Hollywood was in a collective state of shock last month when Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment forged a multiyear deal to make movies for Netflix. Two years ago, the legendary director reportedly opposed the idea that streaming films should qualify for Oscars. The new pact was seen as a sign that the old guard was finally embracing the realities of a shifting business forced to adapt to changing consumer habits.
“It was a big moment for us,” says Scott Stuber, Netflix’s movie chief. “Throughout Wall Street, throughout the industry, there was recognition about the possibilities that this deal presents. We’re going to do great things together.”
Luring Spielberg and other prestigious filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to the streamer in recent years has been a major coup for Stuber, who was reared in the traditional studio system both as a top hand at Universal Pictures and as the producer of movies including “Ted” and “Safe House.”
When he joined Netflix in early 2017, Stuber met with a wall of resistance from a creative community accustomed to having its movies seen on the big screen.
“A lot of the talent with whom I had long-term relationships were saying, ‘I’m just not going to be there with you,’” recalls Stuber. “They told me, ‘I love you. We’ll go to dinner, but we’re not doing any movies together.’ New and different is scary. For those of us who have grown up in this business, Netflix was different.”
How things have changed. In four short years, Netflix has done more to reshape the way that movies are made, distributed and consumed than perhaps any other single company in the history of the film business. Through it all, it has fallen to Stuber to convince A-list moviemakers to exchange box office bragging rights for the pleasures of the Netflix “top 10.”
And as much as Netflix has poked, prodded and willed this new world order into being, it also benefited from being the first entrant in the increasingly crowded streaming space, as well as from a global pandemic that shattered the theatrical paradigm. Like it or not, and many cinema purists decidedly do not, we are living in an entertainment landscape that Netflix and Stuber have seeded. It’s one in which media conglomerates and tech titans are focused on building the best subscription streaming service, spending enormous sums of money to create can’t-miss content that people can binge from the comfort of home.
“For so long people talked about how technology is going to change things and everything will be different, but they thought it was three or four years away,” says Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of Creative Artists Agency. “Then it happened all at once. COVID sped up things in so many ways and forced artists to step back and understand that change wasn’t coming. It had occurred.”
At Netflix, Stuber has taken the shell of a studio he inherited and expanded it into a global distribution powerhouse. The year before he accepted the job, the company had released 21 original films. Its highest-profile movie had been “Beasts of No Nation,” a child-soldier drama that earned a grand total of zero Oscar nominations. This year, Netflix will release more than 70 films, amounting to at least one new movie every week. Critics say that quantity does not always equate with quality. And yet Netflix also topped all other entertainment companies to score the most Academy Award nods in both 2020 and 2021, though a best picture prize remains stubbornly elusive.
With its ample war chest and record of awards successes, the streamer has attracted auteurs like Spike Lee and Jane Campion. Last year, Stuber convinced Shawn Levy, the director of the “Night at the Museum” franchise — to whom he had given his first directing gig, “Big Fat Liar” at Universal — to sign an overall deal at Netflix after he passed on the offer in 2017 in favor of staying at Fox. After Fox was absorbed by Disney, winnowing the crop of major studios from six to five, suddenly Netflix looked like an island of stability in very stormy seas.
“Scott has done exactly what he told me he was going to do,” says Levy. “Back then, he was just a guy with a new job and a mandate. In 2021, he’s a guy who used that job to build something. What he’s built is not just a staggeringly prolific level of output but an array of storytelling. Netflix is making big movies and small movies, dramas and comedies, action adventures and indie films.”
That range of genres and budgets is a source of Netflix’s appeal. The streaming service is willing, even eager, to make movies that conventional studios would never produce. Those companies know that moviegoers are willing to pay to see low-budget horror movies, sequels and superhero films on the big screen, with little deviation in their tastes. Because Netflix isn’t beholden to box office returns, it can afford to widen the aperture when it comes to the projects it backs, and since the company doesn’t own a Marvel or a Pixar, it has to roll the dice on original movies.
“We didn’t have anything,” says Stuber. “We didn’t have a library. We couldn’t remake ‘Nutty Professor.’ For me it was important to define ourselves, and the way to do that was by working with great filmmakers. Original storytelling was our superpower.”
