Stranger Things Season 4: Inside Netflix, Duffer Brothers’ Strategy

Jean J. Sanders

Fans have been waiting nearly three years for the return of “Stranger Things” — and Netflix execs have too. The show’s Season 4 arrival couldn’t come at a better time for the streamer, which could use a boost from its crown jewel series after a tumultuous spring.

Here’s the good news for Netflix: With 9.5 million hours of the first season of “Stranger Things” viewed last week, it’s clear the Upside Down fandom is more than ready to return to Hawkins, Ind. this Friday. Boasting longer episodes than ever before, and two more to come in July, Season 4 of the Duffer Brothers-created series is hoping to give viewers everything it’s got with its penultimate season.

At the same time, Netflix is consciously deciding not to put all of its eggs in Eleven’s basket, so as to not put too much pressure on one series — however popular it may be — and its largely young cast to solve its growth problems.

“There’s no one title that drives our business,” Matthew Thunell, “Stranger Things” executive producer and head of Netflix’s spectacle and event scripted programming, tells Variety. “Obviously, ‘Stranger Things’ is beloved around the world and when you talk about all of it, for us, it’s about how do we continue to create fan joy 365 days a year and that kind of investment in the characters and the extension of the stories. It’s always thinking about the fans first.”

Thunell is the Netflix exec who took the original pitch for “Stranger Things” from Matt and Ross Duffer in 2015, and was walked through the multi-season arc of the story. That 1980s-set supernatural tale of Joyce (Winona Ryder), Hopper (David Harbour), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the rest of the Hawkins crew will conclude next year with its final season. “So much of what they had in their head in 2015 is what we’re now seeing play out as we come to the end of this series,” Thunell says of the series creators.

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Netflix
Netflix

According to the Duffers, they always knew that Season 4 was going to be the penultimate season of the 38-time Emmy nominee and seven-time winner, and that its ending would dovetail directly into Season 5.

Of course, no one knew how long it would take for the fourth season to arrive, as “Stranger Things” — like many shows — suffered a lengthy production shutdown due to COVID-19.

“During the six month pandemic hiatus, we outlined season 5 and pitched it to Netflix,” the Duffers jointly tell Variety. (Known professionally and credited as “The Duffer Brothers,” the duo chose to answer Variety‘s questions jointly in kind.) “Everyone there had also been present when we first pitched the show in 2015. While we were strangers then, we were now friends, and there were a lot of tears when it was over. It’s just been an extraordinary journey for all of us, and while it’s hard to believe that we’re approaching the end, we feel incredibly lucky to have such amazing partners.”

And don’t hold them to this, “but the gap should be quite a bit shorter this time, due to the fact that we already have an initial outline, and we can’t imagine there will be another six-month forced hiatus.”

The third season of “Stranger Things,” which ended with the fake-out death of Hopper in July 2019, was “a big, colorful summer blockbuster, with comedy, action, spectacle — and a healthy dose of gore” for the Duffers, who looked to “Temple of Doom,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Jurassic Park” as their influences for that installment. “But this season, as with every new season, we wanted to do something very different,” the Duffers say. “Our kids aren’t kids anymore, so we wanted to put them in the middle of a horror film — one that was more psychological in tone. We talked a lot about ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ ‘Hellraiser’ and the ‘It’ miniseries, which completely traumatized us when it first came out.”

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Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

With so much stuffed inside the Upside Down this time around, Netflix and the Duffer Brothers announced in February plans to break up the nine-episode Season 4 into two volumes, along with the news that the fifth season would be their last. What Netflix didn’t reveal until last week was exactly how the season would be split up, with the first seven episodes arriving Friday and the final two coming on July 1.

These “Stranger Things” cuts will be lengthy compared to previous seasons of the show, as most run at 75 minutes. Episode 7 clocks in at 98 minutes, Episode 8 goes 85 minutes, and the season finale approaches a whopping two and a half hours long. Overall, this season is almost five hours longer than the previous three seasons.

It’s also said to cost more, with the Wall Street Journal reporting in April that Season 4 of “Stranger Things” cost as much as $30 million per episode for Netflix. That’s a figure Thunell would not comment on, but he offers that the production team has done everything it can to support the Duffers’ vision and the streamer thinks “fans will really get to see the production value on the screen.”

