Netflix Wants to Become HBO Quicker Than HBO Becomes Netflix

Great profile of Netflix in GQ by Nancy Haas:

“What if you could radically alter the way stories get told?” asks Ted Sarandos. “What if the way people wanted to consume content actually changed what you could make?” Rhetorical questions, perhaps, but the kind of things Netflix’s chief content officer, its point man in Hollywood, likes to ponder when he has a down moment.

Which is hardly ever. These days, he is the man everyone wants to take a meeting with. People love you when you’re handing out the cash, and Sarandos, who looks the part with pressed jeans and a crisp white shirt but has one of the weirdest résumés in town (graduate of an Arizona community college, worked his way up in the DVD business from video-store clerk, landed at Netflix in 2000 to run distribution), has $6 billion to dole out over the next three years. Most of that is for licensing content from networks, cable companies, and movie studios, but about $300 million is for original programming. “There’s not a lot of really great, deep, serialized television,” he says, “and we can see from the data that that’s what people want.”

He hopes to make at least five new shows a year, he says, leaning back on a sofa in his Beverly Hills office in an anonymous-looking suite. His dream project: a Netflix series created by Warren Beatty. “He’s great in long form,” Sarandos says. “His only problems have been when he’s constrained.” Sarandos is also warming up Jodie Foster, who directed an episode of Orange Is the New Black. “The goal,” he says, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” His seductive pitch to today’s new breed of TV auteurs: a huge audience, real money, no meddlesome executives (“I’m not going to give David Fincher notes”), no pilots (television’s great sucking hole of money and hope), and a full-season commitment.

“The idea that they wouldn’t just pull the plug midway was totally thrilling,” says Kohan, who spent years in the network trenches before making Weeds for Showtime. To her, “It’s similar to a pay-cable model but even more liberating. This is the future.”

Sarandos is hoping his big tent will attract creators who want to explore the boundaries of storytelling. Binge viewing obviates the need for recaps and other clunky narrative devices. He isn’t even wed to uniform episode lengths. What’s so magical about twenty-two minutes or even a hour? “I really think we have the chance to radically change the depth of character connectivity,” he says. “I mean, a meaningful shift. It’s going to further blur the line between television and movies.”

Netflix has a decided advantage over HBO and other services — save for maybe Amazon — because it’s figured out the infrastructure part. Everyone is struggling with the content part because that’s dependent on Hollywood studios. But, Netflix’s strategy to produce its own HBO-styled content could be a game-changer.

HBO has no incentive to become Netflix at the moment, but it might be too late for them to make that shift once they have to.

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