Meet the power players at Netflix, who are leading the streaming giant's defense against Disney and other rivals

Meet the power players at Netflix, who are leading the streaming giant's defense against Disney and other rivals

  • Netflix is about to face a bevy of new streaming-video competitors — some larger, with more experience developing TV and film, and with deeper pockets than itself.
  • Disney, WarnerMedia, and Apple are all launching subscription services in 2019.
  • Netflix is focusing on its growing international audience, building its reputation for Hollywood-grade films and children’s programming, and inking distribution deals with more wireless and TV providers to keep growing its subscriber base, in spite of the new competition.
  • Meet the executives, like Ted Sarandos, Greg Peters, and Bela Bajaria, who are leading these key initiatives and more.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Netflix hasn’t won the streaming wars yet.

The subscription-video service has around 150 million members paying to subscribe to its library of series and films — an audience larger than the population of small islands like Aruba and Seychelles, and outstripping rivals like the US-based Hulu.

But legacy media barons like Disney’s Bob Iger, and tech titans like Apple’s Tim Cook, want pieces of that massive global audience for themselves.

Netflix is about to face a slew of new competitors — some larger, with more experience developing TV and film, and with deeper pockets than itself. Disney and WarnerMedia are launching new streaming services this year. Comcast’s NBCUniversal has a service due out in 2020. And Apple is beginning to take streaming TV seriously with a new aggregation platform that hit this month and a subscription for original programming that rolls out in the fall.

Netflix may say it’s not sweating its rivals. “Great competition makes you better,” CEO Reed Hastings said on his company’s earnings call in April.

But Netflix saw the way the wind was blowing in Hollywood long ago, when it first started developing content exclusively for its platform in 2011. It has been moving to fortify and grow its armada by poaching execs and creators from Hollywood studios ever since.

Read more:How Netflix is using companies like Comcast and T-Mobile to drive its next phase of growth

Netflix has been in most of the world since 2016. Many of its competitors will be launching their services in the US this year before expanding overseas.

Netflix’s continued growth will depend on getting more people around the globe to buy into its vision for Hollywood-grade TV and film that is tailored to local audiences and languages before its rivals can catch up. The streaming service, which has already made a name for itself in TV, is also developing higher-profile and bigger-budget movies from directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay to build its reputation in film. And, with Disney’s family-friendly streaming service on the way, Netflix has taken steps to shore up its children’s programming through the acquisition of kid’s entertainment company Storybots.

Then there’s Netflix’s recommendation engine and platform, which is racing to make it easier for people to find something good to watch amidst the thousands of titles on Netflix, and make it easier for them to access the service wherever and whenever they want.

Meet the power players leading these key initiatives and more:

Reed Hastings — cofounder and CEO

Netflix cofounder and CEO, Reed Hastings, has never been one to underestimate his opponents.

Hastings, 58, considers nearly any activity — from sleeping, to playing video games like “Fortnite,” to takingfictional pills that could one day allow people to hallucinate entertainment the way they imagine their surroundings in the “The Matrix” films — as competitors to his streaming-video service. He hasn’t characterized Disney Plus and WarnerMedia’s planned platform as direct obstacles for Netflix, seeing them as more niche services than Netflix’s own.

“You can learn things by looking at competitors, but you don’t want to get focused on them,” Hastings said at a press event in March,CNN Business reported. “All we have to do to succeed is continue to do amazing content, stream it, make it personalized and relevant.”

But the company’s recent content acquisitions, executive appointments, and Hastings’ own talking points about Netflix’s future suggest that he is serious about defending the company on all fronts.

In 2017, the day before Disneyannounced that it would end its deal to stream new movies on Netflix, Netflixannounced its first-ever corporate acquisition. It bought the comic-book publisher, Millarworld, establishing its own mini-Marvel with which to build characters and franchises that could extend from print to screens big and small.

In May, weeks after Disney previewed its upcoming family-friendly streaming service, Netflixacquired the kids entertainment company, Storybots.

