Here’s the problem with Hollywood hating on Netflix...
I can understand-- to some degree-- why Hollywood is trying to do everything it can to invalidate Netflix’s sudden gargantuan presence in entertainment, whether it’s leaning on theatres not to show Netflix films or trying to change the rules of who can win Oscars.
Netflix is one of those classic Internet disruption stories where traditional industries simply can’t compete. It has the reach. It has the dollars. And it will boldly use them. In those ways it’s similar to Napster in the early days of music disruption or Uber in the transportation realm.
But there’s a massive, massive difference. Actually, two. The first is Netflix only started to disrupt the creative industry after it had painstakingly build a strong, defensible, multi-billion dollar business. But the more salient difference is this: Netflix is a headache for those at the very top of the entertainment food chain because it is such an amazing option for those who used to be under their thumbs.
If drivers benefitted under Uber as compared to the old taxi system it would-- in many ways-- be a way less damaging company to people’s lives. As is, the drivers were picketing outside the Nasdaq when it went public. And Napster introduced the ability to steal music-- which hurt everyone in the industry. Artists and studios are still split right now on how good or bad YouTube, Spotify and Pandora are for them.
But Netflix is something different entirely. For one thing, it is giving creatives carte blanche to create work outside the regular confines of broadcast, which includes not having to write a set number of episodes per season or appeal to mainstream viewers. But it is also giving them massive international reach, far more money, and far more control over content in many cases.
Recently, I wrote about Netflix’s acquisition of Story Bots. Co-creator Gregg Spiridellis explained why already Netflix was able to make Story Bots a global hit from day one:
“Netflix has already made Story Bots a global phenomenon, taking over all of the international production, including casting of voices, production and distribution in 22 languages around the world.
A global audience had been the Spiridellis brothers’ intention from the beginning. “The fact that they have flopping heads isn’t an accident,” Spiridellis says. “We wanted them to be able to speak any language and it would feel native.” It required a company with the scale and reach of Netflix to make that idea happen.”
There was early concern that Netflix’s access to data would mean creatives had to program to that data. But the company and producers working for it have done the opposite: Instead of using data to create the content, they’ve used the data to find content the right audience. Years ago, I saw Netflix CEO Reed Hastings speak at All Things D and he said they measured how many people turned off “House of Cards” in the opening scene where the dog dies. Rather than use those numbers to rein in content, those are simply people who won’t get served up another show like “House of Cards.”
But beyond what a great deal Netflix can be for creators, Netflix is also leading with integrity in areas where Hollywood is under pressure: Sexual harassment and inclusion. Netflix unceremoniously fired Kevin Spacey after allegations of assault came out, and made sure everyone knew that was why it was firing him. It fired one of its own executives for using the N-word, regardless of context. I wish consequences like that were the rule in tech or Hollywood. Contrast that to a report that came out this week that showed that only half-- 613 of some 1,227-- of those accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment in the #metoo era still have their jobs.
And it’s giving wide-reaching creative deals to the most exciting diverse talent.
Shonda Rhimes got a wide-ranging $100 million deal, and the freedom to not be a slave to the 20-episode schedule, the rigid hour long length of a show with commercial breaks every 15 minutes, or appealing to a cookie-cutter mainstream audience. She called it a “fearless space for creators” at the time the deal was announced. Network television had already given her it’s hottest night of the week. But Netflix found a way to give her an even better deal.
And one of her projects? The story of Ellen Pao and her landmark discrimination fight against Kleiner Perkins.
Said ABC veteran Susan Lyne-- who was the exec who originally greenlit Grey’s Anatomy-- to Pando at the time of the deal:
There's no question that a Netflix, and to some extent Amazon, can offer creative people a different kind of freedom than they could ever have working for a network.
ABC has been great to her. They literally turned over Thursday night to her. You can't ask for more from network television. She even said that the fact that she had to do let's call it 20, 22 episodes every season of her shows is, it's a lot. You have to make sure that they fit into the formats that allow for advertising every 8 to 11, maybe 13 minutes.
[Broadcast TV has] got major constrictions on it that you're never going to have at a place like Netflix. She can tell stories at exactly the length that feels right to the narrative. That's a huge luxury. I get completely why she's doing it.”
But Netflix isn’t done there. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” documentary on the Central Park Five has been the most-watched series on Netflix in the US, every day since it premiered in May, according to the company. It’s a big enough cultural force that it’s provoking the ire of the President. (But then again, what doesn’t?) Considering Netflix is nearing 150 million paid subscribers, that’s reach no one else can come close to.
And now filmmaker Janet Mock has signed a three-year, multi-million dollar sweeping deal with Netflix making her the first out transgender woman to have this level of creative control at a major content company. From Variety’s write up of the deal:
“The Netflix deal will enable Mock to create programs that employ and highlight communities that have historically been ignored by Hollywood — including the intersectional space Mock herself occupies, as a woman of color and a highly visible trans person…
...Mock joins a very small club of powerful trans creators. Jill Soloway, who identifies as non-binary, has a production deal with Amazon Studios. For many in the bungalows and boardrooms of Hollywood, directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski were early and visible trans peers. They created “The Matrix” franchise and later the fan-favorite queer series “Sense8” at Netflix. After that, there aren’t many trans artists who have been given major platforms. Writers’ rooms for shows including “Transparent,” “Pose,” “Tales of the City” and the “L Word” reboot are staffed with trans people.”
It’s not lost on anyone that nearly every example on that list of barrier breaking transgender content was backed by Netflix or Amazon, not traditional Hollywood elites.
Here’s Variety telling the story of how Ryan Murphy (also in the Netflix family via a gargantuan contract now) connected her to the streaming giant:
“Last fall, Murphy took Mock to the exclusive Los Angeles haunt the San Vicente Bungalows, and at a corner table over steak and wine they charted her future. Murphy asked where Mock saw herself in five years, and she simply said that she wanted to be successful.
“No,” Mock recalls Murphy saying, “what do you want?”
Mock wanted to be her own boss. “He told me what that looks like and what it costs,” she remembers. Two weeks later, she had a meeting at Netflix where she ran down her development slate and walked out with a deal. Mock calls it a “pinch me” moment.”
This is a dramatically different story of disruption. One in which those getting enriched and those whose dreams are coming true aren’t just those writing the algorithms and those with access to billions in venture capital. It’s those whose stories traditionally haven’t been told. Those who once felt they would struggle to get a job in the entertainment industry, much less become a king pin in it.
I’m all for that kind of Hollywood disruption.