Former Netflix showrunner admits 'there's a real frustration' over cancellations and reflects on behind-the-scenes shifts at the streamer

Kim Renfro
·11 min read
Sophia Lillis Syd I Am Not Okay With This Netflix
Netflix's "I Am Not Okay With This" was one of many shows canceled in 2020. Netflix
  • After penning an op-ed about Netflix's growing TV-show problem, Insider correspondent Kim Renfro spoke to Jonathan Entwistle — the cocreator of two Netflix originals.

  • Entwistle's last TV series at Netflix, "I Am Not Okay With This," was canceled earlier this year after one season. 

  • The TV writer and showrunner told Insider he's observed a shift in the way Netflix approaches TV shows, adding: "There's a real frustration at the moment in the business." 

  • "It's very clear to me now, in the latter days of doing shows at Netflix, that they are a brand — you generate content that sells their brand," Entwistle said. "They're not interested in highlighting new voices in the television space."

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

I published an op-ed last week about Netflix's growing TV-show problem, highlighting the recently rampant cancellation of promising original series. I knew I wasn't alone in thinking that the streaming giant's strategy was having a negative effect on fandoms, but nonetheless was intrigued to see some showrunners and TV writers openly agreeing with the piece.

Jonathan Entwistle, the director and showrunner of two Netflix original series ("The End of the Fxxxing World" and the recently canceled "I Am Not Okay With This") responded to the article on Twitter, writing in part: "This is exactly how it feels to me as a filmmaker." I decided to reach out to him to hear more about what his experience has been like from a TV show creator's point-of-view.

What follows is a condensed version of our nearly 45-minute conversation, in which Entwistle explained that he and other creators have noticed a distinct tonal shift at Netflix over the past couple of years. He also broke down what happened with the recent cancellation of "I Am Not Okay With This" after just one season.

"There's a real frustration at the moment in the business," Entwistle said during a phone call from his home in Los Angeles. "From a creative point of view, you've already nailed it in that piece. That is how people feel. That is definitely how I felt when I read that — like, 'Oh, finally it's in reality now. It's not just like in the industry, between me and the [director of photography] and the line producer — other people have started to notice this.'"

Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Jonathan Entwistle, Richard Ellis, and Sofia Bryant attends the premiere of Netflix's "I AM NOT OKAY WITH THIS" Getty Images
Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Jonathan Entwistle, Richard Ellis, and Sofia Bryant at the premiere of Netflix's "I Am Not Okay With This." Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Kim Renfro: The opinion piece I wrote is something that I've been thinking about for probably the last year and a half, and I finally put pen to paper (so to speak). I'm grateful to hear your perspective. I want to make sure that I'm fairly understanding what's going on at Netflix and what the processes are like.

Jonathan Entwistle: From my point of view, this is definitely something that has been noted by pretty much all the filmmakers I work with — those that have left Netflix and those who are still there. It's definitely something that runs all the way down, from agency-level through managers. I've been talking about it with other showrunners for quite a long time, and what I saw in your article was like, "Oh yes. Now people outside of the system are starting to notice."

What happened with "I Am Not Okay With This" and that specific cancellation this year?

We actually opened the second season writer's room before we delivered season one to Netflix — say maybe [around] January. [Season one] came out at the end of February and then we just continued on the same path. We were aware early on, pre-pandemic, that there were rumblings of new changes of direction [at Netflix]. A few other filmmakers and I certainly noted that shows were being picked up that all seemed to match in style and tone and they were different to what I was making.

We started to realize that the fandom is very easily put into action when it suits Netflix to sell a show, and then immediately [when] the algorithm tells them the show is not worth pursuing by their calculations, they never post again. So it's like a Pavlov's dog thing. They feed, feed, feed, feed you stuff on Instagram and Twitter, and then they just take it away from you and they never respond again. It's like a harsh master-servant thing.

When the pandemic hit we moved out of the office and there was definitely a shift within Netflix. We finished the scripts. It was hard work in the Zoom writers' room. No writer will tell you those things are good. It's not good. By the end of it, we were in preproduction. We were budgeting and we were ready to roll. The show was due to start shooting in May/June, and obviously it got delayed.

We just realized that to COVID-proof the show was going to cost a lot more money. I've seen a few people talking and the figures are about right: It's anywhere between $5 to $10 million per season of television for the PPE, and for the testing, and for the systematic changes with which to make it safer. Or it definitely was that at the time. 

I think there are calculations within Netflix where they're just like "cost of show versus value," and not necessarily number of viewers because it's more complex than that with Netflix. We had amazing viewing figures for a show of that size. If you put ["I Am Not Okay With This"] on Hulu it would be mind blowing, but on Netflix it wasn't that impressive.

I Am Not Okay With This Netflix
Sophia Lillis and Sofia Bryant costar in "I Am Not Okay With This." Netflix

Does Netflix tell you exact viewing numbers internally?

