Rupert Murdoch’s sale of Fox entertainment assets to Disney last month (worth $66bn) is the biggest news in the entertainment universe. However, that potentially huger version of Disney (the sale still has to be approved) is not the only player worth watching. In a different way, we think Netflix is noteworthy and fascinating to observe. The company is a creative powerhouse and practically every new decision they make changes how we understand the future of television and movies.
Some of their shows are licensed and co-produced, some are created completely in-house. Some like Bong Joon-ho’s action adventure OKJA are theatrically-released features that have, shortly thereafter, been released on the international streaming platform.
Twenty years ago, Netflix started life as a company that rented DVDs and sent them to customers through the mail. In 2007, when the speed of movie downloads became more practical, then the concept of streaming movies was embraced.
HOUSE OF CARDS kicked off the company’s production of content in 2013. It was a remake of the 1990s UK series and helped to reshape what Netflix was. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK also debuted in 2013 and it redefined ideas of a female-centred drama. It had characters who presented different aspects of race and sexuality from anything that had been seen on US network or cable television; its success was underlined by the award nominations and wins received in its first three seasons. The company also pioneered the idea of delivering a full season of content all at once. This popularised the habit of bingeing entire series that had previously developed with watchers of DVD box-sets. And unlike other viewing platforms, there was no advertising on Netflix, which was another major change to the viewing environment.
Netflix has also experimented with mixing and mashing-up genre.The Wachowskis’ SENSE8 is regarded by many fans to be their best work since the Matrix film series. The Duffers’ STRANGER THINGS has surprised everyone by taking, what on the face of it, was a tribute to 1980s sci-fi horror and creating a huge hit for two seasons running. The company’s Marvel superhero stable is THE PUNISHER, LUKE CAGE, IRON FIST, DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES and THE DEFENDERS.This interconnected take on this material is smaller than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of special effects and star-power, but the episodic nature of the dramas allows for greater detail and flexibility in story-telling.
As prone to remakes or sequels as any other arm of the US screen biz, Netflix brought back the old TV shows ONE DAY AT A TIME, THE GILMORE GIRLS and most surprisingly, three seasons of FULLER HOUSE. They even “pre-quelised” and turned into a series, the cult comedy movie favourite WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER.
There are other interesting genre experiments. AMERICAN VANDAL is a very funny and carefully constructed true-crime parody with satirical targets. GRACE AND FRANKIE is a sitcom aimed at a senior audience and stars veteran actors Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin. SANTA CLARITA DIET is a horror-comedy that found an audience. NARCOS is a big bucks attempt to tell the story of the US/South American drug trade in the 1980s. GLOW is a comedy drama about womens’ professional wrestling in the 1980s. Three diverse UK shows, BLACK MIRROR, PEAKY BLINDERS and THE CROWN have gained an American audience they would never have found in the previous configuration of network and cable television.
Hardly any of this kind of material was being made for US audiences a decade ago. And now, the company has expanded way beyond its original market. Netflix is available in 190 countries with 100 million subscribers worldwide. As Australian viewers are more than aware, we are not able to see everything that American Netflixers can and that has caused some consternation from consumers; it reminds us of the bad old days of not being able to source content until it finally arrived down here months or even years later. However, new Netflix content is available simultaneous with its American release. That in itself has changed users’ expectations for other services and platforms.
Netflix’s approach to customer data is observed and admired in the business world. It operates outside the traditional television Nielsen ratings system and keeps its viewing figures secret. However, observers have pointed out that Netflix data includes such information as: When users watch content, what day, date and time users watch, devices used, whether a user gets to the end of a movie and where a user is located. They have an unparalleled depth of customer data compared to traditional production companies or broadcasters; that they know so much about their customers is what makes their decisions so interesting.
The entertainment company is frequently announcing new plans that challenge our notions of how screen entertainment is produced and delivered. Late last year, came the news that 2018 would see 80 original films released with budgets ranging from the a tiny, indie-sized one-million dollars, all the way up to $100 million for THE IRISHMAN with Robert de Niro.
They also seem to be constantly recalibrating their production slate. Earlier this week, Maria Bamford’s distinctive sitcom LADY DYNAMITE and Judd Apatow’s romantic comedy series LOVE were dropped before making it to their respective third seasons. And former Late Show host David Letterman, off-the-scene since 2015, has just returned with a monthly talk show called MY NEXT GUEST NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION. His first guest was President Barack Obama and he and the heavily bearded Dave, talked about a range of subjects from the lightweight “Dads with embarrassing dance moves” through to the Civil Rights Movement. There is no way Letterman would have been able to sell this monthly concept to anyone but Netflix, even though his next guest is, in fact, George Clooney.
Or to put it another way for any TL:DR folks: whatever you think of Netflix, it has had a massive effect on the international entertainment business. There’s even an expression, “Netflix and chill,” (apparently birthed on Twitter) which means..er…sometimes…kicking back and enjoying a night in with Netflix. The company has changed people’s viewing habits to the extent that that it has even entered our language.