Netflix’s Erik Barmack on Ramping Up International Production, Creating Global TV

Currently launching 30-35 non English-language originals a year, the U.S. streaming giant hopes to raise that figure to 100 in two years time

Netflix’s Erik Barmack on International Growth, Creating Global TV

MADRID — Erik Barmack, Netflix vice president, international originals, sits on a sofa in an elegant, but discreet, uptown Madrid hotel. He looks rather tired, which he should do. The night before saw the premiere of “Elite,” Netflix’s newest Spanish original series, a murder thriller set at a posh co-ed high school plumbing the depths of adolescent insecurities and Spain’s gaping social divide. Self-respecting Spaniards party until other people are getting up.

Barmack also has, however, one of the most demanding jobs at Netflix: Overseeing its ramp-up of original series outside the U.S. This has been a rapid revolution. Netflix only bowed its first fully foreign-language original, Gaz Alazraki’s now International Emmy-nominated  Mexican comedy “Club de Cuervos” in August 2015. It will launch 30-35 non English-language originals this year, aims to hit 100 in two years time.

What’s worrying for Netflix rivals, however, is not only the scale of that growth or size of Netflix budgets, but that Netflix get international, as a conversation with Barmack rapidly reveals.

Whether Reed Hastings’ playing opposite France’s Dany Boon in a video skit on French Ch’tis dialect, or Netflix’s announcement of six Colombian originals earlier this week, in international Hastings and Barmack seem absolutely at home, fishes in water, seeing international markets as not only a way to amortize its biggest U.S. plays, classic Old Hollywood studio style, but as a source of shows which can perform globally, not only in their local markets, at sometimes equal audience levels to U.S originals.

That should hold them in good stead as Netflix’s biggest challenge remains whether it can push client penetration levels in international up to anywhere near U.S. domestic levels.

In a 40-minute interview, Barmack talked, with a knowledge few others can bring to the new worldwide entertainment business, about the emergence of global television – think “Money Heist” – what Netflix brings new to the table in narrative terms, courting talent, its first European Production Hub, strong roles for women, and the scale of its international ambitions.

“The big pivot for us is becoming a great local producer, working well with local producers rather than being Hollywood to the world.” That was Reed Hastings, talking at Series Mania, But would you agree?  

Erik Barmack: A little bit! On a macro level, there is a revolution in global television. One way of thinking about it is that 5%-6% of the world’s population is in the U.S. and U.K. But what percent of TV is coming out of Hollywood? I don’t know the exact number, but it has to be the majority. It can’t be the case that somehow Americans are that much better at telling stories than the rest of the world. It has to be a function of how linear TV is distributed and where the power center was. That’s one concept. A second is that over half of our subscribers are now in international. We know we need to find the best storytellers in the world wherever they are. The big shocking moment was that when we found good shows outside the U.S., they have not only been hugely impactful for the local region but also traveled. So some of our biggest shows are non English-language. They come from Spain with “Money Heist,” from Germany with “Dark,” Denmark with “The Rain,” and they are going everywhere. “Money Heist” is as big a show in Brazil as any American show we have. These shows are reaching tens of millions of people, becoming some of our biggest shows globally. So what you are seeing is the creation of global television where any country that has great writing and acting can create a global franchise. That’s unexpected.

So your challenge would be to grow local into global rather than pitch global into local?

It’s both. It’s local for local, and it’s local for global. As we establish better ties with the production communities around the world, you see that particular types of TV travel. Scandi Noir got known. Now we have a wave of Spanish shows with “Cable Girls,” “Money Heist” and now “Elite,” which we launched this week: These shows all have global audiences and it’s been great for business.

“Cable Girls” was co-created by Ramón Campos, “Money Heist” by Alex Pina and Esther Martínez, all writers who have broken through by bringing a cable edge to free-to-air series. Do you think that that’s one key to their success on Netflix, creating a kind of open OTT in foreign-language series?  

