It has been a nice day for Ted Sarandos in Mumbai. Not just because, as he puts it, he has managed to stay dry on an irritatingly drizzly monsoon evening. It has to do with the fact that on his fourth, and most crucial, visit to the country since the Netflix launch in 2016, the streaming platform’s Chief Content Officer is set to unveil Sacred Games , the first original web series sourced out of India, at a starry première later in the night. An elaborate press day has been set up with him and the series’ talent and show-runners at Juhu’s JW Marriott hotel.
So our ice-breaker, as we are shown into the study of a sea-facing suite, for our one-to-one with him, is an obvious one: how strategic is the Indian market for him at the moment. “Not just for the moment, but the long term,” he corrects us. “We have half a billion very active internet viewers here, and half of them are watching content online. There is a huge addressable audience of hardcore movie and television lovers. We are excited about the market.”
- This year has had some really nice, out of the blue surprises on Netflix.
- I love The End of the F****** World because of its fresh approach to storytelling. All the episodes have different lengths; I watched the whole season in one sitting. It has fresh faces and a great writing voice.
- Casa de Papel is a show from Spain that is hugely entertaining. It has been a personal favourite this year. It’s called Money Heist in India.
- I don’t think we have Arrested Development in India, but I am a big fan. I like comedies. UnbreakableKimmy Schmidt is one of my favourites, and BoJack Horseman .
Reaching out to 125 million members in 190 countries around the world, Netflix keeps its viewing data private, so all we are offered is a relative picture. “If you compare [the Indian business] to our early business in Latin America, we are ahead of what we were when we started [there]. It’s growing faster,” he explains.
The big guns
Variously described as the founder of “Hollywood for the Internet” and one of the most powerful and influential entertainment honchos, Sarandos is surprisingly down to earth and curious, asking us questions even as he answers ours. What do we think of “cinema-infused” television programming and about big film professionals appearing on shows? Does it make the experience cinema-like for us? From personalisation of the viewing menu for easier navigation to the surprise success of Nanette — “a stand-up that goes deeply serious and personal” — there is a lot to talk about.
Netflix, which got into the business seven years ago, by purchasing two seasons of House of Cards for $100 million, is today making more television than any network in history, according to Vulture.com. In fact, the entertainment site states Netflix is planning to spend US $8 billion on content this year and bring out 1,000 original titles. Closer home, the streaming service kicked off its India Originals slate with the movie Love Per Square Foot a few months ago, followed by Lust Stories a couple of weeks back. And its first original series, Sacred Games, is all set to land next week. Seven new shows are to follow, apart from comedy shows from Vir Das and Aditi Mittal and another on IPL.
- Seven originals are set to follow Sacred Games from the Netflix slate.
- A series based on the Salman Rushdie classic. “We are incredibly excited to translate this pioneering work of fiction that parallels the birth of modern India, for a global audience,” said Erik Barmack, VP, International Originals.
- A horror series based on Arabic folklore — starring Radhika Apte, Manav Kaul and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee — it is written and directed by Patrick Graham, and is currently in post-production.
- Based on Arvind Adiga’s novel on cricket and corruption in India. Netflix partners for it with Seven Stories, a UK-based production company owned by directors Sharon Maguire and Anand Tucker.
- Based on Prayag Akbar’s book by the same name. To be adapted by writer-executive producer, Urmi Juvekar.
- Based on Bilal Siddiqi’s bestseller, the eight-episode espionage thriller will be produced by SRK’s Red Chillies Entertainment.
- A detective series centred on a female homicide detective, it will be written by Marisha Mukerjee of Quantico fame.
- A murder mystery by Bicky Mendez set in Goa.
The ground rule for Netflix for entering any new market is to not offer what is readily available. India has been unique; the first batch of shows are all based on books. “Coming into a new market, it helped us to understand the storytelling here,” he says. A book like Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games was picked up not just because it is award-winning, but also very popular. “They were attempting to develop it for American TV for a couple of years. As soon as it fell out of that deal, we jumped in on it. We are not making an American version; we are making the ultimate Indian version. And if we do it well, it will travel around the world,” he says.
What surprises Sarandos all the time is that the more local and authentic something is, the more likely it is to do well globally. “Spanish show Casa De Papel is huge the world over for us. German television has never travelled outside of Germany, but the show Dark is an enormous success across the world,” he says. Sacred Games , he thinks, is not just going to appeal to the Indian market and the diaspora, but to people who love crime thrillers. “And that is a bigger number,” he laughs.
Focus on creation
A trained journalist, Sarandos started off working in a video store. “I got to watch everything; it was like film school and business school in one,” he looks back. One thing he finds common about working in the store and now in Netflix is that earlier people used to say the stores would kill theatres, now they assume the streaming site will be the death knell.
In hindsight, he feels video stores actually saved cinema. People started watching movies much more than they were. “New filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Sayles... Prior to the neighbourhood video store they didn’t exist outside of New York and LA,” he says. According to him, people always worry about how something is going to hurt when they should be focussing on how it is going to help. “What it helps is the eco-system of movie making,” he says of Netflix.
Was that his line of argument with the Cannes Film Festival, from which Netflix pulled out its films this year? “Film festivals should be about programming the best movies in the world. This year, they didn’t. You missed some great movies,” he says. While appreciating Cannes, he is quick to point out that no other film festival applies such rules (that competition films must commit to theatrical release) to their programming strategies. “The focus should be on the art, on the creation,” he says. Netflix, whose direct-report team has ‘permission to greenlight any project’ without Sarandos’ approval, has reportedly hired top names like Ryan Murphy for upwards of $300 million. It also recently secured a deal with former US president Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle to produce series and movies.
Customer is king
The conversation steers back to India, on how it seemed like the hardest place in the world for Netflix to break into. “To me it feels like I don’t really have an understanding of how you get this country to focus on one thing because it is so vast. From one block to the next, it’s like you are in a new place,” he says. Ask him about competition from Amazon Prime and the answer is simple: “We don’t focus on competition, we focus on the customer.” Netflix has no advertising, no sports. “We are laser-focussed on really great professional programming. Scripted, unscripted, documentary, stand-up, drama, comedy... It’s a huge universe,” he says.
The initial strategy has been to do high quality programming with great production values and recognisable names from the film business. But what about the younger, smaller, little-known names and independent vision? “When we first started original programming, it was David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, the big names. Then, this year, there is Stranger Things , Kissing Booth , Dude. We have lots of room for new voices,” he assures. Just like Ritesh Batra helming the all-American Our Souls At Night, he also foresees Indian talent making films for the “melting pot”. “The only thing standing between Indian programming going global is distribution,” he says. And that is where Netflix is aiming to make a difference.