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Barack and Michelle Obama are already at work executive producing content as part of their multiyear Netflix deal, chief content officer Ted Sarandos revealed Tuesday at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit.
Sarandos hopes that the former president and first lady will appear onscreen in addition to the voiceovers they have been recording for their projects. But don’t expect the couple to court controversy with their chosen topics — think more sports and nutrition, less of anything “too heavy or political,” Sarandos added.
Sarandos was joined onstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center’s Bram Goldsmith Theater by Lisa Nishimura, Netflix vp original documentary and comedy, and the directors of one of the streamer’s biggest recent hits, Wild Wild Country’s Chapman and Maclain Way. The Way brothers had partnered with Netflix for their first documentary, 2014’s The Battered Bastards of Baseball, but had explored opportunities with other distributors with their ambitious docuseries about the Rajneeshpuram sect. One popular purveyor of nonfiction programming balked at the cult’s lack of famous followers. “Maybe we can get a celebrity narrator,” an exec mused.
Prompted by former Hearst Magazines chief content officer Joanna Coles, who moderated the conversation, Maclain gave up the name. “It was HBO,” he admitted, to howls from the audience.
Coles, as wildly entertaining as she is a sharp questioner, pressed the Netflix execs on their strategy for competing with even deeper-pocketed rivals like Apple and Amazon in the space. “We don’t focus much energy on any competitor,” Sarandos said, adding that it’s especially fruitless to spend time worrying about Apple when it’s still so unclear what its streaming service will look like. “I don’t think even the people making shows for them have much sense of what it’s going to be.”
When Coles noted that Apple and Amazon have more money to spend on content because of all the revenue they earn on selling “cellphones and toilet paper,” respectively, the Netflix execs held firm that keeping content as their “strategic center” was a strength.
“It’s powerful to have 5,000 people [at your company] all focusing on one thing,” said Nishimura.
With Netflix’s growth in feature film, documentary and comedy specials, it is getting closer than ever to its vision of being “all TV,” but Coles noted that it was absent from the media conversation last week while the nation was riveted to the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “We’re primarily embraced as an entertainment brand, and [those hearings] were aggravating, but not entertaining,” Sarandos countered.
“Our primary focus is consumer joy,” he added, offering that the streamer was at the center of the zeitgeist when it came to this summer’s rom-com resurgence, claiming that more people watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before than any other movie the week it came out.
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