Apple TV+ Needs Cultural Relevance — and “Dickinson” Delivers It

Disney+ has The Mandalorian. Netflix has Stranger Things. What does Apple TV+ have to capture our imaginations and light the internet on fire?

Well, nothing approaching Stranger Things or The Mandalorian-level of widespread excitement. But the Apple TV+ show Dickinson is quickly building momentum and delivering what Apple TV+ needs: cultural relevance.   

Why Cultural Relevance Matters

Cultural relevance is essential for any entertainment company to succeed in the long run. Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. When brands achieve cultural relevance, they become so inextricably linked with our lives that we become lifelong members of their tribes.

Disney Masters Cultural Relevance

Disney is the master of cultural relevance. Mickey Mouse is more than a popular animated character. Mickey Mouse is an international symbol of childhood. Frozen is a pop culture phenomenon. The Lion King introduced the words “Hakuna Matata” to millions of people. The Little Mermaid inspired cosplayers for generations to come. And now, Disney+ is having a culturally relevant moment with The Mandalorian.

Almost immediately, The Mandalorian sparked passionate conversations on social media about Baby Yoda, Boba Fett, and Star Wars lore. I’ve not seen social media explode with such ferocity over a pop culture phenomenon since Pokémon GO hit. The Mandalorian did something else: it became the most in-demand original streaming TV show in the United States, unseating Netflix’s Stranger Things. Is it any surprise that Disney+ achieved more than 10 million subscribers on launch day? And all this excitement hit in time to unleash related merchandise for the holiday shopping season. 

Netflix Defines Cultural Relevance

Netflix, meanwhile, released Season 3 of The Crown on November 4. Here is a wildly popular show that connects with American audiences by tapping into Americans’ longstanding fascination with the Royal Family. The Crown inspired a wide range of commentary, some connecting the show to contemporary American politics, others offering insight into the importance of Welsh languageAnd the Royal Family itself commented on the opening episode

This is what culturally relevant shows do. They inspire conversation that transcends the show itself. Among the streaming companies, Netflix has created the gold standard for cultural relevance (although Disney may catch up and then some). Stranger Things has become a pop culture sensation by tapping into 1980s nostalgia (and arguably engineering that nostalgia). Tidying up with Marie Kondo connects with an American materialism (and its consequences) so profoundly that the show actually created a spike in donations to thrift stores. This is the entertainment company that changed how we watched TV and is responsible for vernacular such as “Netflix and chill.”

Along Comes Apple TV+

Now, what about Apple TV+, which launched on November 4? Well, the results are mixed, and Apple TV+ has been outflanked by The Mandalorian. The much hyped The Morning Show has failed to catch fire. Apple has delayed the release of theatrical film The Banker amid allegations of misconduct against one of the movie’s producers. But on the other hand, a lesser known series, Dickinson, has been steadily building a fan base.

On the surface, Dickinson focuses on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. But what makes Dickinson culturally relevant is that it’s more than the story of a poet. It’s a perfectly timed statement about female and LGBTQ+ empowerment. In addition, the casting is smart. For instance, Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Emily Dickinson, connects effectively with Gen Z and the LGBTQ+ community. Wiz Khalifa, who portrays a personification of death, is highly relevant to music, fashion, and weed culture. And the show’s soundtrack, featuring artists ranging from A$AP Rocky to Billie Eilish, is a Millennial’s dream. As such, Dickinson is rapidly creating a fan base who call themselves “Dickheads,” and the show has inspired the term “Sexy Dickinson.” Now this is what cultural relevance looks like:

Dickinson has already been renewed for another season. 

Keep an Eye on Apple TV+

Creating cultural relevance requires an insight into consumer behavior, the agility to rapidly create content that taps into this behavior, and a platform to share that content at scale. Apple has the platform for Apple TV+ through Apple TV (and a new Apple TV app). As a media brand, Apple is getting better at tapping into consumer behavior and creating the right content. We all remember how Apple stumbled badly with its ill-fated forced download of U2’s Songs of Innocence album in 2014 – a miscalculation of consumer behavior (streaming was overtaking downloading, and people resented being forced to download music they did not ask for) and taste (U2 was out of fashion). But since then, Apple has adapted by launching a streaming service that now dominates the industry along with Spotify

Apple played catch-up and then became a leader in music streaming by becoming more culturally relevant with content that connects to millennial tastes, such as the Up Next program for developing artists and first-look album drops by artists such as Chance the Rapper and Drake. Original content alone was not the answer to the rise of Apple Music – culturally relevant content that connects emotionally was.

Apple TV+ has a long way to go before it attains cultural relevance. But Dickinson is a clear win. In addition, Apple has plenty of cash – and a lot of patience. You can be sure Apple is figuring out how to create its next Dickinson

We See Dead People: Why Dead Celebrities Are Coming Back to Life through Digital

We live in exciting and dangerous times in the entertainment industry.

