House of Cards was the first big-ticket Netflix original. The political drama's success inspired Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) to invest billions of dollars into exclusive shows and movies. Five years later, production has stalled due to a scandal involving superstar Kevin Spacey.
Netflix has officially cut all ties with him, vowing not to proceed with production as long as Spacey is involved, but the production studio behind House of Cards isn't ready to shut the backlot lights off quite yet.
What's going on?
Media news site Deadline got its hands on a letter from Media Rights Capital to the House of Cards cast and crew. The memo states that the cast and other union members will continue to be paid for another two weeks while Media Rights works out a new deal with Netflix.
Writers are still working on the show, along with a skeleton crew of supporting staff. Non-working crew members will be paid according to union guidelines for unscheduled production downtime. The company hopes to have better news to share by Dec. 8.
What does this mean?
Kevin Spacey's scandal hit the news wires at the end of October. The letter says that payments will be made for "an additional two weeks," indicating that the writers may have been cooking up a Spacey-less version of season 6 for nearly a full month already. This could very well be the third two-week extension of this stalled schedule, but the first one to have caught the eye of fact-finding reporters.
It's unclear exactly how this effort would work out. Netflix has promised to "not be involved with any further production that includes Kevin Spacey" (emphasis mine), giving the companies some wiggle room to use whatever had been taped before the scandal. The writers would simply have to kill off Spacey's character, President Frank Underwood, and carry on without him. That way, some potentially expensive footage could be saved with a minimal loss of face.
The show could also remove Underwood before the start of season 6, forcing the story in a different direction from day one. This option would sacrifice most, if not all, of the existing footage while distancing Netflix from Spacey as quickly and clearly as possible.
A less drastic solution would be to replace Spacey with another actor. This wouldn't be the first time a leading actor was replaced in the middle of a major production, but this idea wouldn't play well with Netflix's image as a nurturing protector of creative talents. In plain English, it would be a cop-out.
And all of these choices are complicated by the fact that Kevin Spacey was a driving force behind the series as a whole, and is listed as an executive producer. As such, Spacey may have a financial stake in this production.
On the upside, season 6 was scheduled to start shooting right at the end of October. If there's any material in the can at all, it would be a small amount. Hence, let's forget about the financial impact of going in a different direction -- there's not a whole lot of existing content to sacrifice.
As for Spacey's financial interest, he's not exactly in a position to make expensive demands. Netflix needs to decide whether it can live with Spacey's name in the credits as an executive producer and move on from there. Could the company send one final check, rewrite the production contracts to remove the ghost of Kevin Spacey, and soldier on? This should be a major sticking point, and could very well spell the premature end of House of Cards.
That being said, I do expect a sixth and final season to join the Netflix catalog next year. Netflix might scale down the ambition and budget of this last dance, especially given the sordid nature of Spacey's exit, but the show that got Netflix started down this game-changing road seems to deserve a proper ending.