To the Way brothers, the story of the Rolls Royce-driving Indian guru who moved his sex cult to Oregon, where their search for spiritual enlightenment ended in the largest bioterror attack on American soil was the stuff of documentary gold.
But not everyone shared that vision.
Director Maclain Way said he shopped the six-part documentary series to a number of outlets where he and brother Chapman Way received a “very cold” reaction. One distributor, which initially went nameless, asked if any celebrity had been part of the 1980s cult — or at minimum, would agree to narrate Wild Wild Country.
Pressed by moderator Johanna Coles to name the outlet that spurned the Emmy Award winning documentary, Maclain Way volunteered — HBO.
The Way brothers joined Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, its vice president of original documentary and comedy, Lisa Nishimura, in a wide-ranging discussion at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit.
Sarandos talked about the increasing global scope of Netflix’s storytelling, and how much of his time is devoted to promoting local-language content in all 190 countries where the streaming service is now available. Some shows, like 13 Reasons Why or Stranger Things, have broad, worldwide appeal while others, like Casa de Papel (Money Heist), play well in specific markets like Latin America and Europe.
“It’s that Tetris of programming that matters a lot to local markets,” said Sarandos, referring to the popular puzzle game. “Tastes are pretty diverse.”
Nishimura said she spends a lot of time on planes, traveling to different countries and meeting with filmmakers — established and upcoming – to find authentic voices to tell original stories.
“You have to get in to each of those different countries and understand what are the stories that are the most compelling, most resonant, and who are the people to tell those stories,” Nishimura said..
Sarandos talked about the headline-grabbing deals Netflix struck with prolific showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, which the streaming service was able to justify based on years of data and the consistent popularity their shows. The primary criteria is whether these programs keep subscribers coming back.
“Is having access to those shows why I join Netflix? That’s incredibly valuable if it is,” said Sarandos. “We don’t have that many overall deals. The ones we do are with people who are incredibly prolific, have a sense of voice in their shows and are successful.”
Asked about the competitive threat posed by deep-pocketed digital challengers like Apple or Amazon, or established media players like The Walt Disney Co., Sarandos said he doesn’t spend any time looking over his shoulder.
“I don’t have any idea what that Apple product is going to be. I don’t think people who are making those shows have any idea,” said Sarandos. “We spend most of our (time focused) on how to make people happy. We measure that through subscriber growth.”
Coles asked Sarandos why Netflix hasn’t invested in news coverage, noting Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings riveted the nation. Sarandos took a hard pass,
“We’re primarily embraced as an entertainment brand,” Sarandos said. “That kind of watching is a lot of things — but it’s not entertaining.”
Sarandos said Netflix is satisfied being part of the national dialogue through provocative shows 13 Reasons Why, which led to discussions about teen suicide. The executive offered few new details of the work Netflix is doing with Barack and Michelle Obama, who working on film and television projects inspired by the work they’ve done throughout their lives.
“There will be a lot to talk about later this year,” said Sarandos.
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