Netflix also went on a showrunner shopping spree last year, where it snapped up hitmakers like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, and Kenya Barris, who previously worked with legacy-media rivals like Disney and Fox.

Lately, Hastings has even softened on the idea of expanding Netflix beyond its core business of selling streaming-video subscriptions. Nearly all of Netflix’s competitors, including Hulu, Amazon, Apple, Disney, and WarnerMedia, do other things besides sell subscriptions, like selling advertising or toys, or operating theme parks. It squeezes more money out of their existing media properties. Netflix, meanwhile, makes nearly all of its revenue from streaming subscriptions, in addition to a small and shrinking legacy DVD-by-mail business.

“Someday, many, many years from now, we may need to diversify,” said Hastings, on an October earnings call. “There is so much growth ahead that’s possible in streaming-video entertainment, so we’re just going to focus on that for a very long time. Unfortunately, lots of other companies are also focusing on that. But that’s going to make it exciting for us for the next few years.”

Ted Sarandos — chief content officer

The higher Netflix’s star rises in Hollywood, the higher Ted Sarandos’ star rises within Netflix.

The chief content officer, who joined Netflix in 2000 after being an executive at a video-rental chain, was pivotal to establishing the company as more than just an online-video store. He lead the team that acquired content for Netflix’s video library, and oversaw the company’s push into original series and films.

In the six years since Netflix premiered its first slate of original programming, Sarandos has showed that Netflix can compete with veteran movie and TV studios like HBO and Disney, not only in buzz but in critical acclaim. Netflix earned its first best-picture nomination at the Oscars in 2019 for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” and has won numerous Emmys for its original series.

(Sarandos also enlisted one of Hollywood’s top awards strategists, Lisa Taback, in 2018, to help the company campaign for the accolades.)

Thanks to Sarandos’ impressive output, Netflix is looking more like a media company than a Silicon Valley tech darling these days. All at once, Netflix is trying to make the types of features that win Oscars, movies that would sell out theaters if they screened in them, TV dramas and comedies that would trend around the metaphorical water cooler, as well as everything in between, like talk shows, documentaries, comedy specials, teen movies, romantic comedies, cooking shows, and children’s cartoons.

It’s nowremaking all the series and movies that its customers watch, so it doesn’t have to go through “the gun-to-your-head renegotiation” with outside studios for them every couple of years, as Sarandos said in the October earnings call. That’s critical for Netflix now that studios, like Warner Bros., Disney, and NBCUniversal, which supplied its licensed content, will have their own streaming services to put their series and movies on.

Also on Sarandos’ to-do list: Keeping the handful of very popular shows from other studios, like “Friends” and “The Office,” on its service for as long as possible.

“Friends” or not, content has become Netflix’s power center — so much so that when Netflix needed a new chief financial officer to replace retiring executive David Wells, Hastings decided that person should be based in Los Angeles, where Sarandos spends most of his time. The chief marketing officer who replaces outgoing executive Kelly Bennett, when chosen, will also move under Sarandos’ purview.

Sarandos has taken a broad view of Netflix’s rivals for a long time. “Every time we put out a new show, we’re competing with everything ever made,” Sarandos said, in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Hollywood Reporter in 2016.

Cindy Holland — vice president, original content

After Sarandos, no one has had a bigger hand in building Netflix into a leading creator of TV and film than Cindy Holland, vice president of original content.

While Sarandos oversees all content on Netflix, including the series like “Friends” and “The Office” that are licensed from outside studios, Holland is focused on Netflix’s original programming — the stuff that sets it apart from other platforms.

Holland has been with Netflix since 2002, when the fledgling service’s main business was hawking DVDs. Before Netflix, the Stanford-educated exec worked at the internet startup, as well as a few film and production companies. She took the lead on original programming at Netflix back in 2011, around the time the company commissioned “House of Cards.”

Holland worked closely with showrunners like Jenji Kohan on “Orange Is the New Black,” and considers herself a straight-talker who just wants to tell great stories.

