Opinion: Netflix Has Changed Since Acquiring Narnia

Netflix’s Chronicles of Narnia movies and series were announced in 2018, but little has been heard since. The following is one NarniaWebber’s opinion about the situation. “Icarus” has been a frequent contributor to the NarniaWeb forum since 2006.

Opinion by Icarus

We recently passed the four-year anniversary of Netflix announcing they had acquired the rights to The Chronicles of Narnia series. In the period since that announcement I have spent a lot of time scouring the internet in search of news regarding the project’s ongoing development. I have summarized this information into the timeline below, which not only shows just how much Netflix has changed as a company over the past 5 years, but also may go some way to explaining why we haven’t seen any significant development on the Narnia project for quite some time.

Nov. 2017: Netflix was #1

Flashback just five years ago, and Netflix was a very different company than it is today. Its share price was rocketing upwards, it had near total market domination in the streaming sector, and it was backed by a senior leadership who were prepared to spend big on expensive prestige productions – none less so than The Lord of the Rings, which we now know the company fought an aggressive bidding war to try and obtain.

Despite the fact that Netflix actually managed to outbid multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Amazon with a staggering $250 million offer, Netflix ultimately lost out to Amazon’s preferred pitch for the series with the J.R.R Tolkien Estate.

Not wanting to be outdone however, Netflix seemingly went on the hunt for alternatives…

Oct. 2018: Narnia and Beyond

Just under a year later, Netflix secured the rights to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, having paid a figure which was reported at the time to be slightly less than the previous $250 million offer for The Lord of the Rings. 

The pace at which this deal was concluded, and the comparable size of the fee paid, signals to me that Netflix had a clear intention at this stage to compete directly with Amazon Prime using its own rival fantasy series.

Not long after announcing their Narnia deal, Netflix also secured the rights to the entire back catalogue of the children’s author Roald Dahl (later going on to buy-out his entire estate a few years later). Again, I believe this was highly indicative of Netflix’s overall corporate strategy at this time; with a strong commitment towards delivering high-quality family-oriented content and being prepared to spend large sums of money for the rights to do so.

June 2019: The Architect

Just over 8 months after announcing the Narnia project, Netflix hires Matthew Aldrich to be its “Creative Architect”. At this stage, everything appears to be moving along with the sort of momentum you would expect from an active production, and had things continued at the same pace, it would likely have put the project on a par with the development timeframes associated with other Netflix fantasy shows being developed around this sort of time, such as The Witcher, Shadow & Bone, Sandman, and Locke & Key.

Indeed, Netflix also remained on course to compete directly with Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings series, which was also going through the process of hiring senior consultants around this time.

Unfortunately, the hiring of Matthew Aldrich is the last piece of substantive news we have heard on the Narnia project.

Aug. 2019: Competition

For me, this is when the first cracks started to show, with Netflix firing their head of Kids & Family Original Series. Although it was mentioned at the time that this was not expected to result in a downturn in kids and family programming, we have subsequently seen that when Netflix needs to make staff cuts for financial reasons, it always tends to come from the Kids & Family division or the Animation division.

In November 2019, within the space of just a few weeks of each other, two rival streaming services, Apple TV+ and Disney Plus, launched onto the market. (HBO Max would join them some 6 months later)

Although Netflix had likely seen these moves coming for a while, the impact on the company was significant. Suddenly the entire streaming industry was starting to look like a very different place then it did just over a year before when Netflix first announced its Narnia deal.

By all accounts though, Netflix had been gradually starting to shift its corporate strategy for a while in order to adjust to this new reality, particularly as all the major studios had been gradually withdrawing content from Netflix in order to put it onto their own studio-backed streaming services.


Sept. 2020: Quantity Over Quality

In September 2020, Netflix fired Cindy Holland, the Vice-President in charge of original TV content at the company. Numerous Netflix insiders have since cited this as the symbolic moment that Netflix definitively moved away from its old approach of producing high-quality (and expensive) award winning shows, towards producing a greater volume of lower-quality (and much cheaper) types of content that would be favoured by the algorithm.

Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter discussed the significance of Cindy Holland’s firing as a pivotal moment for the company:

Several important Netflix creators voice a very consistent theory about what’s gone wrong with the streamer’s culture. They see a link between Netflix’s problems and the 2020 fall of Cindy Holland, who played a key role in launching the service’s originals — brilliantly and often expensively — with House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things, among others.

These sources say Holland was the one who nurtured strong relationships with talent and took time to offer thoughtful development notes while still making people feel safe and supported in pursuing their passion projects.”

The Hollywood Reporter

The Hollywood Reporter also discussed how this moment was the culmination of a much longer shift in the company’s overall corporate strategy, a shift which likely started not long after Netflix acquired the rights to Narnia:

According to a former insider, Netflix knew years ago that it would have to increase its volume of original shows substantially year-over-year to compete…. But [that] strategy began to prove destructive to the culture and the quality of the service’s offerings…

Whether Holland’s spendy approach itself would have proved sustainable is a question, but several creators believe Netflix lost much of its early cachet by over-rotating to less expensive, less curated and less compelling — or, the company might say, broader — fare that simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed some subscribers.”

The Hollywood Reporter

If Netflix had been slowly drifting away from producing expensive prestige productions for a while then, I believe that after this defining moment it would have been virtually impossible for a production like Narnia, a filmmaking project which is inherently costly in just about every regard one can imagine, to really get off the ground at the company.

April 2022: Losing Subscribers

After a decade of near continuous market growth, Netflix announced a decline in subscriber numbers, causing it to lose almost $50 Billion from its stock market value.

Billionaire William Ackman, who liquidated a $1.1 billion investment on Netflix as a result of this unexpected market plunge, explained his decision thusly:

While Netflix’s business is fundamentally simple to understand, in light of recent events, we have lost confidence in our ability to predict the company’s future prospects with a sufficient degree of certainty.

William Ackman

Later in the same month, Netflix laid off much of its Animation Division and cancelled a whole bunch of family-oriented projects that had been in development, including one of its Roald Dahl productions (The Twits). It does however seem that many of the other Roald Dahl projects in work at this time were able to survive, perhaps because unlike Narnia they are the sorts of stories that can be produced relatively cheaply, even in live action.

More comments though from Netflix insiders at this time paint a picture of just how radical the changes behind-the-scenes have been:

Netflix Animation, especially when it came to Kids & Family content, was once considered a glittery Utopia. Superstar creators and visionary young talent were swayed by promises of unprecedented creative freedom and healthy production budgets, backed by the financial and promotional might of the Netflix empire.

A few years ago, there was no place more welcoming or seductive to artists and animators than Netflix Animation. Netflix’s animation units, like its live-action divisions, were known for being a place that you could bring a project that might not have gained traction anywhere else, and suddenly have it produced, without much studio interference….

But now you are seeing fewer of these creator-driven projects. New series aren’t as exciting as they once were. Many animators have left the studio… and Netflix’s focus has shifted noticeably too.

One producer… said that when they got to Netflix, Phil Rynda (Netflix’s Director of Creative Leadership and Development for Original Animation) told Netflix creators: “We want to be the home of everybody’s favourite show.

[But] by the time the producer left several years later, there was a “new thesis statement”: “We want to make what our audience wants to see,” Reed Hastings, Netflix’s Co-CEO, now told animation talent. 

As far as mission statements go, those are vastly different. 

Yahoo

Similarly, a few months later, Netflix laid off even more people from its Animation division, again emphasizing that due to its increasingly precarious financial position, Netflix has found itself having to ruthlessly prioritise certain types of content over others in order to sustain its subscriber numbers, with many projects aimed at Children and Families unfortunately falling by the wayside.

Aug. 2022: Disney is #1

Disney Plus recently surpassed Netflix to become the market leader in streaming subscriptions. Furthermore, new information has come to light which suggests that Netflix’s period of unprecedented market growth may have been based on unsustainable means, with the company blighted by short-term decision making, and undermined by a “growth at all costs” mentality.

Whilst Netflix’s financial problems ought to be a concern in themselves, perhaps the most worrying aspect from a Narnia perspective is that in all the articles I’ve read about Netflix’s current crisis, literally none of the Executives, Producers or Staffers interviewed have mentioned Narnia at all. 

