Netflix finds itself in a bit of a fix, with its steadily declining subscriber forecast triggering a collapse in the company’s share price. As the world emerges, blinking, from the pandemic, it seems we have better things to do with our time than binge on Tiger King and Sexy Beasts. And Netflix is counting the cost, with a 20 per cent stock decrease wiping $40 billion wiped off its market cap since last week. Netflix was forecasted to add an additional 6 million subscribers to its current 222 million in the current quarter, but now this estimation stands at just 2.5m.
This may well prove a temporarily blip as humanity readjusts to life after Covid. And yet the worry for Netflix is how few guaranteed hits it has coming down the pipeline.
Television in 2022 is shaping up to be the era of the blockbuster. Amazon Prime is putting the final touches to its Lord of the Rings series, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (apparently it’s about rings...), Disney +, for its part, has an Obi-Wan Kenobi show steaming down the tracks and approximately 800 Marvel shows. And HBO is applying the final gloss to a hugely-anticipated adaptation of thinking person’s zombie thriller, The Last Of Us.
Netflix, by contrast, has the barest of cupboards. There will be a new serving of Stranger Things, a franchise everyone stopped caring about in 2018. And a Witcher spin-off about the elves and their wibbly, wobbly ears. Otherwise, with Ozark almost over Squid Game 2 a long way off, the streamer is leaning heavily on new seasons of The Crown and Bridgerton – popular fare but unlikely to attract tens of millions of new subscribers.
After years of rapid expansion, it is tempting to conclude that Netflix has entered a period of retrenchment, then. As they sit back and survey a hugely changed streaming market, executives may, moreover, rue the billions already squandered on shows that went nowhere. And which, if anything, may have actively put people off Netflix. Here is a crash course in its costliest, and weirdest, disasters.
1. Hemlock Grove, 2013
Early Netflix was a case study in how not to spend money. Hemlock Grove, a sub-Twilight suburban spook-fest which ran for three seasons, somehow blitzed through $40 million per season (at $3m per episode). As a frightfest, it flopped horribly (despite somehow getting nominated for an Emmy). And yet the real horror story was how Netflix could spend so much, so unwisely.
2. Marco Polo, 2014
Right at the start of its pivot into original programming, Netflix demonstrated a keen talent for burning through cash. This turgid historical epic, which tells the story of Marco Polo’s adventures in Central Asia, cost $90 million. But reviews were dismal and it failed to gain any of the buzz enjoyed by other early Netflix properties such as House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. Mystifyingly Netflix nonetheless pushed ahead with a $90m second series in 2016 – which likewise flopped. Truly a steppe in the wrong direction.
3. Sense8, 2015
With The Matrix, the Wachowski siblings created the leanest, meanest, smartest blockbuster of all time. So in writing the duo a cheque for $9 million an episode and carte blanche to create a 12-part series, Netflix must have calculated that little could go wrong. Perhaps executives should have paid closer attention to the dreck the Wachowskis had inflicted on their audience after The Matrix.
Sense8, which debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2015, was a globe-hopping sci-fi travesty with an incomprehensible plot and dialogue that made Matrix: Revolutions sound like Paul Thomas Anderson directing Daniel Day-Lewis.
In the Wachowskis’ defence, Sense8 attracted a loyal, albeit modest fanbase, which prompted the streamer to commission an equally costly second season. Ultimately, though, its bonkers storyline and pioneering use of the “orgy montage” to move the action forward made it of limited interest. It’s hard not to conclude Sense8’s contribution to Netflix’s bottom line was a big fat zero.
4. The Get Down, 2016
The list of film-makers qualified to chronicle the origins of hip hop in Seventies New York is not especially long to begin with. It certainly doesn’t include New South Wales uber-luvvy Baz Luhrmann, whose movies are chocolate boxes with too much sugar sprinkled through.
Netflix initially met Lurid Luhrmann halfway by signing off on a none-to-shabby budget of $7.5 million per episode. But this was insufficient for Luhrmann, who racked up $120 million delivering the first, and as it transpired only, season in 2016, which broke the streamer's record for its most expensive show ever.
By then the production had been beset by off-screen chaos, including frequent blood baths in the writers’ room. The Get Down was released in two chunks, with Luhrmann continuing to toil on the back half right up to deadline. And all for naught: instead of a rapper’s delight he’d thrown together an indulgent nightmare.
“Relative to what you spent, are people watching it? That is pretty traditional,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos later said of The Get Down. “When I say that, a big expensive show for a huge audience is great. A big, expensive show for a tiny audience is hard even in our model to make that work very long.”
