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Is Netflix Helping or Hurting the Next Generation of Directors?
Selling to Netflix often means a fat paycheck for first-time directors, which makes it easier to shoot a second film. But do their reputations suffer?

When Netflix goes shopping at the Sundance Film Festival, it spends millions on audience favorites and brings new movies from first-time directors to its platform. Is that a good thing for the directors?

A little background: In July 2017, I spoke to an entertainment lawyer about the modern dilemma facing many young directors—do they take a large paycheck from a streaming service, knowing that their movies won’t get theatrical releases, or do they sell to a distributor for less and get the red carpet premieres they’ve been dreaming of?

They usually take the money, the lawyer explained. Then they can pay back investors and have a better chance of raising the funds for a second movie.

Recently, I spoke with an academic who studies this area. “Is this really a good deal?”, she wondered. When young filmmakers sell to Netflix, their movies become one among seemingly millions in the service’s library. It gets buried. The directors have made money, but no one knows who they are. That loss of reputation could hurt them in the long run, the academic suggested.

Wondering if that’s true—if selling to Netflix might be a terrible idea—I went looking for another perspective from someone who sees these deals play out all the time. Beth Barrett is the artistic director for the Seattle International Film Festival.

Barrett agreed that young filmmakers typically take the money and that their names don’t get out there in the same way because of it. That’s why she proposed a new option to Netflix, Hulu, and all the rest that go shopping at Sundance: Work the festival circuit.

Streaming services don’t buy from all of the film festivals; they typically buy only at Sundance. Once a picture has an agreement, it doesn’t go to any of the other festivals. If streaming services want to skip out on a theatrical run and bring their finds directly to their subscribers, they should at least show the movies at a few other festivals first. Doing so would boost the movies’ credibility and enhance the directors’ reputations.

“The recognition from having a small festival run can put a film on the top of the Netflix queue because there is that name recognition,” Barrett says. “Festivals build that audience in a real authentic way better than a theatrical run ever could do because there’s something about the loyalty of filmgoers to a festival that is different than the loyalty of filmgoers to their local AMC or Regal.”

The arrangement is a win-win-win: Investors get paid back right away, filmmakers get more exposure, and streaming services get more desirable movies.

And of course it’s a win for festivals, which get more high-profile movies. The festivals become curators, letting viewers know it’s worth taking a chance watching a movie they don’t know much about.

“It’s very confusing when you go and there’s 400,000 titles and you’re like, ‘I don’t even know where to start and what to do.’ One of the things that festivals and art house cinemas can provide is that stamp of quality of, ‘You should see these films. You should go down this path’,” Barrett says.

Showing in festivals even makes financial sense for streaming services. When cinephiles see interesting movies first, they take to their social media accounts and promote their favorites, saying that people need to watch them when they’re available for streaming. That builds buzz. It makes an unknown movie something to watch out for.

Before we ended our conversation, I asked Barrett what her favorite streaming service is, expecting a high-minded answer about Fandor or Kanopy, which feature classics and festival hits. It turns out she’s happy with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and wants nothing more after a day of curating art films than vegging out with Bob’s Burgers. It sounds perfect to me. Now that should be in a festival.

[This article appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Is Netflix Boon or Bane for Young Directors?"]

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The leading subscription services are flush with cash, and they're eager to buy hot titles on the festival circuits. For first-time directors, that often means trading a theatrical release for a guaranteed payday.