Netflix Builds a ‘Squid Game’ Universe as It Awaits a Second Season

On the same soundstage where Bob Barker lorded over “The Price Is Right,” “Squid Game” is coming to life.

On Wednesday, Netflix will unveil its latest live experience, based on the dystopian hit show in which desperate South Koreans competed in a brutal contest of simple schoolyard games for a prize of 45.6 billion won (around $38 million). Winners moved closer to the money. Losers died. The live attraction mimics both the popular iconography of the series — the massive piggy bank filled with cash, a giant animatronic doll named Young-hee, the sterile white dormitory — and the childish games.

For $30, fans of “Squid Game” will compete in some 70 minutes of play, with moral twists and turns and six group activities, including the schoolyard race Red Light, Green Light and a nonlethal version of the series’ terrifying Glass Bridge challenge, which forced contestants to choose between two clear squares for each step across a bridge. If they chose incorrectly, they descended hundreds of feet to their death.

To feel even more like a character on the show, customers can buy a tracksuit for $50 and wear it during the experience. There is also a $100 V.I.P. ticket option: In a nod to the original, you can watch the unfortunate masses compete in the games while you sip cocktails in a swanky lounge.

“It’s all the fun without the death,” said Greg Lombardo, Netflix’s head of live experiences.

Netflix plans to expand the live experience into other cities, but no additional locations have been confirmed. It’s one of several “Squid Game” adaptations that Netflix has planned in the hope of keeping viewers engaged during the long gap between the show’s first season, which debuted in September 2021, and its second, which is filming in South Korea and will come out next year.

One is an unscripted English-language competition show, “Squid Game: The Challenge.” Its first five episodes debuted on Nov. 22, and a second batch became available on Wednesday; the final episode will arrive Wednesday.

Also coming soon is a video game in which players will be able to compete with characters from the series. A virtual reality game is already available, and in Brazil, Burger King has been offering “Squid Game”-themed food combos in four cities. (Care for an umbrella-shaped onion ring to go with that shake?)

The brand offshoots follow a formula that Netflix has employed successfully for other popular shows, like “Bridgerton” and “Stranger Things.” A “Stranger Things” play that the streaming service helped develop will open in London’s West End on Dec. 14.

The expansion of intellectual property like the “Squid Game” brand, however, is getting more scrutiny in Hollywood. In recent years, the closest an entertainment studio could get to a sure thing was a franchise spun from a popular piece of intellectual property: A film begets a sequel begets a theme park ride begets a line of consumer products. Now a certain amount of audience fatigue has set in.

Marvel films like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “The Marvels” struggled at the box office. The recent Harry Potter spinoff, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” and the D.C. Comics film “The Flash” also underperformed. The industry has been forced to ask: What deserves franchise-building attention, and when is it too much?

“I’d say in general when you have I.P., if you just do too much of something, that can dilute what it is,” Netflix’s chief content officer, Bela Bajaria, said in an interview. “The other thing we look at is, are you being true to the DNA of the show and why people loved it but expanding that connection?”

The reasons that Netflix is trying to expand “Squid Game” are obvious. Not only is it the most-watched show on the platform but unsanctioned merchandise from the game, including tracksuits and Young-hee dolls, began selling almost immediately after its debut. Netflix now works with two global partners to meet the demand for the green athletic wear, especially around Halloween.

Influencers have also capitalized on the show’s popularity. Last year, the YouTube star MrBeast enlisted 456 contestants to compete for $456,000 by playing tug of war and Red Light, Green Light. The video of the content generated 112 million views in the first five days online.

With that kind of interest in an outside version of a real-life “Squid Game,” Netflix decided the time was right to try to capitalize with a reality show of its own, but in English, so as not to confuse audiences.

“I was very curious how people would react to those games, the situations, the moral dilemmas,” said Minyoung Kim, Netflix’s head of Asian content, who was responsible for bringing the South Korean show to the service.

Still, some question whether a reality show based on the South Korean filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk’s bleak view of his country’s class struggles and the global inequities of modern-day capitalism should exist at all.

While “Squid Game: The Challenge” debuted at the top of Netflix’s English-language TV list with 20.1 million views and the original show vaulted back into the Top 10, reviews of the reality series have been scathing. Most criticized the 10-episode season for missing the broader critique of capitalist culture that is at the heart of the nihilistic series.

“I see it obviously as an attempt to expand and monetize a franchise, but it seems particularly absurd given the anticapitalist message of the show,” said Miranda Banks, the chair of Loyola Marymount University’s film, television and media studies department.

“‘Squid Game’ was a South Korean series, and it’s inflected with the politics of South Korean culture,” she added. “So part of this is not just a translation of the genre, but it’s also a translation of a nation. And in doing that, it is not surprising — and it’s arguably quite hilarious — that it becomes a pro-capitalist dream fulfilled.”

The producers of the reality show are aware of the irony. But they said that by hewing as close to the original as possible — the same number of contestants (456) and a life-changing amount of prize money ($4.56 million) — they felt they could create compelling television despite the lower stakes.

“This was a drama that was so much about the fact that people who were eliminated were killed,” the producer Stephen Lambert said. “We were obviously never going to do that, but having such a big prize pot meant that when you were eliminated, your dreams died, and they were really big dreams that people had.”

(The filming of the reality show has generated its own drama, with complaints from several contestants about “inhumane” conditions. When asked about the complaints, the producers said in a statement that they “take the welfare of our contestants extremely seriously.”)

Still, does allowing fans to play along with a social satire cheapen its integrity?

Ms. Banks doesn’t believe so.

“I think that you probably have the fans who are there for the social commentary and the drama and the state of the game,” she said. “And then you have the people who love to play games. That might be different age groups. It might be different demographics.”

For Marian Lee, Netflix’s chief marketing officer, the brand offshoots are doing their job — bringing renewed attention to “Squid Game” — yet she acknowledges the risks of creating so many versions that relied on the same source.

“We have a hugely popular show that basically captures the cultural zeitgeist, but the doll, all the iconography, is carried through to the unscripted,” she said. “For us as a marketing team, how do you make sure that people understand that this is an unscripted version of that, and not the second season yet? You have to make sure that fans are following along: Oh, this is the unscripted version. Oh, this is the live experience. Oh, Season 2 is coming.

“The fandom is there. It’s just making sure that we’re able to create distinct moments for each of those things.”

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