Netflix swoops to conquer: An interview with Ted Sarandos

Netflix swoops to conquer: An interview with Ted Sarandos

Ted Sarandos was interviewed by Francine Stock at the RTS London Conference (Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)
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When Ted Sarandos was interviewed at the RTS London Conference, it became clear that US streaming service Netflix is expanding on all fronts. Matthew Bell wonders if there is any limit to its global ambition

Is Netflix set on “world domination”? That was one of the themes in this intriguing encounter between the company’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, and Francine Stock, presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme. Since a huge expansion across the globe in January, only China, North Korea, Crimea and Syria remain outside the streaming service’s worldwide reach. 

Currently, revealed Sarandos, Netflix has 30 scripted shows, five kids’ programmes, 60 documentaries and a dozen feature films in various stages of production. Netflix’s annual spend on content is a staggering $6bn. 

These new shows include the company’s first “competition series,” Ultimate Beastmaster, which features six customised, local versions for the US, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Germany and Japan. The series is based around physical challenges and is hosted by executive producer Sylvester Stallone. 

“In Japan, it will feel like a very Japanese show, with Japanese announcers, featuring the Japanese contestants more prominently than the others. The whole series was shot simultaneously for each country. If it’s successful, we’ll roll it out in more [countries],” revealed Sarandos. 

Coming soon is Peter Morgan’s much-anticipated drama depicting the reign of Elizabeth II, The Crown, made by Left Bank Pictures. The first of the mooted six series is set for release on 4 November – in its entirety, as is the Netflix way. Sarandos revealed that the cast have already completed a read-through of the script for the ­second series. 

Netflix’s UK output does not end with The Crown, said the CCO, who added that three other series are currently being made with UK producers. 

Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series Black Mirror (made by Endemol Shine company Zeppotron) streams at the end of October on Netflix, which outbid original broadcaster Channel 4. “I think they’re going to be blown away by the scale of this new series,” said Sarandos. 

Netflix is also giving new life – and a new title, Lovesick (Clerkenwell Films) – to Channel 4 sitcom Scrotal Recall

An eight-part natural history series, Our Planet (Silverback Films), will take viewers to the world’s remaining wildernesses in 2019. 

Sarandos explained the thinking behind the company’s move into UK TV production: “We’ve had some success with British programming in the US and around the world with Happy Valley, Peaky Blinders and River. It’s a natural extension of that to commission original British programming.”


(Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)

Pointing to an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Stock suggested that Netflix’s relationship with producers has not always been straightforward – a claim that Sarandos was quick to knock down. 

“Four years ago, we weren’t producing any original programming; this year, we had 17 different shows on the air,” he said. “The only way you can work that way is to build [a relationship] – the same culture that we built Netflix on – with creatives. 

“Our job is to pick the right shows and storytellers, and create an environment for them to do the best work of their life,” continued Sarandos. “Our creative involvement in the shows is collaborative and always invited. 

“Everybody wants to make a great show and, to the extent that we can be helpful in that process, we are – [but] I’m not going to give creative notes to Peter Morgan.” 

​Netflix is also heavily involved in co-productions with British broadcasters: the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The current ITV cop series Paranoid, for example, will stream internationally on Netflix later this year. Meanwhile, it is making a new, animated version of the children’s classic Watership Down with the BBC. 

“There will be at least four more of these co-productions before the end of the year, where the British broadcaster will take the first window and we’ll follow around the world,” promised Sarandos. 

Netflix Chief Financial Officer David Wells recently stated that the company was aiming at a 50-50 split between original commissions and acquisitions. 

At the RTS London Conference, Sarandos elaborated on this objective: “That’s where it’s heading and that’s where we set out to be many years ago. If we get to a place where we’re missing more than we’re hitting,” he added, “we may revisit that number, but that’s our intent – to do most of our programming originally.” 

Netflix’s aim, as outlined by CEO Reed Hastings, is to be in one in three households within seven years. Stock asked Sarandos how the company intended to achieve this objective. 

“The idea is to remove the friction points between the consumer and our content as much as we can,” he explained, adding that the company was on course to fulfil Hastings’ target. 

Turning to how audiences will watch Netflix programming, Sarandos said the aim was to “have our content on every stream that is connected to the internet, so [people] can watch it on [everything from] the big screen to their phone”. 

To laughter from the audience, he said that his 20-year-old son had recently watched the David Lean epic Lawrence of Arabia on a phone. 

“People my age think more about screen size than [younger audiences],” he said. “The size and shape of screens are going to continue to evolve, [both] bigger and smaller.” 

He added that his son gives up on one in three movies that he starts. “He said, ‘Everything ever made is right here [on the internet] – why would I spend time with a bad one?’” 

Warming to his theme of choice, Sarandos concluded: “When people have a lot of choice, the bar is going to continue to rise on the quality of the productions and the stories that are being told. [Companies] are either going to be making very good films for very small audiences or spectacular films for large audiences.” 

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Netflix joins the movie-makers

Having firmly established itself in TV, Netflix is now challenging the movie industry. ‘It’s a distinctly different art,’ maintained Sarandos at the RTS London Conference. 

Despite the success that Netflix has had in what he characterised as ‘the golden age of television’, Sarandos said that about ‘a third of the watching on Netflix is still movies, and [remember] this is two-hour movies versus 13-hour shows’. 

He argued that the licensing arrangements for films on pay-TV were out of step: ‘To have people wait seven to 10 months in the internet age doesn’t make a lot of sense.’ 

‘I think what you end up with in these pay deals, is movies that either people saw already because they were excited about them, or they made a conscious decision not to see them at any point between the time they opened in the [cinema] and the time [they were] on DVD, VoD or an aeroplane. 

‘We’re investing in films so that we can more aggressively give consumers what they’re telling us they want, which is movies when they open. They need to be the kind of movies you could see in a [cinema].’ 

Upcoming films include the war comedy War Machine, starring Brad Pitt, Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Mascots, due for release this month, and supernatural cop thriller Bright, with Will Smith. Sarandos described the latter as ‘a potential future franchise’. 

Discussing Netflix’s first foray into the movies, Sarandos said: ‘It’s a very diverse slate, you should think about it like a studio slate: action movies, comedies, dramas, big and small movies, but all premiering on Netflix, either simultaneously with [cinemas] or instead of [cinemas].

Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was interviewed by broadcaster, critic and writer Francine Stock at the RTS London Conference. The session was produced by Charlotte Elston.