Netflix's Ted Sarandos Talks 'Sense8' Cancellation, Cannes Film Debate: "I'm Not Anti-Theater"

Jerry Seinfeld and Ted Sarandos - PGA/AP - H
Jordan Strauss/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images

The streaming service's chief content officer, speaking Saturday at the Produced By conference, said his challenge is to make movies so great that theaters have to book them.

"I am not anti-theater," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos clarified Saturday at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By conference, held on the 20th Century Fox lot, where he took part in a conversation with comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

"I'm very much against windowing. Consumer access to content is what drives the passion for our industry," said the exec, adding, "Our challenge is to make movies so great that [theater owners] have to [to book them]."

Focusing on the controversy that surrounded the screening of two Netflix movies, The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja, at last month's Cannes Film Festival, Sarandos pointed out what he considered an irony. "A film festival is meant to celebrate the art of filmmaking. A lot of things you see at film festivals have no commercial viability at all," he observed. Explaining that while that is as it should be, Sarandos noted that Cannes has now created a rule that a movie must have guaranteed theatrical distribution in France before it is allowed into the fest. But, he added, "a lot of movies win the Palme d'Or with no distribution at all."

Still, Sarandos said before moving on to other subjects, the experience of being on Cannes' red carpet was "mind-blowing, it was so referential to film, it feels like you're going to church."

Speaking of the recent cancellation of series like The Get Down and Sense8, the exec admitted that, even for the Netflix model, an expensive series that doesn't attract enough viewers becomes problematic. Of Sense8, Sarandos commented, "They did a beautiful show" and “the audience was very passionate, but not large enough to support the economics of something that big, even on our platform.”

In explaining what he appreciates about Netflix, where he has a deal for new episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee as well as stand-up specials, Seinfeld spoke of how comedians, who’ve already tested their material on the road, are often frustrated by having to convince traditional TV execs that they know what’s funny. “We don’t need 70 people, who are not comedians, telling us what’s funny,” he complained. Sarandos responded that when Netflix began original productions, it actually didn’t have enough people on staff to bother giving notes.

Seinfeld, in turn, compared the streamer’s relatively hands-off approach to the film business in the 1970s when studios gave film directors relatively free rein. “Or teams are involved in the [creative] process,” Sarandos said. “But only on an invited basis.”

Under Seinfeld’s questioning, Sarandos recalled an early job working at a video store in Phoenix in the early days of VHS rentals. He loved Woody Allen movies, he recounted, but the store could never rent them enough to justify buying new copies. When Netflix came along in its original incarnation as a video-by-mail service, it solved that problem. “If you put one movie in a thousand stores, it would never pay for itself,” the exec explained. “But if you put 1,000 in the middle of the country and circled the whole country with it, it was great economics, even for small films.”

Sarandos also remembered how TV station KPHO in Phoenix, back in the mid-‘70s, would air a week’s worth of five episodes of the comedic serial Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman back-to-back on Sunday nights, and he and his whole family would watch them together. “On some unconscious level,” he joked, “bingeing began in 1975.”