GUADALAJARA, Mexico — In the world, it would be hard to choose a more exciting figure to introduce a masterclass than Guillermo del Toro, and even more so when that talk is given in the filmmaker’s hometown of Guadalajara Mexico at a festival he has been involved with for its entire 33-year existence.
If the audience was excited when Del Toro emerged from the wings to introduce guest speaker Melissa Cobb, Netflix vice president, kids & family, they were absolutely buzzing when he sat across from her to moderate the hour-and-a-half long talk.
Del Toro’s “Tales of Arcadia” animated series trilogy is produced at Netflix, as is his upcoming stop-motion feature and passion project “Pinocchio.” The assembled crowd was even treated to a first look at some photos from the project.
“While traditional studios will say, ‘Welcome to the family!'” del Toro joked of his relationship with the streaming giant, “Most of the time it’s the Manson Family: guarded. Like a bad Easter dinner with relatives you don’t like. Since I’ve been at Netflix I’ve never had a more creator-friendly atmosphere.”
The only complaint Cobb may have following the chat is that the famous filmmaker upheld his well-establish reputation as a prodigious talker, perhaps cutting into her time, although she did modestly say in a one-on-one interview with Variety after the masterclass: “I don’t know if I could have done it without him there.”
Early on in the streaming game, Netflix seemingly had their pick of the litter when it came to content for kids and family, one of the three pillars of VOD services along with drama and comedy, and the one often cited as most responsible for limiting subscriber churn. Children’s content represents 9% of upcoming Netflix originals, according to an Ampere Analysis study.
But it may now be even more crucial. The U.S. streaming giant’s new kids challenge, at least early second half 2018, was that content from major studios appeared to be dropping off Netflix faster than it could replace it, said Guy Bisson, at Ampere Analysis.
In third quarter 2018, for instance, Netflix added 193 2018-produced hours of children & family entertainment. Even so, its total number of K&F hours was 264 down from Q2, Bisson added.
The responsibility for handling the content turnover challenge falls squarely on the proven shoulders of Cobb, a former DreamWorks Animation executive whose experience goes back to putting “Titan A.E” into production at 20th Century Fox Feature Animation. Here are five key take-aways from the discussion with Del Toro, and subsequent interview.
Cobb explained that whereas history might imply that major studios and studio-heads are locked in a never-ending, polarized competition for box office success, that perhaps need not be the case anymore.
“Mireille (Soria) who runs Paramount and Kristine (Belson) who runs Sony, we are all good friends. We’ve all worked together and we want to keep working together. We’re still exploring ways to do that and how we can use all of our abilities to continue expanding the business in cool ways.”
Empowering Female Talent
Cobb referenced upcoming projects from Oscar-nominated director Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner,” “The Secret of Kells”), Oscar short-listed filmmaker Fernanda Frick (“Here’s the Plan,” “Raise the Bar”) and celebrated TV director and Image award nominee Nzingha Stewart (“Tall Girl,” produced by McG) as just a few female creators among many who are in key decision-making roles on major productions for the company.
The company also working with Chris Nee (“Doc McStuffins,” “Vampirina”) and has a development deal with Darla Anderson. A highlight reel was played during the masterclass which also featured Megan Dong (“How to Train Your Dragon 2,” Elizabeth Ito (“Adventure Time”) and Shion Takeuchi (“Regular Show”).
And, while getting female creative talent in the door is important to Cobb, it’s not enough on its own.
“It’s something I feel very strongly about, which is that we don’t want to just hire women, but we want to hire them and support them and make them successful,” she explained. “To me that is the difference.”
Netflix’s demand for original kids and family content has never been greater as the company’s subscriber base grows in number and diversity, while some studios are recalling their content. To that end, Cobb explained that the future of Netflix K&F depends not only on in-house talent, but outside co-producers as well.
“It will have to be a lot of both to satisfy the overall content ambition we have,” she said. “We’ll continue to work with DreamWorks, and we recently announced a couple of titles we are going to do with Nickelodeon. (“Loud House,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”). And that idea, that a network is making a show for us, does change the paradigm.”
Netflix has sold series rights in countries where the service wasn’t then available and re-run rights to broadcasters in the U.S., but another network producing content with and for Netflix could prove game-changing.
Local Content to the World
“As we look down the road it’s just going to get more and more global over time, so we want to reflect that in our programming,” Cobb pointed out.
To that end, Netflix has opened offices in, among other places Amsterdam, Brazil, Singapore, is soon bowing a European Production Hub in Madrid, and will soon be opening offices in Mexico City.
“It’s about proximity to talent,” she explained. “We want to be close to where the talent is so we know who the great producers, showrunners and filmmakers are, which is hard to do if you’re only centered in L.A. Then it’s becomes how can we really support them in that territory.”
She also pointed out that it’s important that new hires in these regional offices understand that their job will be different for Netflix. Experienced TV executives have often spent their careers charged with finding content that will work in their local market, but at Netflix the job is to find content for the world.
The company isn’t trying to just bring American TV to the world, its goal is to bring the best international content to its subscribers across the planet.
Challenging Paradigms in Kids & Family
Where Netflix has frequently allowed creators to challenge long-established traditions of narrative and format, the risk-taking in kids and family has been minimal compared to other content areas. That’s likely to change under Cobb.
“We are doing something in pre-school which is a bit different,” she pointed out as one example. “Rather than ordering a season of X-number of episodes, we ask for a certain number of minutes of content, That could be something like 10 music videos and a holiday special mixed with a number of regular episodes.”
She also teased at more kids content similar to 2017’s “The Adventure of Puss in Boots; Trapped in an Epic Tail.”
“We are developing a lot more in the interactive space as well. That’s a place where kids have no barrier. They want to interact and it’s very natural for them.”
John Hopewell contributed to this article.