No doubt you've heard plenty about the return of Arrested Development for a fourth season, this time on Netflix, which paid to resurrect the old Fox sitcom for 15 streaming-only episodes. It follows on the heels of Netflix's successful and much-buzzed-about original series House of Cards, which began streaming on the service's website in February. And you may even have heard about Netflix's upcoming original series over the next year, created by some of the most respected names in TV and movies.
What may have escaped your notice, however, is the debut of Netflix's first original feature film. It's a comedy called Shotgun Wedding, and it debuted on the site on April Fools Day. There may have been little fanfare, but what if the original movie hints at another direction for the home-video giant? Netflix has already become a TV studio that demands comparisons with the likes of HBO and Showtime. Is it about to challenge Hollywood and become a movie studio as well?
Shotgun Wedding, on paper, doesn't look like much. It's the debut film of director Danny Roew, and it's a found-footage-style black comedy about a bridal party determined to continue with the wedding even after the groom accidentally shoots the maid of honor in the face. Its cast consists of character actors you might recognize from TV guest spots, and it probably cost a pittance to make. The producer of record is actually Fox Digital Studio, with Netflix having bought the distribution rights.
Still, it's a toe in the water of feature filmmaking for a company that, so far, has specialized in TV-style series. Since House of Cards debuted, there have been frequent comparisons of Netflix to HBO, as a model for quality series made by well-known players – shows that are free from content restrictions because of the service's subscription business model. House of Cards and Arrested Development are the kind of high-profile shows that have helped transform Netflix, in the mind of the average user, from a DVD-rental-by-mail service into a new-content streaming service. Thanks to Netflix, any screen device you own can now become an on-demand TV – or movie theater.
One reason Netflix may have been more reluctant to embrace feature filmmaking than long-form series is simply the cost of each. Sure, it's expensive to make a quality series; Netflix spent an estimated $100 million on two 13-episode seasons of House of Cards. Still, that move yielded a net increase of 2 million new subscribers. At $8 per month, those new subscribers will have paid for House of Cards in just over six months. Plus, costs will be offset by sales of the series on DVD and Blu-ray.
A quality feature film, however, with A-list stars, a top-notch script and director, and glossy production values, can run anywhere from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. A two-hour feature won't have the same subscriber allure as a 13-hour series, and it'll generate only one disc for the DVD market.
That said, Netflix's series are becoming more cinematic. This spring saw the launch of Hemlock Grove, the creation of big-screen horror director Eli Roth (Hostel). Even though critics didn't think much of it, Roth's horror show has proved even more popular than House of Cards. The service is about to unveil Jenji Kohan's eagerly awaited series Orange Is the New Black (July 11th). And next year, Netflix will unveil a sci-fi series called Sense8 from the Wachowskis, the siblings behind The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. The Wachowskis deal routinely in eye-grabbing, mind-expanding visuals, and they don't come cheap.
Plus, there's the way we watch Netflix series: all in one gulp. Netflix has only encouraged binge-viewing; instead of releasing its series in one episode per week, like HBO and the other traditional TV networks do, it releases them in their entirety at once. Without standard episode-ending cliffhangers, House of Cards just seems like one really long movie.
And maybe that's the way Netflix will become a movie studio: by changing our definition of what a movie is. It's not going to be a two-hour, self-contained story you watch in a theater, but a tale of open-ended length that you watch at your convenience on whatever screen you have with you.