Disney Scrapped Their Show. An Unlikely Champion Saved It.

Last summer, the writer and producer Aron Eli Coleite was on holiday in Las Vegas with his wife when he received an urgent call from Nicole Clemens, the president of Paramount Television.

Coleite was the showrunner on “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a fantasy series Paramount was producing for Disney+. The show had recently finished production on its first season, but Clemens was calling with bad news: Disney had decided to pull the plug, effectively canceling the series before it made it to air.

Without warning, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” was “being turned into one of those tax write-offs that I’d heard so much about,” Coleite said in an interview. Christine McCarthy, the chief financial officer for Disney, had said on an earnings call in May 2023 that Disney was in the process of a strategic shift that would lead to downsizing and cost-cutting across the board, beginning with the removal and cancellation of some shows on their streaming platforms. “Spiderwick” was a casualty of these cuts, and “there was no fighting against it,” Coleite said. (Disney declined to comment.)

Clemens said in an interview that she was shocked by the move. “We’d started a second season, and there was a lot of love and excitement for the project,” she said. “It was like, whoa.”

But after facing certain extinction, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” was rescued by an unlikely savior: The Roku Channel, the ad-supported streaming platform built into the company’s smart TV interfaces and stand-alone streaming devices. All eight episodes of “The Spiderwick Chronicles” debuted on Roku last week, joining the platform’s modest but growing library of original content, including the movie “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” and its reboot of “The Great American Baking Show.”

So far the move has paid off: Roku announced on Tuesday that “Spiderwick” had the best first weekend of any on-demand title on the Roku Channel, in terms of total hours streamed. (The streamer also offers live channels and sports.) Roku declined to give specific numbers, saying only that “Spiderwick” was watched by “millions of streamers” in its first three days on the platform.

The rescue was a stroke of luck for a series that seemed doomed to vanish forever — a fate that has befallen many other high-profile projects in the past few years, including the films “Coyote vs. Acme” and “Batgirl,” both scrapped by Warner Brothers Discovery. Coleite was elated when he learned that Roku would be swooping in to acquire the discarded “Spiderwick.”

“It wasn’t just that we got to be saved,” he said. “It was that the work of the 300 artists who came together to make this show was going to be seen and not just tossed in a waste bin.”

Brian Tannenbaum, the head of originals at the Roku Channel, said that “Spiderwick” was a perfect fit for the streamer, explaining that the show’s combination of real-world drama and fantasy magic were in keeping with the whimsical spirit of the Roku brand. When the opportunity to acquire the series was first presented to him, he watched the entire first season over a weekend and “went after it on Monday morning,” he said.

Based on the novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black — they were previously adapted into a big-budget movie in 2009 — “The Spiderwick Chronicles” follows the adventures of the Grace family, including the twins Simon (Noah Cottrell) and Jared (Lyon Daniels) and their sister, Mallory (Mychala Lee), who move into an old Victorian estate in rural America and discover a secret world of magic. There are faeries, goblins and villainous ogres, as well as the usual conflicts and milestones around coming of age.

The series, which also stars Joy Bryant and Christian Slater, ages up the child characters from the books — they’re now teenagers — and focuses on their emotions as much as the magic. It’s a bit like “Harry Potter” meets “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“There’s a lot of fantasy stories out there, but they’re usually set in a setting that doesn’t feel real,” said Kat Coiro, who directed several episodes, including the first two. “I loved that it was a real story about a real American family experiencing really tough problems like mental health issues.”

The series originated at Apple TV+ more than five years ago, with Barry Sonnenfeld attached to direct. When Sonnenfeld left in 2020, Coleite replaced him — somewhat reluctantly, at first, because he recently had made a different magical Victorian house series: “Locke and Key” for Netflix. But by the time “Spiderwick” moved to Disney, Coleite had fallen in love with the show, and, as far as he could tell, Disney felt the same way.

“We were called a home run by the executives,” he said. Which is why the sudden cancellation came as such a shock.

“I thought I had experienced every type of pain there was imaginable as a writer,” he said. “I have sold pilots that didn’t get into production. I’ve made pilots that didn’t go to series. But here was something completely new, where we could finish an entire series, be done with it, and they could say no, now it’s a tax write-off, and no one is ever going to see this again. It’s really a cynical practice, to devalue the work of artists that make them profit.”

Ahead of the show’s debut, Coleite worried that the Disney cancellation would lead critics and viewers to assume that “if Disney didn’t want it, there must be something wrong with it.” He said that he actively combated that idea, reaching out to journalists to challenge headlines he considered misleading and messaging people on social media when they posted something untrue.

“I know everyone loves a failure in Hollywood, but that’s not the case with this story,” he added. “This was not a reject by Disney. That’s not why it was canceled.”

The show’s performance thus far “delivered results beyond expectations,” Coleite wrote in an email on Wednesday. “I am overwhelmed and appreciative of the audience’s response.”

Roku gave a big rollout for “Spiderwick,” with themed advertising across “Roku City,” the platform’s scrolling screen saver, and interactive sidebar content that includes bonus features and sweepstakes. In part, it’s a testament to Roku’s enthusiasm for what it is promoting as a marquee series.

“The show is great,” Tannenbaum said. “It deserves to be seen.”

But it also serves as a kind of proof of concept for Roku’s integrated advertising services, which Tannenbaum said the company also sells to “internal partners” like Netflix and Disney+. If competing streaming services like what Roku has done with the “Spiderwick” rollout, they could buy similar campaigns on the Roku homepage and screen saver for their own series or films.

Roku is pleased with the show’s performance, though it declined to say if “Spiderwick” will get another season. (“We’re focused on and proud of the success of Season 1,” a spokeswoman said.) But for Coleite, the mere fact that people are finally able to see the show he has been working on for the last four years is the most important win.

“This is the show that will not die,” he said, laughing. “It will not succumb to anyone’s cancellation. It is manifesting itself into existence and it will survive.”

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