First, the excitement: I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, and I was impressed with the technology Scorsese used to de-age the lead actors, Robert De Niro, 76, Al Pacino, 79, and Joe Pesci, 76. The movie required them to play characters over a span of decades. Scorsese used digital to take years off their faces in order to play their characters at much younger stages in their lives.

I was skeptical when I heard about the approach, but the movie won me over. The technology made the movie better because The Irishman could tell a sprawling story over a period of time using the same actors to show the ravages of time and their violent lives on their faces. It wasn’t perfect: in a few scenes, De Niro’s face looked oddly sculpted and flat. But in the context of a three-and-half-hour movie, the flaws registered barely a flicker.

The de-aging technology in The Irishman is exciting because it challenged actors in ways they had likely never experienced. Even though their faces were altered, the actors still needed to learn how to adapt the way their bodies moved to match how their younger faces looked.

According to a widely reported story, the 79-year-old Pacino needed to do retakes of one scene in particular until he could authentically portray the movements of a character who was supposed to be 49 years old. And I think that kind of challenge is good. All the actors delivered masterful performances, and the technology pushed them to do so.

De-Aging Catches On

The Irishman not the only film using de-aging. Many films ranging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Avengers: Endgame have used it. For example, in 2019, Captain Marvel took years off Samuel L. Jackson’s face (and impressively so) to depict a younger version of Nick Fury. Ang Lee’s Gemini Man re-created a younger version of Will Smith although the negative reaction to Gemini Man suggest the movie is a cautionary tale about the limits of the technology

But not since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a move so ambitiously made de-aging integral to the story.  The Irishman is a landmark moment that opens up possibilities for directors and writers to create stories with broader narrative arcs spanning the passage of time without needing to find multiple actors to portray the same character in one movie. 

That said, I think the technology needs to be managed in limited doses to be effective. Consider the epic film, The Godfather, Part II. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for playing a young Don Corleone, only two years after Marlon Brando also won an Academy Award for playing an aged Don Corleone in The Godfather. To this day, they are the only two actors who have won Academy Awards for playing the same fictional character. But what if de-aging technology had existed in the 1970s? Would Francis Ford Coppola have been tempted to cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Part II instead of De Niro?  Audiences would have been denied two compelling performances by two different actors at the peak of their artistic powers, each interpreting a character in their own way.

Dead Stars Are Coming Back to Life

Now for the danger: a new company is forming in order to bring dead stars to life in digital form. As reported by Janko Roettgers in Variety, Worldwide XR will incorporate digital movie stars into experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and movies. In fact, a digitally recreated James Dean already has a small role in a forthcoming movie, Finding Jack. Worldwide XR holds the rights to more than 400 celebrities, ranging from Jackie Robinson to Jimmy Stewart. 

Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd told Variety, “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”

Some present-day stars – as in real, breathing humans – were not thrilled. Here’s what Chris Evans tweeted:

Elijah Wood wasn’t too thrilled, either:

Bette Midler was not having any of it:

As Variety reported, Cloyd reacted with a shrug:

“It’s disruptive,” acknowledged Cloyd. “Some people dislike it.” However, he argued that the emergence of digital humans was inevitable, and promised that his company would vet any potential partners to make sure that they would do the celebrity in question justice. “We will do our due diligence,” he said.

In addition, Cloyd noted that digitally recreated stars go beyond the movies: we can also experience them in virtual and augmented reality, which opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as John Belushi crashing a bachelor party (for presumably a steep fee) or Audrey Hepburn guest speaking at your next corporate event.

“There is a lot more to come for James Dean,” Cloyd said. “Think of it as James Dean 2.0.”

Disruption Has Consequences

Cloyd has a point. Disruption upsets people – especially people who see their jobs at risk. Because that’s what we’re talking about when we bring dead stars to the screen: when a dead James Dean takes up screen time, a living actor loses a role. 

On the other hand, the possibility of James Dean in a theme park via virtual reality or augmented reality seems less threatening. I don’t hear anyone complaining about those applications (yet). It’s the incorporation of a digital James Dean into a movie that has the actors up in arms. And I don’t like the idea, either. I dislike the notion of a digitally recreated person taking a role that a living actor could play. I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.

The Technology Will Be Huge

But the technology is not going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to be huge. Already we’re seeing audiences respond favorably to touring holograms of musicians such as Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, a hologram tour of Frank Zappa sold out, with people paying up to $125 a ticket.

Reports Kory Grow of Rolling Stone:

. . . a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.

