Teenage Dream: Young-Adult Hits Become Netflix’s First Franchises

Teenage Dream: Young Adult Hits Become Netflix’s First Franchises
Masha Weisberg/Netflix; Matt Kennedy/Netflix; Courtesy of Netflix.

While superhero and monster movies are the hallmarks of traditional film franchises, so far it’s largely young love that’s sparking sequels at the streamer.

"Teen movies just stopped being made and it sucked," says Matt Kaplan, the 36-year-old producer behind Netflix's ultra-popular To All the Boys I've Loved Before film series. "Having worked at Lionsgate and other film studios, they for the most part were franchise-building, and they weren't focused on this type of film." The irony is that Kaplan, through his company ACE Entertainment, has turned that type of film into a franchise.

Kaplan had offers from four studios for the first To All the Boys film. But the producer, who at the time was running the film division of media company Awesomeness, had just released another teen film, Before I Fall, theatrically and was underwhelmed by its performance.

Instead, he took the film to Netflix. It's an obvious choice now, but in 2017 the romantic comedy had yet to be deemed "revived," film head Scott Stuber wasn't even a year into the job, and the backbone of Netflix's feature slate was its exclusive pact with Adam Sandler.

"To their credit, [Netflix] really had a vision for how to grow this trilogy," Kaplan says of the adaptation of Jenny Han's book series. "Ultimately they had the reach, and they were able to help us garner attention on social media immediately."

To All the Boys set the benchmarks against which future streaming features would be measured. The movie became proof that a Netflix feature could break talent, as it did with the film's stars, Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. And it marked the first time that talent's social media followers were used as an indication of a film's popularity in lieu of hard viewership data, with Netflix touting Centineo's 13.4 million jump in Instagram followers during its 2018 third-quarter earnings report.

With the Feb. 12 debut of To All the Boys: Always and Forever, the trilogy becomes the first completed major film series built for streaming. In its opening weekend, the movie sat at the No. 1 spot in the U.S. on the streamer's "Top Ten" feature. Since the August 2018 release of the series' first installment, Hollywood has seen the launch of many streaming services, but it remains unclear what place, if any, serialized filmmaking will have for them.

Several of Netflix's big-budget, high-concept features — the ones most akin to traditional theatrical franchises — have had sequels put into development, like the Will Smith starrer Bright and the Russo brothers-produced Extraction. But the majority of the streamer's sequels — and the only ones to actually be produced thus far — have come from the YA (The Kissing Booth) and holiday (The Princess Switch, The Christmas Chronicles) genres.

The studio infrastructure necessary to produce a movie like The Kissing Booth compared with one like Bright is wildly different, and Netflix doesn't negotiate sequel options into its talent deals on features. Instead, the streamer turned studio opts to wait and see how a title performs on its service. This means that any subsequent films spark a new round of negotiations that — like the first round of dealmaking — can be protracted and expensive, with the need to factor backend and other residuals into paydays.

Further complicating matters, industry insiders note, is the fact that streaming doesn't have a direct box office equivalent. It's more comparable with subscriptions than viewership, which can make sequels' success harder to quantify. "When there is a huge hit movie at the box office, the sequel is almost always guaranteed to make some sort of money," says one feature film producer who has worked with Netflix. "In the streaming model, the sequel could literally get you zero new subscribers because if the same set of people that watched the first movie will watch the second, they are already subscribed."

Buoyed by the pandemic, Netflix added 8.5 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2020, for a global total of 203.7 million. For Netflix, which announced 70 original features ahead of its fourth-quarter earnings call, retention is growing increasingly important, and one draw of franchise filmmaking is building audience loyalty. "People like familiarity," says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. "There is the reliability factor that is the goal of both studios and theaters." The streamer already has found major success in building audience loyalty with its prestige series — like The Crown and Stranger Things — but, without ready access to IP of the Marvel or DC variety, it has to build out its own feature library. Film franchises are another way to combat ever-worrying churn.

Ultimately, it's too early to determine whether franchise filmmaking will have a place or purpose on sister streaming services. But for Netflix, 2021 will bring audiences the third installments of Kissing Booth and Princess Switch. Summer breakout comic book adaptation The Old Guard and upcoming action thriller The Gray Man (from directors Joe and Anthony Russo and stars Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling) are believed to be potential franchise starters, with the latter seen internally as akin to a Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher series. Plus, during its pandemic buying spree, Netflix also picked up a ready-made film series with the R.L. Stine trilogy Fear Street, from Disney and Chernin Entertainment. All of which could be a sign of more to come.

After all, as the producer notes, when it comes to streaming, "What is the difference between a sequel and a season two?”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.