From the moment Netflix announced earlier this month that its sci-fi mystery “The OA” had been canceled after two seasons, fans knew they had to come up with innovative ways to get the provocative drama back into production.
A grass-roots crowdfunding campaign raised more than $5,000 in 24 hours for massive digital billboards launching Monday in New York City’s Times Square and across from College Medical Center in Hawthorne. Two flash mobs are also planned, near the billboard and outside Netflix’s New York offices, with superfans re-creating the series’ “five movements” choreography — a surreal, kinesthetic representation of the characters’ hopes. And protests at Netflix’s Sunset Boulevard campus have attracted growing attention, with at least one hunger-striking picketer and a Facebook page for those hoping to join her.
What does it take to save a beloved television show from extinction? If the experience of #SaveTheOA is any indication, in 2019, it might require a bolder strategy than ever.
On Aug. 5, the day news of the series’ cancellation broke, fans of “The OA” — who’d already been planning a #RenewTheOA Twitter campaign — leaped into action, launching a Change.org petition that now counts nearly 80,000 signatures.
At this point, it’s a familiar narrative: The proliferation of TV series and distribution platforms has at once increased the likelihood that any given program will fail to find a large enough audience, and the likelihood that a passionate fan base can bring a canceled program back to life. Just last year, Netflix relented to pressure and granted another sci-fi drama, “Sense8,” a two-hour finale; and NBC, in the midst of fans’ uproar, picked up “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” just one day after Fox gave it the ax.
“I think when shows get canceled these days, there are more opportunities than ever to find new homes for the programs,” explained Eric Deggans, NPR television critic. “And given the extensive use of social media by TV fans to connect with each other, it’s only natural that they would network on how to create publicity for a show that they love, so it might be resurrected elsewhere or in a different form.”
In the case of “The OA,” created and executive produced by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, that connection runs particularly deep. Fans say the series, which stars Marling as a blind woman who returns with her vision restored after going missing for seven years, has resonated with many marginalized viewers, because it imagines a world in which people can confront trauma and emerge a stronger version of themselves.
“The existence of disabled and mentally ill characters, of LGBTQIA characters and characters of color, is really quite groundbreaking in its portrayal of these groups,” said superfan organizer Mandy Paris, who also praises the series’ focus on nonviolence and collective action as agents of change. “There have been YouTube videos that discuss how the show helps people with PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder and other disorders, making people feel seen and understood.”
“One fan said, ‘I have never done anything like this’ or ‘I never dance,’ and yet people are really putting themselves out there, making ‘The OA’ ‘real,’ so to speak,” Paris added, referring to “digital flash mobs” in which fans posted videos of themselves performing the movements on social media (subsequently collected on the fan website theoaisreal.com.) “The movements are all about faith, trust, believing in something more than yourself — that’s what the fans are hoping to demonstrate by sharing these videos en masse.”
One challenge, for fans of “The OA,” has been navigating the newer waters of Netflix, which only selectively releases viewership numbers and is notoriously tight-lipped about its programming strategy. (Netflix declined to comment for this story, referring instead to the statement made by vice president of original content Cindy Holland upon the series’ cancellation.)
“This is a Netflix original and they have exclusive rights to it, so despite the streaming service never marketing for the series, it’s unlikely to be picked up anywhere else,” Paris said.
As a consequence, the protesters are trying to work with, rather than against, the streaming service. Their concern that “The OA” was never given the chance to reach its potential audience echoes a criticism that has followed the recent cancellations of other Netflix series, such as “American Vandal,” “One Day at a Time” (later revived by Pop), “Santa Clarita Diet” and “Tuca and Bertie.”
“Many people haven’t seen this show,” said Paris. “But rather than run a hostile campaign, we want to bring the attention to ‘The OA’ and demonstrate to Netflix that the show could have a much wider reach if people knew about it. We’re running a multifaceted campaign, organized through a Discord chat with watchtheoa.com as our hub, focusing on fans who want to help campaign for the show’s renewal.”
On Aug. 11, superfan organizer Ryan Lulofs created a GoFundMe for a billboard in Times Square to advertise “The OA” and attract more viewers — meeting the goal of $3,500 the same day, and eventually exceeding $5,500 before Lulofs stopped accepting donations.
