Pitching to Netflix: Tips from the Top

Four months after it was announced that Netflix would be investing CDN$500 million in original productions in Canada over a 5-year period, Netflix’s now former VP of Content, Elizabeth Bradley, took the stage at Prime Time in Ottawa to talk about how producers can get their shows on the platform.

It’s been 5 years since the commissioning of the first Netflix Original series, House of Cards, which had a budget of $100 million for 26 episodes. With its reliance on data that led to the show’s creation and promotion, House of Cards marked a turning point in the way programming was made.

Prior to the Canadian Netflix deal being announced, a number of Canadian producers had already had successful partnerships with Netflix. Some took the form of additional windows for productions initially made for broadcasters while others were full collaborations on Netflix Originals.

To the latter category belong Travelers, FrontierAlias Grace and the Anne of Green Gablesadaptation known simply as Anne (when broadcast on CBC) or Anne with an E on Netflix.

What is Netflix looking for?

When asked what Netflix is looking for in terms of genre, Elizabeth Bradley replied “Everything.”

Whether it’s sci-fi, a thriller, drama or comedy or even a remake of Anne of Green Gables, she said the key questions writers and producers need to ask themselves are these: Why is it exciting? Why is it different?

Bradley noted that once Netflix has confidence in the producer’s vision, the other pieces are secondary. “The package of directors and actors isn’t crucial to us.”

“We can solve the cast and the director. What we can’t solve is incredible writing and storytelling.”

A story that resonates globally

Bradley continued: “When Moira [Walley-Beckett] and Miranda [de Pencier] came to me with a script for Anne,” and it’s important to come with a script, she emphasized, “they had a real and grounded interpretation that we knew would resonate globally.”

And it wasn’t just the same old 1908 Anne of Green Gables. Vancouver-born Walley-Beckett came to the project with Emmy wins for her writing on the very 21st century Breaking Bad, so adding some edge to the Anne character and narrative was all part of the plan. “We knew it would work around the world,” said Bradley.

That hunch turned out to be accurate. Anne with an E was one of Netflix’s most binge-watched shows around the world in 2017, with Prince Edward Island’s most famous red-headed daughter winning over audiences as far away as South Korea, India and South Africa.

So what does it take for a show to have a global appeal? Some think that shooting in multiple locations around the world solves the problem, but Bradley cautioned that it’s not quite that simple.

“If you’re sitting with a friend in Japan, and you both just get it… if you’ve got that kind of relatable story around the world, that’s what we’re after.”

In addition to stories that work across cultural and geographical borders, there are logistical issues to keep in mind when thinking about making a pitch to Netflix. For these reasons, Bradley recommends working with an agent, a manager or a lawyer.

Netflix’s Melissa Cobb: What About Children's Content? 

  • Netflix’s global children’s audience has grown by 65% overseas year-over-year, and the streamer will continue to look at every territory closely as it rapidly expands.
  • A big area of focus right now for the streamer is live action, tween sitcoms, action/adventure live-action series and co-viewing sitcoms.
  • In terms of testing the limits of tech, Netflix is looking at more interactive shows in the vein of Buddy Thunderstruck and Puss in Book, which were released in July 2017.

The importance of partnering with a Canadian broadcaster or distributor

In a January 2018 interview with the CMPA’s Indiescreen magazine, Corie Wright, Netflix’s Director of Global Public Policy, shared a few more insights about working with the company that Canadian producers are likely to find helpful.

“Many people don’t realize that Netflix can’t make certified CanCon without partnering with a Canadian broadcaster or independent Canadian distributor. That’s why all of our CanCon originals are co-productions with Canadian broadcasters.

Other Netflix originals like the Trailer Park Boys reboot and Canadian director Tony Elliott’s film ARQ feature a lot of Canadian creativity and talent, and score high on CanCon criteria, but they aren’t certified as CanCon because we can’t do CanCon on our own.”

Reiterating the platform’s central interest in making the highest quality programming available to a diverse and dispersed audience, Wright stated this: “We try not to get too caught up in the labels and instead focus on making great films and TV shows.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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