Will studios and streamers’ aversion to risk endanger our current golden age of TV? The pattern of repeats, spin-offs, remakes and franchise fodder seems set for the next decade, but surely to diminishing cultural returns?
To take just one example: The Star Wars universe has multiplied on TV, but also got smaller. An Obi Wan Kenobi series is just one of 10 new TV and animated shows Disney has planned. There are even calls for one of the most successful film franchises of all time, James Bond, to be spun-off into TV. Makes sense given that all 25 films, including No Time To Die, is part of MGM and therefore now part of Amazon.
“I think that valuable IP and valuable brands can be very successful if used across multiple formats,” Michael Pachter, a Netflix analyst at the investment firm Wedbush Securities, said to The Guardian. “And absolutely, Bond is that valuable because it has lasted nearly 60 years. It’s a lasting franchise.”
It’s all about IP. Get some with instant brand name recognition and you’ve a built in fanbase to launch your show and stand out from the pack. Studios have always mined their own titles — only now more so. Paramount, for example, continues to lean heavily on the Star Trek IP with six separate series on Paramount+ and more in development, but the studio is also set to make new episodic shows from classics in its locker including Grease, Fatal Attraction, Flashdance, The Italian Job, Love Story and The Parallax View.
The Parallax View? I can see how the paranoid political climate of the era (the film was made in 1974) could lend itself to a modern retelling, but it’s an odd one to pick out of the archive. Would an original story have been better than leaning on the coattails of Alan J. Pakula’s cult classic? How much recall does the audience have for the 1974 film anyway?
IndieWire rounds up the dilemma thusly, “How will an inundation of intellectual property affect the kind of stories that, not so long ago, produced a (second) Golden Age of acclaimed original programming? Most importantly, will there be room for unknowns to compete in a landscape packed with returning favorites?”
Diving into IP with spin-offs, retreads and versions for different media can end up eating itself. Look no further than Warner Bros universally panned Space Jam 2: A New Legacy which trapped LeBron James and Looney Tunes characters — along with the audience — in the charmless WB Serververse.
It’s impossible to talk about TV franchises without mentioning Game of Thrones. When HBO’s highly lucrative adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books ended in 2019, the network didn’t waste time figuring out the next chapter: Expected in early 2022, House of the Dragon will be the first official spinoff, but there are plenty more in development.
While Casey Bloys, HBO and HBO Max’s chief content officer, has insisted on preserving quality over quantity with the franchise — he even said, “Ten would be too many,” in reference to Disney+ new Star Wars series — IndieWire notes that “Game of Thrones is simply too big to go away, especially as HBO Max fights for its place among the must-have streamers.”
If you don’t have in-house IP, you can always buy it. Hence, Amazon’s swoop for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as if Peter Jackson’s epic feature installments weren’t the last word; or Netflix’s grab for the family favorites of author Roald Dahl.
Netflix needs its own stable of content as studios end licenses for the streamer to air their most valuable back catalogue but good luck making something out of ‘Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator’, Dahl’s own distinctly weird follow-up to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ featuring alien shape shifting Knids. Taika Waititi has been handed this task of turning it into an animated series.
READ MORE: From Roald Dahl to Studio Space, Netflix’s Reverse British Invasion Is a Mixed Blessing (Variety)
James Cameron’s multiple Avatar sequels fit into this somewhere, although there is fanfare made about them by Disney (née Fox). Number three is in the can, with four and five filming (according to Cameron’s IMDB listing). Much will depend on the performance of Avatar 2, currently set for December 2022, although there must be a question mark over how many fans the original blockbuster has carried with it. Avatar seems to have been made in another era — which in 2009 it was. Were it a hit today you can imagine the more likely home for the eco-and AI-themed Avatar universe is the TV.
IndieWire rightly calls out Apple TV+ and FX for charting a different route in going after quality with fresh stories. As the newest kid on the content block Apple has no choice if it isn’t going to outlay millions on external IP. Among its world building hopes is the epoch hopping multi-book intergalactic saga of Foundation, penned by Isaac Azimov and translated to screen by Dark Knight scribe David S Goyer.
“Apple’s unique in a few different ways,” said Brad Gastwirth, Wedbush Securities’ chief technology strategist. “I think they like creating their own content and being the producer rather than being the copier.”
Yet will this strategy give it the scale to compete with the top streamers like Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max and Netflix? A recent survey by Whip Media suggests not. Despite admiration for many Apple TV+ commissions, consumers also seem to want the comfort blanket of a large library if they are going to spend monthly fees on an SVOD.
READ MORE: Streaming Consumers May Appreciate Quality… But They’re Also Adamant About Quantity (NAB Amplify)
Not every version built on the shoulders of what has come before is a dud. There are countless examples of a remake, a reimagining, an origins story perhaps, being better than the original.
Just as The Godfather Part II is as revered — and some argue better than — The Godfather, so Netflix took AMC show Breaking Bad and made Better Call Saul, in which the writing and acting just gets richer and richer (thanks to showrunner Vince Gilligan) with each series.
Ultimately, we — the audience — get what we want. If we’re content with reheated versions of stories we already know then fine, that’s on us. Or as IndieWire’s Ben Travers urges, we just need to broaden the conversation.
“People can’t spend all their time re-watching old classics — give something new a try. Once you find a hidden gem, talk about it. Get some word of mouth going. Don’t let the blockbusters suck all the air out of the room. TV doesn’t have to become monolithic. But that’s up to all of us.”