Netflix turns to first-time filmmakers for edge in streaming wars

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Stefon Bristol
Stefon Bristol

BY JEN YAMATO AND WENDY LEE LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

Stefon Bristol had a clear vision of his first feature project. As a graduate film student at NYU, he had already shot a short version of a movie called “See You Yesterday,” a story about a science-obsessed New York City teen who masters time travel to save her loved ones.

Bristol knew a film with a young Black heroine, an unknown cast and a socially conscious message about police brutality might be a tough sell in traditional Hollywood.

But the aspiring director was determined to reach a wide audience. With the backing of mentor and producer Spike Lee, he took the idea to Netflix, which eagerly agreed to finance and distribute the movie.

Paid Off

The vote of confidence paid off: 12 million households watched at least 70% of “See You Yesterday” in its first four weeks after its release in May, according to Netflix.

“The game plan was to tell our story to as many people as possible and, honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten that number if it was in theaters,” Bristol said.

Such testimonials are prized inside the Los Gatos company. As the streaming wars intensify, Netflix is aggressively courting not only Academy Award-winning filmmakers such as “The Irishman” director Martin Scorsese and “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón, but also artists who haven’t yet broken out. The idea is to forge relationships with up-and-coming directors before they become big names.

Overall Strategy

Last year, Netflix released 19 original movies from first-time directors on its streaming platform; another 11 have already been announced for 2020. About half of the first-time directors last year were women, and several titles hailed from directors of color whose films had diverse casts and characters.

The push is part of Netflix’s overall strategy to differentiate itself from other streaming rivals by offering consumers high quality feature films — with budgets from $5 million to more than $100 million — in addition to signature TV series such as “The Crown” and “Stranger Things.”

“Let’s be that home where we can find the next Spike Lee, find the next Kathryn Bigelow and be there from the beginning with them,” said Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film chief.

New, Inclusive Voices

In widening its stable of film creators, the company is also creating opportunities for new and inclusive voices to establish their footing at a time when Hollywood has been criticized for a lack of diversity.

In 2019, only a dozen of the top 100 grossing films were directed by women, according to a study by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative. That same year, just 16.8% of the directors were from under-represented race or ethnic groups.

Viewing numbers shared with The Times for five 2019 films from first-time directors provide a rare glimpse into consumption data that Netflix famously keeps under wraps.

More top Films

In addition to “See You Yesterday’s” 12 million views, Netflix revealed that 17 million households watched at least 70% of the foreign language drama “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” in its first four weeks.

Using the same metrics, romantic comedies “Someone Great” and “Always Be My Maybe” captured 22 million and 32 million households, respectively, while the friendship comedy “The Breaker Upperers” was seen by 7 million households.

“We’ve learned a lot of times people think a smaller budgeted film is inevitably a thing that only has a certain amount of audience available to it,” Stuber said. “What we’ve seen with some of these films … [is] the ability for these things to penetrate culture all over the world.”

Data Critique

Netflix has drawn criticism for its selective and limited release of viewership data (it previously disclosed that “The Irishman” drew an estimated 40 million accounts, while the science fiction thriller “Bird Box” captured 80 million households in the first four weeks).

In a move that raised eyebrows, Netflix recently tweaked the way its data is released to the public. The company said it would now offer metrics measuring the number of households that have viewed at least two minutes of a program or movie.

“Part of sharing the number is making people understand that their film is being seen in a big, wide, global way so that they feel the impact of what we’re doing with them,” Stuber said.

Making the connection

To a filmmaker hustling to get his or her first feature made, a Netflix release can offer a tantalizing alternative when fewer screens are available for indie fare: Instant worldwide distribution with 167 million subscribers and, in some cases, a Netflix payday.

Netflix acquires films out of film festivals, takes pitch meetings on new projects and brings in new voices through its relationships with established filmmakers.

That last scenario was the case with Bristol’s “See You Yesterday,” which was adapted from his thesis project in film school. When Lee came aboard as a producer, he facilitated the Netflix connection.

Money and Marketing

Bristol, who says he was working a part-time job and was broke at the time, received financing from Netflix to make his project into a feature film. Netflix provided feedback on development, as well as marketing muscle with billboards in L.A. and New York. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“Allowing my vision to flourish with a platform like this and with the help of Spike, that’s what I needed,” he said.

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