Granted, none of them have said they’ve abandoned the project just yet, but equally none of them have cited Narnia as being something on the horizon to turn things around for the company. To me this suggests that Narnia is a complete non-entity at Netflix, and that the project is not really at the top of anyone’s minds right now.

Whilst Netflix’s one-time rival to Narnia, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, has long since sailed past the finishing line at Amazon, Netflix’s own Narnia project is nowhere in sight, and with the company’s ongoing financial problems, we may end up having to wait a while longer to see it still.


Related:

Sources

19 Responses

  1. Icarus says:

    There is a part of me which would absolutely love to be wrong about all of this, but when you read quote after quote from Netflix insiders who all say the exact same thing about the changes in the company’s strategy and culture over the last few years, it is very easy to see why we haven’t heard any significant news on Narnia since 2019.

    Realistically, even if Netflix can steady the ship on their financial issues over the next few months, they are never going to be able to reclaim the dominant market position they had when they first commissioned Narnia back in 2018. Therefore even if they can get themselves into a strong financial position to resume development work on Narnia sometime in the coming years, it’s very unlikely it’s ever going to be the lavishly budgeted “LOTR-Beater” that it might have been under the previous Netflix leadership.

    • telmarine says:

      I’m curious as to how possible it would be for another company to bid on the rights to Narnia. Don’t they have to use them after a certain length of time or am I way off base here?
      It’s starting to sound like Netflix is (by far) not the right fit for Narnia. Especially considering how quickly they end up with unfinished projects. Narnia needs to have a producer with a long term commitment. Disney, Amazon, HBO or even Apple have deep pockets and are clamoring for new content.

      • Icarus says:

        I am definitely not an expert on the matter, but from my experience following the production of various Marvel movies, a ballpark figure for the expiration of an Option is typically around 10 years.

        Usually the company only has to demonstrate that they are still actively doing something with the property, and of course many of these deals can be ended prematurely if someone pays enough money, but overall I’d say 10 years is probably a reasonable guess…. So 6 more years to go!

  2. Just Queen, not High Queen says:

    Considering that The Rings of Power went up against House of the Dragon as well, maybe it’s for the best that Narnia didn’t directly compete with LOTR as originally planned, especially if it would have been first released this year. Either that or it would have been an interesting three-way fantasy TV competition.
    I hadn’t considered Netflix’s change of strategy as a factor into why we haven’t heard anything about Narnia. I wonder what exactly Matthew Aldrich has been doing lately in his role as the creative architect, especially since he’s still credited as such as on IMDb and Studio System.

    • Just briefly on IMDb, I have a friend who was commissioned to write a (unproduced) script by Peter Jackson. My friend told me that IMDb is often not an accurate reflection of reality. If you google this concept I think you would find some tweets saying the same thing.
      In my understanding, the content on IMDb is a bit like Wikipedia – not always accurate.
      Another friend of mine was a small part in a short film, but another actor with the same name was credited with the role.
      I’ve heard another story where the wrong person (with the same name as the artist) was credited.

      It is not like the studios are in constant communication with IMDb about the current status, and that it will always reflect reality in an up- to -date way.
      That’s my understanding, at least.

      On the topic of the whole article, I think it makes sense, and Icarus has put a lot of research in to it. Thank you!

      I feel like we are in the same place we were at with The Silver Chair, in about 2015. The occasional tiny bit of news (Like an online poll to give The Lady of the Green Kirtle a name), and then no news for ages.
      Around that time, Walden lost the rights (I don’t know which year, someone help me out 😉 ). Then we had lots of news from Sony and Joe Johnston for a while, until mid-2017. “We will be filming this winter,” we were told. How I wish they had…

      Let’s hope that the rights to Narnia get in to the right hands – hands that will do the material justice – and as Glumpuddle says, make great movies.

      And let’s hope it’s before our kids grow up. and before we get grey hair! 🙂

      • M__T says:

        “… and before we get grey hair”
        Too late

      • Rogin says:

        Walden lost the rights in 2011. It was Mark Gordon (Company) that acquired the rights in 2013 and began developing The Silver Chair before bringing them to Netflix.

