For years, media analysts warned there was a new kind of killer on the loose outside of Hollywood, though no one believed them. This killer, they said, lured over its prey—typically passionate yet inexperienced filmmakers—by giving them cash and creative freedom. Once the trust of a victim had been won over, that’s when it would strike.
Sense8, American Vandal, The OA, Luke Cage, Altered Carbon, Tuca and Bertie, I Am Not Okay With This, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance—these are just a handful of series that were promised endless seasons only to mysteriously disappear inside the streamer’s sprawling library, and often after airing less than 20 episodes.
Now, Mindhunter is apparently gearing up to join that list. Although David Fincher’s eloquent adaptation of the FBI’s first encounter with modern mass murderers remains one of the most critically acclaimed projects Netflix ever produced, such acclaim means little to nothing if it doesn’t bring in ratings to boot.
Unlike some of the aforementioned cases, though, Mindhunter wasn’t murdered suddenly or impulsively, but rather deliberately and over a long period of time. Hints of the show’s murky fate initially broke back in January, when TVLine learned the show’s cast members had been released from their contracts.
This decision, their report read, had been made by none other than Fincher himself, who felt that the actors should be free to pursue other gigs while he himself went to work on his passion project Mank, a film about the life and times of forgotten screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, which will premiere December 4.
Now that production on Mank has wrapped up, you’d think Fincher would focus on Mindhunter again. However, this is not the case. When Vulture recently asked him whether the series was done for, he answered “probably,” citing exhaustion as one of several contributing factors before ending with financial concerns:
“Listen,” the filmmaker told reporter Mark Harris, “for the viewership that [Mindhunter] had, it was an expensive show. We talked about “Finish Mank and then see how you feel,” but I honestly don’t think we’re going to be able to do it for less than I did season two. On some level, you have to be realistic—dollars have to equal eyeballs.”
News about Mindhunter’s sorry state spread around the internet like wildfire, breathing new life into old accusations against the streaming giant, such as that it tends to cancel shows before they have the opportunity to prove themselves, or that it favors “short-term quantity over long-term quality.”
Since Netflix is somewhat notorious for refusing to disclose its viewing statistics, these concerns are certainly valid. That said, an important counterpoint to the ongoing discussion can be found right here in Fincher’s own account, this being that when he says “we,” he is in fact referring to Netflix, who will be distributing Mank.
Which begs the question: can a company be considered crooked for dropping out of one passion project in favor of funding another?
I don’t think so—but then again, I may just be oversimplifying streaming economics, misinterpreting the snippets of business insights available on the web, and understating its devastating effects on the many creators who, unlike Fincher, weren’t compensated for their loss with a substitute deal.
Plain Wrapper Baby
Before jumping to conclusions, then, let’s dig a little deeper. According to Original Programming VP Cindy Holland, Netflix renews a series if and only if it gets “enough viewership to justify the cost.” This strategy is widely regarded to have been the final nail in the coffin of properties such as Marco Polo and the aforementioned Dark Crystal.
Although both of these massive and massively expensive productions acquired loyal followings, they did not take the world by storm. According to Holland’s logic, the only way they could have outlived their 1 to 2 season runtime is if they somehow managed to reach Breaking Bad or Stranger Things-levels of popularity.
Needless to say such titanic shifts happen only once a decade, and rarely thanks to slow-burners like Mindhunter. Credit isn’t always given where it’s due, and Fincher, funnily enough, should already be familiar with this tragic fact of life, not only because he’s experienced it firsthand, but also because it will play a major role in Mank.
Of course, this is only part of the protocol which Netflix has made public, and some say there are other calculations going on below the surface. If Omdia analysis director Tim Westcott is to be believed, for instance, the company is mostly concerned with “throwing fuel on the engine to keep subscriber growth going.”
Imagine you’re a Netflix exec who wants to attract more subscribers—which of these two business models is more likely to get this done? A) invest all your money in a handful of mass marketable mega shows that stick around forever; or B) cut up that budget to make many different shows to revitalize your selection at regular intervals.
Standards of Living
That sums up the fiscal defense for Netflix’s crimes, but there’s an artistic altercation, too. While disgruntled viewers and disheartened showrunners charge the streamer with undermining creativity for the sake of commerce, you could also argue that Netflix is creating an environment which is, in fact, completely conducive to innovation.
Consider, for a moment, how this Mindhunter scenario would have played out had it been in the hands of your regular old studio, which doesn’t possess the Scrooge McDuck-sized reserves that Netflix uses to develop infinite amounts of fresh content. If Hollywood gets its hands on even the slightest hit, they will milk it.
Specifically, they will milk it with or without the help of said hit’s original creators. When director Gore Verbinski quit after making Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Disney quickly found him a replacement, and currently not even lead actor Johnny Depp’s legal battles seem to deter them from setting sail a seventh time.
Another great example is The Hobbit, a trilogy whose pre-production was initially spearheaded by the enthusiastic filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, but ultimately forced upon a reluctant, uninterested and overworked Peter Jackson—much to the detriment of the franchise’s critical reception.
Despite all the pain and sorrow that Netflix has caused its subscribers by cancelling their favorite shows, at least it spared them from the horror of allowing one such show to live another day only to be ripped from the arms of its birth mother and transformed into something it was never meant to be.
Considering that Fincher stated he tossed out and rewrote all of the scripts that were composed during his initial absence from the second season because they did not live up to his expectations, that thought becomes even scarier. Say what you want about Netflix, but at least it respects the vision of its contractors.
Finally, it’s important to remember that longevity doesn’t make a story better. In fact, it almost always makes it worse, with Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Sopranos standing out as two prominent members of an exclusive group of shows that virtually everyone can agree were near-perfect from start to finish.
If you’re one of those people who is taking to social media to point out how Game of Thrones didn’t take off until the Red Wedding, ask yourself whether the bloody adventure really needed to carry on for as long as it did. If anything, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff must be pretty jealous of Fincher right now. Personally, I have no desire to see Holden Ford use his Faceless Men training to land a dropkick on BTK. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rewatch the first two seasons of Mindhunter.