Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, has something in common with Quentin Tarantino, Alex Ross Perry, Allison Anders, Joe Swanberg and Ram Gopal Varma: a thorough video-store education, which, in turn, reflects the ideal of independent film-making that these directors represented in the 1990s.
Sarandos watched filmmakers from around the world while working at video stores in the American state Arizona. A college dropout, he joined Netflix 18 years ago, when the company was still an online DVD rental store. Sarandos and CEO Reed Hastings transformed the service into a groundbreaking web distributor and finally, into the studio that has produced such hits as Stranger Things, House of Cards and Narcos.
The streaming giant has 137 million members worldwide – and that’s about the only number you can get out of Sarandos, who spoke to Scroll.in during a visit to India to present Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. An exquisite study of class and womanhood in 1970s Mexico, Roma was premiered at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival.
Netflix doesn’t share region- or country-specific numbers about users and ratings. The success of a Netflix production can only be gauged by its of social and mainstream media response and the company’s decision to green-light another season.
This July, Netflix aired its first Indian original series, Sacred Games, which was recently renewed for a second installment after a brief period of uncertainty over its fate in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal including its co-producer, Phantom Films. The streaming company premiered its second Indian series, Ghoul, in August. Next up is Selection Day, which comes out on December 28. The series is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name about two brothers raised by their disciplinarian father to be star cricket players. Among other Indian originals, Netflix is also producing Ramin Bahrani’s film adaption of Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger.
Between a conversation with Mumbai Film Festival director Anupama Chopra and introducing Roma, Sarandos took time out for an interview about the response to Sacred Games, the debate about web series versus the big screen and why Netflix is aggressive about its Indian market. Edited excerpts.
You have decided to go ahead with ‘Sacred Games’ season 2. How did the show perform and what motivated you to renew it?
For competitive reasons we don’t give ratings or numbers, but I can tell you that it is in millions outside of India. It played beyond our expectations. Besides India, it found a great audience all over the world, especially in Latin America, and the diaspora too.
Netflix conducted an independent investigation into some of the allegations in the sexual harassment case involving Vikas Bahl, part of the now-dissolved Phantom Films. How was the investigation done?
I can’t go into details, a lot of it discovered by very smart and strict privacy laws in India. It was a thorough investigation done by professionals over several weeks and based on what they found we thought it was okay to go through with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane [co-founders of Phantom]. At Netflix, we have a rigorous practice of training all member of the production team of every show before work on the show begins about harassment.
How big is your presence in India, and what can we expect in the near future?
Next year, we will have 10 original series and six films from India, which is part of our heavy investment in regional programming. It is one of the markets we are very aggressive about. We are licensing more films from all over India, which includes many regional language films – and licensing not just for India, but for all over the world. This is a fascinating country that loves movies and television and we are moving as fast as we could have dreamed.
For Selection Day, we are trying to do something different than what is being done by everybody else. The young cast is going to be very different from what you are used to seeing in television in India. They will have a lot of social media following in the country and around the world, like we have seen with the Spanish cast of Elite – from zero to 3-5 million followers in a matter of months.
Do you have a specific mandate for international stories? Do you actively look at the country’s literature?
There is no specific mandate. It changes according to the country, it so happens that the Indian originals are based on books. There are so many books here that haven’t been adapted to television or film, so we wanted to tap that and we want to continue to do that. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, both of which are based on popular books, kind of set the tone for that. A popular book already has a beginning, middle and an end and that is always an advantage.
The stories that work best are the ones in which the country- or culture-specific elements are strong.
Many directors have a signature or a stamp. Does Netflix encourage that, and can we see directors emerging with a stamp, or stories come first?
Both stories and the stamp of director mean more or less the same thing. The directors we go after usually those who have a point of view and a distinctive voice. David Fincher, Martin Scorcese, Susanne Bier who we are working with now. Tamara Jenkins who did Private Lives for us took 10 years to make a movie. So if you find a good storyteller with a distinctive voice, they do all the filtering for you.
Who is an Indian director whose work you have noticed and followed?
Ritesh Batra, the director of The Lunchbox.
Is Netflix consciously youth-centric?
Many people around the world from an older demographic are getting into the internet because of Netflix, and that’s very exciting. Anybody who loves a good story in film or television is our audience.
Do you sympathise with Christopher Nolan’s championing of celluloid over digital film-making?
I am a champion of film lovers and consumers and I want to be where the audience is. I am glad that he does it, I am a fan, but I am also a fan of giving people what they want to see, when they want to see and how they want to see it. And I value currency.