Netflix is hoping to learn some new tricks from an old dog.
The streaming video behemoth has acquired the rights to a new version of the classic family film “Benji,” featuring the canine character that became an unlikely box-office sensation in the 1970s and ’80s.
If the movie catches on with Netflix subscribers after it premieres in March, the company has the option to partner on sequels or a TV series, furthering its venture into kids’ programming.
Streaming services have become a desirable alternative for families who want to have greater control over what their kids watch and keep them away from commercials or racy content.
Netflix faces more competition for young viewers. The company will soon be up against Walt Disney Co. for streaming customers, and young video consumers will be a key target audience.
Family and kid-oriented content is a significant piece of Netflix’s business. Peter Csathy, chairman of the tech advisory firm Creatv Media, said 50 percent of the company’s subscribers watch children’s programming on a regular basis.
Those market conditions were ideal for the Camp Brand, the company led by original “Benji” creator Joe Camp and his writer-director son Brandon, who have sought to bring their franchise to a new generation.
Benji’s journey into streaming offers a lesson in deal-making in the Netflix era.
Joe Camp was a Dallas-based commercial producer and filmmaking neophyte when he wrote, directed and marketed his first “Benji” feature for less than $1 million. The film got nearly $40 million in box-office receipts, putting it in the top 10 for the year in 1974.
The original “Benji” is seen from the dog’s point of view (cameras were mounted on skateboards to shoot Higgins at eye level). But Camp’s homespun, G-rated approach to the story of a dog who rescues two children being held for ransom was considered out of step with the times, even in the 1970s.
After “Benji” was turned down by every Hollywood studio, Camp put the movie out himself.
He handled his own distribution of the film, opening it market by market across the country, and custom designed an ad campaign for each city. The dog and his trainer Frank Inn traveled to promote the release on local TV and in public appearances. Camp’s wife handled the merchandising, putting Benji on lunchboxes and other products.
Camp stuck to his intimate storytelling approach in Benji sequels, two of which were among the top 10 box-office films in the years they were released. But his last film, “Benji: Off the Leash,” failed to break through in 2004, as his do-it-yourself approach could not compete with studios that were spending up to $50 million to market and promote kids’ films.
Hollywood’s obsession with familiar titles led to interest in a Benji reboot, and for the last several years Camp’s son Brandon looked for a partner to do an updated version. But the Camps were not willing to hand over their beloved property to an outfit that would alter their vision.
The reaction Brandon Camp received in meetings was almost the same as what his father heard decades earlier. No one wanted an earnest, low-tech adventure story featuring a shelter dog without superpowers or some snappy interior monologues.
“We were told we had to make it sci-fi, we had to make it animated, we have to make it cool and edgy and sarcastic and we had to put a voiceover so adults will like it too,” Brandon Camp said. “Of course studios completely missed the point. What made Benji work in the first place is that he was an ordinary dog. He couldn’t talk. He definitely wanted to tell human beings that something was amiss but he didn’t have words, so he had to find other means of communicating.”
The new “Benji” was made for $6 million and the producer shopped it to Netflix. The companies did not disclose the price, but people familiar with the negotiations said Netflix paid more than $10 million for the rights.
The fact that Benji doesn’t talk actually worked in the Camps’ favor with Netflix, which wants programming that can cross cultural barriers and appeal to its users in the 190 countries where the service is available.
“People all over the world grew up having watched ‘Benji’ with their families,” Scott Stuber, head of original film at Netflix, said in a statement to The Times.
“We knew this film will allow our members around the world to keep sharing this story with their families … . And who doesn’t love an adorable dog?”