Spain has the pedigree of quality writing, but there is also a desire to entertain and to find new genres. They are both operating in a space of melodrama. They’ve already figured out with the 80-minute format how to tell hooks, how to keep people going into the next hour. There is a skill to that. Now they are combining that with a global VOD platform. Those things, put together, are very sticky. It’s that particular type of storytelling which is uniquely good for our platform.

Is that the only factor?

In “Money Heist,” there is a sense of optimism behind the writing, even as U.S. TV veers towards darkness, anti-heroes and a sense of misery. What makes “Money Heist” unique is that it’s romantic. People root for the Professor to win, for Tokyo, or the cop to solve the crime. There are lots of different elements, one is love.

Do you see that in other countries, or other common trends in international?  

It’s unique. Uplevelling a bit, there’s a thirst for a particular type of creator to tell stories that haven’t quite existed in their communities. One show we’re super proud of, Germany’s “Dark,” created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, takes advantage of the complexity of a small town German crime. There have been movies like that, but there hadn’t been ten hours of that with a supernatural time-jump twist. In Denmark with “The Rain,” there had been some YA stories, there had been Scandi Noir, but there hadn’t been YA dystopian storytelling. I think part of what you see is people wanting to explore different genres, but there hadn’t been a platform that had taken advantage of that. In Mexico, director Manolo Caro would never have directed a 100-episode Televisa format. But in “La Casa de las Flores,” he mixes that with an Almodovar-style. That opportunity didn’t exist before. It has opened up TV storytelling.

Manolo Caro is an up-and-coming film director. In and now outside the U.S., another revolution is the diaspora of top film talent into TV.

When you’re entering a new market you can’t repeat what’s already been done. So mostly that is done by finding new voices, and mostly that comes from filmmakers who have honed their craft and done two-three-four great movies. We often come to them and say: ‘We want you to tell the 8-10 hour movie you couldn’t tell in 90 minutes with people sitting in a theater. There is [an opportunity for] more complex storytelling and you wanted to go deeper with the characters. People have generally responded to that. In some markets, Scandinavia, Spain, Korea among them, there is quite well-developed TV writing and infrastructure. In others, Germany I think, there is a tradition of German TV but it’s more free TV than pay, so you look for different types of storytellers.

Is part of the drive at Netflix’s new European Production Hub in Madrid to bring on your own creators rather than rely totally on established talent?

We are already doing that. On “3%” we worked with people who had just put together YouTube videos and built around them with César Charlone, the director of photography of “City of God,” and we sort of packaged. In Italy in a couple months we are launching “Baby,” loosely inspired by true events, the Baby Squillo teen prostitution scandal, which was done by a young production team called Fabula. They are all in their early 20s, and it could only have been written by people in their 20s: the writers knew those characters and were living with them. Part of it is this hunt for authenticity – you deal with the rawness because you want stories that matter.

In India, we did a show which was huge for us called “Sacred Games” where we optioned the book, developed it a little but then put it with filmmakers who had never done TV ever. But we loved their movies. We loved “Gangs of Wasseypur.” In general, the principle has been: We don’t always need experienced TV people like Spain’s Bambu, like Alex Pina. That’s part of our portfolio but equally important is working with young people or people who have just done film.

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Could you drill down a bit on the European Production Hub in Madrid. Is development part?

A little bit. If you take a step back, our goal here is to do 9 to 10 to 11 to 12 series a year here out of Spain. Which seems ambitious but there is no reason why Spain can’t be as important a TV country as the U.K.. Everything exists to create a great infrastructure, to have great projects here through the writing etc. We need to build infrastructure around that which at its simplest is just to have soundstages. We have three there now, sets are being built for two shows there are going to be using that facility by the end of the year.

There’s obvious economy of scale….

It’s economy of scale but also making sure we have the space to do the shows we want to do in Spain. We are also going to place the creative execs there and add a couple to the team. Physical production, production finance, some legal resources there to help our creative teams do shows to the level they want them to be at. So it’s a bit of a bet [looking] forward that you just need infrastructure to support all these productions and that the number of productions and the quality will increase in Spain.

Is it a European production hub or is it a Spanish production hub?

