Hollywood has just watched a Netflix horror movie called The Future.
Last week (September 29-October 3) “The streaming giant” as we all call it – a lazy epithet that merely hints at the scope of the company’s ambitions – pulled back the curtain on two deals that have become the talk of the town and may well usher in wholesale change.
First came news of how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend will open on August 28, 2015. It won’t launch in the traditional way; rather The Weinstein Company/Netflix sequel will roll out globally in a simultaneous release on Netflix’s streaming platform and on select Imax screens.
Studio and exhibition executives had barely caught their breath when two days later Netflix said it had struck a deal with Adam Sandler to jointly produce four films in which Sandler will star. The first opportunity anybody will get to see these films anywhere will be on Netflix’s burgeoning network of close to 50 countries.
While one could argue neither transaction is depriving exhibitors of the most potent box office draws – the Crouching Tiger sequel only boasts Michelle Yeoh from the original, while Sandler is a patchy commercial prospect who has never been Hollywood’s biggest export – they have left theatre owners shaken.
The three largest chains in the US – Regal, Dalian Wanda-owned AMC and Cinemark – have said they will not show Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend in any of their Imax theatres. They control more than half the 400 Imax sites in North America, setting the stage for a potentially embarrassing situation for Imax.
While Netflix is clearly intent on smashing traditional distribution windows, that must be the last thing Imax wants. How could it be otherwise? It’s an exhibitor-distributor-producer hybrid that relies on theatre chains for revenue-sharing enterprise and both sides enjoy an increasingly lucrative symbiosis.
That said, Imax wants to fill seats during theatre-going lulls like the late August corridor and would have seen the Crouching Tiger 2 deal as an opportunity to do precisely that. According to sources it was Netflix who approached Imax with the proposal. Netflix and Imax did not comment for this article.
However Imax appears to have underestimated the level of anger this move would provoke in exhibitors and doubtless will be doing what it can to smooth things over behind the scenes.
The Crouching Tiger 2 and Sandler announcements are mere stepping stones in Netflix’s mission to take on Hollywood. Look at the talent that flocked to House Of Cards and the ensuing popularity of that show and another Netflix original series, Orange Is The New Black, to name but one. Are the studios with their costly pay-TV deals ready to shake off the perception that they have become intransigent and engage with the age of instant view?
The company means business and has pledged $6bn to buy content over the next three years. And it’s not just about going after Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson. Who’s to say Netflix won’t capture the Millennial audience share and jump into bed with YouTube superstars like PewDiePie, comedy pair Smosh and Spanish celebrity Vegetta777?.
Its ambitions are global. Speaking of the broader international vista, Chief content officer Ted Sarandos visited Colombia this week to discuss that country’s cash rebate, which will help mitigate costs on Netflix’s crime series Narcos from producer Gaumont International Television.
In Chile, Netflix already owns exclusive worldwide streaming rights after the Chilean theatrical window to the films of Sobras International Pictures led by Nicolas López, Eli Roth’s prolific ‘Chilewood’ collaborator who directed Aftershock and produced The Green Inferno and Knock Knock.
If Netflix is about revolution, Imax represents evolution. The latter also delivered a one-two punch this week when it announced its role in the early release of Interstellar alongside Warner Bros and Paramount. Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi will open two days ahead of conventional release in a series of 70mm Imax, 70mm and 35mm debuts on 240 North American venues.
The November 5 screenings are already sold or selling out everywhere, which speaks not just to the power of Nolan but Imax.
I suggested in a column back in March how an Imax champion like Nolan might one day insist on granting Imax an exclusive release window prior to conventional release. We’re not there yet, but that day may transpire on a future film by Nolan or someone else with a taste for giant canvases.
For now, Imax’s role in the early release of Interstellar and the pact with Netflix and The Weinstein Company offers ample proof of the value it adds to the theatre-gong experience.
While it is not a fundamental disruptor like Netflix, Imax reminds conventional exhibitors, studios and producers that things aren’t what they used to be. The smart ones will embrace change and identify the value in new partners and paradigms; those that do not face tumultuous times ahead.
Jeremy Kay is US editor at Screen International