Before their documentary Wild Wild Country—about controversial Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Oregon-based commune, Rajneeshpuram—became a bingeable Netflix phenomenon, filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way were making the rounds in Hollywood, collecting a series of discouraging reactions to their idea from underwhelmed network executives.
“The reception was pretty cold,” Maclain said, speaking at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on Tuesday. “A lot of people were looking for a name, a recognizable celebrity.” One network, Maclain said, asked if the filmmakers could get a famous narrator—a device that seems wholly unnecessary now that the six-episode series has vaulted the communes charismatic spokeswoman, Ma Anand Sheela, into the spotlight, earned must-watch-TV status, and collected an Emmy for outstanding documentary series. When pressed by the moderator, former chief content officer of Hearst Magazines Joanna Coles, Maclain revealed that the network that wanted the celebrity narrator was HBO, before blurting out, “I think I should keep my mouth shut.”
The Way brothers were representing a slice of Netflixs enormous slate of programming on a panel with Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos and the streaming companys vice president of original documentary and comedy, Lisa Nishimura. While Wild Wild Country certainly found the right home on Netflix, Sarandos responded to the critique that too often shows and films disappear into its vast ocean of content. To this, Sarandos pointed out that, due to the data Netflix has about its viewers watching habits and tastes, they were able to target for Wild Wild Country specific audiences that had watched other documentaries on the service, as well people who watched the crime drama Ozark, where there seemed to be a lot of crossover appeal. The streamers global audience of about 130 million subscribers in more than 190 countries also ensures theres something for everyone across its many genres. “The notion that things get lost on Netflix is silly,” Sarandos said. “Things get found on Netflix. People say, You have so much to watch. Yeah, but its not all for you.”
Sarandos said he is able to oversee so much programming—$13 billion worth in 2018—because his executives, like Nishimura, have “unprecedented green-light authority.” Explaining the math of the companys massive, recent deals with show-runners like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, Sarandos cited the information the streaming service had about how their other shows performed. (The first show Netflix licensed that was still on the air was Murphys Nip/Tuck, Sarandos noted). Is Sarandos looking over his shoulder at competitors like Amazon and Apple? “We dont focus much energy on any competitors,” Sarandos said. “I dont think people who are making shows [for Apple] even know what thats going to be.”
When Coles asked whether Netflixs lack of a presence as a live news source means its missing out on grabbing audiences during key cultural moments like the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings, Sarandos said no, and pivoted on the meaning of “culture.” “What happened this summer with the romantic comedies was incredibly important in the culture,” Sarandos said, citing in particular To All the Boys Ive Loved Before.
Netflix is, however, in business with a couple of major newsmakers these days—Barack and Michelle Obama. Asked if the Obamas will be on camera in their Netflix programming, Sarandos said, “We hope so,” and cited a broad range of topics the former First Family intends to cover, including lifestyle, health, and documentaries. “Dont think of it as being heavy and political,” he said.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.