Articles - 8th February 2019

From Blockbuster to Blockbusters: The Meteoric rise of Netflix

Words by Jack King
Illustration by Oscar Price

From its humble beginning as the Blockbuster of the internet, to redefining web-based video distribution, to a swathe of Academy Award nominations with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma: when will Netflix end its meteoric rise?

Web-based video-on-demand services have become a ubiquitous staple within British households across the last five years. In July 2018, the collective 15.4m subscriber base of Netflix, NOW TV and Amazon Prime superseded the 15.1m subscribership of satellite platform Sky. Netflix’s impact is by-and-far the most felt: the platform’s subscribers constituted two-thirds of that figure, with 9.1m. Five years ago that figure was only three-million, and seven years ago, only one-and-a-half.

The redefinition of home entertainment was not singularly achieved by Netflix. The growing domination of web-based video platforms in the UK has very much been a three-pronged assault, between Netflix, NOW TV and Amazon Prime. But it would be categorically untrue to suggest that Netflix are not the key player.

The platform was co-founded by Reed Hastings, a software engineer with a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University, and software executive Marc Randolph, who held a swathe of experience working across a variety of Silicon Valley start-ups in the late nineties. The pair met after Pure Atria – a software debugging company founded by Hastings in 1991, three years after graduating from Stanford – acquired Integrity QA, for whom Randolph was a founding team member.

With the acquisition, Randolph became Head of Marketing for Pure Atria, which allowed for a significant amount of professional interaction with Reed; Randolph’s first impression of Reed was of a man “intense and obviously brilliant”. It was during carpools to their office in Santa Cruz, California, that the genesis of Netflix was realised: plans rejected, instincts served and ideas bounced, the combination of which would eventually lead to a massive paradigm shift in video production and distribution.

The Netflix we know now is an entirely different beast to the 1998 model – a platform for rental DVD distribution. By today’s digitised standards it was fairly rudimentary, similar to the likes of Blockbuster and Redbox, based on an industry which had existed since the mid-seventies; Netflix’s hook was originally that they would ship the content directly to your door, an early manifestation of their focus on consumer convenience. The following year, a subscription service was debuted. At the turn of the century, a simple version of Netflix’s personalized movie recommendation system was created.

By 2002, the service had 700,000 subscribers in the domestic U.S. market, rising to 3.2m in 2005, indicating a manifest demand for the subscription-based, diverse and consumer-friendly model Netflix had to offer. With other technological developments – namely faster consumer internet speeds and computers – came Netflix’s ballistic missile, which would catapult the service onto the global market, and change the distribution of film and television content for good: online streaming.

And thus, the tectonic plates of the entertainment industry began to shift. By 2011, Netflix was available on all mainline Apple products, TV set-top boxes, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, and other internet-based services; not least including the core of Netflix’s model for simplicity, a device easily accessible to all human beings across the developed world – the personal computer.

In 2012, the platform was launched in Europe, including the United Kingdom; by December, the service had reached 1.4m subscriptions in the UK, a figure which would almost double to 2.4m in as little as a year. A global grasp had very much been attained. What would be the subsequent vital step for Netflix’s revolution? What would be the natural ensuing step of development for a distribution platform with a massive global viewership and rapidly growing revenue?

Between 2011 and 2013, the company invested an estimated $2.4b in producing original content exclusively for the service – a sector previously dominated by such U.S. television behemoths as HBO (Game of Thrones, The Wire) and AMC (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad). It was a bold move to step into content production and acquisition, a massive statement of intent; the investment could have easily sunk if consumers were not drawn to these new IPs. The debutant project was House of Cards.

Backed by such Hollywood moguls as Beau Willimon, David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Eric Roth and Robin Wright, the critically-acclaimed programme proved that a VOD service – many web-based competitors being low-budget platforms, maintaining the stigma that VOD was the arena of B-movies and straight-to-DVD duds – could helm great original content, matching the acclaimed programming served by the likes of HBO.

In September 2013 at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, Netflix became the first web-exclusive platform ever to be recognised by the Television Academy with a total of fifteen nominations, nine of which were for House of Cards; Fincher won for directing the show’s pilot, “Chapter 1”. The sound of Spacey’s President Frank Underwood rapping his signet ring against the Oval Office desk at the close of the second season’s finale is still, to this day, the Netflix Originals ident.

The company has dabbled with feature-length narrative films since 2015, beginning with the Cary Fukanaga directed, Idris Elba helmed, Beasts of No Nation, which opened at Toronto International Film Festival in the same year; Elba received a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance as the tyrannical Commandant, along with a swathe of critical praise. This was, markedly, the first time that the Netflix logo had been on the big screen at a major international film festival.

Exclusive international distribution rights for the likes of Dee Rees’ Sundance darling Mudbound (2017) and Alex Garland’s acclaimed sci-fi horror Annihilation (2018) were acquired in subsequent years, extending Netflix’s cinematic grip. This all, ultimately, leads to today, and the latest development in Netflix’s content uprising – the critical acclaim and awards success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. In a development un-thought of as little as three years ago, with Netflix’s debut on the festival circuit with the aforementioned Beasts, a Netflix original film has tied for the most Oscar nominations at this year’s 91st Academy Awards.

In an awards season marked by controversy, unpredictability, and a general lack of quality, Netflix has pushed against the traditional studio hegemony with a disruptive jab, shaking the cinematic status quo to its core. It feels very much like House of Cards on a cinematic scale: an acclaimed art project, helmed by a critically adored director at the peak of his abilities, marking Netflix’s place within new territory.

It’s important to note that Roma is not only the co-leader in terms of actual nominations: it is also, by and far, the favourite to win both Best Picture and Best Director for Cuarón. If that is to occur – Roma circulated on an incredibly limited theatrical run (to some level of controversy), predominantly distributed on a web-based streaming platform, a champion of the small screen rather than the silver – it will represent a monumental change in traditional attitudes towards the consumption of independent cinema.

The company has already proven, with the monumental success of Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, that there is a huge audience for blockbusters on the VOD market; but to achieve the same with the arthouse, the realm of the big picture, where aspect ratios and surround sound reign supreme? That is more than a statement. And, truly, I can’t imagine what could come next.

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