But why is there a market to see dead stars when there are plenty of compelling living actors and musicians working today? I think a few factors are at play:

  • Nostalgia is powerful. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Nostalgia explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now: when a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a comfortable embrace. If you lived in the 1980s, you might remember the anxiety of the times, such as the ever-present Cold War throughout most of the decade. But we tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses, and pop culture encourages us to do so.

Like it or not, we’re going to need to make way for dead stars in our lives. And maybe the detractors will warm up to the idea. In the era of the Marvel franchise, actors routinely perform with CGI-generated characters; perhaps it’s not a stretch to go toe-to-toe in a fight scene with a youthful Burt Reynolds from his macho Deliverance days or respond to the seductive power of a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-era Marilyn Monroe? (Or maybe Brad Pitt could have squared off with the real Bruce Lee in Once upon a Time in Hollywood?) And for movie purists like me? Well, I was wary of de-aging technology, too,

Exciting and dangerous times, indeed. 

How to Fail Early and Often

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

If you want to learn something about dealing with failure, try to do some improvisational acting. Because when you act, you fail a lot. On stage. In front of everyone.

During summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, in 1574. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. There are stage shows, shops, restaurants, and actors dressed up in period garb walking around to play with visitors.

I portray a character named Nicolas Wright, and my friend Kendall Monaghan plays Dandy Goodwell. We are two of the characters guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are our stage. Our job is to engage with people quickly and figure out how to uplift them through improvised talking and joking that usually lasts a few minutes per encounter.

Photo credit: Denise Beidler Bennorth

We do this kind of street improv all day, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And we are good at it. We know how to read people and find a way to engage them with our improvised comedic bits. People are asking us all the time how we do it. Well, we’re good because we fail a lot and learn from failure.

Photo credit: John Karpinksy

When you meet and greet people all day in an outdoor theater, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to make a joke that falls flat. You might approach a Mom just when she’s distracted with a fussy child. Or maybe you’ll forget the name of someone you met 5 minutes ago. This is the nature of street improv.

One recent weekend, Kendall and I really screwed up. We wanted to stage a water balloon toss with some patrons on a particularly hot day. We thought the idea was brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to play catch with a water balloon and see it splash all over dusty streets?

We chose a heavily trafficked spot in the park and placed several water balloons on the ground. Then we called out to different patrons. Would they like to have a water balloon toss?

Guess what: no one cared. In clusters of two, three, and four, the patrons just kept walking past us like we didn’t exist. Every once in a while, we might convince someone to stop and play, but it was obvious they were bored out of their skulls. It didn’t help that the balloons never broke, and everyone’s aim sucked, leading to several moments where one of us needed to stop, scurry off, and retrieve a rolling water balloon.

We called an end to the toss after about 5 minutes, which seemed like five years. Here’s what we did next:

  • We went backstage and had a good laugh. Could you believe how bad we bombed? we asked each other. And how about the 20-something dude who looked like he was ready to doze off in the middle of the balloon toss? Could we have failed any more spectacularly?
  • We figured out what we needed to fix. We realized we’d made two crucial mistakes: first, we’d chosen a location near the entrance of the park. Well, when people are just walking through the front gates, they don’t want to stop and play with two actors in 16th Century garb. They’ve usually decided to go see one of the stage acts or the joust, and they are focused on walking to their destination. We were a distraction to their day, not a source of fun. And, second, we tried too hard to get people to play with us. We were like the desperate kid brother and sister who beg everyone to play. We were too needy.

Based on our analysis of what we did wrong, we adapted our approach. We chose a spot where people tend to tarry a bit and take in the day. We carried out our water balloons in big reproductions of 16h Century military shields for a little visual theater. And then we started tossing the balloons at each other without asking anyone to participate.

As it turns out, when people see two people playing and having fun, something happens: they stop eating their turkey legs and watch. They become curious. What’s going on? What’s up with the flying water balloons? And some of them want to join in.

Within a few minutes, patrons just started naturally picking up the balloons we’d set on the ground. We formed a circle and started tossing water balloons until one of us dropped them, leading to laughter when the balloons splattered on the grass. Sounds kind of silly, right? Well, when you’re dressed up in a funny costume, something as mundane as a water balloon toss seems amusing to other people.

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

The bit worked so well that we repeated it over a few weekends. Then we experimented with a watermelon toss, which really went over well. A water balloon splattering on the grass is funny. A watermelon exploding all over the place is spectacular.

Success!

The key to dealing with failure: we laughed. We owned the failure. But we learned and got better.

How do you bounce back from public failures?

