Since it launched in 1997 by shipping DVDs by mail, Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report has bent traditional media. Its mailed DVDs eliminated the need for the neighborhood video store, and in recent years, its video streaming service has lured millions of eyeballs from TV networks and cable systems.
When the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- the Green Destiny opens in about a dozen IMAX (IMAX) - Get Report theaters in the U.S. today, it's taking on the movie theater chains as well. Most U.S. theaters have refused to show it. That's because Netflix, which helped finance the film, is making it available to its more than 75 million worldwide subscribers at the same time as its theatrical release.
With its ability to finance Hollywood caliber films and distribute them worldwide, Netflix has effectively become the world's first digital media giant. It can compete with media giants without the need for a studio lot, cable channels or a TV network. Instead, the company co-founded by CEO Reed Hastings will this year finance new seasons for 30 original series, eight original feature films, a dozen documentaries and nine stand-up comedy specials," the company said in its January 19 letter to shareholders.
"Hastings is smart enough to know that spending money on distribution overhead and development overhead and dealing with vagaries of production risk is not what they do, nor want to do, or what their shareholders expect them to do," said Amir Malin, a former CEO of film studio Artisan Entertainment and Managing Principal of media investment fund Qualia Capital.
In the past six months alone, Netflix has launched five new series, including Marvel's Jessica Jones from the Walt Disney (DIS) - Get Report unit, and the controversial ten-part documentary Making a Murderer. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- the Green Destiny is a sequel to the 2000 hit film that became the most successful foreign film ever in the U.S.
Also debuting on Netflix today is Fuller House, a revival of the 1990's ABC sitcom that features much of the original cast. It has six new family oriented shows scheduled by the end of 2017, including a revival of Gilmore Girls from Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Brothers studio.
Netflix aggressively launched its film studio as well late last year with the African war film Beast of No Nation, for which Netflix paid $12 million for the streaming rights. The Adam Sandler film The Ridiculous Six was the most heavily streamed movie on the service when it debuted in December, according to the company. The company rarely takes the film to movie theaters, except when it's required to qualify the movie for an Academy Award, as is the case with the Crouching Tiger sequel.
As its subscriber base mushroomed this year with its expansion to every country other than China, it has stepped up its spending as well. Last year it had a $5.8 billion content bill. And that could grow even more this year, with the company saying in its shareholder letter it intends to add to its $2.6 billion debt later in 2016 or 2017.
In all, it has a potential audience of more than 500 million broadband homes worldwide, according to Netflix, rivaling any large media company.
"They are in the enviable position of being able to write a bigger check than anyone, and in Hollywood nothing has more impact than a big check," said former Universal TV chairman Blair Westlake. "They've succeeded because they have the money to roll the dice and they are willing to play a bigger game of craps than anyone else."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Netflix and Disney.