Inside Netflix’s Quest to Become a Global TV Giant

Bela Bajaria leads the charge as Netflix looks to establish world programming dominance.

Netflix’s Bela Bajaria first came up in the entertainment industry in the mid-1990s as an assistant at CBS, after mailing letters to “hundreds of people” in the Hollywood Creative Directory. She relished the development process and reading the latest drafts of scripts, which she calls the most formative part of her early Hollywood education. But often what wound up on-screen didn’t align with what she pictured on the page.

“I would read a script sometimes and imagine lots of different-looking people in that script or in that family setting, and then see [a cast of] primarily white actors,” says the executive responsible for bringing to fruition shows such as “The Mindy Project” and the “Queer Eye” reboot. “When I read a script, I imagine a brown girl as the hero of the story. Everybody [has] their own descriptive bias or their own frame of reference when they read something, so I think all of this comes into play taking on a job of doing local-language originals. I’m really being an advocate and really wanting people’s authentic stories told.”

Bela Bajaria Netflix Variety Cover

Bajaria, who oversees the creation of Netflix’s massive array of original content in Europe, the Middle East, Turkey, Africa, India, Asia and Latin America as VP of local-language originals, is leading the charge in the streaming titan’s most interesting growth markets — which are (hint) not America. The U.S. may get a lot of attention, but it accounts for only about one-third of Netflix’s 193 million paying subscribers and in recent years has been dogged by concerns of saturation. More than 50% of the streamer’s revenue in the first half of 2020 came from outside North America.

And amid a pandemic that has shut down major cities and withered U.S. television and film production, the company’s plans have not hit a wall, thanks in part to its international focus. Broadcast networks stateside are acquiring Canadian and British shows to fill the gaps this fall, but much of Netflix’s 2020 slate is in the can. While North America, Brazil and parts of India have production on pause, Netflix projects outside those regions — namely, those in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Japan and Korea — are up and running again after brief hiatuses. (Korea never fully stopped production.) In Europe, 22 productions across 11 countries are back up, says Bajaria.

Subtitled non-English fare, as this year’s best picture Oscar win for “Parasite” indicates, is no longer an art-house taste. As viewers in the U.S. and elsewhere welcome into their homes shows such as Spain’s “La Casa de Papel” (also known as “Money Heist”) and Germany’s “Dark,” Bajaria is bent on helping local storytellers bloom — and widening Netflix’s lead among global streaming services.

With a childhood spent in the U.K., Zambia and Los Angeles, the London-born Bajaria has always felt like a global citizen. Her grandparents emigrated from India to Africa to pursue business there, and her parents, who were born and raised in East Africa, moved to London for a time before settling on a life in the U.S.

“It really was following this opportunistic road that a lot of Indian immigrants did, the India-Africa-London-America route,” she says. “It really was driven by opportunity and [wanting] a better life.”

In the 1970s, when Bajaria was 4, her parents moved from London to the West Coast with Bajaria’s 4-month-old brother to explore the idea of opening car washes. They intended for their daughter to join them a few months later, but ended up overstaying their visa, making them undocumented immigrants. That put them in the position of having to choose between staying stateside without their daughter or leaving and being barred from returning. Her parents made the difficult decision to remain and work toward obtaining legal residency, a lengthy process that resulted in Bajaria spending the next four years separated from her mother and father, placed under the care of her grandparents.

Bajaria recalls those years in London as a happy time, one spent being spoiled by a large extended family even as she missed her parents, who were able to obtain an investor visa and reunite with their daughter in 1978.

“Being the oldest child, I absolutely felt a need and responsibility to succeed, to make good on [my parents’] sacrifice,” she says. “So that absolutely informed a lot of who I am.”

Moving to Los Angeles at 8 was “very jarring,” she says. Bereft of London’s substantial Indian community, she looked to acculturate to her new surroundings. When Bajaria now tells her own children — ages 19, 16 and 12 — about her childhood, she has to explain that it was “not cool to be Indian back in the day.”