Roman Polanski: Why I Separate the Art from the Artist

On September 7, Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, where viewers gave the film a standing ovation. An Officer and a Spy has also resurrected a longstanding conversation about how we are to deal with repugnant people who create great art.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of high-profile artists accused of horrible behavior, partly because of the advent of the #MeToo movement, and partly because digital news coverage amplifies scandals quickly. Chuck Close, Placido Domingo, Morgan Freeman, Paul Haggis, James Levine, Bryan Singer, and Kevin Spacey are among the notable artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. These accusations have been unsettling, with some of the most beloved names in entertainment being viewed in a new light.

Roman PoIanski’s case is different. He has been convicted of an actual crime: the rape of a 13-year-old girl. In 1977, Polanski was charged with multiple crimes involving an incident that occurred at the home of actor Jack Nicholson: rape by use of drugs; perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under fourteen; and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. As part of a plea bargain, he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. By then, he was already a celebrated film director whose creations included landmarks such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Not only did he face the potential ruin of his career, he also was looking at serious jail time. In 1978, he fled the United States. He remains a fugitive.

In subsequent years, he has continued to make movies, including The Pianist, which earned Polanski an Oscar for Best Director, and The Ghostwriter, which won Best Film of the Year from the International Federation of Film Critics. Meanwhile, a number of women have accused him of sexually abusing him when they were underage.

In 2011, he publicly apologized to Samantha Geimer, the victim of his 1977 rape. But his comments about his other accusers have been less charitable, characterizing the accusations “absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.” He has remarked that being persecuted inspired him partly to make An Officer and a Spy, which concerns the historical case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French army who was falsely accused and imprisoned for treason in 1894. In response to his remarks, Jezebel’s Emily Alford sarcastically reacted with the article, “Roman Polanski, Convicted Child Rapist, Has Been Given Yet Another Award.”

She wrote, “Since his conviction, Polanski has been persecuted with an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and the Cannes Palme d’Or, which is exactly like the story he tells in his film except that Alfred Dreyfus didn’t do it, had to go to prison after he was convicted, and wasn’t given a wheelbarrow full of awards by people who never gave a sh — t about the crime he was accused of in the first place.”

I would never want Roman Polanski in my home, and I certainly would not want him anywhere near my family. Even so, when An Officer and a Spy is released, I will judge the film on its own merits. Regardless of what kind of person he is, he is a brilliant creator. I have copies of ChinatownFranticThe GhostwriterThe Pianist, and Rosemary’s Baby in my film library. These are deeply affecting works of art.

The fact is, Roman Polanksi has plenty of company. History is full of people who behave badly and create art that we hold dear. If you like the work of Picasso, you’re admiring the creations of a man who was abusive toward women. Composer Richard Wagner was antisemitic. In more recent years, Al Green admitted to assaulting his wife, and Mel Gibson made antisemitic remarks to officers after being pulled over for drunk driving. Really, the examples are easy to find.

And yet, I will continue to watch Mel Gibson movies, listen to Al Green’s music, admire Picasso, and appreciate the majesty of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I believe that art separates itself from the creator whenever an audience receives it. I believe that when people release art into the world, they create a malleable artifact that anyone can claim and interpret as their own. The art takes on a life unto itself apart from the creator and, by extension, the creator’s personal attributes, negative and positive.

I realize that paying for tickets to see An Officer and a Spy puts money in the pocket of a fugitive and a rapist. And I have no easy solution to that problem because I believe in paying for art. This is an uncomfortable topic, and I respect those who choose to hold people accountable for their behavior by boycotting their work. But I cannot go through life denying myself the intellectual and creative self-growth that happens when I experience compelling art that speaks to the human condition. I cannot cut myself off from art because of how I view the artist.

So when An Officer and a Spy is released in November, I will separate the art from the artist.

Why Netflix Isn’t Afraid of Disney

Will Disney’s U.S. subscribers outnumber Netflix by 2024? That’s the question Danny Vena of The Motley Fool asked in an article after a Morgan Stanley analyst predicted that the combined subscribership of Disney’s streaming services could surpass Netflix’s own subscriber base within five years. Now here’s another question: how much do these numbers matter? After all, we don’t even know what kind of business Netflix will be in five years.

Netflix Is an Entertainment Company

As recently as 2012, Netflix was a streaming service. Today Netflix is an entertainment company, creating television programs and movies that have won Academy Awards, Grammys, and Golden Globes. Netflix has become a thriving haven for New Hollywood artists, such as Russian Doll’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne, or Roma’s director, writer, and co-producer Alfonso Cuarón, who seek to make unconventional and daring art that requires Netflix to take risks. And whereas vanguard rivals such as HBO changed the course of television, Netflix has changed how we watch TV by ushering in innovations such as on-demand binge watching.

Netflix Is Diving into Gaming

The increasingly popular narrative about Netflix is that the company that disrupted the entertainment world now risks being disrupted by new entrants such as Apple TV+ and Disney+, two streaming companies launching in 2019. Disney+ in particular will offer a formidable line-up of original programming, tapping into its extensive catalog of Marvel titles.

