How did some basically unknown director allegedly scam Netflix for over 50 million dollars? And why is Keanu Reeves involved?!
A recent New York Times expose by reporter John Carreyrou revealed how the streamer had apparently been funneling money to director Carl Rinsch for a TV show he doesn’t seem to have actually ever planned on completing. So what in the world really happened here? Here’s our Take!
CH:1 The Crazy “Conquest” Controversy, Explained
The first thing you might think upon hearing this news is who? Carl Rinsch isn’t a very well-known director because he’s only ever made one feature film and it was, perhaps now unsurprisingly, also a disaster. 47 Ronin, a samurai drama starring Keanu Reeves, was a huge flop when it premiered in 2013. With a bloated budget of over $175 million, it only pulled in just over $20 million its opening weekend and ended up losing the studio well over $100 million. But even before its disastrous opening, the film had a tumultuous run. Rinsch, who had only directed a few commercials and shorts before being handed the reins of this behemoth of a project, found himself floundering pretty early on. His vision of the film didn’t really line up with what the executives wanted, he seemed to have some trouble directing the actors on set, and there were some reports of Rinsch having to be kicked out of the editing room during post-production (though according to Variety, “two highly placed sources deny that happened.”) Once the film premiered and flopped both critically and financially to such a huge degree, many thought that would be it for Rinsch as far as big budget projects – even Rinsch himself, for a while at least. After 47 Ronin, he returned to making commercials, but during this time he also started developing a new big idea.
Initially called “White Horse”, the show that would come to be known as “Conquest” was, according to the New York Times, “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.” At first, Rinsch financed the show with his own money – working to make a few very short episodes that could then be shown to larger production companies in the hopes of securing financing for the full series. Rinsch had sought to shoot outside of the control of Hollywood unions, and so dangerous conditions began popping up from the onset, including a continuous 24-hour shoot and one actress having to be taken to the emergency room due to contracting hypothermia while filming. Many of Rinsch’s issues with scope and keeping to a budget began to rear their heads again, as well, eventually leading him to seek outside funding. Though this money helped keep things going for a while, he still continued to fall behind schedule and eventually had to ask his friend Keanu Reeves to step in as a producer to help secure even more financing.
Nevertheless, Rinsch did eventually end up with a handful of short episodes to shop around and initially caught the interest of Amazon. But Netflix was looking for the ‘next big thing’ and swooped in, offering Rinsch more money and creative control. According to the New York Times article, “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.” In their mindless drive to find a new tentpole, Netflix didn’t check for a few important items in this project they were forking over tens of millions of dollars for, like if it had a finished script. (To the surprise of no one, starting production without even close to a finished script seems to be par for the course for nightmare productions that lose a bunch of money.) Rinsch also once again started causing problems on set. The New York Times article explains, “n São Paulo, the local film industry union dispatched a representative to the set after receiving a complaint that Mr. Rinsch was “mistreating the team” with “shouts,” “cursing” and “excessive irritation,” according to a letter the union sent Netflix’s local production partner.” His behavior became increasingly erratic, to the point that several people close to him (including his wife and Keanu) decided to hold an intervention. But this, unfortunately, didn’t lead to long-term changes.
By the time 2020 rolled around, Netflix had already spent over $40 million on the project, and Risch started asking for more, telling the company that the project would collapse without a new injection of funds. They sent $11 million more. Instead of using the funds to work on the production as agreed, he transferred almost all of it into his own account and used it to bet on the stock market and ended up losing over half of the money in just a few weeks. Over the course of lockdown, his behavior grew more and more unstable as he seemed to lean further into his interest in COVID-related conspiracies, once even telling a Netflix executive in an email that he could map “the coronavirus signal emanating from within the earth.” Rinsch had also allegedly become a danger at home back in 2019, apparently accusing his wife of plotting to have him killed, throwing things at her, and punching holes in the wall, eventually leading her to file for divorce. He had also begun betting on stocks using Netflix’s money again, but this time he used what was left of the $11 million to buy Dogecoin. His crypto bet paid off and he ended up walking away with nearly $27 million in the end. Instead of using this money to fund the project, however, he went on a shopping spree. “He bought five Rolls-Royces, a Ferrari, a $387,630 Vacheron Constantin watch, and millions of dollars worth of high-end furniture and designer clothing. The tab came to $8.7 million.” In his divorce case, he said the items were all props for the show & the money was all Netflix’s (and so not something he should have to split with his soon-to-be ex-wife); but then in the Netflix suit, he argued that not only was the money his but that Netflix actually owed him millions more.
