Netflixation: 20 years on    

With the imminent return of Stranger Things next week, we explore how Netflix has changed culture over the past two decades and what its billion-dollar content strategy means for TV in 2018. 

Stranger Things collage

Over the past 20 years Netflix has firmly cemented itself in the public consciousness. More than 100 million people in over 190 countries currently subscribe to the streaming service, with some 5.2 million paying customers joining the site during the past three months alone.

It is fair to say that over past two decades Netflix has fundamentally changed the way we consume TV and film, encouraging us to swap the crowded cinema for the comfort of our own homes. The ease of the service, combined with the steady stream of TV series and films arriving on the platform every day, has in no small part fuelled our obsession with boxset bingeing. 

Not content to stop there, Netflix this week confirmed plans to invest £6bn in programming in 2018, part of a wider long-term budget for movies and TV totalling £13bn.

Netflix reportedly plans to use the money to fund more original films next year than Hollywood’s three largest movie studios – Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures – put together. 

The majority of the films are expected to be low-budget, arthouse projects such as the 2017 Palm D’Or nominated Okja, directed by acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon Ho. Tilda Swinton stars as the CEO of a multi-national company which cruelly kidnaps hippo-like creature Okja from its best friend, a young girl called Mija.

Okja and Bright
Artwork for Okja and forthcoming release Bright

Netflix’s fondness for niche projects is also expected to see it explore more foreign language content. Next year users can expect to see a slew of Scandi noir dramas, such as Netflix’s first Danish series The Rain, set in a post-apocalyptic world six years after a brutal virus has wiped out almost all humans in Scandinavia.

Also on the horizon is Swedish series Quicksand, which brings on board one of the writers behind Scandi cult classic The Bridge. The new series will follow high school student Maja Norberg, who finds herself on trial for murder after a mass shooting.

Netflix is also rumoured to have 30 different Anime projects in the works. The streaming giant signalled its interest in the world of graphic novels after purchasing comic book publisher Millarworld in August, the first acquisition in Netflix’s 20-year history. Run by Scottish writer Mark Millar, Millarworld made a name for itself as the creative team behind the Kick-Ass and Kingsman comics.

Sitting alongside the arthouse films will also be big budget movies like Bright, a £68.2 million blockbuster expected to be released in December. Pitched as an “urban fantasy action crime thriller”, the film stars Will Smith as an LAPD officer living in a world inhabited by humans and mythical creatures.

Setting the fashion agenda

Aside from changing the face of film and TV, Netflix is having an unexpected effect on fashion. Reminiscent of the Spielbergian blockbuster film franchises of 30 years ago, Netflix hit series Stranger Things has, in particular, captured the public’s attention. 

Set in 1983 in the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things follows the disappearance of schoolboy Will Byers, who goes missing after a series of secret experiments into paranormal and supernatural activity go horribly wrong at the Hawkins National Laboratory.

Shot in the style of E.T, the Goonies and the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT, Stranger Things taps into an irresistible yearning for 1980s science fiction adventure.

Such is the hype around the release of the second series on October 27 that Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, wore a Stranger Things jumper during the company’s third-quarter earnings webcast this week.

The jumper is part of a wider Stranger Things merchandising push by American mega retailer Target, which includes figurines of the lead characters, a card game and a collector’s edition DVD designed to look like an old-school VHS.

Stranger Things figurines

Here in the UK, Topshop will be marking the show’s return with a fully functional in-store experience. Going on sale tomorrow (October 20) the Netflix collaboration range of T-shirts and backpacks will be celebrated by a “takeover” in Topshop’s London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester stores. The immersive experience will invite shoppers to enter replica sets of the Hawkins National Laboratory and the Upside Down, the alternate dimension to the human world. Fans will also be able to watch episodes the night before Stranger Things returns to Netflix.

New faces 

Aside from its big budgets and love of 1980s sci-fi, Netflix is also famed for its willingness to cast a diverse range of women in leading roles, such as in its latest offering GLOW (aka Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) or cult-hit Orange is the New Black (OITNB). Both shows put women front and centre in a variety of complex and challenging roles that confront femininity, gender discrimination and race.

OITNB, in particular, has been praised for exploring the complex lives of gay, bi-sexual and trans women, creating nuanced characters who reject stereotypical portrayals. Laverne Cox as character Sophia Burset, for instance, is one of the first openly trans women to star in a mainstream TV show. Such is the success of OITNB that in 2014 Cox became the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy.

In GLOW Netflix explores the often neglected topic of female friendships, following a group of “unconventional women” in 1980s LA who reinvent themselves as a crew of wrestlers. The fabulous hair and make-up aside, this series is passionate about making women, and the bonds they forge together, the real stars of the show.

Netflix Glow

Alongside launching the careers of new faces like Stranger Things’ Millie Bobbie Brown or OITNB’s Taylor Schilling, Netflix has also attracted a fleet of highly acclaimed actors. The likes of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Naomi Watts and Laura Linney have all happily swapped Hollywood for the small screen, a move that would have been relatively unheard of even 10 years ago. 

In all these senses Netflix really is a game changer and, like it or loath it, the streaming giant will continue to shape culture for the foreseeable future. From film and fashion to reframing the discussion on LGBTQ rights, Netflix has the financial and creative clout to make people sit up and listen.

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