Netflix Uses Good Cinema to Drive Good Business


Illustration by Ayo Arogunmati/ROMA

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

Roma, a film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also produced and co-edited the film, was set in the early 1970’s. A semi-autobiography, it is based on Cuaron’s upbringing in a middle-class home in Colonia Roma. The film is a tale about the relationship between a housemaid and a nuclear family. Apart from the stunning display of cinematography and direction, what is not lost throughout the film is the focus on the housemaid and her role as the second mother to the children in the film. Cuaron, whether intimately aware of his focus, used his film as an empathy machine to challenge our ideas about story-telling and what story needs to be told.

Roma, the Oscar nominated film was expected to win the 2019 Best Picture Award at the Oscars. Roma did not win, losing to the film Greenbook. Industry experts were stunned by the defeat given the marketing dollars that was spent to “buy” a win at the Oscars. Netflix has an Oscars Awards department, with the goal to support worthy films that have a chanceto win best film. Initial marketing and advertising estimates was for the amount of $25 million with the likelihood of the amount being closer to  $60 million. The film was  made for $15 million and it realized only $4 million at the box office. A return on investment that pales in comparison to the total cost incurred to produce and market the film.

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 defeats the purpose of making art, I have come to conclusion that this is a good approach to actually make the film matter to the middle of the curve, otherwise known as the mass market. This business model, in which the advertising dollars increases awareness and ubiquity is not new and might actually allow more people who otherwise would not care about the film, to go and see the film.

Nollywood film industry is often criticized for its lack of sophistication. I have been guilty of criticizing the stories, direction, cinematography and artistic integrity of the films. While there should be more of the hidden stories in Nollywood films, such as that shared by Cuaron through his film Roma, we have to recognize the costs associated  not only with the production but the fight to grab the middle of the curve by these films. There is chicken and an egg problem in making Hidden Stories – make the film, then find the audience, or do it in reverse.

Netflix, I believe, has opened the door just enough for the creator to engage in telling more hidden stories. It is unlikely that Nollywood will play a game of negative returns on investment, so what the creative in that industry must do is find the right story and tell it well. Netflix will engage if there is possibility to get to the middle of the curve to attract more subscribers, not necessarily more theatre guests. The business model was buried in the story of Roma. Netflix obtained 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. So, for the creative, the process is to make the film, the empathetic version, then let Netflix or the incoming competitors assist with finding the audience who may be theatre customers but more importantly are subscribers to the platform. 

Ideas, FilmFemi Adeyinka