TORONTO — While Netflix has successfully reshaped how we watch TV series, its foray into film hasn’t achieved anywhere near the same level of water-cooler chatter.
But that may change this week as the streaming giant heads to the Toronto International Film Festival with a heavy slate of movies that could bolster its reputation with cinephiles, appeal to mainstream audiences and grab some Oscar buzz along the way.
Eight Netflix films will screen at TIFF in the coming days, marking the largest number of movies the company has ever brought to the festival.
Its lineup includes historical epic “Outlaw King,” starring Chris Pine, which becomes the first-ever movie from a streaming giant to open an international film festival with its debut Thursday.
After that, Netflix showcases world premieres of the thriller “Hold the Dark” as well as a Quincy Jones documentary and the mid-life crisis drama “The Land of Steady Habits.” But it’s “Roma,” a new black-and-white film by “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron, that’s riding high on accolades from a debut at the Venice Film Festival last month. Critics predict it’ll be a contender at the next Academy Awards.
All that positive attention bodes well for Netflix if the company wants to strengthen its image as a home to prestige films, and not a factory that’s pushing mediocre movies into the marketplace, said Hannah Woodhead, a U.K.-based film critic.
“Netflix is trying to demonstrate to all the naysayers that they’re a viable studio and not just any streaming service,” said Woodhead, who writes for the Little White Lies film site.
“It almost seems like a public relations offensive.”
But Netflix’s track record hasn’t exactly helped its regard in some corners of the film community.
Unlike other streaming giants like Amazon, the company has notoriously shunned a theatrical release for most of its films, agreeing only to the smallest rollouts in order to qualify certain movies for the Oscars.
It was enough to push organizers at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to effectively boot Netflix from its red carpet premieres last May. A new rule banned any films from competing for the festival’s most prestigious prize if they weren’t playing in France’s theatres.
The decision singled out Netflix and led the company to walk away from the Cannes festival.
Netflix isn’t hitting it out of the park in Hollywood either.
Even though it’s thrown significant money behind award campaigns for movies such as “Mudbound” and “Beasts of No Nation,” the company has failed to capture any trophies in a major Oscar category. Will Smith’s big-budgeted “Bright” didn’t impress critics and quickly vanished from the conversation.
Instead, Netflix has seen a number of its most buzzworthy titles in lighter fare, like the holiday romance “A Christmas Prince” and teen comedies “The Kissing Booth” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
Dozens of other films, some which were hot off film festival buzz, have fallen off the radar within days of appearing on the streaming platform. Netflix doesn’t provide viewership figures, which makes it impossible to accurately gauge how many people watch their films.
Those detractions haven’t necessarily hurt Netflix’s position with filmmakers who sometimes just want to get their dream project off the ground. Many boast about their creative freedom under the streaming giant’s roof — but the sentiment isn’t always positive.
The Netflix brand took another knock this summer when the filmmakers behind “Crazy Rich Asians” acknowledged they turned down a steep offer from the company in favour of a traditional Hollywood distributor who promised a full theatrical release and the promotional thrust that comes with it.
Jason Gorber, a film critic based in Toronto, doesn’t think experiences like the one with “Crazy Rich Asians” will threaten Netflix’s posture because it was such an anomaly in the film market.
Most small or mid-sized movies are lucky to see any sort of major release without getting trampled by blockbusters, he said. He considers Netflix’s relationship with organizers at TIFF as mutually beneficial to both of their interests.
“The festival is providing the showcase, glitz and the glamour for a bunch of films that probably wouldn’t have done spectacularly well theatrically anyway,” Gorber argues.
“Each gets their chance to be a theatrical experience, the attention that comes with it and then Netflix gets the advertising.”
Rounding out the eight films Netflix plans to screen at TIFF this year are movies that might’ve never seen a theatrical release anyway.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a challenging drama that was warmly received at other festivals but lacks real commercial prospects, while “22 July” follows the story behind Norway’s deadliest terrorist attack, and “Girl” chronicles a young ballerina considering gender reassignment surgery.
Gorber believes movies like these, which don’t have major box-office prospects, have a chance to thrive on streaming services where they can be discovered over time. He said if Netflix continues to invest in a diverse lineup of commercial and riskier projects, he’s prepared to call himself a supporter.
“I think it’s spectacular the films they put their money behind,” he said.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press