Learn From Netflix: Why “Orange is the New Black” Totally Works

A colleague of mine has been buzzing about her latest gig for the past few months now.

Her email announcement that she landed a role on a new series created by the one-and-only-one, Jenji Kohan was super exciting both for her career and for me (yay! I’m officially one slice of Kevin Bacon away from Jenji Kohan herself).

The second part of that announcement was that the series was being produced and self-distributed by Netflix to exclusively be available on – Netflix; this part of the news was interesting, somewhat perplexing and I wondered if my friend would have a job after she wrapped shooting.

Now, however, we see that Orange is television and narrative storytelling history in the making.

A Fast Lesson in Distributing Original Programming

We’ve seen some Netflix original programming done before and quite well I might add.  House of Cards, was the content provider’s first original series and the revival of Arrested Development, which originally aired on FOX for three seasons, was a move to capitalize on an established fandom.  Orange is the New Black, although greatly different from these two programs, is the combined result of what made both House and Development work.

The reported budget on House of Cards was around 100 Million, according to this Forbes.com article. The network used analytics of subscriber activity to know that their customers would indeed check out a Kevin Spacey starring political drama produced by David Fincher. This number crunching and market research is nothing new for Hollywood; Q-Star ratings have been a mysterious method of evaluating blockbusters for sometime now. Netflix, however, had one thing working in their favor – they could deliver the content right to the viewer verses blockbuster which still functions under the “if you build it they will come” theater distribution model.

So, Netflix spent the dollars, set out to produce something that was for sure going to be streamed and delivered something stellar. I mean how could something touched by David Fincher that birthed performances between Spacey and Robin Wright not be wonderful? Seriously.

With House, Netflix established themselves as a distribution platform that could work for original programming and not just a platform where audiences are watching outdated content that may or may not be new to them. There was just one thing that Netflix had to ask themselves: how long would it take for Netflix to gain more subscribers from their original programming?

Which led to them asking the smarter question: how could they obtain an untapped audience without breaking the bank on marketing dollars?

Easy answer here folks. Find a series that has a large fandom that is currently not being fulfilled. Enter: Arrested Development, Season 4.

Arrested is a show that drives transmedia fandom. The cult following that ensued from the three seasons on FOX made Arrested a true “social” series with fans discussing its’ past and future on blogs, making up stories for characters and in some instances posing as the characters themselves.

There was no question that the fans of Arrested would chatter and cheer over the announcement of a 4th season on Netflix. (That’s kind of the whole point beyond “fandom” they live in the same world that the Bluth family does). The distribution channel reportedly grew its subscriber base by 600,000 when they announced the revival.  A good number but arguably not enough; but that was OK because Netflix executed the alley-oop just right, what was coming next in the world of original programming for them was the slam dunk. .

And then, Jenji Kohan parted the red sea and released all episodes of a first and original season at once…. 

This is a move that Netflix has made before – all episodes, all at once. There is been a lot of debate over whether or not this model works or hurts. I think that the correct answer leaves us in too much of a gray area but there are certain instances in which releasing all the episodes at once “works.”

Orange is the New Black is one of those instances and here’s why:

1. Jenji Kohan is most known for her ground-breaking, critically acclaimed series WEEDS. I definitely signed up for Showtime just to watch it and I definitely cancelled my subscription after the series finale. But if I need my fix I can still watch the series on Netflix..

Yes, Netflix has been able to analyze the analytics over who was watching WEEDS; a show with a female anti-hereo protagonist, that was watched by not only women but men as well.

2. It is funny yet has its truthful moments, this is provided because Orange’s cast of characters live within a very, very specific world. That world is the prison system. It is one that you and I don’t live in but one that when we enter into “fandom-land” translate into transmedia-like properties, for example: “Red’s Cookbook”, an online Orange themed store called the “commissary,” beauty tips from Laverne, stretch of the day with Yoga Jones, Catch the Chicken Facebook game, etc. you get my point. (BTW if you are a representative of the Netflix marketing team you can reach me at amydepaola [at] mac [doc] com, should you want to develop my ideas.)

3. A show in a female prison and therefore a 90% female cast is something to talk about.

How many of us have peered inside a women’s prison before? Not many. The majority of content out there that focuses on the prison system is focused on men. Mean men. Dramatic men. There is SO much to talk about here. We are seeing content we’ve never seen before. Releasing all the episodes at the same time has had the complete opposite effect. Ever since the series aired its’ hashtags and reactions from viewers have been crowding my newsfeed, on Facebook and on Twitter. I argued just the other day with a friend of mine that that was absolutely genius. Having the content there all at once allows fans to reach the point of obsessive, they, we are ultra-consumed by the show’s content.

It is a different kind of social chatter that is occurring when the series is available all at once to viewers. Unlike the social chatter that I see crowd my newsfeed on a Tuesday night before the new Sons of Anarchy. This chatter is not only an announcement that “I can’t wait for it to come on” or “yay, it airs tonight” or “can’t wait to have a glass of vino and watch it tonight,” the conversation is about the content within the program:

“Did she really see the chicken” appeared in my newsfeed.

“Did Bennett sleep with her mother?!?!” Also appeared in my newsfeed.

Why? Because we are ultra-consumed with something when we are given the opportunity to experience it all at once. That is how you tap into audiences imaginations, by inviting them 100% into the world. (See: Walt Disney and the Magic Kingdom).

What Happens Next?

Rumor had it, way back when, that Orange was going to be produced by Netflix but was possibly going to be sold off to a more established original programming network for distribution.

Lucky for Netflix that did not happen. In fact the series has been greenlit for a second season and another excited email popped up in my e-mail earlier this week announcing the start of production on season 2.

Orange is the New Black not only set the standard for Netflix but is going to change the landscape of original programming – and possibly episodic narrative programming as we know it.

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Stay tuned from more insights on Netflix from ZoomTilt’s Community Manager, Amy DePaola and follow her on Twitter.

New Filmmaker Opportunity: Vistaprint Independent Business Owner Web Series Competition

Vistaprint Independent Business Owner Web Series Competition

Today, we’re thrilled to announce the launch of our newest filmmaker opportunity in partnership with Vistaprint: the Reality or Fiction? Independent Business Owner Web Series Competition.  Vistaprint, a global leader in affordable, high-quality products for small and emerging businesses, is looking for both narrative and reality show web series that will captivate viewers with the unique emotional highs and lows of being a small business owner or entrepreneur.

Starting today through February 24, pitches are being accepted at ZoomTilt.com. Interested filmmakers can pitch to Vistaprint’s narrative brief, reality show brief or both – best of all there’s no limit to the number of times you pitch!  Multiple finalists will be selected and funded to produce pilot episodes of their series, and if Vistaprint (not to mention your audience) loves your pilot, you could win a $15,000 per episode web series deal!  For more information, visit ZoomTilt.com - and feel free to forward this opportunity to friends and colleagues if you think you can handle the extra competition.

Good luck – and may the best filmmaker win!