Netflix COO Ted Sarandos addresses plans for India, Sacred Games at MAMI 2018

Neerja Deodhar

October 27, 2018 19:27:26 IST

Many years ago, a young boy in the US began working at a video store — an experience that exposed him to great indie and international cinema that he would not be able to watch otherwise, such as films by Spike Lee and Akira Kurosawa.

That boy, Ted Sarandos, would go on to become the chief content officer at Netflix. "The video store job was like a combined class in film and business. It was a real luxury, because that job is like that of a blacksmith's today — it doesn't exist anymore. Now, my aim is to enable storytelling around the world," he said at an event hosted by the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Sarandos was in conversation with Anupama Chopra to discuss the future of film, and the inner workings of Netflix.

"India is the most exciting market, because of its vibrancy, youth and the rate of adoption of the internet. People are hungry for good storytelling," he said. He said that interestingly, movie and TV viewing are more or less equally important to Indians, unlike other countries where the ratio is roughly 70:30.

Netflix COO Ted Sarandos at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. YouTube screengrab

Netflix COO Ted Sarandos at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. YouTube screengrab

Notably, the most amount of original Netflix content is being made in India, with no fewer than 10 shows and six films coming up.

He says the brief with regards to India was to combine the production value of great cinema and the storytelling of great TV. They also wanted to take the plunge with material that was already known, which is why they picked Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.

"Sacred Games proves that local storytelling can travel from anywhere to anywhere. The more localised the content, the more powerful it is," he says.

When it comes to the storytelling process, the lines are blurred between how a movie and how a TV show must be made. Sarandos called Sacred Games "a long movie in parts" (a view shared by creator Vikramaditya Motwane).

Sarandos spoke at length about how Netflix is making content more accessible. People have access to entertainment beyond physical barriers, which was hitherto impossible. "These barriers are being broken down because of dubbing and subtitling. Even the notions people have about consumption habits, such as a preference for dubbing, is being challenged," he added. One of his learnings, he said, has been to abandon conventional wisdom in certain cases.

The eternal question of 'Does the laptop/phone experience ever measure up to the cinematic one?' doesn't seem to bother Sarandos much. "The best way to see the Mona Lisa is to visit the Louvre, but we should be glad we can see her in other ways. These are all completely different experiences. In my opinion, whether you watch a show on the big screen or on your phone, the emotional experience remains much the same," he said.

Netflix also seems to be attempting to make the filmmaking process more open and fair, with many aspiring writers and directors writing in with their stories and ideas every single day. "People pitch to me all the time, and I listen because I don't know where the next great story will come from. People in Los Angeles, irrespective of whatever else it is they are doing, are always writing a screenplay," he said, with a chuckle. Agencies are a good filter for what suits their business, he said. Aspiring screenplay writers might note that Sarandos says a professionally done, old-school cover letter helps to get noticed.

He also had some funny stories about the situations in which people have presented their ideas to him. "Almost always when I am getting a haircut, I get pitched to. Once when I was flying to Cannes, I woke up and took off my eye mask to find someone looking at me, waiting to pitch!"

He said Netflix also tends to put greater faith in content which is based on established stories, such as books. Pitches that are well-fleshed out and complete in themselves, which describe season arcs, and contain show 'bibles', are more likely to be considered.

An important part of being accessible is the cost of the service. When asked if Netflix is likely to reduce its prices in India (currently at Rs 800 for a monthly subscription, far higher than other platforms), Sarandos said that they think of the service in terms of value sensitivity. This means that if you watch something on Netflix every day for an hour or more, the value of the service will rise in your eyes, as a customer, he explained. The company is more focused on this approach, attempting to ensure that more quality content is available to subscribers.

Speaking about the sheer number of films and shows that are released every year, Sarandos said that their team has expanded considerably, and that many Netflix executives enjoy great autonomy. "My job has changed from picking what gets made to picking people who pick what gets made to picking people who pick the people who choose what gets made. Erik Barmack, for example, has more power than most executives at traditional studios," Sarandos explained.

A conversation about the future of cinema in the Netflix age is incomplete without a discussion on film festivals. "They're a generational experience and a celebration of art. It gives viewers early access and encourages word-of-mouth publicity. The makers also get a chance to address audiences and speak about their films," says Sarandos.

He says that some of the directors who competed at the last edition of the Oscars engaged in negative campaigning by speaking ill of the distribution of certain films, which he opines is equivalent to speaking ill of the films themselves. This, he says, is part of a larger issue — of films being judged solely based on their opening day numbers, regardless of how good the content may be. There also seems to be general lack of acceptance of Netflix films as being Oscar-worthy — a view supported by Steven Spielberg.

Cannes 2018 saw the passing of a rule regarding the entry of films that are made by streaming platforms. In order to compete at the festival, these films — like all other contenders — would have to be screened in France for a minimum of 24 hours. Following this, they cannot be made available for viewing on streaming platforms for three years. In an interview with Variety, Sarandos then said the streaming giant would not be a part of the festival.

At MAMI, Sarandos said the Cannes committee that took the decision (to impose the rule) was composed of, among others, movie exhibitors, adding that two people on the committee had voted against streaming platforms. "This was a terrible trade-off for us and the filmmakers in question, so we pulled our submissions from Cannes. However, we were better received at the fall festivals... In order to remain relevant, Cannes must feature the best films."

Netflix has been in the news over the last few weeks because of the allegations of sexual harassment against Varun Grover, and accusations of complicity against Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane — the trio that made its biggest original offering in India, Sacred Games. In a statement released recently, Netflix clarified that it would continue to work with them following an internal investigation into the charges, which did not find them guilty.

When asked why this case was not handled in the same way as the one concerning Kevin Spacey and House of Cards, Sarandos said that the situations were different, and that the outcomes were based on the findings of the respective investigations. "Productions everywhere are held to the same standards," he said.

In the last year, there have been some objections to the content on Netflix, asking for censorship; an FIR was filed against Sacred Games, which was later withdrawn. In early September, it was reported that streaming platforms are considering setting up a "voluntary censorship code".

Sarandos said it's unlikely to affect the way shows and films are made. "I hope that local regulators look at the difference between on-demand content and broadcast. The former is a proactive choice." He added that makers already self-regulate, keeping in mind local sensibilities.

Updated Date: Oct 27, 2018 19:27 PM