Scott Stuber’s announcement in January that he was leaving the top film job at Netflix after seven years at the streamer has set off a parlor game of guessing who might replace him.
But the better question might be: who would want to?
Stuber’s exit after a year as film chairman coincides with Netflix doubling down on its core focus – which isn’t the film business. In recent months, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has swatted down questions about theatrical releases and emphasized that the studio is a streaming service, first and foremost.
So how exciting is a job leading the movie division, now reporting to Bela Bajaria, the company’s chief content officer?
“It won’t be a job somebody wants, but it will be a job that somebody needs,” a leading film executive said on background.
“They’re in the TV movie business,” said the executive, pointing to Netflix’s stated desire to scale back on theatrical and prestige pictures in favor of smaller-budgeted movies that can populate the service in between viewers watching licensed content like “Suits” and “Gilmore Girls.”
That opinion was echoed by a talent agent who spoke with TheWrap, saying, “I don’t know how much Netflix needs another Stuber-level name since they will not be making huge tentpole movies anymore. Budget-wise, they will be comparatively modest.”
Netflix did not respond to request for comment.
Stuber marked a bridge between Old Hollywood and new. He started his career at Universal as a publicity assistant for Lew Wasserman and eventually became co-president of production for the studio in 2004. He transitioned to a producer deal at Universal until 2013 making films like “Ted” and “Role Models.”
The well-liked executive sought to make Netflix a credible filmmaking hub by hiring respected creatives like Rian Johnson, David Fincher and Jane Campion. And as one of the faces of the recent $70 million renovation of the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, he was bringing Netflix films to theaters.
To replace him, names like Walt Disney Pictures president Sean Bailey, former Paramount Motion Picture president Emma Watts and former Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich are being bandied about.
But as several industry insiders told TheWrap, it’s not the same job anymore.
“I don’t think they need an executive there who is based in movies and based in a system designed to try and make movies for theaters,” the film executive said. “I just don’t think you need somebody who is steeped in studio aspirations, or studio economics, or studio thinking, or wanting to make the level of movies that studios made because I don’t think they’re interested in that.”
This in spite of the company committing to spending $17 billion on content this year, between both film and television, and growing to nearly 261 million global paying subscribers in the last quarter, about 5 million more than analysts expected. And the streamer only has a reported 2–3% churn on subs leaving the service each month.
That being said, Netflix’s success in getting audiences to watch their licensed content alongside their original offerings means the next film chairman doesn’t need to heavily prioritize filmic output. The company dropped its “Next on Netflix 2024” video that contained nothing but original films.
All of Netflix’s 2024 titles were greenlit under Stuber, so it’s safe to assume newer titles won’t be in the same vein. As previously reported by TheWrap, Zach Snyder’s two-part “Rebel Moon” had a budget of $230 million; the Ryan Gosling/Chris Evans thriller “The Gray Man” cost $200 million; Michael Bay’s critically maligned “6 Underground” was made for $150 million; Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” had a budget of $150 million; and the Ryan Reynolds/Gal Gadot/Dwayne Johnson heist thriller “Red Notice” was made for $200 million.
A lack of eyeballs
According to a film producer who has worked with the studio, Netflix is correct to move away from making big-budget misses like “The Gray Man” and “Rebel Moon.”
“They cannot compete with the buzz and perceived value of theatrical in audience minds,” the producer said. “Their bread and butter should be mid-range movies supplemented by acquisitions.”
The individuals TheWrap spoke with agreed that despite prestige-heavy directors and ambitious film concepts, Netflix’s film strategy is simply not yielding eyeballs. The streamer’s most-watched original of 2023 was the Jennifer Lopez-fronted thriller “The Mother,” made for an estimated $43 million. It’s what many presume Netflix will aim to make once they find Stuber’s replacement.
“That is the quintessential Netflix movie at this point,” the film executive said. “It’s a total throwback to ’90s Ashley Judd movies.”
“Red Notice” remains the streamer’s most-watched original movie of all time with 230.9 million views, but the two planned sequels to the 2021 release have failed to materialize. “Rebel Moon,” positioned as a sci-fi blockbuster meant to be a “Star Wars”-esque property for the streamer, amassed 23.9 million viewers in its opening week, which fell short of the opening numbers for the less expensive “Leave the World Behind” (41.7 million views) and the Adam Sandler animated film “Leo” (34.6 million viewers).
“Given this trajectory, they do not need a former major studio head to run their division,” the producer said, adding that Netflix should instead look to transform its film division into a specialized arm like ScreenGems, Searchlight or Focus Features. “Otherwise, they will continue wasting more money.”
Whoever replaces Stuber will also have to decide what the future holds for the studio’s relationship with high-price talent like Fincher, Scorsese and Bradley Cooper. “Netflix will give people a lot of money, but when they make movies now, they give you a list of 10 people. And if you don’t get one of those people, you don’t get to make your movie,” the producer continued. “It’s very formula-driven by their analytics and by the algorithms.”
Additionally, while Fincher got the opportunity to make “The Killer” without any studio interference, most directors likely won’t get that level of freedom.
“They get a lot of glory for making something like ‘Mank’ or being in business with David Fincher, but none of those are what a Netflix consumer is coming to the site [for],” the film executive said. Fincher’s “The Killer” grossed $421,332 internationally, according to BoxOfficeMojo, and was in the Netflix Top 10 for four weeks. Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” despite making $383,552 million worldwide, has not cracked Netflix’s Top 10.
With theatrical now off the table, it’s also possible A-list creatives won’t want to work with the streamer if their movies won’t be seen outside the service. It’s why Amazon and Apple are still able to woo creatives by presenting them with a theatrical option that’s outsourced to other studios (like Apple’s “Argylle” being distributed by Universal).
“Netflix is a fire hose of product,” the film executive said. “When you have a firehose of product, you cannot have quality control. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, this little droplet of water we’re going to take it out, and we’re going to treat it with theatrical.’ Amazon and Apple have made it clear from the get-go that they’re not doing that.”
In the end, the individuals who spoke to TheWrap said Stuber was a bit of a unicorn. He’s an example of old-school Hollywood filmmaking attempting to bring an enhanced legitimacy to the streaming service. And many aren’t confident that his replacement will have similar gravitas.
As the film executive said: “Excellence at Netflix is the exception. It’s not the rule.”
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