Way back in 2016, when “Netflix movie” still sounded like a contradiction in terms, McG and producer Mary Viola’s Wonderland Sound and Vision began developing its first project for Netflix, “When We First Met.” As one of the first Netflix rom-coms, no one knew exactly what a Netflix rom-com was supposed to be; McG made it his mission to find out.
Netflix Original Independent Film VP Ian Bricke remembers that as soon as the deal closed, McG turned his high-energy patter toward trying to understand exactly what Netflix wanted from its original films — everything from demographics to the way the platform worked. “As a creative and as a businessman and a producer, he’s always looking around the corner — what’s the next thing?” said Bricke. “The fact that it was uncharted territory, the wild west, was part of the appeal for him.”
Five years on, and with six Netflix productions, Wonderland appears to have found the secret sauce of a Netflix hit. With a reported 68 million viewers, Bloomberg ranks Wonderland’s Emma Roberts-starring “Holidate,” released last year, as Netflix’s 10th-most popular movie of all time. (Currently in post for Wonderland is “Love Hard,” another Netflix Christmas romance.) McG directed the 2017 horror-comedy “The Babysitter;” in 2020, “The Babysitter: Killer Queen” followed. Similarly, 2019’s young-adult comedy “Tall Girl” scored a reported 49 million viewers; a sequel is now in production.
Tall Girl 2 is now in production 👀 u ready? audio ft: @snarkymarky
While McG defaults to a casual, intuitive approach to talking about business and creativity (“I think only in terms of, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…'”), he explains his Netflix success like an MBA candidate. When Wonderland started working with Netflix, he felt it “we would be wise to understand their platform and their audience and make films that speak to it.”
One example of how Netflix leans into target demographics: The streamer announced “Tall Girl 2” on TikTok earlier this month. TikTok has among the youngest user base of any social media app, according to Pew. Videos tagged #tallgirl on the app have amassed 2.2 billion views, many of them are videos remixing or referencing parts of the movie.
“[Netflix] is an analytics company that knows everything about viewership and they’re able to very easily track the degree to which your stuff is working and sticky and the degree to which it is not,” McG said. “Our stuff proved to be sticky, so we kept making movies for them.”
Algorithms aside, these aren’t typically movies that bring rave reviews — the John Whitesell-directed “Holidate” received a 44 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and a similar ranking from audiences — but clearly the Netflix data tells another story. For McG, the films he produces have their own formula: “It’s got some oxygen, it’s got some color, it’s got some bounce, hopefully there’s a subversive streak in there.” They’re also not expensive; the budget for the Nzingha Stewart-directed “Tall Girl” was around $13 million.
McG got his start first as a record producer and then as a music-video director for bands like Sugar Ray and Offspring. His career has been defined by an ability to bring offbeat sensibilities to culturally resonant projects. He got his break directing the video for one of 1999’s defining songs, Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” and moved to features the following year with “Charlie’s Angels.” Two decades on, frames from McG’s video made “All Star” a meme-culture staple while his fresh take on “Charlie’s Angels” spawned a Sony Pictures franchise.
In the mid-2000s McG moved into TV, with credits include that include cult favorites “The O.C.,” “Chuck,” and “Supernatural,” which wrapped its 15-year run in 2020 as the longest-running American sci-fi series.
McG said producing movies for Netflix feels liberating. “It allows you to be more specific,” he said, adding that with studio movies there’s a tendency to “pander to, ‘Oh jeez, this movie isn’t working with this demo and this quad and therefore we need to soften the edges,’ We test movies that we release on Netflix also, but with more of a boldness in our chest … This new era of so many choices allows you to be more specific, more bold, and then, should you get it right, people applaud you for it.”
Bricke said Wonderland films are relatable with a “smart pop” sensibility. “Their movies are always just a little bit cooler and fresher and more stylish than they have to be,” he said. “They have a great nose for really clear, relatable concepts in any genre,” he said. “We’ve seen that with them across rom-com, across YA coming-of-age, across horror-comedy.”
He added: “They do kind of have their own lane in their range of genres and their ability to deliver what feels like big-idea, commercial movies at relatively modest, independent-sized budgets.”
While Wonderland’s slate spans genres and target audiences, Viola said she and her team have figured out a particular strength in reaching younger people. “Tall Girl,” for example, is about a high school girl who stands 6’1″. Once ashamed of her height, she learns to find strength in it. It’s a familiar trope that one can trace back to “The Wizard of Oz” and its cadre of misfits learning they had what they yearned for all along.
“I do feel like we tell underdog stories,” she said. “Even in our horror movies, the lead is an underdog. We love message movies, but we don’t feel that they always have to be so heavy handed. I think that’s where you turn off, especially a younger audience. They don’t want to be preached to.”
From “Say Anything” to “Clueless,” cultural touchstones have always been sticky; today, they also can inspire viral phenomena. “The movies are in dialogue with the audience and the audience is in dialogue with the movies. We’re always talking about that feedback loop,” Bricke said. “It’s a more direct relationship to the audience … McG, being someone who I think wants to stay on trend and ahead of trend, the streaming world fits him really well. I think it plays to his strengths and his passion.”