Three years ago last January, writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry went to see Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, with an idea for a TV series. Thirty minutes later, Sarandos said they could have £100 million. Without seeing a script.
The idea, we now know, was for The Crown, a drama telling the story of the life of Queen Elizabeth II. The first series, released this month, has received near-universal praise, and represents yet another step in the online film and box-set streaming giant’s seemingly inexorable march towards persuading everyone on the planet to watch TV on the internet.
Netflix, which started out as a DVD postal delivery service in the late Nineties, doesn’t function like a traditional broadcaster. It is a game-changer, a disruptive force that has decisively altered the way we watch television and film. There are no schedules or live shows: subscribers are simply free to download any of Netflix’s thousands of films and series to watch when they want and where they want, whether on a traditional television, a tablet or a mobile phone.
But Netflix, along with other video on-demand giants such as Amazon Prime and Hulu, hasn’t just changed the way we consume television; it’s changed the way it is made. As with House of Cards — Netflix’s first foray into producing its own shows in 2013 — all the episodes of the first series of The Crown were available to download on the day of its launch.
Not being tied to a traditional TV schedule means that the lengths of Netflix episodes can vary to suit the plotline.
It’s less important to end on a cliffhanger, because you can just binge-watch a whole load of episodes at once. It’s a formula that’s been vastly successful, with 80 million worldwide subscribers and rising. (The BBC and ITV are rumoured to be working together on launching “Britflix” in response.)
Subscribers mean data. And the more subscribers Netflix gets, the more data it amasses — what we watch, when we watch, which episodes get us hooked, even when we hit the rewind button to watch a scene again.
You can see how The Crown benefits a business looking to expand its subscriber base. It will have global appeal, but is also intended to extend Netflix’s reach from a younger audience to a 50-plus demographic (who probably don’t have Netflix).
“A lot of people think, ’Well, my parents would never use Netflix,’” says Sarandos, when we meet on the morning of The Crown’s launch. “And I say, ’Well, you probably said your parents would never use Facebook, yet now they do.’ They just need a reason. I think The Crown will be a reason that an older generation may get on the internet.”
Downton Abbey, which was shown on Netflix in the US, proved to the company that British costume drama could bring in the numbers.
“It was our first sense that the big costume drama could have mainstream appeal on our platform.” But if The Crown represents the zenith of the Downton effect, it dwarfs the Downton budget. Netflix refuses to confirm the cost of The Crown, but if we take the reported figure of £100 million for two series, that’s £5 million an episode.
“That budget relative to a film is pretty modest,” says Sarandos, “and when you see it on screen, it’s not lacking for anything. When we think about budgets, why wouldn’t you do 20 million an hour episodes? That would be much closer to a typical film.”
No doubt Netflix soon will spend that amount, so long as they think they can recoup it. Which leads to the question of what Netflix considers a hit. They don’t publish ratings, so when Netflix says something is a smash, who’s to say it’s not just hot air?
Ratings, Sarandos says, do matter: “But it isn’t measured in a small timeframe. The audience may not show up the first weekend, but that’s OK, because the people will come to it over time.”
Netflix’s use of data, culled from its audiences, then crunched through algorithms to construct a picture of what will and won’t fly, is no secret. I press Sarandos for examples where Netflix has thrown money at something and, in spite of all that data, still got it wrong: “[The horror series] Hemlock Grove is an example that just… didn’t connect with the audience that we thought it would.”
That there is still an element of hit and hope to television is good to hear. If algorithms could serve up drama, then surprise hits like Netflix’s Stranger Things would never get made.
“I want my team to take big risks,” says Sarandos. “If they’re mostly petrified of failure, they wouldn’t.” The Crown, he reiterates, has all the makings of a surefire hit — the best creative talent money can buy. But in television nothing is a shoo-in. “It’s not a ’safe’ bet to make an enormous investment in The Crown,” he says.
It’s perhaps fitting that in the same month that The Crown launched in London, that other great British institution, Top Gear, was getting ready for its rebirth as The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. That series, with its established global following, is surely a safer bet than any drama.
“We made a play for that show, definitely,” says Sarandos. “But we’ve had every season of Top Gear on Netflix in most territories in the world, so we had a better sense than most of what the audience was for Top Gear on our platform. We knew what it was worth.”
Amazon is said to have paid around 160 million for the new series.
“That’s an under-reported number,” says Sarandos. “It was about a quarter of a billion dollars. We’ll be able to figure out later what it was that made the show the show. It’ll be interesting with Grand Tour to see how much of that is the players, who in many cases are big personalities, but what elements of Top Gear will people miss?“
He could equally be talking about The Great British Bake Off and its move to Channel 4 without three of its four stars. “I wish we’d had a shot at Bake Off. It moved very quickly, and we didn’t. The show’s very, very popular on Netflix, all over the place, so we would’ve definitely been interested.”
With the vast coffers, the global scale and the names involved — David Fincher has a series called Mindhunter in production; Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down is currently screening; Sylvester Stallone is producing Netflix’s first global reality show, Ultimate Beastmaster; and the studio has series in the works with Brad Pitt and Will Smith — is there anyone famous left for Sarandos to seduce to his platform?
He reels off PT Anderson [Boogie Nights], Wes Anderson, Spike Jones: “They mostly love the cinema experience. At some point people just kind of move with the times or move with their audience. It will happen.
“What’s happening now and is gonna happen even more in the next few years is the melding of cinema and television,” says Sarandos, by which he means that the actors, directors, writers, special effects and all the pizzazz of cinema will increasingly be found on the small screen.
“It shouldn’t be measured by money, but it requires money to do these things. Some day when they talk about the budget for The Crown, they’ll think about it as small.”
The vision thing
Coming soon to Netflix
3% (released November 25)
1. Brazil’s answer to The Hunger Games? This sci-fi drama is set in a dystopian future where the young must try to win the chance to live in the better side of a world divided between progress and devastation.
Dirk Gently (released December 11)
2. Douglas Adams’s eccentric detective drama gets a revamp (there was a BBC Four series starring Stephen Mangan), with Samuel Barnett (The History Boys) in the title role and Elijah Wood as his sidekick.
Barry (released December 16)
3. Newcomer Devon Terrell won the role of the young Barack Obama in this docudrama about the President’s years as a student at Columbia University.
One Day at a Time (released January 6)
4. A remake of the Seventies and Eighties US sitcom about a single mother, which remains little-known over here. Oscar-winner Rita Moreno (West Side Story) appears in a supporting role.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (released 13 January)
5 Lemony Snicket’s sequence of Gaudiesque fantasy novels about the orphaned Baudelaire children gets a new adaptation, with Neil Patrick Harris as Uncle Olaf.
– The Daily Telegraph