“I’m all about helping creators get the best of their vision,” Hollandtold Rolling Stone. “People know me to be straightforward. I try to be very clear and give a fast answer. There’s a real trust and simplicity that comes from that, like we have the same agenda.”

While Netflix is already releasing an eye-popping amount of programming, it’s Holland’s job to spot the gaps where the company could be doing more. “Stranger Things,” for example, was partly areaction to the family-friendly titles from the 1980s that people were watching on Netflix.

Holland prides herself most on the stories that don’t always work on paper. Another network might have told “Stranger Things” from the sheriff’s point of view, for example. Netflix’s version hit because “it was a misfit family, the sense of wonder, and the sense of family in addition to some scares and the supernatural,” Holland said at an event,reported on by Deadline.

Netflix, under Holland’s leadership, has been investing more recently in unscripted programming, such as cooking and competition shows, as well as titles with international appeal.

Holland’s team also controls much of Netflix’s multi-billion content budget, withabout 85% of new content spending going toward original series and films. She helps decide how to much to invest in each title — andwhen to stop investing if people aren’t sticking with the show.

Channing Dungey — vice president, original series

Channing Dungey joined Netflix late last year from the broadcast-TV world, where she was president of ABC Entertainment — the first African American to hold the role.

During her 14 years at ABC, Dungeyhelped shepherd in network-defining shows like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” from superstar showrunners like Shonda Rhimes. She renewed the emphasis on family comedies like “Modern Family” and “Black-ish.” And she pushed for diversity in popular reality shows like “The Bachelor” franchise.

She alsodrew headlines in 2018 when she swiftly cancelled “Roseanne” after star Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet. Dungey deftly fast-tracked a spinoff, “The Conners,” which became thenetwork’s highest-rated show.

Dungey heads up original series in her new role at Netflix.

She isoverseeing some of the most high-profile projects in development at Netflix, including some of the production deals the company has inked with TV hitmakers such as Rhimes, Kenya Barris, Marti Noxon, and Barack and Michelle Obama.

These projects are still in development, but some details have emerged.

Barris’ first project for Netflix will be a comedy series with Rashida Jones, called “Black Excellence.”

And Rhimes isdeveloping a distinctive brand of content for her Shondaland production company within Netflix, including a series about infamous New York con woman, Anna Delvey; a project based on Silicon Valley veteran Ellen Pao’s memoir; and a series adaptation of Julia Quinn’s historical romance novels, which will be led by “Scandal” writer-producer Chris Van Dusen.

Bela Bajaria — vice president, international originals

If you don’t know Bela Bajaria’s name yet, you will soon.

Bajaria is leading one of Netflix’s most important content initiatives: developing original programs with international appeal.

The streaming service’s international audience is now its largest, with about 89 million paying subscribers and counting.

Bajaria joined Netflix from Universal TV in 2016, after selling series like “Master of None” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to the streaming service. She was let go by the NBCUniversal-owned TV studio after only a year as president, reportedlybecause of differences between the studio and broadcast network NBC.

Whatever the issue, Bajaria helped sell shows like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to Netflix, “The Mindy Project” to Hulu, “Brooklyn Nine Nine” to Fox, and “The Good Place” to NBC, during her five years at the studio, which she joined in 2011.

At Netflix, Bajaria led a team that licensed series and movies from major US studios and worked on original coproductions. She spearheaded thecolicensing model that saw series like the CW’s “Riverdale” and CBS’s “Star Trek: Discovery” branded as Netflix originals outside of the US. And, most recently, she oversaw Netflix’s recent foray into unscripted originals with shows like “Queer Eye” and “Nailed It.”

Bajaria is putting her studio ties to the test as Netflix’s head of international originals, arole she took on in March. She is looking for more shows like “Narcos,” “Dark,” and “Sacred Games” that may originate outside of Hollywood, but travel well with Netflix members throughout the world.

Scott Stuber — vice president, original film

Veteran film producer Scott Stuber joined Netflix in 2017 to develop originals films that could compete with movies from major US studios. He leads a team of Hollywood veterans and Netflix alums, as vice president of original film.

