Behind Netflix's Upheaval: Departures, Anxiety and Another Reorg

Madison Ketcham

On Oct. 27, Netflix’s freshly installed global TV head, Bela Bajaria, unveiled a new organizational structure designed to break down silos and make the company’s priorities in comedy and drama clear. “What I wanted to do was set up the team to be creator-friendly and to reflect how TV is made,” Bajaria tells The Hollywood Reporter. And while those efforts have been applauded, many inside suggest it will take more than a new org chart to quell anxiety at the streaming behemoth.

“It didn’t used to be this way,” says one executive in the original series group who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “Now, it’s all, ‘Who’s going next? Am I going to have a job? What’s it going to look like?’ ” That seismic shift in morale, as at least a few more at the streamer describe it, can be traced back to the shocking early September ouster of Netflix’s longtime domestic content chief Cindy Holland.

That the surprise move came against the backdrop of co-CEO Reed Hastings’ promotional tour for a book about Netflix’s ruthless “You got to earn it every year” management philosophy rubbed plenty inside and outside the company the wrong way. In the nearly two months that followed, three more high-level content executives — drama head Channing Dungey, comedy chief Jane Wiseman and original series exec Nina Wolarsky — departed, too. And though Wiseman was the only one of those three women who was allegedly pushed out, it has all contributed to a sense of turmoil that’s new to those in Netflix’s original series division.

“Last month, this was the dream job; this month, they’re all calling to see what’s out there,” says one top rep, citing widespread uncertainty that’s compounded by the streamer’s lack of employment contracts.

By all accounts, Bajaria — who was promoted over Holland, though it was co-CEO Ted Sarandos’ call to swiftly remove the latter — is carrying out the kind of shake-up that’s entirely common elsewhere at the streaming giant. “It’s weirdly a normal Netflix thing,” says one insider, “it just wasn’t something that Cindy ever did.” Bajaria, for her part, is believed to have moved as quickly as she did with the reorganization in an attempt to calm the many anxious executives in her newly expanded stable. And though her Oct. 27 overhaul came with still more bloodshed, it was minimal at less than 10 employees (of several hundred).

Already, the rep community is praising what appears to be a clearer structure, with Bajaria having bundled former content fiefdoms like “prestige drama” or “young adult” fare: “Netflix has always been tricky to figure out in terms of which execs to go to — you take a project to one and it’s a pass, and then you take it to someone else and it’s a go — so this could help streamline the process,” says one agent with business at Netflix. Adds a manager: “It’s a company that prides itself on the efficiency of hiring and firing, but then in the selling process it’s wildly inefficient; so now they’re actually trying to find some efficiencies there, which will be useful.”

Still, there are many in Netflix’s executive ranks who fear that they won’t have the kind of clarity they’ve been craving until a U.S. series head is named. A search is said to be underway to fill that role, though it’s not a simple hire given the job’s scale and reporting structure — notably, reporting to Bajaria, not Sarandos, as Holland did. “And you have to remember, Netflix isn’t for everyone,” says another exec there, citing a “move fast and break things” mentality that’s not taught, much less rewarded, at the legacy media companies from which Bajaria is likely to hire — that is, unless she waits and promotes from within.

While Sarandos regularly preaches the importance of talent management, the company’s roster of producers is said to be feeling the ripple effects of the executive moves. And though some, like Shonda Rhimes, purport to be unfazed — “As long as I get to keep making television without anybody bothering me, I’m happy,” she recently told THR — others acknowledge that the upheaval has contributed to a culture of confusion and uncertainty. “Since Cindy left, it’s a lot of ‘We’re figuring it out’ and ‘We can’t come back to you on that right now,’” says a top Netflix producer who’s seen a handful of projects fall apart as metrics, mandates and execs seem to have changed. “At a certain point, someone has to say, ‘I fucking love this show,’ and right now people there are afraid to say that.” Such frustrations are hardly unique to Netflix, as almost every major Hollywood company has made sweeping changes to its executive teams during the pandemic.

Under Bajaria, who garnered a reputation for her financial efficiency in her international role, the company’s producer deals — in many cases, eight- and nine figure pacts — are already getting a closer look. And plenty inside say that her push for more financial discipline and an explicit focus on delivering at least one “loud” series (and not simply a cadre of smaller passion projects) is justified given the paychecks being doled out to Netflix’s creators. Says one exec there who’d watched as budgets ballooned in the past regardless of a project’s commerciality: “The idea of doing more prestige shows that nobody knows are on isn’t interesting.”

At the same time, Bajaria’s decision to move Netflix’s overall deals business under a single executive, Brian Wright, is an acknowledgment that getting the most out of well-paid talent is, or at least should be, a full-time job — and hardly an easy one, especially given the earlier promises of complete creative freedom often made by Sarandos himself. Until now, Wright had been one of several execs who oversaw a handful of key deals (in his case, Ryan Murphy’s and the Duffer brothers’) in addition to a giant content purview.

“These overalls are a long-term investment for us,” says Bajaria, squashing any early rumblings that she may be looking to move out of the overall deals business. “This new structure reflects the dedicated focus we have on investing in these relationships.”

Additional reporting by Bryn Elise Sandberg

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.