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Canine movie star Benji is ready for his close-up on Netflix

Canine movie star Benji is ready for his close-up on Netflix
A publicity photo from the original "Benji" released in 1974. (Camp Brand)

Netflix is hoping to learn some new tricks from an old dog.

The streaming video behemoth has acquired the rights to a new version of the classic family film “Benji,” featuring the canine character that became an unlikely box office sensation in the 1970s and ’80s.

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If the movie catches on with Netflix subscribers after it premieres in March, the company has the option to partner on sequels or a TV series, furthering its foray into kids programming.

Streaming services have become a desirable alternative for families that want to have greater control over what their kids watch and keep them away from commercials or racy content.

Netflix also faces more competition for young viewers. The company will soon be up against Walt Disney Co. for streaming customers, and young video consumers will be a key target audience.

Disney plans to have its own direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2019, and will remove its content, including kids-oriented fare, from Netflix. Disney’s deal to acquire the film and TV assets of 21st Century Fox, announced Thursday, is expected to heavily fortify that effort.

Family and kid-oriented content is a significant piece of Netflix’s business. Peter Csathy, chairman of the tech advisory firm Creatv Media, said 50% of the company’s subscribers watch children’s programming on a regular basis.

The Los Gatos, Calif., company has been snapping up kids properties from a variety of sources, ranging from shows based on toys to the characters of comic publishing house Millarworld. DreamWorks Animation Television will have six new original series premiering on the service in 2018.

“If you are an owner of family-oriented premium content that has any kind of brand or franchise value, you are in a great position right now,” Csathy said. “The war is on and it’s all about amassing the largest army of compelling franchises that you can. They are going to continue to cobble up some properties to build out their own family fare.”

Those market conditions were ideal for The Camp Brand, the company led by original “Benji” creator Joe Camp and his writer-director son Brandon, who have sought to bring their franchise to a new generation.

Benji’s journey into streaming offers a lesson in deal making in the Netflix era.

Joe Camp was a Dallas-based commercial producer and filmmaking neophyte when he wrote, directed and marketed his first “Benji” feature for less than $1 million. The film got nearly $40 million in box-office receipts, putting it in the top 10 for the year in 1974.

Camp was inspired by the animated Disney feature “Lady and the Tramp” to make a live-action movie with a dog that could really act. After a massive search he found one in Higgins, a soulful-eyed mixed breed who was plucked out of a Burbank animal shelter and became a regular on the CBS series “Petticoat Junction” in the 1960s. The pooch had been in retirement before Camp offered a shot at big screen fame.

The original “Benji” is seen from the dog’s point of view (cameras were mounted on skateboards to shoot Higgins at eye level). But Camp’s homespun, G-rated approach to the story of a dog who rescues two children being held for ransom was considered out of step with the times, even in the 1970s.

After “Benji” was turned down by every Hollywood studio, Camp put the movie out himself. He handled his own distribution of the film, opening it market by market across the country, and custom designed an ad campaign for each city. The dog and his trainer Frank Inn traveled to promote the release on local TV and in public appearances. Camp’s wife handled the merchandising, putting Benji on lunchboxes and other products.

Camp stuck to his intimate story telling approach in Benji sequels, two of which were among the top 10 box office films in the years they were released. But his last film, “Benji: Off the Leash,” failed to break through in 2004, as his do-it-yourself approach could not compete with studios that were spending up to $50 million to market and promote kids films.

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Hollywood’s obsession with familiar titles led to interest in a Benji reboot, and for the last several years Camp’s son Brandon looked for a partner to do an updated version. But the Camps were not willing to hand over their beloved property to an outfit that would alter their vision.

The reaction Brandon Camp received in meetings was almost the same as what his father heard decades earlier. No one wanted an earnest, low-tech adventure story featuring a shelter dog without superpowers or some snappy interior monologues.

“We were told we had to make it sci-fi, we had to make it animated, we have to make it cool and edgy and sarcastic and we had to put a voiceover so adults will like it too,” Brandon Camp said. “Of course studios completely missed the point. What made Benji work in the first place is that he was an ordinary dog. He couldn’t talk. He definitely wanted to tell human beings that something was amiss but he didn’t have words, so he had to find other means of communicating.”

Brandon Camp ended up with a surprising partner in Jason Blum, the founder of Blumhouse, who was familiar with his father’s track record as a film business maverick. Blum’s company, maker of the hits “Paranormal Activity” and “Get Out,” has specialized in low budget hits that give filmmakers greater control.

While family fare does not exactly fit into the Blumhouse brand, Blum saw Joe Camp as a kindred spirit with the maverick approach he used to make “Benji” a hit. Blum also has backed Crypt TV, the digital video startup in Burbank.

“There were a lot of parallels between the release of ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Benji,’ ” Blum said. “They were weird indie movies. Everyone passed on them and no one believed in them.”

The elder Camp had never heard of Blum and was skeptical when he looked him up on Google and saw his company’s horror titles. He feared that he’d turn the cuddly Benji into Cujo. But Blum won them over with his enthusiasm and a promise to let the Camps make the “Benji” film they wanted to make.

Blumhouse helped finance the film and persuaded the Camps to let him offer it to Netflix instead of doing a theatrical release. Blum had sold a number of films and TV series with the company, all of which were profitable.

The new “Benji” was made for $6 million and Blum shopped it to Netflix. The companies did not disclose the price, but people familiar with the negotiations said Netflix paid more than $10 million for the rights.

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Going to Netflix was a more economical option for the producers. If the movie had gone into a theatrical release, it would have needed to gross $20 million before the Camps and Blumhouse would have seen any profit, Blum noted.

“I won’t say that I went into this thinking we would stream,” Brandon Camp said. “I believed in my dad’s model. But all I needed to do is look around at my own kids. I’ve got four of them. They all have a device in their hands and that’s how they are watching content.”

The fact that Benji doesn’t talk actually worked in the Camps’ favor with Netflix, which wants programming that can cross cultural barriers and appeal to its users in the 190 countries where the service is available.

“People all over the world grew up having watched ‘Benji’ with their families,” Scott Stuber, head of original film at Netflix, said in a statement to The Times. “We knew this film will allow our members around the world to keep sharing this story with their families...And who doesn’t love an adorable dog?”

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