But while Apple and Disney leap into streaming, Netflix is already adapting its business model, an example being its expansion into gaming. Netflix recently announced that by 2020 it will offer a mobile game based on the hugely popular Netflix show Stranger Things. The company also said that a game, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics,” will be launched as an adaptation of the Netflix movie The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 movie, which should appeal to the coveted Millennial audience).

A push into gaming makes perfect sense for Netflix. The gaming market is expected to reach $180 billion by 2021, fueled by the growth of formats such as mobile gaming (which will grow to $106 billion by 2021). Netflix can offer well-known entertainment titles that lend themselves to games and an audience that is receptive to gaming. According to Karol Severin, lead gaming analyst for MIDiA Research, 46 percent of Netflix’s weekly active users play games on mobile devices and 33 percent play on consoles, “which over-indexes significantly compared to the consumer average.” In addition, gaming keeps Netflix’s audience locked into its own platform. After you’re done watching Stranger Things, you can play the Stranger Things game without leaving the Netflix universe. In addition, gaming creates the potential for revenue through features such as in-app purchases, a model that Fortnite has mastered. And Netflix needs more revenue.

Netflix is already showing us another way the company is incorporating gaming — by embedding a gaming experience into the content itself, as we’ve seen with choose-your-own-scenario interactive film Bandersnatch that Netflix aired in 2018, and the choose-your-own adventure experience Minecraft: Story Mode. These are not games, per se, but interactive content in which the viewer participates in the storylines. Watch for Netflix to create more sophisticated social experiences that merge plots with games, perhaps with augmented reality and virtual reality.

Three Ways Ways Netflix Is Evolving

Netflix is changing in other ways, too, such as:

  • Becoming a licensing and merchandising companySpeculation abounds that Netflix will offset mounting operational costs by incorporating ads. In fact, Netflix is already monetizing its shows. Stranger Things alone has created a strong base upon which to build a licensing and merchandising business. For example, Netflix and bike maker Mongoose have agreed to offer a limited edition Mongoose based on a fictional bicycle used in Stranger ThingsAs reported in License Global, “The collaboration includes an in-episode promotion that will see Maxine ‘Max’ Mayfield from the series riding the bike in the upcoming season of the show. Starting later this month fans of the series will also be able to get their hands on a replica of the bike used in the promotion.” And Mongoose is hardly the only company co-branding with Netflix — as evidenced by co-brands launched in 2019 between Stranger Things and Burger KingCoca-ColaH&M, and Nike. These relationships — hybrid in-show product placements plus real-world merchandising — offers a glimpse of how Netflix will monetize its titles more broadly. In fact, Netflix has merchandised Stranger Things so extensively that Fast Company recently noted with derision that the show is turning into Sponsored Things.
  • Becoming a center for music exploration. Netflix is rapidly becoming a music brand. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé recently demonstrated how powerful and relevant Netflix can be as a platform for music distribution. Miley Cyrus understands this reality, as witnessed by her using Netflix as to drop new music linked to her appearance on Netflix’s Black Mirror. Meanwhile, the new Netflix movie Beats has gained street cred for its use of hip-hop, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Director P.T. Anderson recently made a music video for Netflix. Netflix is especially ideal for artists such as Beyoncé who are savvy about using multi-media to extend their audiences. Stay tuned.

I could also see Netflix monetizing customer data. Netflix is sitting on a trove of data about its customers’ viewing habits and demographics. It’s possible that Netflix will build a revenue stream from that data, as Amazon does. In addition to providing customer demographic data to third parties, Amazon also offers advertising services both on the platform and across the digital world by using data it has amassed on customers’ purchasing habits. Netflix has denied it will offer advertising on the platform itself. But Netflix could conceivably sell customer analytics services and even develop advertising products beyond Netflix.

Netflix Succeeds with Cultural Relevance

Meanwhile, Netflix continues to play to one of its strengths as a content creator: tapping into cultural trends, a case in point being the launch of Tidying up with Marie Kondo. The show not only mirrored culture but shaped it by prompting viewers to return their used clothing to vintage stores in droves. Shows such as Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Stranger Things remain important: they attract and keep audiences. But creating great content alone is not the future of Netflix.

Netflix Embraces Risk

Netflix’s ability to adapt is a reason why Netflix Vice President of Original Content Cindy Holland recently said of Disney and Hulu, “I don’t think there’s any one that stands out as the competitor. We’ve anticipated that all of these traditional players would enter into our space. The more successful we were at building an on-demand subscriber base with content, the more likely they were going to stop licensing to us. It’s actually one of the reasons why we started original content in the first place. We believed this shift would happen. It’s just taken many years longer than we thought. So we welcome it.”

