Netflix Original Movies Year in Review: More is (Slightly) Less

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We take you back through Netflix’s biggest year in the movie business documenting the highs and lows of the year. Guest blog from Christopher Weir who works on a blog dedicated to cataloging all of Netflix’s Original movie productions.

Netflix released 160 “Original” movies this year, give or take a few depending on where you live, up from about 131 last year. Among other things, this makes it difficult to generalize about how the company did, and invariably it means that everything I say here has to be prefaced with “Based on what I’ve seen…”. This is not ideal of course, but such voluminous output is frankly impossible to keep up with in its entirety.

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That said, I have seen more than most people and read quite a bit too, so I can at least guide you through the bigger picture of what Netflix released during the year and how it fared with audiences and critics. In brief, I would say that Netflix had a good year when it came to original films, but that A) most of what was good about it happened from October to December; and B) that 2019 was in many ways a downgrade from 2018, which for me was Netflix’s big breakthrough when it came to movies.

To make these points a bit clearer and to make the 160 films slightly more manageable, I have broken them down to three categories for discussion: Mainstream Films (i.e. films in English); International Films (i.e. films not made in English); and Documentaries, which is self-explanatory.

2019 Netflix Original Mainstream Films

Netflix has once again hijacked the Oscar conversation this year with the release of two auteur-driven films in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Credit where credit is due, there is no doubting the artistic credentials of either film, though I do prefer Marriage Story as I think it features a more epic journey than Scorsese’s sweeping historical film, and that it is more relatable to boot (see my awards below).

Whichever you prefer, these are leading the Oscar conversation, but that shouldn’t overshadow Netflix’s deep bench when it comes to awards season fare. Dolemite is My Name, The Two Popes, Atlantics and Klaus among others have been very well received and are likely to find themselves in contention when the statuettes are finally given out. But Netflix has also had a few flops this Oscar season, most notably Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous The Laundromat, and Shakespeare adaptation The King, another disappointing historical epic to go with last year’s expensive dud Outlaw King. On the whole however, Netflix has done well this Oscar season, even if for me this year’s group can’t match last year’s crop of Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the underrated 22 July.

In popular terms, Netflix continued its strategy of bombarding us with seemingly low-cost rom-coms. Highlights from this year in terms of Netflix’s promotion of them would include The Perfect Date, Tall Girl, Always Be My Maybe and Let It Snow. While these films were ubiquitous on the platform itself and throughout the media world, none of them – aside from Always Be My Maybe, which tapped into the Keanu Reeves zeitgeist of the early summer – had the freshness or cultural impact of 2018’s group of Set It Up, The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, despite some impressive (self-reported) viewership data for some of the films.

Beyond the romcom, Netflix had a popular hit with its newest Adam Sandler vehicle Murder Mystery (73 million viewers according to Netflix) and its expensive action film Triple Frontier (53 million). The Irishman (the most expensive Netflix film to date) and The Highwaymen both racked up 40 million views. We are still awaiting figures on the Michael Bay film 6 Underground but Netflix will be hoping for a high number as it cost almost as much as The Irishman but will not have any Oscar buzz like its counterpart to compensate for a low number. In any case, barring a Christmas miracle for 6 Underground, we are unlikely to see any film challenge Bird Box’s record audience of 80 million viewers in 2018/early 2019.   

2019 Netflix Original International Films

In 2019 Netflix continued to release loads of non-Anglophone content but didn’t have a lot to show for it in terms of critical successes. As was the case in 2018, Spanish-language films represented the second biggest group of releases on the service this year. Unlike 2018, which counted Roma amongst this group, there was little in the way of notable film-making. The company’s big bet in festival terms was the Isabel Coixet film Elisa y Marcela which played at Berlin. The film received a tepid reception there and in Spain upon its release, with little awards fanfare expected. Similar fates greeted some of the company’s other Spanish originals such as Who Would You Take to a Desert Island? and 17. It wasn’t a total loss, though, for Netflix’s Spanish-language content as Your Son flew under the radar and managed to get a second life when it was launched on the service. Without giving exact figures, Netflix has also mentioned Mirage in its earnings reports as a popular success.

The company’s Asian releases were also largely undistinguished this year. Despite releasing 10 Indian films this year – nearly one per month – the company couldn’t find the buzz it got with its 2018 release Lust Stories or its popular series Sacred Games. This despite the warm critical reception for the film Soni, which is by some distance the best Indian film acquired by the service to date. South Korea and Japan likewise were lackluster in terms of producing popular films for Netflix this year and were also without a critical hit to compensate.

The most interesting geographic area for Netflix movies outside of the US is so far proving to be Europe. In addition, the previously mentioned Your Son, Netflix also released some solid French films this year, including the masterful submarine drama The Wolf’s Call and the popular success Street Flow (2.6 million views in its first week). The company has also had a great deal of critical success with Atlantics, a Senegalese set film that was financed and produced out of France. A final bright spot in Europe for Netflix has been Germany, from which emerged the critically well-received All is Good and the popular hit Kidnapping Stella, which Netflix said was viewed almost 20 million times in its first month on the service.    

2019 Netflix Original Documentary Films

There is one area in which Netflix films actually improved upon 2018 and that was with its documentaries. The company landed four films on the documentary longlist for the Oscars and frankly could have gotten more on the list. The ones chosen for the Oscars were some of the company’s politically-themed films, those being Knock Down the House, The Edge of Democracy, The Great Hack and American Factory, any one of which would make a deserving winner. But this list doesn’t include a number of the other great docs released on the service this year, including Bikram, Fyre, Homecoming, Tell Me Who I Am, Evelyn and that other Scorsese film Rolling Thunder Revue. In short, it has been a great year for Netflix documentaries and let’s hope that continues into 2020.   

American Factory now on Netflix

Some end of the year awards:

Best Overall Film: Marriage Story. Runner Up: The Irishman

Worst Overall Film: The Dirt Runner Up: Polar

Hidden Gem of the Year/Most Unfairly Overlooked: The Wolf’s Call Runner Up: High Flying Bird

Biggest Disappointment: Velvet Buzzsaw Runner Up: The Laundromat

Documentary of the Year: Knock Down the House Runner Up: Fyre

Christopher Meir is an academic researcher specializing in the film and television industries. His most recent book is Mass Producing European Cinema: Studiocanal and its Works. His newest project is dedicated to Netflix’s impact on the world’s film industries. As part of this project, he has set up the blog Netflix Original Movies Reviewed. You can also follow the project on Twitter and Facebook.

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Christopher operates a Twitter and blog dedicated to covering Netflix Original films. He's also a specialist in film and television history at the Universidad Carlos II de Madrid receiving his doctorate from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.