Starstuck: Streaming, Celebrity, and the state of the “Netflix Star”

In the fall of 2018, Netflix was still not releasing formal ratings data for its original programming, but they were nonetheless invested in using data to demonstrate their cultural influence. And in October of that year, they produced a chart to demonstrate their programming’s capacity to grow the online followings of their young stars across both series and films aimed at young adult viewers. This included the stars of Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, The Kissing Booth, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, in addition to an international lift for the stars of the Spanish Netflix original Money Heist.

Source: Netflix

There is something very mundane about the basic message of this chart, which is that actors who star in successful television shows watched by millions of people will grow their followings on social media platforms. But from Netflix’s perspective, it demonstrates the influential role that Netflix in particular plays in the lives of its viewers, as they didn’t simply watch these shows, but took the extra step of following the actors involved, further integrating these story worlds into their social media feeds. And the exponential growth for stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Noah Centineo—To All The Boys… had debuted only six weeks before this chart was created—was a way to showcase how quickly a Netflix project can capture the zeitgeist, and rocket the young stars involved to stardom.

But, as I asked at the time, what’s next? How does Netflix feel they are able to benefit from the “social lift” provided to the young actors of these and other—On My Block, Outer Banks—shows and movies aimed at similar audiences? While those social followings are valuable for driving interest in additional seasons or sequels to the projects in question, Netflix has been slow to capitalize on the potential to expand their investment in these performers across their prolific production slate. While there is some crossover between Money Heist and Elite, and Brown (Enola Holmes) and Katherine Langford (Cursed) returned to the Netflix family in new roles this year, Noah Centineo remains the only actor who I would argue has—for better or for worse—been positioned as a “Netflix Star,” in the vein of the Disney Channel star system that’s a logical reference point for teen-focused projects.

This vein has been particularly relevant this month after Netflix debuted Julie and the Phantoms, a musical dramedy helmed by Kenny Ortega, who directed the High School Musical and Descendents films for the Disney Channel. The show stars newcomers Madison Reyes and Charlie Gillespie as a teen struggling to find her voice after her mother’s death and the lead singer of a band who died tragically 25 years earlier as a teen, returned as a ghost with his bandmates with some unfinished business. They’re star-making roles, and very much the kind of roles that would have made them Disney Channel stars in that context, and the “Netflix Instagram Effect” confirms: in only two weeks, starting more or less from scratch, Reyes passed 285,000 followers, while Gillespie crossed over 450,000 over the same period.

But whereas it’s easy to picture how the Disney Channel would take talented young actors and leverage them across their brands, it’s less clear what precisely Netflix can do to make use of the multi-hyphenate stars of their latest youth series that isn’t just renewing the show and generating some content given the state of the “Netflix Star” in the two years since the chart referenced above. Whether out of disinterest, disorganization, or disagreement, Netflix has mostly allowed its star-making capacity to begin and end with the shows and films that made them stars, despite having clear avenues to use those followings to their advantage.

Operating with the definition of someone whose stardom was distinctly tied to Netflix and then subsequently leveraged by the platform significantly, Noah Centineo is the first and only “Netflix star,” although somewhat by accident: while To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was his first project to hit Netflix, it was one of three projects he worked on in 2017 that would end up being sold to Netflix but were not formally Netflix projects at the time they were produced. Still, between the release of To All The Boys… in August 2018 and the release of The Perfect Date in April 2019, with Sierra Burgess is a Loser in between, “Internet Boyfriend” Noah Centineo was the face of Netflix romantic comedies, to the point where his face was used to sell users on the tiny indie film SPF-18 Centineo filmed in 2015 (which, uh, didn’t go well) and led them to purchase rights to Swiped (which he shot in 2016, and which didn’t go any better). It was the kind of relationship that hearkened back to the Disney Channel star system within which Centineo got his start, with guest spots on Austin & Ally and Jessie before getting his big break as replacement Jesus on the Disney-owned ABC Family/Freeform series The Fosters: Netflix then dramatically expanded that fanbase, and reorganized their acquisitions and marketing around leveraging that stardom to keep those fans engaged (and subscribed).

