Toward the end of “Red Notice,” Netflix’s flashiest and most expensive attempt to date at starting a film franchise, Ryan Reynolds descends into a cave to search for a bounty pilfered by Nazis. Adorned in khakis and a fedora, he whistles the theme to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as he walks down the stairs. The director Rawson Thurber calls it “a tip of the cap to the greatest action-adventure film of all time.”
That homage to the “Indiana Jones” movies also serves as something of an indicator of Netflix’s film aspirations, which have evolved over the years as its subscriber base has grown to 214 million and filmmaker resistance to its streaming-first model has waned. The company has shifted its priorities from being the place where big-name filmmakers bring passion projects that the studios find too risky. (Think Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”) Now, the company is aiming straight for what the old-line studios do best: the PG-13, all-audience films that traditionally pack movie theaters, create a cultural moment and often transform into lucrative franchises.
In the next year, Netflix is releasing more than a handful of expensive, star-studded films intended to appeal to a wide audience, from filmmakers with a history of doing just that. Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) is directing Mr. Reynolds in the time-travel film “The Adam Project.” Francis Lawrence, the director behind “The Hunger Games” franchise, will see his fantasy-adventure “Slumberland” with Jason Momoa debut on the service next year. And Joe and Anthony Russo, the brother directing team behind “The Avengers,” will unveil the espionage thriller “The Gray Man” starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans.
For Scott Stuber, Netflix’s global film chief, this is the culmination of four years of working to convince Hollywood that the service’s subscriber base is worth more than any box office returns a film can muster.
“Here’s the thing about Netflix, which is kind of mind-blowing, more people are going to watch ‘Red Notice’ than have seen all of my other movies in their entire theatrical release combined,” said Mr. Thurber, the writer, director and producer of “Red Notice” whose credits include “Skyscraper,” “Central Intelligence” and “Dodgeball.” “That’s how big Netflix is. It’s almost incalculably large.”
Netflix has declared “Red Notice,” a globe-trotting heist film that also stars Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot, a smash success. The company said the movie was viewed 148 million hours in its first weekend on the service, marking the biggest opening weekend in Netflix’s history. But it received tepid reviews, with The New York Times calling it “an expensive brandishing of star power — only the stars haven’t got it in them” and The Los Angeles Times referring to it as a “limp imitation blockbuster.”
And that echoes a point that has been made about the overall quality of Netflix’s films.
“I think one of the fair criticisms has been we make too much and not enough is great,” Mr. Stuber said in an interview, adding, “I think what we want to do is refine and make a little less better and more great.”
Despite the reviews, Mr. Stuber is thrilled with “Red Notice” and is bullish about his upcoming slate of films, which include a mixture of prestige pictures aimed for the awards stage like Jane Campion’s “Power of the Dog” and Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” debuts from directors like Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” along with more general audience fare like the R-rated thriller “The Unforgivable,” starring Sandra Bullock.
Mr. Stuber, who was a senior film executive at Universal Pictures and an independent producer making films like “Central Intelligence” and “Ted” before coming to Netflix, is satisfied that most of the resistance to Netflix’s decision to essentially abandon the exclusive theatrical window has been quashed. (The company puts some films into theaters ahead of release, but rarely for longer than about three weeks.) And that has broadened the number of stars and filmmakers willing to work on films that will largely bypass multiplexes.
“For us, it’s always been about access to material,” Mr. Stuber said, pointing to the moment that Mr. Scorsese chose to bring “The Irishman” to Netflix as a turning point for the streaming service.
That move led others to take a chance, not just on projects that studios passed on but on big-budget films, often with an R-rating, that frequently populate movie theaters, like Charlize Theron in “Old Guard,” and Chris Hemsworth in “Extraction.” Now, the goal is to expand into more PG-13 movies.
“We’re finally getting access to that kind of material and those filmmakers and artists, and I think we’re heading in that direction in a pretty exciting way,” Mr. Stuber said.
The main advantage that studios point to when comparing themselves to Netflix is their ability to create a cultural moment when they open a big, boisterous blockbuster in theaters all over the globe. David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery who will soon run the merged Warner Bros. Discovery, referenced that power during a recent talk at the Paley Center in New York.
“We can open a motion picture anywhere in the world,” he said.
That distinction may not matter as much anymore.
“All of Hollywood is hanging its hat on one thing: You can’t create a zeitgeist moment from an online movie,” the media analyst Richard Greenfield said. “I would say that there are very few movies that even have zeitgeist. And there is lots of stuff creating cultural moments that will never hit theaters.”
Mr. Levy knows the power of movie theaters. He directed this year’s “Free Guy,” starring Mr. Reynolds, which earned $331 million at the worldwide box office despite the constraints of the pandemic and not being based on a previously known property. He’s hoping that there will be similar recognition for “The Adam Project,” the first movie he’s directed for Netflix. And that starts with marketing.
“I think they can be a little louder and more strategic in how they tell the world something’s coming,” Mr. Levy, who is also a producer of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” said in an interview. “I think increasingly there’s an awareness that filmmakers, actors and those of us who make movies want our work seen, but we also want our work known. And I think we’re going to see an evolution of how Netflix markets and publicizes its movies in order to keep the creative community doing repeat business with Netflix.”
The service has had success with the way it markets its TV shows, with “Squid Game” prompting a run on green jumpsuits for Halloween costumes and “Stranger Things” causing Eggo waffles to sell out. But its films have had a harder time breaking into the broader cultural conversation.
“I think it’s a movie business conundrum that we’re all having across everything in this changing entertainment landscape,” Mr. Stuber said. “How do we make movies as culturally relevant as they were when we were kids?”
One way Netflix hopes to demonstrate that its movies are having an impact is its recent announcement that it will release a weekly top 10 list of movies based on the number of hours they have been watched. The streaming company had previously been reluctant to make any sort of audience numbers public, and it counted anything that was watched for as little as two minutes as a “view.”
“When you have the No. 1 movie, it’s a great feeling but it also drives conversation,” Mr. Thurber said. “And if Netflix is able to share their metrics in a way that is authenticated and believable, then people will understand just how big Netflix is and how many people actually watch.”
The other answer is to improve the quality of the material.
Mary Parent, production chief at Legendary Entertainment and Mr. Stuber’s former partner at Universal, sold “Enola Holmes,” starring Millie Bobby Brown, to Netflix in April 2020. It become one of the service’s top-watched films during the pandemic. She is currently in production on the sequel and argues that the criticism about the quality of Netflix films is unfair.
“When you have 200 pieces of content a year, there is naturally going to be variety, and quality is subjective,” she said. “Just because something isn’t well reviewed doesn’t mean it is poor quality or that it doesn’t deliver on the promise of the premise. You turn on ‘Red Notice’ because you want to be entertained and see giant movie stars.”
Still, Mr. Stuber split his commercial film team in two in July in an effort to both ramp up output (this year, Netflix will release 70 films) and to improve the quality of the product. Mr. Stuber said he charged the groups with spending more time working closely with their filmmakers than they have in the past. The reason? He wants better movies.
“If you have the budget to make 14 movies and you only have 11 great ones, let’s just make 11,” he said. “That is what we need to aim toward because you really are in a deeply competitive world now and you want to make sure that you’re delivering at a pace that people see greatness consistently instead of randomly.”