Why Netflix Shifted Its First-Ever Upfront Event from In-Person to Virtual

The last-minute change comes courtesy of the WGA strike and the NYPD, IndieWire is told.
STRANGER THINGS. (L to R) Charlie Heaton as Jonthan Byers, Eduardo Franco as Argyle, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Noah Schnapp as Will Byers in STRANGER THINGS. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
"Stranger Things 4" on Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix was pumped up for its first-ever upfront, an in-person event set for Wednesday, May 17 at its own Paris Theater in New York City. It sounds like the WGA was equally excited to ruin it.

The striking WGA told the NYPD that they would disrupt the event, one person with intimate knowledge of the streamer’s upfront plans shared with IndieWire. The NYPD was worried about pedestrian safety, the person claimed, so Netflix decided to pivot the event to virtual.

“We planned a legal, peaceful picket of Netflix’ Upfronts at the Paris Theater in New York City, where the streaming giant aims to sell advertisers using the content writers create, while at the same time refusing to negotiate a fair contract with those writers,” the WGA said in a statement released to IndieWire. “Last week more than 1,000 WGA members, plus members of SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the Teamsters picketed outside Netflix’s office in New York. The Union will continue to picket Netflix and other Studios until the Companies are ready to negotiate a fair deal that addresses writers’ legitimate concerns.”

And yes, those talks with the NYPD about protesting Netflix’s upfront happened, a WGA insider told us. The guild has coordinated all of its pickets with the police to ensure it has the proper sound permits and safety gates if necessary.  

The NYPD did not immediately respond to our inquiry on the matter.

It’s a major loss for Netflix. This would have been a chance to show off (in person) its revamped Paris Theater, which it’s renovated under a long-term lease since 2019, and lean into its AVOD commitment. Virtual upfront presentations are far less effective and less enjoyable than the real deal (trust us.). Annual TV upfronts are meant to dazzle the advertising dollars away from potential clients. As we’ve all learned in the past few years, dazzle dims over Zoom.

Depending on venue, production value, attendees, and other extras, an upfront event can easily cost a company from several-hundred-thousand dollars to north of $1 million, a source from another presenting media company told IndieWire for this story. Larger-scale upfront venues include NBCUniversal at Radio City Music Hall, Fox at Manhattan Center, Disney at the Javits Center, and Warner Bros. Discovery at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.) Netflix owns the Paris, so it either got the venue gratis or the streamer is (in a way) paying itself. That said, it’s Netflix, so the sky may have been the limit, budget-wise.

IndieWire asked a Netflix rep about the company’s costs incurred for the scrapped in-person event, but we did not immediately receive a reply.

Netflix’s upfront was — and still is — set for Wednesday, May 17 at 5 p.m. ET. Just now we all have to live-stream it.

The writers guild has steadily picketed Netflix since the WGA and AMPTP (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) failed to come to a new agreement earlier this month. IndieWire was there on Day 1, outside the streamer’s offices at the corner of Sunset and Van Ness in Los Angeles. Find our video interviews from that initial protest here.

One of the union’s main beefs lies in the lack of residuals from streamers, with Netflix at the forefront. Streaming has also changed the game in terms of length of employment: Writers are now often contracted for fewer episodes due to the smaller-batch orders from digital platforms, the WGA says. And the pace is swifter as well, the guild argues — so whether one is paid per-week or per-episode, the checks are getting smaller.

NBCUNIVERSAL UPFRONT EVENTS -- 2022 NBCUniversal Upfront in New York City on Monday, May 16, 2022 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Top Chef; Tom Schwartz, Tom Sandoval, Ariana Madix, Vanderpump Rules; Malia White, Below Deck Mediterranean; Gizelle Bryant, The Real Housewives of Potomac; Josh Flagg, Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles; Karen Huger, The Real Housewives of Potomac; Garcelle Beauvais, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills; Teresa Giudice, The Real Housewives of New Jersey; Daisy Kelliher, Below Deck Sailing Yacht; Tracy Tutor, Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles; Kenya Moore, The Real Housewives of Atlanta -- (Photo by: Eric Liebowitz/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NBCUNIVERSAL UPFRONT EVENTS — 2022 NBCUniversal Upfront in New York City on Monday, May 16, 2022NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

This year, Netflix swooped into the former Paramount upfront week slot when the home to CBS, Paramount+, Pluto TV, and Viacom’s cable channels decided to walk away from a full-fledged upfront event. CBS would historically reveal its fall TV schedule to advertisers and media buyers (and us, the attending press) from the iconic confines of Carnegie Hall.

Netflix is the newcomer this upfront season after it launched its “Basic with Ads” tier in late 2022. The company that swore it would never have commercials is suddenly a big, big fan of advertising. The WGA knew exactly what it was blowing up here.

As of this writing, next week’s respective upfront events for NBCU, Fox, The Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros. Discovery, and The CW are all still being held live in New York City.

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