Netflix succeeds by doing the things you don’t see coming. Doing so means taking risks. And perhaps the ability to take risks is really Netflix’s greatest asset. As Holland said, “We are not afraid to try a bunch of different things, some of which may work, some of which may not. It’s part of our culture to embrace mistakes and failure and learn something from it.”

How Netflix Creates Cultural Relevance

Tidying up with Marie Kondo is more than a Netflix reality television series about an organizing consultant who helps people de-clutter their homes. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Since Netflix aired eight episodes January 1, Tidying up with Marie Kondo has sparked a discussion about Japanese culturethe role of books in our livesour societal pursuit of happiness, and materialism, among other topics. The show also demonstrates a major advantage Netflix wields against Amazon Video and Hulu: cultural relevance.

Tidying up with Marie Kondo is one of many examples of how Netflix seeps into our everyday culture by creating relevant content and even shaping our behavior. Netflix is not the only streaming service to create content that taps into the cultural zeitgeist – Hulu does so in spades with The Handmaid’s Tale. But Netflix creates cultural relevance more consistently and in more ways.  

Prophet Brand Relevance Index

According to the Prophet Brand Relevance Index, Netflix is the fourth-most relevant brand in the United States, behind Pinterest, Amazon, and Apple and ahead of companies such as Google and Nike. Amazon ranks ahead of Netflix not because of its streaming service but because of its ecommerce leadership – an important distinction. Amazon Video creates original content as a means to an end – to gain more Prime members for Amazon. Netflix lives and dies by the strength of its content. And the difference shows.

According to Prophet, “[Netflix’s] relevance comes from knowing what we want to watch, which means old favorites and $12 billion worth of exciting new projects, including contracts with executive producer Shonda Rhimes, director Spike Lee and former President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama.”

Creating Cultural Relevance

Prophet focused on consumer relevance. Netflix’s cultural relevance goes beyond knowing what we want to watch although content is one important element. Cultural relevance means influencing how we talk, how we behave, how we work, and, yes, what we watch. Here are some examples:

Netflix and Chill

Netflix is part of our everyday vernacular. You don’t hear anyone refer to “Hulu and Chill” or “Amazon Video and Chill” as a euphemism for having sex. And let’s not even consider a world in which “Disney+ and Chill” catches on once Disney launches its own streaming service, Disney+. “Netflix and Chill” has become so common we don’t necessarily equate the phrase with its original meaning. The article “Netflix and Chill . . . and Share it on Instagram Stories” by Geoff Desreumaux certainly does not refer to hooking up.  And I’m pretty sure investor Dan Victor wasn’t thinking about getting some afternoon delight when he wrote the Seeking Alpha financial analysis of Netflix, “Buy Netflix and Chill – It’s Going Back to $400.” 

“Netflix and chill” is not the only example of Netflix-related phrases that have worked their way into our vocabulary. For instance, “Netflix cheating” is the act of watching  episodes of a Netflix series ahead of your partner. Netflexting occurs when two people watch a Netflix show in different locations and text each other at the same time. Netflix block happens when you scroll through your Netflix queue and cannot settle on something to watch. Here are more phrases that demonstrate Netflix achieving cultural relevance through our vocabulary.

Stranger Things

Netflix is capable of creating a cultural phenomenon, as seen with Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Dear White People, the latter of which has attained relevance through the ongoing societal conversation about race and white privilege. Perhaps the best example of the Netflix effect is the popularity of Strangers Things, which has become a catalyst for 1980s nostalgia, an inspiration for cosplayers, and a musical tastemaker (to the regret of “Africa” haters everywhere). In fact, it’s a global phenomenon.

The cultural relevance with content occurs two ways:

  • Creating content from another medium that has already attracted an audience (Tidying up with Marie Kondo was already a well-known book, and Dear White People was a notable movie first).
  • Releasing content that becomes so popular that its success transcends its original medium, which is what happened with Stranger Things

In fact, most of Netflix’s original content does not enter the cultural mainstream the way Stranger Things has done. But Netflix hits the mark more than anyone else.

Binge Watching

Netflix is actually changing our behavior. When Netflix began dropping all episodes of its new TV shows simultaneously, we responded by changing how we watch TV. Thanks to Netflix, we consume show after show for hours at a time. We now watch what we want when we want it, instead of a network making us wait for a weekly broadcast. The phrase “binge-watch” became the Collins English Dictionary word of the year in 2015. Four years later, we’re still talking about binge watching. Mashable devotes a section of its news content to binge watching. And you can get paid to binge watch. Binge watching is bigger than ever.

