It’s easy to forget that the Netflix original film department is still rather young. Five years ago, the streaming service didn’t even really have one. But things move quickly in the competitive streaming world, especially when starting from scratch.
Now with a robust library of proprietary and commercially minded films and characters, Netflix is leaning into another important pillar of the movie business: Sequels.
They’ve dabbled before, with romantic comedies and teen-focused fare like The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but with a breakneck annual output, Netflix has now amassed enough of their own intellectual property to develop franchises in more genres, including adventure, mystery, comedy, action and thrillers, created by and starring some of the industry’s biggest names.
Kicking off with Enola Holmes 2, which is newly available to stream and sees Millie Bobby Brown back as the spirited young detective, Netflix has a slew of starry, high-profile follow-ups to some of their most successful films on the way. Later this year, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will bring Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc back to solve a new murder case on a private Greek island. In 2023 and beyond, Chris Hemsworth will reprise his role as black ops mercenary Tyler Rake in Extraction 2, Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler will reunite for Murder Mystery 2 and Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne will be back as immortals in The Old Guard 2.
“Our goal was always to build stories and films and characters that we can return to,” said Netflix executive Kira Goldberg. “We’re finally at that moment, we’re feeling really good about it.”
Goldberg and Ori Marmur co-head the studio film team at Netflix under global film chief Scott Stuber. Both were veterans of traditional studio filmmaking, with Goldberg having come to Netflix from Fox, where she oversaw the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman, while Marmur came from producing films like Escape Room and The Green Hornet.
“We loved the idea that we could come to a studio that was starting from scratch,” Marmur said. “That just doesn’t happen, especially not at this scale.”
In the years they’ve been at Netflix, they’ve been able to draw on relationships they’ve made over the years and also forged new ones with directors, writers and talent they wanted to work with. They also knew they had to play catchup with the legacy studios that had a century of intellectual property at their disposal.
“It’s pretty impressive that sequels are a conversation and a reality,” said Mary Parent, who produced both Enola Holmes movies. The sequel was put into motion soon after it hit Netflix in September 2020, with Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, writer Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer all on board. An estimated 76 million households streamed the lively detective story in its first four weeks.
“We mobilized really quickly,” Parent said. “You try not to take it for granted. And you try to raise the bar on yourself, to up the storytelling, up the stakes with everything that you loved about the first but also something new.”
The sequel strategy is not so unlike that at traditional studios: They want to keep viewers coming back for familiar characters. And it’s an equation that has proved effective with their most popular television shows, like Stranger Things, Bridgerton, Squid Game and The Witcher.
There may not be a set formula or mandate around what gets another film, but most are among Netflix’s most-watched originals. In their first four weeks, The Old Guard was seen by 78 million households and Extraction drew in 99 million households, according to data provided by Netflix.
“Extraction obviously benefited from the timing of its release, which was at the early days of the pandemic,” said Mike Larocca, the co-founder and vice chairman of the Russo Brothers’ AGBO Productions. “But they were very supportive of the sequel script before that. We were prepared to move quickly and they didn’t wait for the performance.”
Part of the Netflix equation is looking at genres that either aren’t getting made at the big studio level anymore or aren’t getting enough audiences at the theaters to make them worth investing in frequently, like teen rom-coms. As a classic stunt-driven action movie, Extraction, Larocca said, was in that “dreaded middle that was getting killed theatrically.”
“People still want to see big, practical stunts and exotic locations and a really cool hero at the center,” Larocca said. “I think given their model, they’re able to make it at a higher budget than theatrical would have would have supported because their numbers look different.”
The notable exception is Glass Onion, as Knives Out did not originate at Netflix. But the streamer saw an opportunity in Rian Johnson’s fun murder mystery, which was a hit at the box office, and potential in spinning out more stories anchored by Craig’s shrewd detective. They shelled out $450 million for two sequels. There is also a Luther film in the works, based on the hit crime series, with Cynthia Erivo, and a re-imagining of Spy Kids, with Robert Rodriguez on board to write and direct.
“They’ve really succeeded in creating an environment where I think people can do their best work,” Parent said. “They’re there to offer support but don’t create unnecessary obstacles. They don’t overly micromanage, which can sometimes kill creativity. They understand the balance … And the power of their platform is undeniable.”
At Netflix, Goldberg and Marmur have also found opportunities in working cross-functionally with other departments.
“When I worked at other traditional studios, I didn’t know who was in the series team. I didn’t know who worked in consumer products. There was never any communication,” Goldberg said. “Here, we get in a room together all the time. We strategize collectively.”
Case in point: When developing the graphic novel BRZRKR as a live-action film with Keanu Reeves, they also committed to an anime series so he could “have the best of both worlds” since the artwork was so important to him.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out how we can do things in different, innovative and cool ways,” Marmur said. “It’s not rare to have a conversation with a filmmaker about how their film can branch into other things.”
It has been a rollercoaster year for Netflix, but they’ve recovered from subscriber losses in the first half of the year and were back on top with gains made in Q3. Netflix now boasts 223 million subscribers, and is once again the world’s largest video streaming service. The Walt Disney Co. had briefly eclipsed Netflix in August when it reported its service had 221 million subscriptions, though there is some debate over how comparable the numbers are as Disney counts households that subscribe to its bundle package of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ as three separate subscriptions.
The company is also days away from launching its first ad-supported plan that debuts in the U.S. and 11 other markets in early November. The new option will cost $7 per month in the U.S., less than half the price for Netflix’s most popular $15.50-per-month plan without commercial interruptions.
But Goldberg and Marmur say they’re just concerned with putting their heads down and making great films.
“They’ve come so far so fast, it’s incredible,” Larocca said. “The legacy studios have tremendous advantages in terms of IP that they can draw from. It’s fun to see them start building their own franchises. They’re making big swings.”