Battle Magic

I was tough on the Willow TV series when it came out; of course, releasing a week after Andor does no television concept any favours. A year later, though, it turns out I’ve missed those characters — the new ones! Kit, and Jade, and dumbass Boorman! — and watching the show again, I found myself digging the vibe (family-friendly queer YA Bridgerton pop) a lot more.

All of which has me thinking about Disney’s all-points Willow beatdown, of course. Look: the show did not do well, a reality made only marginally more acceptable by the fact that the movie did not do blockbuster business, either. The idea that Willow was a shelf property waiting for reinvigoration is the kind of crazy thinking generated by the Streaming Wars era.

None of which, in my opinion, makes it reasonable for Disney to choose Willow as the first of their marquee series to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Willow was one of the series removed from Disney+ in May; in the second quarter of 2023, Disney took a $1.5 billion impairment on the removed content (including Willow) which, like David Zaslav’s Batgirl trick over at Warner Brothers the year before, means that the company cannot ever claim value against the property again ever (without opening those taxations back up, anyway). This means that not only is the show gone, it’s likely gone forever — no DVDs, no selling it off to a different streaming service, no pulling it off the shelf in a few years in some kind of a “from the Vault” play, like the Disney Home Entertainment of old. For all intents and purposes, the Willow series has ceased to exist.

Here’s how seriously the corporation took it: in September, they quietly killed the toy line before it could ship. Bear in mind, action figures have an 18-month production cycle, meaning that there were probably entire manufactured shipping containers full of those things that were sitting in warehouses, ready to go, and which have now likely been destroyed. That’s nuts!

Now, in the old television model, a series that ran for eight episodes, got cancelled, and was never seen again would not have been particularly unusual. Until the TV-on-DVD boom of the 2000s, anything that didn’t make syndication runs was the purview of borrowed VHS tapes or, for stuff that predated VHS, stories your parents told you about shows they watched growing up.

There are two precepts of the streaming-era television model, though, that the Willow memory-holing violates, which I’m bumping up against:

[And I’ll preempt this by saying, neither of these precepts is, like, a law or anything. Both of them are assumptions, and they are both assumptions that will need to be adjusted going forward.]

The first is, I would think, one of the premises by which creatives were making streaming series to begin with: the idea, borne of Netflix, that in doing so, you were building a permanent piece of a content library that was going to live on in perpetuity. Remember, Netflix got into the original-content game ten years ago because they knew that sooner or later, their licensing of other peoples’ movies and shows was going to run afoul of their ability to continue to grow, i.e. the more profitable they became, the more the content providers would either a) want more money, or b) want their own streaming services, or both. Part of their play was to ensure they had shows and movies that no one could take away from their platform.

It’s reasonable therefore, if one were approached to make a television series for streaming, to have believed that the work you were doing was going to be part of that provider’s ecosystem forever — which (in a fairer version of the world than the one the WGA and SAG-AFTRA just fought against, anyway) would mean long-tail profit participation, or at least, long-tail reputational profit. There was a thing on a big platform you could point to and say, hey, I did that thing. For actors and creators breaking out, that’s an important part of the compensation package, and might have impacted one’s willingness to take less direct compensation (money) in favour of longer-term visibility. Willow has a lot of young actors building careers — Ellie Bamber, Erin Kellyman, the phenomenal Ruby Cruz — who now have a gap in their resumé that looks weird and awkward and is potentially reputation-damaging.

Precept two goes to me, as a consumer: if I sign up for your streaming platform in all but perpetuity (I subscribe to Disney+, for example, on annual renewals, uninterrupted since they launched the service), I am making that decision in part based on the assumption that the entire library is available to me. If you launch Disney+ with promises of a bevvy of new Lucasfilm television series — including, as announced at the time, Willow — part of the product I think I have bought is that access. It’s not just watching new shows as they come up; it’s having them in the “digital locker” whenever I want to get at them, going forward. If I take a six-month pause between episodes 4 and 5 of Willow, it shouldn’t matter. I have the reasonable expectation that it’ll remain in my “Continue Watching” list until I pick it back up.

Anyone — myself included — with any working sense of how the digital distribution model actually works would have known, intellectually, that the latter premise was never true. Digital media, whether “sold” or rented or subscribed, is provisioned to us under license agreements only (you know, those things we all skip over every time we install anything and click “Accept”). It trends close to fraud by inducement in some cases, but, it is the nature of the enterprise. Still, it’s hard not to feel there’s a fundamental aspect of the value proposition of subscribing to something like Disney+ that gets eroded in the long term, if “you get access to all this forever” transitions secretively to “you get access to some of this sometimes, and when and how is up to us.”

The natural outcome for consumers — as predictable as sunrise — is the end of the perpetuity subscription. No one really “needs” to subscribe to these channels month-to-month or year-to-year at all anymore; there are too many of them, and they’re too expensive, and the rich people running them are increasingly acting like dicks. The more consumers that figure this out, the harder the uphill battle to keep any of the platforms alive is going to be. The majors will hoover up the mids, because ultimately, Netflix’s starting principle was right: the big content libraries will win. And then the majors will duke it out, and one or two of them will flat-out go out of business — and not, like, twenty years from now. Probably before 2026, at this rate. And in the meantime, introducing unpredictability into these streaming libraries by randomly deleting marquee shows and movies elevates the bar for entry for customers, by driving confusion about what’s where, when, accelerating the push towards subscription-cutting.

(Another example: Paramount just removed the Star Trek feature films from Paramount+. Remember a year ago, when Paramount+’s intrusion into Canada was heavily marketed as the home of all Star Trek, from now on? One Prodigy cancellation and the feature film dump later, and I no longer understand why a Star Trek fan would even subscribe. There isn’t enough in the library.)

Netflix’s so-frequent-it’s-clichéd business practice of cancelling series in their second or third seasons — compelling creators to wonder why they’d commit to series contracts that don’t have a hope of playing out — has now become the scarier Warner Brothers / Disney practice of, “we might hire you to do something and either never show it, or decide it’s worth more to us as a tax writeoff than as actual entertainment.” It’s bad-faith bargaining, none of it in any way illegal, but kinda gross nevertheless. Bad for the consumer, bad for the creator, and bad for the business.