Under Stuber, Netflix has embraced arthouse fare such as Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white drama “Roma” and Paolo Sorrentino’s next film, coming-of-age story “The Hand of God.” At the same time, it’s shown an appetite for star-driven action films like “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth, “The Old Guard” with Charlize Theron and this fall’s “The Harder They Fall” with Idris Elba and Regina King. In place of recognizable intellectual property, Netflix has leaned into A-list talent, believing that they are brands unto themselves, capable of attracting global audiences.
For its bigger films, which like the forthcoming action movie “Red Notice” can carry budgets north of $200 million, Stuber says his team wants them to draw an audience of more than 70 million viewers. On awards movies, the expectations are different. The executive is looking for a steady progression, with a film gradually gaining traction and building an audience as it moves from one festival to another and garners awards heat.
For filmmakers worried that their creative visions will be commodified or misunderstood by a business that only makes what it can easily sell, Stuber’s pitch has been one of unwavering artistic support. That’s what convinced Halle Berry, the Oscar-winning actor who sold her directorial debut, “Bruised,” to Netflix in 2020 because the streamer offered her a blank check to do post-production work.
“Scott gave me all the tools that I needed to complete my movie,” says Berry. “He offered the support that I was looking for. He said here are the funds you need to finish the film the way you intended. I’m not sure I would have had that anywhere else.”
Stuber’s knowledge of the filmmaking process, one gleaned from years working in the trenches as a producer, has made him a valuable ally for directors like Berry. It was also a major reason that Noah Baumbach, who directed the Oscar-winning “Marriage Story” for the streamer, recently signed a multi-year pact with Netflix.
“If Scott says he’ll make it happen, he’ll make it happen,” Baumbach emailed from the set of “White Noise,” the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s seminal novel that he’s currently shooting for Netflix. “He’s a terrific collaborator. He works to get you everything you need creatively and also helps guide you from the perspective of the studio. He’s a producer too, so he understands everything from the filmmaking perspective.”
In between bites of his sesame-crusted tuna salad during an interview at a Soho restaurant, Stuber says he wants Netflix to continue to be the home for passion projects like “Bruised.” However, that might become more difficult now that the company is facing a cavalcade of challengers. In the past two years, Disney has launched its own Netflix rival in Disney Plus, while Apple, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, Comcast and others have debuted streaming services with varying levels of success. Where once Netflix ruled the streaming roost with token opposition from Hulu or Amazon, now it must fend off HBO Max, Paramount Plus, Peacock and a truly dizzying array of upstart digital players and platforms. Even Hulu, now owned by Disney, has been spending more on programming, while Amazon bolstered its offerings by agreeing to buy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $8.5 billion. With studies showing that consumers are willing to pay for only two or three services, Netflix is under pressure to keep delivering buzzy films. After year’s of explosive growth, Netflix has been more sluggish recently when it comes to adding subscribers — a sign that new competitors are siphoning off customers.
“There’s a content arms race taking place, and it’s only going to get more intense,” says Tuna Amobi, a media analyst at CFRA. “Everyone’s doing everything they can to reach scale, because consumers are going to make choices about what services they sign up for and which ones they keep.”
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When Stuber accepted the job at Netflix, he was tired of the grind of producing movies. He had three children with his wife, actor and model Molly Sims, and the demands of traveling from one film set to another exacted a toll.
“The problem with being a producer like Scott, who is hands-on, is it’s not good for your family life,” says Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal. “You rarely shoot movies in L.A. these days, so you’re in Atlanta or Vancouver or London for four or five months. That’s OK when you’re single or newly married. It’s not OK when you have young kids.”
But Stuber, who’d ascended to become Universal’s vice chairman of worldwide production before going into producing, didn’t want the kind of job he’d had before. He was looking for a different sort of challenge and felt the ground shifting underneath him.
“He recognized that something new had happened, and he wanted to go back to graduate school to find out more about how audiences would want to see the movies he made,” says Lourd. “It’s going to prove to be one of the smartest moves anyone could have taken. He gets to be at the head of the class.”
As a producer, Stuber knew how difficult it was to make a film that didn’t feature a caped crusader. Streaming, with its fertile, untapped terrain, presented an opportunity.
“The movie business is in a revolution,” he says. “For all of us who love it, it’s imperative that we work towards revolutionizing it into the best possible form.”
