As Netflix Goes Global, Can It Avoid Regional Politics?

Fauda Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

Scandals involving shows in Brazil, Israel and the Philippines highlight the challenge for the streaming giant as it tries to grow internationally while staying above the local political fray.

Netflix has long since gone global.

The majority of Netflix's subscribers are already outside the United States, and that global gap is only going to get wider.

Netflix will publish its fourth-quarter results after the market close April 16, but management has already said it anticipates a net gain of 4.9 million subscribers outside the U.S., against a net increase of 1.45 million subscribers stateside, or year-over-year growth, respectively, of 41 percent internationally, compared with 11 percent domestically.

But as Netflix gets bigger — and more international — the company is running up against a challenge more threatening than Facebook or Amazon Prime: local politics.

Netflix is under fire, around the world, not for its disruptive business model, but for the political content of its programming.

In Brazil, left-wing politicians, critics and journalists have called for a boycott of the streamer to protest its new series The Mechanism, alleging “lies and inaccuracies” in the loosely fictionalized docudrama about the real-life corruption scandal that just saw former Brazilian President Luiz da Silva imprisoned on a 12-year sentence.

Fauda, an Israeli political thriller that Netflix carries worldwide, also sparked threats of a local boycott after a pro-Palestinian (and Nobel Peace Prize-nominated) activist group accused the show, which depicts a secret Israeli commando unit operating inside the West Bank, of being “propaganda glorifying Israeli war crimes.” And the Asian director of Human Rights Watch has called Amo, Netflix's fictionalized miniseries about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's hugely controversial drug war, “a whitewashed view” of the regime’s crackdown on alleged drug dealers that paints “a ludicrous veneer of civility and lawfulness [over the] human rights calamity that Duterte has inflicted on Filipinos.”

Netflix has so far declined to comment on any of the backlash facing some of its international programming.

The streamer has encountered international controversy before, most famously in its public spat with the Cannes Film Festival, which recently banned Netflix films from official competition. Netflix responded by refusing to submit any of its movies for Cannes screenings, even for out-of-competition or sidebar events.

But Cannes' problem with Netflix is the company's disruptive business model. The festival doesn't like it that the streamer bypasses local theaters by putting its movies up online worldwide, day-and-date. Theater owners around the world have similar complaints. Until very recently, however, no one had any problem with what Netflix was showing, they just griped about how they were showing it. The flare-ups over The Mechanism, Fauda and Amo show that is changing.

Of course, some local controversy could have been expected given Netflix's ambitious global expansion. In order to appeal to local audiences, the company plowed money into local-language production in Rio, Manila, Tokyo, Berlin and elsewhere. Typically, Netflix has gone in big, hiring award-winning local directors — Brazil's Jose Padilha, Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza — to tell cutting-edge, often politically explosive stories with a strong regional appeal. But what plays in the U.S. as entertainment or simple artistic license — misattributing a quote to the wrong politician (as Padilha is accused of doing in The Mechanism) or depicting as law-abiding Filipino drug police who are accused of “wholesale slaughter” and the killing of more than 12,000 people, as Mendoza does in Amo — can be seen through a local lens as inaccurate at best and, at worst, as deliberate propaganda.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Russia, where the country's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, has gone so far as to accuse Netflix of “mind control.”

Moscow took aim at Netflix over its 2016 Oscar-winning short film The White Helmets. The British doc follows members of the Syrian volunteer rescue group, who pull the dead and injured from the ruins of buildings bombed by Syrian government forces in rebel-held areas. Russia, whose military forces and air force are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against these same rebels, as well as ISIS and other extremists, consider the White Helmets little more than “crisis actors” promoting a pro-ISIS agenda. Kremlin-backed international media outlets, including RT and Sputnik, have sharply criticized the Syrian volunteer group and singled out the White Helmets film for condemnation.

The same happened earlier this year with Feras Fayyad's documentary The Last Men in Aleppo, which also centers on the work of the White Helmets. When the doc earned an Oscar nomination and was picked up by Netflix, Fayyad came under fire from various Putin-supporting media groups and figures, while the director tells THR that Netflix also faced accusations of "supporting an anti-Russian film, as they called it."

In Israel, across the Syrian border, Fauda may have won six awards — including best drama series, at the Israeli Academy Awards in 2016 — but has fallen foul of the growing Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group that seeks to cut, among other things, global cultural ties with Israel (a tactic that had a powerful impact on ending Apartheid in South Africa). The group wrote an open letter calling on Netflix to ditch the show ahead of the second season’s launch in May.