“I remember starting school in third grade and just feeling like, I’m brown and [have a] British accent — something’s got to go, and the brown’s not going. So the British accent had to go.”

American television helped her erase her accent over the next two months, as Bajaria binged on “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle: USMC” and “Love Boat.” There is no trace of the Queen’s English left in her system.

She worked at her parents’ car washes. She was crowned Miss India Universe in 1991. Her curiosity about other cultures and her love of travel led her to the entertainment business. Being at CBS was an “incredible learning” experience, one of shaping discipline around budgets and business decisions, which sharpened her instincts as a television exec.

“I think it’s interesting and great learning to work at a company where you’re not making shows that you would watch, but to understand how to make shows for other audiences,” she says. “There is sometimes this thing when people in the business say, ‘Well, you just make what you love.’ I don’t actually agree with that. … You want to back visions of many different writers who could tell a story for a different audience that may not be for you.”

Her decade-and-a-half-long tenure at CBS culminated in dual roles as senior vice president of movies and miniseries at the network and senior vice president of cable programming for the studio. She joined Universal Television as executive vice president in 2011 and ultimately became president of the studio.

Bajaria, who is “super passionate” about the studio side of the business, developed series such as “Chicago Fire,” “Bates Motel” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” during her time there.

“She’s always just been a fantastic executive to work with — very responsive and straightforward,” says ICM Partners CEO Chris Silbermann, who has worked with Bajaria since her days at CBS. “It’s said in Hollywood that the second-best answer after yes is a quick no. She’s good at giving you answers and guidance. Often people just drag things out, or they don’t want to just be straightforward, and she’s always just been a good partner to work with.”

Close to her heart is Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” the first major show from a South Asian female creator and executive producer.

For Universal TV, the series’ sale to Fox also underscored the studio’s intent to market to networks other than its sister company, NBC. But the tension between the NBCUniversal-owned TV studio and broadcast network on the issue of where a show would land eventually came to a head, and Bajaria and Universal TV parted ways just a year after she was named president of the studio.

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Peter Yang for Variety

“As much as everybody had the best intentions of avoiding [the tension] — and we were very transparent about those conversations — at some point, it’s just a hard thing to overcome in a vertically integrated environment,” Bajaria says.

Still, she wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, and her work at Universal TV forged her path to the streaming world, particularly in working with Netflix vice president of originals Cindy Holland and chief content officer Ted Sarandos on bringing Universal TV’s “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Master of None” to the service. Shortly after Bajaria split with UTV, Sarandos came calling.

“When she came available in the market, I thought it was a wild long shot,” Sarandos tells Variety. “I didn’t really have a job for her at the time. I just knew that she was an incredible value and she’s an inquisitive, creative executive.”

He asked her to run the unscripted and licensing divisions, though she didn’t have much background in either area.

“I said, ‘Ted, I don’t know. I’ve never done any of those things.’ And he said, ‘I hire smart people, and you’ll figure it out,’” she says with a laugh.

Sarandos says people always ask him what keeps him up at night. “I sleep pretty well, so it’s OK,” he quips. But one of the things he thinks about “all the time” is how the company will scale.

“There’s no road map for that, producing the volume of original programming across the genres that we do and across the disciplines we do,” he says. Building out an executive team that can “pattern-match” his decision-making — basically, cloning himself — is key. “You have to keep replicating; you have to keep building teams that you think will do the things that you would do if you could.

“I think everyone who works for me has unprecedented greenlight power in this town, and everyone that works with the folks who work for me also [does], so that some of those decisions can get greenlit and executed without having to go through a bottleneck of decision-making,” adds Sarandos. “So to me, Bela really exemplifies that.”

Netflix tends to shuffle around its organizational chart when it feels it could be structured more effectively, and last year, Bajaria was moved from unscripted to head of international originals, or “local language originals,” as the company now calls it to better reflect its less Ameri-centric stance. She has regular 10 p.m. calls to connect with her direct reports in Europe, Southeast Asia, India, Latin America and the Middle East.