At Netflix, Stuber was offered complete greenlight authority. That meant he could move a pitch into production without needing the input of a committee of marketing or finance executives or requiring the signoff of corporate chiefs.
“One of the most appealing things that [Netflix co-CEO] Ted Sarandos said is ‘It’s just you,’ Stuber remembers. “You have full authority.”
At the time, Netflix had made a mark producing original television series such as “Stranger Things” and “House of Cards,” but the film business proved tougher. Sarandos knew that money alone wasn’t going to be enough to attract top moviemakers to Netflix. He needed someone with an enviable Rolodex and an entrepreneurial spirit. And he couldn’t afford to wait. Netflix had built its audience on the back of other people’s content, paying top dollar to license films from Disney and Sony, but the company was painfully aware that as streaming services gained popularity, it would be seen as a rival. It needed to ramp up its in-house moviemaking machine or risk having nothing for its customers to stream.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that this would be the future of entertainment, and if that was true, these folks were not going to want to sell us their stuff,” says Sarandos.
In Stuber, Sarandos found his ambassador to the creative community — a low-key film buff and family man who has made movies with most of the top people in the business over his decades in the industry. Stuber spent those early days hustling from one lunch to another, up early for breakfast meetings and out late for drinks with prospective collaborators as he worked to change the narrative around Netflix. The critical success of “Roma,” which he agreed to buy based on 12 minutes of footage, and the buzz around 2019’s “The Irishman,” Scorsese’s CGI-intense mob drama, turned the tide. It helped that both films were Oscar-season juggernauts, nabbing 10 nominations apiece.
Then COVID-19 hit as media conglomerates like Disney and WarnerMedia were launching streaming services, and Netflix’s business model didn’t look radical anymore. With movie theaters closed or operating at limited capacity, studio films like “Black Widow” and “Wonder Woman 1984” were being made available to stream or rent at the same time they opened in cinemas. The theatrical window, the term for the time a movie plays solely on the big screen, has been cut from 90 days to 45, and other changes could be in store as companies look for ways to bolster their streaming offerings. When Netflix opted to give “The Irishman” an exclusive theatrical run of only four weeks, the big chains cried foul and refused to show it. Now, that kind of window looks almost indulgent.
Maintaining a theatrical component has been a priority for Stuber, who faced some skepticism from Netflix higher-ups when he pushed for “The Irishman” to have an exclusive cinema engagement.
“Scott was a big engineer and champion of that,” says Sarandos. “My question was should we do all that work? But it paid off.”
In the fall, COVID and its variants permitting, Netflix will continue to offer exclusive theatrical releases ranging from one week to just under four weeks for films like “Bruised,” “The Hand of God” and “Don’t Look Up.”
“It’s really about what’s best for the films,” says Stuber. “We feel like it’s important to give the consumers choice. Some want to watch them in theaters, and some want to watch them at home. There’s no one-size-fits-all.”
Insiders at both Netflix and Amblin say that tensions between the streaming company and Spielberg were overblown. But the director grew more comfortable with Netflix after it bought “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a political drama that Paramount didn’t want to release in the middle of the pandemic and that netted six Oscar nominations. The partnership grew stronger after Netflix signed on for Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” a biopic of Leonard Bernstein that Amblin is producing. Last spring, the companies began talking about deepening their relationship. Though initial coverage of the deal carried speculation that it came about in part because Spielberg could no longer find a studio home for the historical dramas he’s favored of late, Stuber is encouraging the filmmaker and his company to also produce populist fare. The Netflix exec hopes Spielberg will slide behind the camera to shoot some of them, even though he has no contractual obligation to direct.
“I would love him to make movies like ‘Goonies’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ for us,’” says Stuber. “He’s done those kind of great stories better than anyone.”
The deal with Amblin gives Stuber hope that he might be able to lure Christopher Nolan, an outspoken advocate for the big-screen experience, to Netflix, particularly now that Nolan has soured on Warner Bros. over the studio’s decision to send its entire 2021 film slate to HBO Max. The pair have had ongoing conversations.
“If and when he comes up with his new movie, it’s about can we be a home for it and what would we need to do to make that happen,” says Stuber. “He’s an incredible filmmaker. I’m going to do everything I can. In this business I’ve learned you need to have zero ego. I get punched and knocked down and get back up.”
