The Most Important Lesson Netflix Must Learn From ‘Squid Game’

In the Nielsen SVOD ratings for the week of September 27 through October 3, Squid Game became the sixth member of the “3 billion minutes viewed” club. The South Korean dystopian caper, where financially imperiled citizens play children’s games for cash prizes but face death when they lose or fail, nabbed another 3.26 billion minutes viewed in its third frame. The other five such milestones for as long as Nielsen has been tracking were You (first two seasons) in late 2019/early 2020, Tiger King (peaking with 5.38 billion in March of 2020), Ozark (peaking with 5.199 billion in March/April 2020), The Umbrella Academy (during its second season in August 2020) and The Crown in November 2020. Yes, the third season of Ozark and the buzzy run of Tiger King were beneficiaries of the whole “you can’t go outside because of Covid” variable.

However, to the extent that Squid Game is a genuine Stranger Things/Bridgerton-level sensation, and I’d argue it is, the biggest, most important lesson that Netflix can take from it is as such: First, make sure you give creator Hwang Dong-hyuk a big bonus (or a fat raise for season 2), because the South Korean filmmaker telling The Guardian that he’s not making much money off the streaming sensation is a terrible look, especially as Netflix is still trying to position itself as a friendly home for inclusive/diverse artists and is still dealing with the fallout from Dave Chappelle’s allegedly/arguably transphobic stand-up special. Second, the success of Squid Game, Stranger Things and The Maid show that Netflix doesn’t need to chase existing IP just because audiences and journalists have heard of it. They can craft their own original or new-to-you television or cinematic hits.

Yes, Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton is based on a series of eight romance novels penned by Julia Quinn. However, the blow-out success of the Regé Jean Page/Phoebe Dynevor melodrama is very much rooted in folks discovering the show despite having never read or even heard of the source material. I’d frankly argue the success of Bridgerton is partially about giving an underserved and undervalued demographic (audiences that read romance novels of all kinds) the equivalent of a prime filet mignon. Likewise, the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones was rooted in audiences who had never read George R. R. Martin’s novels gravitating to the “new-to-you” fantasy (as well as its R-rated violence and nudity in a traditionally PG-13 canvas). The many wannabe “next Game of Thrones” must remember that you earn far more money with the “first” Harry Potter than “the next Harry Potter.”

The streaming giant should use its current viewership/subscriber advantage to not be as reliant or as concerned about rebooting, reviving or remaking “IP for the sake of IP” content. With over 200 million subscriptions, it stands to reason that lots of folks simply watch whatever happens to be the hot new television show or movie debuting on Netflix on a given week. So around five million households will watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s The Guilty and not know or care that it’s a remake of a 2018 Danish thriller, which is about on par with how many viewers (4.5 million to 6.5 million) initially watched the likes of Gunpowder Milkshake, Kate or even Army of the Dead. That’s not to say they shouldn’t bother with big-budget, star-driven flicks, but it also means they don’t have to stoop to gender-flipped remakes of She’s All That starring Tick-Tock stars.

When Netflix can turn a South Korean black comedy actioner into a global sensation, can make network whiffs like You and Lucifer into new-to-you smashes and can get about as many household views for Maid as the much-buzzier The Queen’s Gambit (which itself is a definitive Netflix success story), they don’t have to pay top dollar for the next Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie. They don’t have to spend a fortune trying to turn Mark Millar’s R-rated superhero universe into the next MCU, and they don’t have to reboot Conan the Barbarian, not when they already have The Witcher. Unlike their rivals, they don’t have to dump a gazillion dollars into new versions of vaguely recognizable or once-were-popular properties so that people notice. They don’t need to chase the next Game of Thrones because they can score with the “first” Squid Game.

In other updates, this was the first week Nielsen reported that content from at least five different platforms made the Top-10 originals list, thanks to Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, Hulu’s Only Murders In the Building (which is a damn delight, by the by), Amazon’s long-running David E. Kelly legal thriller Goliath and Disney+ and Marvel’s What If? alongside the usual slew of Netflix biggies. These lists are still dominated by Netflix and Disney+ (with Cruella and Pixar’s Luca still sticking around among the top ten movies along with Hocus Pocus which could rise over the Halloween season), but the more platforms we get the more useful these charts will be beyond just measuring Netflix’s latest blockbuster. Your move, HBO Max, Paramount+ and (especially for Halloween Kills’ opening weekend) Peacock. I promise, we’ll note the obvious subscription disparity between Netflix and not-Netflix.

The Tycoon Herald