5. Gypsy, 2017
Netflix had moved on from its “commission everything in sight” stage and was doing the unthinkable and cancelling shows en masse. An early casualty was a stifling Naomi Watts vehicle created by first time show-runner Lisa Rubin, with a pilot directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Watts was paid $275,000 per episode to portray a psychologist “who secretly infiltrates the private lives of her patients” while Billy Crudup was her sad-sack executive husband.
Quite how much Netflix poured into Gypsy is a mystery to this day. But in view of Watts’s salary and the hiring of Stevie Nicks to re-record her Fleetwood Mac classic, Gypsy, as theme tune, it is safe to assume the budget was not modest.
“We’ve canceled very few shows,” Netflix founder Reed Hastings told CNN as Gypsy received the chop. “I’m always pushing the content team: “We have to take more risk, you have to try more crazy things. Because we should have a higher cancel rate overall.””
6. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, 2019
Jim Henson’s miserablist muppets fandango had flopped in 1982 only to be reborn as a cult classic. And thanks to Game of Thrones, moody “grimdark” fantasy was all the rage. And so, a Dark Crystal reboot simply had to succeed, didn’t it?
Alas the lights quickly went out on the new Dark Crystal. It didn’t help that the original’s straightforward good vs. evil story had been replaced by a turgid tale of class inequality and by a plot that moved like treacle rolling uphill.
With a per instalment budget in the range of $8 –$10 million, Age of Resistance was obviously a huge investment for Netflix. And just look at that voice cast: Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Catriona Balfe, Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Eddie Izzard, Alicia Vikander, Lena Headey and Natalie Dormer.
Alas all that talent and all that latex (and even an Emmy win for Outstanding Children's Programme) did little to draw Netflix subscribers. And after just one season, and millions down the tube, Dark Crystal and the Jim Henson Company discovered that, when it comes to Netflix’s bottom line, resistance is futile.
7. The English Game, 2020
Julian Fellowes is about to have another moment in the spotlight as his Downton-does-Manhattan cape, The Gilded Age, comes to Sky. But few recall that, right at the beginning of the pandemic, he was figuratively strapping on football boots and shinpads for The “Beautiful” Game.
A snoozy nil-all draw of a drama, the series purported to chronicle the early years of football, when bearded toffs got their sideburns in a twist clashing with nippy working class types. With reviewers scoffing and audiences yawning, The English Game could have done with being dragged off at half-time. Netflix quietly blew the final whistle later in 2020.
8. Space Force, 2020
Netflix is reportedly paying Steve Carrell $1 million per episode for Space Force, its chuckle-free work-place comedy about a zero gravity branch of the US military. The cast also includes John Malkovich, and Lisa Kudrow – neither known for toiling for a pittance.
Reviews were scathing. And yet, incredibly Netflix has decided to renew a show which, in its first reason, reminded viewers that in space – and on Space Force – nobody can hear you laugh.
9. Away, 2020
September 2020 was not the ideal moment for a ponderous drama about people going slowly mad in confined spaces. That was the plot of Away, in which Hilary Swank played an astronaut on a mission to Mars. With a $6 million per instalment budget the show obviously carried hefty price tag. And yet it was thoroughly outshone by the gonzo delights of another 2020 Netflix release, Tiger King. To the point that, when Netflix cancelled Away, nobody cared. Few viewers seemed aware of its existence in the first place. Apple TV + had, moreover, already cornered the prestige space TV market with the far superior One Small Step.
10. Jupiter’s Legacy, 2021
The arrival of Disney + has presented Netflix with an existential challenge. As the parent corporation of Lucasfilm and Marvel, Disney + has a near-monopoly on cute robots and spandex-wrapped superheroes. How do you compete with the rival that has everything? Here’s how not to do it.
Netflix’s own Marvel shows – produced prior to Disney’s move into streaming – had ranged from thrilling (Daredevil) to trauma-inducing (Iron Fist). Now, with Disney+ laying down the infinity gauntlet, Netflix responded by shelling out £25 million for the rights to the comic book universe of Mark Miller (creator of Kick-Ass and Kingsman).
Alas, its first attempt to get the “Millerverse” off the ground crashed to earth. With an eye-watering $200 million budget Jupiter’s Legacy was one of the priciest TV shows ever. And yet it looked cheap and under-baked – and was cancelled within weeks.
Weirdly, the series may have been sunk by Netflix’s insistence on pinching pennies. Show-runner Steven S DeKnight had requested a per-episode budget of $12 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Netflix insisted on $9 million. This led to a string of headaches on set and ultimately in costly rewrites and a far longer filming schedule. And so the budget ballooned, with little improvement in the quality of what ended up on screen.