Since the arrival of Stuber — who helped develop projects like the “Fast and the Furious” franchise in an earlier role at Universal— Netflix has gone from small-budget indies like “Beasts of No Nation” and goofball comedies from Adam Sandler, to Oscar-worthy fare such as “Roma” and big-budget star vehicles like “Bright” and “Bird Box.”

The streaming-video service is releasing more of the kinds of movies you’d expect to find in theaters. Projects lined up for 2019 include “The Irishman,” from legendary director Martin Scorsese, “Six Underground,” from explosion extraordinaire Michael Bay, and “The Laundromat,” a Steven Soderbergh film about the Panama Papers with Meryl Streep in the lead.

Stuber, in addition to overseeing development of Netflix’s films, has beentesting the limits of theatrical distribution at Netflix as it attracts bigger stars who want their films to be shown in theaters. The company usually offers theaters that screen its films little-to-no period of exclusivity, which has strained the relationship between Netflix and cinema owners, as well as prestigious film festivals like Cannes that believe in theatrical releases.

Recently, Netflix films like “Roma,” “Bird Box,” and the Coen Brothers film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” have received short theatrical runs under Stuber.

Tendo Nagenda — vice president, original film

One of Disney’s former top film execs, Tendo Nagenda, is building out aslate of high-profile films for Netflix, under film boss, Stuber.

Nagenda worked at Disney on titles like 2016’s “Queen of Katwe,” starring Lupita Nyong’o; the live-action revival of “Beauty and the Beast,” which grossed more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide in 2017; and the 2018 box-office bomb, “A Wrinkle in Time;” among many others.

He joined Netflix in 2018 as vice president of original film, where he is overseeing the service’s big-budget feature films like “Triple Frontier.”

As people around the world weigh the value of their subscription services, Netflix’s association with Hollywood-quality films will be a key selling point for the service, one strategy consultant who advises streaming-video companies told Business Insider.

So will attracting top talent. Nagenda has a special way of inspiring creators like Ava DuVernay, who directed “A Wrinkle in Time,” to work with him.

“Ava, imagine the worlds you can create,” Nagenda said, in an effort to convince DuVernay to take the project,DuVernay told Time. “He said, ‘There are planets, and you get to decide what they look like.’ … How many women hear that? How many people of color hear that?”

More content power players

Lisa Nishimura — vice president of independent film and documentary features

Nishimura is Nagendo’s counterpart who will be developing mid-budget independent films and documentary features for the streaming service, under Stuber. Nishimura, who has been at Netflix since 2007, previously oversaw documentaries like “Wild Wild Country,” “Making A Murderer,” and “The White Helmets,” a short about rescue workers in Syria thatwon Netflix its first Oscar, as well as stand-up comedy specials from comedians including Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.

Before Netflix, Nishimura worked in music and movie marketing. Shefirst met Sarandos and Holland during her time at Palm Pictures, when the two were shopping DVDs for a nascent Netflix.

David Kosse — vice president of international film

You can think of David Kosse as Bajaria’s counterpart on Netflix’s film side. The former STX International presidentjoined Netflix in March to oversee international film production and acquisitions.

Before STX, Kosse worked with Stuber at Universal, where hebuilt its international distribution arm, Universal Pictures International.

Melissa Cobb — vice president of original animation

Melissa Cobb joined Netflix in 2017 after more than a decade at DreamWorks Animation, where she produced titles like the “Kung-Fu Panda” franchise.

She initially came to Netflix tolead kids and family programming, whichthe company has said more than half of its members watch every month. But Cobb recently moved into a new role overseeing original animation, a genre in which Netflix has found hits with audiences of all ages.

Netflix has beenspending more on animation across TV and film, including series like “Tuca & Bertie,” “Castlevania,” and theacquisition of the kids animation brand, Storybots.

Damla Dogan — director of unscripted originals

With Bajaria focused on international originals, E’s former senior vice president of development and programming, Damla Dogan, has stepped in to lead Netflix’s efforts in the unscripted space, including cooking, competition, reality, and other series. Dogan led popular reality-TV shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” in her past role.

