Netflix's Original Content VP on Development Plans, Pilots, Late-Night and Rival HBO (Q&A)
A version of this story first appeared in the June 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As viewers began bingeing on Orange Is the New Black's second season June 6, Netflix's head of original content, Cindy Holland, was pursuing her other passion: cycling. Holland, 45, was riding about 85 miles a day from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of AIDS/LifeCycle, which raised a record $15 million for groups including the L.A. LGBT Center, an organization near and dear to the Nebraska native.
Seated in her Beverly Hills office a few days later, the 12-year Netflix veteran likened the ride, which she has done seven times, to the process of building the streaming company to 48 million subscribers worldwide. "It seems unachievable, but it's really about planning and believing you can do it," she says. During recent years, Holland, a straight shooter who oversees 16 employees and a growing portion of Netflix's $3 billion programming budget, has been tasked with building the company's original series business, which began in early 2011 with a $100 million, 26-episode bet on House of Cards. A revival of Arrested Development, the horror-themed Hemlock Grove and Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy Orange followed.
Now, the Stanford alum, who began her career in feature development at Spring Creek Productions, is readying her next batch of originals from creators including the Wachowskis (Sense8) and Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman (Grace and Frankie). During a rare interview with THR, she opened up about Netflix viewer habits, the company's development plans and why men watch Orange with women.
CEO Reed Hastings said Hemlock Grove lured more viewers at launch than House of Cards. In choosing shows, how do you balance between "prestige" and bottom-line success?
It's a balancing act. Creating great series that our subscribers love is job No. 1; the two guiding metrics for us are subscriber reach and how many total hours are viewed. But we're very happy when series get reviewed well and become cultural phenomenons the way House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have.
There was talk early on about Netflix's lack of notes, but Jenji Kohan has been among the showrunners to refute that. When do you step in?
We view our job as helping support the creators to fulfill their vision, not ours. We view ourselves as the objective outsider. Sometimes in a writers room the mood will shift a certain way, and we'll start to remind people: "Hey, early on you talked about wanting to explore this dynamic or these characters. Are you still intending to do that?" It's about being supportive and helping to point out things that from the outset the storytellers have expressed a desire to do.
Your audience is consuming programming in a different way. What advice do you give show creators?
We'll talk to them very early on about how series are consumed on Netflix. I think you can take the time to really develop characters and storylines, and you can go on some pretty interesting tangents and not be too concerned because the viewer will be right back with you in that story in the next hour to two hours. Jenji has commented that with Orange, it gives her the freedom to not have to service all of these characters in every episode, which would be daunting. Another thing we've learned is that if a viewer is going to watch, on average, 2 ½ episodes a night, if you're using similar source music or a lot of music, it can get repetitive.
To date, you have committed to the straight-to-series model. Will you continue, or have you come to realize the pilot process might have benefits?
Our straight-to-series strategy was born out of a few things: one being necessity because I was a department of one when we licensed House of Cards; two, out of wanting to show our commitment to being serious about this business; and three, when we had the opportunity as outsiders coming into a new business to take a look at what the best practices are at different networks, we were able to try on what works for us and what doesn't. We talked early on about not wanting to develop projects and not wanting to sink money into pilots because even if it's less perfect than you might want it to be, at least you have a full season that you can put in front of your subscribers and there will be people who will enjoy it. I expect that we'll mostly continue that.
When would you not?
We've been licensing series from third parties; as we start to get into developing and owning some of our own series, I expect that we'll spend a little bit of money on development. But we, as a group, want to keep a firm mantra of only putting things into the pipeline that we believe we'll actually make. I don't anticipate that we will spend money on pilots; it doesn't seem like an efficient thing for us to do.
It makes complete sense for networks to do it when you're talking about maximizing eyeballs for an hour's worth of time on a given day -- there, you need to have a full bench that you can draw from. For us, it's quite a different proposition.
But my understanding is you already are developing by having creators write pilot scripts and provide you with potential series bibles -- yes?
A very small amount.
How important will ownership be to Netflix, and what do you foresee as the ratio of licensed versus owned content?
I don't have a sense for what the ratio will be. Historically we've been entirely licensed, and we'll probably have a large percentage that will continue to be licensed. Our desire to own is less about maximizing profit for the total enterprise because our business model is about subscriptions, not profits from TV shows; our desire to own really will come more from our desire to control an increasing number of international territories and windows within territories.
As you've expanded globally, how has your thinking changed about original programming, for stories and casting?
We've always had an eye toward how a series might play in various international territories. House of Cards we knew would play quite well in the U.S. and probably English-speaking territories but didn't anticipate that it would overindex in Latin America, for example. On the other hand, you have David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In terms of programming specifically for territories, we have Narcos from Jose Padilha, one of the most famous directors in Brazil. It stars Wagner Moura, and it's set in Latin America, and we anticipate that we will have a sizable following there. Sense8, which the Wachowskis are creating for us, has many international locations, many of which are territories in which we're operating -- mostly by coincidence. And we have Marco Polo, which is a historical epic that is known globally. So we do think carefully about all of our territories, not just the U.S.
You're pushing into comedy, too, which doesn't always translate as well globally. Concerning?
That's right. We're just starting in the comedy space outside of Arrested, and comedies have a more territory-by-territory appeal. So we're doing some experimentation in comedy to see what kind of tailoring we might need to do for different markets. Our goal is to license series that capture the rights for our all territories in which we operate or expect to shortly, and the goal is to have them all work reasonably well in all of our territories.
