 2020. Netflix has two of the five movies with the best odds, according to Gold Derby, a site devoted to predicting entertainment awards. They include the current front-runner, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” The nominations will be announced Jan. 13.

The New York film critics named that movie the year’s best, and Netflix earned the most Golden Globe nominations of any studio in both film and television.

But this year has been a particularly strong one for movies, and there is no one leader. Los Angeles film critics named Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” the year’s best, while Sam Mendes’s “1917” has earned ecstatic reviews. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” could finally earn the filmmaker his first Oscar for best director.

The only group that hasn’t embraced Netflix yet is theater owners. Though Netflix has relaxed its policy on theaters — allowing movies to appear on the big screen for as long as a month before they migrate to the streaming service — that hasn’t appeased the world’s largest cinema chains. They still refuse to show the service’s movies.

But many movie studios, including Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures, want to get their movies online sooner, too. And many companies, including Walt Disney Co., are making movies that won’t appear in theaters at all.

“It’s not a Netflix-versus-theater thing,” Stuber said. “The entire film business has to figure out the right distribution model that helps everyone.”

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