Daniela Elser: Harry and Meghan’s money pressures over Netflix and Spotify deals

OPINION:

If the Emmy Awards were handed out based on “most headlines generated”, then this year, Oprah Winfrey would be a shoo-in.

The nominations for this year’s awards have been released with Winfrey up for another prime-time gong (she already has two) for her history-making TV interview with Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex earlier this year.

For Harry and Meghan, it’s the first time since they landed in the US last year that their names have been linked with awards season gold. (Whoever knew that going so wildly rogue on the palace would be met with critical enthusiasm in California?)

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The question is though, just how much of a Midas touch do they have? Hundreds of millions of dollars – and their US futures – are at stake.

In just over a month’s time, we will hit the one-year anniversary of the Sussexes’ Netflix deal being announced. In the 10-and-a-half months since news of the “megawatt” deal was broken by The New York Times, there does not seem to have been much movement on this front, publicly at least.

While initially the Times had reported the Sussexes would be making “documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming,” what sounded like it would be a flood of earnest content has not even amounted to a trickle.

In March it was announced that the couple had hired Oscar-nominated producer Ben Browning to head up Archewell’s video content production arm and the following month it was revealed that their first project would be a docuseries about the sporting tournament for wounded veterans, the Invictus Games, that Harry founded.

On Thursday, it was announced that Meghan will produce an animated series with the working title Pearl, which follows a 12-year-old girl who is inspired by influential women in history. No air date was revealed, nor would Dora the Explorer officially comment on the potential rival.

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While on one hand TV and feature-length projects take years to get to the screen, on the other, what has Netflix really gotten so far for their estimated $133 million investment in the Duke and Duchess? Sure, their signing was a huge publicity coup but so far all the streaming giant has gotten for their nine-figure financial commitment is essentially the world’s most expensive press release.

Harry and Meghan have a lot to prove, and fast, because they are fighting against the clock here.

Harry and Meghan need to prove worth to Hollywood

When they landed in Los Angeles in March last year their value as a highly bankable, rare commodity was peaking. Their brand was on the ascendant. They’d told the sovereign where she could stick her crown, something Americans have had a penchant for since the War of Independence, and were eager to make a name for themselves in the commercial world.

But, their arrival in the US collided with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, snuffing out a lot of the momentum around their arrival in the States. They might have been ready and open for business but the nation was not.

Fast forward to this year and with the US reopening and life returning to normal and something of the novelty value of a real-life Duke and Duchess in Tinseltown’s midst is no longer quite what it once might have been.

If Harry and Meghan don’t want to be written off as a marketing gimmick, and if they want, in the years to come, to keep pulling in those nice big cheques full of delicious zeros, then they are going to prove they are worth the investment.

So far, they haven’t exactly set Hollywood on fire.

In April, Variety’s chief media analyst Andrew Wallenstein said their Invictus series “does not remotely sound like what their tabloid-driven audience wants”, labelling it “an exercise in their image rehabilitation, funded by Netflix”.

He said: “The value Harry and Meghan will probably most bring comes to making themselves available for interviews to publicise the content that bears their imprimatur.”

Should Netflix, which has for years been throwing money around with glee abandon, suddenly have to tighten their belts, “Rest assured this deal will be on the list of what gets second-guessed,” Wallenstein wrote.

At danger of interest in pair waning

The problem with this paradigm is that their entire money-making ability is pegged to their ability to generate good PR. Should interest in them wane, or public fatigue for the never-out-of-the-news duo set in, then their value could plummet.

While Harry and Megan’s financial future might outwardly seem rosy thanks to their Netflix deal (and their estimated $36 million Spotify deal) look closer and things aren’t quite so shiny. The Times has reported that, according to industry insiders, it is likely that their Netflix deal would be structured such that they receive a retainer of somewhere between $2 million and $3.9 million annually, and would then earn more as they release shows.

Given their costs for security and their home in Montecito have been estimated at around $6.2 million, they would need their productions to be smash hits.

Emmy nominations, like the shiny one Oprah has just earned, will go a long way to giving their fledgling TV careers a much-needed credibility boost.

If this time next year it is their names, as producers, we are seeing on the nominee list, it will go a very long way to establishing that they genuinely deserve a seat at the big table – and all the lovely money that comes with it – because of their talent, rather than just because of who his Gan Gan is.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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