The streaming giant has inbound competition and is responding by bizarrely freaking the fuck out.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape under a slightly different name (link).
Netflix has had a tumultuous few months. To be fair, Netflix is always having a tumultuous few months since one can twist any number of minor stories and tiny dips in stock to fit the narrative of “Netflix IN TROUBLE?!” for some hot hot-take clicks. But ever since the Summer started, it really does seem like the ur-text for our modern streaming landscape has been seeing some real chinks in its armour. Most notably, they’ve been on a cancellation spree – axing cult zombie sitcom Santa Clarita Diet after its third season, female-centric mystery sci-fi The OA shortly after its second, highly-acclaimed Latin sitcom revival One Day at a Time after its third (it has since found a new home in the US on niche cable channel POP TV), and the best-reviewed new show of 2019 Tuca & Bertie after just one season – none of which have gone down well with their respective fanbases and several of which received really defensive half-justifications from the company itself that were not at all a good look.
In early June, a report leaked that Netflix head honcho Ted Sarandos has put the kibosh on the studio funding expensive projects that cannot guarantee a return on their investment in terms of viewers and new subscribers allegedly as a result of J.D. Chandor’s Triple Frontier not performing to expectations, which is hard not to read as a planned reduction in the production of AA movies – mid-budget pieces that aren’t quite Indie but aren’t quite blockbusters – given that Frontier carried a $115 million price tag. But both of these behaviour patterns don’t line up with what else the company is doing right now. Cancelling One Day at a Time and Tuca & Bertie because they don’t appeal to enough quadrants makes a cold logical business sense, but then to turn right around and announce two anime collaborations with mid-tier musicians (loud fanbases but little mainstream clout), Kid Cudi and Sturgill Simpson? Meanwhile, at a time when the studio believes it needs to cut back on film-spending it also announced plans to throw even more dollars into the money pit of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a film whose budget has reportedly ballooned to $200 million and is about to receive a Roma-style awards season push – which allegedly cost anywhere between $25 million and $60 million for Netflix last year and, if it’s anything like Roma’s “theatrical” run, will receive only the bare minimum of a qualifying release because there are still no plans to leave more than two/three weeks between arthouse debut and streaming release.
Add onto that the now-customary price rises (which this time arrived as the sour taste of their cancellation spree was really starting to take hold), the continuing gradual disappearance of its pre-2000s and non-Original film library, missing subscriber targets and seeing a fall in US subscriptions specifically, the fact that they are now officially losing Friends (and The Office in the US) come the new year which is still their most-streamed show on the service by far, and the fast-approaching launch of Disney+ – which, in America at least, will be bundled with both Hulu and ESPN+ for the same price as Netflix itself – plus whatever WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal have got planned for 2020, and it becomes really clear that this is a studio/service in panic mode. At time of writing, their stock has been falling for four straight weeks, yet here they are signing $200 million exclusivity deals with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, current Internet pariahs and one of whom is on record believing that “themes are for eighth-grade book reports.”
So, I ask the titular question. Not so much from a capitalist business standpoint because blech to all that – studios should allow at least a few projects in their yearly slates that are more focussed on artistry and creativity than turning a profit and appealing to everyone, if only for the variety, which is what makes all these rumblings about Disney’s current treatment of their acquired Fox films so ominous to read – and also because their business model is fundamentally unsustainable anyway, but from the perspective of somebody who is worried about the art impacted by these decisions.
Again: what the fuck is Netflix doing?
In fairness, their original content model has almost always been about throwing all kinds of shit at the wall and seeing what even remotely sticks. After its early days of really obviously trying to become the digital equivalent of HBO with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, the studio threw its weight behind all manner of original concepts and creators, acting as a haven for works and audiences who aren’t typically served by more mainstream television outlets – short-lived though they may have been, imagine any network or cable channel even giving a second’s consideration to the proudly Black Get Down and the proudly gay-as-all-fuck sense8 – whilst baser fare like The Ranch or those Happy Madison movies (plus the continuing Cards and Orange) paid the bills. Sometimes these would pay off and capture a real mainstream appeal, like with Stranger Things or BoJack Horseman, and other times they’d remain loudly-praised but ultimately cult works which pad out the library. The joys of trying to be all things to all people.
