Inside the Duplass Brothers' Growing Digital Indie Empire

Jordan Zakarin
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Jay and Mark Duplass (HBO)

When the news broke during last January’s Sundance Film Festival that brothers and filmmaking partners Mark and Jay Duplass had struck a four-movie deal with Netflix, the obvious (and jealousy-tinged) punchline muttered by everyone in Park City was that the hyper-prolific duo would probably deliver the goods by February.

Since their first feature film, The Puffy Chair, premiered at Sundance in 2005, the Louisiana-born brothers have worked tirelessly to create their own mini-empire. In the last year alone, their Duplass Brothers Productions has churned out nine films, including last year’s Bill Hader-Kristen Wiig hit dramedy The Skeleton Twins, and the upcoming Sundance hits Tangerine and The Overnight. In fact, the brothers’ respective IMDB pages are packed with productions: They’ve written and directed five of their own features (including Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Cyrus); created a critically acclaimed HBO series (Togetherness); and branched out into producing for other filmmakers (the brothers are actors, as well; In addition to starring in several of their films, Mark is a regular on the long-running FX comedy The League; Jay, meanwhile, appears on Amazon’s Emmy-winning hit Transparent).

As part of the Sundance deal, Netflix will produce and premiere four new films produced by the Duplasses. Thanks to another accord struck at SXSW in March, the streaming service will also distribute three more of their films — including Patrick Brice’s thriller Creep, the poster for which you can see below — that were already in various states of production.

“Millions of people watched The Puffy Chair on Netflix,” Mark Duplass told Yahoo Movies in a recent conversation. “There’s a certain kind of movie that lends itself to — I don’t want to call it clickbait. But it’s like, ‘I want to try this [movie] out, but [I don’t want to] make a whole evening out of this, and spend $65 on tickets and a babysitter on it.’ I’ve totally accepted that … and these movies, these curiosities, are really well-suited for that.”

As the film industry’s traditional titans struggled to deal with the upheaval wrought by the rise of digital distribution, the Brothers Duplass recognized early on that they could profit greatly from the shift to streaming video. In 2012, at the same time that Fox Searchlight was releasing their film Jeff, Who Lives At Home — a comedy starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms — into 500 theaters, the Duplass bros opted to put another one of their features, The Do-Deca Pentathlon, into homes nationwide via VOD.

That’s the plan with the movies covered under the Netflix deal, which will be made for under $1 million, and skip the theaters entirely. Duplass has long prized getting his films in front of as many viewers as possible, even if it meant sacrificing the big-screen experience for some of them.

“The average theatrical life for these movies is somewhere under 100 theaters, and it makes a few hundred thousand dollars, and everybody kind of loses a little bit of money when that happens, and everyone almost feels a little disappointed,” Duplass said. “You feel a little bit like a failure. Netflix is expanding into so many countries, and the concept of going day-and-date worldwide with the movie on Netflix, just slam it and every single piece of press hits all at one time, all around the world in one batch.”

In a way, the deal represents a homecoming for the brothers, because back in 2006, The Puffy Chair became one of the first high-profile films that Netflix bought as a distributor. Netflix helped organize a theatrical release and even a DVD deal for the film — this was before the company more or less put Blockbuster out of business — and in exchange, received exclusive streaming rights to the Sundance favorite. Now, the company is a bustling hub of quality television and feature films with partnerships with auteurs such as David Fincher and Cary Fukunaga. And its gigantic stock price ($621 per share as of this morning) gives it the ability to fund lucrative deals with independent filmmakers who create niche products.

“These kinds of movies I’m making should never get this much attention,” Duplass says. “And, quite frankly, I own most of these movies and I make so much money for my filmmakers. I watch them go make a tiny little movie and then they can go f—-ing buy a house, and the digital space is affording that for us.”

Those mortgages are more manageable thanks to the fact that the Duplasses also carved out a deal with iTunes, which will market and sell their movies as well. It’s rare to work out a deal that includes two major competitors in the streaming space, but a decade of working with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos and the bosses at Apple’s marketplace paved the way for the unique agreement.

Creep, a found-footage thriller in which Brice stars as a cameraman who agrees to film the last words a dying man (Duplass) wants to leave for his son, will be released by iTunes — with exclusive additional features — on June 23rd, while Netflix will begin streaming it on July 14. Duplass figures that each service has different types of viewers — iTunes users seek out his work, while Netflix streamers might have their curiosity piqued by the title — and was able to convince the executives at each company that they wouldn’t cannibalize each other by carrying the film.

Despite their long-term friendship, Duplass isn’t expecting to pry Netflix’s closely-guarded statistics away from Sarandos. “The metrics of Netflix are internal to them, [and] they will never share that with everybody, even though I’ll try to get Ted drunk one night and see what I can get out of him,” he joked.

Not all of Duplass Brothers Productions’ upcoming slate is covered by the Netflix and iTunes deals. Brice’s new comedy The Overnight will get a theatrical release, as will Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Both were hits at Sundance — they sold to The Orchard and Magnolia Pictures, respectively — and are getting a chance to be sleeper hits at a sizable number of theaters until hitting Netflix later in the summer.

There’s also no restriction against Duplass taking an unexpected turn and deciding to make something bigger — like, say, a big budget sci-fi film that requires a robust theatrical release from a major distributor. Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, though.

“Some people look at Netflix as Starbucks in that bad way, like, ‘This big old f—-ing corporation is eating everything up,’” Duplass said. “And I’m starting to look at Starbucks now and I’m like, ‘They pay people at least $15 an hour. If you stay with the company long enough they give you college fund, so what’s wrong with Starbucks again?’ Obviously I understand having a monster in the space can be an issue, but right now, they’re behaving really well and I’m happy to be partnered with them.”