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What Scott Stuber’s Exit Means for Netflix’s Film Future

If Hollywood executive shuffles were an Oscar category, Scott Stuber would take home the trophy for scene-stealing announcement.

The company’s long-time (at least by entertainment industry standards) film chief revealed on the eve of the Academy Award nominations that he’s departing the streamer to start a new media company. The news wasn’t a total shock; his exit has been rumored for some time and the well-liked executive had been talking to potential financiers about a solo venture, according to a knowledgeable source.

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Still, his goodbye leaves one of the most influential jobs in movies open for the taking. This will likely spark a flurry of people who are burnishing their resumes, including former Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich, Paramount’s prior motion picture group president Emma Watts and executive-turned-producer Dan Lin. It’s possible, but less likely, that Paramount’s prior CEO Jim Gianopulos and the recently departed Sister Global leader Stacey Snider will be in the mix. But these types of jobs don’t come around that often and though Netflix is known for having a tough corporate culture, top executives are richly rewarded with big salaries and stock options. Plus, it presents a chance to chart the future of the business, which, even though the economics are challenging, still appears to lie in streaming.

It’s not clear how Stuber’s farewell will shake up Netflix’s film strategy, which has newly shifted away from being a volume business. It faces challenges from Amazon, which has shown a new aggressiveness under its film chief Courtenay Valenti and her key ally Sue Kroll, who runs marketing. Apple has also been embracing the theatrical space more intensely, which has helped it lure top talent like Martin Scorsese (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) and Ridley Scott (“Napoleon”).

Stuber arrived at Netflix in 2017, having edged out several executives for the job. It came with lucrative benefits (that multi-billion dollar content spend!) and challenges. Movie theaters were skeptical about establishing ties and many top filmmakers preferred to open their movies in cinemas for long exclusive runs, which goes against Netflix’s core business model.

In many ways, Stuber, in his late 40s at the time, was an ideal hire, serving as a bridge between two generations of movie moguls. Studio leadership has been increasingly geriatric, and Stuber had a foot in each world — a tested movie producer who could work at multiple budget levels and someone who looks like what a casting director would dream up for the role of “Hollywood executive.”

As Stuber took the reins, he dramatically increased the company’s original film output and forged important relationships with the likes of Oscar winners Alfonso Cuarón, Spike Lee and Scorsese. His early years at Netflix were marked (some would say marred) by a bold promise to release one new movie every week. This strategy came at high costs and mixed returns (anybody remember “The School of Good and Evil”?)

“We were growing a new studio. We’d only been doing this for a few years, and we were up against 100-year-old companies,” Stuber said of Netflix’s early days. “So you have to ask yourself, ‘What is your business model?’ And for a while, it was just making sure that we had enough. We needed volume.”

More recently, however, Stuber had expressed an interest in focusing on quality over quantity. Though the company has yet to win the elusive best picture award, Netflix in 2020, 2021 and 2022 received the most Oscar nominations of any studio. That’s thanks to films like Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and David Fincher’s “Mank.”

“We’re not trying to hit a set number of film releases,” he told Variety in 2023. “It’s about ‘Let’s make what we believe in.’ And let’s actually put forth a slate that we can stand behind.” He also pushed for the company to be more transparent with viewership data and to give more films an exclusive theatrical release, moves that Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos initially resisted.

Several insiders with knowledge of Stuber’s exit said there was no major rift and he will continue to work with Sarandos and chief content officer Bela Bajaria on future projects. Stuber also was hit with budget cuts on the film side, which he balked over, according to a well-placed source familiar with the company. Netflix insiders dispute this, saying the company’s annual $17 billion content budget provides ample resources for the film division’s ambitions.

As with any departing studio chief, Stuber leaves behind films in all stages of production. (Netflix said he’ll stay through the spring to help with the transition.) Executives Kira Goldberg and Ori Marmur will remain focused on tentpoles, while Niija Kuykendall will cultivate mid-sized features.

Netflix has not revealed its entire 2024 slate, but it has announced that it will release Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley,” Cameron Diaz’s acting return “Back in Action” with Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry and Mark Wahlberg’s high-octane thriller “The Union” and Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington’s adaptation of “The Piano Lesson.”

Meanwhile, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard 2,” starring Charlize Theron (which is in post-production), and Greta Gerwig’s new take on “The Chronicles of Narnia” (which doesn’t have a script yet) aren’t expected to be dramatically affected by the shakeup and are in different phases of development.

As for Stuber’s new company, he’s already lined up capital and will focus on making bigger, more populist fare akin to the movies he produced like the hit R-rated comedy “Ted” and the Melissa McCarthy-led “Identity Thief.” He plans to work with Netflix, only now he will be the one asking his successor for a green light instead of making the decisions on what gets made.

And the person who takes over from Stuber will have to decide what role Netflix plans to play in a fast-moving movie business. Will it try to achieve the kind of quality that Stuber aspired to, but never quite pulled off? Or will it leave the prestige pictures to Apple and, to a lesser extent, Amazon and instead focus on making lots of movies for the largest common denominator?

One important new reality that any film chief has to contend with is that streamers are no longer being measured purely on how many subscribers they add. They are expected to turn a profit, and lucky for Netflix, it’s the only game in town that can do both at the moment. But that means tightening belts instead of spending freely. Cost cutting is the new rule of the day and as anyone in Hollywood can tell you, that’s a lot less fun.

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