In the last five years, Netflix Chef Content Officer Ted Sarandos has blown up old television and movie models. And judging from the audience that packed Fox’s Zanuck Theatre on the first day of this year’s Produced By Conference, the industry is coming around to his way of thinking.
With his new star, Jerry Seinfeld, as a brilliant interrogator (he moved his series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” from Sony’s Crackle to Netflix for its 10th season), the executive was applauded several times as Seinfeld asked pointed questions.
A one-time “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” Sunday-night binge-watcher and Superstar Video staffer in Phoenix, Arizona, Sarandos is now the biggest content creator in Hollywood as Netflix now boasts 100 million subscribers worldwide. And he easily won over the room.
Here’s how he did it.
1. Match little movies to their audience
On Netflix, which is available in 190 countries, the audience and demographic is so huge and wide that it’s easy for the streaming site to match audiences for obscure foreign movies with avid cinephiles, said Sarandos: “We want to put things that are relevant in front of the right audience.”
2. Let American comedy and politics travel
The numbers told Netflix that, contrary to the old Hollywood maxim that comedy doesn’t play overseas, each time Adam Sandler movies appeared on the site they immediately went to number one in every country, no matter how poorly they had bombed at the domestic box office. That’s why Netflix made a lucrative original movie deal with Sandler.
In the case of Season One of “House of Cards,” which cost $100 million, the Washington D.C. political intrigue drama series played well all over the world, said Sarandos, because “it’s a Shakespearean drama about sex, power, and greed.”
3. Don’t worry about opening weekends or China
Netflix doesn’t have to worry about opening well on a given weekend, or gearing the subject matter so it will play well in China. “That narrows what it can be about,” Sarandos said, “and limits what you can do.” (Three countries don’t have Netflix: China, Syria, and North Korea.)
That makes him free to make movies the studios wouldn’t back, like Martin Scorsese gangster drama “The Irishman” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, or political satires from Bong Joon Ho (“Okja,” starring Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal) and David Michôd (“War Machine,” starring Brad Pitt). “War Machine” rocketed to their most-watched movie in 190 countries when it first came out, a bigger initial audience than “World War Z” when it first hit the Netflix pay TV window.
4. Don’t worry about advertising demos
Take away the need to sell ads, and you lose TV’s narrow demographics and give television the ability to be whatever it wants to be, whenever someone wants it. And skipping pilots and ordering full series (“like a movie,” said Sarandos) makes it possible for the whole season to be available at once. That’s what distinguishes Netflix from other TV.
5. Don’t give notes
When Seinfeld complained about having to listen to 70 people’s notes on a TV series, Sarandos said not only is Netflix is too small for that, but also when they decide to move forward with something they only act as a sounding board when the creatives need it. Said Sarandos: “Our art is picking the right stories and storytellers, and giving them the environment to do their best work.” (Huge applause.)
At this point, Seinfeld suggested that the entire room was about to rush the stage. “Our teams are involved in the process only on an invited basis,” said Sarandos.