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Brought up in the U.K. by Indian parents, Devichand has been involved in factual TV across Asia for a decade and a half, putting in stints at broadcasters including Al Jazeera and CNN, in cities including Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Netflix’s recent Asian docs and docuseries, released under his team, have included the K-pop film Blackpink: Light Up the Sky; Naomi Osaka, about the Japanese tennis icon; true crime series The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea; Indian hit House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths; and Thai-American filmmaker Pailin Wedel’s touching cryogenics think piece Hope Frozen: A Quest To Live Twice, which won Thailand its first international Emmy for best documentary in November.
Netflix’s next Asian original doc release will be the travelogue series Midnight Asia: Eat. Dance. Dream., which goes live on Jan. 20. The show explores the nocturnal worlds of six Asian megacities — Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai, Taipei, Manila and Bangkok — unveiling hidden locations, culinary secrets, unconventional passions, and some of the captivating characters who people the iconic capitals after dark.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Devichand for his first interview in his Netflix role to discuss how he has approached building a documentary slate to encapsulate and entertain the world’s most populous and culturally diverse region.
So, what has the journey been like for you since you joined Netflix three years ago to build out the company’s first Asian docs slate?
So I moved here in late 2018 and at that stage, it was very nascent. So it was incredibly exciting, having this kind of white canvas to work with — to build a slate that we felt would be vibrant, diverse, and resonate deeply with our members in Asia and globally. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of work to connect with Asian filmmakers to build deep relationships. I attend a lot of documentary festivals and pitching events, and other industry events in the region. We’ve really tried to find talented voices in the Asian documentary world. They come from a really broad range of backgrounds here, which is really exciting. Some of them are people who have worked in the scripted genre, and maybe are crossing over into documentary for the first time. Others are folks who are totally new and up-and-coming voices, who maybe are taking on their first feature. Some are very experienced in the factual linear TV world, but are working for a streaming platform for the first time.
So it’s people from a very wide range of professional backgrounds — as well as different cultural backgrounds, languages and geographical areas in Asia. So it’s been really interesting and exciting to be building a slate with such a diverse range of partners.
As you alluded, it’s probably fair to say that the documentary ecosystem in this part of the world is not quite as developed and connected as it is in Netflix’s home market of the U.S., or a place like the U.K. So what have been the biggest challenges of your role so far?
Yeah, I guess the ecosystem being so nascent is simultaneously the challenge and what makes it all so exciting. In Asia, when I first joined, there was a sense that documentaries were more of a niche genre. And so what has been really exciting is to be able to work with filmmakers to, you know, resource the projects that they’re really passionate about making, and provide a very global platform for these films and series to be seen around the world. It’s incredibly exciting to be right at the start of that journey and process of documentaries becoming a much bigger thing here. Because we’re right at the beginning of that journey, many filmmakers in the Asian documentary space, as it gains energy and momentum, are working on projects of this scale and ambition for the very first time.
So for us, it becomes both about finding amazing talent in the region, but then giving them the freedom to be bold, to be innovative and to really realize their visions for their projects. We try to really set them up for success. We do that in a range of ways: through providing really hands-on creative and production support through the whole process. But also, I think we can play a really strong role in also being a connector as well. So you know, given the relative nascency of the ecosystem, we can work to really connect talented Asian filmmakers with great creative partners and collaborators. So that could be you know, really strong executive producers, or they can be amazing documentary editors — or any other kind of experienced creative partner to help them realize the vision of their project. So the relative nascency mostly has been very exciting, because it means we can be very hands-on in working with and helping filmmakers.
How has actually sourcing projects tended to work? Are filmmakers with projects that are fairly far along coming to pitch you? Do you acquire projects that have gotten some recognition in the region and then work with the creators to enhance them so they are Netflix-ready? Or are you reaching out to promising talent you’re aware of and asking, ‘What do you want to do in the documentary space?’ I imagine it has really run the gamut?
Yeah, it’s across a range of channels. I guess, for me, that is the core challenge, as I look from Singapore to work across this vast continent to hone in the region’s most exciting talent. But for me, that is the thing I love doing most — finding amazing talent that can help us continue to energize the documentary space.
For example, we launched a project in India recently called House of Secrets, which was a limited doc series that got really strong viewing and engagement among our members. And that was an interesting case, because it was directed by a filmmaker called Leena Yadav, who’s been a scripted filmmaker until now. But we loved her work. She has an incredible kind of richness and complexity in the work that she does, and we felt she would have great potential in the documentary space as well. So we reached out and kind of started that conversation. And it turned out there was a story that she was already incredibly passionate about telling. And so she crossed over into the documentary space for the first time with us.
But equally, I think it’s also really important to make sure that we’re really accessible to new talent and voices. And that comes from a lot of places. I really love attending Asian documentary pitching forums to connect with new talent. Tokyo Docs in Japan is a really good one, same for DMZ Docs in Korea or Doc Edge in Calcutta.
Netflix is so data-driven, I wondered whether, when you are building a slate of documentaries in the region, you look to categories of content that have worked really well in other parts of the world and are known to have an especially dedicated fan base? Something like true crime, for example? And are there other factual categories within Asia that you’re particularly open to — because of what you know from the data about its ability to travel?
That’s a very interesting topic, but Netflix members are so diverse and have such a diversity of tastes, what we’re trying to do is build a slate that has a very broad range of different types of documentaries. So, over the last year or so, for example, we launched our Blackpink music documentary in Korea, which really resonated Korea, and globally because of the popularity of K-pop. We launched the Naomi Osaka sports documentary, which really resonated in Japan, but she’s obviously a figure people want to engage with globally. We launched a series called My Love, which was six beautiful love stories of couples who have been together for decades, which is very much human interest storytelling. So we are very much looking for a lot of breadth in our slate.
Do you think balancing cultural specificity with international accessibility works differently in documentaries than it does in scripted content in any way? One of the great discoveries of Netflix, of course, has been proving that audiences around the world are actually much more open to storytelling in diverse languages and cultures — whether subtitled or dubbed — than Hollywood previously gave them credit for. But I wondered whether some of these issues operate differently in a documentary, where a lot of information is often being conveyed, and the audience’s prior knowledge and context can be essential to how you calibrate the story, to an extent. For example, on a scripted show like Squid Game, there is loads of Korean culture at play, but as long as the story and characters are clear and relatable, people from anywhere might be willing to go along for the ride. Is it the same with docs, in general, or are there some meaningful differences?
That’s a really interesting question. You know, I think we are very director-driven, so first and foremost, when we have those conversations, we really do lean in and support the director’s vision, and encourage them to realize their personal vision of the project. Because often, that’s just what will make the film or series the most exciting, rich, authentic, captivating, bold or poetic. We’ve found that it’s through this process that you tend to create the really exciting moments that have the best chance of breaking out more globally. So the emphasis is always on letting the director make the best choices for their vision, or the most authentic choices for the territory where it’s based. And then you do try to keep an eye on universal values too.
I think Hope Frozen is a great example of this. Often, projects, despite being stories deeply immersed in a particular kind of cultural context, they have really deep universal themes to them — and that combination tends to resonate more broadly and create strong global interest and engagement. Hope Frozen is such a beautifully told film about a Thai family, but it also has these very strong universal themes to it at its core — love, faith and the possibilities of science. It’s very much about life. As a result, we saw the story was incredibly resonant in Thailand, but it also really touched hearts around the world as well.
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