Friday, August 10, 2018

The "Mowgli" Moment

When "The Cloverfield Paradox" was sold to Netflix earlier this year and made a surprise premiere after the Superbowl, I thought that it was a clever stunt, and might point to the studios coming around to doing business with Netflix again in certain circumstances.  And now along comes "Mowgli," the Warner Brothers adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," that was supposed to have a theatrical release in October. It is by far the largest and most prominent title that Netflix has acquired from a major studio so far, with several celebrity names voicing the animal characters, including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  

Frankly, "Mowgli" was plagued from bad luck from the start.  It's one of several recent projects trying to hit on becoming the next big franchise by rebooting classic material with modern sensibilities.  After losing multiple directors, ultimately Andy Serkis was brought on to helm the project. Production delays meant that it would have to be released after Disney's adaptation of "The Jungle Book" in 2016, which was a massive hit.  The marketing initially tried to paint "Mowgli" as a darker and more serious film to try and distance it from the Disney feature. However, more recent trailers have done an about face to try and appeal to families. Apparently the response to Warner's efforts haven't been encouraging.  

The acquisition is being viewed as bad news for the film, an admission that Warner Bros. has no faith in a theatrical release for it.  However, what I find interesting here is that Warner Bros. decided it was in their best financial interests to go to Netflix with the title.  Ten years ago it would have gone straight to DVD, but the DVD market has dried up. Five years ago they might have spent millions retooling it, or simply let it crash and burn at the box office in the post-holiday winter months.  Now? Warners gets to recoup some of their costs, the film won't be stuck in limbo where audiences can't see it indefinitely, and Netflix has another shiny new piece of studio-produced content for their library. The fact that it may not be any good doesn't mean that viewers won't watch it.        

Netflix has continued spending vast sums on content, and plans to release over sixty feature films in 2018 alone.  Their Oscar slate is particularly strong this year, including films from Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Greengrass.  Next year will see the release of the long awaited Martin Scorsese project, "The Irishman." The rest of Hollywood may not take them seriously, but I think that if they keep this up, Netflix is  going to be the de facto sixth major studio, after Disney and FOX finish their merger. At this point they're simply too big and too influential to be ignored. Netflix is the default choice when it comes to online viewing.  

However, it's not likely to stay that way.  The streaming world has gotten much more crowded over the past few years.  The biggest new challenger is Disney, which is planning to pull most of its current catalogue from Netflix after their content deal expires, and launch a major streaming service in 2019.  This includes all the recent Disney, PIXAR, Marvel and "Star Wars" films, and a big slate of original films and series. Notably, a couple of projects that were originally announced to be theatrical releases, including the family comedy "Magic Camp" and the Anna Kendrick film "Noelle," will be premiering there instead.    

Now, Warners doesn't appear to be interested in launching its own streaming service at the moment, though it probably could.  They have a stake in Hulu, which currently has a good chunk of popular WB television shows and films available. However, Warners has also made deals to license their content to other services.  HBO Now has the more recent films. Older classic films are available through Filmstruck. Warners is launching a streaming service for their DC content, but this is a pretty niche operation, featuring the edgy live-action "Titans" and animated "Justice League: Outsiders" as initial offerings.  

In short, Warners making a deal with Netflix to get "Mowgli" off its hands makes sense for them.  I expect this won't be the last time we see it happen either. In the streaming age, Netflix essentially has replaced the direct-to-video option, and its pockets are deep enough that it can make attractive deals.  Someday Warners might go the Disney route, or another streaming service might offer a better option, but not today, in 2018.

I'm also a little worried about all these smaller films skipping theatrical runs and going straight to streaming.  It really doesn't bode well for theaters, especially since MoviePass has folded. It looks like the everyone's doubling down on the tentpoles more than ever.  We'd better keep an eye on that.

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