You have yet to cancel a show. What would warrant that?
They can't all last forever! If the creative team decides they don't want to go on, that's one factor. And if the investment required outweighs the subscribers and the viewing hours we predict for the series, that would be another.
Which genres would you still like to try?
Comedies of varying types are an area of extreme interest to us. We haven't seen the perfect Western project yet, either. Although Hemlock covers horror and supernatural to some extent, there are several subgenres within those categories that we haven't reached into yet and would look to explore if the right project came along.
You've been reticent to share ratings data, but tell us what has surprised you about the Orange Is the New Black audience?
We anticipated that the audience would tilt slightly female; we're pleasantly surprised that it only has barely tipped female -- although what we're learning through some surveying is that men will often watch with women more often than watch alone. The success of Orange also proves there can be quite passionate and large audiences for content that on the surface isn't mainstream at all.
At one point last year you had said that Orange is the biggest show on your service. Is that still true?
Jenji has been vocal about HBO and Showtime passing on Orange. Knowing what you know about your viewers, what attracted you to the show?
We had had Weeds on the service for a number of years, and so we knew we had a fan base of a certain size that would at least follow Jenji and check out any new show that she'd do. And we knew that there were a number of series like Grey's Anatomy that give you confidence that shows with a primarily female cast can do well [on Netflix]. But there's nothing quite like Orange. And then when Jenji came in, she was very insistent on it being an hourlong show so that you would have the time to explore these characters and not just present them in situations. We didn't have a strong opinion on length, so my recollection is that we asked the question, "Do you think this is a half-hour or an hour?" because tonally it's so different. She felt very strongly it was an hour, and that was the conversation in its entirety.
How much crossover is there in your different shows? Are the House of Cards viewers also watching Orange?
There's some overlap but surprisingly little. We have several series that have been pretty successful, and when that happens there's a natural overlap. But as a general rule, the audience who watches House of Cards does not watch Hemlock Grove — and yet again, is not the audience that watches Arrested Development. We hope to reach the entire subscriber base with at least one original series by the time we're done.
Netflix is rumored to be interested in Chelsea Handler. Is late night a genre you are pursuing?
I don't think any genres are off-limits to us. We have a large subscriber base that consumes a wide variety of content and we don't have any preconceived notions about what will or won't work on the service. We've been very focused on highly serialized hours and half-hours, and that will continue to be true, but I wouldn't close the door on any kind of experimentation.
You have the viewer base and the money to experiment with things like awards shows, live events and sports. Any appeal?
I think on-demand will always be the key focus for us, so anything that requires aggregating a live audience at one point in time is better suited for network television and linear television. But anything that can be viewed and enjoyed in an on-demand way could ultimately be something we think about.
Whom do you consider your competition?
It depends on the segment of our business, what time period and what territory we're in. The media likes to make a lot of HBO, and we're very flattered because we respect the business that they've built and continue to run -- it's a global brand with powerful, important content. From a narrow original-series perspective, it's the best of premium and broadcast television. We're hearing the same pitches and being presented with some of the same material.
What's the project that got away?
True Detective is certainly a project that we had read and loved but HBO snapped it up. I'm a big fan of Fargo, too, and would have loved to have seen that at Netflix. We have the series first-run in some of our international territories.
Would you have done Fargo as a limited series?
I wouldn't close the door on a limited series for the right thing; and certainly with our roots in film, Fargo wouldn't be a stretch for us at all.
Where are you with a second season of Arrested Development? Will there be one?
We would happy to launch another season of Arrested Development when Mitch [Hurwitz] is ready to make one.
Now you're working on a Wet Hot American Summer revival. How do you think about what makes sense to revive? And what else is on the wish list?
Revival projects aren't an important part of our original series strategy. It's an opportunistic thing. With Arrested Development, Ted [Sarandos] was a big fan and knew that there had been a movie project in the works for a long time, so he campaigned very hard to bring that revival to Netflix. We have the data on what might be attractive to us from a viewership standpoint, and there may be occasions when we go seek something out, but it's pretty opportunistic and not particularly planned.
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What's the biggest misconception that people have about what you're doing?
There's the perception that my team isn't creatively involved in the series at all. On the one hand, we have a very light touch; we try to provide a supportive environment, and we hire our showrunners and directors with the same mindset that we use when we hire employees. Our culture is about freedom and responsibility, and we believe that people do their best work when you give them both. But on the other hand, I'd like to acknowledge the amazing hard work my team does. So, that's always a bittersweet comment that we hear.
At this time last year, that team was significantly smaller than it is now, no?
We've roughly doubled the size of the team from a pretty small base. But we're anticipating more than doubling the number of seasons that will be released, so we're trying to scale up quickly in order to be able to have a large and growing pipeline of projects.
If you're not working, where would we find you?
I spend most of my free time on my bicycle. It's a good way to clear your head; and if there's a hill, I want to climb it. And I'm a big sports fan. I'm a big college football fan. I was raised in Nebraska, so I'm a Cornhuskers fan; and then I went to school at Stanford, so I'm a Cardinal fan. And I'm a big baseball fan, too. My teams are the Dodgers, the Brewers, the Yankees and the Red Sox. Yes, I believe anything's possible. I'm a peacemaker. (Laughs.)