“Believe it or not, there was a time when Netflix originals were synonymous with great quality.” This is may soon become what older Netflix subscribers tell younger ones, as what once set a new standard for film and television with hits such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Bojack Horseman is now becoming more associated with misguided half-baked efforts like Fuller House, Iron Fist, 13 Reasons Why, Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Big Mouth. But why is this exactly?
Casting a Wide Net
Netflix today still produces many a quality title, such as Stranger Things, Glow, and The Crown to name only a few. Yet more attentive fans are beginning to associate the service’s body of original content as an oversaturated mess with poor quality control, not unlike the straight-to-video film market of the late 20th century. For western otaku, one of the leading causes of this mistrust is undoubtedly the service's live-action adaptations of anime.
To be clear, Netflix has always had a complicated relationship with viewers when it comes to anime. While they have localized several popular shows from Japan, they often sit on these titles for months on end, waiting for the entire series to finish airing before releasing it in the west, something increasingly taboo in the simulcast era we now find ourselves in. To be fair, Netflix has also funded some anime of their very own, such as Masaaki Yuasa’s 2018 contender for anime of the year Devilman Crybaby, which is a great service to the community that most fans hope to see continue. But then there are their live-action anime adaptations.
Whether originating from Japan, America or anywhere else, live action films and television shows meant to adapt anime and manga are of consistently poor quality. What works when drawn by hand must, of course, be retooled in order to work with real people and with very few exceptions, directors are unable to find ways to do this retooling without creating something that fails to live up to the standards of franchise fans and newcomers alike.
Worth noting is the fact that Netflix not only produces these adaptations but licenses ones from Japan as well. The live action Fullmetal Alchemist film and Boku dake ga Inai Machi drama are both available to stream on Netflix and so are their original animated counterparts. This is a perfectly sensible business move, as Netflix’s distribution rights for both anime most likely include the film and drama.
Additionally, their status as a streaming service means that the costs of printing physical copies that would have most likely scared older anime licensors away from these adaptations are not an issue, given that they stand to lose next to nothing from it. In fact, if all Netflix did with live action anime adaptations was license Japanese ones, it almost certainly would not have drawn the ire of the otaku community. But of course, that was not the case.
The Death of Death Note
Tetsuro Araki’s 2003 anime Death Note is an absolute classic, having effectively raised the bar for what audiences expected from the medium. Adam Wingard's 2017 live-action film Death Note, on the other hand, is generally agreed upon to be an unmitigated disaster by series fans, casual audiences, and critics alike. Not for bad reasons either, as Wingard turned what was originally a beautiful drama with nuanced themes, intelligent characters and an engrossing cat and mouse game into a dreary, platitudinous high school horror film that relied on badly implemented gore to mask its shallow characterization. Critics hated it for its poor craftsmanship and the Death Note fandom hated it for its smorgasbord of pointless deviations from its source material.
And yet it seems hard to deny that Netflix has considered this film anything but a success. Granted, the sequel teased by Wingard has yet to be announced, but since the movie's release, Netflix has been doubling down on promoting the previously discussed Japanese live-action anime adaptations across their service and have announced more of their own original adaptations, such as an upcoming live-action Sword Art Online series. This is far from the reaction one would expect for something so panned, which means the most likely explanation is that Netflix can safely make money off of bad films like this. But to understand just how they do so, we need to take a quick detour to another 2017 Netflix original movie.
Death Note | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix
The Dark Truth of Bright
David Ayer’s Bright is not the worst feature Netflix has made, nor is it the most misguided or controversial. What it certainly is, is contentious. Following its release, a popular narrative arose that the film’s reception was split evenly between hate from critics and adoration from audiences. Gauging the accuracy of this claim is difficult, as Netflix does not reveal their metrics. But Nielsen Media Research has recently begun analyzing viewership for streaming services and their unique estimation system measures that Bright had received approximately 22 million eyeballs after the first 3 days of its release, or about 11 million viewers with an average of 2 eyeballs per viewer.
This is certainly an impressive number, in fact, it matches the audience size of the average summer blockbuster. Unfortunately for Bright, having 11 million people watch it on a streaming service they were already paying for anyway is not nearly as impressive as having 11 million people pay to see one movie at the theater, outside the convenience and comfort of their own homes so the overall audience reaction is still difficult to precisely measure.
Many will also point out that the simple fact that many people chose to watch Bright on Netflix does not mean they enjoyed it and that the nature of streaming platforms means viewers who started watching the film are much more liable to have stopped and gone to watch something else than they would have with any other form of film distribution. The user reviews, on the other hand, tell a different story, with an 85% average on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a 26% average from critics. There are many possible causes for this, but one theory worth considering is that because of how much more casual watching a film on a streaming service is than watching one you would have to directly pay for, viewers become more forgiving.
Supporting this idea is the fact that most of the fan criticism of Wingard’s Death Note is more centered on the film’s failures as an adaptation than as a film, as though they too are less demanding of movies when viewed on a streaming platform. After all, Netflix has so many other shows and movies they could watch that not liking one is no cause for frustration.
What This Has to Do With Death Note
It’s not far-fetched to say that the more time people spend using their subscription service, the more motivated they will feel towards continuing their subscription and for Netflix, this means that the more their users watch their content, the higher their profits will be. And for all the same reasons why Bright can be considered a success by them, producing bad content will not hurt this business model; because going to a theater is more demanding, because other shows and films are only a few clicks away, because the viewers are not even being charged directly for watching the film, so why get upset about it? What matters to Netflix is not whether or not you watch and enjoy their original content, but how much you use the service.
And if you happen to be a fan of the Death Note franchise, why would you not want to use Netflix? Aside from the all but forgotten rival streaming service Hulu, Netflix is the only place that legally streams the original show both in Japanese with subtitles and in the English dub. This is where having adaptations of anime becomes an advantage as if Bright can retain audience attention enough to justify an already announced sequel despite critical panning, it stands to reason that content from an already existing intellectual property will be a safe investment, no matter how bad the product is.
Fans of the original product will be more willing to see it out of morbid curiosity since they likely already have easy access to it via a Netflix subscription anyway and non-fans can learn about the original property through the marketing for the adaptation. The simple act of making an original production will earn Netflix a high viewer retention and whether from otaku or casual viewers, live-action anime adaptations will only bolster that retention.
Netflix represents a major shift in how we consume our entertainment, but with that comes a shift in how our entertainment makes money. It’s unfortunate then, that this new economic model rewards poor filmmaking. Netflix has built their platform in such a way that they can essentially just throw whatever they want at you, the viewer. Even if it doesn’t stick with you, you will stick to Netflix.
But what do you think? Are you excited to see more live action anime adaptations? Do you think Netflix’s more mainstream adaptations of anime already on their platform can bring more people to the medium? Let us know in the comments below and let’s keep this discussion going.