Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: Audience for ‘The Irishman’ Is ‘as Big as Anything in the Theater’

Netflix is in the movie business for the long haul as it looks to fill creative voids left by the focus at the major studios on tentpoles and superheroes, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told a crowd of investors and entrepreneurs on Thursday.

Sarandos was pressed during the Q&A at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena, Calif., about the streaming behemoth’s struggle with exhibitors to set traditional theatrical releases for select titles from its fast-growing film slate. The largest exhibition chains have balked at Netflix’s insistence that titles be available on the streamer earlier than the traditional 90-day exclusive window for theatrical runs.

Sarandos acknowledged the friction that kept Netflix’s 2019 awards contenders “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” from securing a wide release despite strong creative pedigrees and critical buzz for both titles, but he indicated that it’s a matter of time before the industry adjusts to a new paradigm. After all, he noted, Netflix led the industry in Oscar nominations this year with 24 bids.

“The only thing standing in the way is the major chains,” Sarandos told moderator Jason Hirschhorn, CEO of the digital news site Redef. Of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Sarandos observed that with 40 million-plus Netflix households giving it at least a “start,” the audience for the roughly three and a half-hour film is “definitely as big as anything in the theater.”

Sarandos said the success of the company’s first animated feature — the Christmas-themed romp “Klaus” — has encouraged them to rev up animation production with the goal of getting to four to six releases a year.

Sarandos pointed to Netflix’s recent purchase of the standalone Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles and long-term lease for Manhattan’s Paris Theater as signs of the company’s commitment to the film business. Netflix hopes to turn the Egyptian, which is not far from Netflix’s Hollywood offices, the into “a real hub for film culture” and haven for movie aficionados.

Netflix also channeled the sentiments of Scorsese in observing that movies that rack up big box office these days tend to be superhero-driven tentpoles. Netflix sees a huge opportunity to reach viewers with the kind of adult-oriented dramas and lighter romantic comedies that are now less plentiful at the multiplexes. Scorsese caused a stir last November when he opined that Marvel’s recent string of superhero hits does not qualify as “cinema.”

“It’s very rare to see a hit movie that takes place on planet Earth any more,” Sarandos quipped. “There’s a market for real human drama — but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at the top 10 movies around the world in the last decade.”

Sarandos said much of the Netflix ethos about content was shaped by the indie film business. The company realized the power of movies in its early days of mailing DVDs when it saw the traction that even esoteric film titles could generate once they were easily accessible by consumers.

“So much of our creative DNA came out of the indie world,” he said.

Sarandos also talked up the growth of local-language production for Netflix’s global platform, which boasts 167.1 million subscribers. The company will produce an astounding 130 series around the world this year, including the service’s first original programs produced for African audiences.

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