They do — individually, show to show. I can never get any comparisons other than my own show. So I can only ever see "The End of the Fxxxing World" and "I Am Not Okay With This" as comparisons.

I know "The End of the Fxxxing World" was super successful in the first 30 days. In that first year when it was released in 2018, it had these amazing numbers within the first 30 days. It was beating "GLOW." It was beating all these shows. And that was to do with the dynamic of how nobody watched it at the beginning, and then it caught fire going into the following months.

Whereas "I Am Not Okay With This"' was the other way around: All the fans watched it on day one, and then it slowly dwindled. So we had similar viewing figures, but one was a success and one was a failure because of the dynamic of the viewing. There's no answer to it. 

And it wasn't a particularly expensive show to produce. It was maybe about $15 million total, like making an expensive indie movie.

i am not okay with this netflix
"I Am Not Okay With This" is based on a comic book by Charles Forsman. Netflix

Right, I think $15 million is less than what [HBO] wound up spending all in on the 'Game of Thrones' pilot episode.

Right ... We made three and a half hours with that money. We had good cast members, and Netflix very much wanted Sophia Lillis to be in the show. And I think when the pressures of COVID came, we had quite a cast that was, should I say, valuable for them on social media and things like that. [Netflix had] paid for that up front, and I do think that when they were looking at all the finances, ["I Am Not Okay With This"] was more expensive than they figured it was worth. 

In my parting conversations with the executives, I did say to them, "I feel like I've managed to make two shows that are distinctive." I got a platform to make two small shows from comic books, and was given carte blanche both times to produce whatever I wanted. I didn't make anything too wacky and I played ball with them, and I just hope that they're going to give other filmmakers the opportunity to make small independent television shows moving forwards because we know money is hard.

Did anyone raise the prospect of just waiting and delaying production to see if maybe in a year and a half you could get back to filming, without the added COVID-19-related expenses?

Yeah, we did. There was a [proposed] plan to hold off until February, but I think in the financials, there's lots of things to do with the actors options and keeping them available. Once you go over a certain period of time from when you said you were going to shoot, it incurs quite big costs to pay the actors to keep them. Netflix was basically saying we're paying large groups of filmmakers and actors to remain doing nothing.

We were shocked when it happened, because I was like, "What a weird show to cancel."

So I don't know if in any way [the cancellation] was a creative decision. I think it was COVID mixed with the reshuffling of executives at Netflix. A few of the higher up executives that were champions of "I Am Not Okay With This" and a couple of the other shows have since moved on, as have their shows.

I Am Not Okay With This Netflix series 7
Wyatt Oleff and Sophia Lillis as Stanley and Syd on "I Am Not Okay With This." Netflix

From the fandom standpoint, part of what my piece was trying to get to was how there's an emotional cost to these cancellations. It might not be a financial cost to Netflix yet, because for all we can see it's not like people were mass canceling their Netflix subscriptions. But I think it's a longer term effect of how people aren't going to feel as emotionally invested when logging into Netflix and seeing 20 new original shows that month that they might have to pick through.

It's interesting because I am now running the new "Power Rangers" reboot universe from scratch. So right now I'm mapping out a whole new world of movies and television and animation. I'm very acutely aware of the fandom versus delivering what people expect, while still doing something cool and new, but without reinventing the wheels. So these conversations are definitely fascinating from the sense of building fandoms and then destroying them as it pleases.

And they all look the same, right? [...] There's a tonal and aesthetic shift. It's very clear to me now, in the latter days of doing shows at Netflix, that they are a brand — you generate content that sells their brand. They're not interested in highlighting new voices in the television space. They're not interested in showcasing filmmaking intrigue. They're not excited about new ways of doing television and episodic. They're very interested in: "How can we spread the word of the brand globally?"

One of the key metrics you get is how well your show performs in different countries. If it underperforms in countries that [they] are looking to expand in, that will not help you get a renewal.

end of the fucking world
Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther star. Netflix

And you're saying that that has changed because it used to be attractive to creators for that exact reason — that you could experiment more?

You can experiment for one season. That is still there. 

I think there is a lot of flux happening and I think Netflix is going into a new phase of what it is as a company. Not what it is as a studio, but what it is as a company. And I think that's never, ever going to generate quality storytelling when you are considering [things] as a company rather than as a place to distribute television.

There seems to be this strange world where nobody quite knows where they stand with the shows at Netflix, and it's the same befuddlement where people are like, "Oh, why did they cancel that? And why is that one not canceled?" Nobody knows the answer because it's so secretive.

There's a disconnect between quality of show and viability for Netflix. I've been told on multiple occasions at Netflix that a show could be critically acclaimed and win an Emmy, but it might not work for Netflix. That sort of makes sense, but it's not super exciting for a filmmaker.

It's like, "What's the end game for stacking the deck with mediocrity?" I feel like now more than ever, people are hankering for prestige.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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