Greg Peters — chief product officer

Sarandos may get the credit for cutting deals with Hollywood A-listers that have led to hits like “Roma” and “Stranger Things.” But, back at Netflix’s Los Gatos’ headquarters, it is Greg Peters’ job to make sure the streaming-video service’s algorithms surface the shows and movies from Sarandos’s team in front of the people most likely to watch them.

As Netflix’s chief product officer, Peters, who took on the role in 2017 afterhis predecessor was fired, oversees the platform, its user experience, and everything under the hood that makes Netflix work when you sit down at home, or put on your headphones during your commute, to watch.

Peters joined Netflix in 2008. Before landing the top product job, he led international development out of Netflix’s office in Japan, where he helped build relationships between the streaming company and consumer-electronics manufacturers, internet providers, and TV operators. He comes to Netflix’s chief product officer role with a mind on mobile, and the infrastructure challenges that exist in developing regions, where cellular connections are more reliable than broadband service.

“We’re learning things that are happening specifically in Asia that I think will be indicators of where the rest of the world goes,” Peters said in aCNBC interview after he first took the job.

Chief among Peters’ priorities today is figuring out what people will pay for Netflix around the world. In India, wheremobile data is cheap, for example, Netflix has tested amobile-only plan that costs less than a typical Netflix subscription.

Peters also oversees the effort to make Netflix available on any device you can think of that’s connected to the internet, and included inbundles from companies like Comcast.

His team has worked to improve the experience on mobile devices for people around the world, including those using the service over weak wireless or broadband connections, as well as built tools to tailor Netflix’s content for local audiences and languages as its grows its audience abroad.

Netflix’s content may draw subscribers in, but it’s the technology that gives the company an edge over its legacy media rivals.

Todd Yellin — vice president, product

Netflix’s longtime vice president of product, Todd Yellin, oversees Netflix’s recommendation engine and reports to Peters. His team tests and introduces features like autoplay video trailers in the hopes of helping people find what they want to watch quickly — so they keep watching Netflix.

It wasYellin who first imagined Netflix’s system of categorizing titles with tags that capture the nuance of genre and narrative, such as “dark,” “suspenseful” or “irreverent,” which still fuels Netflix’s algorithms today.

Over the last two years, the former filmmaker and critic, who joined Netflix in 2006, hasled the development of interactive series like “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” He and a small team approached “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker with the idea to make an interactive episode of the sci-fi series, which became “Bandersnatch.”

Netflix startedexperimenting with the choose-your-own-adventure format in kids shows in 2017, before moving onto adult programming last year. Yellin plans to tryinteractive storytelling in others genres, as well, such as romances and comedieslike “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

“It could be a romance, where the audience gets to choose – should she go out with him or him,” Yellin said at an event in March,Variety reported. “We realized, wow, interactive storytelling is something we want to bet more on. We’re doubling down on that. So expect over the next year or two to see more interactive storytelling.”

Spencer Neumann — chief financial officer

Chief financial officer Spencer Neumann, who joined Netflix from video-game publisher Activision Blizzard in January, is responsible for footing Netflix’s hefty content bill.

The streaming company has been burning cash to pay for thehundreds of hours of original programming it puts out each year.

In 2018, Netflix paid about $12 billion in cash for content. Its free-cash-flow deficit reached $3 billion last year, and is expected to balloon to $3.5 billion this year, according to the company’s guidance.

In the past, Neumann’s predecessor David Wells took on debt when Netflix was strapped for cash, something Neumann may continue. The company owed $10.3 billion in long-term debt as of Mar. 31.

But, starting in 2020, Netflix has also promised to rein in its free-cash-flow deficit. Neumann will have to help the company fund itself, which means Netflix needs to show it can survive on the revenue it makes from its 150 million members.

“We intend to be a much larger and much more profitable self-funding company over time,” Neumann said on Netflix’s earnings call in April.

Neumann was the chief financial officer for Activision Blizzard for about 18 months before he waspoached by Netflix.

