Netflix’s “Bright” Idea: What A $100 Million Will Smith Movie Means For Hollywood

By David Bloom

At this point, any big move by Netflix shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much the company has turned upside down our notions of “TV,” or even just “entertainment.”

But news that the online giant is backing a major feature-film project starring Will Smith, with a reported budget of $80 million to $100 million, might just be up there on the surprise scale. Now, we should consider where this project takes Netflix, and what it means for the Hollywood studios struggling to adapt to a new entertainment ecosystem.

Netflix has moved aggressively into the original-content business in recent years. That’s happened mostly on the “TV” side, most notably when it spent $100 million on each of the first two seasons of “House of Cards.” It then backed pricey, game-changing marketing campaigns to help both “HoC” and “Orange is the New Black” snag some Emmy and Golden Globes love, sprinkling a useful patina of quality over all the rest of its original programming.

The company since has invested in modestly priced prestige feature-length projects, both documentary (“Virunga,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and scripted (2015’s “Beasts of No Nation,” starring the formidable Idris Elba). Not incidentally, those projects were all given awards campaigns.

And earlier this year, Netflix flicked a switch at CES and tripled the number of countries where it operated, to more than 190. The company then announced it would spend $5 billion this year on original content, including 600 hours of children’s programming.

A Different Beast

But compared to all those projects, “Bright” is an entirely different beast, possibly one for every nation. It’s a science-fiction actioner with a significant budget (though by Hollywood blockbuster standards, somewhat on the low side). It will star a man who had been, until a bad recent string of projects, a box-office king whose films have earned a combined worldwide gross of more than $6.8 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo.

The film also is set to star Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Black Mass”), and will be directed by David Ayer, who worked with Smith in the upcoming “Suicide Squad.”

So what to make of this? Netflix has specialized in breaking the economic verities of traditional Hollywood.

Transforming the Blockbuster

But now Netflix must transform the blockbuster business — the remaining piece of the studio business that can still be profitable — to make “Bright” look like a bright idea.

The studios have largely abandoned “middle-sized” films, in the $50 million to $80 million range, to take big swings at potential franchises, typically based on popular Y.A. novels or comic-book properties. As one long-time studio exec said to me a few years ago, “When you hit, you have a chance to make a billion dollars. A billion dollars! That’s a nice business.”

Studio profits in recent decades, however, have largely come from international theatrical grosses and by maximizing the value of their film and TV properties with a highly optimized “ladder” of “downstream” distribution windows.

Indeed, for many years, one of those distribution windows has been Netflix. But Netflix won’t be relying on those economics to make “Bright” pay.

For one thing, blockbusters typically rely on a big opening weekend, then mining all those downstream distribution windows for incremental additional value.

But if “Beasts of No Nation” is any guide, many U.S. theater chains won’t run the film, at least if “Bright” debuts simultaneously on Netflix, as “Beasts” did. That would substantially affect the domestic gross, and possibly some of the international opportunities.

And those downstream windows? There’s one: Netflix.

How Netflix Can Win

So how does this pencil out for Netflix? I think in a few ways:

  • Overseas theaters may be less likely than U.S. ones to refuse to carry the film, given their experience with the slow rollout of many films across dozens of territories.
  • Netflix’s deep knowledge of its customers is a powerful tool that studios have no hope of replicating. Unlike the studios, Netflix has a direct customer relationship throughout the life cycle of its projects. It can routinely suggest more films and shows that its customers are likely to enjoy. That gives a film like “Bright” a very long tail indeed as it is put before customers for years to come.
  • As with its previous awards-worthy projects, a film such as this (and the recent sequel to the Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) layers a patina of prestige and event programming over the entire Netflix catalog. That may be particularly useful for its marketing department as it raises subscription fees this year for long-time customers.
  • The real play for a blockbuster film such as this is overseas, where it likely will appeal and translate to audiences in just about all of those 190-plus markets. And overseas is where just about all of Netflix’s future growth will come from, because it’s nearing saturation in the United States.

It’s too soon to know how this project will play out. Indeed, it’s still early in development, and could still fall apart, like so many other would-be Hollywood blockbusters of the past. But it also could become yet another example of how Netflix has turned upside down Hollywood’s troubled economics, and why Hollywood will continue to struggle to catch up. That sounds pretty “Bright.”

Like what you read? Give David Bloom a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.