With only one foot in the digital distribution door, Amazon fails where Netflix succeeds

The digital revolution isn’t coming; it’s been here for a while. For many, the decision to watch a movie or TV show hinges on whether they can find it on streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Video. Now, each service is making sure that we can ONLY see shows and movies on their service by producing their own content.

Almost two weeks ago, Netflix released the Aziz Ansari dramedy Master of None, to both critical and audience acclaim. On Friday (Nov. 20), Amazon will release its most ambitious series to date, The Man in High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Yet it’s unlikely Amazon’s show, predicated on the idea of “What if the Nazis and Japan won WWII?” will garner the same attention as Ansari’s collection of relatively small, short films.

This speaks to the larger problem that Amazon still hasn’t broken through with a streaming service worth having. A large part of this is just the fact that Netflix was first to offer streaming video and beat out Amazon when it came to producing original content. However, the main reason for Netflix’s success over its competitor is that the company dived head-first into the culture surrounding digital consumption, while Amazon is still testing the waters by simultaneously opting into more traditional methods of production and distribution.

When streaming services, along with the binge-watching they induce, change the way most of us watch and discuss television and movies, in addition how that content is made and covered, the best way to succeed in this new world is to become a part of it.

Netflix’s entire business is based in metrics. They know we have spent the majority of our time rewatching episodes of Archer and 30 Rock, despite having The Act of Killing in our “My List” for more than a year. Those metrics also show that we don’t watch just one episode, but “just one more.” Everything is done at once.

I plowed through the five hours (10 episodes) of Master of None’s first season in two days. Now it’s gone until there’s a second season, which I will likely finish even more quickly. Netflix experimented with weekly releases in 2010 when it released episodes of the sitcom Party Down the day after Starz aired each new episode. But even then, we wanted more — especially when cable channels like HBO and Starz often make an entire season at once, as opposed to the network model in which shows are often produced only weeks ahead of broadcast.

Amazon also dumps an entire season online for subscribers… sort of. Amazon pilot season has become a bit of an event. Roughly twice a year, for the last four years, it releases a handful of pilot episodes and ask people to vote on which should be made into a full series. While The Man in High Castle officially premieres Friday, the pilot episode is available to all and the second episode is currently open to subscribers.

This method is very similar to the traditional model in which a studio commissions pilot episodes, tests them and decides which make it to series. Amazon just cloaks its old-fashioned method by using anyone interested as a focus group. Netflix uses its pre-installed subscriber base to greenlight series based on their preferences whether the user knows it or not. Amazon’s decision likely stems from the fact that Netflix has a larger viewer base from which to pull. But that still doesn’t explain Amazon’s ill-advised Zombieland pilot.

With Netflix basing its production decisions almost entirely on metrics, it’s a wonder that the company doesn’t publicly release viewer numbers. Headlines saying the newest season of House of Cards or Master of None had a greater number of viewers per episode than a season of The Good Wife or The Big Bang Theory would certainly signal an industry change. However, we can only base our understanding of a Netflix series’ success based on media coverage and audience conversation. Master of None’s success can only be measured based on how many people were talking about it on social media and how often it was the subject of articles on sites like Slate, The A.V. Club, or HitFix. This usually happens the day the show releases, followed by a review days later. After that, the show seemingly falls off the face of the earth, at least until the next season.

I’m sure Amazon would love this type of coverage and will likely get it by the time High Castle premieres in full, as we saw with the success of Transparent. However, most of their shows, including The Man in High Castle, are sprinkled throughout television conversations once the pilot premieres, rather than all at once. While one could argue this all-at once mentality makes for fleeting coverage and cultural impact, being THE topic of conversation for a weekend rather than one topic of conversation for a month has a greater impact when everything on the internet is consumed at similar speeds.

Amazon is also steeped in the old way in terms of how the company release its films. To be fair, this is new territory for both streaming services. Netflix recently released its first film production in Beasts of No Nation and we will soon see Adam Sandler’s upcoming comedy The Ridiculous Six, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend and Pee Wee’s Big Holiday. Yet by releasing those films on the service day-and-date with theaters, the country’s four largest theater chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike — have decided to exclude them from their theaters.

As of writing this, Beasts No Nation has made a measly $90,777 across no more than 31 theaters on any given day. Throw this in with the fact that there hasn’t been any information regarding a theatrical release for The Ridiculous Six (debuting on Netflix Dec. 11), and it would be fair to say that Netflix only cares about being in theaters as it relates to their eligibility come awards season. Amazon is much more theater-friendly, as its first movie release will be Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq in theaters Dec. 4, before coming to Amazon. It’s likely the company will follow the same pattern for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, as well as the biopic Elvis & Nixon.

I’m a firm believer in seeing films in a theater, but it’s clear I’m in the minority and Netflix has embraced that majority with open arms. That majority will likely continue to result in success over the competition.

Just like Master of None’s Dev, Amazon needs to commit to a path if it wants to find happiness — or in this case, success. Netflix succeeds in its commitment to everything about digital media whether in terms of production, media coverage or customer consumption. Amazon falters in standing between traditional production and the present model. By trying to follow both new and traditional methods, Amazon hasn’t committed one way or another, which leaves it looking like an indecisive follower rather than a fellow pioneer. That commitment is likely what attracted David Fincher and Kevin Spacey with House of Cards and led all the way to Aziz Ansari aligning himself with the streaming giant.

Amazon has a big chance to succeed with its upcoming film’s prestige and that of shows like Transparent and The Man in High Castle, but until it commits to an all-digital lifestyle, the company will likely be an afterthought behind free, two-day shipping.

About Tyler Lyon

When Tyler isn't thinking about the lack of a Canadian presence in D2: The Mighty Ducks, whether Princess Leia can now be considered a Disney Princess or discovering 8-bit classics on his 3DS, he's cheering on the Cubs, Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, and Hawkeyes.

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