He works out of Netflix’s Los Angeles offices and was tapped, in part, for his experience with production finance. Before Activision Blizzard, Neumann worked at Disney — like Dungey and Nagenda — for stretches dating back to 1992, with stints at private-equity firms in between.

Most recently, he was the finance chief and executive vice president of the global guest experience of Disney’s parks and resorts business, from 2012 until he joined Activision Blizzard.

Rachel Whetstone — chief communications officer

Netflix’s chief communications officer, Rachel Whetstone, joined the company last year after her predecessor was ousted forusing the N-word more than once in the workplace.

Whetstone is no stranger to public-relations crises. She wasat Facebook during Cambridge Analytica and myriad other scandals, Uber during its Travis Kalanick days, and Google, when the European Union was trying tolimit the tech company’s power in search.

Netflix will be counting on Whetstone’s international experience as the company takes a bigger hand in media abroad.

Other key executives

Bill Holmes — head of business development

Holmes is the executive cutting deals between Netflix and companies like Comcast and Airtel, to make the streaming service available through more providers and included in more TV and wireless bundles. It “allows us to access a subscriber base that might be a little bit slower in signing up directly with us for Netflix,” as Netflix’s chief product officer, Greg Peters, said on a recent earnings call.

Holmes, who joined Netflix in 2008, has been focused on building those partnerships with wireless providers like Airtel in emerging markets like India, where wireless data is cheap and Netflix is still building its reputation.

Caitlin Smallwood — vice president of data science and engineering

Smallwood, who has been at Netflix for nine years, oversees machine learning at the streaming service. The company uses algorithms to recommend titles to users, improve video streams, analyze its catalog and where it should be investing, and aid studio production, among other areas.

Everything for Smallwood right now is about using machine learning tohelp scale the service, as it expands more people around the world.

Before Netflix, Smallwood worked at companies including Intuit and Yahoo.

Adrien Lanusse — vice president of consumer insights

Where would Netflix be without its data? Adrien Lanusse, who joined Netflix in 2010, uses the company’s internal data and conducts market research to understand how people use the service around the world.

He uses the research to learn what features people want out of the service, like the ability to download titles to a device and watch them offline, and to tailor Netflix to local audiences, by understanding the cultural nuances that affect our reactions to things like dubbing and subtitling.

Before Netflix, Lanusse worked in multicultural research and consumer behavior.

Cameron Johnson — director of product innovation, TV

Johnson is focused on improving the user experience for Netflix on TV sets, wheremost Netflix viewing happens. He previously oversaw the mobile experience and introduced features likevertical-video trailers andautomatic episode downloads. Prior to that, he led product innovation for the web experience, where he nixed the platform’s oldfive-star ratings system.

Johnson joined Netflix from Yahoo, and has served as mayor of the California city of San Carlos while working at the streaming company.

David Hyman — general counsel

Netflix’s longtime general counsel David Hyman, who has held the role since 2002, oversees legal and public policy at Netflix. He reviews the company’s licensing and talent deals, an acquired skill set that Netflix recently opened aproduction legal lab to train young lawyers for; lawsuits like therecent plagiarism case against the creators of “Stranger Things;” and helps the company navigate the legal waters abroad.

Hyman, a Washington, DC native,cut his teeth as general counsel during the dotcom bust at a failing online grocer, Webvan, before landing the Netflix job in 2002. He joined the company as it was preparing to go public.

Jessica Neal — chief talent officer

Jessica Neal, another Netflix veteran, leads the company’s culture, recruiting, and human resources efforts for its 7,100 employees around the world. She’s held the role of chief talent officer since 2017.

In a2018 Wall Street Journal report, Netflix was characterized as having a culture that’s blunt and transparent, almost to a fault.

“Usually people are very scared about feedback, but we try to make that part of our everyday way of working,” Nealsaid in an interview a few months before the Journal story hit. “We’re also a testing culture. We’re not afraid to fail; it’s all about learning. If we get down a path that we think is the wrong way, we can easily turn around and change it.”

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