The Movie Marketing Blog: How Netflix does - or doesn’t - market its original movies

There aren’t many companies that have disrupted existing business models the way Netflix and Amazon have.

In the last two years, for example, they’ve blown up the movie acquisition process at the Sundance Film Festival. This year alone, Netflix acquired 14 feature films, joining the eight it bought in 2016. That doesn’t even count the original productions it’s financed and released. In all, between the end of 2015 and what’s currently scheduled for 2017, Netflix has produced or acquired around 45 feature films, a number that doesn’t count documentaries or the TV shows it regularly releases.

What has been interesting to watch is how the streaming company has created marketing campaigns for these movies. The goal, after all, is very different for Netflix than it is for traditional movie studios. Instead of working to drive the very specific action of selling tickets on a particular day, the goal for Netflix is a bit fuzzier: To provide an attractive enough overall catalog of content that maintains current subscribers and converts new ones.

(Side note: Let’s remember Netflix’s interest in original productions didn’t start recently. The company’s first feature acquisition was in 2005, when it bought The Puffy Chair, the debut film from Mark and Jay Duplass, in conjunction with Roadside Attractions after it premiered at Sundance that year. It was originally available only to disc subscribers back in the days before streaming. This wound up being a one-off experiment and didn’t lead to a wave of similar acquisitions, which may have more to do with the need at the time to produce physical media than anything else. It’s absolutely worth seeing if you’re a fan of the Duplass writing/directing team.)

The marketing for those movies has been somewhat inconsistent and spotty, though. With Netflix making a big push into original feature films this year, let’s take a look at how the company has sold the audience that it’s the place to come to for new movies that can’t be seen in theaters.

Trailers

Almost all the movies Netflix has produced or acquired have received at least one trailer, so it maintains a pretty traditional approach regarding this tactic. These trailers often do double duty of not only offering people – at least those who didn’t see it at festival or other screenings – their first look but also announcing the eventual release date. The trailers are also very traditionally produced, taking the audience through the key story beats they need to know in order to make a decision about whether or not to see the movie.

What’s notable is that often these trailers are released very close to the date the movie will appear on Netflix. Last year, the trailer for Tallulah, a Sundance acquisition in February, debuted just a month before it was schedule to premiere.

That’s nothing, though, to the timeline of the marketing for I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. In this case, Netflix actually picked it up before its Sundance debut, with the trailer appearing on that same date, January 19 of this year. It was a scant three weeks, then, until it became available to streaming subscribers. The same is true of Burning Sands, another Sundance pickup whose trailer appeared just two weeks before it was an option to add to your queue.

This isn’t always the case, though. Netflix released the first teaser trailer for Bright, which stars Will Smith as a cop who teams up with an orc to investigate the world of mythical creatures, in late February. The movie’s not expected to be released, though, until December of this year.

Why the seemingly standard tight timeline? In part, it’s because Netflix realizes it’s in much more of a direct-conversion business than studios. It’s not in the business of creating “events” that need to be planned with friends well in advance. Instead its goals are, as mentioned before, to gain or maintain subscribers. By dropping trailers so close to release, it means it’s more likely to be top of mind for someone when they see it’s now available and able to be queued up.

Posters

Unlike trailers, not every Netflix original release has received a poster. And even for those that do, that key art isn’t always well-publicized or used in a meaningful way.

Take last week’s new release Win It All, written and directed by indie darling Joe Swanberg, starring Jake Johnson. Swanberg is a well-known figure among fans of independent cinema, having spearheaded what become known as the “mumblecore” film movement back in the early 2000s. And Johnson is a well-known actor, appearing on the TV show “New Girl” along with other movies both big and small. The movie got a really good trailer but no poster. Other movies like Mascots, the latest from writer/director Christopher Guest, and the various originals from Adam Sandler have received at least cursory efforts that won’t win any design awards but which convey the core point and value proposition of the movie as well as the release date.

Part of the rationale here may be that there’s simply no place for a poster to be displayed. Because Netflix’s movies, for the most part, aren’t distributed theatrically (the major point of differentiation between Netflix and rival Amazon), these won’t appear in theater hallways. And these movies are not released on DVD, meaning there’s no need to create something that can be translated to box art. This is a step that’s sometimes simply skipped because, it seems, it’s not important enough to the overall mission to warrant consistent implementation. Even when the movie is added to the Netflix system, what’s usually used isn’t a piece of promotional art but a still or other image that’s more indicative of the stars who appear and the look of the movie.

Online / Social media

As previously stated, there’s usually simply nowhere for whatever key art is produced to go. That includes online.

Almost every movie that comes out has some sort of presence on the web, including some combination of official website, Facebook page, Twitter account and so on. For Netflix, though, there’s seemingly no upside to this tactic. None of the Netflix originals I’ve reviewed the campaigns for have included any sort of site. Or if there is a URL that’s listed somewhere, it simply redirects to the movie’s page on Netflix.com. Again, that’s a sign of the end goal being to get your interest to either add it your list or to sign up so you can watch it yourself.

Similarly, on social channels Netflix rarely, if ever, creates unique profiles just for a movie. The only example from the recent past is a Twitter account for the Christopher Guest movie Mascots, but it’s not clear why that exists as the exception to what otherwise seems like a hard and fast rule. Notably, this is very much not the approach that’s taken for Netflix’s original TV productions. There are Twitter accounts for Master of None, House of Cards and the upcoming The Defenders.

The disparity may simply come down to movies being big one-off events as opposed to TV shows, which provide more potential for ongoing promotional content. Indeed, I’ve often wondered why movie studios work so hard to create all sorts of social accounts for every movie instead of simply promoting it from a core studio account that has more long-term audience building potential. That’s the approach taken by some studios, most notably Fox Searchlight, and makes a lot of sense from a resource allocation point of view. Even there, though, the official Netflix Twitter and Facebook accounts put more emphasis on new or upcoming TV shows than movies.

Press and publicity

For the movies it picks up out of Sundance or elsewhere, there’s often significant star power attached — same for the original productions it finances itself. But there’s usually not a significant press push that’s on the level of other similar movies that receive theatrical releases.

If it is a Sundance acquisition, the cast and crew has usually been there talking to the press quite a bit about the movie. But once it’s acquired, things largely go dark, save for one or two small pops here and there. Again, it appears this just doesn’t seem to be effective enough of a tactic for Netflix to put significant resources behind it. And because, unlike Amazon, it’s usually not working with a studio partner, it doesn’t have that existing infrastructure to work with. So there may be small moments in the press or on the social profiles of the talent that help get the word out, but that’s the extent of it.

As with most things, you have to assume Netflix is making decisions on what to do or not do based on the data available to it. CEO Ted Sarandos has talked about how the original comedies from Adam Sandler are among the site’s most popular features, citing that popularity as the reason to sign him to four movie movies. Back in 2014, after it had already made a splash with TV series but before its big push into features, it was revealed Netflix had almost sliced content into almost 77,000 micro-genres to best analyze how people were using the service and what they were watching.

At the end of the marketing cycle, the best tool Netflix has to promote its original productions is Netflix itself. Log in to the service and you’re sure to find these original movies and TV shows at the top of various lists, be they “New Additions” or genre selections. It wants you to know that it’s working to not just be your place for “Parks and Recreation” binges but also for shows and movies you won’t find anywhere else. So while the formal, pre-release campaign may be sparse, it has one incredibly powerful and effective tool it will use to make sure everyone knows what’s available.

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