After the years-long back and forth, Netflix had begun to realize that “Conquest” likely wasn’t ever going to materialize, and so decided to wash their hands of it. But Rinsch wasn’t done with Netflix. He went into arbitration with the streamer alleging that not only was the money he earned from the crypto all his, but Netflix still had to pay him an additional $14 million. Netflix, already $55 million in the hole for a show that they’ve never seen any proof actually exists in any capacity (they’ve still never even seen any of the footage he allegedly did shoot), of course, sees things differently. According to the New York Times, “n a motion it filed in July, the company said the payments were contingent on Mr. Rinsch’s hitting various production milestones, which it contends he never did.” More than anything, this wild story makes us wonder what is going on with Netflix?!
CH 2: Netflix’s Weird Budget
While Rinsch apparently fleecing Netflix for possibly tens of millions of dollars for a TV show that he never even made is kind of funny, it also brings up questions around what Netflix and other streamers are and aren’t willing to spend money on. While these production companies seem to have endless funds to pour into messes like Conquest or complete and utter flops like Prime’s $250 million Citadel, they’re also always ready to use their ‘tight budget’ as an excuse for axing fan favorites like Glow and Sense8. Lack of viewership is sometimes touted as the real reason, but when they’re willing to spend millions upon millions of dollars for productions that never see the light of day, or are watched by literally no one if they do, that justification starts to wear thin. The recent Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood also helped highlight how unfairly these companies have stacked the deck, somehow raking in millions for themselves but through accounting magic having nothing left to pay the people that actually made the film or show. Rinsch’s ability to continually fail upwards is less funny and more depressing when seen next to so many other great projects helmed by capable creatives that can’t seem to get off the ground no matter how hard they try. The problem of people with money being willing to hand over large sums to scruffy white people who are good at talking and allegedly geniuses but have nothing to back that claim up other than other rich people they’ve convinced certainly isn’t a problem specific to Hollywood. But the Conquest debacle does highlight the particular way Hollywood is willing to send money down the drain for a “good idea” that sounds clearly bad to anyone who isn’t a big-time producer while continuing to overlook great stories that could become cultural touchstones or big hits with just a bit of help.
Rinsch and the streamer are still currently in arbitration at the time of this video, so it remains to be seen if he will indeed get to wring a few more million out of the company before the dust finally settles. And, who knows, given their penchant for turning headlines into storylines, maybe in the end Netflix will look to recoup their losses by making a true crime miniseries about this whole saga. One would hope that this would be a good lesson for Netflix, but only time will tell if they actually learn anything and change their ways. Maybe one day soon someone who cares about creativity and story more than hypothetical future profits will take the reins and use all of this money to help usher us into another golden age of television or maybe not.
Carreyrou, John. “The Strange $55 Million Saga of a Netflix Series You’ll Never See.” The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2023, 1ft.io/proxy?q=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2023%2F11%2F22%2Fbusiness%2Fcarl-rinsch-netflix-conquest.html.
Guest, Peter. “Why Silicon Valley Falls for Frauds.” Wired, Conde Nast, 2 Oct. 2023, www.wired.com/story/why-silicon-valley-falls-for-frauds/.
Setoodeh, Ramin, and Scott Foundas. “‘47 Ronin’: The inside Story of Universal’s Samurai Disaster.” Variety, Variety, 2 Jan. 2014, variety.com/2013/film/news/47-ronin-box-office-bomb-1201012170/.
Shaw, Lucas. “Amazon CEO Asks His Hollywood Studio to Explain Its Big Spending.” Bloomberg.Com, Bloomberg, 5 July 2023, www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2023-07-05/amazon-ceo-asks-his-hollywood-studio-to-explain-its-big-spending.
Staff, Luneika. “This Will Be the Most Expensive Series in History and Will Soon Be Released on Netflix.” Music Mundial News, 24 Aug. 2023, www.musicmundial.com/en/2023/08/23/this-will-be-the-most-expensive-series-in-history-and-will-soon-be-released-on-netflix/.