Netflix has had a mixed track record in movies. While it has elbowed into the awards season game, it has had less success making films that endure. Perhaps it’s the nature of streaming, and the vast, ever-expanding ocean of content that is being offered up and replenished with alarming rapidity to fill the great maw of the consumer base, but many of the original movies that are being made for these services fail to capture the popular imagination. Decades ago, “Jurassic Park” or “Titanic” served as social totems. They dominated watercooler conversations and cocktail-party chatter in a way that demanded that audiences show up at their local multiplex to see them lest they miss out on being part of a great big entertainment happening. Netflix movies like “Spenser Confidential” or “Midnight Sky” may have their partisans, but most have not achieved that kind of cultural stickiness.
Stuber agrees. “We have to be more consistent at making these movies more culturally relevant and putting them in the zeitgeist,” he acknowledges. “We know the audience is there for these movies, but I want people to feel that impact in their conversations with friends and colleagues where they’re saying did you hear about this movie ‘Old Guard’? We’ve done it, but we haven’t done it consistently.”
Stuber thinks that will change when the company starts to more frequently report viewership metrics. The streaming revolution may have democratized viewing habits, empowering consumers to watch movies and shows when, how and on whatever device they wanted. It has not been a victory for corporate transparency, however, at least when it comes to sharing ratings or other public data about how those titles perform.
Netflix has grudgingly started to reveal more information — it now provides a list of the top 10 most watched movies and shows and has updated investors on the viewership of some of its larger projects, sharing information about the audiences for “Extraction” or “Enola Holmes.” It hasn’t been as forthcoming about movies that failed to connect. That could change, as insiders say the company is considering revealing viewership information at more regular intervals throughout the year. Stuber won’t give specifics, but he’s being pressured from talent to be less opaque.
“Filmmakers all want to be No. 1, and we feel the pain of being No. 5, and we use that to motivate us to become No. 1 again,” he says.
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Part of the appeal of the Netflix gig was that it gave Stuber an opportunity to build a studio from scratch. What’s notable, however, is that even as Netflix upended the way consumers accessed movies, under Stuber it has replicated many elements of the old studio system. Companies like Universal or Sony operate certain in-house brands like Focus or TriStar that are tasked with developing diverse types of films, from art-house offerings to genre movies. Netflix has done something similar. It has created teams for producing more commercial projects like the upcoming Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans thriller “The Gray Man” or Levy’s adventure film “The Adam Project,” which are led by a trio of executives, Kira Goldberg, Ori Marmur and Tendo Nagenda. It also has a group devoted to indie and documentary fare led by Lisa Nishimura, an international arm overseen by David Kosse and an animation team headed by Melissa Cobb.
And even though Stuber and Sarandos talk up Netflix’s bold swings on auteurs like Cuarón and Scorsese, the company has shown an equal interest in developing in-house franchises or purchasing ready-made intellectual property, as it did when it spent more than $450 million for the rights to “Knives Out” parts two and three.
Studios may almost exclusively be in the sequel business, but Netflix also has backed a stream of spinoffs and follow-ups. The company will shoot sequels to “Extraction” and “The Old Guard,” and is about to release the third film in its “Kissing Booth” trilogy. It is close to having a final script for “Bright 2,” which will bring back original stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, and has grand plans to build out Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” universe with more installments and an anime series. One blockbuster that won’t be getting a part two, however, is “6 Underground,” a $150 million Michael Bay and Ryan Reynolds film that Stuber confesses was something of a disappointment.
“We didn’t feel like we got there on that one creatively,” he says. “It was a nice hit, but at the end of the day we didn’t feel like we nailed the mark to justify coming back again. There just wasn’t that deep love for those characters or that world.”
When it first got into the moviemaking game, Netflix played up the data it had on its customers’ viewing habits as a competitive advantage, one that could allow the company to pick projects in genres or with actors that its subscribers loved. Stuber says he looks at the information that Netflix maintains before making greenlighting decisions, but he relies on more than algorithms.
“It’s all gut,” Stuber says. “The data stuff is hugely overstated. At the end of the day, you have to ask: Do you believe in it? Do you have passion for it? Do you think it’s going to work?”
Styling: Sonja Christensen/Forward; Grooming: Blondie/Exclusive Artists/Dr. Squatch Grooming; Suit and Shirt: Tom Ford