Ted Sarandos, who has helped to upend the way audiences receive and consume entertainment as Netflix’s chief content officer, will be honored with the Milestone Award at the 31st annual Producers Guild Awards on Jan. 18. Game-changers including Steven Spielberg, Sherry Lansing, Robert Iger, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ron Meyer have previously received the recognition, and Sarandos admits it’s not an honor he imagined himself receiving before he entered showbiz.
“Growing up, my escape was always television and movies,” Sarandos tells Variety. “Some of the biggest influences of my life were on screens, big and small. My younger self would never have imagined that I would be a part of the community that brings so much joy to the world. I did not grow up on sets or in pitch meetings. I grew up as a fan, and I am proud to have played a role in this new golden era of filmed entertainment.”
A former video exec who began producing shows after joining Netflix in 2000, Sarandos spearheaded the streaming service’s foray into original content production. Knowing the company was taking a big swing, he barely envisioned the seismic effect to follow.
“When we made that big bet on ‘House of Cards,’ I actually had no idea if it would even be eligible for an Emmy,” Sarandos recalls. The series would become the first series that never aired on traditional broadcast or cable to win a Primetime Emmy. “It was an early lesson that if you were going to make changes to long-established systems, the shows and films better be undeniable.”
Recruiting top-tier talent was crucial in launching a staggering succession of addictive, watercooler-worthy television, from originals to revivals and re-imaginings to comedy specials, he says.
A major foray into film followed, again fueled by visionary creators, resulting in popular and award-contending fare. “It was also a reinforcement of the idea that if you choose well and support artists and try to stay out of the way, people will do the best work of their lives,” he says.
Throughout the process, he’s found tremendous creative challenges and satisfaction as a producer. “Producing is all about emotion and human intuition,” he says. “The same things you think about when choosing what to watch are the same things I think about when we consider greenlighting a new show or film: Is this something I’ve seen before? Are these characters I care about?
Do I want to follow this journey over a few seasons, or might this actually be a film? There is no shortage of ideas, but someone who has a vision and can execute it is pretty rare, so know what you are looking for.
“Being able to tell new stories and discover new storytellers is something that drives us every day, and finding the best formats for those stories is a unique proposition that Netflix can offer,” he says. “We have traditional showrunners making films, we have documentarians making narrative features. Looking forward, I’m really interested in continuing to break down boundaries that may have historically prevented creators from telling their stories in a more traditional system.
“It is hard to imagine how much the world of TV and film has changed in just these few years that we have been at it,” says Sarandos.
He is prepping for new challenges as Netflix enters its next phase, which includes broadening its film slate, launching its first animated features and making 130 seasons of local-language television around the world. “The one thing that is true across all of these efforts is that we need to entertain our members, and everything else is chatter.”