Obama's $500,000 Power Couple
"Like no one else was in the room," finishes a delighted Sarandos as they sit at their huge dining-room table. Many of the eclectic pieces in their newly remodeled home come from the L.A. showroom of White House decorator Michael Smith. Finally living together after 2½ years of marriage, the two act like newlyweds, ending each other's sentences, laughing at each other's jokes.
"We connected on everything …" says Sarandos.
"Politics, movies …" Avant responds.
"… religion, race. We talked about all the stuff you're not supposed to talk about at a dinner party," Sarandos says. "I had just seen Medicine for Melancholy, and there was a line in the movie that stuck in my head about an interracial couple who said, 'How can two people get along if they see almost everything through different lenses, almost every interaction?' So I asked her what she thought of that."
Avant, relaxed in a colorful long silk patio dress with her arms bare -- when she dresses up, she usually wears Oscar de la Renta -- says she remembers replying: " 'Black people have been studying white people for a long time. We understand the psychology of race and that we are not actually that different.' What gets overlooked is that the things we have in common so far outnumber our differences. Everybody wants to focus on the 10 things we don't have in common instead of the 90 things we do."
Adds Sarandos, "We found we had an incredible mutual respect for one another, and when we didn't agree, we both had points of view that fascinated the other."
Strangely, Netflix was something they didn't initially have in common. "I didn't know what he did," says Avant, "and when I talked about how I loved all the old Miramax films, I told him how I loved going to my local Blockbuster, standing in the foreign film section and choosing movies at random. His face kind of dropped, and he said: 'Blockbuster? Really?' "
Sarandos told Avant he worked for Netflix. "And I said: 'Oh, that thing that you send through the mail? I don't have that,' " she recalls. "He said, 'We're going to go into streaming,' and I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' When we started getting serious, I cut up my Blockbuster card and gave it to him for Valentine's Day. He still carries it in his wallet."
Sarandos, with his unique acquisitions position at Netflix, the world's largest film licensee, straddles the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. At a time when the Internet's potential bedazzles the entertainment industry as much as Internet piracy bedevils it, he is amassing the power of any network or studio chief. Despite the recent news of Netflix's first posted quarterly loss in seven years, the company expects to add 7 million streaming subscribers in 2012. It already has 26.5 million. Sarandos' pay went from $2.4 million in 2010 to $4.9 million in 2011. He not only is on a tear with big-ticket orders for original series (he ponied up $100 million for two seasons of David Fincher's House of Cards without even seeing a pilot) and bringing back old ones (Arrested Development) but has helped smooth ruffled feathers with studio heads after the SOPA debacle. And with Avant's support, he has become a committed political donor. He gave $30,000 to the DNC in May 2011 and maxed out with $2,500 in donations to Obama's primary and general election campaigns.
It's a long way from suburban Phoenix -- Goldwater country -- where Sarandos grew up in a middle-class family of Democrats. His first experience with politics was an unsuccessful run for a spot as a Gary Hart convention delegate in 1984.
Avant, by contrast, was raised in Beverly Hills surrounded by entertainment and political elites. Her father, former Motown chairman Clarence Avant, was one of the first black entertainment executives to take an active role in electoral politics. He was an early supporter of L.A.'s first black mayor, Tom Bradley, and in 1973 made a critical $26,000 personal contribution -- a huge sum at the time -- to the candidate's first successful campaign. He also was a loyal Hillary Clinton backer in 2008. When his daughter -- who majored in broadcasting at Cal State Northridge and went to work after college managing her dad's music catalog -- famously broke ranks with him to become one of Hollywood's earliest and most fervent Obama supporters, he told her: "You're a grown woman; you can make your own decision. But once you get on board with someone, stick with them. Don't flip-flop."
Sarandos, like so many teens from outside L.A. or New York, made TV and movies his window to the wider world. But it wasn't easy. "If you wanted to see an art house film or documentary, there was just one theater out by Arizona State University," he says. As a journalism major there, Sarandos read out-of-state newspapers, particularly for reviews and features about the people making movies. "Then I went into a video store in '83 -- literally only the second video store in the state -- and there were all these movies I had been reading about. That's when I started to learn. I met the owner and started working there part time."
Sarandos dropped out of school to oversee the owner's growing chain of rental outlets and graduated to running a national video-rental business. In 1999, he met Netflix founder Hastings, a fellow Democrat; a year later, he joined the company as chief content officer and moved to L.A.
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