The streamer produces original series and movies in more than 20 countries and owns production hubs in Madrid and outside London; micromanaging doesn’t fly on that scale. Bajaria’s direct reports “make the decisions on the ground in the country, in their time zone and in their language,” she says. The idea is to have executives in each nation who “speak the language, who live in the time zone, who can make the decision — so the decisions are quicker and on the ground, and have culturally the expertise of that storytelling.”

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“Queen Sono,” starring Pearl Thusi; “Sacred Games,” with Kalki Koechlin, Pankaj Tripathi and Shivang Monga; and “La Casa de Papel (aka “Money Heist”) are among Netflix’s local-language offerings. Courtesy of Netflix

Amsterdam-based Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix’s head of African originals, appreciates the latitude she’s been given from HQ.

“Oh, my goodness. I cannot emphasize to you — it was so empowering to be hired as a local leader and then to have Bela sit across from you and say, ‘You’re excellent at what you do, so go and do your best work,’” she says.

The longtime Kenyan producer is “cognizant of the danger of a single story.”

“My approach is finding these diverse stories that shed light on the diverse experiences that Africans have,” says Ghettuba. “We are more than war-torn countries and civil wars and child soldiers and malnutrition and corrupt politicians. We are so much more than that.”

“Queen Sono,” a slick spy thriller featuring a South African action heroine who has a complicated, messy life, is Netflix’s first script-to-screen African original series — and likely a departure for American viewers unused to watching TV characters casually slip in and out of two or three languages and traverse cultural and geographical territory without much of an explainer.

“When you look at ‘Blood & Water’ [or] you look at ‘Queen Sono’ from South Africa — this isn’t the way that Hollywood has been telling African stories about Africa,” says Bajaria. “It’s African storytellers telling their story. It’s not the Hollywood lens. It’s the local lens actually telling that story.”

To Africans, says Ghettuba, the character of Queen Sono is “our version of a superhero.”

A palpable shift in the way Americans think about non-English programming is in full swing, signaled bythe dominance of Bong Joon Ho’s Neon-distributed “Parasite” this past awards season.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said pointedly while accepting a Golden Globe for the Korean film about class warfare and capitalism.

A year earlier, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” put Netflix on the Oscars map, earning the streamer its first-ever best picture nomination and winning a trio of statuettes, including foreign language film. “I think ‘Roma’ had a lot to do with that for ‘Parasite’ this year,” says Sarandos. “I think the idea that a foreign-language film had 10 Oscar nominations and won three, and the crossover awards categories for foreign-language film, I think really opened the door for ‘Parasite’ to be as successful as it was.” He believes Bong’s film “Okja,” released on Netflix three years earlier, also made audiences more receptive to Korean content.

In this year’s second quarter, the share of non-English content viewing rose 33% in the U.S. from the previous year, per Netflix, a metric that controls for factors such as subscriber growth and higher viewing during the pandemic.

“The way that Netflix embraced the international market, you’d never seen it before,” says ICM’s Silbermann of the streaming service’s non-English programming. “The broadcast networks would never do something like that. HBO was probably the closest to that, but it was their really good English-speaking content” that drove most of HBO’s international appeal.

Netflix is still in the midst of figuring out how much local-language TV and film it needs to help grow its non-U.S. subscriber base, according to Cowen analyst John Blackledge. “I think they determined several years ago that they need to have a healthy mix of local-language content — more regional content, for that matter,” he says.

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Peter Yang for Variety

Blackledge estimates the service’s penetration in the Asia Pacific region will reach 12%-13% by the end ofthe year, versus 61% in the U.S., meaning there is a “huge opportunity” in the Asian market but also “a lot of work to do in terms of getting the right content.”

Netflix trails Disney Plus Hotstar and Amazon in Indian market share, with Media Partners Asia projecting that the streamer will end the year with 5 million subscribers in India, as compared with 18 million for Hotstar and 17 million for Amazon Prime Video.

Offering a mobile-only plan in the country has had a big impact on attracting subscribers, says Bajaria, who sees enormous growth potential in India.

