Netflix picks film-fest darling as first original doc

The subscription-streaming service picks "The Square" as its first original film, a documentary that has Oscar buzz stemming from film festival honors, even if it tests the meaning of "Netflix Original."

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
2 min read
A young activist held aloft by Egyptians protesting
Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim's documentary "The Square." Noujaim Films

Netflix told us original films and documentaries were on the way, and it picked a movie with Oscar chatter to fulfill both, even if it's another instance of stretching the meaning of "Netflix Original."

"The Square," a documentary about the Egyptian revolution through the eyes of young activists there, is Netflix's first major acquisition in its original documentary initiative, the company said Monday. In July, Netflix said it would be widening its original strategy beyond TV series to "broadly appealing" feature documentaries. "The Square" will be available on Netflix in all territories in early 2014.

"The Square" won the Toronto International Film Festival Documentary People's Choice Award this year, and an earlier version of it won the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, giving it the shine of some Academy Award buzz.

Two months ago, the subscription streaming-video service lined up a comedy special and four-part documentary series based on Canadian comedian Russell Peters' latest tour. The docu-series "Russell Peters vs. the World" became available on Netflix last month, but "The Square" is the film documentary foray under the "Netflix Originals" banner.

Like "Derek," another Netflix original before it, "The Square" broadens the idea of what an original for the company means. "Derek" and "The Square" were developed, produced, and shown to some audiences before Netflix ever got its hands on them. In the case of "Derek" -- a comedy series about a man who works in a nursing home -- the program had been distributed on television in its entirety in the UK.

"The Square" is screening already in New York and California theaters now to qualify it for Oscar consideration. The Los Angeles Times, which caught wind of Netflix's interest in the film last week, noted that the theater run was self-financed.

Netflix has picked up film-festival fodder for its streaming service before. However, this is the first time it appears on track to publicly trumpet it as one of its own -- and presumably will revel in any high-profile awards the doc reels in.

Earlier this year, Netflix won several Emmys for its original series "House of Cards." In addition to a viewership boost that the nominations provided, the Emmy wins imparted Netflix with television bona fides. If anyone doubted Netflix could churn out programs with the best of HBO and AMC, the Emmys settled the debate.

Now Netflix seems to have its sights set on the Oscars too.