Netflix’s Content Strategy Takes A Turn For the Worse

Apparently, David Fincher is telling Netflix that $100 million isn’t enough for him to produce 26 episodes of his remake of the British masterpiece House of Cards. It’s not entirely clear yet whether MRC, the company that is producing the show for Netflix, will ante up or whether the project will collapse. But either way, the debate over that project–and the news that Netflix is considering picking up another expensive project, Fox castoff Terra Nova, illustrate the challenges of original content upstarts like Netflix, Hulu, Yahoo and Amazon as they seek to create hit shows.

The logic of the House of Cards remake is more in its constituent parts than as a whole. Fincher is an immensely talented and acclaimed director with fans who will follow any project he’s involved with, and he is very buzzy after the success of his Facebook origin story The Social Network. House of Cards is a venerable project with a pedigree that could appeal to fans of British-inflected drama, particularly riding the coattails of the Downton Abbey craze. I get why Netflix would want that prestige. Like Lillyhammer, the House of Cards project has names attached that make people sit up and think, and production values that are frankly much better than Hulu’s Battleground.

But taken together, I’m not sure the project ever made sense. There’s no particular creative mandate for the remake, no equivalent to the Afghanistan war that makes Sherlock feel like a fresh update on Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. The original show was 12 hour-long episodes, and the American order would more than double it, for no particularly discernible reason other than Netflix’s desire to have a show as long as a standard American television order. Fincher has a well-established reputation for being prickly and not particularly cost-conscious, which may not be great qualities for a company that, as it gets into the business, wants a hitch-free success.

Then, there’s Terra Nova, which has approximately nothing in common with the other shows in Netflix original content pool. It isn’t a resurrection of a show with huge cultural cachet that was killed before its time and could bring in a rabid pool of long-time fans, like Arrested Development. It doesn’t have a hook with an actor or a director, like Steven Van Zandt in Lillyhammer or Fincher with House of Cards. America’s basically just indicated that it doesn’t much want an incoherent and dull science fiction show decked out with the occasional dinosaur, and Fox has indicated it doesn’t think it can make money off the concept. So the appeal for Terra Nova is nigh-unfathomable, unless it wants a reputation as a company that dats off network castoffs.

All in all, these are weird investments for Netflix when it could be spending some money, say, following Game of Thrones‘ success and adapting a popular book series, or buying a show from a beloved auteur like Dan Harmon, or any one of a number of options. I get that Netflix is reaching for everything at once. But there’s nothing wrong with spending less and being slightly less grand if the project the company ends up funding is actually the sum of its parts.