Ted Sarandos: Netflix's Global Platform Will Bring Diversity to Hollywood

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Robyn Twomey

The streaming giant continues to look for a way to access the huge China market, the executive also said at an event in Seoul.

Netflix's push to conquer streaming markets around the world will bring the added benefit of more diversity in Hollywood, chief content officer Ted Sarandos said Thursday at an event in Seoul.

Nearly half of Netflix's 80 million subscribers are now overseas, and adding global users is integral to the company's future growth. Meeting the demands of that increasingly international audience naturally entails a more inclusive and representative approach to casting, the exec suggested. 

"We're very proud that Netflix shows are among the most diverse in the world," he said. "Just looking at Marco Polo and Masters of None, they have an enormous Asian cast."

While scandals involving racial representation continue to be a blight on the industry — from #OscarsSoWhite last year to the recent whitewashing of Asian roles in film — Netflix's production of original content both Stateside and overseas has given it an edge on diversity, according to Sarandos. "It's not a typical Hollywood casting model," he said. "And we are pushing to become better in terms of reflecting the diversity of the world."

Netflix now serves 190 countries, but the world's most populous nation — China — remains untapped. Netflix has repeatedly expressed interest in launching its service there, but censorship concerns and stringent regulations affecting foreign content providers present barriers. "We do look at China as a big opportunity, but it's a complicated [market], as you know," said Sarandos. "We are seeing what we can do about it in the future."

Speaking to the mostly Korean media crowd in Seoul, the exec said that not having a presence in China has spillover effects to how it approaches regional territories such as South Korea. "We are very aware that China is an important part of the revenue for 'K-drama' (Korean television drama), and that many K-drama companies produce content with China in mind," he said.  

While a big part of Netflix's competitive edge in international markets is its U.S.-produced original shows (House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, et al), the company also is acquiring local-language content overseas that it will distribute in North America. "We're buying rights for K-dramas like Descendants of the Sun, which we'll show beginning in the late summer in the U.S., Canada and all parts of Latin America," said Sarandos. The hit Korean drama was previously acquired by Beijing-based streaming service iQiyi and became one of the most-watched shows online in China, in addition to selling to more than 30 territories around the world.

Netflix views South Korea as a bright spot in terms of both content creation and as a distribution market, said Netflix vp international originals David Lee at another event in Seoul earlier in the week. "The encouraging thing about Korean productions is that about 10 percent of our members have watched Korean content, and that's a lot considering that we have 80 million subscribers," he said.

Korea's broadband and mobile penetration rates — among the very highest in the world — also make the territory a powerful test ground for Netflix's services, despite some strong competition from OTT services run by local telecom giants. "Because of the very entertainment-savvy population with great access to amazing broadband, the internet lifestyle that Koreans enjoy is a model for the rest of the world," said Sarandos.

The exec also gave an overview of Netflix's forthcoming original Korean productions, including Okja, a fantasy film by Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho. Currently in production in Korea, the $50 million film is one of the most expensive ever made in the country and is due for simultaneous release over Netflix and in cinemas next year.

"When the world thinks of great contemporary film directors, they think of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. After Okja, they will start to think of Bong Joon-ho in that same list," Sarandos said to applause from the local crowd.  

Next week, Netflix will premiere Drama World, an original series about a young American girl so enamored with K-dramas that she is magically teleported inside of one. Netflix plans to make the show globally available. "[Drama World] will introduce K-drama to an audience around the world that hasn't seen it before," said Sarandos.

Other upcoming titles include a Korean version of the forthcoming Sylvester Stallone-produced reality show Ultimate Beastmaster, with announcements of other Korean originals coming later this year, according to Netflix.