From Roald Dahl to Studio Space, Netflix’s Reverse British Invasion Is a Mixed Blessing

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It is no coincidence that Netflix’s most headline-grabbing acquisitions in recent years have both been U.K.-based properties: from the Roald Dahl Story Company, which owns the deceased author’s beloved stories such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” to the acquisition of “Kickass” creator Mark Millar’s comics publisher Millarworld in 2017.

Because, as the Emmys demonstrated earlier this month when “The Crown” won no less than seven awards, the “special relationship” between Netflix and the U.K. has never been stronger. Many of the streamer’s most popular shows are British-based, from “Bridgerton” to “Sex Education” to “The Witcher,” and the streamer has committed to a U.K. production budget of over $1 billion in 2021 alone (spent on a mixture of originals, co-productions and licensing).

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Next month the BFI London Film Festival will open with Netflix feature “The Harder The Fall,” starring Idris Elba, followed by a gala screening of Jane Campion’s Netflix Original “The Power of the Dog,” featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.

The Los Gatos, California-based company has even signed up some bona fide British royals, striking a multi-year deal with Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle.

As if to prove the depth of Netflix’s commitment to the U.K., the Roald Dahl acquisition was preceded, two days earlier, by news that the streamer had signed a long-term deal at Longcross Studios in Surrey. That’s in addition to their long-term lease at nearby Shepperton Studios, which was signed in 2019 and has hosted productions including “Midnight Sky” and the “Matilda” musical, based on Dahl’s eponymous novel.

As well as investing in both intellectual and tangible property, Netflix is also investing in British talent via a number of training schemes, including their own £1.2 million “Grow Creative U.K.” program, which includes opportunities with “Bridgerton” production company Shondaland, a joint screenwriting fellowship with Sky and a documentary-making trainee scheme with the Grierson Trust.

“The creative community is really welcoming this and welcoming the investment and also the sense of permanence,” says Lorraine Heggessey, former controller of BBC One and chair of the Grierson Trust. “You know, once people start committing to bricks and mortar, it makes you feel: okay, they really do want a base in the U.K.”

“Anyone coming to the U.K. and investing their dollars in British creativity and skills facilities is a good thing,” says John Mcvay, chief executive of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television. “And we are now what looks like the world’s most favored country for production coming to work here.”

Netflix’s “Grow Creative U.K.” program includes opportunities with “Bridgerton” producer Shondaland.
Netflix’s “Grow Creative U.K.” program includes opportunities with “Bridgerton” producer Shondaland.

Not everyone, of course, is thrilled with the notion of a U.S. juggernaut flexing its muscles — and its wallet — on this side of the Atlantic.

One veteran television producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that Netflix has “some of the worst payment terms of any broadcaster.” In 2019, the Financial Times reported that Netflix “signs longer-lasting rights deals than traditional broadcasters” and ekes out payment for shows over a number of years.

In the U.K., intellectual property rights traditionally revert back to the producers rather than stay with the broadcasters, which can be particularly lucrative when a series — such as “The Great British Bake-Off” or “Strictly Come Dancing” — unexpectedly takes off and can be sold across the world.

Heggessey points out that Netflix tends to pay a higher fee to ensure they have secured a property across as many territories they operate in as possible. “It’s really a case of whether you take a bird in the hand or a bird in the bush,” she says. “I think most production companies have a mixed ecology [of selling to streaming platforms and traditional broadcasters].”

Crucially, the emergence of the U.S. streamers in the U.K. has also led to a shortage of crews and production space, causing headaches for British broadcasters. (Britain is Netflix’s third largest production hub after the U.S. and Canada.) The Times recently reported that the future of BBC drama “Call the Midwife” was in jeopardy because of Netflix’s new lease at Longcross, where the show has been filmed for the last seven years. “Call the Midwife” producers Neal Street Productions have been asked to vacate the facility after production wraps on season 11 at the end of the year.

“Inevitably, what happens when you spend lots of money in an economy, it causes problems in terms of facilities, in terms of skills, it increases costs in the labor market,” says McVay, who points out such a scenario is preferable to the alternative. “It does bring pinch points, it does cause problems. Some shows are being delayed because of lack of availability of cast, crew or facilities. But we can all work together as an industry to try and start out.”

There is also the thorny question of whether Netflix, simply by virtue of being an American company making local content abroad, will come to be seen as a “cultural imperialist” in the same way The Walt Disney Company has often been accused of.

David Elstein, executive producer at Portobello Films and former chief executive of Channel 5, dismisses the idea, however.

“The notion that Netflix is somehow Americanizing or globalizing U.K. production strikes me as paranoid,” he says. “‘Bridgerton’ was a jolly confection which injected a whole slice of non-white casting. Something ‘Downton [Abbey]’ notably failed to do.”

And Heggessey points out Hollywood has long appropriated British characters, citing the casting of American actor Gene Wilder in the 1971 production of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” “They’re great stories and large companies are going to want to produce them,” she says. “It’s not like the Brits haven’t had time to have a run at Roald Dahl.”

Certainly the Roald Dahl Story Company’s latest set of accounts, from Dec. 2020, show that the bulk of it turnover by source country — £20.7 million ($28.3 million) — came from “the rest of the world” with the U.K. making up only £4.9 million ($6.7 million), less than a fifth.

Netflix declined to comment for this article but a source close to the company cited Britain’s “world-class facilities and production crews” as well as its creative talent and central global location as reasons for the streamer’s investment in the country.

“I think it’s a tribute to the U.K. production community that Netflix does want such a strong presence here,” says Heggessey. “And it’s to be welcomed, particularly at a time when our public service broadcasters are being squeezed.”

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