Cornered at his own Cannes party, Ted Sarandos gave a title to the controversy that had engulfed his company and overwhelmed all other chatter on the Croisette. “Cannes loves a scandal, and this one is called ‘L’Affaire de Netflix,’” the streaming service’s content chief joked.
“L’Affaire” was at times the only thing anyone talked about at Cannes. The festival’s decision to effectively block Netflix from future competitions after accepting two of its movies this year appears to be a loss for the streaming service and a win for French cinema purists. But viewed at a time in which the streaming giant is releasing a glut of high-profile original programming, Netflix’s south of France sojourn reveals plenty about its priorities as it continues to upend the television and film establishments.
By the end of May, Netflix will have premiered 28 original series, films or specials. Even by its own standards, that’s a high volume of original content — more than it debuted in April or will in June. Among the series unpacking new seasons this month are Emmy winners “House of Cards” and “Master of None” as well as Emmy nominee “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” They return with new episodes just days before the cut-off for 2017 Emmy eligibility.
That’s not a coincidence.
Netflix loves to tout its psychographic, global perspective — the idea that a mother living in India might have tastes similar to those of a teenager in Colorado, and that both viewers can be similarly satisfied. But insiders concede that while the company prides itself on a lack of regard for demographics and other concerns that weigh on linear programmers, awards consideration does influence what gets released when. “House of Cards” usually premieres in February or March. A late start on production this time around meant that season five would miss that mark this year. But Netflix execs were conscious of getting the new episodes on the service within the current Emmy eligibility window. “Cards” starts dealing May 30, one day before that window closes.
|Donghyun lim for Variety|
Since becoming first a player, then a defining presence in original programming, Netflix has eschewed certain traditional forms of marketing and publicity. It pulled out of the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour and isn’t scheduled to participate in the upcoming summer tour. And several agents who spoke with Variety expressed concern that some of the company’s scripted series are launched without adequate marketing support — disappearing into an ever-expanding library after a brief tour on the service’s home screen.
What Netflix has that its linear competitors lack is its recommendation engine. Jenji Kohan’s comedy “Glow” will premiere two weeks after season four of her “Orange Is the New Black.” The idea is for viewers who have just finished bingeing on “Orange” to be directed by Netflix’s user interface to “Glow.”
But not all traditional forms of marketing are foreign to Netflix. Last year the company sent a massive Emmy for-your-consideration mailer — 20 pounds of DVDs containing every episode of every Emmy-eligible series and special — to all Television Academy voting members. Awards-season marketers who spoke to Variety at the time estimated the cost of the mailing to be between $2.5 million and $4 million.
Instinet’s Anthony DiClemente ballparks Netflix’s annual spend on marketing at $1 billion. That’s in tandem with an expected content budget of $6 billion this year, which the analyst expects to rise to $8 billion next year. DiClemente sees the pursuit of awards, be it at the Emmys or at film festivals, as part of the company’s marketing strategy.
“Obviously, these are things that create buzz for the content they have invested in,” DiClemente says. “If Netflix wins an award, it drives viewership for that show.”
This year was the first that Netflix put films in competition at Cannes. It may also be the last. Controversy erupted after Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” were accepted into competition at the fest, prompting guidelines that will next year require competition movies receive a full theatrical release. For Netflix to compete again at Cannes, the company would have to alter its feature film release strategy. An alternative would be for Netflix to exhibit at Cannes outside of competition. When asked by Variety whether the company would be willing to do so next year, Sarandos said, “No,” before softening his stance slightly.
“Well, I shouldn’t say that,” he added. “It would be less attractive, for sure, because it would affect [Netflix’s] festival strategy around the world.”
It also would remove a presumed key incentive for Netflix to even show up on the Croisette — the potential to bring a Palme d’Or back to Silicon Valley and leverage the honor to position the streaming service as a must-have product for film lovers.
Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.