“OA” fans, linked via social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter, divvied up key tasks, such as press relations and graphic design, to launch the billboard, which uses fan art by Magicelum but was animated by a team of “OA” fans from the Czech Republic to Brazil.
“The concept for the billboard was to use fan art to advertise for the series, because Netflix expected word-of-mouth alone to be enough marketing,” Paris said. “We want to be clear that we’re willing to do whatever it takes — including crowdfunding for proper marketing — to save the series.”
Other novel tactics have included a green initiative under the banner #GreenOA, through which fans have cleaned up local parks and highways; fundraising for A21, the anti-human trafficking nonprofit; writing heartfelt testimonials about the series’ impact to executive producers, including Holland; and delivering flowers to Netflix, a reference to the series’ second season, in which flowers play a prominent role.
As Deggans suggested, such actions can offer networks another way of seeing the value of a series and its audience.
“They may have other shows they believe in more, there’s a business relationship they are serving, or they may not value the audience the show brings in quite as much as some other shows,” he said. “So fans learn that they can create a climate where show creators and stars can advocate to continue the show in a different form, or a different place.”
On Aug. 21, 15 picketers gathered for three hours outside Netflix’s offices in Hollywood, part of the latest stage in the campaign to save “The OA” — one that has attracted outsized attention thanks to hunger-striking activist Emperial Young. But although she describes the series as a “work of art, worthy of preservation,” Young’s goals go beyond its completion. (One common complaint among fans has been that the second season ends on a cliffhanger. It’s even been theorized that the cancellation itself is a marketing ploy.)
“While it looks like I’m protesting a TV cancellation on the surface, I am protesting the capitalist forces that killed the show, general lack of societal support resources, and to raise awareness about properly teaching AI,” Young said. “The cancellation is a lens for these topics. Which doesn’t mean I’m not trying to save the show. I definitely, definitely am! But that’s not all I’m doing.”
“Hunger strikes should not be undertaken frivolously,” Young wrote. “While I support individual autonomy and the right to choose for yourself, please examine your motives thoroughly.”
Young’s more radical approach also risks working at cross-purposes with other fans’ efforts to appeal to Netflix, rather than alienate it.
Commenting on Young’s hunger strike, Paris said: “#SaveTheOA respects the right to protest through legal channels, however we cannot condone hunger strikes or other methods that cause personal, physical harm.”
At the heart of the intense feelings about the cancellation of “The OA” and other Netflix series is the streamer’s brand, which has often seemed closer kin to that of tech companies like Facebook and Google than traditional TV networks. Part of the ire over the cancellation of “One Day at a Time,” for instance, stemmed from the decision not to renew a series that Netflix had “applauded itself for airing,” per the Washington Post.
“Netflix has always been a disruptor,” Claire Kiechel, a writer on Season 2 of “The OA,” told The Times. “I believe they have a real opportunity to disrupt television by continuing to support stories that have the potential to change the world, to make us all a little better, a little kinder, a little more hopeful. If law firms can have pro bono policies that allow them to take cases that are not purely profit-driven, I believe Hollywood might also benefit from having similar policies that look behind the numbers to the public good of a story’s impact.”
As TV series increasingly cultivate relationships with audiences that tap into existing communities, identities and interests — framing the medium as a force for good, in addition to a source of entertainment — it’s clear that the expectations of those audiences are changing, with sometimes unplanned effects.
“We’re humbled, to be honest floored, by the outpouring of support for ‘The OA,’” Marling wrote in a statement, posted to her Instagram Saturday. “We’ve seen beautiful artwork in eulogy from Japan, France, Brazil. We’ve read moving threads and essays. And we’ve watched dozens and dozens of videos of people all over the world performing the movements with what can only be called perfect feeling.”
In response, fans released a statement Sunday threatening the most common — and powerful — kind of consumer protest: boycotts, in the form of canceled Netflix subscriptions.
“In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, it’s companies who control and shape our culture — and what we crave most is human connection and meaning,” the statement read. “In rejecting sincerity and humanity, Netflix is endangering their own existence. If by September 10th Netflix does not renew or release ‘The OA’ to be bought or acquired by another platform or network, #SaveTheOA will begin advocating for mass cancellation.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)