Netflix’s Cindy Holland Reveals Streaming Service’s ‘Commitment to Diversity’

Cindy Holland of Netflix talks diversity
Courtesy Netflix

For an in-depth story on the quest to diversify the ranks of television directors, Variety spoke with dozens of industry professionals at all levels and at many companies, and is posting transcripts of a selection of those interviews. The story contains a chart comparing statistics on diversity at various networks. (Here are links to the entire series of interviews related to the story on directors and diversity.) 

As a point of reference, Netflix’s statistics are below.

DGA stats covering the 2012-2013 season
Total Netflix episodes: 39
Episodes directed by white men: 34 (87 percent)
Episodes directed by white women: 3 (7.5 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white men: 2 (5 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white women: 0
DGA stats covering 2014-2015 season
Total Netflix episodes: 106
Episodes directed by white men: 82 (77 percent)
Episodes directed by white women: 17 (16 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white men: 8 (7.5 percent)
Episodes directed by non-white women: 0

This interview with Cindy Holland, vice president of original content for Netflix, has been edited and condensed.

Could you explain how Netflix views the situation with regard to directors and diversity, and can you talk about what Netflix is doing in that arena?

It’s certainly something that we focus on, for every project and every season that we undertake. One of the first things we do in planning out the production calendar is sit with the producers and lists of directors and hopefully assemble a really diverse group. Obviously the gating factor in part is people’s availabilities and the schedule we have, but we really make an effort to consider the whole picture and to try to have the season be as diverse as possible when it comes to directing talent.

How are those lists generated?

I don’t think it’s different than how any other company works. We’ll generate lists internally, both of folks we’ve worked with and folks whose work we’ve admired — up and comers, not necessarily from television but other kinds of content we’ve seen, whether it be online or short films or independent films, documentaries. The producers and the studio, if it’s an outside studio, will do the same. Then agencies often get involved and offer lists too. It’s sort of an amalgam of, “OK, how do we identify the best people for the given creative of the show?” Once we do that, it’s who’s available in those time frames and how do we build a diverse list out of the pool available at the time?

One thing I’ve encountered when talking to various networks and studios is, they like to see people with recent TV credits. Is that something that matters when you’re thinking about matching people up with shows?

Not necessarily. Obviously, when you start the list, when you start thinking about working with people you’ve worked with before and known quantities to the producers, yeah, there will be a lot of folks with TV credits already. But that’s not the only place that we look. That’s certainly not a gating factor for us. A good number of our projects are film-director generated. So we’ve helped a number of people make the transition into television from other forms of directing. We also like to enable first-timers.

A couple of examples are Robin Wright, who had her first directing experience on “House of Cards,” and she’s now in her third season of directing episodes for us. Also, on “Orange is the New Black,” obviously we have a number of female directors there anyway, and the show is produced by mostly women, but we also had a first-time director — the script supervisor, Erin Feeley, was a first-time director this year for Season 4 and she did a fantastic job.

I’ve talked to different executives who truly want to increase diversity and inclusion, but I wonder — how is this made sustainable over time? What if that executive leaves? If that happens, would it be reasonable to expect that those efforts may just fade out and the numbers could get worse again?

Over the last year or two, Netflix corporately has been talking much more about diversity than we have historically in the past. Not just with an eye toward diversity in Silicon Valley, but certainly here in our own offices in Los Angeles. We like to extend our entire corporate culture to the producing teams that we work with, whether it be our “freedom and responsibility” culture, or our commitment to diversity. [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and I were just having a conversation today about how we can be more proactive about going and talking to schools and media programs and film programs, not just in our convenient geographic zones, but making sure that we’re talking to the great media leaders of tomorrow who may not look like us and who may not be from here.

It seems like in your programming, you’re looking for stories that have a big array voices and cultures — you have a show set in the time of Marco Polo, a show set in a women’s prison, a show taking place in Colombia. Is it accurate to say that you’re looking for a wide variety of characters and settings?

Yeah, that’s accurate. We’re programming for diverse and eclectic tastes and for an increasingly global audience. So the folks working on those titles and the folks here at Netflix serving those consumers have to increasingly be more reflective of the audience we serve and the programs we make. It’s something we’re very focused on.

Since the 2012-2013 season of DGA tracking, Netflix’s directorial ranks got more diverse. Are you OK with where Netflix’s director statistics are now?

No, we absolutely want it to increase further. We’re really excited about creating programming that reflects our increasingly global audience, and in order to do that, you’ve got to have it happen from the ground up.

Many of the DGA signatories have director programs that allow diverse candidates to shadow established directors, programs that are intended to increase access for those directors. Does Netflix have anything like that at the moment, and if not, would the company be interested in pursuing a program like that?

I don’t believe any of our productions have anything structured in place now, but we’d certainly be open to it.

Netflix is obviously part of the world of television and film, but the company also has roots in Silicon Valley, where it’s part of the culture to try to find different solutions to things and not necessarily go forward with the old ways. Is there anything in particular that Netflix as a company can bring to bear on this issue of inclusion?

Other than what I’ve described, we don’t yet have specific programs in place, but it is something that we’re talking to our team here about — about how we continue to foster this spirit and continue to make progress. One thing we want to do is go talk to the folks who are in school today, and hopefully get them excited about the fact that there is a pathway for them, potentially.