Is Amazon Studios’ marketing better than Netflix’s? It depends on the goals

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick / Lionsgate Publicity

Both Amazon Studios and Netflix have released critically-acclaimed movies in the last few weeks.

Amazon put out The Big Sick, a slightly-fictionalized version of the real story of how Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) met and how her sudden illness defined their relationship at an early point. Netflix put out Okja, the latest movie from director Joon-ho Bong that tells the story of a young girl who needs to rescue her pet super-pig from the clutches of an evil and greedy corporation.

Both movies have received positive reviews. The Big Sick has been praised for its unconventional take on romance and relationship comedies. Okja has been hailed as “the first great Netflix original movie.”

The key difference between them? Amazon, in partnership with Lionsgate, put The Big Sick in theaters before it’s available on its own streaming network. Okja, on the other hand, was made available immediately to subscribers of its streaming service. It’s that difference in release mindset that’s made Amazon, to date, somewhat more attractive to filmmakers since theatrical release is still the ultimate possible outcome.

So it’s into this environment that new numbers from comScore on subscription video service adoption are being released. Those numbers show Netflix accounts for 40% of all over-the-top viewing hours, more than Amazon, Hulu or YouTube combined. While there are some areas where Hulu or YouTube win out, Netflix dominates not only that category but also in the number of OTT-subscribing homes (74% use Netflix) and in how half of single-app viewers, those who only subscribe to one service, make Netflix their sole choice.

How much of Netflix’s success in these metrics is due to its lineup of original movies available immediately upon release is hard to measure. The company notoriously doesn’t release viewership information because, quite frankly, it doesn’t feel it needs to. Unlike something like HBO or even broadcast TV, Netflix isn’t beholden to advertisers or shareholders to release those numbers, something that’s frustrated media analysts. The only time it does so is when it’s having a bit of fun by pointing out its users have watched 500 million hours of Adam Sandler movies. And it’s adding subscribers faster than it ever has before at the same time it’s spending more on content even as its library shrinks. Do the math and you have more people paying for a smaller selection that’s increasingly dominated by original productions.

By contrast, it’s easy to see how Amazon’s theatrical-first strategy is paying off. The Big Sick has already made $3m at just five theaters nationwide and will be expanding in the weeks ahead. Last year’s Manchester by the Sea not only made $47m at the box office but also racked up several awards nominations and wins for the cast and crew. Compare that industry acceptance and celebration with the controversy over Okja that dominated its appearance at Cannes this year, when French projectionists protested screening it because it wasn’t going to be shown for the public in theaters.

What’s a bit more nebulous is how these movies eventually work to drive Amazon Prime subscriptions. Put another way, Okja and other Netflix originals are seen to be encouraging people to subscribe to that service. But are films like Paterson (starring Adam Driver) and other Amazon Studios acquisitions (it has yet to wholly produce an original film) acting as a factor for people to subscribe? The question comes from the fact that an Amazon Prime subscription not only gets you access to that streaming video service but also to all sorts of perks on Amazon’s main shopping site. And it doesn’t even report that big number, though it’s thought to be over 80m at this point.

This is the point when a traditional hot take would make a very clear conclusion about which is the better approach, the pure-streaming of Netflix or the embrace of theatrical Amazon believes in. The reality is, though, there may not be a case where one is clearly better than the other. It’s great that worthwhile movies that have zero chance of theatrical success are being brought to Netflix. It’s also great that Amazon believes worthwhile stories should be given the prestige of a big-screen release.

Both companies have aligned their marketing to meet their specific goals. Netflix puts everything, even if it does seem sometimes skimpy, into promoting the day the movie hits streaming. Amazon designs much more traditional campaigns meant to sell tickets to theatrical showings.

So instead of saying one is clearly superior to the other, the reality is both seem to be working and meeting their intended goals. Amazon is selling tickets to its prestige, award-contending films while Netflix is succeeding in adding the subscribers that make up its primary revenue stream.

If that’s the metric for success, then both companies are doing just fine.

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Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a writer and consultant

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