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How has Netflix changed the way we understand entertainment?

For the third year in a row, Netflix Films are leading the race in this year’s Academy Awards nominations. 27 appearances in all major categories, show signs of the studio’s dominance in the movie industry and confirm the company has come a long way since it was introduced to the world. But how did this all begin?

Netflix was born as a web-based DVD rental and sales platform. Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph came up with the concept in 1997 and one year later the website was launched. In 1999 the original per-rental model was substituted by subscription services. For a flat rate, members were able to rent an unlimited number of DVDs online and receive them by regular mail, moreover without due dates or late fees. Remember that this was still at a time when video rental stores were popular and DVD players were only a luxury – VHS was still the norm. By 2003 Netflix’s membership had risen to 1 million subscribers and would have another fivefold increase in the next three years.

Then, in 2007 things would take a drastic turn. Advancements in networking and broadband technologies paved the way for Netflix’s streaming services. Ceaselessly staying on top of their game, the company launched its on-demand model, giving subscribers the possibility to watch a film or TV show at will on their computer screens requiring only an internet connection.

Already from the dawn of the 21st century, Netflix had introduced what developed into one of the platform’s most remarkable features: its recommendation system. Back then, Cinematch used user ratings to predict which movies members would enjoy. As algorithms became increasingly complex and smart, the company kept gathering enough data on their customers’ consumption preferences and was once more quick to act. User likes and dislikes were no longer tapped only to offer suggestions, but additionally to create original customized content.

Thus, in 2013 Netflix set about developing their own productions, with hits like House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Orange is the New Black among their initial original series. Contrary to most networks that only approved or dismissed shows based on pilot metrics, by capitalizing on pre-mined user feedback, Netflix offered upfront contracts for one or sometimes more seasons.

It wasn’t long before the first original feature film followed. Beasts of No Nation, a war drama starring Idris Elba, came out in 2015. Its simultaneous release on theatres and online resulted in the film being almost ignored by US movie theatres. But the  Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, as well as a Screen Actors Guild win that followed its release, augured a bright future for storytellers looking to house their work, increasing Netflix’s credibility as a studio for serious productions.

By 2019, Netflix had expanded into acquiring its own studios, but the path wasn’t always paved with roses. When the first Academy Award nominations arrived, many in Hollywood were vocal in their vexation. Director Steven Spielberg did not stop in expressing his disdain but further lobbied with the Motion Picture Association for an adjustment in their eligibility criteria. Reactions were similar at the Cannes Film Festival. Traditionally, the distribution life cycle of movies wanted a few months’ exclusivity for cinemas before films could be released in other (usually less profitable) modes, such as VHS, or DVDs later on. Now Netflix came along, taking a revolutionary turn on these long-established methodologies, and part of the industry did not like it. Movies must be released in theatres, they said, to be competition admissible. Netflix decided to abide by the Academy rules and pulled out of Cannes, not without making an impact. 

Streaming platforms are continuing to reshape how the film and television industries work. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the resulting lockdowns increased home consumption of entertainment even further. Restrictions kept cinemas closed, making more studios cancel movie theatre premieres and directly release their content online instead. Competitors began entering the market (Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+ etc.) since industry players seemed to believe this a longer-term trend and work to remain up to speed. Still, Netflix doesn’t risk losing its throne any time soon.

When once going to the movies was considered by many a favourite past-time, the perfect date night, or simply a thrilling experience, has it now become nothing short of a hassle? Cinema lovers have not disappeared, naturally, but how many feel safe visiting a fully packed space? Instead, Netflix subscribers can watch content whenever and wherever they want. At some point, Netflix parties recreated the experience of going to the movies in a larger group, even if each participant joined from their own lodgings. Customarily, so-called “TV movies” have been thought less of than big-screen releases, but films starring major actors being directly released on streaming platforms, is another move pushing this once widely held belief away.

Recognizing the advantages, numerous creators have been firmly advocating for Netflix’s methodologies. Essentially, filmmakers from diverse backgrounds have found in the streaming titan a much welcomed and supportive partner. Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, 13th) is only one of the directors who have weighed in the amplification of diversity Netflix has brought about by funding projects that others ignored or considered risky. This kind of variety does more than help creators; audiences, too, are appreciative of content that transcends borders, languages, and gender or ethnic groups, to name a few.

Netflix isn’t afraid to invest. An estimated $17 billion was spent on creating original content in 2021. At the end of the year, the company raised its monthly subscription by £1-2, promising to deliver even more. It seems that the tables are slowly turning when it comes to industry reception as well. Critically acclaimed movies like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog may signal that the streamer pioneers might not stay much longer without a Best Picture award. Half of the ten Best Picture nominees this year were also either released by streaming services, or in theatres and online simultaneously by other studios forced to adjust their strategies,

From its early days renting out DVDs in the US, Netflix is now spearheading on-demand entertainment, having changed the way people spend their time. Netflix has proved time and again that they can shift their business model not only to reflect customer demand but, more importantly, also to drive it. It remains to be seen what else they have in store. 

Image Courtesy of Josue Mejia 01, via Wikimedia Commons

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