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Can Netflix’s New Film Boss Dan Lin Help the Streamer Make More Movies Worth Watching?

In 2022, Dan Lin, the producer of “The Lego Movie” and “It,” was in negotiations to become head of DC Studios. It was a singular opportunity to reimagine the company behind Superman, Batman and other costumed heroes. But talks broke down. Among the reported reasons was that David Zaslav, the head of DC’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, and Lin could not agree on a way to properly compensate him for leaving his production company Rideback for the new gig.

So why, less than two years later, has Lin decided to take a different corporate job, overseeing Netflix’s film division? And what kinds of obstacles will he need to overcome if Netflix is going to raise the quality of the movies it makes?

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For Lin, Netflix offers a vast consumer base, one that overshadows those of rivals like Max or Disney+. It’s also more stable than other media companies. Its stock dipped sharply as Wall Street has looked at streaming economics more skeptically, but it hasn’t cratered like the share prices of Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney or Paramount Global. At Netflix, Lin has a rare opportunity to help forge the future of the film business at a moment where traditional movie studios are scrambling to find ways to reengage with their audience. Streaming has become the way that most people watch movies, and Netflix has a clear headstart on its dizzying number of rivals when it comes to attracting customers.

Still, many in town were surprised that Lin would relinquish control of his 16-year-old baby, Rideback, the company behind hits like “Aladdin” and the “Sherlock Holmes” film series starring Robert Downey Jr. Netflix isn’t buying Rideback. It will continue to produce movies without its founder at the helm and with executives Jonathan Eirich and Michael LoFaso serving as co-CEOs. And though Netflix is known for giving its executives generous pay packages, the high-profile nature of the job means that Lin, who was able to go about his business without much fanfare for most of his career, will be more intensely scrutinized. That means a larger target on his back.

But Netflix chief content officer Bela Bajaria, whom Lin will report to, clearly felt that Lin and his reputation for spinning popular film franchises out of toys (“The Lego Movie”), murderous clowns (Stephen King’s “It”) and 19th century detectives (“Sherlock Holmes”) was just what the streamer needed. She moved quickly, announcing Lin’s hire just over a month after former film chair Scott Stuber stepped down in late January.

Sources close to Lin say he saw an opportunity to create a dynamic similar to Rideback within Netflix — making splashy auteur-driven films from established masters, while simultaneously mentoring a new generation of filmmakers. Some industry colleagues even wondered if in taking the film chief role, Lin is positioning himself for an even bigger job at the streamer down the road.

Under Stuber, Netflix was able to become a true studio, producing big-budget movies with top talent. When he joined the company, Stuber’s primary focus was making major directors like Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”), Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”) and David Fincher (“The Killer”) comfortable with the idea of producing movies that would stream instead of screen in cinemas. (He threw in limited theatrical runs in some cases to make the leap less jarring). And many of those movies scored Oscar nominations and critical acclaim. However, Netflix also earned a reputation for being overly indulgent – spending north of $100 million on Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” without generating any awards love.

But more troubling was Netflix’s struggle to make many broadly appealing movies worth watching. Netflix spent lavishly on action projects like “Red Notice,” which featured Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and some terrible special effects, as well as the critically derided Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans spy thriller “The Gray Man” and, in early days, the Will Smith adventure “Bright.” Netflix has a massive audience, but there are more options available to its customers than ever before when it comes to streaming. If Netflix can’t find a way to make action movies, comedies and other popular genres that are better than those offered by a Disney+ or a Max, it risks losing subscribers to them.

The company has also struggled to figure out the right cadence for its film releases. At one point, it committed to releasing a new movie every week, only to backtrack and cut that number in half. Under Lin, will Netflix make fewer bets and spend more time developing material, or will it go back to the volume business?

A major problem for Netflix is that it often must outbid competitors for glossy packages, regardless of their quality, because it lacks in-house intellectual property. Unlike Disney, Netflix can’t make live-action versions of moldering animated classics or mine a “Star Wars” or “Avengers” for a series of one-off adventures or interconnected cinematic universes.

But as a producer, Lin has been particularly adroit at finding unlikely material that has franchise potential. Before “The Lego Movie,” the titular brick toys didn’t seem to have a tremendous amount of narrative potential. But Lin and his creative team figured out a way to use them to create a series of movies that had enough humor and heart to appeal to both parents and kids. And in “Sherlock Holmes,” he was able to reinvent the Baker Street detective as a steampunk brawler, tapping Guy Ritchie to give the character a gritty makeover. Then there’s “It,” a sprawling Stephen King novel that had bedeviled efforts to bring it to screen – the 2017 reboot instead became the horror author’s most commercially successful movie because it remained true to the source material by splitting it into two stories. The popularity of the movies spawned a prequel TV series, “Welcome to Derry.”

Moreover, Lin has a reputation for being frugal, something Netflix will no doubt appreciate as every media company faces tightening budgets. “The Lego Movie” cost roughly $60 million, while “It: Chapter One” was produced for an economical $35 million. Lin also has experience making a wide range of films. He has produced summer tentpoles, big family animation and prestige dramas, working with Netflix on the Oscar-nominated “The Two Popes.” And although he’s been his own boss for some time, Lin has experience working as an employee at larger institutions. Prior to founding Rideback, he spent eight years at Warner Bros. as senior VP of production, working on movies like Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

Then there are Lin’s personal qualities. Peers describe him as a straight shooter, so even-keeled that he barely seems to break a sweat or lose his temper when problems inevitably arise. Lin also tries to give creative talent freedom, largely leaving them alone to make their movies without drowning them in notes, sources said. One film executive pointed to the “Lego” franchise and its directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller as an example of his ability to nurture talent. But despite his boosterism for filmmakers, Lin also “isn’t afraid to say when something doesn’t work, creatively,” added another insider.

Lin has also demonstrated his shrewd business sense. One talent agent was impressed when Lin joined forces with Disney to handle certain live action reboots of animated classics that the studio didn’t want to make in-house. Those include the hit “Aladdin,” as well as the misfire “Haunted Manson.” The jury’s still out on Lin’s “Lilo & Stitch” remake, which is days away from finishing production.

It can’t be easy for Lin to walk away from Rideback after close to two decades, though people close to Lin insist the company will forge ahead under Eirich (who is married to well-liked Paramount movie exec Daria Cercek) and LaFaso. In recent months, Lin had been gathering key animators to discuss launching a Rideback animation studio. Plans to build that unit will continue under the new leadership, a person with knowledge of the company said.

Right now, Lin is busy fielding congratulatory calls, texts and emails. But there’s going to be a period of adjustment ahead as he moves from making movies to navigating corporate politics. One former studio head noted that things change when you are responsible for overseeing an entire film slate. Instead of being intimately involved in producing a particular movie, Lin’s days will be spent in meetings on budgets and quarterly earnings. That means he’ll have to delegate and multitask if he’s going to be effective.

That’s not the only thing that will be different for Lin.

“He’s going to be saying ‘No’ a lot more than he ever has in his career,” the studio chief said. “It’s great to be the person who says ‘Yes.’ It doesn’t feel good to say ‘no.’”

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