Ted Sarandos began his entertainment career running video stores and has a well-established passion for film. As Netflix’s head of content, he has spent the past few months green-lighting an array of ambitious feature projects as the streaming giant makes an aggressive push into the movie business.
Despite all of that, the executive also believes movie exhibitors’ longtime protection of exclusive theatrical windows has done a lot more harm than good. Sarandos didn’t hold back on that front during a keynote appearance at the UBS Global Media and Communication Conference in New York. “They’ve disconnected people from movies in a way,” he said of windows. “I don’t think it’s very consumer-friendly that consumers who don’t happen to live near a theater are waiting six months, eight months to see a movie.”
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He continued, “I don’t disagree that going to the theater to see a movie is a great experience. I don’t think emotionally it’s a different experience than seeing a movie on Netflix. It is a different physical experience for sure.”
Netflix is nevertheless “trying to find ways to meet in the middle” with exhibitors, Sarandos said, citing awards contenders Roma, Bird Box and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, all of which have had a few weeks in theaters before streaming. That step was one Netflix was not taking as recently as a few months ago — or last award season, with acclaimed films like Mudbound, for example.
For specialty runs of titles like Roma, he said, “probably 80% of people in the theaters are also Netflix subscribers,” Sarandos said, proving that the rise of Netflix features and the provenance of theatrical moviegoing “are not mutually exclusive.”
When talent asks for their films to play in theaters, Sarandos said, “I think that’s a way of saying, ‘I want my film to be in the culture. I want people to talk about my movie on line at Starbucks,'” he said.
A “zeitgeist” response can be attained without a theatrical release, he maintained, offering an example in Thanksgiving weekend release The Christmas Chronicles, which stars Kurt Russell as Santa Claus. Russell told Sarandos “it was the most feedback he had ever had of any movie he had ever done” in his six decades in show business, the executive recalled, though he didn’t offer any viewership stats.
The volume of simultaneous viewing globally is a potent commodity the traditional rollout of a film around the world can never produce, Sarandos argued. Another recent example he pointed to was the batch of original Netflix romantic comedies, including The Kissing Booth, that hit the streaming platform over the summer.
“Eighty million people watched one or more of those films” during the summer months, Sarandos said. “Being able to offer this collective audience and being able tap into that in a big way, at scale, is what differentiates us.”
During the wide-ranging conversation, Sarandos was also asked by UBS Eric Sheridan about the company’s stance on rival direct-to-consumer streaming efforts being mounted by Disney and WarnerMedia.
He said no other launches would be “to the detriment” of Netflix. “There’s plenty of room in this business for plenty of other companies to be successful.” As the company continues to pivot from licensed fare to originals, it has faced scrutiny (as well as viewer hysteria) about the notion of it no longer offering syndicated mainstays like the ageless sitcom Friends. Sarandos waved away reports that the widely viewed Friends would be withdrawn by WarnerMedia as it pursues its own streaming service, calling them “rumors.”
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