Monday, January 28, 2019

The press still hasn't figured out what "Netflix original" means.

Just to get this out of the way, I haven't gotten around to Roma yet (my to-see list is very long and still includes an embarrassing number of genuine classics) but there is every reason to believe that it is an exceptional film fully deserving of its accolades. The problem isn't the movie itself; it is the way it's been covered. We have once again a dramatic reminder that journalists, despite having run countless stories on Netflix, still don't understand the subtleties of what they reporting.

When you read about a "Netflix original," you probably assume the process behind it went something like this: Someone came up with an idea for a motion picture or TV show. It could be someone inside or outside of the company, but either way an executive was approached and the decision to greenlight the project was made. At that point, Netflix put up the money, gave some input to the creative decisions, then took full ownership of the finished product. Sometimes, this is a pretty good description of the process but not always.

Often, Netflix owns little or no share of these programs. Instead they pay top dollar for a period of exclusive streaming and the right to call something a "Netflix original." Other times, they step in and buy a finished product, usually something prestigious and awards friendly (and you don't get much friendlier than Alfonso CuarĂ³n in full art house mode). As best I can tell, Netflix didn't have anything to do with Roma until shortly before its release.

It is also important to note that, even by the director's own admission, this was a picture of extremely limited commercial potential. A Spanish-language drama filmed in black and white with no recognizable stars. Even if it wins an Oscar, it almost certainly will not bring in enough subscribers to offset the amount of money that Netflix is spending to acquire and promote it.

As we have discussed at great length in the past, a constant flow of hype is essential for maintaining the sky high valuations of companies like Netflix and Tesla, and keeping these stock prices high benefits senior management in a number of ways. You can't really fault them for playing this game, but you can criticize the reporters covering it for playing along.

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