By Ryan Clarkson, Co-Founder, Leveller Media
According to Netflix’s own roundup, the three most-watched productions it released in 2019 were Murder Mystery, a Jennifer Anniston and Adam Sandler comedy; the third season of Stranger Things; and 6 Underground, a typically explosion-heavy Michael Bay flick. The Irishman, though perhaps the best film of the year, lagged in fifth place. Perhaps more surprising, Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, which dominated film Twitter conversation and inspired a think piece or a meme for each frame of its two-hour runtime, didn’t crack the Top Ten films most-watched list, much less the Top Ten overall list.
As the streaming wars intensify and competition for talent and content grows fiercer, it’s natural to wonder about the diverse and original content that Netflix creates. Will Netflix ever determine that critical favorites with small audiences no longer appeal? It’s clear that Reed Hastings and company will continue to finance expensive films with award potential, but they may be tempted to cut back on their smaller films. Investors and shareholders may balk at having dozens of small films funded to little immediate financial effect. Although Netflix might be able to acquire ten movies for the $100 million it cost to keep Friends on the service for an additional year, the fact remains Friends brought more subscribers than just about any other show.
Netflix is billions of dollars in debt, and spending more every year. Critically panned Michael Bay movies and universally acclaimed Martin Scorsese films alike cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, the Seinfeld streaming rights cost $500 million, and the promotional campaign alone for Roma cost $30 million. Roma and The Irishman received awards consideration; films like Happy as Lazzaro or Dovlatov or The Forest of Love, though popular with critics, are unlikely to draw new subscribers. It’s true that some less buzzy Netflix pictures, like Mati Diop’s Atlantics, have made awards shortlists, but most do not. Picking winners isn’t an exact science: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, for Netflix, did well with professional and casual viewers alike, but his follow-up, Parasite, wasn’t with Netflix and became one of the art-house smashes of the decade.
If changes in the streaming market make Netflix diversity less compelling to executives than it once was, what will happen to funding and resources for marginalized voices? The world needs more films like Atlantics and the French animated film I Lost My Body, just as it needs more shows like the German series Dark. It’s essential that we maintain a place for new stories and unconventional storytellers, whichever way the winds of the streaming wars may blow. Whatever your opinion of Stranger Things, 6 Underground, and Murder Mystery is, they shouldn’t be the only options for tomorrow’s viewers.