“It was always the central creative vision of the season to have these episodes be the way that they are,” Thunell says. “Part of the reason the episodes are a bit longer is that we have a huge ensemble of characters. And by the way, fans love each and every one of them. To give them their due episode over episode, it just means the episodes need to expand to fit them. That was really what drove a lot of the length this season, the fact that we have an amazing ensemble that everybody cares about and we want to make sure that we’re delivering on each and every one of those stories.”

The cast for “Stranger Things 4” includes returning stars Ryder, Harbour, Brown, Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Sadie Sink, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Natalie Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Maya Hawke, Cara Buono, Priah Ferguson and Brett Gelman, with new additions Jamie Campbell Bower, Joseph Quinn and Eduardo Franco. And that’s just the series regulars.

The length of the episodes is what prompted breaking the season into two pieces, as the Duffers say the original plan was to release it all at once, in typical Netflix binge fashion.

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Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

“But as we began turning over episodes, everyone began to feel the season was too big to be released in one batch — at nearly 13 hours, it is really more two seasons than one,” the Duffers say, adding that they “discussed various release options” with Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos.

“Early on, he proposed the two volume split, which would allow us to break up the season while also staying true to Netflix’s binge model,” they say, rather than shifting to a weekly format.

The Duffers say they believe that Episodes 8 and 9 have “enough meat on the bone” to make up that second volume.

“Ultimately, it came down to the creatives and feeling like there was a natural break in the season that would leave fans really wanting more,” Thunell says. The exec noted that “Stranger Things 4” is not the first release experiment that Netflix has performed, but it is unique and the streaming service will be “looking to see how this kind of two part release, relatively close together surprises and delights our fans.”

As for the May 27 premiere date for the first seven episodes, which gets “Stranger Things” Season 4 in under the wire for 2022 Emmys eligibility, Thunell says the awards calendar “wasn’t really a consideration for us” and that was “literally the first day that we could hit with all the production complexities that we had” and “the earliest” they could get it to fans.

That could be a shining spot for Netflix, in a quarter where they’re predicted to lose 2 million subscribers after shedding 200,000 in Q1.

In January, Netflix reported it had 221.84 million subscribers at the end of 2021. During the three-month period that ended March 31 — a time span that included the debuts of hits including “Bridgerton” Season 2 and “The Adam Project” — Netflix says its total fell to 221.64 million subs. Though the impressive viewership stats for those two productions couldn’t prevent Netflix from losing customers, there is no Netflix IP that stands up to “Stranger Things.” If anything can do it, will it be “Stranger Things”?

“While it is their biggest English-language show, it is really unclear how any one show impacts the gross subscriber additions in any quarter,” Michael Nathanson, senior managing director of analyst firm MoffettNathanson, tells Variety. “Look at ‘Squid Game,’ it was the most-consumed show in their history and Q4 results weren’t that different than Q4 in 2020.”

It’s hard at this moment to even make a real guess as to how the “Stranger Things 4” debut weekend will perform for Netflix. The results will be revealed by the streamer’s weekly Top 10 list next Tuesday, but Netflix only started providing its viewership data on a weekly basis last June. Before then, the streaming giant doled out seemingly impressive numbers at random and also measured its own viewership differently.

In October 2019, Netflix said “Stranger Things 3” was the show’s most-watched season to date, with 64 million member households consuming it within the first month of its launch. This was during the time period when Netflix was still counting a “view” of a title as having seen at least 70% of one episode, though it later decided watching at least two minutes of a show or movie was a view. (Now, Netflix calculates viewership by total hours watched, which is how its weekly Top 10 list is presented.) In its first four days, Netflix says more than 40 million people watched the third season of “Stranger Things.”

Looking at outside info, Nielsen said 26.5 million unique U.S. viewers watched the third season of “Stranger Things” in its first three days on Netflix. That figure, which was released years before Nielsen started its own weekly SVOD rankings based on minutes watched, didn’t account for viewing across mobile, tablet or laptop devices, which Netflix obviously does measure.

But if “Stranger Things 4” proves to hold a power over pop culture that the first three seasons did, Netflix should be plenty pleased with its opening-weekend performance.

