Netflix Uses Good Cinema to Drive Good Business


Illustration by Ayo Arogunmati/ROMA

There is a moment halfway through Roma that captures the imagination and creativity of Alfonso Cuarón. It was the love scene with Cleo and Fermin. Shot in black and white, Cuarón creates an intimate setting with the two characters using light to enhance the shadows and create a contrast.

Roma, a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a semi-autobiography set in the early 1970s about the relationship between a housemaid and a nuclear family. Apart from the stunning display of cinematography and direction, the film never loses focus on the housemaid and her role as the second mother of the house. Cuarón uses his film as an empathy machine to challenge ideas about story-telling. 

Roma’s expectation was high heading into the 2019 award season with the chance of victory at the Oscars for best picture. Roma did not win, and the defeat stunned industry experts given the amount of marketing dollars by Netflix. Netflix has an Oscar Awards department with a budget to support films that have a chance to during the award season. Initial marketing and advertising estimates for Roma was the amount of USD$25 million with later estimates pegging the expenses closer to USD$60 million. Cuarón produced Roma for $15 million with a box office revenue of only $4 million. A return on investment that would disappoint for most investors.

Netflix, given its vast amounts of data on consumers, knows which films will dazzle audiences and also generate a return on investment. Yet, we have this incongruence whereby Netflix ignores the data and incurs a significant amount in production and marketing, only to realize a 5% return at the box office. While the tactics of paying to win an award defeat the purpose of making art, Netflix chose the right business model to attract the middle of the curve, better known as the mass market. Netflix got 9 million new customers in the last three months of 2018. To recover the cost of production for the film Roma, it only needed 5.1 million new subscribers.

Netflix has opened the door just enough for the creator to engage in telling more hidden stories. It is unlikely that fragmented film industries such as Nollywood will play a game of negative returns on investment, so what the creative in that film industry should do is find the right story and tell it well. Netflix will engage if there is a possibility to attract more subscribers to its platform.  So, for the creative, the process is to make the film, the empathetic version, then let Netflix or the other streaming platforms assist with finding the audience who may be theater customers but are subscribers to the platform. 

Ideas, FilmFemi Adeyinka