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Netflix’s Scott Stuber: Film Biz Needs to ‘Be Calm and Talk Through’ Exhibition Disputes

Netflix film chief Scott Stuber urged film producers and exhibitors to come together to reach a consensus on exhibition window disputes as Netflix and other streaming giants move forcefully into feature production.

Stuber, Netflix’s VP of film, spoke Saturday morning at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By NY conference in a wide-ranging Q&A with filmmaker and Imagine Entertainment co-chairman Ron Howard. Toward the end of the hourlong conversation, Howard gingerly brought up the issue of Netflix’s conflicts with major exhibition players over its handling of the theatrical release for Martin Scorsese’s latest film, crime drama “The Irishman” starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

“If everyone would just be calm and talk through it, over the next few years as an industry we’ll be able to find the right answer for everyone,” Stuber told the crowd at Manhattan’s Florence Gould Hall. 

Earlier this month, National Assn. of Theatre Owners president John Fithian criticized Netflix for leaving “significant money on the table” by refusing to agree to the standard 72-day window of exclusivity for theatrical releases. Netflix offered a 26-day exclusive frame for theater owners before “The Irishman” — which runs more than three hours — bows Nov. 27 on the streaming platform. Fithian told the New York Times the situation was a “disgrace” and faulted Netflix for failing to work with exhibitors.

Stuber, a veteran producer and former top executive at Universal Pictures, emphasized that the theatrical business has become so dominated by tentpole movies that it’s harder for adult dramas like “The Irishman” and other genres to make money at the box office.

“It’s become very tight,” Stuber said. “It’s become about giant IP, animation and horror. Certain genres have been squeezed out because it’s more challenging. … Instead of the rhetoric of us versus them, we have to get together and talk about how do we widen the funnel” of opportunity for filmmakers, he said.

Stuber also stressed that the conflict over the windowing strategy for theatrical releases has become an issue for all major studios.

“It’s not a Netflix issue, it’s a business issue,” Stuber said.

Netflix has offered varying lengths for theatrical windows, from four weeks to six weeks. As a startup operation, launching a studio-like slate of 12 to 14 movies a year as traditional theatrical releases was simply not feasible. “It’s a different business model,” he said.

Stuber joined Netflix to build a film division from scratch in March 2017. The company has some 60 projects in various stages of development or production at present. Stuber emphasized to Howard that despite the high volume, the company does not look to buy “250 projects for five slots.”

“We want to buy it to make it,” he said. “We don’t want to buy it to develop it.”

Stuber told Howard that Netflix’s film operations are organized into numerous sub divisions, with dedicated executives steering animation, genre films, family friendly titles, indie arthouse fare and prestige projects such as “The Irishman.” There’s a group for Christmas movies, inspirational stories and numerous international units. He compared it to the different tonal styles of movies from a range of labels a la New Line Cinema and Focus Features.

Howard at present is working on an adaption of the novel “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix.

Stuber told the crowd that Netflix assesses movie prospects based on the depth of the characters and the strength of the narrative POV. He doesn’t think as much about what titles will appeal to which demos as he looks for a story with universal human elements that can travel across Netflix’s vast worldwide subscriber base of nearly 160 million.

“I can have an alien attack or I can have two people falling in love in a cafe — whoever is in the center [of the movie], it better be somebody I recognize,” he said. “It matters that we can all see ourselves in that person.”

Stuber noted that film veteran David Kosse has been tapped to lead an international film unit out of London. The global footprint of Netflix gives Stuber’s wing a wide berth to work with filmmakers outside the U.S. in their native languages. He sees that as a better proposition in some case than bringing foreign filmmakers into Hollywood.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work for that artist spiritually,” he said. “But if you work with them in their own language, you let them sing.”

Howard pressed Stuber on compensation terms for artists at Netflix, given that the service typically seeks to lock up all rights for a long period of time, if not own its content outright. Stuber said Netflix has tried to be open with producers of its films, offering viewership information after the projects opening weekend, and again after seven days and 28 days of release.

Moreover, Netflix’s deals with filmmakers incorporate bonus-type formulas that are paid out for titles that perform well.

“We have a model. If we make a film, we pay in success,” he said.

(Pictured: Scott Stuber and Ron Howard)

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