How Netflix Ratings Teases Lead to Talent Negotiating Leverage

Courtesy of Netflix
'The Kissing Booth' was Netflix's most replayed movie of 2018.

Reps rejoice as they finally see some data — rather than elusive buzz — from the famously secretive streamer to use at the bargaining table.

When the cast and creators of Netflix's The Kissing Booth went in to negotiate a sequel to the summer rom-com smash, they came armed with some cold, hard stats, a rare luxury for a project at a service that's long been shrouded in secrecy.

Not only had Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos called the teen flick "one of the most watched movies in the world" weeks after its release, the company later said the film was its most replayed movie of 2018, with two of every five viewers repeat watching. Those metrics, per sources close to the dealmaking process, became a key bargaining tool during the negotiation. Says one rep, "It helped give leverage to push the numbers up."

The steps Netflix has taken in recent months to loosen its reputation as a data secrecy machine by sporadically rolling out stats for select hit projects — Bird Box, Sex Education and You, among them — has Hollywood talent and their reps rejoicing. Finally, they have something other than elusive "buzz" to bring to the negotiating table. "It's actual data, so we're going to use it," says attorney Joel McKuin, whose clients include You showrunner Sera Gamble and Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo. Adds another rep, "All we had before was BS."

That lack of transparency was vexing to reps who traditionally use ratings and box office data as leverage. "It's been very frustrating, not only in a renegotiation context but in any context when you're doing the next thing and the last thing the client did was a Netflix project," says a top rep, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to not thwart ongoing business with the streamer. "All you get to use is hyperbole, innuendo and suggestion. And you don't really know whether it was a big hit or not … so we're just stabbing in the dark, and that's not good for anybody."

Looking ahead, reps are busy plotting how they'll use the data in their conversations with the streaming service. Insiders say a Kissing Booth-style strategy is being employed on a potential sequel to The Christmas Chronicles, which Netflix touted as one of the biggest films of Kurt Russell's career when it supposedly notched 20 million views in the first week. Sources note that the newly revealed data — all of it still unconfirmable by outside sources — so far is proving more valuable on deals for films, particularly those that didn't include a sequel in the initial contract, compared with television shows, where the opportunity to renegotiate often comes in later seasons.

For Bird Box director Susanne Bier, just having numbers to point to is helpful, even if no sequel happens ("As of now, there are no concrete plans," she says). Bier's Sandra Bullock thriller, per Netflix, was watched by 45 million accounts within a week and climbed to 80 million two weeks later. "It was important for that to become public knowledge because it was comparable to an enormous hit in a traditional movie release," Bier says, "and they were saying, 'Hey look, we're actually making an impact.' "

You showrunner Gamble was told only 24 hours ahead of time that Netflix would be releasing viewership for her Greg Berlanti-produced thriller. But she had to wait until the actual earnings call Jan. 17 to hear what those metrics were. You, she'd come to learn, was on pace to be seen by 40 million member households in its first month on the service. "I still haven't even processed what a number like 40 million even means," she says. "I'm just kind of flabbergasted."

But for all the cautious rejoicing that's happening in the rep community, there are still plenty who admit they're perplexed by Netflix's flirtation with transparency. Sure, the company is likely vamping for shareholders with what seem like impressive stats, but some wonder about the streamer's sudden willingness to cede leverage. "They just gave Warner Bros. and Penn Badgley a bunch of ammo," says one rep of You's producing studio and star. "Why would they do that?" Of course, since Netflix had already closed its deal on the series' second season before any such figures were revealed, the data won't become useful until potential third-season negotiations. As for how it might impact talks, Gamble quips, "It doesn't hurt."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.