William Zabka and Ralph Macchio


Remembering Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita)


Macchio shows off his form


Former foes together again

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July 01, 2021
Online Originals

Kicking Into the Future

The creators of Cobra Kai made sure they were honoring the past as they updated The Karate Kid.

There's no way the creators of the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai were going to mess up the stories of its main characters, Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

That's because showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg - all of whom had been friends since high school and college and now work together at Counterbalance Entertainment - are huge fans of The Karate Kid. Getting the rights to develop the stories of the classic film's protagonist and antagonist - now middle-aged men, rather than high school rivals - was a dream come true.

"It's like we held a Faberge egg," Heald said. "We blew the dust off and said, 'Hey, can we play with this?'"

The three men love the original 1984 movie because of its classic underdog story, the power of mentorship and the comedy of "a teenage karate gang," Hurwitz explained.

"It's something we all talked about when we were young screenwriters," he said. "Wouldn't it be amazing to do a movie called Cobra Kai and focus in on Johnny Lawrence? What happens to the bully?"

The dream project felt impractical, however, and they despaired of seeing it ever come to fruition - until other projects began appearing that made similar use of popular properties from the past.

"We felt it would never happen," Hurwitz said. "Then we saw streaming shows, like Fuller House , and characters we hadn't seen for years were suddenly on billboards."

"It was the right time and the right place," Heald said. In fact, he said, they quickly realized that a series, rather than a movie, was the way to go.

"It's the golden age of serialized television," Heald said.

"Around the time that we started talking about this as a movie, The Sopranos was just getting going, showing us something different in television." But it wasn't until streaming services like Netflix came along that the prospect became real, he said, because "it wasn't just HBO doing that long-form serialized treatment."

"It became obvious to us that we could dig into this," he said. "It wasn't just Johnny's story. We could tell Johnny and Daniel's story. The next generation. It became much richer than we had begun with. It had so many branches."

They were able to get the rights to the story  - "it's not like Sony was shopping around" for someone to revamp the franchise, Heald said - but the next hurdle was getting the original actors to sign on.

"For us, it was entirely dependent on getting the original cast," Schlossberg said. "We wouldn't have done the show without them. It's the secret sauce of the entire story. If we're not getting Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka, we're not doing this.

"We had to get them onboard and excited. For actors who hadn't played these parts for a long time, there's a natural reluctance to dabble with a classic that people really loved."

That meant persuading Macchio and Zabka that the time was right to bring those characters back into the spotlight.

"It's not just dipping into nostalgia for nostalgia's sake," Schlossberg said. "It's taking the characters and flipping the script. Johnny, who was the king in high school, is now the underdog, because he's the loser. And Daniel, who was the underdog ... has become a success."

Heald already knew Zabka from their work on Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), so he arranged a meeting.

"We took him to a Mexican restaurant. He had no idea what we were pitching to him. At first he was confused," Hurwitz said. "Once it sunk in, he was all in." Macchio was a harder sell.

"He never closed the door, but he never seemed eager," Hurwitz said. Their pitch was "super prepared and super passionate" and assured the star that the creators would "make sure he was going to look good, the franchise was going to look good, and it would be something that would reinvigorate the fan base." After a four- hour lunch meeting and a two-hour phone call, Macchio assented.

With the stars onboard, it was a matter of making the story happen -- connecting the movie's end to the series' beginning, with more than 30 years between them.

"It flowed surprisingly naturally," Heald said. "We are huge fans of the franchise. And that's the big thing - we knew how to handle the stories. The storytellers in us knew where the opportunities were, to springboard into what comes next." They wanted storylines that were "grounded, realistic and relatable," he said.

For Johnny, the plot focused on a classic trope: a character who peaked in high school and then saw his life go downhill from there. For Daniel, the writers wanted to figure out what happens to someone who starts with nothing and is struggling just to get by and then "goes through a beautiful coming-of-age story. He finds his confidence and he gets the girl. He gets his life together."

But in the next phase of his life, Daniel no longer has his guiding rudder, Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita). In the series, Heald said, Daniel "realizes he's now the mentor, but he doesn't know if he has all the tools.Then he wonders, did Mr. Miyagi have all the tools? Or did he make it up as he went along?"

