Netflix Must Pass Its ‘Gray Man’ Test With Flying Colors

"The Gray Man" animated gif
Illustration: VIP+; "The Gray Man" Courtesy of Netflix

Up until now, the sheer volume of original movies released by Netflix each year has allowed the streamer to hedge its bets on any one film. If a movie didn’t connect with viewers, it wouldn’t matter much — five more movies came the next week. 

And the week after. And the week after that.

But as Netflix shifts toward a “fewer and better” strategy, head of global film Scott Stuber is about to gamble on individual movies. It remains questionable, however, if he can cover those bets. 

Exhibit A: “The Gray Man,” on which the streamer is going all in.

Arriving on the streaming service Friday, the star-studded action thriller is one of Netflix’s most expensive films to date, costing some $200 million to produce. “The Gray Man” is also getting a big marketing push — an anomaly for a company that rarely spends heavily to promote individual titles.

“Our marketing spend is a bit lumpy because they really are trying to focus on the titles that mean a lot to our members and that created a lot of excitement and conversation around the world,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said on Tuesday’s Q2 earnings call. “ ‘Gray Man’ is certainly one of those movies that’s going to attract a very broad audience. So you’ll see the marketing spend out there pretty aggressively.”

There’s another reason Sarandos is stacking the marketing chips on “The Gray Man.” The absence of homegrown franchises is arguably the only competitive disadvantage Netflix still has to more traditional media giants like Disney and Paramount. “The Gray Man” is intended to launch such a franchise, with former Marvel Cinematic Universe directors Anthony and Joe Russo already mapping out movies and TV series to expand the GMCU (Gray Man Cinematic Universe). 

Because of that promotional push and an A-list cast (including Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas), it’s virtually guaranteed that “The Gray Man” will end up among the streamer’s top-performing titles. Netflix already has a track record with this formula; its last action tentpole with an all-star cast, “Red Notice,” became its most watched movie ever last year.

But the prospect of Netflix kickstarting a franchise is much less promising. It’s no secret that most of Netflix’s many, many original movies are widely seen as disposable, consumed and quickly forgotten by the viewing audience. Planned sequels to earlier big-budget titles including “Bright” and “6 Underground” fizzled out.

Of course, that quantity-over-quality problem is something Stuber is hoping to fix with his “fewer and better” method. The executive recently told The New York Times, “We’re trying to be more thoughtful ... We were a business that was, for a long time, a volume business. And now we’re being very specific about targeting.”

But fewer doesn’t automatically equal better. Netflix is positioning “The Gray Man” to represent its new strategy, but the film was made with the same free spending and loose creative reins that have historically been the streamer’s modus operandi. Critics are split on whether the movie rises above previous Netflix efforts, like the much derided “Red Notice.” Even if it succeeds, “The Gray Man” shows the company’s film division needs a bigger overhaul to justify such big swings.

And if the film (improbably) tanks, Netflix — and especially Stuber — are headed for serious trouble. To recap, “The Gray Man” needs to prove this new approach can work, prove that $200 million and marketing spend were worth it and prove Netflix can successfully launch a franchise. That makes it arguably the most important original film the streamer has ever released. 

As if that weren’t enough, Netflix just saw its second straight subscriber loss in Q2, though its stock swung upward due to a positive Q3 forecast (and because the sub losses were smaller than expected). It remains to be seen if “The Gray Man” can help restart subscriber growth, something even “Stranger Things” couldn’t achieve, no matter how many viewing records it shattered.

Reduced output, more expensive movies and a lot riding on each release? Sounds like Netflix has truly gone Hollywood.