YouTube Red Hopes This Karate Kid Revival Series Becomes Its Own House of Cards

With Cobra Kai, the feisty service shows it's ready to take on its streaming rivals

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio have reunited for the new series Cobra Kai. Photographed by Axel Dupeux for Adweek at Seido Karate NYC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

In the iconic 1984 film The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso’s sensei, Mr. Miyagi, tells his protégé, “man who catch fly with chopsticks, accomplish anything.” Well, perhaps anything except convince Ralph Macchio, who played LaRusso in three Karate Kid films, or William Zabka, who portrayed his nemesis Johnny Lawrence in two movies, to return to the franchise. “I’ve always been very protective of this franchise and this role. I said no for 30 years because it was always easier to let the legacy stand as what it was, as opposed to try to go back to the well and fall short,” says Macchio. Or as Zabka puts it: “There’s the danger of you tip your hat too much in that way, and there’s no way to get out of it. I always joke that my career’s over the day I do a flying sidekick to a potato chip in a headband as a commercial. That was the thing I feared the most.”

But now, 34 years later, Macchio and Zabka have reunited for the new series Cobra Kai, a modern-day revival of the Karate Kid franchise, which spawned two sequels, a 1994 revamp (with Hilary Swank stepping in for Macchio) and a 2010 reboot, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. Yet even more surprising than their return is the platform that the new dramedy is airing on. After interest from streaming heavyweights like Netflix and Hulu and linear networks like TBS about airing the series, all 10 episodes of Cobra Kai’s first season will be streaming on YouTube Red—YouTube’s subscription video on demand (SVOD) service—beginning Wednesday, May 2.

Photographed by Axel Dupeux at Seido Karate NYC

Cobra Kai will provide the brightest spotlight yet for YouTube Red, which launched in fall 2015. For $10 per month, the service offers ad-free access to YouTube videos, YouTube Red originals and audio platforms YouTube Music and Google Play Music. “I want YouTube Red to be the subscription service you can’t live without,” says Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content—and she thinks Cobra Kai could be the show that finally makes that happen.

The series premieres one day before YouTube’s annual Brandcast extravaganza on Thursday, part of this year’s NewFronts, during which the company will attempt to put its brand-safety issues behind it and dazzle buyers with new ad offerings centered around TV, the living room and its original shows. Moving into original content—Cobra Kai is one of 30 new films, series and specials that Daniels’ division will release this year—is “a natural progression” for YouTube, says Michael Venables, executive director, digital, Hearts & Science, who noted that, much like Netflix, the company began more as “a service provider and then evolved to be in content creation.”

Cobra Kai, which picks up three decades after the events of the first film, finds Zabka’s Johnny down on his luck, trying to make ends meet as a handyman, and reminded at every turn of his high school foe Daniel, who now runs a successful chain of local car dealerships. A series of mishaps, some involving their high-school-aged children, prompt Johnny to reopen his old Cobra Kai karate dojo, much to Daniel’s dismay.

“It’s the ultimate fan fiction: for us, it’s what J.J. [Abrams] is doing with Star Wars,” says Hayden Schlossberg, who serves as Cobra Kai’s creator and showrunner alongside longtime pals Jon Hurwitz and Josh Heald. “But it was a completely different thing at the same time. By going in with the antagonist of the original movie as our protagonist, at least for the first episode, it was more original while being a continuation.”

The 1984 film, in which Macchio’s Daniel learns karate from Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) and defeats Johnny in the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament, was a touchstone for many ’80s kids, but perhaps none more so than Hurwitz, Heald and Schlossberg. Back then, “there were no Pixar movies. You had Back to the Future, E.T. and Karate Kid as the first big stories you got sucked into,” says Schlossberg. And the film’s themes about fatherhood and bullying “weren’t done in a way that was comical and silly; they really resonated,” adds Heald.

Video: John Tejada; Editor: Breana Mallamaci

The co-creators, who frequently rewatch the movie, were going through a special DVD edition of The Karate Kid during their early years working in Los Angeles, and were drawn to an interview with Zabka, in which he explained that in his mind, Johnny wasn’t the villain, but the protagonist of his own story.

“He’s so far from who I really am, so when I approached it, I had to find the goodness in him for it to relate to me. I couldn’t see playing just a mean guy beating someone up,” says Zabka, who based that approach on Johnny’s first line in the script: “I’m an ex-degenerate … I have one year to make it work,” and last, “You’re all right, LaRusso. Good match.” He adds, “To me, that was the heart of Johnny. I always saw him as a more three-dimensional character than just the villain.”

The trio talked about making a Karate Kid movie from that perspective, but the possibility “never felt particularly realistic,” says Hurwitz, especially after the 2010 remake. Years later, prompted by the recent explosion in streaming content, “where you’re able to examine different properties in a whole new way,” says Hurwitz, the trio took another stab at trying to get the rights, this time pursuing their idea as a series. They met with Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, which had the Karate Kid rights and sparked to their idea.

Next, they approached Sony, which had released all five Karate Kid films. The studio had talked over the years about potential sequels or TV revivals, but this “was a whole new take we hadn’t heard before. It was something we couldn’t pass up,” says Jeff Frost, president, Sony Pictures Television, who insists there was no corporate mandate to revive the franchise. “It was the creative that drove this.”

