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The usual suspect

By Jonathan Webdale 21-01-2015

Money alone does not a successful show make, but at a cost of US$100m for two 13-episode seasons, and with talent like Kevin Spacey and David Fincher attached, the odds were in favour of House of Cards being a success.

Ted Sarandos

Ted Sarandos

Fast-forward to December 2014 and Marco Polo – executive produced by the Weinstein brothers with a reported budget of US$90m for 10 episodes – didn’t meet quite such a favourable reception. “When you get to the end of an episode,” The Washington Post wrote, “the last thing you feel like doing is queuing up one, two or five more.”

The Post went on to describe the show as “practically binge-proof,” noting that this is “precisely the opposite of the Netflix way of watching.” This wasn’t the only review to maul Marco Polo. Should we read anything into this?

Few would dispute that 2014 was in most ways a stellar year for Netflix. Its share price reached an all-time high in the summer, thanks in part to more than 30 Emmy nominations and a flurry of headline-grabbing content initiatives.

House of Cards, returning for its third season on February 27, and Orange is the New Black (likely to come back for a third instalment in the summer) continued to win plaudits. European expansion and news of big-budget commissions in the UK, France and Mexico had the creative community salivating, while public broadcasters, pay TV operators and existing VoD players were forced to respond.

A move into original movies signalled a further shake-up in the film business. The release – simultaneously in select IMAX theatres globally – of a sequel to the 2000 martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is set for August 28 this year.

The sheen came off somewhat in October, however, when Netflix missed Q3 subscriber targets (still a stunning 37.2 million members in the US and 15.8 million overseas) and HBO announced plans for its own SVoD offering – expected to arrive in time for the fifth season of Game of Thrones on April 12.

This week’s Q4 results offered investors plenty to get excited about, with international expansion helping it achieve 13 million new customers through 2014, with 4.3 million coming in the final three months alone, following launches in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The company is now pushing ahead with debuts in Australia and beyond – on track to have a presence in 200 countries over the next two years.

There’s plenty more to look forward to. On the immediate horizon, the first of Netflix’s Marvel series, Daredevil, bows soon and a slew of other titles – at 320 hours this year, more than the Los Gatos-based firm has ever ordered before – are waiting in the wings.

The aim is 20 original series per year, with new titles or seasons coming “every two or three weeks.” Chief content officer Ted Sarandos has talked about “getting into a regular drumbeat with consumer expectation.”

This is still a long way from scheduled linear TV but not entirely dissimilar and is new territory for Netflix: volume commissions that must be spread evenly. As any broadcast network executive will tell you, making a success of a large number of shows is much harder than focusing on a few.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

The company brought Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), star of crime thriller The Fall, which it licensed from the BBC, to its recent Television Critics Association tour. “The X-Files was the beginning of appointment television. We’re now at the end of it,” the actress was quoted as saying.

But this doesn’t mean the rules change entirely, as The X-Files creator Chris Carter found out this month. He earned the unfortunate accolade of being the first programme-maker to have a series cancelled by Amazon, which pulled the plug on The After, his intended and much-vaunted return to serialised drama.

While critics may not have been impressed by Marco Polo, Sarandos claims the show has been a huge hit with fans, hence the decision to renew it. But Netflix’s refusal to release viewer numbers will likely come to weigh more heavily on the company, providing fodder for the sceptics.

It’s perhaps pertinent that Spacey has come to personify the Netflix story. He sprang to fame in The Usual Suspects, in which he plays a con artist granted immunity for revealing the truth behind a bloody harbour gunfight in which he’s implicated. Affecting cerebral palsy, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint convinces his accusers the person responsible is a ruthless criminal called Keyser Söze, who is so feared because his identify remains a mystery. “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” he says. But Söze, it turns out, is his fabrication – a narrative trick that allows the true perpetrator, Verbal, to walk free.

Netflix is by no means a con, and certainly not the Devil, but we may begin to see the mythology unravel just a little in 2015.

today's correspondent

Jonathan Webdale Editor, FutureMedia &
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Jonathan Webdale has been reporting on the digital media business and international entertainment sector for more than a decade, joining C21Media in 2004 after four years at New Media Age.

He runs C21’s daily news operation and also edits the FutureMedia strand online and its associated magazine brand.