There, he said it: “Netflix, Netflix, Netflix.” If that punchline to a joke by host Andy Samberg wasn’t quite the theme of Sunday night’s broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards, it was close enough. Netflix grabbed five awards, including two for its most serious Oscar contender ever, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, validating the streaming giant’s film awards ambitions at least for one night.
The genial, champagne-soaked Globes show capped quite the holiday season for Netflix, during which it unveiled a potentially groundbreaking interactive show, had its biggest-ever movie hit, and took steps to clean up its problematic bottom line.
The various steps are badly needed and well timed. This year, an already overstuffed SVOD sector is about to get a lot more crazy, with Apple’s service launching this spring, and Disney, Walmart’s Vudu and WarnerMedia following later on.
Netflix hasn’t exactly had the place to itself heretofore – with Amazon, Hulu, HBO, ESPN+, CBS All Access, DC Universe and countless lesser players – but customers will have to wade through even more compelling ways to entertain themselves. Netflix must ensure it offers a wide range of engaging programming to its worldwide audience, while finding new ways to make money. And to do that, the company has taken several major steps forward these past few weeks.
One was the investment in feature-length projects by Oscar- and Emmy-winning directors, including Cuaron (Gravity), the Coen Bros. (No Country for Old Men and this year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and Susanna Bier (In a Better World, The Night Manager and this year’s Bird Box).
Roma won both best director and best foreign-language film at the Globes. It’s a strong favorite to do that double again in Oscar voting, which begins today on nominees. As well, because of inexplicable Globes rules, the Spanish- and Mixtec-language Roma wasn’t eligible for best drama movie. It won’t face those strictures in the Oscars, where it’s a dead certain nominee for best picture and a strong candidate to win.
As Netflix did with its investment in TV contenders such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black beginning in 2013, the company is using awards as a signaler to audiences of quality programming. The company also picked up two Golden Globes for comedy series The Kominsky Method and another for Richard Madden’s compelling work in drama series Bodyguard.
Bird Box, like Roma and Buster Scruggs, received special handling this awards season by Netflix, which actually allowed short theatrical runs ahead of the films’ online release. That was designed to both placate the directors themselves, and to grab more media (and Oscar voter) attention for the films that otherwise might not have come in the company’s typical “day-and-date” release practices.
Bird Box, an unusual horror film featuring a crackerjack cast led by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, won’t be grabbing any major awards, it appears, but it provided something else that Netflix prizes: lots of viewers. The company broke from another of its usual practices, and actually released data about the film’s record viewership.
In its first week after a Dec. 21 online debut, Netflix said, 45 million subscribers watched the film, about a third of the company’s 137 million base. And given that each subscriber typically represents a household of people, not a single person (not to mention all those shared passwords out there ), it’s likely the film was seen by something closer to 100 million viewers during that holiday week. That’s a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year indeed for Netflix.
Clearly, the combination of a talented international director, a cast with worldwide name recognition, a genre focus and perhaps even some of that extra media attention from a short theatrical release ahead of the holidays all combined to help make a huge hit for the company. It could be a formula worth repeating in coming years.
Bird Box even jumped into the broader cultural conversation, even fueling an ill-advised Internet meme, the Bird Box Challenge, where participants perform various tasks while blindfolded. It proved so popular that Netflix had to post a cautionary tweet urging fans not to endanger themselves. The next step, no doubt, will be finding and eating Tide pods while blindfolded.
Netflix also released another unique, cultural-crossover project, an interactive feature-length episode of its hit sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror. The episode, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, was knocked by many critics as a so-so gimmick that’s been around for decades, but it represents a crossover from the gaming world to a well-established hit TV show on a major distribution. That’s a big deal. More importantly, in the long term, it’s easy to see projects like Bandersnatch opening new opportunities in product placement, data-informed programming and even e-commerce.
You can bet Amazon is thinking about how to better connect and monetize its shows, fat online backbone and vast marketplace, and probably so are such talented merchandisers as Disney and Apple.
And that leads us to a couple of other financial moves by Netflix.
First was its decision to no longer allow in-app subscription purchases and renewals on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Store. SensorTower estimated the move may save Netflix as much as $500 million in Apple hosting fees alone this year. That’s cash it can spend in lots of other places.
And finally, there was the company’s hiring of Spencer Neumann, the CFO of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, and former CFO of Disney parks and resorts.
Neumann brings useful background as Netflix tries to diversify its revenue, make a profit in a bear market, and reduce its reliance on junk bonds to finance its vast content spending.
At Activision, Neumann would have seen how the dynamic game business is pushing into esports, virtual and augmented reality, merchandise, live events and more. At Disney, where he was also EVP of Global Guest Experience, Neumann would have seen the machine behind the Disney magic that extracts billions of dollars annually from its super fans.
As Netflix looks to make more money, it can’t just live off growth in its international subscriber base. It needs to do what Disney and Activision have been doing for years: providing more ways for its own super fans to further engage with its content and narrative worlds, helping keep its best customers close and engaged.
Neumann faces plenty of challenges, of course, amid a suddenly bearish stock market and all this new competition. But at least Netflix isn’t standing pat. as its very merry holiday season shows.