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Behind Netflix Film Chief’s Exit — And What It Means for Streaming Movies

The end of Scott Stuber’s seven-year tenure as head of film at Netflix did not come as a shock. But it had seemed to be coming for so long that one producer who’s done business with the streamer says when he heard that it had finally happened, he didn’t know whether to believe it. “I sort of tuned out when anyone said Scott was out,” he says, “because I had been hearing that for over two years.”

When the time finally came, the most remarkable thing about Stuber’s exit was how it differed from the usual abrupt Netflix defenestration: This time, there was a laudatory press release, Stuber’s company email account still works, and he is supposed to stick around until March.

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Despite the lack of drama and despite co-CEO Ted Sarandos’ assurance in a Jan. 23 earnings call that the streamer’s original-film strategy won’t change, some Hollywood executives and agents say it may reveal a major shift in Netflix strategy. The streamer’s $5 billion commitment to the WWE over ten years — announced just hours after news of Stuber’s exit became public — suggest that the company has been rethinking how it deploys its $17 billion annual war chest for content. (Netflix does not break down how it allocates that money.)

Netflix has spent lavishly on original movies, and the results have not been dazzling. Stuber has made no secret of his view that maintaining quality control was impossible given the crushing volume of movies that Netflix insisted on rolling out. The streamer put out 90 original movies in 2018, with Stuber overseeing most of them. Since then the company has steadily dialed back the number of originals: 85 in 2022 and 49 last year, when the company restructured the film division and made a handful of layoffs. Still, this year Netflix will release at least 36 original English-language films — far more than any other company.

Even as the pipeline has slowed, Stuber has not been shy about his greatest frustration: Sarandos’ continuing refusal to offer any film a full theatrical release. Hope flickered when the streamer agreed to give Glass Onion, the 2022 Knives Out sequel, a broader run in cinemas than any previous Netflix film, putting it in about 600 theaters for a week. The movie grossed $16 million in that brief window and Stuber dreamed that Sarandos might develop a taste for cash.

That didn’t happen, and Stuber began to find himself unable to compete for hot movie packages at a time when A-list directors can get a theatrical release even from the other tech invaders, Amazon and Apple. One veteran studio executive says that policy puts Netflix at a significant competitive disadvantage, as movies clearly have a greater impact when released in theaters, he says, and “filmmakers are tired of making movies for streaming that just go poof.”

If Stuber was dissatisfied with Sarandos’ approach to movies, clearly Sarandos had disappointments of his own. He hasn’t and wouldn’t say so publicly, but likely he had hoped some of the service’s pricey movies could have been better. A recent example is Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon: Part One, sitting at a dismal 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (and a sequel still to come). And despite heavy spending on films like The Irishman, Netflix has never won an Oscar for best picture, while Apple landed gold on its first try in 2021 with CODA. (This year’s costly Killers of the Flower Moon, however, is likely to be a different story.)

One veteran film executive says he wonders why Netflix bothers to make movies at all when it can get record-breaking results from licensing an old show like Suits. In a way, Netflix has gone full circle: The streamer started churning out original movies as a defensive move when the studios pulled back on licensing their wares to the service, but now, this person says, “you have companies that are desperate for cash and license their product for pennies on the dollar.”

Several industry insiders say Stuber’s eventual fate at Netflix became clear in January 2023, when TV chief Bela Bajaria was promoted to chief content officer, with Stuber reporting to her rather than Sarandos. “When Bela got the job instead of him, I understood it,” this person says. “TV is always going to be king there. And Bela — to her credit — lives, eats, sleeps and drinks Netflix [while] Scott was like, ‘This hamster wheel I’m on is a motherfucker.’ ”

Having made something between $16 million and $18 million a year, Stuber has no money worries. With strong talent relationships, sources say he will launch his own company. (One says he has already lined up financing, while others aren’t so sure.) And Stuber is enough of a diplomat that he may well end up making some films for Netflix.

Netflix says Bajaria will hire her own head of film, and an insider says the studio will still put at least a couple of bets on pricey movies going forward. But one prominent agent says confidently that Netflix — like Amazon — is refocusing its ambitions. “Middle-of-the-road programming — that’s what Bela arguably knows,” he says. “That’s where they think they want to go: lowest common denominator, broad filmmaking. The number of high-end filmmakers taking projects there will wane.”

A top studio executive agrees, and says he believes Netflix has situated itself as the place of last resort when it comes to movie projects. “I don’t believe they’re going to stay in the movie business” if Sarandos sticks with his refusal to release movies in theaters, this person says. “They can just license shit. They have a great business, but it’s not the original movie business. Even the Oscar ego thing — that’s ultimately going away, too.”

Alex Weprin contributed to this report.

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