Applying the Co-opetition framework to the new Google-Roku standoff helps to explain why neither company is incentivized to cooperate towards a resolution, and why Roku’s “win-win” business logic may not be the best model for working with tech giants in streaming.
I wrote in last week’s Mic Drop that the cancellation of Jupiter’s Legacy makes it hard for observers to discern where the wins in original IP for Netflix have been.
I excluded from last week’s Mic Drop, for the sake of brevity, the news of the promotion of longtime Netflix executive Peter Friedlander to head of U.S. and Canada scripted series. In that role, he will continue to lead the spectacle/event TV division that he was promoted to run in October and will add oversight of Netflix’s overall deals for original series.
Lesley Goldberg of The Hollywood Reporter added that Friedlander’s promotion meant longtime executive Brian Wright would be departing:
With Friedlander taking on those added responsibilities, Brian Wright — who had been a rising star at Netflix since he joined from Nickelodeon in 2014 — has opted to exit the streamer. Sources note that Netflix felt it made the most sense for the head of U.S. originals to also oversee the company’s roster of high-profile overall deals (i.e., Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, the Duffer brothers) rather than having Wright — who was promoted in October from VP young adult and family content and oversaw hits like Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why and Umbrella Academy — continuing to function in the role. That overall deals role has now been eliminated, which prompted Wright’s exit. It’s also worth noting that Wright’s YA/family unit was consolidated into Netflix’s drama and comedy teams last year as part of Bajaria’s first restructuring.
Wright’s departure comes nine months after he had been promoted to head of overall deals for original series. Part of the reason for his promotion, then, was that he had been working closely with Murphy:
…Bajaria’s decision to move Netflix’s overall deals business under a single executive, Brian Wright, is an acknowledgment that getting the most out of well-paid talent is, or at least should be, a full-time job — and hardly an easy one, especially given the earlier promises of complete creative freedom often made by Sarandos himself.
The timing of Wright’s departure is notable given that “well-paid talent” is a nod to Ryan Murphy’s $300MM deal with Netflix, signed in 2018. Wright’s promotion came one month after the September 2020 release of Murphy’s series Ratched, which performed fine at 48MM households and has been renewed for a season 2. His departure comes less than one month after the May 2020 release of Murphy’s biographical miniseries Halston, about whose performance we know nothing, yet.
Correlation does not equal causation, so my point here is not “Ryan Murphy’s shortcomings are to blame for Brian Wright leaving Netflix”. Rather, I wonder if the more accurate statement is “Brian Wright was valued at Netflix until the data for Halston proved that the Ryan Murphy deal could not be salvaged”.
Disclosure about show or movie performance from Netflix is can be a reliable tell: for instance, we now know one week after Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead was released that the movie “is on its way to becoming one of the streamer’s top 10 most watched movies, bound to notch 72M viewing households in its first four weeks.” But then again, we heard about how Bridgerton reached 82MM households 30 days after it was released. So it may be too soon to reach a conclusion about how Halston performed.
That said, Ryan Murphy’s Halston arrived on May 14 and three weeks later we have seen no corporate Netflix PR about total households from Netflix, yet. Halston has faced a mixed reaction from audiences, at best. It has a 64 Metascore on Metacritic (and a 7.0 from four users…), while it has a 64% average Tomatometer from critics and 82% average audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. On IMDb 7,246 reviewers give at an average of 7.6. In short, many like the series but few are enthusiastic about the series.
We will hear about how Halston performed in the next two weeks, but I doubt it will come in the form of an effusive, enthusiastic blog post from Netflix PR.
The timing of Wright’s departure after the release of Halston is especially interesting given this sentence in The Hollywood Reporter article:
The decision to promote from within for the head of U.S. originals (and Canada) followed a months-long search that saw the streamer meet and court multiple execs, including former Peacock/USA/Syfy head of originals Bill McGoldrick, among several others.
The position of the head of U.S. originals has been open since Bajaria took over last September. So, the timing of Wright’s departure could be explained by the fact that Netflix management was waiting on the data from Halston before it filled that position. If the show succeeded, Wright would continue working with Ryan Murphy and would work alongside the new head of U.S. and Canada originals. If the show underperformed, Wright’s services were no longer required.
Obviously, there are plenty of other reasons that may explain the timing of Friedlander’s promotion and Wright’s departure. The search may have indeed taken months to perform, and the role oversees original content for Netflix’s largest regional audience (~68MM subscribers), so Netflix needs to make the right hire there. Contract negotiations may delay the announcement, ideal candidates may withdraw… there are many other permutations of reasons that are not mutually exclusive to solving for the shortcomings of Ryan Murphy’s megadeal.
Netflix's Keeper’s Test culture works to ensure that talented problem-solvers should stay. But the key detail is this: if Halston had performed better than Ryan Murphy’s previous shows on Netflix, then why would the executive responsible for “getting the most out of” Ryan Murphy’s $300MM deal need to leave three weeks after its release?
Putting the two and two together of Wright’s departure and the unusually fast cancellation of Jupiter’s Legacy, Netflix seems to be tacitly admitting to the market that it has made costly mistakes to the tune of at least $500MM (Jupiter’s Legacy at $200MM in production costs, Murphy’s deal at $300MM).
Netflix appears to be the victim of the famous adage of former HBO Boss, and current Apple TV+ producer, Richard Plepler : “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Netflix have a strategy for owned and original IP, and an enormous war chest to fund it, but Netflix may not have the culture to build out a library of owned and original IP.
Three addendums to this essay, two of them humorous:
- Julia Alexander writes about how Disney fixed problems in its culture after two expensive flops earlier in the decade in her Musings on Mouse blog.
- The Guardian’s Casper Salmon offers a humorously brutal take on Ryan Murphy’s disappointing run at Netflix, so far, in “No more bite! How Netflix defanged Ryan Murphy”
- This tweet is genius. https://twitter.com/ezwrites/status/1400166072788000770