Any doubts about whether Netflix has effectively established itself as part of the Hollywood community vanish immediately upon stepping into the company’s Los Angeles offices. Two cases full of Emmys greet visitors just inside the lobby of the 14-story tower, situated near eight Netflix-controlled sound stages on the Sunset Bronson Studios lot. In one corner sits the Bluth family banana stand from Arrested Development, while an elaborate projection art piece takes up an entire wall, simulating screens from phones, tablets, televisions, and any other device the service runs on. On the other end, there’s a discreet coffee bar, where bearded creatives discuss the fine art of pitching studio executives. And splashed across a massive video wall is the promotional artwork for what the company hopes will be its next great success: the Will Smith fantasy-action film Bright.
While Netflix has undoubtedly cracked the code when it comes to making quality television, movies have been more elusive. The company gobbles up acquisitions at film festivals like Sundance and Toronto, but its insistence on debuting new films on the streaming service and in theaters simultaneously have made theater chains reluctant to screen Netflix films. But that isn’t hampering Netflix’s blockbuster ambitions. The company ponied up more than $90 million to make Bright, which will debut on December 22nd. Directed by Suicide Squad’s David Ayer, it’s the story of a LAPD cop (Smith) who lives in an fantastical world where fairies and magical creatures are commonplace. He’s partnered with an orc cop named Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), who is rejected both by humans and his own kind. When the two stumble upon an elf with a magic wand (Lucy Fry) they have to try to stay alive while figuring out who they can trust.
“We were really just out there shopping the full movie, as like 'Are you in or are you out?' rather than a project for development,” producer Bryan Unkeless told a group of journalists recently about the process that brought the movie to the streaming service. “And what we found was, frankly, the enthusiasm that came from Netflix, and their ability to really support us, and make the right version of the movie with resources, far surpassed anywhere else we were looking.”
While Netflix reportedly beat out conventional studios like Warner Bros. and MGM for the film, landing a project is only the first step in the process. After making it — our review is coming next week — Netflix has to ensure that as many people as possible see the film. And that’s where the service continues to break new ground by combining insights into user behavior with algorithmically generated profiles of the films themselves.
The best venue to promote Netflix movies is Netflix itself
Before the algorithms can do their work, the system needs to understand how it should categorize an original movie like Bright in the first place. That’s where old-school human evaluation comes into play, courtesy of the service’s enhanced content team. “Every title on Netflix is watched, and catalogued, across several hundred different elements,” vice president of UI innovation Chris Jaffe says. “That data is then fed into our algorithm, so we have our own organic data set, then our algorithms are able to get a sense of it.” With that profile in hand, the system is then able to determine which customers will likely be interested in a given title, allowing the site to start building broader awareness. Traditional movie marketing is built on a carefully cadenced release of trailers, clips, and interviews, all culminating with traditional advertising that spans from billboards and bus stop ads to magazines and websites. In Los Angeles, a few billboards for Bright have popped up among the sea of artwork for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Jaffe says the service has found that the best venue to promote its new titles is actually Netflix itself.
The company began experimenting with building buzz for Bright back in March, surfacing clips for specifically targeted existing users. (Jaffe frames the idea as an experiment, with Netflix not yet sure whether this kind of advanced promotion will make any kind of significant impact.) But the real push begins a few weeks prior to release, when mentions of the film will pop up in the browsing experience of users that the service has determined are most likely to respond to the film’s mix of gritty action and magical fantasy. That includes the relatively new, but already familiar, top-of-page promotion blocks with moving video, and as an exclusive for Netflix’s original films, actual video clips that surface between the rows of recommendations that users normally scroll through.
Even at this point, the system is already customizing what targeted users see based on their viewing histories. Netflix creates different sets of visual assets for a title like Bright, with the system algorithmically determining what artwork is best suited for a given user. Someone who watches a lot of fantasy shows might get a Bright thumbnail that features Lucy Fry’s elf character, for example, while fans of director David Ayer may see one emphasizing Smith and Edgerton’s characters in their LAPD uniforms. Netflix uses trailers the same way, creating different clips themed around a given genre that are then served to users based on their interests — some even automatically playing after watching a different film or show. Scroll through the YouTube channel of a traditionally marketed film, and you’ll find similar trailers that foreground specific aspects of a title, but within the Netflix system they’re able to be delivered to the users that will be most receptive.
It’s taking many of the same principles used in targeted online advertising, and baking them into Netflix’s platform, to ensure everyone is seeing the style of promotion they’ll find most appealing. But unlike a theatrical release, where the marketing strategies are optimized to boost opening-weekend box office numbers, Netflix’s originals strategy is playing a long game. After a movie is released and reviewed, the cultural conversation rapidly carries on to other things. Netflix has shown tremendous savvy in introducing content to people who may have missed the first go-round. (Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has regularly credited Netflix for introducing his show to viewers who never caught the first few seasons on AMC.)
The promotional cycle reactivates whenever the algorithm finds new users who might be interested
That same basic idea is in play with a project like Bright: the general promotion strategy doesn’t have a built-in end date. Instead, the service will refine its sense of who Bright appeals to based on who actually watches the film after it premieres. It’s the same smart algorithmic process my colleague Ben Popper detailed last year: as people watch Bright, Netflix will get a better sense of what kind of viewers are drawn to the film, and the system will hone the film’s profile appropriately. New potential audience members will likely be revealed, activating the promotional cycle all over again, but now targeting the people Netflix didn’t know would be interested in the movie in the first place. The process gives the film a lifetime of exposure, as long as people keep logging in and watching movies. The company’s in-house tag phrase for the concept is “premiere night is every night.” For users who don’t know Bright exists, its appearance in the browsing interface will be a moment of discovery, whether it’s December 22nd, 2017, or sometime in 2020. While the phrase comes off as a bit of cheeky marketing-speak, it does nevertheless capture the fundamental difference between Netflix’s streaming model and the one-weekend-and-out rhythm that most feature film marketing is built around.
That fundamental difference is key to understanding Netflix’s rethinking of film marketing. The intent isn’t necessarily to reach the broadest possible audience for a singular event like a movie opening. It’s on making sure the most receptive Netflix subscribers will be aware of its existence, and placing the film in front of them. Given the shifting streaming landscape, that kind of approach is going to become more vital than ever. Because of the conflict with theater chains, Netflix movies aren’t going to enjoy the same kinds of broad theatrical releases as something like Thor: Ragnarok — at least not anytime soon. Those kind of splashy theatrical events give movies broader cultural awareness, turning them into the kind of properties that will incentivize people to seek out a streaming service proactively — and Disney’s upcoming streaming service will be banking on that very dynamic.
Netflix, on the other hand, has to both create content viewers are interested in and make sure the correct users know it exists in the first place, no matter when they join the service. It’s a decidedly different challenge from the ones conventional studios and theater owners are facing. But the long tail involved puts the company’s massive investment in original content into perspective. Netflix isn’t banking on a single season of movies like a traditional studio would. It’s building a content ecosystem that will theoretically evolve along with a viewer’s changing tastes. In that sense, the investments in content the company makes today need to be calculated against the entire lifetime of the service. Like the intelligent, algorithm-based systems Netflix is using to promote and surface Bright, that strategy represents an entirely new playing field.