However, this has not been as much of a pattern for Netflix as one might have imagined. The Kissing Booth’s Joey King signed an overall deal with Hulu, where she earned an Emmy nomination for her turn in limited series The Act, while her co-star Jacob Elordi signed on to star in HBO’s Euphoria. These choices meant that the fanbases Netflix argues they created are put to work to market competing media, the actors’ status as independent contractors limiting Netflix’s ability to capitalize on the stars that they would like to believe are only stars because of them. And while shows that get additional seasons and movies that get sequels bring the actors back into the Netflix family, Centineo remains the only figure who has felt synonymous with the brand—the fact that Millie Bobby Brown’s first starring role is in a Netflix film suggests the platform might begin positioning her in the same light, but the fact it took four years for that project to materialize shows the lack of motivation to seize the opportunity to leverage their followings in any of the hundreds of series and films Netflix releases in a given year.

Such a model would, like Disney Channel, hearken back to the Hollywood Star System of the early part of the 20th century, where actors were under exclusive contract of specific studios and image-controlled to serve the studio’s interests. Disney’s embrace of this model accompanied the horizontal integration of their operations, as Disney Channel stars were leveraged as “talent” to be deployed across Disney’s theme parks, record labels, TV channels, and more. Take, for example, Milo Manheim, who starred in the Disney Channel original musical Z-O-M-B-I-E-S in 2018: before it debuted, he and co-star Meg Donnelly appeared on a Disney Channel Christmas special filmed at Walt Disney World, and later that year Manheim competed on Dancing with the Stars, which airs on the Disney-owned ABC. And after the release of Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 2 in early 2020, he moved onto recording, releasing the single “We Own The Summer” on Walt Disney Records with an at-home, Disney Channel cameo-filled video produced during the COVID-19 pandemic; this was in addition to recording an at-home sing-along duet with Donnelly for the Disney Music channel. A Disney Channel star is by nature a force of synergy across the larger Disney ecosystem.

And admittedly, part of Netflix’s potential resistance to this type of star system is that it doesn’t have an ecosystem: there is no Netflix record label for the music from Julie and the Phantoms, which was instead released on Columbia Records, and there aren’t Netflix-owned channels where their stars can be integrated into other programming as easily as Disney has managed over the years. But there are still other Netflix series where actors could potentially appear in cameos, and significant production in areas like romantic comedies where channels like Hallmark have leveraged a stable of stars as part of their brand identity. But that’s something else that Netflix is missing: whereas Hallmark and Disney have both carved out a very particular idea of what it means to star in one of their projects, the sheer volume of content being released on Netflix means that it would be impossible to pin down a brand for someone to associate with, meaning that there isn’t the same desire for coherence that might encourage the platform to use stars as ambassadors of sorts.

It’s also possible that Netflix has tried to build these relationships with certain actors but failed to convince them it was in their best interest. I would argue that in the case of Centineo, his status as a “Netflix Star” risked pigeonholing him into a certain type of role, at a time when doors were opening in his career. He was poised for a breakthrough as He-Man in a new Masters of the Universe, a chance to lead a blockbuster franchise, but the film got stalled in pre-production, and Sony was reportedly considering selling it to Netflix for a guaranteed profit before the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the project indefinitely. For a moment, it seemed like what was meant to be Centineo graduating from Netflix was just going to reaffirm that he was “only” a Netflix star, especially after his supporting turn in the Charlie’s Angels reboot made little impact due to the film’s box office failure. The actor has subsequently booked a supporting role in DC’s Black Adam alongside The Rock, seemingly guaranteeing him a place in blockbuster cinema, but it’s possible that other Netflix actors might have seen his experience and felt like there could be restrictions placed on their career if they were to take on additional Netflix projects instead of waiting for other studios to come calling.

