What is going on with Netflix’s 2024 movie struggles?

Netflix Unfrosted Premiere
Netflix Unfrosted Premiere / Charley Gallay/GettyImages

In a recent IndieWire interview, director Richard Linklater sounded, like so many of us, frustrated with the state of the American film industry. Specifically, Linklater expressed disappointment at the lack of enthusiasm from major theatrical studios (Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony/Columbia, etc.) over Hit Man. This continued even after the film’s rave response at its 2023 Toronto International Film Festival premiere. All that buzz wasn't enough. Theatrical studios had zero interest in acquiring the finished film. It was “too small” and not enough of a “franchise” for major studios. This echoes Spike Lee’s 2020 The Hollywood Reporter comments about Netflix being the only studio willing to bankroll Da 5 Bloods.

Such comments should create a perception of Netflix as a haven for original auteur-driven movies in 2024. Instead, they reinforce how dismal the modern cinematic landscape is. They also reflect how dangerous Netflix's 2024 cinema struggles are. The first half of 2024 has seen the already beleaguered reputation of Netflix Original Films become a punchline. If a studio this troubled in 2024 is the only option for filmmakers like Lee and Linklater, then God help us all.

Netflix began releasing original movies in October 2015 with Beasts of No Nation. This came less than three years after its inaugural foray into scripted television programming, House of Cards. The latter show forever changed small-screen entertainment once it dropped all its episodes at once. All eyes returned to Netflix to see if the streamer would also forever upend movie distribution. Part of this streamer’s “disruption” to traditional American cinema was restricting movies just to the streaming platform. Theatrical releases were restricted to a handful of theaters in select cities, whatever the minimum requirement would be for Netflix titles to qualify for the Oscars. There would be no physical home media life for Netflix movies (save for a handful of features migrating to the Criterion Collection). They lingered forever behind a paywall.

Netflix's original film ambitions have kept going for nearly a decade now. That persistence has existed mostly due to the streamer’s deep pockets more than anything else. All that Netflix money has attracted stars like Sandra Bullock, Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith, and many others. However, the vast majority of Netflix movies haven’t become household names. Save for the occasional Bird Box or Leave the World Behind (apocalyptic thrillers boosted by smart Christmas-adjacent release dates), Netflix films don’t leave much of a footprint. There aren’t multiple avenues (theaters, physical media, cable viewing, etc.) where they can take on new forms. Costly blockbusters like The Gray Man, Bright, The School for Good and Evil, they’ve all vanished without a trace.

Netflix’s original films have also been plagued by a problem ingrained into their DNA. Movies simply don’t work well with the streamer’s default method of releasing original productions. Netflix’s TV shows and movies aren’t preceded by glitzy marketing campaigns. Many projects, like the eventual cultural phenomenon Baby Reindeer, don’t even send screeners out to critics. That often works for television shows just fine. These productions sometimes deliver as much as ten hours of storytelling at once to subscribers. Unless you’re an insane binger, you’ll have to watch that over multiple days.

A new Netflix show can stay on somebody’s radar for multiple days. Motion pictures, meanwhile, are shorter affairs. They struggle to stay on people’s radar thanks to Netflix’s default mode for marketing. It’s also harder to get people to take chances on new Netflix movies when they could also watch various non-Netflix theatrical releases licensed on the service. People have heard of Anyone But You. It was in theaters for months. The lead actors were out on all the big talk shows pushing it. It even went viral on TikTok. Those same people haven’t heard of Unfrosted. It’s that simple.

These problems have long plagued Netflix Original Films. What makes 2024’s slate of Netflix films extra cursed is a multitude of factors. Among them is simply that most of them received savagely negative reviews. A monthly ad-free subscription to Netflix is more expensive than ever. Even so, dismal titles like Lift, Mea Culpa, Irish Wish, Unfrosted, and Atlas (among others) clog up the service. Movie theaters are offering people Dune: Part Two and Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Meanwhile, Netflix put all its chips on a pair of Rebel Moon movies. The second of those titles debuted in April 2024 to laughably minimal buzz. That installment garnered terrible reviews and drastically smaller viewership numbers than its predecessor.

It's not even big-budget live-action films struggling for the streamer. A pair of animated kid’s movies (Orion and the Dark and Thelma the Unicorn) have barely made a whisper since they launched on Netflix in early 2024. Licensed theatrical titles from rival studios like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Shrek have garnered way more viewership on Netflix in 2024. Then there’s the Unfrosted boondoggle, which scored dreary viewership numbers on its opening weekend on Netflix. The buzziest movie on Netflix the month Unfrosted debuted wasn't that Jerry Seinfeld Pop-Tarts feature. It was A Simple Favor, a 2018 hit that did quite well in theaters. Who wouldn’t want to watch an acclaimed Blake Lively/Anna Kendrick movie over some reviled Pop-Tarts film?!?

Damsel. Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie. Cr. John Wilson / Netflix © 2023
Damsel. Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie. Cr. John Wilson / Netflix © 2023 /

The biggest hit Netflix has had with an original movie in 2024 is by far Damsel. That Millie Bobby Brown fantasy feature is (as of this writing) the eighth-most-watched Netflix Original Movie of all time. That's a perfectly cromulent achievement on paper. It’s also a claim underscoring how little impact Netflix’s original movies leave beyond mockery-driven memes. After all, none of the other Netflix 2024 movies have garnered anywhere as much trumpeting about their viewership records. Damsel is an anomaly in the most recent line-up of Netflix Original Movies.

