Netflix puts golden handcuffs on its biggest stars

When Netflix cast actor Omar Sy in the leading role for an adaptation of the Arsene Lupin stories, the streamer was reaching for a foolproof on and off-screen formula that harks back to yesteryear.

On-screen, Maurice Leblanc’s tales of the gentleman thief in turn-of-the-century Paris have attracted an enduring following.

By boldly re-imagining a literary hero of the past, Netflix has created an international sensation that has swept up subscribers from across the generations. A third season is on the way.

Yet it didn’t end there. Away from the cameras, Netflix and Sy have also cooked up an agreement evocative of entertainment deals from a bygone era, announced earlier this month.

Sy has inked a multi-year feature film contract to star and produce an array of movies for the deep-pocketed but heavily indebted service. Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions also signed up to a similar deal last year.

They echo accords struck during the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the likes of Olivia De Havilland and All About Eve star Bette Davis signed five-to-seven year deals with one studio – and its multiple films – on the promise of stardom.

As an ever-growing number of streamers seek to dominate the global industry, Neftflix is broadening the entertainment wars from original shows – the likes of The Crown, Money Heist and Sex Education – to talent in an attempt to safeguard and expand its subscriber growth.

A modern day take on the contracts of the past, however, is a warning sign for Hollywood’s elite.

While carrying an allure of worldwide reach and a hefty pay cheque, the reality can prove less glamorous. Details were not disclosed of how much Sy is set to make.

With the talent locked in, streamers have the opportunity to wield total creative control or banish actors’ ideas to the cutting room floor for good.

A movie-making ecosystem that has allowed more edgy ideas to flourish, by giving studios the chance to take bets on television and film pitches snubbed by rivals, now risks being eroded.

“An actor is intellectual property,” says Tom Harrington, of Enders Analysis.

“When you sign up Adam Sandler for multiple films, you know what you are buying. When that property comes in, viewers know what they are going to get.

“But if you can only make films for Netflix, creatively it can be quite restrictive.

“There may be only one person there who decides what you are making. Previously, you would find that Netflix might not want to take a film, but you could sell it to Amazon or the BBC instead.”

Sy does not have to look far to find such a cautionary tale.

Kenya Barris, the actor and creator of hit US comedy Black-ish, was eyeing more creative freedom when he signed a US$100 million deal with Netflix in 2018.

His previous contract with ABC – the flagship of Walt Disney – turned sour after the two sides clashed over a controversial episode of Black-ish that focused on athletes taking the knee.

After initially agreeing to scrap the episode, Barris later opted to cut ties with the company by terminating a four-year deal.

Barris attracted a bidding war between Warner Bros and Netflix, but opted to choose the streamer’s smaller offer because of the chance to “take off all the straps and really hang out of the plane,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

What followed was #blackAF, an eight-part series launched in April last year starring Barris as a fictionalised version of himself.

The divisive nature of the show reportedly thrilled him – but the critics were fierce.

Charlamagne tha God, a popular black American radio presenter behind the Breakfast Club show, compared it to “white people doing a bad impression of black people”.

It provided the backdrop for a shock exit last year, just halfway through his Netflix contract. Barris went on to forge a new studio for black content creators with Channel 5 owner ViacomCBS earlier this year.

Questioned about his decision to leave, Barris said: “I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice. The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.”

Closer to home, Michaela Coel, the star and creator of the BAFTA award-winning series I May Destroy You also turned down a million-dollar deal with Netflix in favour of the BBC and HBO, because she hinted that the streamer was not willing to “collaborate with me” and “treat me as an equal.”

Netflix boss Ted Sarandos, however, struck a different tone last week when he defended the streamer’s decision to keep Dave Chappelle’s comedy special on the grounds of “creative freedom and artistic expression”. The decision sparked a staff walk-out over claims of transphobia in the show.

Still, the tensions between streamers and talent echoes deals struck during Hollywood’s so-called heyday when actors were kept on a tight leash.

Between the twenties and sixties, a time when five studios held sway over the American film industry, stars were forced to sign exclusive contracts with a single moviehouse and were banned from working for rivals.

Refusing to take a role would prompt the actor to be suspended, while many studios forced talent to even change their names to fit their manufactured image.

Havilland and Davis both became embroiled in separate legal battles with Warner Bros after coming to blows with the studio over a lack of control in their careers.

Outraged at being cast in mediocre pictures, Davis quit Hollywood and fled a film deal in England, but was pursued through the British courts in 1937 and forced to complete her contract.

The landscape for contemporary talent may not be as tough, but deciding how they can grow their careers within such contracts can still be a gamble.

“Netflix has transported the US deal structure to Europe where they provide a cost plus offer,” says Harrington of Enders Analysis.

“They will say, ‘I love your idea, we will give you US$2m an hour plus 10 per cent’. That 10 per cent will mean they own the show, but that is your profit.”

However, he says some actor-cum-producers who are confident about their work could opt to take a smaller offer from broadcasters in the hope of selling the rights around the world and “making 25 per cent on top”.

For Harrington, the multi-year streaming deals still hinge on a star being able to create shows that work for the app’s unique audience.

“It is like Meghan and Harry signing to Netflix and people saying they are going to make US$100m,” he adds. “Netflix still has to commission them and actually want them.”

Sy, for his part, has given a gushing appraisal of Netflix, saying the partnership between the streamer and his Paris and LA-based production company was prompted by “Netflix’s collaboration with artists and their passion to bring unique and diverse stories to homes all over the world.”

The star of French hit comedy The Intouchables will be eager to keep the momentum going as he embraces the early days of his contract.

Yet, with pressure to maintain a rebound in subscribers as rivals snap at Netflix’s heels, Sy may find a succession of sure-fire hits is the only way to prevent his career with the streamer vanishing from sight – much like a certain gentleman thief he has come to know so well.

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