Mumbai: Netflix's Ted Sarandos Talks India Strategy, 'Sacred Games' Controversy

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Ted Sarandos

The streamer's all-powerful chief content officer also outlined Netflix's India film production plans at a panel discussion held during the Mumbai Film Festival.

Netflix's Ted Sarandos touched down at the Mumbai Film Festival on Friday to personally introduce Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar hopeful Roma to the people of India. The rationale behind the globe-trotting chief content officer's appearance was quickly laid bare as he outlined the streaming giant's aggressive expansion plans for the India market, while also addressing the sexual harassment controversy surrounding its hit local series Sacred Games

Sarandos took part in a festival panel discussion titled "Netflix and the Future of Film" where he spoke frankly about a range of issues — not least the company's naked ambition in India. Sarandos confirmed that the country is currently one of Netflix's leading markets for original content investment. "It's been a very strong push," he said. "Sometimes we would wait several years before doing original productions in any given country — but we came into India right away with 10 original shows in production right now, six original films coming up for [2019] and more to come," he added, noting that the company's India library was already two times larger than it was at launch.

Sarandos, on his third trip to India in as many years, said the country, already boasting 250 million people watching online content, will be one of the "most exciting places in the world" over the next five years as Internet infrastructure improves. He noted that broadband speeds in India were still a huge challenge, but that "right away our big push was to make sure this product worked well everywhere in the country." He revealed that Netflix invested so much in its downloading feature primarily because of its launch in India and the way that people watched content in the country. Driven by Indian market characteristics and adoption, the downloading feature was rolled out to the rest of the world.

When asked what Netflix's famed algorithms had found that differentiated India from other markets, Sarandos stressed that he always tried to talk about the similarities between the viewing habits of different countries, but he offered a few nuggets. Globally, viewership of TV versus film roughly breaks down to 70:30 in TV's favor; but in India the split was closer to even, which he attributed to the country's strong culture of film watching.

India's predilection for films was also revealed to be informing Netflix's strategy for the country. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter whether the company intended to produce original films in India, Sarandos replied "definitely."

"Just like our TV series, we do a combination of acquisition, development and production and we will extend that to films," he said. 

Sarandos added: "Our global film team did almost 90 films last year in that combination of production, acquisition and distribution. We are just looking for the best stories."

India's streaming market is dominated by Star India's Hotstar (a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox) with the three-year-old service boasting 150 million monthly active users, according to a recent report. Amazon has also aggressively entered the market, offering Indian customers attractive subscription rates and bundled packages for Prime users. In a crowded marketplace, Sarandos stressed that Netflix's approach was to offer something different and more "impactful" to the Indian market, epitomized by series such as horror show Ghoul, the upcoming cricket drama Selection Day and the breakout hit Sacred Games. 

A Mumbai-set crime drama starring Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan, Sacred Games proved a hit with viewers and critics for its movie-like production values and propulsive storylines, something entirely new for Indian TV. But the show, indirectly, became the center of a #MeToo storm as one of the co-founders of the show's production company Phantom Films was accused of sexual assault and the other co-founders, Sacred Games' co-directors Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, were accused of ignoring the allegations.

The assault allegations led to the dissolution of Phantom and put a question mark over the future of Sacred Games.

Last Tuesday, Netflix confirmed Sacred Games would get a second season after an internal investigation had cleared Motwane and Kashyap of any wrongdoing. Sarandos was asked directly about the controversy and reaffirmed his support for both the investigation and Motwane and Kashyap, while denying that Netflix had different standards for different countries when it came to allegations of this nature. 

"We held [Phantom Films] to the exact same standards," Sarandos said before adding that "on Netflix programming, we are committed to making sure that the workplace is safe and respectful, always. We have instituted harassment training on all our productions in India — it is the same exact program we do in the U.S. and everywhere in the world. And everybody from the top to bottom of the production must go through it before we roll cameras." 

He added that Netflix had "conducted investigations in this case and we determined it was appropriate to move forward with Vikram and Anurag — that is based on the condition of this story only and that has nothing to do with anything before or anything anywhere else. And we believe that based on those facts, through that investigation, that was the appropriate response."