Netflix spent an unbelievable $8 billion on original content last year, bringing viewers everything from the show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo to the Oscar-nominated film Roma. But even as Netflix’s reach and critical ambitions grow, it still has a serious problem: It doesn’t feel very special to play a Netflix-made movie on Netflix. Big budgets aside, it still feels like TV.
That’s because Netflix treats its content like TV. Movies even pre-buffer to play automatically, as if you’re changing a channel. Meanwhile, TV networks like HBO have succeeded in making their movies feel like events simply by pausing a moment on a black screen with a logo before the content starts.
Netflix wants that filmic cachet, and it may get it, thanks to a new animation the company is adding to the beginning of all Netflix Originals programming today.
The animation begins with the Netflix “N” you know, but a moment later, the viewer flies straight through it in a sea of vertical light. The sequence is just a few seconds long, but it serves an important function for Netflix: To properly hype its own content, and prepare you for a full-on cinematic experience. Formerly, Netflix Originals programming was prefaced by a white screen through which the logo was extruded. Now, the animation embraces movie theater black.
A Netflix spokesperson tells us that its in-house design team worked with an independent agency for the last two years to develop this new bit of content branding. The barcode visualization was actually inspired by the idea of turning Netflix’s own show thumbnails sideways, like records on a shelf. The audio will be the same click on sound Netflix uses today.
If the visual scheme feels familiar, there’s a good reason. A similar approach was pioneered by HBO in the early ’80s, as viewers flew through space, then accelerated through the logo. IMAX welcomes moviegoers with a similar warp-speed effect through the cosmos. And frankly, when I look at the new Netflix animation, it looks to me just like THX’s famous Deep Note sounds. (Fun fact: the Deep Note first debuted in Return of the Jedi. It was very much intended to feel like a big deal setting up a big movie.)
These little audio visual preambles offer the on-screen equivalent to liminal space. In architecture theory, a liminal space is essentially a transition between one space and another. When you walk into a movie theater, you don’t actually walk directly from the parking lot, through a door, and into a room with seats and screens. First, you walk through the concourse, maybe buying some popcorn–which boosts the theater’s bottom line, okay. But the concourse also gives your mind a cleansing area, to shake off the stress of the day and prepare you to sit for two hours in a dark room. This is exactly the experience Netflix wants to create, just without the building or the popcorn.
Netflix aggressively pushes its own content to its subscribers, growing even more zealous once you’re inside the Netflix app. Hover too long on a movie and it will just begin playing on you. So far, the company’s strategy has been to get us watching something as quickly as possible. But with its new animation, Netflix seems to be admitting something else–that it’s important for its original programming to feel like an exciting experience, not just another binge.