Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, took part in Series Mania’s Lille Transatlantic Dialogues today with Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, discussing his take on “disruption,” the platform’s approach to risk and the opportunities of interactive storytelling.
“I’m not a fan of the word ‘disruption,’ because it has such negative connotations,” Sarandos said. “It gets hung on my head a lot. It’s like burning things down and seeing what happens. That’s not what we’re up to. We’re trying to preserve and improve upon the formats and grow storytelling. To do that you have to be pretty deeply rooted in the traditions and have some amount of reverence for what they are. Studios have been making films and series for 100 years and certain things work. The connection with people is rooted in tradition. We don’t want to ever lose those things that are the most valuable parts of storytelling.”
Sarandos continued, “Disruption is often for disruption’s sake, and we never want to do that.”
He went on to say that film and series are “distinctly different art forms, but they tend to be increasingly consumed in similar ways. Cinema is infused into television in ways we’ve never seen before. I’m pleased that I don’t have to choose between the two.”
Sarandos referenced Godless, which was pitched to Netflix as a feature film. “We said, we can’t make this as a film, but we think there’s a lot more story here that it could be expanded into a miniseries.”
On risk, Sarandos noted, “If you pick the right storytellers and the right worlds, and give them all the tools they need to do the work of their life and get out of their way, it will pay off pretty well. As a commissioner, you need to have a pretty good appetite for risk. You need to be willing to step into that thing that hasn’t been done before because the things that can come out of that are magic. Sometimes they require a big financial risk or betting on a new storyteller, a new voice, because you believe that this is a story that they can’t live without telling.”
Sarandos noted that Netflix is investing $1 billion in original content in Europe, including 15 projects in France. “It’s never been our initiative to export Hollywood to the world. Our goal was always to [bring] the greatest storytelling from anywhere in the world to the rest of the world.”
Brooker and Jones, the creators of Black Mirror—“one of the great global brands on Netflix,” Sarandos said—talked about the experience of making the interactive film Bandersnatch.
“We had a story idea that only really worked as an interactive story,” Brooker said on the “challenging” process of developing Bandersnatch. “There was a central part of the story which involved someone becoming aware that they were being controlled by you the viewer. So it only functioned as an interactive [movie]. There was no real blueprint for it, so even coming up with the story outline, I had to learn Twine, which is a coding language.”
“We knew it was high-risk and high-profile,” Jones added, “but we had confidence in the idea. It was just the execution we hadn’t realized was going to be so difficult!”
The special is about 40 or 50 minutes when using the shortest path from beginning to end. Brooker said that the team shot about five and a half hours of footage—“two to three hours of unique footage, and there’s even a chunk you can’t get to, because we changed something and there’s a little section in the middle that will never appear!”
Jones later noted that much of Black Mirror’s popularity is due to the fact that it is available globally on Netflix. “Black Mirror is very much a word-of-mouth show, it’s very hard to pitch, it’s very hard to describe, you need a personal recommendation, on a streaming platform you can find it at any point.”
Brooker added that “anthology shows are very much suited to a streaming platform because we don’t have cliffhangers week to week and we don’t have a continuing cast.”