Such titles don't often generate headlines based on positive buzz or watercooler discussion. The greatest claim to fame for the streamer’s original movies is bad release strategies and a suffocatingly uniform cinematography style. The former problem seems poised to swallow up Hit Man. This low-key movie is especially ill-suited to Netflix’s programming slate.

Over the final few weeks preceding Hit Man’s June 7, 2024 Netflix premiere, many media pundits and publications questioned where all the hype for this film was. Why weren’t more people talking with eager anticipation about this movie? The answer, of course, was that Netflix was giving Hit Man the usual nonexistent Netflix Original Movie marketing push. Adding insult to injury, Hit Man is a fun motion picture that would thrive building up momentum over a theatrical release. Such laidback features don’t tend to rise to the top of Netflix’s algorithm. The streamer's inner mechanics tend to push true-crime and dark dramas above all else. Plus, Hit Man being permanently behind Netflix’s paywall won’t give anyone a sense of urgency to check it out.

 If it was playing at your local theater for a limited time, that could get people to see it. There would be a finite window to witness the zippy movie everyone’s talking about. One can see this practice playing out right now in theaters across America through I Saw the TV Glow. That Jane Schoenbrun directorial effort's tiny weekend-to-weekend box office drops are buoyed by great word-of-mouth. It's also benefited by moviegoers knowing it won’t just lurk on a streamer forever. It’ll only be in theaters for a finite period. Hit Man won’t get the luxury of such a release strategy. An original feature like this one doesn’t stand a chance of standing out to Netflix subscribers. Suits reruns or a 1990s Adam Sandler comedy people are familiar with will undoubtedly win the day.

Netflix was the only studio willing to buy Hit Man. It’s also the absolute worst place it could’ve gone beyond a Tubi or Quibi debut. Nine years in, it’s clear Netflix can’t launch a hit original movies. Successful features don’t launch on streaming. Even the streamer has quietly admitted as such. Just look at its would-be franchise starters like 6 Underground, The Gray Man, and Red Notice that never spawned sequels. 2024 has seen the problems ingrained into Netflix’s original films strategy come home to roost thanks to a slate of especially dismal films and the bungling of motion pictures like Hit Man.

Netflix’s 2024 original movie woes aren’t even limited to what new thumbnails show up on your home page. It’s also felt through the streamer's behind-the-scenes turmoil. Long-time film chief Scott Stuber departed the company at the start of the year and was replaced by Dan Lin. That new leader has created a new mandate for Netflix to produce fewer artsy and costly movies. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter claimed from inside Netflix sources in April 2024 that the final months of Stuber's Netflix tenure were troublesome. Specifically, there were very few original movies actually being green-lit and filmed for Netflix. Even this streamer is struggling to produce new features and figure out what they should look like.

Silicon valley companies like Netflix never say “die.” The leadership at Netflix will constantly say to the press that original movies are a glowing success for the company. There will never be public mentions of any growing pains or struggles to make streaming-exclusive movies a thing. In reality, though, In reality, though, Netflix's film strategy is producing not only bad movies but burying good new releases. This style of putting titles exclusively on streaming limits options for consumers. It also puts way too much power in the hands of tech giants. Now they control where and when you watch major Richard Linklater or Spike Lee movies.

Someone well-aware of this reality is Mike Flanagan, a writer/director who used to regularly produce horror shows for the streamer. Per IndieWire, a now-deleted Tumblr post from Flanagan chastized the streamer for never releasing its projects on physical media. Flanagan claimed Netflix delivered "enormous harm to the very concept of film preservation" keeping its projects behind a paywall. This strategy of releasing movies is a lose-lose for artists, consumers, film preservationists, it’s a terrible situation for all. Except for Netflix executives, of course.

These Netflix Original Films problems have always existed. They’re just more apparent than ever in 2024. Events like a box office landscape devastated by a lack of new features and even major theatrical studios beginning to abandon physical media have made those flaws inescapable. Oh, and something great and tailor-made for the big screen like Hit Man failing to find a home beyond Netflix. That’s also a massive problem. Netflix’s 2024 endless original motion pictures encapsulate the streamer's near-decade boondoggle of pretending to be a viable movie studio. Spending exorbitant sums of cash to limit people's options for viewing new Todd Haynes and Tamara Jenkins movies doesn't make your company "a game-changer."

However, artists like Richard Linklater and Spike Lee struggling to find homes for their important works beyond this dangerous streamer should also be a wake-up call to legacy studios. These entities need to stop mimicking Netflix and improve on its own obvious flaws. Embrace artists rather than subscriber counts. Don’t let movies like Hit Man vanish into the streaming algorithm. It should be easy as pie to function as a superior distributor alternative to the company responsible for unleashing The Wrong Missy and Hillbilly Elegy. Let's see if rival studios are up to the challenge. The legacy of Netflix Original Films has certainly given these conglomerates a low bar to clear...

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