“We have hired, in the last 18 months, a very strong executive team,” she says, highlighting the Netflix India slate of “big, premium, edgier shows like ‘Sacred Games’ and ‘Delhi Crime’ that fans loved,” as well as romantic comedies, soap operas, family dramas and unscripted fare.

The company moves fast. Vikramaditya Motwane, showrunner of Netflix’s Indian thriller “Sacred Games,” recalls pitching the series to the service in March 2016. By the next month, Netflix execs were in Mumbai, and he was setting up meetings with potential writers. By June, they were getting the production process into gear.

“That’s what separates Netflix from other companies,” he says. “They are far more aggressive. They’re far more proactive about doing things.”

Motwane initially worked on “Sacred Games” with three people from Netflix, with “no Indian presence in the office.” Since then, the company has “expanded massively” in the country, he says — adding that Bajaria has assembled a “very confident local team” that he finds enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

“[Bela] really has a background in the highest level of producing and developing American content with American creators,” says WME president Ari Greenburg. “And so she’s bringing a lot of that system, which is writer-based, to the international marketplace, which is very producer based… I think Bela is bringing a newfound respect for these writers internationally.”

“Empower” is a word that comes up often when talking to those who work for and with Netflix, in much the same way that “delight” shows up in the corporate vocabulary at Amazon. It is a word that seems to be built into the language concerning Netflix’s development process, one that highlights the streamer’s priorities. Bajaria and Sarandos emphasize that they want to empower their teams to greenlight projects at will; Motwane and Ghettuba both laud the autonomy the company gives its creatives as empowering.

When asked to choose the markets that she is most excited about expanding into, Bajaria names India and Africa. Both regions are part of her roots and deeply significant to her — and happen to be sizable markets, which is a “win-win for me personally and for the business,” she laughs.

Meanwhile, as Netflix continues to reach across the globe, its throne moves closer to the heart of Hollywood. In elevating Sarandos to co-CEO in mid-July, co-founder and longtime chief executive Reed Hastings — who has long ruled from his Silicon Valley perch in Los Gatos, Calif. — is positioning a potential successor to reign directly from the entertainment capital of the world.

Outside the U.S., Amazon’s Prime Video platform is perhaps the only other streaming entertainment provider that has established competitive footing with viewers. “No one can keep up with Netflix except for somebody like Disney or Amazon,” says Pivotal analyst Jeff Wlodarczak.

But in the case of Amazon, whose primary goal with its Prime Video programming is to enlist more paying customers for its overall Prime membership service, Wlodarczak believes the depths of its Hollywood efforts could be limited by internal calculations about how much it needs to spend on content to attract new consumers. Netflix’s business model, by contrast, relies solely on subscribers to its films and TV shows. It lives and dies by its programming.

Filmmakers and creatives around the world are putting their faith in Netflix to carry their stories, sometimes choosing the service over more traditional routes.

Motwane may get annoyed when people refer to “Sacred Games” as a “web series,” but he is nevertheless forgoing a theatrical release in favor of unveiling his next major feature film, “AK vs AK,” starring Anil Kapoor, on Netflix. At least prior to the pandemic, the Indian theatrical market was saturated, he says, with a big movie coming out every two weeks, making it tougher for smaller films to survive in theaters.

“The streamers are going to change that,” Motwane says. “I think that the pandemic is giving people a taste of what it is like to watch movies at home. I believe that that’s going to really change the way that we consume a lot of our content.”

India has a rich history of storytelling, with an audience that “devours entertainment,” says Bajaria, noting that the streamer has added several experienced unscripted executives to its ranks in the country. Netflix has been investing in the region, putting more than $400 million into local-language projects in India through 2020.

It’s an exciting time for the Netflix India team, says Bajaria. And what remains truly electrifying for her, as it has throughout her career, is creating space for more representation on TV.

“This idea of really having lots of different kinds of lives reflected on-screen, and having those stories told in that way, and people who look and speak in different languages — and to see those stories reflected — is really important to me,” she says. “Being able to export those stories all over the world, at this scale, is really exciting.”