Ted Sarandos, the co-CEO and Chief Content Officer of Netflix, in an exclusive session on FC Front Row, talks about the top streaming platform’s growth in India, the importance of local content, along with tidbits about his creative instincts and how he gave a go-ahead to The Crown without watching its pilot.
Anupama Chopra: You said that your vision for Netflix is to make local stories global. You mentioned that it is the opposite of cultural imperialism. Can you elaborate on that?
Ted Sarandos: The typical thing to be anxious about a company like Netflix coming on the scene is that are we going to be just another exporter of Hollywood content around the world – rehashing stories for the world? It never really made sense to me that so much of world entertainment was coming in English and from America. There is nothing wrong with that model except for we are our stories, we are our history, we are our food, we are our language, around the world. I think our films, television, and storytelling should reflect that.
Most children have not read stories from any other places, they’ve read local stories. So they are attuned to their local culture at a very young age. And the problem is, we don’t get to see other cultures that much. There was a really niche behavior to watch foreign-language content in the US. So we actually wind up by championing local storytelling from anywhere to the world to another. One of the great benefits of that is that, in America, our viewing of non-English content has gone through the roof. So our local-language content, dubbed and subtitled in English is being watched 100 times more than before. Our biggest show that we launched in the entire world in the first quarter of the year was Lupin from France. So that is like storytelling from anywhere to the world.
I feel like our work in India has just begun. We are working with local storytellers, we’ve started our biggest slate of original content last year that’s continuing to grow, some of our films have been immensely popular with our Indian members. Jagame Thandhiram is one that is immensely popular, and Haseen Dillruba was in our top 10 in 22 different countries. That, to me, is the real possibility of exporting culture, exporting storytelling and helping the planet, this big scary place, feel a little smaller and safer because we know each other. So that’s a cool benefit that we get from all that.
AC: There’s been a considerable amount of churn in the last two months in Netflix India and there has been a lot of publicity around that. I read one article where the headline said, “Has Netflix fumbled India?” What is your response to that?
TS: We’re just starting in India. It’s very easy to look at these things, but it’s very hard. After our global launch in 130 countries, we followed-up by launching country-by-country. When we did that, we found out that as good as you can be in one country, you know almost nothing about the next one. You’ve really got to focus on how to make Netflix as passionately connected with members in India as they are in Indiana. Is this the content they can’t live without? Are these the movies they love? Are these the TV series that they get lost in? That is different for every culture around the world. And it takes time. I wish there was a shortcut.
There is a trial and error period that I’d say that we’ve been in right now. Our first instinct is to deliver in a country, what everyone’s watching there. And then you realise that people are really looking for something else, that’s why they’ve joined Netflix. Then you go the other way.
The one thing that has resonated quite well has been our introduction to a kind of cinema-infused television which was very novel for India at that time, investing very big production value in television storytelling. So I look at Sacred Games, Delhi Crime, that I think have kicked off a new age of television in India, and I’m very proud of that.
And we are continuing to grow, we are continuing to connect with our audiences. But the key is, it has to be the films and shows you love. Being a matcher of stories to an audience is hard work and very fluid. This year’s out of fashion next year. How do you tell stories that stand the test of time, in and around the world? I’m very proud of our work and we just keep getting better and better at it.
AC: I read that you said yes to The Crown without a pilot. How do you know that you have a hit on your hands? What happens when you feel like a film or show sounds exactly right? And at what point of the process do you feel it? Is it instant, do you have to let it marinate, how does it work?
TS: Peter Morgan came to Netflix with this concept, and the concept was always huge. There was always 6 seasons, 60 hours, and each season would be a decade in the life of Queen Elizabeth. But when he told the story, the good advice was to think about things that are not out there, think about worlds that have not been deeply explored. What are the worlds you want to spend time in? Who are the people who you want to spend this time with? 60 hours is a long time. And I could have listened to Peter Morgan in that pitch for 60 hours. I mean the richness of the storytelling, the richest detail, and the idea that this royal family which was not meant to be humanized really, was going to be humanized through these stories. Peter is such a brilliant writer. For this show, he writes every word of every script. And he has a research room but not a writers room, which is very unusual for television. But that level of detail, passion and expertise in every single word of that show is what makes it so great. My conviction that Peter could do this came from the fact that this world was right in his wheelhouse. He knew it inside-out. I knew that this would be a rich and detailed world in which people would lose themselves in. And that I was sure of 10 minutes into the pitch.
But it isn’t always that clear. Take Stranger Things, for example. The pitch was radically different from how the show turned out to be. But you had to trust in the creative vision of these complete newcomers at that time. And in other times, you’ve got a more ‘complete package’: for House of Cards, we had 3 scripts, the whole cast, David Fincher directing, so that felt a lot more surefire. But there were other times when you were taking your instinctual bet on the creator even when the material wasn’t quite there yet.
AC: What is the strangest place where someone has pitched a show or a film to you?
TS: Once, we were on a very remote place on vacation. We were in a rented property and I was on the balcony looking at the ocean, thinking it was just me and the world. And then I heard somebody from the balcony of the house next door, shouting a pitch to me.
What’s funny about the process of being pitched to is that somebody gives that person an advice: “If you ever see that person, you better take your shot, because you may never see them again.” There’s truth to it. But I would advise the folks that the good thing to say is, ‘I know is not the right place to do it but could I call or email you,’ versus doing the whole pitch in the middle of a meal – which happens a lot. Sometimes, I would go out to dinner with my wife and someone would tap my shoulder and start pitching while I’m having dinner. I’d say, ‘I really want to hear your story, could you just take my card or email me and we’ll set up a call.’ But they are very passionate about their stories. In some cases, it’s their only shot. It typically is not their only shot, but it feels like it. I definitely appreciate the passion that goes into it, but I don’t think a day goes by when I am not pitched while in line for coffee or at a meal or at a walk, or in some cases, on a balcony over a beach.