DVO Podcast: The Golden Age of Niche Cinema?
With Netflix willing to pay 90 million dollars, sight unseen, for a buddy cop movie involving orcs and elves, are we seeing the golden age for unconventional movies?
Looking over the numbers from our podcast about the future of streaming services, I started to get interested by not just how much content Netflix is generating, but what kind. Anecdotally, it feels like Hollywood – pressured by the buying power of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon – may be diversifying its releases in a bid to stay relevant. I mean, we’ve seen niche genre films like Arrival, The Revenant, The Shape of Water and La La Land make good money on their way to Academy Award nominations. Could this be the golden age of niche cinema?
Well, as any scientist will tell you, the plural of anecdote isn’t data. I wanted quantitative numbers to back up my qualitative assessment that we’re seeing more varied films get made and subsequently succeed. After looking at 15 years of box office data over at Box Office Mojo I came to a startling conclusion: ain’t nothing changed!
The Golden Age of Niche Cinema?
Part 1: The Pressure of Netflix.
Netflix has a tremendous amount of weight to throw around. With around 100 million subscribers (double what it had in just 2014), it has a large installed base of viewers to justify making variety a priority. The service also relies heavily on algorithms instead of traditional metrics like box office take and Nielsen ratings. They know they need X number of programs featuring Y performers in Z genres to keep people from hitting un-subscribe. And as they’ve stated, they don’t much care if the programs are “good.” Hell, look at home much Adam Sandler crud they shovel every year! If the computer spits out a fortune cookie that says “Will Smith in a buddy cop movie featuring fantasy elements” then they write the check for 90 million, who cares if it is a bonkers formula.
Part 2: The Appearance of Trends.
On a gut level, it feels like we’re seeing more variety in the movies that catch attention. Smart horror films like Get Out, Split, and A Quiet Place make big noise in a genre you’d normally write off as a creative wasteland. The same goes for genres like musicals (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), westerns (The Revenant, Hell or High Water) and hard science fiction (Arrival, Annihilation, Ex Machina.) While there are plenty of big names, we needed to look to see if there are more of these movies being made. So we did:
Part 3: The Absence of Proof.
So, over the last 5 years (roughly the time in which Netflix has been rocking the boat by creating their first original content – House of Cards in 2011) there hasn’t been any real trend lines. You could argue that westerns have improved – but other niches like martial arts and sports dramas have remained flat, and musicals and war movies seem to bob along on a cycle. What if we zoom out and see if there has been a change in audience tastes? Do the recent successes of certain niches mean that they are starting to see better box office representation? To look at this, I sampled three years (2005, 2010, 2015) and tallied up how many of each genre made it into the top 100 box office earnings in the US domestic market:
Part 4: The Results?
Once again, the only genre with consistent gains was the western genre. Comedies actually took a giant wack, although I’d imagine some of this could be down to certain films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and everything The Rock does crossing over into more action/sci-fi oriented genres. Overall, with the exception of westerns, we’re not seeing either an explosion of production or of commercial success that fits into any tangible trend line. Some years sports biopics kick ass, some years musicals dominate, but they slip back into obscurity just a year later and have little change over a decade.
This result really squashes the qualitative feeling that we’re getting more variety at the movies. There are a couple missing variables: Netflix is notoriously reticent about how many people actually watch their programs. They don’t care if 1 or 1 million people see Bright; so long as nobody unsubscribes they’ve won the name recognition battle. Also, this listing doesn’t account for budget: we could be seeing the same amount of horror or sci-fi, but the quality of the offerings in terms of budget and star power is increasing as studios try to get their niche films noticed without committing to making a ton of them. If we could round up those numbers, that would be a fun discussion for another podcast…