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Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

“I have to say, like, literally, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Harbour tells Variety, recalling how he saw the show skyrocket in popularity from day one. “The first weekend ‘Stranger Things’ came out on July 15, 2016… I must have gotten like 100 texts from a driver, from a high school friend. And they were all like, ‘Stranger Things! Oh my god this show Stranger Things!’ I had a big career. I’ve done a lot of stuff. And I’m, like, 40 and that’s never happened before or since. I knew at that moment that we had touched a chord in the culture in some way that I’ve never done as an artist. So I knew from very early on that it was going to be a big thing.”

Charlie Heaton, who plays Jonathan Byers, says he had a similar experience when the first season premiered. “I was doing this movie in the tiny town of Asturias, so everyone was Spanish speaking. And the day after the show came out, I had people coming up to me being like, ‘Stranger Things!’ Instantly, it felt so big.”

Ryder, who has been a popular star since she was a teenager, says she really has nothing else to compare “Stranger Things” to, despite her leading roles in iconic films.

“I’ve been part of movies that are sort of touchstones, ‘Beetlejuice,’ things like that,” the “Heathers” star says. “But I’ve never been part of something like this. I’d never done a series before and I remember earlier on, in the 90s to early 2000s, people were always saying, ‘Look, it’s different. You’re in people’s homes, so people will think they know you because they’re not going to a theater to see you. You’re in their home.’ And that definitely happened.

“I had a meeting over Zoom with a great director and his kid came in and was like, ‘Are you Will’s mom?’ So I will forever be Will’s mom and I’m very happy with that,” she continues. “I’ve been really blessed and lucky to have the career I’ve had but this show has really changed my life. It came at a time when there wasn’t a lot going on for me and women my age, and it’s opened a lot of opportunities up. It’s just been an absolute joy to work on something for this long with people that you love, and watching these amazing kids grow up. I love them so much.”

Brown, Wolfhard, Schnapp, Matarazzo and McLaughlin were all pre-teens when they began shooting the first season of “Stranger Things,” with Sadie Sink joining during Season 2 at 14 years old. Thunell says Netflix knew from the beginning the show “lived or died” based on these child actors, and they have each been “incredible” on this journey.

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Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

“It has been an amazing experience growing up on the show,” Brown says in an interview with Variety alongside Schnapp. “It’s been very different, obviously, to the regular teenage kid… every memory has been with each other. Every experience has been with each other.”

Schnapp adds: “Our whole childhood is this show and all our memories we’ve made is through this. We’ve just really connected through this, because we all kind of go through the same thing and have had the same situation. And growing up being in the limelight at such a young age is very crazy and can be overwhelming. But it’s nice to have each other to turn to for that.”

The fourth season of “Stranger Things” will lead fans to a “new understanding of our mythology,” per Thunell, that is “really setting up Season 5 in a way that’s going to satisfy fans.” Though Thunell says there is no timetable yet for the premiere of “Stranger Things 5,” the Duffers are ready to get back to work on it soon — and possibly a spinoff after that.

“We do have an idea for a spin-off that we’re super excited about… but we haven’t told anyone the idea yet, much less written it. We think everyone — including Netflix — will be surprised when they hear the concept, because it’s very, very different. But somehow Finn Wolfhard — who is one crazy smart kid — correctly guessed what it was going to be about. But aside from Finn, no one else knows!”

First things first, though. The “Stranger Things” stars aren’t quite emotionally ready for the final season journey.

“We’re like the step-kids that have our new dad, and we’re like, ‘He’s not our dad,’” Brown says of the potential future series. “We’re in that denial phase right now, where we’re not choosing to accept it. We’re the ones that you can’t really talk about it around.”

Schnapp adds: “That was even like on our last day of shooting on Season 4. I remember, I was going up to Millie, and I was like, ‘Are you crying? Are you gonna cry? Are you crying or upset?’ And she’s like, ‘No, no, we’re not talking about it yet. There’s still seven more hours. It’s not over yet.’”

“And as soon as it was 4 a.m. and they said, ‘That’s a wrap,’ Noah and I were like [miming fake sobbing with Schnapp], like those cartoons with tears coming out of their eyes,” Brown says. “So we are choosing not to speak of it. Ask other cast members who are ready to accept it.”

Emily Longeretta, Adam B. Vary and Wilson Chapman contributed to this story.

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