Last week, Netflix managed to poach Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from HBO with a $200 million dollar deal that announced an undisclosed number of TV shows and movies from the pair.
It’s a lot of money, sure, but not the most the streaming service has shelled out for a top-tier creative with a successful track record. Ryan Murphy scored a $300 million handshake with the expectation he’d create ten projects within five years — the first of which is the September slated mini-series, The Politician, about a college-cheating scandal that pre-dates the Lori Loughlin sting. And ABC lost Shonda Rhimes to Netflix in 2017 for a cool $150 million in the hopes that her eight planned series would generate the kind of viewership that her TGIT lineup did on network TV.
In other words, Netflix seems to be banking on established showrunners, those who’ve delivered rating success, garnered awards recognition, and fueled a social conversation in a time when communal TV watching seems to be dying out. Whether Benioff and Weiss can make good on that implied promise without the aid of source material from other artists, it’s hard to tell. Thrones seemed to struggle with its narrative in those final few seasons when the show went off-book, and Benioff and Weiss were solely in the driver’s seat. The final season was divisive at best.
But it’s not the question mark hovering over the duo’s writing capabilities that leaves a sour taste in the mouth after they’ve been given millions of dollars just to play ball. It’s the knowledge that other shows, the work of lesser-known creatives, are being sacrificed to fund the price tag. This year, Netflix has canceled 14 shows and announced the planned endings of a few more. Of those shows, eight were created or co-created by women, and none of them ran longer than the expected three seasons, which used to be the unofficial length an original series would run before Netflix debated its renewal.
Some of these series were cult hits that didn’t move the needle, like Trinkets, a series about teen kleptomaniacs, or Chambers, the Uma Thurman-starring mystery thriller about an organ transplant gone wrong. They gained buzz from those subscribers who stumbled across them while scrolling for new fare, but their cancellation didn’t cause a blip on the radar of most viewers. Then there were the series that sparked outrage from fans, shows like Brit Marling’s The OA, a sci-fi mind-bender that felt like it had more story to tell when it was given the ax; Tuca & Bertie, an animated series about friendship and womanhood told from the perspective of two birds; or One Day At a Time, the Norman Lear revival that modernized a beloved classic. These shows were also made by women, starred women, and sported big names, but they fell victim to the mysterious “algorithm” that rules Netflix’s decision-making these days.
Admittedly, 2019 is a strange year for the streaming giant to weather. There’s competition from fellow behemoths like Disney, from networks wanting to get in on the streaming game, and from established platforms like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, beefing up their content libraries to rival Netflix’s own. There’s a need for more content, the kind that gets people talking, which is why Netflix seems to be betting its future on celebrity showrunners so heavily. In a way, it’s understandable.
When Netflix first emerged as a streaming service offering original content, it wasn’t just a big fish in a little pond, it was the only fish. It could take risks, give multi-season renewals to shows that cost little to make and wouldn’t have survived on network TV. Shows like Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards, dramas about women in prison and narcissistic politicians that may not have played well in primetime. Since then, Netflix has grown and earned the ability to greenlight more exciting projects, works of niche art like Stranger Things or weighted social dramas like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, but the workings of the company, how deals are made and, more importantly, why deals are made, remain a mystery. And that’s upsetting people.