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‘Fear Street’: How Netflix’s R-Rated Horror Trilogy Survived the Fox-Disney Merger

Filmmaker Leigh Janiak's ambitious, gory trilogy was first set up at Fox. Four years, one merger, and one pandemic later, it found a fitting home at Netflix.

FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 - (Pictured) MAYA HAWKE as HEATHER. Cr: Netflix © 2021

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994”

Netflix

When filmmaker Leigh Janiak signed on for her first studio outing after the success of her 2014 indie horror hit “Honeymoon,” she went pretty big: not just one film, but three, an interconnected trilogy of horror features based on R.L. Stine’s beloved bestselling “Fear Street” series. As the trilogy — a time-spanning series that turns Stine’s sprawling collection of stories into an ambitious, gory new horror franchise — readies to roll out on Netflix over the next three weeks, Janiak is thrilled with how it all turned out, even if the road there was a little scary.

The film was originally set up at 20th Century Fox back in 2015, as part of production company Chernin Entertainment’s long-running pact with the studio (other Chernin/Fox hits: the new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, “Hidden Figures,” “The Greatest Showman,” and many more). Janiak and her writing partner Phil Graziadei came on board in 2017, and readied to craft a trilogy of films for theatrical release in the summer of 2020 (originally, the idea was to release them a month apart). Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox had yet to happen, but it was clearly in the offing.

“The merger hadn’t happened yet, [but] there were kind of whispers in the ether about it,” Janiak explained in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We knew it was going to happen but it wasn’t official. Moving forward to get the green light was a little challenging too, because there was a lot of political moving around that was happening at the studio, and also just them I think not knowing what was exactly going to happen.”

The trilogy started shooting in Georgia in early March 2019; on March 20, the Disney deal officially closed. “While we were shooting, that’s when the merger became reality,” she said. “Of course, in the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. Disney, great. What horror movies does Disney make? What does that mean?’ Then on top of that, I’m also thinking, we have this kind of very innovative, new idea that we’re doing here, which is movies that are going to be released in close proximity, and what does that mean for the theaters? How do the traditional studios get their head around it? It was all kind of like, what is going to happen?”

Fear Street Part 2: 1978 - (L-R) BTS of TED SUTHERLAND as NICK and SADIE SINK as ZIGGY and Director Leigh Janiak. Cr: Jessica Miglio/Netflix © 2021

Ted Sutherland, Sadie Sink, and filmmaker Leigh Janiak on the set of “Fear Street Part 2: 1978”

Jessica Miglio / Netflix

It wasn’t just that Janiak was in the process of making a trio of horror films — and, to answer her question as to what sort of horror movies Disney makes, the answer is, past the dark charms of something like “Pinocchio” or “Frankenweenie,” none — it was that she was making a trio of hard-R horror films, complete with gore, sexual content, and plenty of swearing. “I had one conversation while we were shooting where I was like, ‘There’s a lot of ‘fucks’ in this scene,'” Janiak said with a laugh.

Janiak and her crew finished shooting the films by the end of August 2019, with June 2020 release dates being originally eyed for the trilogy. The post-production process was “kind of normal,” Janiak recalled, though merger talk still dominated. And then the pandemic arrived.

“Shortly into 2020, the pandemic hit and everything was different then,” Janiak said. “We got reduced to a very small [post-production] crew. I think the conversations with Netflix had started earlier, but that’s when it became immortalized and real. To be honest, Netflix was kind of pursuing this from before the green light. They just couldn’t because of the way Chernin Entertainment’s deal worked with Fox.”

While Disney had absorbed the films because of the merger, the pandemic forced the studio to pull them from the release calendar. But the Chernin Entertainment pact didn’t survive: In April 2020, Chernin Entertainment ended its deal with Disney and moved to Netflix, as first reported by The Wrap. In August 2020, Deadline reported that Netflix had officially picked up the trilogy, and was already working on plans to market the entire series as part of a special “Summer of Fear” package. Janiak was thrilled.

“It was a dream come true for me because I was like, okay, this is a new thing. Netflix is good at doing new things,” she said. “They are not burdened by old structures and old ideas for what distribution must mean or what a movie means or what a TV show means. Their minds are just like, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s do it.’ I was super excited when that happened.” (Janiak knows a thing or two about Netflix’s interest and ability in doing new things: she’s married to “Stranger Things” co-creator Ross Duffer.)

While early reports held that Netflix would roll the films out a month at a time, as Fox had first imagined, eventually the streamer pivoted to a weekly schedule that would see each film hitting the streamer on a Friday in July. The second and third “Fear Street” films even open with the kind of recap sequences you’d expect to see from a TV series. Janiak, who cut those “previously on” sequences herself, loves the throwback feel of the information-packed bits.

She also loves the movie-of-the-week schedule. “I’m excited about the week apart because it still lets you have that event thing, but also not too much,” Janiak said. “I shouldn’t even be saying this, but I hate waiting. I hate waiting! I want the instant gratification too. I think this is a happy medium of a little bit of a wait, but not too much where you’re still like, ‘Ugh. I have to wait this long?’ I was so annoyed when I was waiting for ‘Mare of Easttown’ [episodes], I was like, ‘How do we have to wait every week to get to this?'”

For fans of “Fear Street,” the wait isn’t long at all.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, July 2. “Fear Street Part 2: 1978” hits the streamer on July 9, with “Fear Street Part 3: 1666” following on July 16.

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