Erik Barmack Of Netflix On The Streaming Giant’s India Plans And Why Data Doesn’t Drive Creative Calls 

The Vice President of International Originals throws light on how scripts get green-lit on the streaming platform and why it’s hard to define a ‘Netflix show’ 
Erik Barmack Of Netflix On The Streaming Giant’s India Plans And Why Data Doesn’t Drive Creative Calls 

You have the difficult task of creating shows world over in local languages. How do you know if a show has potential to hit home with viewers who don't speak that language? 

Firstly, good storytelling is good storytelling. What we have seen is that television is becoming more and more global. So if we have a German show it can be like Dark which deals with these existential themes and can also be relevant around the world. Shows like Dark from Germany, The Rain from Scandinavia, Le casa de Papel from Spain and Narcos out of Columbia are all travelling around the world. So our concept of what television is on a global basis has changed.

On how do we know if something is going to be locally relevant, we have to be great at having people on the ground, in the markets where we are doing a lot of shows, helping with that. So the answer is that it is not possible as an outsider to be so perceptive all the time which is why we have hired a whole office here that has lots of opinions on the shows we should be doing.

We should also be open to trying new things which is why we have a romance movie like Love Per Square Foot, one on social issues like Lust Stories, Sacred Games is an incredible crime story. So we thought let's put ourselves in a situation where in India we have 6-7 shows per year and a dozen or so movies and then we are building our understanding based on what our consumers are telling us they like.

When you're catering to such a diverse audience, do you even need to like everything on the platform personally?

I think you have to believe that we are doing stuff at the highest level and that our aspiration is whatever that genre is to be graded in. We have one business model which is people are giving us money so that we can take that money into content and in personalised engines and provide them moments of joy. It's a trust issue with our consumers that we are going to be good advocates and help them find things that they love. So we don't want to spend on doing a bunch of shows just for the sake of it.

Is there a show whose reach and success has taken you by surprise? 

Oh, for sure. A lot of them have. Look at the origin of a show like Narcos. If somebody were to say 5 or 6 years ago that you'd have a show made by a French company, with Brazilian actors, and that it would be a huge show in the US and around the world – that was an amazing time for TV to say, "Okay, the rules are being rewritten." And it's certainly the case with a lot of the shows we are doing internationally – huge global audiences that we didn't anticipate.

We are so excited to figure what that's going to mean for India. With Sacred Games we see this opportunity where there is crime, there is religious stuff, commentary about media and Bollywood, it has really great actors and directors – so it has the components of all these things we are talking about to make an interesting global story out of India.

Is it possible to define a 'Netflix show'? Does a show need to fit with the Netflix brand? 

The Netflix brand is about consumer choice. It's about providing lots of options. So in India, for example, we have announced 6-7 series and a couple of films and kids programming. Our brand is that we are trying to give people lots of different options – so some components is just how we release our shows. So Sacred Games releases on July 6 – all episodes at once, in 20 different languages, 190 countries – so those drum beats of giving people choice and giving people the complete experience at once, that is Netflix.

The type of stories could be anywhere from a comedy that we are doing in Mexico to Stranger Things to Wild Wild Country. So I think the scope of what we're doing is pretty broad. I think we're avoiding doing series that are too on the nose or predictable.

Not a week goes by where do you don't read about a new deal or new market Netflix has penetrated into. When you're green-lighting projects at this rapid pace, I wonder how you ensure quality doesn't take a beating. How many people do you have reading scripts for international programming?

We're unique in Hollywood in the sense we have decentralised decision making. So we have people here who can commission shows. I can commission shows. There's about 25-30 people who can independently commission shows and that number can grow. And this is a concept that doesn't always typically resonate with people in Hollywood.

The idea is that we are trying to get passionate executives who are advocating for content that they believe in. And what you may like may be different from what I like so it is important to have different voices with different opinions because otherwise if you're commissioning hundreds of pieces of content and it was all going up through a couple of people, you couldn't maintain quality. So we have great people in Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Seoul, that can all make those decisions.

We have a team of 30 people worldwide. Our goal is not to lure for the sake of volume and to be thoughtful about each market. We have lots of conversations that are cross group – we have someone in Latin America watching Sacred Games and give their thoughts on it. It's really a completely international community.

What are the challenges you face when entering a new market?

It's hard to create trust because there's a status quo of how films or shows are done and I think what we need to prove to people is that if you come and work on a project with us, this is going to be the most satisfying and creative experience of your life. You're going to have artistic freedom and the ability to reach a global audience. And if you're consistent with those values, which I think we are as a team, then people talk about that. These communities are very close.

I come to Mumbai every couple of months and there's a great creative community here. I think there's a desire here to do really interesting television and a lot of the people we're working with are great filmmakers like Vikram (Motwane) and Anurag (Kashyap) who want to tell longer stories, more complex stories, so they are really interested in the medium.

We have a team of 30 people worldwide. Our goal is not to lure for the sake of volume and to be thoughtful about each market. We have lots of conversations that are cross group – we have someone in Latin America watching Sacred Games and give their thoughts on it. It's really a completely international community.  

What's been the hardest part of breaking into India? 

The pace and the scale. We're commissioning and developing more shows in India from the point when we launched the service till now than when we have in any other market around the world. This is a faster pace. So with 6-7 shows either being shot, written or in development, it's a much faster turnaround and we have a lot more series that we haven't announced yet. And it's really because the Indian film community is so interesting. There's so much talent here. That's different from going into a country where you're just going to develop one or two projects over a couple of years.

As a regular user of Netflix myself I often marvel at how intuitive the platform is. You know my tastes and habits, and you have solid and accurate data thank for that. How are you using that data to make better creative decisions?

It's directional. Why personalisation and the product working is important to us is that we have a single business model so we have to be great at that to win your trust. So we are intensely interested in the personal experience. We wanted to create customer satisfaction. As for the data, we don't really use it to decide what shows we will commission.

Sometimes it will give us a range of possible audience sizes. So if you were to come to me and say you want to do a sci-fi show in India, I can pretty well say here's a potential range of audiences for it because we know in the general universe how any people would watch something like that. But it won't tell you whether you'll make a good or bad sci-fi show. We are often wrong anyway. We are constantly surprised by what takes off and what doesn't .

Do you share your findings with creators and factor that in as you're developing show? 

It's not especially true that we don't share data – it's not publicly presented. But with our production partners we will often say after a season goes out, "There is a particular point where you may have lost some viewers or your show and this other show's audience has some overlap," isn't that interesting? We want to be collaborative with our partners. What we don't want to do is create a system where people feel they need to hit a specific number for that show to be viewed as successful. We don't want that pressure on them. I don't think it is fair to our creators and it's also not how we value business.

How does a storyteller pitch to Netflix? How can young creators in India reach you? 

In Italy we have a show called Baby which is written by people in their early 20s. We have a show in Brazil called 3% that we bought off a YouTube pilot. So we are constantly trying to work with new voices. Usually it means putting a Bible together – writing a script and doing all the work that shows us you're ready to take on the challenge of making a series, which is quite difficult to do.

We're pretty responsive so people contact me all the time and Shristi (Behl) and others in our Mumbai office. We have probably 5-6 different touch points for people in India to solicit is.

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