Netflix’s series cloning machine stalls as David Cronenberg takes the controls

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is one of the essential names in contemporary cinema. He has earned it with visceral fantasies (in more than one sense) of body horror like Chromosome 3 or Videodrome, but also with many other works in a filmography with a number of ramifications with a recognisable sensibility: Crash, A History of Violence, Cosmopolis… Along the way, he has also been an actor in fantastic and horror genre works like the series Slasher and Star Trek: Discovery or the films Night Races and Jason X.

In October 2019, Cronenberg spoke publicly that he was in pre-production on a series for Netflix. It was rumored that it might be an adaptation of his own novel Consumed

. Cronenberg had been having trouble financing his projects for years, to the point that actor Viggo Mortensen had stated that the Canadian filmmaker was considering retirement because of it. So the approach to the subscription-based audiovisual giant could make some sense. If the big studios didn’t seem interested, Cronenberg would have access to the money of a new and powerful actor in the sector.

The years that have passed since then have ended in nothing. The author of The Fly has stated that those responsible for the platform were frightened by the content of the proposal. According to The Globe and Mail, Cronenberg had even written the first two chapters of a serialized fiction titled The Shrouds, but did not receive the green light. Quim Casas, co-author and coordinator of the collective volume David Cronenberg: the mysteries of the organism, was not surprised by the negotiations between Cronenberg and Netflix because the platform “has made other bets of this type, albeit with debatable results”. The Catalan film critic is somewhat perplexed by the end of the project: “I will never understand why a studio, a producer or a network gets in touch with a director with a style and subject matter as recognisable as Cronenberg and then backs out. What did the Netflix executives expect?A smile and tears? The same thing happened to David Lynch when ABC turned down Mulholland Drive

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Just three or four years ago, some voices considered that Netflix offered a remarkable creative freedom, at least in relation to other entertainment conglomerates. Shortly thereafter, dozens and dozens of Netflix Originals with cloned airs and very attached to generic models have turned the tables. Now the platform is identified with a tendency to homogenize forms and narratives, to a fast food of audiovisuals. One of the co-producers of Call me by your name, Rodrigo Teixeira, stated that streaming

platforms had entered a phase of interventionism that brought them closer to the dynamics of the big studios. Cronenberg seems to agree: “My experience with them was the same as with the studios. They’re brilliant and they’re versed, they know about things. Inside, they’re scared. They tell you they love your work. And when you offer them something, they tell you they want to work with you, but not on this.”

In fact, Netflix shows a very loose relationship with the idea of originality even in the terminological realm. The lecturer and populariser of fantastic cinema Jordi Sánchez-Navarro signed, together with Antoni Roig and Judith Clarés-Gavilán, the academic article Largometrajes originales de ficción de Netflix: un análisis de las estrategias de estreno (Netflix’s original fiction feature films: an analysis of release strategies).

The text explained that only 33.3% of the feature films released in the period 2015-2018 under the label “Netflix originals” included production credits for the platform or one of its executives. The mark suggests that the platform has pushed works that, in most cases, are outside productions that are often completed before the platform buys the corresponding broadcast rights. In quite a few cases, Netflix only had the broadcasting rights for some or some specific territories, and not for the total number of countries where it operates.

Authors in the realm of ‘big data’

Among Netflix’s production flow, we have seen some works that are somewhat different or with a certain margin for authorship. Casas sees limits to this: “Martin Scorsese said that no normal studio wanted to pay him for The Irishman, but what he or Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer: Snowbreaker)

have done there doesn’t seem to me to be the most relevant thing they’ve done”. The critic believes that the standardization of Netflix content is more pronounced than in other entertainment corporations, but appreciates that “Netflix produces more films, while HBO or Amazon are more committed to series”.

For Elena Neira, author of the book Streaming wars, “projects

unconventional like Maniac or I am thinking about ending things make me believe that the platform does offer room for experimentation”. Another thing is to what extent this is carried out. The creator of Maniac itself, Cary Fukunaga, explained to GQ magazine that Netflix executives had dissuaded him from incorporating time games in an episode of the series so as not to hinder the habit of binge-watching, the concentrated viewing over time of several episodes that the streaming service facilitates (and pursues) by uploading full seasons of its series.

Fukunaga seemed very open to these interventions. Still, he stated that technology has changed the exchange of notes between creatives and producers: “It’s not like thinking, ‘Let’s debate this and maybe I’ll win.’ In the end, the algorithm argument is going to win,” he explained. And this marks a departure from previous eras of tug-of-war between creators and producers. In other times, authors had to debate with funders armed with their expertise, important but also subjective and debatable, or with inevitably limited market research. Now they have on the other side of the table executives armed with huge records of data, who assert with a supposed objectivity that a particular creative decision will result in the loss of a certain number of viewers.

In Neira’s opinion, “algorithms cannot say how to make the programme, but they certainly provide guidance on the type of programme that should be made in order to achieve the greatest possible efficiency from the investment they are going to make”. In any case, the essayist recalls that “Netflix has said countless times that using data to reverse engineer content doesn’t work”.

Netflix’s business model, which aims to keep its subscribers, may qualify the orientation of products that may be more oriented to satiate the customer by offering works that prioritize the absence of rejection to the stimulus of taste. This is not an exceptional phenomenon: the big Hollywood studios, such as Disney or Warner, also seem to be very oriented towards satisfying rather than seducing. After all, they focus their efforts on film franchises that are serialized and aim to turn the viewer into a kind of captive consumer. However, the cinema-goer has to be convinced once again to spend his or her money on a new ticket. The subscription service, on the other hand, can focus on keeping the viewer engaged.lient.

Neira argues that Netflix “does not give a stitch without a thread” and that it is based on an encyclopedic knowledge of the tastes of its audience. At the same time, she considers that “these systems that are bent on satisfying customer preferences by eliminating discordant notes from the equation do not feed discovery and, in the long term, I don’t think it’s positive for customers”. The author of Streaming wars recalls that “all companies claim that they try to combine both lines of content, satisfaction and experimentation; Cronenberg was probably more in the experimentation line”.

For the moment, the author of Crash has managed to finance a new feature film, Crimes of the future, repeating the multinational co-production model that he used to make Cosmopolis and Maps to the stars. Finally, fans of the Canadian director will be able to enjoy (or suffer joyfully) another feature film signed by him. Once again, without the intervention of the old big studios that have become entertainment conglomerates, and also without the participation of the new Goliaths of digital audiovisuals.

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