No major Hollywood institution has been better positioned to weather the coronavirus pandemic than Netflix. With theaters across the country shut down for months on end and studios scrambling to delay their most anticipated films, the streaming giant has enjoyed a virtually captive audience. Even as major theater chains have been plunged into an existential crisis, Netflix has enjoyed record boosts in global subscribers and a 30% jump in its stock price since mid-March.
But now, with a fall movie season like none before anxiously getting underway, Netflix is stepping outside its digital comfort zone and testing the waters of theatrical exhibition once again.
Except this time theaters are shut down in roughly a third of the country, including the major markets of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and major chains still refuse to book Netflix titles because the company flouts the traditional window between theatrical and home viewing.
Nevertheless, Netflix opens writer-director Aaron Sorkin's period drama "The Trial of the Chicago 7" Friday in fewer than two dozen theaters in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, and Tempe, Arizona. It's the first phase in a larger expansion over the next three weeks, ahead of the film's release on the streaming service on Oct. 16.
Such a rollout follows the playbook Netflix has used successfully with awards contenders like "Roma" and "The Irishman." But this time, with many moviegoers hesitant to venture into theaters and exhibitors large and small hanging on by a thread, one significant question overshadows the strategy: Why?
With plans in flux just days before the film's release, a Netflix representative declined to comment on the specific details of the rollout of "Chicago 7," which Netflix acquired from original distributor Paramount Pictures this summer when the outlook for theaters appeared dire.
The company typically keeps its cards close to its vest when it comes to its theatrical strategy and never reports box office figures for its films. But the platform release of "Chicago 7" represents a trial run for other awards contenders set to open in the coming months, including David Fincher's period drama "Mank," about the behind-the-scene battles during the making of "Citizen Kane," and Ron Howard's adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller "Hillbilly Elegy."
While "Chicago 7" marks its highest-profile return to theatrical exhibition since the pandemic, Netflix has quietly dipped its toe back into theaters already. The thriller "The Devil All the Time" was released in a handful of theaters across the country on Sept. 11, a few days before it hit the Netflix platform on Sept. 16, while the gonzo Charlie Kaufman mind-bender "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" opened in a small number of theaters one week before it arrived via streaming on Sept. 4. (Notably, Netflix opted to bypass theaters entirely with its new high-profile mystery "Enola Holmes," starring Millie Bobby Brown as the teenage sister of Sherlock Holmes, which is now available for streaming.)
Though its streaming-centric model remains anathema to the major theater chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark, Netflix has long touted its support for theatrical exhibition and has developed partnerships with a number of independent theater owners and smaller chains like Landmark and Alamo Drafthouse. In the past year, the company also moved to acquire a pair of venerable movie houses in Los Angeles (the Egyptian Theatre) and New York (The Paris).
Over the last several years, Netflix has used the promise of a theatrical release, however limited, to help bring major filmmakers into its fold, from Alfonso Cuaron to Martin Scorsese to the Coen brothers. Speaking to the LA Times shortly before his film opened, Kaufman said that before the pandemic Netflix had planned a more robust theatrical release, and he had made the movie with that in mind: "Ideally, I would like the movie to be seen on as big a screen as possible. I think it's a beautiful-looking movie. I hope people at least watch it on a big TV screen."