How Big A PROBLEM Does Netflix Have?

There’s ample evidence that the biggest current hit on television anywhere on this planet is 3 BODY PROBLEM.  Since the platform dropped it on the first day of spring, it has dominated its global Top 10 lists; data released yesterday showed it just completed its third consecutive week at the top, with a cumulative reach of nearly 40 million views over nearly 300 million hours.  It’s the most successful work to emerge from Netflix’s megadeal with prolific showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who previously had oversaw a small little show for a competitior called GAME OF THRONES.

With 3 BODY PROBLEM, they have joined forces with Alexander Woo, another HBO alum with TRUE BLOOD among his credits, who acquired non-exclusive rights to develop a Hugo Award-winning Chinese language novel by Liu Cixin.  Wikipedia recaps the storyline for the few uninitiated among us:

Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist who sees her father beaten to death during a struggle session in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She is conscripted by the military because of her scientific background and is sent to a secret military base in a remote region. Her decision at the base to respond to contact from an alien planet has implications for a group of scientists in the present day, forcing them to face humanity’s greatest threat.

Not only is it achieving strong critical acclaim and global reach, it’s currently a Top 10 TV show in 83 different countries, including the United States, more than double the number of any other series in Netflix’s ample portfolio.  But one of the countries is not China because, well, Netflix isn’t available there–at least legally.  And to those viewers, this version is arguably redundant, as last year a Chinese-language adaptation of Cixin’s novel preceded this one to air.  As VOX’s Aja Romano explains:

One of the novel’s central themes is the question of who gets to decide the future for the rest of humanity. It takes an anti-authoritarian approach that’s bolstered by the author’s experience of authoritarianism in China. One of its central characters functions as a strong critique of the Communist Revolution, and the whole novel arguably critiques the modern-day Communist Party. This critique takes center stage, quite literally, in a controversial opening scene from the book that references a violent period of China’s history rarely shown in China itself.

Despite this, the novel The Three-Body Problem not only cleared China’s broad book ban on anti-government messaging (although before Xi Jinping’s subsequent tightening of censorship across the cultural front) but has become beloved in its home nation. It won multiple awards and gets held up by many as an example of China’s literary excellence and as a major influence in the development of Chinese science fiction. In 2023, another acclaimed and lavish series adapting the book, Three Body, was released by Chinese streaming service Tencent (the show is also currently streaming with English subtitles on Viki; the first two eps are also on YouTube). Three Body has won praise from viewers at home and abroad for staying faithful to the book and its themes; on the popular review forum MyDramaList, for example, the Tencent series has a viewer rating of 8.3/10.

This is important context to understand the conversations that have taken place on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms since the Netflix adaptation’s release on March 21. As the show continues to dominate Netflix ratings globally, many English-language media outlets have begun covering the “polarised” discussion on Chinese social media around the show — perhaps painting the situation as more complicated than it is. On Weibo, the state-run media account Global Times accused foreign media of inflating the negative reactions to the show in order to foment political drama and make Chinese viewers appear unreasonably nationalist.

Romano goes on to cite a NEW YORK TIMES piece that throws oil on this fire:

Instead of pride and celebration, the Netflix series has been met with anger, sneer and suspicion in China. The reactions show how years of censorship and indoctrination have shaped the public perspectives of China’s relations with the outside world. They don’t take pride where it’s due and take offense too easily. They also take entertainment too seriously and history and politics too lightly.” Someone on social media recently reposted an old article about Ye Qisong, one of the founders of the study of physics in modern China. In 1967, around the time that the struggle session of the series took place, Mr. Ye, who shared the same family name of the physicist in the opening scene, was detained, beaten and forced to confess crimes he didn’t commit. He went crazy and wandered the streets in Beijing, begging for food and money. The article was circulated widely online before it was censored.

As if this world needs any more polarizing over recountings of historical events.  Well, at least we’re not alone in that distinction.

Where Romano does hit the bullseye is to point out that this execution speaks volumes for how and why Netflix is so successful in almost every territory it can be seen in:

Netflix’s changes make the storyline blander and more inexplicably British, deliberately erasing most of the Chinese characters and relocating the main action to London. The Netflix adaptation follows the English version of the novel: Ye Wenjie’s father is violently murdered before our eyes, and this underpins everything else that happens in the drama.

And that philosophy–engage as many as possible for as long as possible with as few impediments to doing that as possible–is, pardon the pun, paramount among Netflix management these days.  On Sunday, the NEW YORK TIMES dropped this telling piece by Nicole Sperling on the platform’s newly installed head of movies:

Dan Lin arrived as Netflix’s new film chief on April 1, and he has already started making changes. He laid off around 15 people in the creative film executive group, including one vice president and two directors. (Netflix’s entire film department is around 150 people.) He reorganized his film department by genre rather than budget level and has indicated that Netflix is no longer only the home of expensive action flicks featuring big movie stars, like “The Gray Man” with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans or “Red Notice” with Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson.

Rather, Mr. Lin’s mandate is to improve the quality of the movies and produce a wider spectrum of films — at different budget levels — the better to appeal to the varied interests of Netflix’s 260 million subscribers. He will also be changing the formulas for how talent is paid, meaning no more enormous upfront deals.

And the number one way that Netflix lures those subscribers into sampling content  has as much to do with the breadth and popularity of the tentpole properties that precede them.  And even those that hate-watch to be aware of what else is out there are just as fertile a target for remaining in their walled garden as the most engaged fans are.

Next week, Netflix’s 1Q24 financials will be announced, and all preliminary indications are that it will be as robust and positive as any in recent times, and will put almost all of their competitors’ to shame.

If anyone thinks anyone at Netflix is paying attention to these global controversies–or even should be–those indicators should put to rest any hope they might be motivated to do so.  I highly doubt there will be any reference to any of this as Sarandos and Bajaria take their victory lap.

What I do expect is that considering that 3 BODY PROBLEM is part of an acclaimed trilogy called REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST, a follow-up series is practically a foregone conclusion.  And VARIETY’s Tyler Aquilina dropped this item yesterday that all but assures there will be ample financial support to pull it off:

A new forecast from Ampere Analysis projects that more than half of Netflix’s content spending this year — $7.9 billion of about $15.4 billion total — will go toward titles produced outside of North America. This means that, for the first time, the majority of the streamer’s budget will be spent on either localized original content for international markets or the licensing of internationally produced titles.

We should all have such problems.

Until next time…

 

 

 

 

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