Netflix CFO David Wells On What Drove Ryan Murphy Signing: “He Creates A Lot Of Customer Joy”

David Wells Netflix
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David Wells, CFO at Netflix, offered a two-word explanation for the streaming giant’s decision to fork over up to $300 million to elite showrunner Ryan Murphy earlier this month: “customer joy.”

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley media and telecom conference in San Francisco, Wells elaborated, “These deals are going to be rarer than you might think. Not everybody gets one. You have to have that track record of being a prolific producer. Like Shonda Rhimes, we were pleased with the type of content he creates in terms of being popular globally, not just in the U.S. He creates a lot of customer joy, as we like to say.”

None of that is to say the deal is a guaranteed winner, he cautioned. “It’s a lean-in for us,” Wells said. “There’s some risk for us. But in the grand scheme of the $8 billion in P&L spending we’re putting [on content], these deals are rare.”

Wells also addressed the company’s movie strategy, which has seen bold moves in recent months, including the release of Will Smith’s widely panned but already sequelized Bright and the Super Bowl surprise of Cloverfield Paradox. The game plan is intact, and Wells noted that it changes less than many investors and industry observers expect.

“Movies scratch a different itch for a member,” he said. Rather than leading to a longer-term serialized experience, “We see a wider business for us if we can do both” feature-length and serialized content.

Strategically, he added, “It’s about commercial success. It’s about what makes people happy. … We haven’t changed the strategy. Folks look for us to change strategy from one title to another based on some equivalent of box office performance but for us, it’s been about continuing to allocate as cert % our content spend to this category, continuing to improve our production ability in the category and then trying a few different things and then playing that out over a series of movies.”

The keynote session also touched on the company’s burgeoning number of original series made in languages other than English. One recent example is the German-language sci-fi thriller Dark, which has found traction well beyond its country of origin.

Wells said there are now about 80 such shows available on Netflix, and that doesn’t even count shows like Narcos or Orange is the New Black, which have penetrated globally but were not launched in the era of Netflix’s fully globalized reach. The latter category, he said, would number “in the 700 range.”

Asked about the company’s overall pursuit of originals versus acquired or licensed titles, he said the 50-50 balance promised years ago by content chief Ted Sarandos has not quite been achieved but the milestone is approaching. “Expect continued owned original growth,” Wells said. “I could never see it getting to 100%. Could it be more than 50%? It could.” At the same time, he insisted, “There’s no religion in terms of whether a show comes to us in a licensed format or not.”

Further, Wells aimed to dispel the often-propagated anxiety in Hollywood that Netflix’s billions have ravaged the once-fertile lands the studios controlled.

“Hollywood has had 10 different production models, from fully owned, fully integrated, vertically owned shows, to fully licensed shows or an independent producer who packages shows, for a long time. That will persist. … We have all of those across all of our content. We do all of those. Even some of our originals may be packaged by another company but we distribute it.”

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