What Netflix’s Sandler Stunner Means for Movies

Leave it to a company that started the week resurrecting a martial-arts flick to follow up with a big one-two punch.

Just days after Netflix surprised Hollywood with a deal for a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel, the streaming service walloped showbiz all over again with a four-picture pact for Adam Sandler.

While the impact of both developments is subject to debate, this much is clear: After several years of challenging the TV business, Netflix has now taken aim at the movie industry as well. And given how effectively it has established itself competitively to TV, it’s a threat to be taken seriously.

The movie business finds itself today at the same juncture the TV industry was at in 2011 when Netflix set up “House of Cards”: the studios have woken up to discover they don’t have the field to themselves anymore. Talent can take the ball with them over to Netflix if they don’t like how the game is being played, as Kevin Spacey did.

But imagine if “House of Cards” had lured an even bigger name over from TV, like James Gandolfini. That’s how big a move Netflix has made in the movie business (though it wouldn’t have been possible without the track record accomplished on the TV side).

Maybe the Sandler deal feels more like a jaw-dropper than “Crouching Tiger” because while Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos fired a warning shot long ago about his company’s intent on invading day-and-date turf, no one this kind of talent poaching on the horizon.

That said, just as the exhibitor boycott that should severely limit Netflix’s U.S. theatrical footprint seemed to take the wind out of its controversial bid to go day and date with “Crouching,” there are reasons why someone like Sandler was ripe for the picking.

He is clearly on the downside of his career, as his once-mighty boxoffice clout fades. His last release, WB’s “Blended” failed to hit $50 million in domestic box office and the actor is often derided for churning out shlocky low-brow fare. But Sandler, now 48, is still a valuable asset in decline. His homevideo power has barely waned at all (“Blended” and other titles continue to soar on DVD and VOD), which makes his pairing with the home-based Netflix audience all the more interesting.

Even with 36.2 million subscribers in the U.S., Netflix still doesn’t match the audience reach that Sandler already has in homes accustomed to accessing him on TV via VOD or DVD, but this pact could help drive that usage across gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, streaming media players like Roku and smart TVs.

Of course, Netflix isn’t saying what kind of movies Sandler will be doing. They may be less on the scale of “Anger Management” or “Happy Gilmore” and closer in size to some of the smaller projects he’s done. But presumably the algorithmic magic Netflix wants to work on its 50 million-strong audience worldwide is predicated on connecting them with content in the vein of the classic Sandler comedies they love most.

In the event that Netflix is ready to spend the way Sandler is accustomed to, it’s going to require the company take its studio infrastructure to the next level. The lean operation Sarandos has maintained to date simply won’t work if the company needs to crank up the kind of marketing juggernaut Sony Pictures has supported Sandler with in the past. Is CEO Reed Hastings ready to spend $70-80 million per picture or is he playing by his own set of rules?

Netflix’s incursions can be overestimated. Just as “Crouching Tiger” isn’t quite the day-and-date nuclear option “Tower Heist” once nearly became because the Weinstein Co. title is a smaller movie aimed at an overseas audience, Sandler isn’t necessarily the gut-punch to the studio system he might seem.

Sandler’s comedy niche is just one of the genres that are being challenged by the studios’ increasingly singleminded focus on tentpole franchises. Poaching talent of any sort may not be the coup it once seemed to be because the studios aren’t as reliant on name-brand stars as much as they are on sequel-friendly intellectual property that lends itself to merchandise and theme parks.

Consequently, studio execs may not be sweating all that much today. Without an ability to do day and date at true scale, can Netflix make a play for the kind of big-budget, CGI-laden superhero franchise movies that are the studios’ priority? Not anytime soon.

In a sector where all but the most essential high-performers will get squeezed out, Netflix isn’t so much challenging the movie business as it is reconstituting the layers that are falling away from the studios as they concentrate on a less diversified portfolio. There are plenty more genres left for dead that Netflix can scoop up and potentially revive because the bigscreen experience isn’t essential: romantic comedies, adult thrillers, etc.

While Netflix has already invaded awards season with documentaries like “The Square,” could the time come soon when it seeks to compete with prestige fiction pics that aren’t reliant on theatrical? Given the grumbling A-list filmmakers like Spielberg and Soderbergh have done about how hard it was to make pics like “Lincoln” within the confines of the current system, Sarandos undoubtedly has them on speed dial.

But even if Netflix is just feasting on non-core segments of the movie business, its ability to skim the cream right off the top of those segments by snagging top-shelf talent like Sandler is a testament to how hard the company is swinging with barely one foot in the door of the movie business.

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