‘Cobra Kai’ Co-Creator Reveals His Rules for Successfully Rebooting Classic IP (Guest Column)

Ever since Cobra Kai premiered in 2018, I have heard some version of the following: “I can’t believe how much I loved your show, because whenever Hollywood attempts to bring back a classic movie franchise, it almost never works out.” Well, my co-creators Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and I completely understand where that sentiment comes from. Having grown up in the 1980s, we are the target audience for many of the repackaged/revamped/rebooted movie franchises we grew up with. We know what it’s like to get lured in by nostalgia, only to feel let down by a cash-grab that takes advantage of our childhood memories. But that didn’t stop us from bringing back one of our favorite movie franchises — The Karate Kid. And now that its follow-up Cobra Kai has found success at Netflix and is nominated for an outstanding comedy series Emmy, we want to share our approach to resurrecting classic movies and TV shows.

DO treat the original franchise with reverence. Just as you should honor thy father and mother, so should you honor the franchise you are bringing back. Remember — your show would not exist without the original movie. This is not just IP, this is something precious to millions of people. Treat it that way.

DON’T be afraid to make big changes. Respecting the material doesn’t mean you can’t be original. Fans don’t want to see the same thing they’ve seen before. Karate Kid fans love Cobra Kai because we took the bully, Johnny Lawrence, from the original movie and made him the underdog of our story.

DO create new characters to enrich your story and reach younger viewers. It’s true that if you want to attract a younger audience, it helps to have a younger cast. New characters can bring fresh energy and perspective to your franchise. But …

Lazy loaded image

Macchio trained with Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Mr. Miyagi in 1984’s The Karate Kid.
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

DON’T forget about the original characters or your older audience. Sure, you want to lure younger viewers, but first you must win over the hard-core fans who made your franchise a success.

DO use nostalgia to draw your audience into the story. Classic movies like The Karate Kid have been rewatched on VHS/DVD/cable so many times that people remember certain lines and scenes more vividly than their own childhood memories. Calling back these moments can have a huge emotional impact.

DON’T rely on nostalgia. Callbacks bring back memories, but they don’t tell a story. Even hard-core fans will tune out if they aren’t hooked into a compelling plot with great characters. The key is using nostalgia to create something new and exciting.

DO ask yourself, “Why now?” You will be asked this question many times in the greenlight process, so you might as well have an answer. For Cobra Kai, our answer was that bullying is more relevant today than ever — and we wanted to explore that topic by reexamining Johnny, one of the most iconic bullies in movie history.

DON’T overthink the “Why now?” There’s a reason your franchise is a classic — most likely it taps into something universal and timeless. So while it helps to give your story some social relevance, you also want it to be relevant 20 years from now. Focus on the classic themes that will stand the test of time.

Lazy loaded image

Cobra Kai co-creator Hayden Schlossberg.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

DO have a long-term plan about where you are taking the story. In the event of success, there will be demand for another season or sequel, and you want to be ready. With Cobra Kai, we purposely waited until the very end of the first season to bring back a fan favorite, villainous sensei John Kreese, because we wanted to give fans something to be excited about for season two.

DON’T assume your audience is going to stick around until the end. As important as it is to have a long game, you need to win over the audience very quickly — otherwise they will move on to one of the 70 trillion other options they have.

DO respect, encourage and engage your fandom. The best part about working on a famous franchise is that there is a built-in fan base already. Do what you can to turn that fan base into a community. Get them hyped up, show them you listen and encourage their creativity and passion.

DON’T argue with the fans. There is nothing more futile than trying to convince fans who didn’t like something that they are wrong. If there is division in the fan base, let the fans argue among themselves. That is part of the fun.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Leave a Comment