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Netflix and Disney’s Film Divisions Are Moving in Different Directions

It isn’t every week that two of the biggest jobs in film are filled within a matter of days, but that was the case last week. On February 26, Disney’s live-action president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production Sean Bailey exited, making way for Searchlight’s David Greenbaum to take the top job. Two days later on Feb. 28, Rideback’s Dan Lin was tapped to take Scott Stuber’s open seat atop Netflix’s film division.

Greenbaum made his bones on prestige indie films and original, auteur-driven stories. He’s now taking the job at a company that has spent the last 15 years mining IP and playing the hits. Lin is a franchise builder now stepping into an environment known for chasing big prestige swings.

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It appears Disney and Netflix are heading in opposite directions. One agent who spoke with IndieWire called it a role-reversal between Disney and Netflix; at one point, Netflix was the home for auteurs and Disney was the king of blockbusters.

Both Lin and Greenbaum are well-liked and well-connected, and let’s face it, both companies need a new start in film strategy. Let’s see what that might look like.

POOR THINGS, Emma Stone, 2023. © Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Poor Things”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney Under David Greenbaum

Greenbaum was the head of Fox Searchlight and (later Searchlight Pictures under Disney) for 14 years, almost as long as Bailey headed Walt Disney Studios’ live-action division. Greenbaum backed Best Picture winners like “The Shape of Water” and “Nomadland,” and had prestige hits “The Favourite,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Menu,” and 2023’s “Poor Things,” currently nominated for Best Picture.

Don’t expect Disney’s big label to begin putting out surrealist sex romps like “Poor Things” under Greenbaum, just like Yorgos Lanthimos won’t suddenly be directing a live-action “Zootopia.” But there is a sense that Disney will focus more on originality and creativity rather than digging deeper into its IP library. Disney instead needs to get in on the “Barbie” craze by going off-the-wall with existing brands — Greenbaum will need filmmakers who know how to deliver just that.

Bailey remains admired inside Disney, but Greenbaum’s fresh set of eyes is welcome. It’s not lost on people inside the studio that some of the last few titles haven’t met the mark. “The Little Mermaid” did fine with $569 million worldwide — a top 10 box office movie for the year — but it fell short of its billion-dollar hopes. “Haunted Mansion” was a flop with both critics and audiences. Coincidentally, that one was Lin’s; then again, he also made “Aladdin.”

Bailey didn’t produce any new franchises or fresh IP in his 15-year tenure, swinging and missing on films like “Tomorrowland,” “Artemis Fowl,” and Ava Duvernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” And while Bob Iger doesn’t want another “John Carter” debacle, there is an appetite internally for something new; Greenbaum’s relationships with filmmakers and talent could deliver.

Greenbaum’s first act will be to assess what remains from Bailey’s slate. Still on the horizon are this holiday season’s “Mufasa: The Lion King” from director Barry Jenkins, the live-action “Moana” starring Dwayne Johnson, the live-action “Snow White” starring Rachel Zegler that got pushed to 2025, and the live-action “Lilo and Stitch,” which just wrapped. Lin produced that one and will see it through — Hollywood’a a small town. But Greenbaum will have to make calls on titles like “The Aristocats” and “Big Thunder Mountain” that are still in development, and even the live-action “Bambi,” which no longer has director Sarah Polley attached. Bailey will still be around to produce “Tron: Ares” starring Jared Leto, the follow-up to 2010’s “Tron: Legacy.”

Greenbaum though has control of something Bailey didn’t: 20th Century Studios. Not unlike the situation Disney had decades ago with Touchstone, there’s some confusion around town as to what 20th Century actually is. While Searchlight has retained its reputation for prestige, 20th has been the broad, general-entertainment home for everything from “Avatar: The Way of Water” to “Free Guy” to the Stephen King horror movie “The Boogeyman.”

