Every Monday, the industry press rounds up the winners and losers of the weekend at the box office, against the only metric that is valuable in the business: the dollar bill. In the meantime, more zeitgeisty websites (i.e. mainly Buzzfeed) have already compiled the best Twitter reactions to the entire seasons of new shows released on streaming platforms the previous Friday. After all, rare is the film that can be both a big earner and shift the culture.
In recent times, only The Dark Knight managed to be an overwhelming financial success (grossing over one billion dollars) and to change what action blockbusters and comic book films look like.
This weekend, as I saw my timeline inundated with reactions to Orange Is The New Black (no spoilers please). I realised that Netflix’s currency in the industry is not a currency so to speak: it’s Internet traffic.
Streaming platforms on a global scale
Streaming platforms have completely turned the tables on how entertainment is consumed. Netflix’s first original show, House of Cards, was released in 2013. It led a revolution in the way creatives and business people grasp their market. While the output may have been culturally standardised for a North American market in the beginning, it is less and less so now as Netflix keeps buying in every one of its territories. More crucially, whatever the final product is: it has immediate access to over 190 countries.
The capabilities of the internet and social media have fulfilled Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of the world becoming a global village. Now, the sheer power of a company like Netflix in terms of distribution is unprecedented, and capable of creating cultural phenomena on a scale yet unseen. Interestingly, Netflix carries a lot of debt. $20 billion of debt, to be exact. While it might seem paradoxical, this article reminds us that “wars are expensive”.
The business model of streaming giants
Because wars are expensive, Netflix isn’t alone in carrying that much debt. Amazon, Hulu, Apple and others are spending heaps to buy content. Disney is spending over $70 billion for 21st Century Fox, with the main goal of the transaction being that they can be a decent competitor to Netflix.
The differences in business models are where the battle gets interesting. Netflix is exclusively a media company, but on a global scale. Amazon Prime is integrated in the Amazon empire, whose goal it is to make anything available to anyone via drone or else within one hour. As the head of Amazon Studios -and legendary indie producer- Ted Hope recently said: “Movies “have always been an excuse to sell popcorn and concessions,” Hope said. “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.””
Apple is very much a global brand, albeit North America-centric, and its playground is the entire globe. However, its business is principally tech and not entertainment -yet. Hulu only exists in the US and in Japan which makes it relevant only to US decision-makers and US customers.
The cultural impact of companies
Apple is known for the pristine design of its hardware. Amazon is known for being the place where you can get anything. Disney is the entertainment factory that hides behind the grinning face of Mickey Mouse. Netflix -well, Netflix is just Netflix. A companion for Friday nights, provider of laughs, ugly-cries and “Netflix & chill”. Its impact on the culture is incomparable. (You don’t “Disney and chill” unless you want to ruin your and someone else’s childhood memories.)
Yes, watching a movie in the cinema is a very special experience, but the sound of people having a conversation over a movie, the munching of pop corn during A Quiet Place, and your neighbour’s incessant Instagram scrolling could be distractions. With streaming providers, the power lies with you.
Being aware that you are watching content on your own terms (but mostly on theirs, thanks to their algorithms), those sites will trade in something more impactful which can’t really be quantified. By putting the ball in the user’s court, streaming now trades in cultural relevance.
The social impact of filmmakers
This is why streaming platforms, especially Netflix, are the place to go for social impact filmmakers. Only them and public broadcasters are looking for content that will spur a conversation, and get people to react. The communal experience is now transferred on social media. There can be genuine reactions for something entirely fictional -i.e. remember the shock at the end of the first episode of the second season of House of Cards? Why couldn’t there be for social impact work?
After all, Dear White People was picked up as a series after the word-of-mouth from the film reached the commissioners. If you manage to build an audience from a very relevant and timely issue online, you could find a platform that, unencumbered by fiduciary considerations, will carry the conversation forward. What will your work be?