  3. Rogin says:

    R.I.P Netflix’s Narnia

    I guess it worked out for the Lewis Estate & Mark Gordon who made a cool $250 million off the project and didn’t have to spend anything!

    • Icarus says:

      Well, it doesn’t *definitely* mean the project is dead entirely…. it’s more the case that if Netflix had intended to follow through on their initial plans, then they would have done so by now…

      Obviously there is nothing to say that Netflix won’t come up with a new plan sometime soon, but it is probably wise that people aren’t clinging to the hope that Netflix have been secretly conducting Pre-Production on this project behind the scenes without anyone noticing, because they haven’t.

      Clearly their are a lot of explanatory factors as to why they haven’t, but all of that just makes me very doubtful that they ever will.

      • Rogin says:

        I think there clearly was *some* groundwork being completed.

        As far as to have Matthew Aldrich attend a Showrunner’s Program which required at least a pilot script completed. Which was in Janurary 2021, if I recall.

    • Cleander says:

      Hey, maybe that means they’ll be able to produce their own Narnia series independently!

      (OK that’ll probably never happen but one can still dream!)

  4. Sir Linus the True says:

    Thanks for the compelling summary, Icarus. I too feel wary of the project’s future. Even considering the understandable delay due to the pandemic, it still feels like too many crickets chirping, especially as other major streaming projects are already getting to the finish line.

    I didn’t know that Netflix lost the rights to LotR and so went with Narnia. Ugh! That’s the exact same thing that happened last time! Will any company ever be interested in Narnia for its own sake, and not treat it like the consolation prize after not getting LotR?

    There were concerns early on that Netflix would want to make the show too much like “Game of Thrones” in terms of content. If that’s the case, then I imagine Douglas Gresham has been doing a lot behind the scenes to prevent the stories from moving forward in this form. We may have to wait till the rights expire again at the end of 7 years (and at this point, we’re 3 years away from that). But who can say anything for sure?

    Thanks again for the interesting read!

    • Rogin says:

      I don’t think Gresham has been doing much of anything behind-the-scenes. I get the impression (and he even said as much) that he knows nothing regarding this production.

  5. Houston says:

    I still think we’ll see something out of this deal. Maybe a one-off LWW series or MN animated movie but I think it’s almost certain we’re not seeing endless “movies and series” like that original presser suggestive.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I’ve long been concerned that Netflix was not the right fit and would not have the right vision for Narnia. So who knows, maybe we’re dodging a bullet here. Actually what I wish (and would probably never happen) is that they would take an entirely different approach: produce and film high-quality recordings of the Logos Theatre’s Narnia adaptations (after the fashion of, for example, Disney Plus’s recording of the Broadway version of Newsies).

  7. Amy says:

    This makes me so sad. Narnia is *such* a beloved and nostalgic series for me, so i would definitely not appreciate a bad adaptation… so maybe it would be for the better that they get all their ducks in a row and/or this even gets picked up by another company. I have just been very much so looking forward to this. Especially since we have never had a full adaptation of all the novels yet, and some of my favorite ones have never been done. So frustrating! I wish a Peter Jackson style person would come along and just pick them up like he did for LOTR and just do a fantastic job with them.

  8. vijokliai says:

    I wonder if Netflix decided to go with Avatar The Last Airbender as a safer option (to earn them money) than Narnia. They announced both shows at once in 2018. But I think they’re already done with filming the first season of ATLA. Narnia may be trickier because the first few books already have pretty good and sucessful movies.

  9. Karisa says:

    So sad and frustrating. I feel like we’re going through exactly the same thing as we did before with The Silver Chair where there’s occasional hope but largely just long periods of nothing substantive. Maybe Netflix would mess it up and it’s for the best that they haven’t gotten to it yet, who knows, but it would be nice to hear SOMEthing for once. This waiting game has been going on for over a decade now.

  10. I3arana says:

    Dodged a bullet fo sure.
    I wonder, In a recent news-before-the-news podcast, I note with great enthusiasm that Disney WILL be taken out by Aslan. Due to a cesspool of people, and their filth(have you been keeping uptodate on this)?
    I do wonder with such a monolith removed and cast into the sea, 1.would netflix want to return to the hi quality format and 2. how quickly would it turn around to do this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *