Donald Clarke: Forget movie stars, it’s all about the IP now

‘We are about to visit the most marvellous places,’ says Netflix after Roald Dahl aquisition – yeah, right

Netflix has acquired the rights to Roald Dahl’s works from the Roald Dahl Story Company. Photograph: Getty Images

Netflix has acquired the rights to Roald Dahl’s works from the Roald Dahl Story Company. Photograph: Getty Images

 

This column does not believe that popular culture is going to hell in whatever less-hackneyed synonym you have for “handbasket”. There is a lot of good telly out there. Pop music is buzzing. A great many fine films are to open before the year is out. 

So what is that lurking feeling of unease? What is that sombre rumble lurking just at the limits of our hearing? 

The recent news about Netflix’s deal with the Roald Dahl estate turned up the volume on the minor-key leitmotif. Movie stars no longer much matter. Original ideas may still drive creative thinking, but the vital force in the entertainment industry is now the tried-and-tested, easily recognisable fictional unit. You know? Superheroes who migrate from comics to films to video games to streaming services. Ancient TV series that retain enough name recognition to draw new audiences to the movie house. The stars are no longer Streisand or Redford or Pitt. The current-day moguls are more likely to invite the rights holders of The Six Million Dollar Man or Swamp Thing into their hot tubs.

Until recently no name for this stuff was bandied in everyday conversation. The phrase “intellectual property” has been around since the 18th century, but, for most of its existence, it has been the preserve of lawyers and deal-makers. Wuthering Heights was once intellectual property. Gone With the Wind was as valuable as intellectual property gets. Only m’ learned friends would, however, have described them as such. The term was certainly not common enough to require abbreviation. Now, every fan site and every nerd blog is familiar with the concept of “IP”. How could it be otherwise?

We could fill volumes the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with examples of peculiar IP rumours. Few better illustrate the strange place we have ended up than the story, reported in Variety a few weeks ago, that a new version of Mick Jackson’s The Bodyguard is in the works. What exactly is being remade here? The film certainly generated a great deal of revenue on release in 1992. The spinoff LP remains — as every movie trivia fan will delight in telling you — the biggest-selling soundtrack album of all time. Its $411 million at the box office is not chump change.

Yet nobody now raves about the ingenious twist of having a bodyguard fall for his charge. Indeed, few rave about the film at all. The Bodyguard succeeded because of Houston — now sadly no longer with us — and, to a lesser extent, because of key early-nineties heartthrob Kevin Costner. What the developers of the new film most value here is an emotional attachment to the original. The trade in IP is occasionally like the trade in air rights above existing buildings. You are selling nothing. But you are selling nothing in a potentially lucrative space.

The Roald Dahl deal is, of course, a different business. In its biggest IP haul yet, Netflix has acquired rights to the author’s works from the cutely named Roald Dahl Story Company. The streaming service drew on a quote from his James and the Giant Peach in a triumphant tweet. “We are now about to visit the most marvellous places and see the most wonderful things,” it read. Yeah, right. Things like a woman clobbering her husband to death with a frozen joint of meat in Dahl’s story Lamb to the Slaughter. Like the other woman who allows her husband to starve to death in The Way up to Heaven. In a better world, Netflix would invite the correct John Waters — the one who made Pink Flamingos — to direct a version of Dahl’s disreputable adult novel Uncle Oswald. That’s the one about the evil genius stealing the semen of great men to facilitate women who wish to give birth to geniuses.

You never know. But Netflix’s comments suggest a more family-friendly approach. A statement mentioned “the creation of a unique universe across animated and live-action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theatre consumer products and more”. Warners has the DC universe. Disney has the Marvel universe. Netflix now has the Dahl universe. The Dahliverse, if you will. Once studios bragged about signing Bette Davis or Spencer Tracy. Now, they brag about signing whole cosmoses. 

We can hardly blame the studios for swapping stars for intellectual property. IP doesn’t fall out of taxis drunk on Sunset Boulevard. IP doesn’t demand to direct its own vanity projects. IP doesn’t accuse directors of sexual molestation. You may not be able to guarantee financial success, but you can count on the IP doing what you tell it to do. Empty space doesn’t talk back.

Everything is not terrible. You can, this year, look forward to excellent films such as Spencer, Titane and — from Netflix itself — Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. But this reliance on the already familiar risks eating the heart out of the mainstream. That is concept horrid enough to please Roald Dahl. 

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