Monday, July 15, 2024

Near the height of the streaming boom in the fall of 2018, a half-dozen studios and video platforms lined up to woo a little-known filmmaker named Carl Erik Rinsch. He had directed only one movie, “47 Ronin.” It was a commercial and critical dud, and Mr. Rinsch’s tussles with its producers had raised eyebrows, even in an industry where such conflicts are the norm.But memories in Hollywood are short, and the demand for new content was intense. In just a decade, the number of scripted TV shows had soared from 200 to more than 500, with new streaming services from Disney, Apple and NBCUniversal on the way. Amid the feeding frenzy, the project that Mr. Rinsch was pitching — a science-fiction series about artificial humans — became a hot property.After a competitive auction, Mr. Rinsch and his representatives reached an informal eight-figure agreement with Amazon. But before they had a chance to put it in writing, Netflix swooped in. Cindy Holland, the company’s vice president of original content at the time, called Mr. Rinsch at home on a Sunday and dangled millions of dollars more, as well as something studios rarely gave directors: final cut.Netflix won the deal — and would soon come to regret it.The project with Mr. Rinsch has turned into a costly fiasco, a microcosm of the era of profligate spending that Hollywood studios now are scrambling to end. Netflix burned more than $55 million on Mr. Rinsch’s show and gave him near-total budgetary and creative latitude but never received a single finished episode.Soon after he signed the contract, Mr. Rinsch’s behavior grew erratic, according to members of the show’s cast and crew, texts and emails reviewed by The New York Times, and court filings in a divorce case brought by his wife. He claimed to have discovered Covid-19’s secret transmission mechanism and to be able to predict lightning strikes. He gambled a large chunk of the money from Netflix on the stock market and cryptocurrencies. He spent millions of dollars on a fleet of Rolls-Royces, furniture and designer clothing.Mr. Rinsch and Netflix are now locked in a confidential arbitration proceeding initiated by Mr. Rinsch, who claims the company breached their contract and owes him at least $14 million in damages. Netflix has denied owing Mr. Rinsch anything and has called his demands a shakedown.It’s not uncommon for Hollywood productions to run into trouble, but a debacle of this magnitude is rare. And it has surfaced at an inopportune moment, with Hollywood under pressure from investors to cut back on lavish spending and to focus on making profits rather than adding streaming subscribers at any cost. That squeeze is only expected to intensify. Hollywood studios’ recent agreements to pay writers and actors more are likely to further pinch profits.Mr. Rinsch declined to respond to a detailed list of questions. In a recent Instagram post, he said he did not cooperate with The Times because he expected the article to be “inaccurate.” He predicted that it would “discuss the fact that I somehow lost my mind … (Spoiler alert) … I did not.”Thomas Cherian, a spokesman for Netflix, said the company had provided substantial funding and other support to Mr. Rinsch’s series, but “after a lot of time and effort, it became clear that Mr. Rinsch was never going to complete the project he agreed to make, and so we wrote the project off.”‘The Organic Intelligent’By all accounts, Mr. Rinsch, 46, is a talented filmmaker. The youngest son of an insurance executive, he grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley and started renting camera equipment and shooting short films in his early teens. After attending Brown University, he returned to Los Angeles and joined Ridley Scott’s production company, making commercials and apprenticing under the acclaimed director.Friends say Mr. Rinsch always had a quirky side. He had a habit of telling tall tales about his childhood, claiming that he grew up in Africa and that his father was a spy. While living at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica for a stretch, he insisted that the staff cover every inch of his room in white sheets.Mr. Rinsch’s career began to take off in 2010 when a short film he made for the Dutch electronics maker Philips won top awards at the Cannes Lions international advertising festival.
There was talk that Mr. Rinsch would direct a prequel to “Alien,” Mr. Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, for his feature film debut. Instead, Universal Studios hired him to direct “47 Ronin,” a big-budget action movie starring Keanu Reeves.The project encountered difficulties. Mr. Rinsch clashed with Scott Stuber, one of the producers, and at one point was removed from the editing room, according to a person familiar with what happened. When the film was released on Christmas Day in 2013, it bombed. Universal had to write off a large portion of its $175 million budget.Mr. Rinsch went back to making commercials. On the side, he and his wife — a Uruguayan model and fashion designer, Gabriela Rosés Bentancor — began working on a passion project: a sci-fi TV series about a genius who invents a humanlike species called the Organic Intelligent. The O.I. are deployed to trouble spots around the globe to provide humanitarian aid, but humans eventually discover their true nature and turn against them. Mr. Rinsch called the show “White Horse,” a reference to the first horseman of the apocalypse.At first, Mr. Rinsch financed the production with his own money and hired mostly European actors and crew members, which reduced costs and avoided Hollywood union rules. The early shoots followed punishing schedules. During a shoot in Kenya, Mr. Rinsch insisted on filming for 24 hours straight, two members of the production said. In Romania, the lead actress caught hypothermia doing a scene barelegged in the snow and had to be rushed to a hospital, they said.To keep the project going, Mr. Rinsch secured an investment from 30West, a production company backed by the billionaire entrepreneur Dan Friedkin. But when Mr. Rinsch missed a deadline, 30West threatened to take possession of the project. Mr. Reeves, the Hollywood star, who had become friends with Mr. Rinsch during the shooting of “Ronin,” came to his rescue by investing in the show and becoming a producer alongside Ms. Rosés.With the money Mr. Reeves contributed, Mr. Rinsch finished editing six short episodes ranging from four to 10 minutes. He used them to pitch the big streaming companies on a 13-episode, 120-minute first season. At the time, streaming services were in an expensive arms race for content to attract new subscribers. Netflix, in particular, was lavishing money and creative control on top creators like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. Hollywood was also open to new show formats. Quibi, a short-form video platform conceived by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former DreamWorks Animation chief, had just been founded to much fanfare.Mr. Rinsch’s pitch attracted interest from Amazon, HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Apple and YouTube. Amazon — which had shown its willingness to spend big by paying nearly $250 million for the rights to make a television show based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” — looked set to win the bidding. But Netflix snatched the project away at the last minute, convinced it had the potential to become a sci-fi franchise as successful as “Stranger Things” that could spawn sequels and spinoffs.The company agreed to pay $61.2 million in several installments for the rights to the series, which it renamed “Conquest,” according to a November 2018 term sheet reviewed by The Times. The deal included two unusual clauses: Netflix gave Mr. Rinsch final cut, a privilege it had previously bestowed on only a few directors. And it assured Mr. Rinsch and Ms. Rosés that they would remain “locked for life” to all subsequent seasons and spinoffs.In granting Mr. Rinsch such generous terms, Netflix ignored several red flags. One was the project’s troubled past. At the time, Mr. Rinsch was still fighting with 30West and other early investors. (They received $14 million of the $61 million from Netflix under a legal settlement.) Another was the fact that the series didn’t have a complete script.Netflix also overlooked Mr. Rinsch’s checkered reputation in Hollywood. Mr. Stuber, the producer who had clashed with him on “Ronin,” had joined Netflix’s movie division a year earlier. Ms. Holland, the company’s head of original content, didn’t consult him before buying “Conquest.”

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