Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka star in a new series that’s Hollywood workplace satire-meets-“Fatal Attraction.” Roku hopes it’s the future.
“Swimming with Sharks” has the makings of a breakout streaming series. There’s identifiable young stars in Kiernan Shipka and Finn Jones, and a strong performance from Diane Kruger. Then there is Donald Sutherland in what might be his most repulsive villain role yet: a Hollywood patriarch who delivers from his literal deathbed some of the show’s most jaw-dropping moments of sexual exploitation (and there are a lot).
Delivering the pulpy indulgence of “You,” the palace intrigue of “House of Cards,” and a dick-pics-per-episode ratio bested only by “Minx,” it would be right at home on many streamers. But — surprise! — when the show’s eight-episode first season drops Friday, it will be available exclusively on the Roku Channel, for free, to the 60 million people who use the company’s boxes, sticks, and smart TVs in any given month.
Rob Holmes, Roku’s VP of programming, sat down with IndieWire at SXSW, where the show’s first two episodes premiered. He said original programming is vital to Roku’s effort to remain a major force in the streaming economy as both a content provider and a gateway for users who want to access Netflix and Disney+.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before. It’s really well done, high polish, yet very steamy,” Holmes said of the series, which is a gender-switched adaptation of the 1994 film that starred Kevin Spacey and Frank Whalley — if you crossed it with, say, “Fatal Attraction.”
“I think it is really, truly a watershed moment for us,” he said. “We have this audience, we’re a top-five channel platform in a world-leading AVOD marketplace. How do you enter that next phase of growth by giving consumers access to premium content they can’t get through other means?”
For Roku, free is key. It launched in 2007 as a set-top box and the first device that allowed access to Netflix, but Roku entered the content game in 2017 with the Roku Channel. The expansion into originals came last year after the company bought Quibi’s library of more than 75 shows like “The Andy Cohen Diaries,” Kevin Hart’s action series “Die Hart,” the “Reno 911!” revival, and “Most Dangerous Game,” starring Liam Hemsworth and Christoph Waltz. Later that year Roku purchased the company behind “This Old House,” the appropriately named This Old House Ventures; it now has the show’s 42-season library and the ability to air spinoffs.
In February, production began on another Roku Original film, “Weird: The ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Story” starring Daniel Radcliffe; the first-look photo got people talking. A library of on-demand movies and TV gives Roku users a base of entertainment, but Holmes said exclusive, buzzy content is another strategy to ensure regular usage. He also hopes it attracts new users.
“You need to have this mix, you need these things that stand out as the reason somebody comes,” Holmes said. “Then they come and see everything else that’s there for them for free.” That’s where “Swimming with Sharks” comes in.
Roku could use the traffic a sexy show can bring: Shares in the publicly traded corporation are currently going for one-quarter the heights they reached last summer. And analysts at MoffettNathanson still think Roku stock is overpriced: On Wednesday, the company reiterated its belief that Roku should be valued at $100, or nearly $13 per-share less than it is today.
“Swimming with Sharks” has enough stars, sex, and just-enough I.P. recognition to pull its weight in an attempt to prove the MoffettNathanson media analysts wrong. The satire about the abusiveness of Hollywood work culture is produced by Lionsgate and written by showrunner Kathleen Robertson, an actress perhaps best known for playing Clare Arnold on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” It’s directed by Tucker Gates, whose track record includes Netflix’s “House of Cards” and Apple’s “The Morning Show.” (Ironically, one of those starred Spacey; the other hinges on the abusiveness in Hollywood work culture.)
Shipka stars as an intern who works in the office of studio boss Kruger. The pair navigate a layered nightmare of manipulation familiar to anyone who’s seen the headlines about Harvey Weinstein (or, Spacey). One thing that makes “Swimming with Sharks” stand out is its provocative depictions of its power-hungry characters’ sexual exploits and its depiction of a glossy-yet-lived-in Los Angeles. Those elements meet in one scene, where Kruger’s character pulls up to a homeless encampment in her $90,000 Audi and invites a shirtless skateboarder for some backseat fun.
Roku executives would love it if “Swimming” became the next social-media sensation. The red-carpet premiere in Austin, which marked Roku’s entry into the festival scene, was a first step. “It’s free, in front of the paywall,” Holmes said. “This is something you’d normally have to subscribe to get access to.”
In Holmes’ eyes, this is an atypical release – but so it everything else about Roku’s entry into the original-content game. The company’s balancing act of making its hardware essential to major players like Netflix and Disney, even as it competes with them, is a thin tightrope to walk. With the best-selling TV operating system in the U.S. for two years running and devices that start at $25, Roku is one of the most popular and easiest ways for people to access streaming content. Disney and Netflix pay big to get dedicated buttons on Roku remotes. And when they want their latest movie or show to make a big splash, they drop even more cash to take over the home screen of millions of Roku devices — like Disney did for the Disney+ premiere of “Turning Red” in February. You can trust that “Swimming” will get a similar treatment.