None of the major Hollywood institutions have been better positioned to withstand Netflix’s coronavirus pandemic. With cinemas across the country closed for months and studios rushing to delay their most anticipated films, the streaming giant has enjoyed a practically captive audience. Even as major theater chains have been plunged into an existential crisis, Netflix has enjoyed record increases in global subscribers and a 30% rise in its share price since mid-March.
But now, with a fall movie season like no other before it kicks off with anxiety, Netflix is stepping out of its digital comfort zone and testing the waters of the theater show once again.
Except this time around theaters are closed in about a third of the country, including major markets in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and major chains continue to refuse to book Netflix titles because the company breaks the traditional window between theatrical and domestic vision.
However, Netflix opens Friday writer and director Aaron Sorkin’s costume drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in less than two dozen cinemas in the city including Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Texas and Tempe, Ariz. (In Southland, it is expected to open next week at Regency’s Directors Cut Cinema in Laguna Niguel.) It’s the first phase of a broader expansion over the next three weeks, ahead of the film’s release on the streaming service on October 16.
That launch follows the playbook that Netflix has successfully used with prize contenders like “Rome” and “The Irishman”. But this time, with many spectators hesitating to venture into theaters and exhibitors large and small hanging by a thread, one significant question overshadows the strategy: Because?
With plans underway just days before the film’s release, a Netflix rep declined to comment on specific details of the launch of “Chicago 7,” which Netflix acquired from original distributor Paramount Pictures this summer when prospects for cinemas looked terrible.
The company typically keeps its cards close to its vest when it comes to its theatrical strategy and never reports box office figures for its films. But the platform’s release of “Chicago 7” represents a test run for other prize contenders that are expected to open in the coming months, including David Fincher’s costume drama “Mank”, about behind-the-scenes battles during the making of. “Citizen Kane,” and Ron Howard’s adaptation of the non-fiction bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy.”
While “Chicago 7” marks its more high-profile return to the theater show after the pandemic, Netflix has already quietly returned to theaters. The thriller “The Devil All the Time” was released in a handful of theaters across the country on September .11, just days before it hit the Netflix platform on September 16, while the crazy bizarre Charlie Kaufman “I’m Thinking of Ending Things “opened in a small number of theaters a week before it streamed on September 4. (Notably, Netflix chose to completely bypass theaters with its new high-profile mystery” Enola Holmes, “starring Millie Bobby Brown. as Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister, who is now available to stream.)
While its streaming-centric model remains anathema to major theater chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, Netflix has long publicized its support for theater exhibitions and has developed partnerships with a number of independent theater owners and small chains. such as Landmark and Alamo Drafthouse. Last year, the company also moved to acquire a couple of venerable movie houses in Los Angeles (the Egyptian Theater) and New York (The Paris).
In recent years, Netflix has used the promise of a theatrical release, albeit a limited one, to help bring major directors into its fold, from Alfonso Cuarón to Martin Scorsese to the Coen brothers. Speaking to the Times shortly before his film began, Kaufman said that before the pandemic Netflix had planned a more robust theatrical release and had made the film with this in mind: “Ideally, I’d like the film to be seen as great. a possible screen. I think it’s a beautiful movie. I hope at least people watch it on a big TV screen. “
Early reviews of “Chicago 7” were upbeat and the film received numerous bona fide awards. A timely look at the political turmoil of the late 1960s and the infamous trial following the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the film boasts an impressive cast that includes Oscar winners Mark Rylance (as defense attorney William Kuntsler ), Eddie Redmayne (as Student Leader for a Democratic Society Tom Hayden) and candidate Frank Langella (as Judge Julius Hoffman).
“Borat” script nominee Sacha Baron Cohen is also part of the ensemble, as are recent Emmy winners Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”) and Jeremy Strong (“Succession”). (Some award experts have already speculated that the cast may be too large for any performance to really stand out.) Sorkin himself was nominated three times for his screenplay, winning the 2011 adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.”
Of course, nothing about this awards season is normal. Major fall festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York have been drastically downsized, gone virtual, or canceled altogether. The taste-critical cities of Los Angeles and New York, bases for both the film industry and the media that cover it, have not reopened theaters and the exhibition industry continues to struggle nationwide.
Meanwhile, the film academy has postponed the Oscars date by two months, to April 25, and loosened its eligibility rules this year to allow first-time films to qualify for Oscars without a release in. salt.
For Netflix, stubbornly searching for its first Best Picture Oscar, the awards derby is full of promise and danger.
In the wake of the underperformance of Warner Bros. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”, major studios continue to appear tired of the big releases. Earlier this week, Disney pushed a key hope for the Oscar, Steven Spielberg’s new take on “West Side Story,” a full year through December 2021. If autumn and winter were to bring A new wave of coronavirus cases, as many fear, smaller distributors like A24 and Sony Classics may also feel compelled to move more prize hopes out of harm’s way, making a clearer path for streaming services like Netflix.
On the other hand, even if the field of competition were to thin out, the general public will have some interest in an Oscar run devoid of successful film titles like “Joker”, “A Star Is Born” or “Black Panther” in recent years. ?
Amidst so much anxiety, Netflix’s theatrical launch of “Chicago 7” provides at least one promising green take in the otherwise uncultivated landscape of theatrical distribution. But it’s also a reminder that even for a society so far sheltered from the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, there are trials to be faced and no matter where you look in the film ecosystem, the prospects remain far from certain.