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Netflix has spent years crushing movie theaters – turns out, it kind of needs them now

Netflix theatres

One of the more fascinating trends to watch these days is the way big digitally focused tech companies are incrementally moving back into the physical world, and into the realm of competitors they differentiated themselves against and crushed in the first place. Think, for example, Amazon’s investment in brick-and-mortar retail, with its bookstores and grocery ventures. The company turned founder Jeff Bezos into the wealthiest man on the planet partly by all of us splurging on e-commerce and buying things online that we can ship straight to our door. And yet, here’s the company making a play for the boring, unexciting world of physical retail stores.

A similar thing is happening at Netflix.

The video streaming giant, of course, gave movie and TV fans the opposite of everything they hated about having to actually go to a cinema or wait for DVD releases and rent them at an actual store, sometimes paying exorbitant late fees.

Which is why the current approach it’s starting to experiment with represents such a major operational shift. According to a report in The Guardian, Netflix has bought the rights to some buzzy fall movie titles that it’s probably going to release in actual theaters first before adding them to its online stash. “They’ve dabbled in theatrical releasing before, but that was limited to a handful of screens for Okja last summer, a far cry from the wide rollouts they’ve got planned, and all previous attempts have coincided with the films also hitting phones/TVs/tablets,” the paper notes.

It goes on to report that CEO Reed Hastings may no longer be as wedded to the principle that the company would never play movies it acquires on actual theatre screens. Some creators, of course, want that, though. Competitions and festivals like it as well, which we saw recently when Cannes explicitly made a point of reusing entry to its main competition category for films that aren’t going to show in French theatres.

“Perhaps the idea began two years ago, when Amazon’s decision to give Manchester by the Sea a theatrical run paid dividends with a slew of nominations from the Academy,” The Guardian continues, before coming to a discussion of the apparent immediate impetus behind Netflix’s big shift. It’s Roma, the new feature film from director Alfonso Cuaron that’s marking what the newspaper says is “a turning point for Netflix company policy.”

The movie delves into the director’s childhood in Mexico City and is already getting rapturous reviews. Producer David Linde told Variety a few days ago they sold the movie to Netflix as part of a very secretive “hybrid distribution agreement.” “We want the movie to be seen in theaters, but we also want the movie to be seen by millions of people,” he said, adding: “We’ve found a balance.”

If you step back a moment from this, you can also put this within the context of several other unrelated but big changes at Netflix that all, taken together, suggest the company is open to rethinking almost everything about the way it does business. It’s experimenting, for example, with letting iPhone and iPad users bypass the App Store and go to Netflix directly to sign up for a subscription. It’s showing some viewers video promos for its own content that are tantamount to ads, and it’s apparently started telling actors in at least one of its productions not to use the term “binge-watching” in interviews.

We always tend to fetishize the good old days, which of course weren’t always so good. Do you miss Blockbuster? Okay. Do you miss the late fees? Having to get in a car and drive to one? The store never having enough new releases in stock? Having to drive back to the store to return it.

It is fascinating, in a way, that digital upstarts came along and outfoxed legacy rivals who couldn’t capitalize on their own strengths fast enough — and they definitely had strengths they could have capitalized on. If they didn’t, Amazon and Netflix wouldn’t be moving into the brick-and-mortar world like they are now.

Linde went on to tell Variety that indie filmmaking is in the midst of “an exciting time right now” because it feels like people “are actually going back to the movies in a really really dynamic way.”

But “you have to acknowledge that they are open to watching films in a lot of different ways. If you don’t, then this new reality will pass you by.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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