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Analysis: Netflix’s ‘Crouching Tiger’ experiment: Is it a game-changer?

On Monday evening, Netflix announced plans to move into the narrative feature business. The company said in a statement that it was teaming with Weinstein Co. on the latter’s sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the 2000 Ang Lee martial-arts epic that was a smash at the time of its release--it remains the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in U.S. history--but hasn’t been a touchstone for some time.

The sequel, subtitled “The Green Legend,” was announced last year, and production was already under way in New Zealand (sans Lee). The news, of course, is Netflix, which will make the film available to subscribers day-and-date next August as Weinstein releases the film in Imax theaters globally.

This was, in a way, only a matter of time: Netflix, frustrated by a windowing system it sees as stifling its on-demand ethos, has been nibbling around narrative features for a whie. It created longform television with cinematic qualities in shows like ”House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” then acquired and marketed documentary features such as “The Square.” This is the next logical step.‎ (Netflix executives have been hinting at this for nearly a year.)

Anything Netflix does is news, in large part because the company has proved that it’s adept at creating both original material and buzz, if not exactly a verifiable audience.

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And certainly a high-profile movie that would go into theaters and online at the same time is noteworthy. But is it a game-changer --‎ something that, in success, will hint at and even hasten a very different future? Here are a number of questions that inform that answer.

How novel is something like this?

There have been big filmmakers who’ve tinkered with day and date (Steven Soderbergh) and big stars who’ve tried same (check your weekly cable listings). But this is unquestionably being done on a larger scale. Martial arts movies require bigger budgets than most indie dramas or comedies, and they travel better and play well on a big screen, all of which not only sets this experiment apart but give Netflix a reason to think the movie could have life at theaters in a way that most day-and-date movies don’t.

On the other hand, it’s important to realize that, for all the hype, this isn’t a Marvel movie — it’s a sequel to a film that’s 15 years old and not on many moviegoers’ minds. It lacks some key original elements (more on that in a moment). And it comes in a genre that has a history of playing first or primarily in homes (whether on DVD or that bootlegged Bruce Lee VHS tape you got from your friend in 1987). A “Crouching Tiger” sequel, in other words, is not “The Avengers 2” or “Star Wars Episode 7,” which is the business the studios are really worried could be upended.

How theatrical is theatrical?

The push from Netflix into original feature content is notable. But perhaps even more critical is the deal with Imax. Most day-and-date releases get a release in a handful of big-city theaters and measure their theatrical success in seven figures (the $7 million for Richard Gere’s “Arbitrage” or the approximately $5 million for Weinstein’s own “Snowpiercer” this summer, both considered breakouts). Imax aims bigger — it’s global, for one thing, and there are more than 800 theaters so equipped around the world.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean “Crouching Tiger 2” can make a big play. In part that’s because a number of theater chains already said they won’t play it--Regal, for example, which with 86 Imax screens accounts for about 10% of all Imax theaters--and in part because of the next question...

Can major home and theatrical viewing coexist?

In theory, of course they can, and this is what executives — particularly at Netflix, but not jut them — like to say. Some people, the line goes, enjoy the communal big-screen experience and others just want to snuggle up with their tablet or laptop. “Fans will have unprecedented choice in how they enjoy an amazing and memorable film,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in the statement.

But there’s long been a push-pull here, and if it’s not outright cannibalistic, it’s also not exactly complementary either. The reason most movies made for VOD are small is simple--small is where they play best. And the reason certain movies, particularly big-budget effects spectacles, make much of their money on the big screen is because that’s where they play best. There’s a kind of mutual exclusivity at work: If a company wants a movie that at once plays well on the big screen — indeed, that by its existence almost compels people to watch it there — it needs to offer something your laptop or tablet doesn’t. And once it does that, the experience is going to degrade on a screen of five or 10 inches. It’s hard, in other words, to have it both ways.

