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Executive of the Year: Netflix’s Cindy Holland on the Streamer’s New Priorities and Expectations for Shonda Rhimes

The giant's programming queen talks the decision to part ways with Kevin Spacey: "We all just want to do the right thing."

After a long week, Cindy Holland likes nothing more than to hop on her bike and find a hill that she can climb. “That’s my meditation, my stress relief,” says Netflix’s vp original content. “By the time I get down the hill, I’ll have some answers even though I wasn’t really thinking about the questions.”

The Nebraska native, 48, must be doing a lot of cycling these days because when it comes to Hollywood, Netflix seems to have a lot of answers. This year under Holland — who oversees a 70-person team across scripted series, documentaries and stand-up specials — the streamer marked its entry into teen fare with breakout 13 Reasons Why, doubled down on comedy with critical favorites GLOW and American Vandal, and made a push for ownership through overall deals with two of TV’s most celebrated showrunners, Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan. The more than 100 new series and specials that Netflix bowed in 2017 alone easily give Holland purview of the largest originals slate in television (and one that was second only to HBO in Emmy wins this year). It is in large part because of the 15-year Netflix veteran’s ever-expanding portfolio that the Los Gatos, California-based company saw its subscriber base grow by 26 percent to 109 million in the past year.

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With Netflix planning to up its content spend to $8 billion in 2018, Holland’s influence in Hollywood will only continue to grow, though some observers question how long the spending can go on as the streamer begins to hand out cancellations (Sense 8, The Get Down). Holland is also preparing to say goodbye to her first big hit, House of Cards, which Netflix announced Dec. 4 will end after season six without star Kevin Spacey, who has left the production following sexual assault allegations. That no one is questioning the streamer’s future without House of Cards is a testament to the stable of programming Holland has built — and one of the reasons THR has named her the Women in Entertainment Executive of the Year.


What have you learned about leadership as your role at Netflix has grown?

When I started at Netflix, it was just Ted [Sarandos] and me sharing a single office, buying DVDs. Now I have a team of about 70 people. One of the big transitions every executive has to go through is from being a doer to being a manager of doers. For type A people who are used to getting things done in a certain way, it’s a real transition of letting go and accepting that the best work of the whole organization is going to come from you providing leadership and pep talks for everybody else.

Who was a role model for you early in your career? 

When I started in the industry, there were a number of women who were at the height of their game and were really beacons and everyone looked up to them. Sherry Lansing, certainly. The producer that I worked for, Paula Weinstein, was a very principled producer with great taste known for getting things done. 

How has Hollywood changed for women since you were starting your career?

There was a period of time, particularly in the film side of the business, where there was the belief that there was only room for one or two, and women at times were more competitive with each other. I don’t feel that now.

Netflix has taken on so many aspects of the film and television business. What’s left?

One of the really interesting things that we’re just embarking on now is foreign-language series and films and really capturing the best talent and working with the best producers, wherever they may be in the world, and allowing them to stay home and create great projects for us in their first language.

What is the best thing to come from the sexual harassment discussion that Hollywood is having? 

It takes an awful lot of courage for people to come forward and to talk about these issues generally and also to come forward and talk about when something has happened to them personally. There’s a real choice that people have had to make, whether to say something and risk ending their career in Hollywood. More and more, people are going to be encouraged to say something and have real change happen. That’s a very important development in the industry.


How did you deal with making a decision around Kevin Spacey and House of Cards?

Obviously, it’s super troubling and concerning. We just try to wake up every day and deal with the information that comes to us and try to make the best decision we can given the information. That’s something that we talk about constantly. We all just want to do the right thing.

What would you like to see Shonda Rhimes do?

The better question is, What does Shonda want to do for us? She’s excited to create new series and have certain freedoms that broadcast didn’t allow. We definitely have an interest in great programming for women, and Shonda and Jenji are about the best in the business.

With all the originals that Netflix is releasing, how do you make sure that shows don’t get lost to viewers?

The way we think about it is that we have 109 million members and they’re not all going to like the same things. We have a good opportunity to provide a really broad, diverse and deep slate of programming. We’re creating 50 series that are very different from each other. Maybe a member will like two or three of them, maybe they’ll like 10 of them. But most folks aren’t going to want to watch all of the same things.

How have the shows people are pitching or watching on Netflix changed since the election?

It’s become a little more polarized. Some people are wanting to lighten up and watch things that are a break from the news of the day. Other artists are wanting to dive straight in and go as dark as the times can be sometimes.

A version of this story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.