“If Netflix insists on broadcasting Fauda, we shall have no choice but to call on progressive and liberal Netflix customers in the U.S. and around the world to pressure the company by all legal, peaceful mean possible, including boycotts,” says Hind Awwad, steering committee member at PACBI, the academic and cultural arm of the BDS movement.

Fauda’s real danger lies in its hyped subtlety, used to normalize and sanitize otherwise horrendous war crimes committed by undercover occupation soldiers against Palestinians, in violation of international law,” adds Awwad.

The call to dump Fauda came March 29, just a day before the Israeli Defense Forces shot dead 17 Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border, injuring more than 1,400 others. “To see such revolting army crimes presented as a 'thriller' for entertainment is beyond racist,” says Awwad. “It cheapens Palestinian lives.”

Even in Europe, Netflix has run into political controversy with its choice of programming. Netflix's first original in Italy, launched last February, was Grillo vs. Grillo, a comedy show created by, and starring, the comedian-turned-founder of the Five Star populist movement Beppe Grillo, which last month became the strongest party in Italy, winning around a third of the votes. The show was the equivalent of Netflix, in America, doing a one-off Celebrity Apprentice special with Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election.

The special definitely helped bring attention to Netflix in Italy — Grillo is hugely popular, with a Facebook following of 2 million, rivaling that of the country's leading newspapers — but the move also proved divisive. Many pundits wondered why Netflix was giving the man BuzzFeed found to be “leading Europe in fake news and Kremlin propaganda” such a prominent platform. Grillo's off-color and often offensive humor also sparked controversy. One particular bit in the show, involving crass transgender jokes, caused a protest on social media, with Italian LGBT news outlet calling his remarks “transphobic vulgarity,” and a blow to LGBTQ rights in the country.

Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, sees such controversy as inevitable as Netflix gets bigger, and more global.  

“So long as they have politically charged content, they’re going to be susceptible to criticism," he says. "In order to appeal to people in every country, they’re inevitably going to step on some toes.”

To be fair, Netflix has faced similar accusations of political bias in the U.S. The company's appointment last month of Susan Rice, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to its board of directors, led to scattered backlash from right-wing media outlets and bloggers, some calling for Netflix subscribers to cancel their subscriptions. Rice was a top official in the Obama administration and also served as national security adviser for four years. She was highly scrutinized for her part in the administration's response to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that left four Americans dead. The incident became a focal point for right-wing ire against the Obama government.

Recent reports that Netflix is in talks with President Obama and his wife Michelle on a possible production partnership have further inflamed critics who accuse Netflix of being or becoming a tool of the political left.

But a little controversy, at home or aboard, might not be such a bad thing. 

“It’s interesting that [Netflix isn't] playing it safe,” says Mike Lerner, an executive producer on Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, about the explosive 2012-13 protests in Cairo, which was Netflix's first foreign film acquisition, earned the company its first Oscar nomination in 2014 and was banned in Egypt for its perceived criticism of the military. “They’re very politically aware. Ted Sarandos, like Jeff Bezos, is not apolitical. They are liberals and it’s in their best business interests to present the most lively films and shows. Good for them — provoking a debate and a reaction. They’re demonstrating that they are a liberal and open-minded distributor.”

Pachter, however, warns that Netflix “must be sensitive to local outrage” if it is to avoid scandal that could hurt its bottom line. “They’ll have to censor some of their shows if the local government finds them offensive,” he adds. While he thinks controversy and boycotts are unlikely to lead to an outright ban on Netflix — some have even suggested the notoriety surrounding The Mechanism could help the show in Brazil — if the streamer's content goes too far in offending local sensibilities, more regulation could be the result.

“This isn't just a free speech issue and isn't just about politics,” adds Claire Enders from U.K.-based Enders Analysis. For Enders, who has been observing the European media industry for four decades as a U.S. expat, the current debates around Netflix are really about regulation. As the company's international viewership grows, local politicians are beginning to pay attention.

“By 2020, Netflix's audience in the U.K. will be larger than (national commercial network) Channel 4,” Enders says, “do you think they'll be able to avoid the same kind of regulation imposed on every broadcast and pay TV network in this country? They won't.”

Enders predicts the U.K. will lead a regulatory crackdown on the service within the next two years, with the main focus being child protection and the high level of violent and sexually explicit content on Netflix.

“Since having programming with loads of sex and violence is one of Netflix's main selling points, that could have a impact on their popularity,” she notes. 

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.