All that was left was convincing the actors to finally say yes, after decades of noes. Heald knew Zabka, having written a cameo for him in the 2010 film Hot Tub Time Machine, while Hurwitz and Schlossberg had previously talked with the actor about doing a cameo in one of their Harold and Kumar movies. “I had no idea it would be this, not in a million years,” says Zabka of the “instantly enticing” pitch over lunch. “I walked away from this restaurant shell-shocked, almost like a girlfriend came back and said, ‘I want to give it another go.’” He was also thrilled by the opportunity to challenge himself as an actor and portray new sides to Johnny. “I made that clear: I don’t want to double down on being the biggest jerk of all time,” he says.

Macchio, who unlike Zabka had no prior relationship with the trio, was also won over during a four-hour meeting by their passion for the first film—“The Karate Kid is Star Wars to them, and they treat it as such,” says the actor—and their “fresh angle” on the story that would resonate with present-day audiences. “They pitched the pilot, first season and beyond,” says Macchio. “I had a zillion questions, but I also felt that the timing and the platforms we have now that we didn’t have 10 years ago lent itself to this feeling to me, like now is the time.”

Both actors, who were also onboard as co-executive producers, were on hand as the show was pitched to a variety of outlets, including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and TBS. But in the end, the most enthusiastic publisher turned out to be, like Daniel in the first film, a scrappy underdog: YouTube Red. “They could not have expressed more excitement and enthusiasm,” says Frost. “We felt this was a home that was really going to build its platform around this project. And it didn’t hurt that they were willing to pick it up straight to series on the pitch as well.” Adds Hurwitz: “They talked about our show being their House of Cards—the kind of show that will show the rest of the town, and viewers, the types of things they could do. There was something really exciting about that to us: to have our show be a big fish in a small pond—and the small pond happens to be Google.”

YouTube’s Daniels, a longtime Karate Kid fan, was immediately all-in. “There was nothing I was worried about,” she says of the pitch—and saw Cobra Kai as the perfect opportunity to help expand YouTube Red beyond its initial slate of content that starred established YouTube stars (“that allowed us to fish where the fish were”) and broaden the service’s core demo from 18-34 (“the heavy users of YouTube”) to 18-49. While she is continuing to make programs featuring YouTube stars like Liza Koshy and Jenn McAllister (jennxpenn), Daniels is increasingly gravitating toward series with established IP (intellectual property) that resonates with YouTube’s broader base, like the drama series Step Up: High Water (based on the movie franchise), which debuted in January, and now Cobra Kai.

While Daniels isn’t revealing YouTube Red subscriber numbers yet (but “we are growing significantly,” she insists), she is also cultivating ad-supported original programming (AVOD) outside of the YouTube Red paywall. Those programs always have a “pro-social” message, she says, like the Kevin Hart fitness series What the Fit. YouTube Red’s programming, meanwhile, has an “edgier, anything-goes” feel.

However, in the coming year, YouTube will experiment more with the windows on its AVOD and SVOD originals. “It’s a unique marketing opportunity: We have billions of unique viewers on the AVOD platform. Exposing episodes to them and then moving them behind the paywall is something we’ll be trying a bit more of this year,” says Daniels, who will offer two Cobra Kai episodes for free in an effort to hook YouTube visitors—the site has more than 1.5 billion monthly logged-in YouTube viewers—and convince them to join Red to watch the remaining eight episodes.

YouTube partnered with Fathom Events to show the first two Cobra Kai episodes in over 600 movie theaters.
Photographed by Axel Dupeux at Seido Karate NYC

Buyers, starved for more ad-supported premium video opportunities, say they would love to get a crack at YouTube Red shows like Cobra Kai. “This is the type of premium content that has mass appeal, and could be a fit for a number of target audiences,” says Venables. But Daniels said that YouTube’s original films are more likely to be a part of her AVOD experiment than its series, as was the case with last year’s Demi Lovato documentary Simply Complicated, which was sponsored by Ulta Beauty, before later moving to YouTube Red.

As it mounts its biggest marketing campaign for a YouTube Original, the company is drawing heavily on data gleaned from its own platform, teasers that play up Karate Kid nostalgia and digital activations around Cobra Kai’s launch “that leverage what we know about what works in terms of virality on YouTube,” says Angela Courtin, global head of YouTube TV and originals marketing. She also leveraged the show’s theatrical roots with two big events last week: The series premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and YouTube partnered with Fathom Events to screen The Karate Kid and the first two Cobra Kai episodes in more than 600 movie theaters. “When you’re connecting serialized content back to a feature-length IP, there’s a way to bring those two worlds together,” says Courtin.

Daniels says Cobra Kai tracking has been “really strong” ahead of Wednesday’s premiere—“we have a really good feeling about this”—and she will “absolutely” order a second season quickly if the response to the series matches its prelaunch excitement.

If and when the renewal comes, the creators say they’ll be ready, having ended Season 1 with a surprise twist that “was in our original pitch,” says Heald. “We always knew the season was going to end where it does, and we’ve always had an idea of where it’s going after that. We weren’t just jumping off into the great unknown.”

One eagerly anticipated moment that is still in their back pocket for now: a Daniel-Johnny rematch. “Everyone’s asking, ‘When are they going to fight?’ Which we call the Ross and Rachel of our show,” says Macchio, referring to the on-again, off-again Friends couple. “You’ve got to keep that out there, but you can’t have them fight too soon. Or it might be a short series!”

This story first appeared in the April 30, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: April 29, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT