Netflix wants to get exclusive.
According to CFO David Wells, the platform plans to go all-in on its growing slate of original programming, which includes popular television shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jessica Jones” and its less successful film lineup. In 2014, Netflix offered Adam Sandler a four-picture deal that produced critical duds like “The Ridiculous 6” and “The Do-Over.” The company, which has struggled with a consistent brand model, has also produced misfires like the toothless Ricky Gervais satire “Special Correspondents” and “XOXO,” a saccharine love letter to EDM. The recent “Tallulah,” a sharply observed Ellen Page dramedy about a slacker who accidentally kidnaps a baby, though, has shown Netflix to be headed in the right direction.
Wells, addressing the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference on Thursday, said that the company’s goal is a 50/50 divide between Originals and licensed content, the library of contemporary and classic films on which the platform made its name. He claimed that Netflix is “one third to halfway” to reaching that mark.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been a longtime Netflix subscriber. When the service, which launched in 1997, gained in popularity in the early to mid-2000s, it was marketed on its boundlessness. Here was a company that could provide consumers what their local video store couldn’t—a seemingly endless catalog of films. If Ed, the guy with the spaghetti hair at the corner Blockbuster Video, thought Fellini was a type of cocktail, Netflix had “8 ½” and “City of Women” available whenever you wanted, provided you had made your peace with the capricious whims of the U.S. postal service.
In 2016, DVDs have become a niche service for Netflix, with just 4.5 million subscribers left. The platform even tried to spin its mail service off into a different company with the failed launch of Qwikster in 2011.
Streaming offered an incredible opportunity for the industry leader to bring its coveted library to a mass audience, but that promise has never quite materialized. The appeal of Spotify, for instance, is that the music streaming service offers nearly every song to which you could dream of listening, as long as it isn’t produced by Taylor Swift. If the new Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, or Kanye West album isn’t available—due to exclusive deals through Spotify’s competitors—just wait a couple of weeks. It will be.
That utopic vision of infinite access was perhaps never possible for Netflix, as The Verge’s Bryan Bishop astutely points out. The streaming wars have gone too nuclear—with the company’s rivals shelling out unthinkable sums to play keep-away from the biggest kid on the block. Housing all nine seasons of “Seinfeld” cost Hulu $180 million, while Amazon is home to critically acclaimed shows like “Mr. Robot” and “Orphan Black.”
Netflix, though, has backed away from its ever-shrinking digital library with a fierce intensity reserved usually for Donald Trump gaffes. Its film selection of today is less enviable than serviceable, filled with the kinds of movies one might watch drunk on a plane (see: “The Switch,” “Scary Movie”). “Netflix is no longer where you go to find something great,” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle once wrote, “it's where you go to kill some time with whatever it has available.” There are gems in each section, to be sure, and it’s hard to harbor a grudge toward any streaming platform that houses Otto Preminger’s stupendous film noir “Laura,” the best movie ever made about a guy who wants to have sex with a painting.
If Netflix killed its DVD selection, which in turn killed the video store, the service never devised a sustainable way to replace either one of those options, and it’s no longer trying.
That trend began in earnest in 2015, when the company let its deal lapse with Epix, the media company that represents MGM, Paramount and Lionsgate. Following that partnership’s collapse, films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Rocky,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “Robocop,” and “Wolf of Wall Street” were all pulled from Netflix’s site, migrating to Hulu instead. Shortly after, “Interstellar,” “Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation,” “Selma,” and “Top Five” joined them. Prior to the Epix disaster, a similar deal with Starz fell through in 2011.
To blame this solely on Netflix would be absurd and unfair. It’s partly due to the economics of content sharing, which tend to leave all parties feeling jilted and undervalued. “Starz realized just how much value it gave to Netflix and ended up pulling out of negotiations,” Bishop writes. “At the time, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings estimated that Starz content accounted for 8 percent of Netflix’s domestic viewing, and his company’s stock plunged appropriately.”
For Netflix, it makes a great deal of sense then to simply do it yourself. When you build the house—and everything that goes in it—you control the means of production. You have no masters. As opposed to ending up in a bidding war with Hulu over “Fear the Walking Dead,” the zombie spinoff purchased along with the rights to all of AMC’s lineup, the blowback from producing “Narcos” or “The Ranch” is fairly minimal. I’ve never actually met someone who watches “The Ranch,” but its failure is certainly less costly than the risk factor of “Seinfeld.” Many suggested the show was overpriced when its bid was set at $90 million.
Continuing to double down on exclusive content is simply too good for the bottom line to pass up. “The decreasing cost of production and the increasing number of bidders in the streaming market making it cheaper to take chances on shows and movies,” writes Rich McCormick, also of The Verge, of the company’s shift toward original programming.
Netflix, though, is taking bigger gambles. Although Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which was picked up by the company during the 2015 festival circuit, cost the platform relative pennies, it spent a record $90 million (for a streaming platform, anyway) on “Bright.” The film, co-starring Joel Edgerton and Noomi Rapace, will reunite director David Ayer with Will Smith for the first time since “Suicide Squad,” a film nearly everyone loathed. There’s also the $20 million Netflix tossed at Brad Pitt to star in “War Machine,” a comedy about the spin doctors pulling the strings of the war in Afghanistan.
Netflix’s romance with its Originals, however, puts the platform’s streaming library in a precarious position. One count suggests that 4,097 films are available to stream instantly on Netflix’s website, but if the company hopes to grow its deepening bench of exclusives to be on par with its repertory selection, that number will have to shrink considerably. If you’ve been paying attention, it already has. A report from earlier this year estimated that Netflix’s streaming content had already shrunk by 30 percent since January 2014.
That’s not all bad news. Movie lovers looking for something better than “White Chicks” will be forced to get their movies the old-fashioned way: by paying for them. Amazon Video has picked up where Blockbuster and the Netflix of yore left off, offering a frankly amazing variety of films at a reasonable rental price. Audiences with more discerning tastes can check out selections as diverse as “The Conformist,” “Sorry Wrong Number,” “In the Mood for Love” and “Blue Velvet.” Many others, though, in an era where consumers are notoriously allergic to paying for content when it’s not delivered in bulk, may just download these films illegally; the less adventurous will opt out altogether.
This isn’t just about giving aesthetes a better movie to watch than Adam Sandler’s “The Cobbler,” the only Jewish gentrification body-switch movie that will ever be made, but preserving film for future generations. For Netflix, it might be just business. But for those who eagerly signed up for the service in 2005—when the vast recesses of cinema were just a mailbox away—the slow death of its streaming library is an affront to everything that was great about Netflix.