A SideWays look at the growing quality of on-demand ‘originals’ amid the decline of physical media and shifting distribution strategies.
Prime Time for Original Content
2017 may well go down as the year in which Netflix officially went from on-demand video service to serious production company. Amazon Studios’ ‘Manchester by the Sea’ may have enjoyed Oscar success, but Netflix’s original output has thus far been more decisive, diverse and consistent. In truth, the retail giant’s small-screen service is in real danger of being left in it’s prime competition’s dust before 2018 even gets moving.
Here, we look over some of the key shows produced by both services, determining which are worth your time and which are best avoided. We’ll examine the roots of some of the best-known originals, uncovering the formulas behind the concepts, and look towards a future that’s exciting and worrying in equal measure.
Note: The focus here is on the trend towards self-produced content, meaning discussion around licensed material such as ‘Mr. Robot’ (Amazon, 2015 – present) and ‘Designated Survivor’ (Netflix, 2016 – present), will have to wait.
As the decade has matured, both services have placed hard-won acquisitions such as ‘Breaking Bad’ (Netflix, 2008 – 2013) and ‘Vikings’ (Amazon, 2013 – present) directly alongside their own original efforts. It’s a strategy which has allowed them to pinpoint exactly what subscribers want through interpreting viewing trends, and one which has enabled them to lead audiences towards their own product by matching it with existing, third-party content.
When devising their first original series back in 2011, this formula didn’t just inform Netflix’s creative decisions, it dictated them. Analysis of viewing habits highlighted three popular choices: British political dramas, the films of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey movies. The result? The Spacey-starring, Fincher-produced ‘House of Cards‘ – a Netflix original series based on a British political thriller of the same name. The show premiered in 2013, but as the years have gone on, the Company has undoubtedly taken more creative risks, a necessity, considering the need to not only retain existing customers, but also to capture new ones.
The origins of Amazon’s earliest original’s aren’t as clear, and whilst ‘House of Cards’ should have arguably ended some time ago (it will finally bow out after this year’s sixth season for well-documented reasons), it’s longevity stands as testament to it’s enduring popularity. In contrast, Amazon’s fledgling original comedies – the Silicon Valley-based ‘Betas’ and the John Goodman-fronted ‘Alpha House’ – both released just weeks after ‘House of Cards’, barely managed three seasons between them. Award-winning comedy-drama’s ‘Transparent’ and ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ (both 2014 – present) have each lasted four seasons, but of the seven comedy shows produced by Amazon prior to last year, these are the only two yet to be cancelled.
Meanwhile, Netflix has released a colossal twenty-four comedy-based series since 2015, including recent smash ‘GLOW‘ (2017 – present), and of these shows, only four have officially ended.
Away from its forays into comedy, Amazon has found mixed fortunes in the realms of drama. It’s first effort was ‘Bosch‘ (2014 – present) starring ‘Lost’ baddie Titus Welliver as the troubled LA detective. It’s a perfectly serviceable albeit unremarkable take on Michael Connelly’s novels, and whilst the setting and leading man offer an odd mix of charm and sleaze, the show lacks spark, and the continual season renewals raise more eyebrows than smiles. Likewise, Ron Perlman project ‘Hand of God‘ (2014 – 2017) presented an intriguing premise which produced a unique pilot drenched in originality, yet as the series progressed, this intrigue slowly diminished, and whilst the announcement of a second season came as a surprise, the subsequent cancellation certainly didn’t.
Female-led Mad Men rip-off ‘Good Girls Revolt’ (2016) and Kelsey Grammar period drama ‘The Last Tycoon’ (2016 – 2017) were both axed after one season, and whilst ‘Z: The Beginning of Everything’ (2015 – 2017) was renewed for a second, a last minute rethink led to production shutting down.
It’s a decision that highlights a studio still unsure of what it – and it’s viewers – want from their original content; an unsettled approach further underlined by the cancellation of ‘Mad Dogs‘ (2015 -2016), a U.S. re-imagining of Sky’s U.K. ensemble drama. It was dropped less than a month after season one had aired despite it’s unique locations, well-tuned cast, and Billy Zane gleaning mostly positive reviews.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Amazon however, ‘The Man in the High Castle’ (2015 – present) has recently been joined by hits ‘Sneaky Pete’ (2016 – present) and ‘Goliath’ (2016 – present) as Amazon’s flagship dramas.
‘Goliath‘ is a thoroughly impressive, blackly comic legal thriller; a morality tale that’s equal parts uplifting and devastating. Held together by a role surely tailor-made to showcase Billy Bob Thornton’s strengths, the show is essentially an updated take on Sidney Lumet’s brilliant ‘The Verdict’ (1982). It must be said, however, that ‘Goliath’ has the undeniable aura of a limited series, and if future episodes fail to live up to season one, they’ll only serve to dampen it’s impact.
‘Sneaky Pete’ gets off to a somewhat dubious start partly due to a weak and muddled marketing campaign, but by it’s midpoint the high-concept premise, full of twists and turns, finds it’s rhythm. A fast-talking turn by Giovanni Ribisi – here owning a role his usually overlooked talents deserve – ensures the constantly shifting plot captivates rather than confuses viewers, and with the right people in place, the series should now go from strength to strength.
