“The Queen’s Gambit”, “Emma” and the changing dynamics of content creation, distribution and star power

What happens when success brings not only its own reward, but also rewards others, who may be competitors? Consider the story of “The Queen’s Gambit”.

Like many Kat readers, this Kat’s principal coronavirus-imposed viewing of Netflix offerings for October 2020 was the miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit” (based on the successful 1984 novel under the same name by Walter Tevis). Written and produced for Netflix, the series was a critical and popular success. Elle.com reported that “ The Queen’s Gambit is the streaming platform’s biggest limited scripted series in history, after 62 million households tuned in within 28 days.”

The success is due in no small measure to the performance of
Anya Taylor-Joy, in the role of youthful chess genius, Beth Harmon. The cinematic calling card of Taylor-Joy’s performance is the power of her facial expression, whether peering over a chess board (see below) or staring at an interlocutor.

But it turns out that, earlier in 2020, Taylor-Joy had featured as Emma Woodhouse ("handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition”) in a new movie version of Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Emma”. Talk about bad timing: The movie was released in the United Kingdom, on 14 February 2020 (ah yes, Valentine’s Day), and then was released a week later in the United States, on 21 February 2020.

Reviews were generally positive (e.g., here) and the gross from the screenings was satisfactory (reported to have been $25.2 million). The movie engendered viewer and reviewer interest but not box-office frenzy, at most a “nice to have’ movie.

In any event, came COVID-19, and with it, the closure of movie theatres. With the initial channel of distribution shut down, distribution went digital, first streamed via Premium VOD and later, in May, via DVD and Blu-ray, and recently viewing via HBO with Prime Video Channels.

For sure, there was some marketing, post-cinema release. But perhaps the best current marketing for the movie “Emma” comes not from the movie’s distribution network but as the beneficiary of Taylor-Joy’s acting triumph in “The Queen’s Gambit”. Accompanying the streaming of the miniseries has come renewed interest in the movie, the common denominator being Taylor-Joy (e.g., here and here). Good for “Emma” and good for Taylor-Joy; less clear, perhaps, for Netflix.

Let us drill down a bit. Once upon a time, there was the studio system. Actors were contractually tied to the studios, a genteel form of cinematic indentured servitude. Not only that, but the studios sought to impose vertical integration over the entire movie-making and movie-screening ecosystem, including controlling the movie theatres, at least until prohibited by competition law. Control was the name of the game, with actors and movie houses both taking a back seat to the power of the studios.

Those days are gone. In our coronavirus world, movie houses are fighting for their lives, with on-line and streaming platforms in the ascent, here. Today, it is the streaming platforms, such as Netflix, that are replacing the movie house as the distribution means of choice for the 21st century. As such, these platforms are looking to control, at least in part, the contents that they distribute, turning the former studio-movie theatre relationship on its head.

This does not mean that studios no longer create content. Au contraire: movies continue to be made for screening first in movie theatres and later for distribution for home viewing (although the coronavirus has put some pressure on this, here). Against this background, actors are free to go to whichever studio or studios that they like. The best way to describe the situation is mixed, combining new and old means for content creation and distribution.

Sometimes, however, the old and the new may potentially clash. Take “Emma”, “The Queen’s Gambit”, and Anya Taylor-Joy. The movie was produced for distribution to the movie theaters by Focus Features (owned by Universal Pictures), Home distribution would follow, including streaming on a platform other than Netflix. This is old school. To the contrary, “The Queen’s Gambit” was created and produced by Scott Frank and Allan Scott for Netflix. This is new school. Taylor-Joy then shares her acting talents with both, old school and new school.

The result, however, due to the commanding presence of Taylor-Joy in the Netflix miniseries, juxtaposed with the screening of “Emma” only a few months before, with Taylor-Joy in the lead role, is that the success of “The Queen’s Gambit” has redounded to the marketing benefit of “Emma. The question, in this new, mixed word of content creation and distribution, is: does Netflix care that it has contributed to making the Universal film more attractive?

Or, even if Netflix does care, is that a price to be paid in seeking to take increasing control over the contents that it distributes? After all, the success of “The Queen’s Gambit” only reinforces its strategy of exercising control over both the creation and distribution of contents.

And then there is Anya Taylor-Joy. She has moved the marketing needle, expectedly or unexpectedly, such that “The Queen’s Gambit” has come to serve the marketing interests of “Emma”. That is a long way from the days of indentured servitude.

“The Queen’s Gambit”, “Emma” and the changing dynamics of content creation, distribution and star power “The Queen’s Gambit”, “Emma” and the changing dynamics of content creation, distribution and star power Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, November 30, 2020 Rating: 5

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