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Netflix enters Oscar race with move into original documentaries

Netflix acquires rights to the political film 'The Square,' a frontrunner in the upcoming Academy Award race for best documentary.

November 05, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik and Dawn C. Chmielewski
  • This image from video released by Noujaim Films shows Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan in a scene from the documentary "The Square." Netflix has acquired rights to the political film, which centers on real-life protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
This image from video released by Noujaim Films shows Egyptian activist… (Associated Press/Noujaim…)

Can "The Square" put Netflix in Oscar circles?

That's one of several questions raised by the company's decision to move into original documentaries with "The Square," filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's nonfiction feature about the Egyptian revolution.

On Monday, Netflix announced it had acquired rights to the political film, which centers on real-life protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The movie is considered a frontrunner in the upcoming Academy Award race for best documentary, having won a coveted audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in January and another audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It has earned glowing reviews since opening in theaters 10 days ago for the run required to qualify for an Academy Award.

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Financially, the acquisition of a single documentary may bring more prestige than cash to the bottom line.

"A little bit more has been made out of this acquisition of a documentary film than any financial impact it's going to have on Netflix, the film itself or the exhibition industry," said Alan Gould, a managing director of Evercore Partners.

But the move could evoke fear in theater owners and movie studios much the same way the company's popular Emmy-decorated "House of Cards" did to the TV business.

The move also injects much-needed life into the often cash-strapped documentary world.

Two people familiar with the company's plans who were unauthorized to talk about them publicly said an ambitious documentary division is planned that will see the company spearhead both acquisitions and original productions.

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Netflix has hired Adam Del Deo, the veteran producer behind films such as the 2008 documentary hit "Every Little Step," to run the division.

Most documentaries don't find much success in movie theaters. The highest-grossing theatrical documentary this year is "20 Feet From Stardom," a story of backup singers behind musicians such as Bruce Springsteen. It has grossed $4.7 million since arriving in theaters in June.

Instead, TV networks — most prominently HBO, which has a robust slate, and more recently CNN — have carried the load.

"Any well-heeled new buyer in the documentary space is welcome," said John Sloss, founder of sales agent Cinetic Media, which brokered the "Square" deal. "The key with documentaries these days is getting a movie into the conversation, and no one has been as good at starting a conversation lately as Netflix."

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Filmmakers expressed enthusiasm not just for Netflix's marketing reach but the possibilities for making longer, richer films — similar to Netflix's 13-episode "House of Cards."

"The next interesting step I think is the binge-able documentary, where stories are watched in multi-part episodes adding up to five or six hours instead of as a single two-hour film," said Andrew Jarecki, the Oscar-nominated director of the well-regarded nonfiction feature "Capturing the Friedmans." "Netflix would be in an excellent position to do that."

In an appearance Monday morning for a forum sponsored by Bloomberg and the Tribeca Film Festival, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos lauded his new acquisition, saying, "We're really excited about it."

Sarandos last month indicated that the budding Internet television network would start pursuing original documentaries and comedies. He said the move would help disrupt current release timing, which results in Hollywood movies reaching Netflix's service months after they have appeared in theaters and on pay-TV channels.

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Sarandos said Monday in an interview with The Times, somewhat coyly, that he would not oppose "The Square" appearing in theaters on the same day it is streamed to subscribers. The film will debut exclusively on Netflix early next year.

"It's a Netflix original documentary, but we don't want to stand in the way if there is a group experience," he said.

He also referenced the awards prestige that a movie such as "The Square" could bring the company. Any awards attention could boost the movie's viewership.

But documentary campaigning is considered a more decorous business than the hustle for feature film Oscars.

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One consultant, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity so as not to compromise potential relationships, said giant billboards for a documentary, for example, are considered gauche. (They also may be ineffective, given that a small group of just a few hundred people make the decision about nominees.)

Competitors also note privately that the tight-knit documentary world, even more than other parts of Hollywood, requires close relationships and a certain amount of finesse.

But Netflix isn't shy about taking on those competitors. Netflix executives boasted recently that its 31 million subscribers in the U.S. exceeded the domestic reach of HBO. The pay-cable network, incidentally, has a prized documentary division and airs dozens of them each year.


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