Netflix’s battle over Byron Bay
In April, Netflix Australia announced its first original series: a docu-soap, titled Byron Baes, based around the lives of “hot Instagrammers” and “celebrity-adjacent-adjacent influencers” living in Byron Bay.
In the weeks since, the streaming giant has struggled to temper the public backlash. Almost 10,000 people have signed a petition to boycott the show and block production. The Byron Shire Council has passed a number of motions declaring its opposition to the series. Locals recently paddled out into the bay in protest, while others stood on the shore with placards reading “give Netflix the flick”. Businesses have refused to let production crews film on their premises.
Netflix Australia’s director of original content, Que Minh Luu, was quick to blame the show’s initial press release for the resistance, tweeting that it didn’t “tell the whole story of what the show is”.
This is true: Netflix wasn’t telling the full story.
Emails and documents seen by The Saturday Paper reveal that Netflix was intentionally coy about the show’s glossy tabloid nature and reality television format to avoid public backlash.
In its carefully worded press release, Netflix had sold the show as a “docu-soap”.
In May, amid the backlash, Luu tweeted that Byron Baes will look “at human connection, ambition, image and what lies underneath – not all glossy, often contradictory. Like the place itself. Byron is a symbol to so many Australians.”
But correspondence between members of the show’s production team reveals Byron Baes is actually a semi-scripted tabloid reality show that is “very glossy in nature”.
In emails sent before the April press release, seen by The Saturday Paper, the show’s producers stress that “Netflix are wanting to be very coy about the information out there about this show. They certainly don’t want any negative connotation of the show.”
Also circulated was the show’s original pitch deck: a 17-slide presentation in pastel hues, littered with photos of young women with flawless skin.
The pitch deck says the show’s “obvious parallel is the Real Housewives franchise”.
Another slide reads: “Narrative arcs will arise from people not getting what they want.”
The pitch deck is overwhelmingly white and mentions cocaine use and the “platinum influencer certification” of an invitation to Angus Stone’s house.
Netflix did not comment on questions from The Saturday Paper.
In an interview on ABC’s One Plus One in April, Luu sold Byron Baes as a show about “a group of extremely hot Instagram influencers who all live in Byron”.
A month later, in the aforementioned Twitter thread, Luu conceded that, of the show’s participants, there are “a quarter born/raised in the area, most have lived there a meaningful length of time, a few newer to the area”.
Netflix had also told reporters that it was engaging a high number of local residents to work on the show’s production team, as well as in catering, transport and accommodation.
But The Saturday Paper understands that most of the crew have travelled from the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Sydney, and are staying in the neighbouring town of Ballina.
The fight against Byron Baes is, at its core, about identity, about who is allowed to write a small town’s narrative.
Given the number of tourists who already drift in and out of town, it would be easy to mistake Byron Bay for a New South Wales coastal metropolis. In reality, it has a population of about 9000. The entire Byron Shire, which stretches north past Mullumbimby and down to Broken Head, has only about 30,000 residents.
It’s also a community struggling to tackle its affordable housing crisis: Byron Shire has the highest rate of homelessness outside metropolitan Sydney.
The pitch deck for Byron Baes tells a different story. In it Byron reads like an influencers’ playground.
“Byron has two distinct and mutually exclusive crowds of influencers, separated by age. First is the highly polished mummy-grammar [sic] clique as featured in Vanity Fair,” one slide reads, referencing a controversial article from the glossy American magazine about the Bay’s privileged “murfers” or “mum-surfers”.
“The other group is younger and thinks the Vanity Fair take-down of the more privileged group was well deserved.
“In Byron, influencer events happen from Thursday to Sunday … [the show is] about ego and ambition. It’s about trying to gain and maintain relevance while ageing. It’s a story about people trying to gain happiness via the approval of others.”
Tess Hall, a local resident and film producer who started the petition to shut down the show, said the battle against Byron Baes was another example of the community fighting to preserve the town.
“Without people who have fought for decades to keep height limits on development, without the council having sustainable development and community at the heart of their decision-making, Byron would have become the Gold Coast decades ago,” Hall told The Saturday Paper.
“And for Netflix to roll into town and impose this series on a community that has fought to build itself and maintain itself for decades is wrong.”
Netflix wields enormous influence over its 200 million paying users. Chess sales soared globally after Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit. After the period drama Bridgerton aired, eBay reported a 65 per cent increase in searches for embroidery hoops, and a surge of interest in corsets and fine china. There’s a term to describe this phenomenon: “The Netflix Effect.”
Independent councillor Catherine Coorey says locals fear the show will see Byron flooded with Instagrammers and, as the streaming giant put it, celebrity-adjacent-adjacent influencers.
“Byron is a community of activists. We have rallies every other month. We have naked bike rides, protests and swims. We paddle out to protest things. And here we have vapid influencers coming here and we’re just a backdrop for their pretty pictures,” she says.
“And [the community] are totally aghast and devastated at the potential that the kind of people who watch shows about influencers are going to be the next wave of tourism, and we are just going to see lots of people with their bloody selfie sticks standing in front of every sacred lake, stamping on an endangered species while they get that perfect shot.”
In April, Arakwal Bumberin Bundjalung traditional owner Delta Kay told reporters she had been disappointed no one from the Byron Baes production team had approached traditional owners of the land prior to announcing the show. Kay said big film productions had contacted and consulted with traditional owners in the past, and had invited Kay to welcome them to Country.
The Arakwal People negotiated the very first Indigenous Land Use Agreements in Australia with the state government in 2001.
The Saturday Paper understands that representatives for the show have since met with the Awakwal Corporation, but that there is no support from Indigenous landowners for Byron Baes to proceed.
While the Byron Shire Council has written to Netflix stating its opposition to Byron Baes – and requested production relocate to “another location and community that is supportive of hosting the show” – NSW filming protocols mean that they cannot shut down filming except in exceptional circumstances.
The council recently passed a motion stating that all filming related to Byron Baes and the surrounding media the show had attracted was occurring under “exceptional circumstances”, given the negative impact production was having on the community, environment and local businesses, and the fact that the show had failed to engage with the Indigenous community.
Whether a local council has the gusto – or the finances – to take on the world’s largest streaming giant and its legal team in court is a whole other question.
But in Byron, at least, it’s clear Netflix has already lost in the court of public opinion.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Byron's Baewatch".
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