Number one: he's funny
Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has transformed the television landscape by pioneering the company's leap into original programming -- an initiative that has yielded House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, A Very Murray Christmas, and Beasts of No Nation... to name just a few.
The Netflix slate of narrative films and TV series typically grab most of the headlines, but Sarandos hasn't neglected nonfiction fare. Two Netflix documentaries were just shortlisted for the Oscars -- What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom. And later this month the streaming service launches a 10-part documentary series, Making a Murderer, which could extend the phenomenon of binge-watching to the nonfiction sphere.
In recognition of his efforts to promote documentary film, Sarandos will be honored this weekend with the Pioneer Award at the IDA Awards in Los Angeles. I spoke with him for almost an hour for a piece posted to the IDA's website, documentary.org. These are the top six things I learned:
1. He's funny
I asked Ted how he feels about receiving the Pioneer Award. He responded, "I don’t know, 'pioneer.' I feel like that always implies having arrows in your back."
2. He hears a lot of pitches. A lot.
Ted said he and his team are constantly being presented with new ideas for TV series and movies.
"We listen to 40 to 50 pitches a week for new and original programming," he said. "And by the way, that doesn't include while I'm standing in line at Starbucks or if I'm sitting on an airplane."
3. He "hugely admires" Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio executive-produced the Netflix original documentary Virunga, about the effort to save the last of the world's mountain gorillas from the impact of oil exploration in their native habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That experience went so well that Netflix and DiCaprio announced a deal to partner on more documentaries going forward.
"As a part of his initiative on environmental causes, [DiCaprio's] put a lot of energy in helping documentary filmmakers tell their stories," Sarandos said. "From very big, powerful stories like Virunga to smaller but equally powerful films like Cowspiracy that just came on Netflix.
"I hugely admire a guy who really has a thousand better things to do, you know, than help documentary filmmakers. But he is a real workhorse and he loves these films, he loves these stories and he loves getting the word out for them. It’s really impressive to watch."
4. Sarandos doesn't see HBO Documentary Films as a rival, necessarily
For years, HBO Documentary Films under Sheila Nevins has been the big dog in documentary filmmaking, racking up countless Emmy wins and lots of Oscar recognition (for titles that got a theatrical release).
So does Ted think of that HBO division as a rival?
"I think it's a guiding light and it's a gold standard too," Sarandos told me. He said a number of years ago he met Nevins after she received a lifetime achievement award at the News and Documentary Emmys.
"I had never met her. And I have idolized her," Sarandos said. "I went backstage and walked straight into her dressing room, introduced myself and I told her what she’s done for documentaries has been indispensable in the world, and I hoped to really take the ball and run... She sets up a high bar for herself and then surpasses it ever year. And I feel like we hit it every once in a while and we’re going to try to hit it more often."
5. Beasts of No Nation was a success
This fall Netflix attracted a lot of comment -- some of it critical -- for its launch of the Cary Fukunaga film Beasts of No Nation. Major theater chains refused to put the film on their screens because it debuted simultaneously on Netflix. The Hollywood Reporter, among other outlets, described the box office performance as weak, but Sarandos doesn't see it that way.
"We wanted to build a big global audience for that film and we did. And some people saw it in the theater, but most people watched it on Netflix. And that really wasn’t a surprise," Sarandos said. "I’m glad that we put the movie out in theaters. I knew that it was a risk that there would be lower than average per screen averages because in America 45 million, 46 million people have the opportunity to watch it on Netflix during that period. So some people did go to the theaters and had a wonderful experience.
"But in aggregate, we drew one of the biggest audiences for an independent film than anyone would have achieved in the life run of an independent film. So it was financially successful for the producers. We aggregated an enormous audience and continue to aggregate an enormous audience in America and around the world for Beasts of No Nation. And I couldn’t be more thrilled."
6. In a world of CEOs, CFO's and COO's, Sarandos is delighted to be a CCO - Chief Content Officer
"I really love what I’m doing. I love being a part of this machine that can make [a movie or TV series] happen for so many people, both in the creative community, but more importantly the fans," Ted said. "We have about 70 million people around the world who are watching this programming and it’s really an incredibly gratifying thing to connect the storyteller and an audience."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.