Meanwhile, recent Netflix dramas continue to pander to the viewing habits of subscribers, only now, the emboldened studio can use these expectations to pull the rug from beneath viewers’ feet.
‘Ozark‘ (2017 – present) pairs the blackly comic, character-focused foundations of ‘Breaking Bad’ with a Nordic-noir style that visually distinguishes it from it’s influences. Whilst Bryan Cranston’s family man Walter White – a simple chemistry teacher turned drug lord – trod the parched, yellow ground of Albuquerque New Mexico, Jason Bateman’s family man Marty Byrde – a simple financial advisor turned money launderer – finds himself in the moist, blue surroundings of the Missouri Ozarks.
Beneath it’s far-fetched roots, ‘Ozark’ is a seriously binge-worthy drama that blends a perfectly executed central performance with smart political undertones. Just like early ‘House of Cards’, while it’s easy to see the maths behind Netflix’s thinking, there’s no denying it’s produced a show that demands attention.
‘Mindhunter‘ (2017 – present and again produced by Fincher), entered a crowded genre and needed to stand out. Thanks to some neat casting, captivating character depth and deep cinematic visuals, it does just that, with the season two renewal serving as just reward. The success of ‘The Crown’ (2016 – present) is exemplified by the green-lighting of seasons three and four, whilst runaway hit ‘Stranger Things’ (2016 – present) was undoubtedly one of 2017’s most talked-about shows.
‘Narco’s’ (2015 – present) continues to grow bolder as it’s seasons progress, and ‘Orange is the New Black‘ (2013 – present) will soon surpass the longevity of ‘House of Cards’ following the announcements of both seasons 6 and 7. Although buzz around the female-driven prison-drama has certainly softened since it’s early episodes, the series retains a unique tone that’s crystallised by the outstanding chemistry of it’s cast and a dedicated army of fans.
Netflix’s aim is for over half it’s library to be made up of original content by midway through next year; a colossal proposition which should lead to exciting opportunities for fringe writers, directors and stars. A tidal wave of new features and shows brings with it the danger of quantity trumping quality, but most subscribers will accept a few misfires if it means a succession of fresh hits. The only indicator of Netflix’s future output is the calibre of it’s past product, so there should be more to get excited about than to ignore this year.
The billions of dollars Netflix and Amazon are committing to self-made ‘originals’ indicates a decisive move away from other distributors content however, and the days of spending hours scrolling through tried and tested films may soon be replaced with selecting from the unknown. If Amazon can follow Netflix’s lead and create a consistent approach, we could be entering a golden age of digital cinema.
Death of the Disc(?)
As illegal ‘dodgy-boxes’, enabling audiences to see the latest film and TV for free (and at their own risk), grow in popularity alongside the ever-increasing use of on-demand video services (including platforms such as NOW TV and Sky Box Office), the demand for physical media will surely continue to fall. It conjures an inevitable question: will these trends eventually affect box office figures?
Currently, the answer is a clear ‘no’. The success of ‘IT’ (2017) alongside the expected success of Disney’s all-conquering franchises make the silver-screen’s immediate future crystal clear – she won’t be retiring any time soon. Yet away from the mainstream, films such as 2017’s ‘Good Time‘ are increasingly leaning towards duel cinema and home releases. In 2013, Ben Wheatley’s period horror ‘A Field in England’ was released in cinemas, digitally on-demand, on DVD, and on television simultaneously, a concept that’s gaining traction with many smaller studio’s unable to compete with the big guns.
Steve Oliver is co-founder of Stockport-based outfit MusicMagpie, a Company who specialise in trading pre-owned CD’s, DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s to an annual turnover of well over £100 million. In 2015, he told ‘The Telegraph‘ physical media was only experiencing a “shallow decline”, and whilst the mechanics of his business support this statement (profit is made through the sale of physical media), it also serves to highlight the literal flip-side of his operation.
With legions of dedicated film fans flogging their hard-earned discs at a fraction of their original cost, it’s difficult to believe desire for physical media isn’t waning. MusicMagpie however, (trading as ‘ZoverStocks’ on eBay and Amazon), ships the world over, meaning it’s likely the UK’s unwanted DVD’s and Blu-Rays, now either available on Netflix , Amazon, or just not worthy of repeat viewings, are being shipped to specialist collectors outside of Europe.
This ‘one and done’ viewing mentality is undoubtedly apparent to on-demand service bosses, whose acquisitions of films popular a year or two ago may fail to yield the viewing figures they once did. Remember when the Christmas Day movies on terrestrial TV were a big deal? This now feels like a thing of the distant past, and similarly, the days of checking the ‘new releases’ section on Amazon and Netflix have now become a boring succession of ‘seen that; got that; that’s old; that’s crap’.
It means that original features are as much a part of the Company’s futures as it’s original series are, and in this field, Netflix’s current offerings are, for the most part, promising. So much so that SideWays will be rating four original offerings every month, starting right now with ‘Clinical‘, ‘Gerald’s Game‘, ‘Before I Wake‘ and ‘Casting Jonbenet‘. The feature is called ‘The Netflix Fix’, the object is to review a quartet of originals on a monthly basis in under 500 words, and you can find January’s edition right here.