It’s a bit of both. We will be doing shows there that are mostly for Spain, Spanish productions, but there are designs to do some shows that will be for other languages and talent from other countries. There is no reason why Spain can’t provide great infrastructure not just for Spain but for Europe as well.

After Reed Hastings announced in Paris on Sept. 27 that he had cut a check for 2% of annual revenues in France, there will be inevitable speculation that Netflix might do something similar in Spain which, like France, is one of the few E.U. states that has created investment quotas for Spanish TV operators under the aegis of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive. Again, could you comment?

It would be speculative. Think about our investment in Europe in different buckets. There is the VAT which is on the consumer side, which we are already paying into effectively. There’s a desire to fund local productions which we are committed to, we plan to spend $1 billion this year on original local content throughout Europe. Beyond that, there is gonna be ongoing government policies towards Netflix and other SVODs that I wouldn’t be able to speculate on, except to say we want to be thoughtful citizens of the E.U. and that we are proactively investing in infrastructure and content and offices as you can see. Look at the announcements. Reed in France this week talked about the 7 shows in France, we are talking about 10-12 here. We’ve announced several shows in Germany, several in Italy. It’s a pretty ambitious expansion in global production.

In May, in Rome, you were talking about making 6-8 Spanish originals. Does this uptick reflect the impact of the Production Hub?

We try to listen to the audience. There’s a sense that we can efficiently use that capital towards series that users want from around the world, so that’s an interesting thing.

Is another attraction of production volume that it allows you to appeal to different demographies?

One way of thinking about it is that we want to provide something for every subscriber that resonates with them. Looking at Spain, “Cable Girls” is a sort of romance and about female empowerment, “Money Heist” an action thriller. We have “Hache” coming up which is a drug crime story; “Elite” is a YA show, “Paquita Salas” a comedy. Over time, what we wanna do is layer in different genres and people will be on top of that. That’s on the local level. Then you layer that with movies and anime and our global series coming through. It’s the combination of those things that should be effective for out consumers. It takes time. It’s taken years to build that slate.

Circling back, you mentioned that series the potential for “more complex storytelling” and more sustained development of characters in series. In “Money Heist,” for example, the troubled lead female character also serves as a highly sensitive and omniscient narrator, able to look back and forward in time, narrate scenes at which she was not present. Bruno Dumont commented at San Sebastian that series draw on the feuilleton. “Money Heist” suggests they’re entering Post Modernism. Do you see that sense of innovation and experimentation as widespread?

In the sense of certain roles, we feel there are strong female roles in a lot of our series. In “La Casa de las Flores,” the three lead female roles are incredible. In India “Sacred Games” shows the nuance that you can bring versus a film, looking deep into a failed cop who is a sikh and a criminal who is not an on-the-nose gangster – they all have layers and that’s quite important to us. We are trying to build these characters to last for several seasons. We weren’t the originators of “Money Heist” but now that this franchise is with us we are thinking about how we want to extend these relationships. The characters are fascinating to work with.

In the first two parts the characters are still not fully known….

No, and in the upcoming season you sprinkle in some new characters, and there are twists of who’s together and who isn’t.

Coming back to our biggest question, most people agree one crux is whether you can grow international to anything like the levels of the U.S. since you are near maybe your roof in the U.S. What would be the growth drivers for you?

Currently, we have 56 million in the U.S. out of our 130 million. Each quarter the international number is going to outrun the U.S. number, which basically means more and more people who don’t speak English as their primary language. Every quarter you will have more people reading subtitles or dubs from around the world. The good news is that on the talent side, we are not even remotely close to working with all the filmmakers and people around the world that we want to work with. So we don’t think of it as being a finite resource. We are at a phase of [working out] how do we set up infrastructure in bigger markets like Spain to make sure we are working with the most talented filmmakers and showrunners that we want to work with. How do we get their stories out to the world? We are growing now. 30-35 non-English language series launched internationally this year, but two years from now we want to be over 100. To do series takes a couple years each. It’s a big scaling issue, and quality issue. It’s not just 100 series, we want do them at the level of “Money Heist” and “La Casa de las Flores.”