Netflix is making an original movie—but it won’t come cheap

Beset by all sides.
Beset by all sides.
Image: Netflix/The Weinstein Company
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In just two years, Netflix has gone from having no original series of its own to making some of television’s best shows, including Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, with more than a dozen other promising projects in the pipeline. Now it’s setting its sights on the film industry.

The company is teaming up with The Weinstein Company for its first original movie: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend. The film, a sequel to the 2000 martial arts hit directed by Ang Lee, will premiere Aug. 28, 2015 on Netflix, the same day it opens exclusively in Imax theaters around the world. The company said it will be the first of “several” films that will premiere simultaneously on Netflix and Imax.

The film is based on the fifth book in Wang Du Lu’s Crane-Iron Pentalogy; the original Crouching Tiger was based on book number four. Michelle Yeoh is reprising her character from the first film, while Yuen Wo-Ping takes over for Lee as director. Screenwriter John Fusco also wrote Marco Polo, the upcoming Netflix series about the explorer, which is another TWC production.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos first indicated last year that Netflix would to branch out into original movies: “The reason why we may enter this space and try to release some big movies ourselves this way, is because I’m concerned that as theater owners try to strangle innovation and distribution, not only are they going to kill theaters–they might kill movies.”

In other words, Netflix believes it can “save” the movie business by upending the traditional approach in which films are released exclusively to theaters first and not made available for home viewing until several months later. “What I am hoping is that it will be a proof point that the sky doesn’t fall,” Sarandos told the New York Times. “These are two different experiences, like going to a football game and watching a football game on TV.”

While independent films are now frequently released simultaneously in theaters and via video on demand, the Crouching Tiger sequel will be the first major Hollywood release to follow such a pattern. And unlike with VOD, Netflix subscribers won’t be required to pay an additional fee to stream the movie.

(Because Netflix is not available in China, Imax is already salivating at the prospect of having the world’s second-largest movie market to itself. “We are particularly hopeful it will play in our highly successful China market,” said Imax CEO Greg Foster.)

But “saving” the movie business will be an expensive proposition for Netflix, since the economics of feature films are much different than TV series.

The company shelled out $100 million for the first two seasons of House of Cards. The Crouching Tiger budget is “a multiple” of the original film’s $23.5 million, according to the Times. Even if it’s only double that amount and TWC foots a hefty portion of the bill, Netflix will be splashing a significant sum for a piece of content that is only a few hours long—compare that to House of Cards’ 26 hour-long episodes.

And a single movie like Crouching Tiger, as opposed to a full, binge-able season of a series, won’t do much to increase the admittedly impressive average of 92 minutes that Netflix’s 50.05 million subscribers spend watching the service each day. Still, as it did with House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Orange, Netflix will heavily market the film in an effort to attract new subscribers.

Harvey Weinstein thinks, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Netflix. “There is a big world out there, and there are many ways to exhibit things,” Weinstein told the Times. “This is the wave of the future.”