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Graham: Netflix content in competition with itself

So many movies on the streaming service! Yet it seems all people really want to watch is 'Friends'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

If you're a Netflix subscriber, one of the year's best films is available to you right now, but you've probably never heard of it, let alone seen it. 

The movie is "22 July," from Paul Greengrass, the breakneck director of the "Bourne" movies and "United 93." "22 July" tells the story of the 2011 Norway terrorist attack that left 77 dead, and it was released on Netflix back in October. 

Yalitza Aparicio, center, in a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. The film has dominated the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, winning best film, best director and best cinematography.

The problem is it was one of 80-some original movies released on Netflix this year, which is to say nothing of the 700-odd original and licensed TV shows added to the streaming service in 2018. Within that tidal wave of content, it's easy to drown. 

Meanwhile, the Netflix story that made the most noise this week was not about its original programming, but rather, the uproar over the network's abandoning of "Friends." 

Never fear, the adventures of Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Joey and Rachel will continue to live at Netflix for another year, after the service put up a reported sum of $80 to $100 million to retain the rights to the '90s sitcom through 2019. 

But that mass panic over the show's possible departure may have indicated what people are really watching on Netflix, and more importantly, what they're not. 

Netflix spent a reported $13 billion on new content this year, enlisting the talents of some of the world's top filmmakers. Aside from Greengrass, there are the Coen Bros., whose Western-themed anthology "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" premiered on the service last month, and Martin Scorsese, whose upcoming "The Irishman" is a Netflix original. 

Since Netflix doesn't release viewership figures, it's difficult to ascertain what movies or programs viewers are consuming. But it seems like a lot of its programming is languishing on a menu screen somewhere, waiting to be called up. 

It's fair to say "22 July" was never going to be a blockbuster. But it's a masterful film from an A-list filmmaker that was delivered directly to subscribers, and it has generated curiously little talk or conversation. Would that have been the case if it was released the traditional route, in theaters? 

Netflix faces its biggest test yet in the cinematic realm with this week's release of "Roma," the latest from "Gravity" and "Children of Men" director Alfonso Cuarón. The film, which premieres on the service Friday, has topped many critical year-end lists and is thought to be Netflix's first sure-fire Oscar contender, with a shot at earning a Best Picture nomination. 

But will people watch it, and does it matter if they do?

"Roma" is receiving a concurrent release in theaters; it has been playing in New York and Los Angeles for several weeks and is set to premiere at Cinema Detroit on Friday. (The Netflix veil of secrecy has extended to its theatrical run. As per Netflix policies, its box office performance is not being reported to industry trackers.) 

Whether its distribution model helps or hurts "Roma" remains to be seen. If it's a success, it could help create a new paradigm for what constitutes a hit, and if it fails — e.g, if it doesn't secure a Best Picture nomination — Netflix could catch the blame and a lot of those filmmakers might not be as eager to work for the streamer.   

Netflix has proven to be a powerhouse in the TV world. Shows such as "House of Cards," "Stranger Things" and "Orange is the New Black" have become legitimate sensations among both fans and critics. 

Movies are a different animal, and it's so far unclear what a hit Netflix movie looks like.

"Roma" may be the first. It's definitely worth your attention, just as "22 July" is. As of Friday, they'll both be available on Netflix — you know, that thing you watch "Friends" on.