So what, then, should we expect Netflix to do with young stars like Charlie Gillespie and Madison Reyes once they’ve concluded their current press tour for the launch of Julie and the Phantoms? Said press tour likely doesn’t resemble what Netflix might have originally planned for the band—who all play their respective instruments, and could have done a proper concert tour—but it has benefitted from Netflix having the time to figure out the logistics of remote production, and developing an online junket format that has helped feed fans’ appetite for additional content from the cast beyond their respective social feeds. Netflix’s own production includes videos for many of its international Netflix channels, an acoustic performance of the anthemic “Edge of Great” used to promote the show before its debut, and a guitar tutorial for the song “Bright” from Gillespie. This kind of social content does reinforce that although Netflix may not always develop additional projects for their stars, the “content” cycle for this music-based project on YouTube does mirror the synergy of a Disney Channel star, albeit only in promotion of this specific project.

This media tour has only reaffirmed the star potential of the young stars, in particular Gillespie. As Luke, Gillespie has a productive cross-section of stories, whether in his nascent romantic connection with Reyes’ Julie told through pointed eye contact or the heartbreaking song he wrote for his estranged mother before his death that’s the centerpiece of the show’s penultimate episode (and the second-most streamed song from the show’s soundtrack on Spotify). Although Julie and the Phantoms is meant for a younger audience, categorized as a “Youth” series by Netflix, Luke spends roughly half of his screentime sleeveless, a boy band heartthrob styled as a pop punk bad boy with a clear desire to generate thirst from an audience outside of the core tween demo. And in the myriad videos produced in support of the show, and his own Instagram feed, Gillespie has mirrored Luke’s enthusiasm for life and music, eager to play every game, do every challenge, and earnestly answer each repetitive question from random journalists with small social followings. He has been, I would argue, a model of the Netflix Star: engaged with his fans, humble in his newfound fame, and extremely willing to put his time and energy into building the type of holistic connection with young viewers that will make them “Netflix fans” as they grow older and consider getting their own subscriptions.

The clearest way for Netflix to leverage this is to renew Julie and the Phantoms for a second season, obviously, but it’s easy to imagine the platform looking at Gillespie’s social feed—young bilingual musician hiking through the “Atlantic Bubble” of eastern Canada where COVID is almost entirely contained—and seeing the potential to integrate him into their larger slate of romantic comedies for young adult audiences. But you could have said the same about the young stars of On My Block, whose social followings have grown into the millions over three seasons of that show, but none have appeared in additional Netflix projects; the same goes for the stars of this year’s breakout teen hit Outer Banks, who quickly grew enormous followings but have not been attached to future Netflix projects once they finish filming the show’s second season. It’s a reminder that Centineo’s status as a “Netflix Star” was somewhat accidental, and we still haven’t seen a case where someone’s popularity explodes due to their presence on the platform and Netflix consciously works to build other projects around them after the fact.

Maybe Netflix is worried about overexposure. Maybe actors and their representatives feel that being associated with Netflix is limiting if you’re not already a star in other context (e.g. Adam Sandler, or the various A-Listers making “cinema” on Netflix). Maybe Netflix believes that it is in their best interest to associate themselves with a breadth of different stars, rather than investing in particular performers and thus theoretically limiting their impact to their fanbases. Maybe Netflix worries about elevating actors within ensembles, complicating contract negotiations. Or maybe the chaotic development culture at Netflix just isn’t centralized enough to organize itself around particular stars, the various decision-makers working in silos that fail to connect the dots fast enough to recognize star potential in someone like Gillespie and move to maximize his value to the platform. And heck, maybe it’s possible that they did see the star potential in Gillespie, or Reyes, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant any potential projects were canceled or postponed, delaying those plans to focus on returning to series production more swiftly.

But overall, whether based on the data from their first effort with Centineo or one or more of these other factors, the future of the “Netflix Star” is stuck in neutral, with no indication that the platform is interested in moving beyond bragging about making stars to leveraging this as a larger part of their development strategies.

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