Highly Aligned, and Loosely Coupled

Netflix is also culturally relevant to the workplace. Netflix is well known among management consultants and the HR community for the way the company operates. Netflix is known for its “highly aligned, loosely coupled” approach of setting a clear strategy but empowering work teams to act autonomously. We now have PhD-level management consultants extolling the “7 Aspects of Netflix’s Company Culture That You’ll Want to Copy.” Its 2009 Culture Deck is called “the BIG DADDY of culture decks.” Its technology blog is also popular among product developers and engineers throughout the workplace. Amazon is also closely followed for its management practices – but here again, I’m focusing on the streaming business, where Amazon Video doesn’t create the kind of conversation for its business practices that Netflix does.

What’s Next?

But cultural relevance is fleeting. You can’t manufacture cultural relevance on demand although you can improve your odds by adapting already-popular content that has been tested in another medium, as with Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Dear White People. So far, Netflix sets the paceBut it will be interesting to see what happens when Disney launches Disney+. Disney wrote the book on cultural relevance and is well positioned to challenge Netflix with its Disney, Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars brands (Star Wars created the template for phenomenon such as Stranger Things). The key will be how well Disney draws upon these popular names to create new content, which it plans to do with shows such as original episodes coming from Marvel. Disney+ will be an extremely costly venture. But Disney has very deep pockets, while Netflix is under constant pressure from investors for its spending. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has his work cut out for him. But I think he’s up for the challenge. And he’s operating with a big head start and an ability to do things that no one else sees coming, such as introducing binge watching.

The next frontier for Netflix will be to create cultural relevance in international markets such as India, which is proving to be an enormously difficult task. In India, Netflix also has its hands full with local competitors such as Hotstar. Because of its cash burn rate, Netflix is under more pressure to ramp up faster in markets such as India. The race is on – and the next several months will prove to be exciting.

How HBO and Netflix Differ

HBO no longer stands alone. After consistently racking up more Emmy awards than any other network year after year, HBO found itself tied with Netflix for most wins for the 2018 Emmy Awards. And going into the ceremony, Netflix gained more nominations than HBO, with 112 for Netflix, 108 for HBO. Of course, Netflix is not the only rival to HBO’s dominance of television – Amazon and Hulu belong in the same class albeit as challengers, and traditional network television, while fading, is still alive, if not completely well. But the conversation about the future of television begins with HBO and Netflix. As HBO and Netflix shape the entertainment landscape, they reveal four crucial differences that help explain how they ascended to their elite levels:

  • HBO is a media company. Netflix is a technology powerhouse.
  • HBO changed how TV is made. Netflix changed how we view TV.
  • HBO creates game changers. Netflix makes crowd pleasers.
  • HBO is run by a captain of industry. Netflix is run by a digital celebrity.

For all the money that Netflix invests into content creation, it has never delivered anything like The SopranosDeadwood, or Game of Thrones – entertainment landmarks whose influence, like that of the Beatles, will be discussed many years from now. But perhaps Netflix doesn’t need to. The Emmy Awards continue to reward HBO for its blockbusters. But Netflix is now demonstrating that you can be a crowd pleaser and gain critical acclaim – not bad for a company that started producing content only six years ago. So far, there is one clear winner of the HBO/Netflix rivalry: the audience.

Deeper Magic

This summer, I forged a deeper spiritual connection with the Bristol Renaissance Faire, where I act on the weekends. The Faire, located just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin, recreates the city of Bristol in 1574. As I have discussed on my blog, Bristol is a place of strong magic, like Middle-earth, possessing a powerful spiritual force. Throughout the summer I commented on Facebook about Bristol’s spiritual pull even though I don’t expect everyone to understand what I’m talking about. Here are some of those posts culled from my Facebook page. I hope the words inspire you to find your own place of magic.

Diving into the Abyss (July 31, 2018)

Portrait credit: John Karpinksy

It’s one thing to get comfortable being uncomfortable, but quite another to dive into a terrifying abyss. On Sunday, performing as my Sir Nicolas Wright, I jumped up on a small stoop in the crowded Sun Garden of the Bristol Renaissance Faire with absolutely no game plan. I did so to force myself to get better at onstage improv. (I am far more comfortable with improv on the street in small groups.) I felt several eyes staring at me with “What is this guy doing?” looks. With the help of castmate and friend Kendal Monaghan, I just started riffing by reading people in the audience and reacting to their reactions. We ended up putting one patron on a mock trial for the crime of dragging a dead whale down the streets of Bristol. There is strong magic in Bristol that makes us do crazy, fun, and challenging things that reverberate in our souls, but the magic dust floats through the air for only nine weekends. We need to make each one count.  Continue reading

Laugh When You Fall

Photo credit: Wayne Hile

One recent Sunday afternoon, the unthinkable happened: I stumbled and fell onstage in front of a large audience. I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Foolish. But I recovered by owning my mistake with a laugh instead of pretending nothing happened.

