- “Cobra Kai” creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald talk about how their YouTube Red hit show got off the ground.
- It included getting multiple rights holders to agree on the project a nd convincing Ralph Macchio to come back and play the role that made him a star.
It was around the time filmmakers Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald started seeing billboards of the lovable character from “Full House,” Kimmy Gibbler, around LA for the release of Netflix’s “Fuller House” series that they realized an update of “The Karate Kid” could be possible.
The three grew up on the iconic 1984 movie that follows Daniel (Ralph Macchio) overcoming the constant torment of fellow high schooler Johnny (William Zabka) by learning the ways of karate through Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).
The movie wasn’t just the ultimate telling of a kid overcoming a bully, but also showed the importance of respect, hard work, and a killer 1980s soundtrack.
Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald were childhood friends and stayed in touch as they began careers in Hollywood. Hurwitz and Schlossberg launched the successful “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” franchise while Heald was the story creator and one of the screenwriters of the “Hot Tub Time Machine” franchise (the original even starred Zabka).
The idea of continuing to tell the story of the original characters from “Karate Kid” intrigued them, but with the franchise rights owned by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment production company (which made a “Karate Kid” movie in 2010 starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan), they figured the guys behind “Harold & Kumar” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” wouldn’t get a fair shake to make a serious movie that looked at the original guys 30-plus years later.
But then streaming services began making original TV series and suddenly there was a new way of bringing back popular shows and movies that were beloved decades earlier.
“The changes and the evolution of TV led us to think it could work,” Schlossberg told Business Insider.
Two years ago, the guys decided to ditch the movie idea and seriously go for a “Karate Kid” reboot as a TV series. The result is YouTube Red’s first real hit show, “Cobra Kai,” which looks at Daniel and Johnny all grown up and living with the memories of what occurred back in high school and how it’s affected them.
But the path to becoming the latest hit streaming series was a gargantuan task that included wooing the multiple rights holders and gaining the trust of Macchio, who for most of his adult life has tried to distance himself from the role that made him famous.
Chasing the movie rights.
- Columbia Pictures
The first hurdle to clear for the guys was to get the rights to “The Karate Kid.” It was not just owned by Smith’s Overbrook but also the estate of Jerry Weintraub, who produced the original movie, and the studio that released it, Sony.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s agent was able to get a meeting in the books with Caleeb Pinkett, head of creative at Overbrook. Now it was up to Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald to shine.
“We went into that meeting thinking that we would say to him you can still have the movie universe and if Jaden wants to do another ‘Karate Kid’ feature you can still do that, but like Marvel, there’s now a TV show and the movies,” Hurwitz said.
To their shock, Pinkett didn’t need much convincing. The 40-minute pitch turned into a strategy meeting of how to get the show off the ground.
“He said he was going to talk to Jerry Weintraub’s estate,” Hurwitz said. “He was like, ‘We’re doing the show!'”
Pinkett, who has an executive producer credit on “Cobra Kai” (along with Will Smith), became the show’s champion when the project went to Sony.
“He was the one fighting the fights in our meetings,” Hurwitz said.
A big reason for that, the guys assume, is because they brought a package to Pinkett and Overbrook for “Karate Kid” that they hadn’t thought of.
“I got the vibe that there was always talks of doing a sequel but it wasn’t clear where that was,” Schlossberg said. “But TV wasn’t even thought of.”
Getting Ralph Macchio on board.
- YouTube Red
With a green light to make the show, Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald then went to Zabka with the good news.
“It was just mind blowing to him,” Heald said of telling Zabka. “It took two or three times for him to understand that we were going to further the story of Johnny. He was in shock. There’s not a day that’s gone by that Billy hasn’t thought about Johnny Lawrence because it’s such an iconic role for him. The character never really left him.”
With Zabka on board, the trio turned their attention to Macchio, which they knew right away was going to be a harder sell.
“None of us knew him but we had heard he was very hesitant to engage with anything ‘Karate Kid’ related over the years,” Heald said.
As the decades passed, “The Karate Kid” continued to grow a loyal fan base, but like many things from the 1980s, the movie became a punchline. The memorable scenes became fodder as YouTube grew in popularity and the song from the movie, “You’re the Best,” also became a staple in the comedy community. And it didn’t help that the movies made after 1986’s “The Karate Kid Part II” – “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989), “The Next Karate Kid” (1994) and Jaden Smith’s “The Karate Kid” (2010) – were nowhere as popular as the first two movies.
But Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald didn’t take “no” for an answer and finally got a lunch meeting with Macchio in New York.
“And that lunch turned into a four-hour lunch where we pitched him the whole show and that we were not trying to make a ‘Harold & Kumar’ or ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ experience with this show,” Heald said. “We told him it has this new way in because the guys are adults now. Ralph was not expecting any of that and a couple of days later we had a two-hour phone call with him, and a few days later another two-hour phone call, and by the end of that week Ralph was in.”
Looking back on the process Macchio went through with them to finally agree to do the role, they respect the time he took to finally say “yes.”
“Because he knew if he came back as Daniel it would be a big deal to people, not just in this country but all over the world, and he wanted to make sure it was the right decision to do,” Hurwitz said.
“He wanted to make sure we had answers to the big questions that he had,” Schlossberg added. “He didn’t want to hear, ‘That’s a great question we’ll figure that out.’ He wanted to make sure we thought about this beyond memorizing a pitch.”
What’s in store for season 2.
After “Cobra Kai” launched on YouTube Red in the beginning of May, the show was immediately praised by critics (it got a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and the hardcore fans, as the show reportedly performed better than many shows on Netflix and Hulu.
The show didn’t just have strong character development for its leads Macchio and Zabka, but also introduced younger characters who are going through their own issues and will be influenced by both older characters – for better and worse.
Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald say season two, which YouTube Red has already renewed, will delve deeper into all the characters. And as the last episode teased, Johnny’s old sensei, Kreese (Martin Kove), is now in the mix.
“We knew from the beginning we wanted him to be on the show but we wanted to wait for the right moment,” Hurwitz said. “There was enough story to be told in season one and we thought it would be really fun for Martin to pop up at the end and be that curve ball for season two.”
When they approached Kove, the actor was immediately into the idea and assumed he would be in the storyline right away, seeing the title of the series is named after his character’s dojo. But the guys had to make him understand that it wasn’t his time yet.
“We promised him when he does show up on screen it’s a huge moment and we’ll have more to do with him in the future,” Hurwitz said.
“We have said all along that there’s really no character that’s off limits from the movies,” Schlossberg said. “But we also want to make sure we are introducing the characters the right way. We want it to feel impactful and be connected to the stories we’re telling.”
Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald say season two will pick up right where season one left off and there will be new characters on the horizon, maybe even some from the old movies.
“We had a lot of thoughts about the second season before making the first,” Schlossberg said. “This is something that has a plan.”