And so now we’re seeing what happens when the economic realities of that scattershot approach to commissioning come about: belts get tightened, stuff gets canned, just like on a real network or at a real movie studio. But these harsh realities sting all the more because they straddle this uncomfortable line between the traditional way of doing business and our new fragmented pop culture, incorporating the worst of both worlds. At least in the traditional network and movie studio model, you can find tangible figures and reasons as to why something gets canned or flops, maybe it wasn’t advertised enough or nobody bothered to see it because it was too niche or looked crap or whatever. Netflix, however, adamantly refuses to release any kind of viewing figures unless they’re spinnable as something which makes them look great – and, as in the aforementioned case of Triple Frontier, it turns out even that’s not a guarantee of things working out – and they only bother to throw their advertising weight behind a select few already heavy hitters, leaving the rest to fend for themselves against the unknowable metrics of the personalised algorithm. Notoriously, the personal algorithm of Lisa Hanawalt, creator of Tuca & Bertie, never recommended her own show to her; she had to go and search it up for herself.
On that tip, as a little side-track: how is it still that new seasons of a show you have watched and liked are not immediately dropped into your “Continue Watching” tab when they get released if you haven’t watched/re-watched that show in the past three or so months? That’s absolute murder if you’re a fan of one of those Netflix Originals that don’t get the marketing push; I didn’t find out Santa Clarita Diet Season 3 was a thing until the cancelation stories turned up because of this!
I’ve been harping on Netflix’s refusal to decently market or advertise their original content and especially their films for years – did you know that they produced a really good Angelina Jolie-directed movie nearly two years ago, cos you probably don’t but they did – and their seeming decision to greenlight or acquire damn-near anything regardless of quality or potential audience interest – similarly, take a dive through their Original Films sometime, it’s like panhandling in a particularly shitty river. Both of those facts are now starting to clash with the traditional capitalist business models that keep Netflix running and bring some ugly implications along with them.
A high percentage of their list of cancelled shows from 2019 so far is either made by or for female, gay and minority creatives and audiences, yet Ricky Gervais’ barely-discussed (and fucking awful) After Life was quickly granted a second season. Back in 2017, I didn’t know that Dee Rees’ excellent race-drama Mudbound had been released onto the service until two weeks afterwards, so non-existent was any kind of marketing or push. Whilst this habit of cancelling series after three seasons makes mercenary business sense (see here), it leaves quite the unsavoury stink for viewers and creatives. Why get invested in a show that’s almost guaranteed to get cancelled just as it finds its footing? Why go to a network that could cut your knees off at any time for no explained reason and take your show behind the woodshed after three seasons without warning and with no hope of making a satisfying conclusion?
Again, their recent moves make business sense, I understand that, but they also run counter to the brand that Netflix has been building over the past six years. A hub for anything and everything no matter how niche or off-beat operating on a level playing field. That of course was quickly revealed to be a lie with each new fault found in its systems, algorithms and user interface, but rather than attempt to fix the flaws and realise that utopian vision in the face of legitimate competition, they’re panicking and undercutting their own selling points. After all, once all the various media conglomerates come calling to take their film and TV libraries back for their own streaming services, what does that leave Netflix? What is Netflix’s brand? What is Netflix? Does Netflix even know?
I’m not going to profess to having the business-savvy to provide any useful answers here – other than uncancelling Tuca & Bertie, you fucking cretins – and can only speculate as a somewhat informed fan and outsider based on the perception of the company. And right now, that perception is one of uncertain panic, half-wanting to stay the course and half-wanting to bail out in a way that kills off the idiosyncrasy and leaves an unpleasant stink but may secure a future If I were them, I’d settle on a concrete plan sharpish because the Disney monolith has no time for directionless ditherers. As depressingly risk-averse and homogenous as they can be, at least they have their shit together.