When it comes to its original shows, Netflix has been like Oprah handing out new cars – you get another season and you get another season and, in fact, you all get another season. With their success measured in subscription rates rather than ad revenue or viewing figures, it has been in Netflix’s best interest to counter the often turbulent life cycles of broadcast TV shows (looking at you, Fox) where anything can be canceled at any moment. Contrary to that customer-annoying business model, Netflix has assured its users that any shows slapped with the Netflix Original label are guaranteed a second season renewal. Even those shows no one seemed to like or talk about – Marco Polo, Lillyhammer, Hemlock Grove – at least got two full seasons. At Netflix, failure is clearly not an option.
Well, that all changed yesterday. At the rate that Netflix is adding original programming, this “everything gets renewed” model simply couldn’t last. There was always eventually going to be a show whose exorbitant costs, low cultural impact or both forced Netflix’s hand.
Enter Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down.
Ah, The Get Down, a clusterfuck of epic proportions which at one point sought to depict “the mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco” and then eventually sought to “get the damn show done and cut our losses.” The production went through such an endless stop-start cycle that the writers took to jokingly referring to the show as The Shut Down. As Variety profiled last summer:
Over the two-and-a-half years since the hip-hop-focused project was set up at Netflix, Luhrmann went through two showrunners, numerous writers, and no small amount of strain with producer Sony Pictures Television. Production of the 12-episode season, the first half of which premieres Aug. 12, went well over the original budget of about $7.5 million per episode and wound up costing at least $120 million overall, with New York state tax incentives factored in, according to sources.
That makes “The Get Down,” Luhrmann’s first TV series, among the most expensive in history. It’s a huge bet even for Netflix, which has disrupted Hollywood with a seemingly limitless budget for original programming.
This was the biggest test yet for Netflix’s strict loyalty to big name creatives. The Get Down only ever happened because Netflix wanted to be in business Luhrmann, poaching him away from whatever big budget movie he could be making instead. Luhrmann initially seemed amenable to the idea, but by his own admission he didn’t realize what he was signing up for, telling Variety:
“I really believed that I was sort of going to be an uncle to the project. The mechanism that pre-existed to create TV shows didn’t really work for this show. At every step of the way there was no precedent for what we were doing. The standard process really didn’t work, so progressively, I was drawn more and more into the center of it.”
He was going to be the dad who helps create the baby (i.e., co-create the characters and storylines), sticks around long enough to be there in the operating room during the birth (i.e., direct the pilot) but then walks away to let someone else raise the child into adolescence (i.e., hand the keys over to an actual seasoned TV showrunner, The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan). That’s what every good executive producer does, right? After all, given Luhrmann’s long history of budget-stretching perfectionism (e.g., Australia) and troubled productions with delayed release dates (e.g., The Great Gatsby) no one in their right mind would entrust an entire TV show to him without installing someone around him to help keep things from spiraling out of control, right?
But Netflix didn’t want a TV show from someone else; they wanted a Baz Luhrmann show. Sony Pictures Television, the production house responsible for Get Down, tried to install a second showrunner to ensure a smooth production, but Netflix flatly refused, with Ted Sarandos going as far as to withhold the full season greenlight until Luhrmann would commit to shepherding the show from beginning to end. Win, lose or draw, Netflix wanted The Get Down to be Luhrmann’s complete vision, setting the stage for a hard lesson – sometimes unchecked freedom is actually the worst thing you can give a creative. Sometimes directors need to be reigned in, and studios or producers have to step in to solve problems.
Shawn Ryan was supposed to be the person to act as the check on Luhrmann. He quit during pre-production when Luhrmann insisted on moving the production to New York City. Ryan’s replacement, Thomas Kelly, quit several months into filming, finding his grittier style to be incompatible with Lurhmann’s operatic leanings. Thus, Luhrmann and his wife, Oscar-winning costume/production designer Catherine Martin, were left as the unofficial showrunners, and they reportedly ignored any advice from season veterans with actual TV production experience, instead opting to run the show like they would a movie. This proved to be untenable enough that Lurhmann considered quitting, but opted to stick with it out of loyalty to all those he’d brought into the production.
Netflix split the season in half, the first and only time it’s done that, dropping the first six episodes in August of last year and the remaining five last month meaning that in the end The Get Down only managed to complete 11 episodes, two short of its original 13-episode order. The first 6 episodes were surprisingly well-reviewed, with the consensus being that if you could get past the self-indulgent, overly messy Luhrmann-directed 90-minute pilot the show possessed many engaging qualities and breakout performers. The reviews were certainly better than other Netflix shows to improbably receive a second season, like Marco Polo.
Netflix had finally reached a point where the costs of making something simply hadn’t been worth it, and chances for a second season dimmed when Lurhmann indicated he wanted to take a step back into the more hands-off role he wanted to have in the first place. So, Netflix canceled The Get Down yesterday, officially putting an end to the honeymoon period we had enjoyed where any Netflix Original was worth your time because it would definitely be coming back. Of course, very few of Netflix’s other Originals cost anywhere near as much as The Get Down. So, this might be an exception, but it sets a precedent at Netflix which has been set elsewhere in Hollywood for decades – sometimes renewal is not an option.