Shortly after wrapping their 2018 choose-your-own-adventure film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, show creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones were fed up with interactive content.
“[They said,] ‘We never wanna do this again,'” recalls Andy Weil, Netflix’s vice president of comedy and interactive lead. “‘It’s too hard. You get lost in it at certain points.'”
But two Primetime Emmy Awards and a windfall of audience praise later, and Booker and Jones had a different tone.
“When you see the magic trick roll out on this service and it’s beautiful and it’s seamless and it works, it’s kind of addictive,” Weil says. “It’s so much fun to see it and also to see people’s reaction to it when they play it.”
Booker and Jones’s latest interactive experience is Cat Burglar, a Tex Avery-style cartoon that pits petty thief Rowdy Cat against museum security dog Peanut in a heist full of hijinks. But instead of the audience controlling a branching narrative, they have to correctly answer trivia questions to progress the story.
“We had been discussing internally about how to play with trivia on the service,” Weil says. “This is like a content experience meets a game.”
But Cat Burglar represents an evolution in how the streaming service is thinking of new storytelling formats and, of course, keeping audiences locked in.
“The animation is premium. The score was composed by a live orchestra to picture. It’s a [cinematic experience] rather than a mobile game,” Weil says. “That’s exciting to us to try out something different to make Netflix an attractive place to come play and then maybe push you to some of our other adult animation, like Cuphead, like BoJack, like Big Mouth—or even push you through our mobile games.”
To that end, Weil draws a distinction between Netflix’s interactive and mobile gaming endeavors.
“We are keeping each other abreast of everything that everyone is doing, and maybe they’ll eventually dovetail, but right now mobile games are mobile only and interactive is most devices, and it’s more of a cinematic experience.”
But is it worth it?
It’s hard to fault Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones for wanting to rage-quit interactive content after Bandersnatch. Creating a film or TV show that could go in a multitude of directions is, of course, exponentially more difficult to develop than a linear story line. Even with Cat Burglar, the plot may have one path, but every time a viewer gets a question wrong, there are subtle differences when you restart.
“It gets infinitely complicated. It took so many big brains—not mine—on the product side to help the producers and everyone come up with the structure,” Weil says. “It looks really simple when you watch it, but it is a really tough process.”
Weil also notes there’s not really a set format in creating interactive content, which brings distinct challenges to each project.
“There is no such thing as plug-and-play for interactive—each one is kind of bespoke,” he says. “So, it’s about scoping audience, making sure [the interactive content] feels unique and worth the time of our internal and external efforts.”
“The grand plan is to build content for our subscribers that they love and keep them subscribing,” Weil continues. “So it’s not like we need X number of interactive things to launch a year. We’re developing a lot of things, and if they’re great, then we’ll commission them—and if it feels like it will hit another audience that we haven’t hit before.”
Weil mentioned there’s a new interactive experience tentatively slated for next year that will be a departure from anything Netflix has done before, including the trivia format of Cat Burglar.
“We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” he says. “We want to constantly surprise and delight our subscribers. So it’s worth it if people love it.”
It’s clear the streamer is bullish on interactive content being less of a novelty and having a stronger footing in its deluge of programming. “It’s a differentiator for our service,” Weil says. “Since we are doing internet-delivered TV, there is a desire, I think, for the viewer to interact with content. And we can enhance it and make it more enjoyable and fun for people who want to interact with content.”