As an old Wall Street saying goes, the market climbs a wall of worry. In the case of Netflix, the more people worry about the company exhausting its potential (or cash reserves), the higher it seems to climb.
Founder and CEO Reed Hastings said during today’s earnings video conference that he sees plenty more upside. “Whether our share grows or shrinks is really down to, do we make great content, market it well, serve it up beautifully?” he said. If they don’t, he shrugged, “We’ll be run over just like anybody else.” Grinning at a followup question about how he keeps his troops from getting complacent, he added, “We’re a fraction of the viewing of YouTube, a fraction of the viewing for linear TV. We’ve got some great momentum and we’re very excited about that. But we have a long way to go in terms of earning all of the viewing that we want to.”
The comments from Hastings and his top executives followed the release earlier this afternoon of more strong quarterly numbers, following a January quarter that sparked a 60% run-up in the company’s stock price in 2018 to date. The company said it added 7.41 million net new subscribers in the first quarter, a 50% gain compared to the growth in the year-earlier quarter, bringing its global total to 125 million. Revenue surged 43% in the period.
Following the company’s unique format for discussion with Wall Street, the company picked a single analyst — Benjamin Swinburne of Morgan Stanley in this instance — to be the solo questioner in the video conference.
Content chief Ted Sarandos batted away the most recent rumors that Netflix would enter the news arena. “Our ‘move into news’ has been mis-reported over and over again,” he said. “We’re not looking to expand our work into news beyond short-form and documentary.” He declined to comment on a report earlier this year that the company is in talks with Michelle and Barack Obama for unspecified projects.
Another long-bubbling issue is the interface between Netflix and theatrical exhibition. Netflix’s strategy differs from that of Amazon Studios, whose ranks are stocked with specialty film veterans selling talent on traditional rollouts of films like Manchester by the Sea or current Lynne Ramsay-Joaquin Phoenix breakout You Were Never Really Here. Netflix, while it has added platform-esque titles like Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), also focuses on Adam Sandler comedies and the likes of Will Smith sci-fi movie Bright. While the viewing of Bright has justified a sequel (even if Netflix won’t specify any numbers), its route to viewers is decidedly different from Smith-fronted blockbusters of the 1990s or 2000s.
Sarandos firmly defended the strategy. Asked by Swinburne if there has been “pushback” from talent, especially now that Netflix is sitting out Cannes after a spat with festival organizers, he said the company released 33 theatrical titles in 2017. Day-and-date releases, which have provoked many exhibitors insisting on preserving the traditional theatrical window, “are going to be more and more accepted as part of the distribution norm,” Sarandos said. “Defining distribution by what room you see it in is not the business we want to be in. We want to be about making great films that people love.” When Swinburne asked if the company was considering wider releases “in order to give talent a shot at awards,” Sarandos replied, “Keep in mind, we had five projects nominated for the Oscar last year using this model.”
At the end of the 35-minute video conference. Swinburne asked if the company had reflected on its standing in the tech sector vis-à-vis its use of customer data given the epic challenges faced by Facebook. Because of Netflix’s reliance on subscriptions from its inception 20 years ago and its safeguarding of customer privacy, Hastings said, “We’re substantially inoculated from the other issues happening in the industry.” Given that content and marketing spending total more than $10 billion a year, compared with $1 billion on technology, Hastings argued that Netflix should be considered a media company, not a tech giant. “We’re really pretty different from the pure tech companies,” he maintained.