For context: on summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. I portray a pompous barrister and guild master Nicolas Wright, who is one of the residents guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are my stage.

One of the day’s highlights is the Queen’s Parade, which occurs shortly before 1:00 p.m. Marching in the parade is an honor that requires the cast to sing, wave, and shout praises to Queen Elizabeth as we walk through the dusty streets in a choreographed procession. I never grow tired of marching in the parade through the front gates and into the crowded streets, where the crowds lining the parade route create an electric feeling with their own cheering and shouting.

On July 16, I was marching alongside my fellow cast mates on Guild Hall Row, a narrow stretch of road flanked by shops and trees. I was prancing and preening as Nicolas Wright always does when I came upon a makeshift hopscotch court formed by flowers in the middle of the parade route. The egotistical Nicolas Wright just had to jump through the hopscotch court, with an exaggerated twist and twirl of his large green-and-black surcoat. Somehow while leaping around on one foot, I caught my foot in my billowy trousers and lost my balance. One moment I was soaring in the air, and the next moment I found myself on the ground, a tangled mass of surcoat, dirt-covered pants and shirt, and stunned ego.

Continue reading

Where Is Your Creative Hustle?

When an idea comes to you in the middle of the night, do you act on it, or do you yawn, roll over, and return to the arms of Morpheus, even though the original spark of inspiration may dissolve into the recesses of your unconscious mind? When you sit down to create – whether you write blog posts or poems – do you give yourself over to the power of the muse, or do you squeeze in creativity amid a flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube clips?

If you possess creative hustle, you don’t wait around for the right time to create. You choose to dig into the well of ideas even when doing so means staying up late — even when you’d prefer the comfort of your pillow. You record every idea no matter how silly or rough because any idea can become something great. You choose to push yourself. And you reap the rewards of taking an idea to full fruition because you cared too much to let it remain a rough draft in your head.

Gregg Allman, who passed away May 27, was a creative hustler. Throughout his life, ] with the Allman Brothers and as a solo performer, he wrote or co-wrote some of the landmark songs in the history of rock, such as “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.” He wrote and sang of hard living, relationships gone sour, and lawless living in the tradition of the great blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta, but with his own personal style suffused with grit and grace. And his thirst to create was insatiable. In the autobiography My Cross to Bear, he tells the story about how he answered the call of creativity to write one of the Allman Brothers’ signature songs, “Whipping Post,” in the middle of the night while he was staying as a guest in someone’s house. It’s a lengthy passage but worth sharing in its entirety because it says everything about the essence of creative hustling:

So that first night, I laid me down to go to sleep on my attic couch, and I dozed off for a while. All of a sudden, I woke up, because a song had me by the ass. The intro had three sets of three, and two little steps that allowed you to jump back up on the next triad. I thought it was different, and I love different things. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I wish the rest of them had come like this – it was all right there in my head, all I had to do was write it down so I wouldn’t forget it by the morning.

I started feeling around for a light switch, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. I was in my sock feet; I just had on my drawers and a T-shirt. I found my way into the kitchen and it was pitch-dark. I had my hands out and I touched an ironing board – thank goodness, instead of tripping over it, which would have made a terrible noise.

I was feeling all around the counters for a piece of paper. I couldn’t find any paper or a pencil anywhere, but I did find a box of kitchen matches. A car happened to go by, and its lights flashed long enough to allow me to see that red, white, and blue box. I knew I could use the matches to write with, because I had diddled around enough with art to know what charcoal would work.

I figured the ironing board cover would work as a pad, so I’d strike a match, blow it out, use the charcoal tip to write with, and then strike another one. I charted out the three triads and the two little steps, and then I went to work on the lyrics:

“I’ve been run down, and I’ve been lied to . . .”

I got it all down on that ironing board cover, in the closest thing to shorthand as I could muster up.

That passage has always convicted me as surely as a Biblical verse. I think of all the times I’ve frittered away ideas because it was just too inconvenient to stop what I was doing and run with them. Too often I manage the creative process like a to-do list, like something I just handle when I can, not when I need to. I marvel at how Gregg Allman describes a song taking hold of him, like a tick that gets into your skin and won’t let go. And he won’t allow the lack of available tools to stop him. He is willing to blow out match after match until he has enough charcoal to capture the moment.

But what if he’d rolled decided to get a good night’s sleep when the urge to create had taken hold? He might have gotten out of bed the next day barely remembering that moment of inspiration. He might have lost “Whipping Post” to the demands of the day. And the song might have become nothing more than a vague memory in Gregg Allman’s head.

Gregg Allman was a servant to creativity. He took the creative gifts bestowed upon him and hustled. Do you?

Image source: George Rose, Los Angeles Times