Creators migrated to the streamer because of unprecedented creative freedom, now they’re facing a very different reality
Phil Rynda, whose official title is Netflix’s Director of Creative Leadership and Development for Original Animation, was let go this week, along with several of his staff, TheWrap can exclusively report and Netflix has confirmed.
According to several creators who spoke to TheWrap, the Kids & Family space at Netflix Animation has changed. Series that benefited from great word-of-mouth and critical praise aren’t being renewed and several high-profile projects have been unceremoniously canceled, including the long-delayed adaptation of Jeff Smith’s beloved comic book series “Bone” (first announced back in 2019). Netflix, which just saw its stock plummet more than 30% after revealing a subscriber and revenue loss during its first-quarter earning report Tuesday, isn’t just in trouble on Wall Street. It’s also facing complications in Toon Town.
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Rynda’s firing was perhaps an inevitable end to a deeply chaotic period for Netflix Animation, particularly its Kids & Family division, which saw a boom of talent and creativity give way to corporate pressure, mixed messages and accusations of “staged data.”
Netflix Animation, especially when it came to Kids & Family content, was once considered a glittery Utopia. Superstar creators and visionary young talent were swayed by promises of unprecedented creative freedom and healthy production budgets, backed by the financial and promotional might of the Netflix empire.
A few years ago, there was no place more welcoming or seductive to artists and animators than Netflix Animation. Netflix’s animation units, like its live-action divisions, were known for being a place that you could bring a project that might not have gained traction anywhere else, and suddenly have it produced, without much studio interference. Animation heavyweights like Craig McCracken, Elizabeth Ito and Jorge Gutierrez rushed to the service and quickly started working on their personal dream projects, while Netflix also courted younger artists and fostered productive licensing agreements, chiefly with DreamWorks Animation (Guillermo del Toro’s “Trollhunters” and its assorted spinoffs, “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts,” and many more).
But now you are seeing fewer of these creator-driven projects. New series aren’t as exciting as they once were. Many animators have left the studio, decamping to old standbys like Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon or other upstarts like Apple TV+ and Amazon. And Netflix’s focus has shifted noticeably too.
One producer, whose show on Netflix wasn’t renewed, said that when they got to Netflix, Rynda, who served creative roles on groundbreaking animated series like “Gravity Falls” and “Adventure Time,” told Netflix creators, “We want to be the home of everybody’s favorite show.” By the time the producer left several years later, there was a “new thesis statement”: “We want to make what our audience wants to see,” Reed Hastings, Netflix’s Co-CEO, now told animation talent. As far as mission statements go, those are vastly different.
True to this “new thesis statement,” several high-profile animated projects in the Kids & Family space have been outright canceled, including “Bone” (which Netflix confirmed), an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” that was meant to be part of several Dahl-based projects (Netflix insists “The Twits” is still alive, potentially now as a feature film) and Lauren Faust’s witchy “Toil and Trouble.” Netflix currently touts “Boss Baby” as the ideal of what an animated series on the platform should be and what kind of numbers those animated series should be bringing in (this was reiterated by almost everyone we spoke to) although Netflix doesn’t even own “Boss Baby” — it licenses the series from DreamWorks Animation. (A new “Boss Baby” series premieres next month.)
Elizabeth Ito, whose deeply brilliant “City of Ghosts” was recently nominated for a Peabody Award and currently sports a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, reiterated, as many did, how much they enjoyed working with both the executive teams and Netflix’s marketing department. But she suggested that Netflix’s 360-feedback culture, which is espoused in its culture memo and trumpets full transparency as one of its core tenets, went out the window when the show was threatened with cancelation. Ito and others have complained of being presented with “staged data,” data meant to prove a point that Netflix has and squash conversation around it. Ito described the data as explaining, for the first time, “What they should have gotten for what they spent on the show.” (Netflix confirms their decisions are made using data, which takes into account viewing versus cost.) Creators have described the process as “manipulative.” One producer sent the data back, asked questions, and received a separate, different set of data that still reinforced Netflix’s position. Ito was left wondering, “Well, are you going to make more or not?” Netflix did not. Ito is now at Apple.
Making matters more frustrating for creators are a set of imposed corporate guidelines that dictate, with Draconian exactness, the marketing and distribution of the series. Promotion doesn’t typically begin until a month before the shows premiere. (Sometimes they haven’t even been announced before then.) This leaves a very small window to build awareness and anticipation, much less cultivate genuine excitement. And once the show debuts on the platform, it can often get lost in the shuffle (how many times have you ever seen an animated series “above the fold” on the homepage?), leading many creators to become their own hype machines via various social media platforms.
Levers that other animation studios at bigger corporations can pull, like consumer products releases or promotional tie-ins, aren’t pulled at Netflix. There weren’t “Kid Cosmic” action figures lining the shelves of Target. You couldn’t get a “City of Ghosts” Happy Meal toy at McDonald’s. There’s no theme park or dedicated retail space to exploit either. On the official Netflix Shop, there isn’t a single Kids & Family animated series represented.
Guidelines that usually indicate the way Netflix shows are introduced fail for series in the Kids & Family Animation space. Ito, who has small children, says that kids are “complicated.” Netflix says that one of the things that sway the relative success of series is “word of mouth.” “But kids don’t talk to each other like that,” Ito said.
Dominic Bisignano, an executive producer on Megan Nicole Dong’s musical animated series “Centaur World,” said that “Netflix is proud of its data.” He admits that this approach “brings up a lot of questions.” While Bisignano says that Dong was able to tell the story she wanted to over the course of “Centaurworld’s” episodes, Dong told the streamer, “If you want more, we can do that.” Instead, the team was presented with data but not given context for what that data means to Netflix. It seemed “Centaurworld” wouldn’t go beyond its initial commitment. When Bisignano asked questions about the data, Netflix stonewalled him. Bisignano is now at Cartoon Network.
If an animated series receives accolades after its cancellation, as “City of Ghosts” did with several awards and nominations, including the Peabody, Netflix is even slower to act, if at all. (Look at Ito’s personal Twitter account for the one-woman campaign that finally got Netflix, after several hours, to release a single “City of Ghosts” Peabody sharable.) This is a dramatically different approach to their Kids & Family series content than even the Animated Feature space at Netflix, which launched an endless, elaborate campaign for “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” Best Animated Feature Oscar this year.
With Netflix stock precipitously dropping and budgets being tightened or slimmed company-wide (from production to hiring), maybe these animation creators knew long ago what everybody else is figuring out now: that Netflix, while filled with great people, can be a wonderful place. But when you are being driven purely by algorithms and numbers, sometimes the math doesn’t add up.