Netflix and Marvel's decision to terminate their five-year (and six-series) relationship is the most telling sign of the new world order in the streaming era.
The streamer on Monday axed The Punisher and Jessica Jones, the latter of which has yet to air its third season. Those join Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist (and limited mash-up mini The Defenders) as Netflix's partnership with Marvel has officially come to an end. And while the two companies had, until recently, enjoyed a drama-free pact, Netflix's move was hardly unexpected given the current streaming landscape.
As media behemoths like Disney, Comcast and WarnerMedia enter the streaming business, each conglomerate is now faced with the same multimillion-dollar question: Keep their scripted originals and library content for themselves or continue to license shows — like Jessica Jones (owned by Disney), The Office (Comcast) and Friends (Warner) — to friend-turned-rival Netflix.
Put simply: Netflix did not have an ownership stake in any of its Marvel TV series. Each of the six Marvel shows was owned by Disney. Netflix paid ABC Studios a (steep) licensing fee for each season of its respective series.
While those licensing fees lined Disney's coffers, the Mouse House — like other conglomerates (and Netflix) — is increasingly focused on owning its own content. What's more, Disney is increasingly focused on populating its upcoming service — Disney+ — with content and announced back in August 2017 plans to pull its Marvel feature films from Netflix. Disney and Marvel executives have also indicated that the canceled Netflix fare could live again on Disney+.
To further illustrate how Disney is pulling back its Marvel TV properties for its own platforms, look no further than the rest of the comic book giant's scripted fare. Agents of SHIELD was Marvel's first live-action scripted series. The ABC drama — which now has shockingly outlived all of the Netflix series — has been a perennial bubble show despite the fact that the network owns it. The series scored a rare early seventh-season renewal for the 2019-2020 broadcast season — before its sixth season even aired. Disney-owned Freeform airs Cloak and Dagger (produced by ABC Signature). Hulu this month announced a slate of four animated Marvel comedies (and a mash-up special aptly named The Offenders). The streamer also has YA-themed The Runaways awaiting word on a third season. And Disney, once its $72 billion Fox acquisition closes, will have a majority ownership stake in Hulu. Then there's Fox's The Gifted, which is produced by 20th Century Fox Television — with the studio also included in Disney's Fox buy. (The same is true of the upcoming third and final season of FX's Legion.) If you sense a theme it's because you should: Disney owns all of its Marvel TV programming across the dial and, save for The Gifted, has Marvel fare on all of its platforms: broadcast, basic cable and streaming (on both of its platforms).
So then why would Netflix cancel Jessica Jones when its third season hasn't even aired yet? A couple reasons. First, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg left after production on season three was already completed (for a lucrative overall deal with Warner Bros. TV, home of DC Comics). Second, the stars of Jessica Jones are fielding offers for the broadcast pilot season and Netflix did not want to prevent them from taking other jobs given that the streamer knew its relationship with Marvel was on its last legs. Netflix makes renewal and cancellation decisions based on viewership versus cost. Jessica Jones was an expensive series and, while Netflix doesn't release viewership data, a third-party measurement company tracked social media buzz and found that all of the Marvel series were down year-over-year. (That's pretty much the same narrative for broadcast and cable viewership.)
Let's look at Marvel and Netflix's relationship next. The foundation started in 2013 with an epic five-show deal that was considered groundbreaking at the time. Netflix shelled out millions in the deal that created a multiple-series universe for the streamer with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist culminating — like a comic book crossover — in a massive superhero mashup: The Defenders. The original agreement was for four, 13-episode series and the miniseries. Sources note that it was the episode count stipulation that, more recently, became an issue as Netflix is said to have wanted to reduce the standard episode count from 13 to 10 in a bid to tighten the creative. Sources stressed that the original 2013 deal did not have an expiration date and all of the respective series and spinoffs could have run for as long as both parties wanted.
Speaking of the creative: Nearly all of the Marvel Netflix dramas had showrunner changes. Daredevil showrunners included Steven S. DeKnight (season one), Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez (season two) and Erik Oleson (season three). Jessica Jones would have had to hire a new showrunner to replace Rosenberg for a potential fourth season. Luke Cage was showrun by Cheo Hodari Coker (who, two months after its cancellation, inked an overall deal with Netflix rival Amazon). And Iron Fist went from Scott Buck (season one) to Raven Metzner (season two). In short: Half of the original Marvel shows for Netflix experienced creative issues.
So what is the future of Marvel on TV? In a word: Disney. Expected to launch in the fourth quarter of 2019, Disney+ is already prepping TV spinoffs of its billion-dollar box office MCU films. There are three already in the works: a Tom Hiddleston-fronted Loki; a Falcon/Winter Soldier team-up limited series expected to star Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan; and Vision and Scarlet Witch, with Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen likely on board to reprise their roles.
And then there's the politics between Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Disney CEO Bob Iger. With an influx of executives coming over to Disney, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey — who developed Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and late and great Agent Carter for the broadcast network — jumped ship and moved to Netflix. Dungey will reunite with Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish), both of whom negotiated an early exit from their overall deals at ABC Studios. (And that's just the tip of the iceberg in the increasing rivalry between Disney and Netflix.)
In short, it's easy to say that Netflix canceled its Marvel fare because of economics, the answer is much more complex than simple ownership as Disney and Netflix have not exactly been good bedfellows in the past year. So while Marvel may have been caught, at least partially, in the crossfire, media titans like Warners and Comcast may very well be next when it comes to pulling their respective content from Netflix as the new (streaming) world order takes over.
With WarnerMedia and Comcast both launching their own direct-to-consumer streaming services (due in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2020, respectively), both companies are going to have to consider whether they will continue to get a Netflix check with a lot of zeros to license Friends and The Office or if the companies will pull their crown jewels and put them exclusively on their own platforms. For the time being, Friends and The Office will remain on Netflix through 2019 and 2021, respectively. But after that? "Sharing destination assets like [Friends], it's not a good model to share," WarnerMedia streaming service chief creative officer Kevin Reilly said this month. "They should be exclusive to the service."