Netflix hopes that it can reach a lot of consumers with streams in markets where there is no nearby Imax theater. And it well may attract some to this (presumably less-optimal) experience. But the larger logic remains somewhat at odds. Consumers these days embrace big like Imax and small like iPhone. But will they embrace them both for the same movie? That’s a lot less clear.

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Will the movie be the second coming of “Crouching Tiger” or a more a generic sequel?

Time will tell, but auspices frequently offer a clue. This production is a partial return to the first film. Based on another book in Wang Du Lu’s “Crane-Iron Pentalogy” that provided source material for “Crouching Tiger,” it also brings back star Michelle Yeoh from the original — but not Chow Yun-fat or ‎Zhang Ziyi. ‎Yuen Wo-Pin, the martial-arts pioneer who handled the choreography in the first film, is back, but this time as a director. Lee, critically, is not. (The new film also has a rather unexpected array of producers, including “Battleship” director Pete Berg and the director of Weinstein’s upcoming “Imitation Game” awards contender, Morten Tyldum; you can make up your own mind on those.)

There are also some tea leaves to be read on the release date, Aug 28. The last weekend in August is not generally seen as a time for high quality movies, in part because it’s not a time when a lot of people go to movies. (The two new openers this year were “As Above/So Below” and “The November Man.”) That doesn’t mean a good movie couldn’t come out then, of course. But a wide audience is generally reluctant to head to the multiplex on one of the last weekends of summer. “Crouching Tiger 2” will need to be strong enough to change that habit.

What’s Netflix’s end game?‎

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With its pan-Asian appeal, a martial-arts pic isn’t an accidental choice. If you’re going to experiment like this, give yourself the best chance for the experiment to work, not just at home but around the world. And that’s not just for the movie — it’s for Netflix. The company just launched in six European markets, and company chief Reed Hastings has said he wants to be in 45 million homes by 2018, including the hard-to-crack Asian market, where this movie will presumably hold appeal. Netflix wants the global market to help it open the movie — but it also wants the movie to help it open the global market.

That’s Netflix’s play. What’s Harvey’s?

Weinstein didn’t release the original — that was rival Sony Pictures Classics. (The companies battled legally for rights several years ago, and it remains to be seen if Sony will let Weinstein go quietly into the kung-fu night). Weinstein has a history with martial arts — in fact, the third-highest grossing foreign language movie ever in the U.S. is “Hero,” a martial-arts picture Harvey Weinstein made at Miramax a decade ago. (There have been some less successful experiments since.) There’s also a larger business principle here. Weinstein doesn’t have the same fears about upsetting the status quo because, without the comparably sized pay TV and other ancillary deals as the major studios, he doesn’t have as much invested in the status quo.

So will this change the model?

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The simple answer? No, at least not on its own and not any time soon. The theater business has a huge incentive to keep windowing as it is. This isn’t just simple self-interested pressure from theater-owners — though that’s part of it — but because of a larger, entrenched ecosystem. The movie business is, in a sense, a cultural food chain. A carefully constructed series of partners from premium cable to VOD to basic cable to DVD pay for a privilege to get their movies in turn; and the studios pocket cash at each step, then use that money to fund more movies that go back into the chain. (Of course, Netflix is part of this system, and it’s been at the head of the line complaining that it’s, well, too far at the back of the line.) “Movies wherever, whenever” is a great slogan for consumers, but for content providers it cuts in to these lucrative exclusivity windows, and they thus have many good reasons not to abide by it.

Even if Netflix could offer proof that a day-and-date movie would be popular on two platforms at once (and we’ll see if Netflix gets over its usual reluctance to release numbers that would demonstrate that), that doesn’t mean it will be sufficiently worthwhile to studios to change their windowing model. “House of Cards” didn’t suddenly make ABC put every episode of “Scandal” on TV over one weekend in October; there was too much ad revenue from an entire season at stake to do that. Don’t expect the film business to react any differently.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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