There’s symmetry to Netflix premiering a documentary on an independent baseball team that ruffled the feathers of Major League Baseball. Forty years after the Portland Mavericks were founded, Netflix has been a key figure in a digital revolution that is shaking the television and film world. With The Battered Bastards of Baseball Netflix is taking another step in their evolution.
The film follows actor and life-long baseball fan Bing Russell who formed the nation’s lone independent minor league baseball team in the 1970s. With a cast of characters akin to the Major League movies they were everything the MLB didn’t want, but they were good and were able to bring fans to the stadium. Though the team only lasted five years, their impact on baseball has rippled throughout the game. Russell and these players were larger than life personalities and what they did was something Hollywood couldn’t script. The documentary captures that spirit well.
What’s so important about this film, you may ask? Netflix has streamed plenty of documentaries in the past. What makes The Battered Bastards relevant is that it’s one of the first documentaries that will be premiering exclusively on the site. Three more documentaries will be released this year through Netflix: Mission Blue, which follows legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle, E-Team, a profile on human rights activists, and Print the Legend, a study of 3D printing technology and the race to bring it to the people.
This is new territory for Netflix. Of course they’ve always struck deals with studios and distributors about streaming films and TV shows, but here Netflix circumvents that system and is becoming the primary distributor of these films. This presents an interesting opportunity for filmmakers. While it’s hard to argue that nothing beats getting to see your film on the big screen at , there might be advantages to exclusive streaming. Documentaries don’t typically last long in theaters, or if they do it’s usually only a handful of small indie theaters in major cities like Los Angeles or New York. With millions of subscribers, Netflix is one of the most popular outlets for cinema today so these films have the chance to reach audiences unattainable to documentary filmmakers in the past. In addition, Lisa Nishimura, head of Netflix’s documentary unit, relayed that they intend to make these documentaries available for a lengthy amount of time and that they’re looking for a wide range subject matter for future releases.
With shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove and even more in development, Netflix has already made an impact on the TV industry. The streaming service earned a total of 30 nominations at the Emmy’s last week, including for Best Drama (House of Cards) and Best Comedy (Orange is the New Black). If the experiment with these documentaries pays off even half as well, could Netflix become a power in the film industry?
The company is going all in with their push for original content. They’ve stated that they want filmmakers to make their work specifically for them, or use them as the first outlet for wide distribution.
There’s just one thing that Netflix will have to overcome – money. Budget for the first two seasons of House of Cards ran close to $100 million for talent, production etc., but a lot of movies run up a budget of that much and they are only two hours. On top of that, there’s the lack of a profit from the box-office. Of course it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Netflix adopt a similar strategy as movies that release on Video On Demand and in theaters the same day, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that the box-office for original Netflix films wouldn’t be overly strong.
Regardless, Netflix has positioned themselves well within the digital landscape. There is no other company out there right now that is challenging the film industry in this way - first TV and now film. They’ve broken the gate down in the former, and they are working on the latter. Like those dastardly Portland Mavericks, Netflix is creating a ripple effect for years to come.
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