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Photo: Netflix’s Big Bet
‘The Gray Man’
For the most part, a bigger pot means a bigger payout for a studio. The Russo Brothers, of MCU fame, are no strangers to gambling with big money, as they’ve set box office records of their own with films like ‘Avengers: Endgame’. With their new film, ‘The Gray Man’ starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas, they looked to garner some similar results. But in the streaming game, things are different.
‘The Gray Man’ debuted on Netflix, and in some select theaters, on the fifth biggest weekend in the streamer’s history with 88.55 million hours viewed in its first three days. But in its limited release, the movie hauled in only an estimated $250,000 over the weekend. With a $200 million budget, Netflix bet big on ‘The Gray Man’, but it’s hard to say still how that’s paid off. With a runtime of just over two hours, the math would come out to around 44 million viewers worldwide over its first weekend, but it isn’t that simple with streaming. People were watching more than once, while some tuned and turned off — and with a current 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, the latter is more likely.
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The stats here are important only because ‘The Gray Man’ has a lot of implications for the future of streaming in general. After their stock tumbled more than 65% in the last year, Netflix’s first-quarter earnings this year bore further doom and gloom. Apart from a big drop in stock price and hundreds of layoffs, Netflix announced they would be introducing a cheaper, commercial tier of their subscription-based service while cracking down on password sharing (they’re looking at you). The second quarter, though, did better than expected with only a 970,000 subscriber loss in the face of the 2 million projected. The losses have come primarily from the US and Canada. Why? After all, it would seem there is an endless supply of English language content being produced. One reason is that the wealth of these countries afford viewers other streaming subscriptions. When you have a variety of streamers to choose from, pick any of the zillion that now exists (Hulu, HBO Max, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Disney+ for starters), and you’re likely to select based on the quality of the content on each service. Long ago when Netflix and Hulu were the sole streamers battling for numbers, perhaps brand loyalty came into play. Now, as more and more television continues to be binged, North Americans have the luxury to be choosier than ever.
Netflix’s Original Content
Original Netflix content has been its trickiest conundrum. While they used to dominate the market by getting the rights to classic television shows like ‘The Office’, ‘How I Met Your Mother’, and ‘Friends’, there is too much competition and money among the major streaming companies to rely heavily on the nostalgia factor. Those shows now make their rounds among the streamers to the highest bidder for a contractual period of time, as they will most likely be in perpetuity. Therefore, the burden falls upon its ability to produce quality programs and movies that will give people incentive to stay with them, which Netflix has a muddled history of doing. In fact, the movie that just beat out ‘The Gray Man’ for its fourth most watched was ‘Kissing Booth 3’, which managed 90.86 million hours viewed.
Though I offer no judgment on the quality of the movie, it’s safe to assume Netflix did not funnel $200 million into the third installment of a sappy teen series. It’s a genre, though, where Netflix’s actually does well, creating afterthought content to be consumed in the background. While it’s created some stinkers that have gained some ironic followings (‘The Kissing Booth’ not not being one of them), it’s not exactly a strategy for long-term success. Of course, Netflix has managed some good ones like ‘The Power of the Dog’ which won Best Picture, ‘Marriage Story’, and ‘Don’t Look Up’. There are plenty more good Netflix films, but they seem to have bubbled to the top of a sea of duds.
Famously, the deep-coffered streamer has always been willing to risk a little more on their films, without the burden of the hullabaloo of theatrical release. But there hasn’t been a consistent approach to their strategy, that is, until now. ‘The Gray Man’ represents a shift in the direction of more “thoughtful” content for Netflix. Scott Stuber, the head of global film at the company, has had to reckon with his company’s recent downturn and adjust course, telling the New York Times that “We’re not crazily reducing our spend, but we’re reducing volume. We were a business that was, for a long time, a volume business. And now we’re being very specific about targeting.”
He’s hoping ‘The Gray Man’ will be the type of movie Netflix will consistently, if more sporadically, produce: big budget, big names, big directors. They even have a sequel already in the works, set to be the Russo Brothers again. Soon, as they’ve hinted, we might even have “Gray-verse” on our hands. It’s in the mold of a more traditional studio manner, but what a streamer can afford to do that a studio is less equipped to is set up a smaller division devoted to making mid-budget films. That’s exactly what Netflix is doing with the appointment of Niija Kuykendall, formerly at Warner Bros., who will oversee the production of films in the $50 Million range. They’re already in the works to produce another $200 million action film, a sci-fi flick called “The Electric State” with their own star Millie Bobby Brown and Chris Pratt.
So though the past has been varied for Netflix, the future looks bright.
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.