Some teams within 20th and Disney have already been combined, so it makes sense to roll up everything to Greenbaum. Greenbaum may use the opportunity to better focus the 20th banner, whether that’s leaning into raunchier comedies, horror films, or other more adult genres.

But 20th may also be just fine as it is. Current 20th head Steve Asbell is remaining in place, reporting to Greenbaum, and the studio has some big IP swings slated for 2024 with “The First Omen,” “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” and “Alien: Romulus.”

Searchlight too can continue to do its thing knowing it has a champion in Greenbaum. There will be an adjustment period because so many agents were used to dealing with both Greenbaum and his co-president Matthew Greenfield as a pair. No problem. Searchlight has the Sundance hit “A Real Pain” from Jesse Eisenberg, “The Greatest Hits” premiering at SXSW Film, and Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness,” and is also working on Brendan Fraser’s first post-Oscar role, “Rental Family.”

Still, Iger has noted there have been “creative misses” across the board, and he’s particularly called for the level of content to be scaled back at Marvel and Lucasfilm, tightening the number of movies and shows produced each year after his predecessor Bob Chapek ramped up the quantity. Greenbaum understands the assignment.

REBEL MOON: Sofia Boutella as Kora in Rebel Moon. Cr. Clay Enos/Netflix © 2023
“Rebel Moon”Clay Enos/Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix Under Dan Lin

Speaking at a press event in February after the news of Stuber’s exit had been announced, Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria said the streamer can’t define itself or its content strategy narrowly, and the real goal for her new film head would be to “make things audiences will love.”

“I think about variety and quality,” Bajaria said. “You need to make a lot of shows and movies and appeal to many different tastes and interest. It’s actually that simple, and it’s actually that hard.”

In Lin, the company found someone that met Bajaria’s criteria: A “passion and love for film,” “experience and great relationships with filmmakers,” “somebody who is really excited about what we’re doing at Netflix,” and who recognizes “so many opportunities to make great films and on Netflix.”

Check, check, check, and check.

Lin’s IMDb is nothing if not diverse: He has backed “The Lego Movie,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and the “It” franchises, and his company Rideback also produced Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” live-action series, which just got picked up for two more seasons. Lin also worked on the film “The Two Popes” for Netflix. Lin was even nearly tapped to lead DC before James Gunn and Peter Safran got the job, but talks fell apart.

Franchises are kind of Lin’s thing, and Netflix wants more stuff that people are actually talking about (some might argue movie theaters are a good way to do that). “Red Notice” may be the most-viewed movie ever on Netflix, but it hasn’t yet spawned a sequel, and it hasn’t made an impact on the culture the way “Stranger Things,” “Squid Game,” or “Wednesday” have. The same can be said for expensive action tentpoles like the Russo Brothers’ “The Gray Man,” which did crack the all-time Global English Top 10, or Zack Snyder’s “Rebel Moon,” which hasn’t. Netflix is still waiting on the second part of “Rebel Moon” this April, which after the critical bomb of the first could land like a thud.

What Lin is not known for are the prestige films, which Stuber embraced with gusto as part of Ted Sarandos’ aggressive pursuit to win the Best Picture Oscar (it still hasn’t happened). The industry might get the sense Netflix was leaning further into filmmaker-driven tentpoles had the job gone to someone like, say, Greenbaum. Almost did. Bloomberg reporter Lucas Shaw said on “The Town” podcast on Monday that Greenbaum was considered a finalist for the Netflix gig before he was promoted at Disney.

With Bajaria a constant, sources say Netflix’s film strategy is not changing dramatically. Netflix, like Iger’s Disney mandate, will prioritize quality over quantity. Under Stuber, Netflix once produced 80 films in a single year with an aim to release something new every week. That number is coming way down, even if overall content spend is not.

It suggests Lin will have to do less with more, and no one would be surprised if Lin prioritized mid-budget IP plays — the type of movies on which he’s made over $6 billion at the box office — over pricy, auteur passion projects and special effects-heavy spectacles.

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