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June 23, 2019

Ted Talk

Tramps (Adam Leon - 2017)

In the interests of journalistic transparency, I am a Netflix subscriber both of the DVD services and streaming.

I also want to express regret at not writing more legible notes, but that that's what happens to me when I scribble in the dark. Hopefully, I will remember this event correctly.

Maybe I should have tried to get an interview with Ted Sarandos has some of my questions and concerns were not covered.

This was my first time attending Series Fest, which as is indicated by the name, a weeklong event in Denver dedicated to series television. My interest in seeing the dialogue between Liberty Global's Ted Fries and Netflix's Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, stems from the crossover of filmmaking talent providing Netflix films and television series. This event took place on June 21. Due to the number of attendees, I watched the discussion as a simulcast on one of the screens at the Sie Theater.

After providing a bit of personal background, Sarandos explained his decision to have the Netflix content team based near Los Angeles in order to cultivate relationships with the studios, and to keep a separate identity from the tech team. This was when Netflix had just begun, before DVD technology dominated home video. Even at that time, Reed Hastings anticipated home streaming even though what existed about twenty-years ago was virtually unwatchable on small screens within the computer monitor. I don't remember when I started streaming myself, but it was initial on a laptop for the first few years until I bought my first blu-ray player that had a streaming option. I have seen the streaming content change from older, previously unavailable films to primarily recent programming of films and series. I miss being able to see such obscurities like Irvin Kershner's The Young Captives or the Italian costume drama, The Tempest, with second unit work by Michelangelo Antonioni. More recently, having gone to bat for Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, interest has apparently been generated for the streaming of older films by Welles.

Nappily ever After (Haifaa al-Mansour - 2018)

Sarandos explained that Netflix measures success based on how many households watch a certain show. The publicly announced figure of thirty million households for Murder Mystery was mentioned. How this translates into number of viewers is subject for dispute. The key takeaway for me was that the reason why Netflix largely eschews traditional ratings formats is because the success of a film or series is specific to that show. Too give a more quantifiable example from the way success is measured in theatrical films, Dark Phoenix has earned about 209 million dollars. Yet with a reported budget of 200 million, the film has lost money for the studio after factoring in costs for publicity, among other costs. Booksmart has earned a modest 20 million to date, with low box office standing. Alleged box office pundits who wrote off Booksmart did not anticipate that this "little" films would recoup its Six million dollar budget, or prove to have unexpected resiliency in finding its audience. While I would not be able to provide specific examples, what this would mean in terms of a Netflix branded film is that while it may not be a breakout success like Bird Box, most of their films are moderately budgeted so that they are free from the same expectations as a theatrical film.

Another interesting point was the freedom the content team had in choosing choosing content, and likewise in the freedom given to the content providers. While it was not mentioned, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman will probably be a test of the limits of auteur driven films produced by Netflix. In addition to household numbers as the tool for measuring success, social media was mentioned as used by viewers as a driver for success, referring back to Bird Box.

What wasn't addressed is that with the sheer number of films and series available, how do you find what's worth watching? My own viewing has included films that have not involved Facebook memes or national conversations. One thing Netflix could do that would be helpful for some films would be to list the name of the director along with the main actors in their screens that provide the title and short synopsis. It was through an article on independent filmmakers choosing Netflix over tradition theatrical distribution that I found out about Tramps by Adam Leon - and additionally saw his earlier Gimme the Loot. I had been following Alice Rohrbacher's career from the beginning, and am sure more people have seen Happy as Lazzaro than her two older films. But how many who delighted in Wajda, the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia and debut from female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, are also aware that she directed Nappily ever After?

Sarandos final major point was that international series would be local in both language and content, using the German series, Dark as an example. While something like Murder Mystery might be the television equivalent to comfort food for fans of Friends and Adam Sandler movies, that subscriber base also allows for more niche viewing of foreign language series and films, as well as the independent films branded as Netflix Originals. I'm not sure how the algorithms and data gathering work on this, as some of my more enjoyable experiences with streaming have been taking chances with the unfamiliar.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 23, 2019 07:24 AM