Netflix Acquires U.S. Rights to Mark Duplass and Mel Eslyn’s Indie Series ‘Penelope’

Penelope, the pandemic-written, independently financed and produced young-adult series from co-creators Mark Duplass and Mel Eslyn, has landed a distributor.

Netflix acquired U.S. rights to the series’ eight-episode first season, the duo announced Sunday while appearing at SeriesFest. Duplass called the six-month process of finding a distributor for the show following its debut at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “insane” and told the Denver crowd that “a lot of people were very, very interested” in the series and thus “had a lot of different kinds of offers.”

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“We’ve done independent films before, where you have a few hundred thousand dollars, and we go out, make the film and sell it. There really isn’t a model yet of independently made television where you make the whole season and try to sell it,” he said of the process of independently funding and then distributing Penelope. “From taking out the show and figuring out how we’re going to sell it or making the deals with our actors, no one knows how to do it.… So there was actually this childlike fun. We were just making up new deal structures as we were going along.”

The acquisition of the series, which is co-written by Mark and director Eslyn and executive produced by Jay Duplass and Shuli Harel, follows the Duplass brothers’ four-picture deal with Netflix, and what Mark described as a longtime relationship with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. Duplass Brothers Productions plans to sell both domestic and international rights to the indie series through a “piece by piece” model that will allow them to retain control over it, including greenlighting a season two.

“We’ve basically absolved [Netflix]…of the responsibility to make us their flagship show,” Duplass said. “We’re saying… ‘Just put us on the service. We’re going to sign a very short deal with you guys, and we’re going to see how it does.’ That way at Netflix, you’re not taking an oversized, outsized risk on the show. You’re not going to be pissed off if it doesn’t work and turn around and say, ‘Independent television is never going to work. We’re not doing it again.’ We’ve mitigated their risk.”

Mark added that Duplass Brothers Productions will “own the rest of the rights” outside the U.S., including “VOD rights for rentals,” taking on a partner as they sell this to the rest of the world.

“Ideally, we see how we do on Netflix. In the event that it’s a blowout success, you might see a bigger scope for season two. In the event that it’s a moderate success, we might write it for a smaller scope, but at least we’re in the driver’s seat now as to whether we get to keep making this show,” he said.

“If in a few years, if the show is a rollicking success, they get the opportunity to relicense it…. We’re going to own the rest of the rights still,” he continued. “That felt like the best deal for us.”

During the panel, Mark and Eslyn spoke at length about their approach to both distributing and financing the series, which they emphasized was new territory, even for the indie moviemaking veterans.

“When you’re doing an independent television show, no one knows how to approach it,” Mark said about the process of finding a distributor. “People would raise their hand and say, ‘We saw Penelope at Sundance. We want to see the rest of the series.’ We would send the links to the rest of the series, and they would say, ‘We’re interested in this.’ When it came time to negotiate the deal and the terms, everybody was just like middle school schoolyard — like, ‘You go first. I don’t know what to do.’ [Laughs.] It was so confusing.”

Mark began working on the series, directed by Eslyn, during the pandemic. Ahead of its premiere at this year’s Sundance, Mark briefly recalled the show’s journey to production on Instagram, writing that he “knew when I brought the scripts to the buyers that there would be a bidding war. But there wasn’t. No one would give us the money to make it.”

During Sunday’s panel, he expounded on those responses, and the larger landscape of YA television, which he described as not necessarily looking for something that’s “more akin to what’s happening in the Norwegian slow TV movement than it is to modern television.”

“The pantheon of young-adult television does not tell me what they’re buying right now,” he said. “Still, we are Duplass Brothers Productions, and we’ve sold shit to HBO and Netflix, and we’re like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s go sell this show,’” he recalled. “We brought it and everybody was like, ‘This is so beautiful and so unique, so deeply connected to something that I’ve lost. We can’t make this.’”

“We’re looking for the next Euphoria,” added Eslyn, who directs the series.

Penelope, which stars Megan Stott (Little Fires Everywhere) and co-stars Austin Abrams (Euphoria), follows a 16-year-old girl who abruptly leaves her family and the comforts of life behind after developing an almost cosmic-like attraction to the wilderness. In the wild, she begins to forge a new kind of existence via trial-and-error in a survivalism meets coming-of-age tale.

Mark added that they considered that they could “force this down the throat of a traditional buyer, but it’s going to be going through a lot of development and a lot of changes” — something they weren’t interested in doing with a show they were both passionate and precious about.

“There was a moment where I think Mark and I said, ‘Should we change this for what they’re asking for?’ And that was a pretty quick moment. And we very quickly said, ‘No,’ and then said, ‘Should we go make a whole season of our own and pay for it — just go for it and not wait around for someone to say yes?’” recalled Eslyn. “We did, and I think that was for us a brave moment.”

“I felt really scared and I had to think about value for the first time in a long time and in a new way,” Mark said while discussing the intimidating process of self-financing and producing a series. “I had to really get solid with Mel and just say that the value of this show is that it gets out into the world and that it reaches people who feel a similar way, and that maybe, maybe starts to pave a trail for a way of making television that is going away right now with a reduction of the streamers in our business.”

At another point during the post-screening sit-down at the Sie Film Center in Denver, the duo spoke about replicating the Penelope production and distribution model, as well as wanting to build an indie TV series market and ecosystem in a similar way Sundance had for indie film.

“There is no existing ecosystem for independent television. We’ve done a couple of things kind of similar, like Animals or Room 104, but they were still basically set up and paid for by a studio head. So we were really flying by the seat of our pants,” Mark told the audience. “We have full-on Reaganomics happening right now in television. There’s big IP stuff, and there’s tiny reality stuff. That interesting middle — where Fleabag, I May Destroy You and Baby Reindeer come from — is just gone. And I want to fight for that.”

Mark and Eslyn were ultimately both adamant that the model they created with Penelope is replicable. The duo revealed during the panel that they have already used this indie model with three other six-episode shows their production studio has already completed. That includes a small documentary series in the vein of How to With John Wilson; a post-apocalyptic comedy — “bizarre, theater-clown version of Broad City” — about the last broadcast and the nature of fake news; and a “darkly funny examination of deep white male guilt,” said Mark, that sees two men coming to a dark conclusion about their attempt at allyship to the Earth and other people.

To make this a reality beyond Duplass Brothers Productions, the duo said going beyond the historical process of selling a pilot is necessary. So is changing the way the festival circuit can work for shows.

“What we’re trying to do here is not just make the pilot. While it’s really exciting to make a pilot, you are still in a position of asking someone to come forward and give you the money to make the rest of your series before it can be brought to a larger audience,” Mark said. “So we just ask that question: Is there a way that we can design the scope and size of these shows so that we can make them independently — six to eight episodes — so when we show up at the festival, a place like SeriesFest, this place can really be a launching pad.

We can build a marketplace here in these festivals the way Sundance did in the early ‘90s,” he continued. “An entire ecosystem sprung out of that — job creation, super-exciting creative outlier content becoming mainstream. I want to see that happen in TV.”

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