The series has also featured many other cast members from the films, from Daniel's mother (Randee Heller) to Johnny's sensei (Martin Love), from several of Johnny's old friends from the dojo (Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison and Tony O'Dell) to two of Daniel's love interests (Elisabeth Shue and Tamlyn Tomita).

In the years since the original film's release, there has been some debate among fans about the true antagonist of the story. Was it really Johnny, or was Daniel the bad guy all along? (That theory was famously posited by Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) in the series How I Met Your Mother.)

"It's interesting," Schlossberg said. "But we're not a part of that debate. We've noticed it online, and we recognize that there are seeds planted in the original movie where you can see things from Johnny's perspective. But that doesn't make Daniel the bully.

"We sometimes play with that a little bit in the show, but we don't make Johnny the good guy and Daniel the bad guy. We wouldn't be interested in making that show. Anyone with Mr. Miyagi as their mentor isn't going to grow up to be a bully."

When the first 10-episode season was released on YouTube Premium in May 2018, the team of directors, producers and writers were pretty sure they had a hit on their hands. "We enter every project believing we're going to deliver," Hurwitz said. "We were confident when we first sold the show that we were going to make something that fans like us would enjoy."

In fact, he said, it was during their first session reading lines with Zabka that they all looked at each other and knew the concept was going to work.

YouTube executives had shown them the strategy to "get eyeballs on the series" once it was available to view on the subscription service.

"I'll never forget that first day when it came out, and we were getting hourly updates from YouTube," he said. "They were like, 'This is outpacing anything we've done before.' It was a surreal experience."

But, Hurwitz said, the YouTube hit didn't get as many views as they'd hoped.

"Most of the people in our everyday lives hadn't seen it," he said.

That all changed when the series moved to Netflix for its third season. The streaming giant also purchased the rights to show the first two seasons.

"It was a big difference," Heald said. "We had a built-in audience. It finally found the audience for people who had heard of the show but weren't going to sign up for another fledgling service that didn't have a lot of original content."

Once on Netflix, he said, it was matter of "getting people to click on it and let the show take over from there."

Season 3 reached the top of the Nielsen chart and Netflix's viewing list in 28 countries, publicists for the series note. With its new level of exposure, Cobra Kai began appearing on lists of popular "binge-worthy" shows.

But switching to Netflix, ultimately, didn't change the series much in terms of how they were telling the story, Heald said. Now with season 4 in editing, the team is keeping quiet about what surprises to expect.

"The show is a comedy, but at the same time it has the soap opera qualities of a Game of Thrones," Schlossberg said. "Fans want to know but don't want to know what's coming. We don't want to spoil the upcoming trailer and teaser moments." Although an official release date for the season hasn't been announced, he said it's likely to be sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021.

"We treat each season the same way," Schlossberg said. "How can we stay true to the roots of the movie and the series that we love, and still do something different and take it to the next level."

Each season has a similar theme but avoids a retread of earlier plots, he explained.

"Every season, we explore different aspects of the original franchise," Schlossberg said. "If you're a fan of Karate Kid, if you're a fan of Cobra Kai, you're going to love season 4."

The creators also recently released Plan B, which Hurwitz described as "a throwback to R-rated comedy" films (such as New Line's popular Harold & Kumar film franchise, which was helmed by Hurwitz and Schlossberg).

In it, stars Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles are on a one-night road trip in the American heartland to find a Plan B pill after a "regrettable" sexual encounter at a high school party. Plan B came out on Hulu on May 28.

They also have "a couple of TV series percolating that we're not ready to announce," Hurwitz said.

Meanwhile, they have imagined several properties they'd love to get their hands on and, like The Karate Kid, reimagine for a new generation.

Hurwitz quickly named the Back to the Future and Major League franchises as ripe for development. Schlossberg laughed and suggested Top Secret, a 1984 Val Kilmer spoof.

"It's those movies from the 1980s that made us fall in love with storytelling," Schlossberg said.

Anything by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg would be a coup, he said, but "there's no question there are a couple of old movies on VHS that we'd love to dust off and give the Cobra Kai treatment to."

"It's hard to get the rights to some of those gems," Heald added. "The Karate Kid was something we were so lucky to be able to play with, but there are other hidden gems out there we'd love to get our hands on."

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