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Exclusive: Netflix gets into original-film game with 'The Square'

Fresh off his controversial speech about disruptive plans for the movie business, Ted Sarandos and Netflix are looking to make a splash with an original film released under the Netflix banner.

The online entertainment company is in final negotiations to acquire exclusive rights to “The Square,” a documentary about the Egyptian revolution that has won prizes at the 2013 Sundance and Toronto film festivals, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about them publicly.

The idea would be to release the movie via the service in the coming months in the manner of its original TV-style series, such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black," the person said; more documentaries are likely in the cards, they added.

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A Netflix spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment on plans for "The Square." But public screenings of the film Friday in Los Angeles already showed the Netflix logo.

Shot in Cairo over a period of several years by Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”), “The Square” examines a group of activists of various stripes in Tahrir Square, beginning with the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in March 2011 and continuing through the assertion of power by the army, the electoral ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and the coup that brought down the Brotherhood and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi this summer.

An early cut of the film was shown earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won a top audience prize. A new version centering on further characters won a top audience prize in Toronto in September, joining the feature winner "12 Years a Slave."

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The deal, which was negotiated with indie-film veterans Cinetic Media, puts Netflix into the thick of Oscar season barely a month after it was a force at the Emmys with multiple nominations for buzzy political soap opera “House of Cards.”  “The Square” is currently getting a self-financed Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles and is tabbed as a favorite in the documentary category. In The Times on Friday, Kenneth Turan called the film "articulate, thoughtful and intensely dramatic."

The news comes less than a week after Netflix Chief Content Officer Sarandos offered bold statements about original film that could be released by Netflix, effectively shutting out theaters.

Sarandos told a Film Independent gathering that “the model that we’re doing for TV should work for movies. Why not premiere movies the same day on Netflix that they are opening in theaters?”

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While documentary is a less sensitive subject for large theater chains, which do a comparatively small amount of business in the nonfiction arena -- and though it's not clear how big a commercial theatrical rollout "The Square" would be given concurrent with its Netflix release, if any -- observers are likely to see the acquisition as an opening salvo for the upstart entertainment company and a move that puts it in the original-film game much faster than many thought.

Netflix has been eager to establish itself as a power in original content to rival established entities. Two weeks ago it boasted in an earnings call that, thanks to series such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,”  its subscriber numbers now exceed those of HBO. One of HBO's prized categories of course, is documentary.

ALSO:

Movie review: 'The Square'

Netflix earnings jump; subscriber numbers pass HBO's

Toronto: 'The Square,' '12 Years a Slave' win top audience prizes

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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