Netflix’s International Film Boss David Kosse on the Streamer’s Post-Pandemic Strategy (EXCLUSIVE)

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Courtesy of Netflix

David Kosse, vice president of international film at Netflix, got something of a raw deal.

The London-based executive joined the streaming giant in March 2019, after a three-year stint as president of STX’s global operation, and set out to build the service’s international film offerings in Europe, Middle East and Africa “from ground zero.” But just as he was assembling his first slate — an extensive optioning and greenlighting process that invariably takes about a year — the pandemic hit.

“All these movies that went into production during the pandemic are now getting launched in the late-stage pandemic,” says Kosse in an exclusive interview with Variety. “That’s where we are.”

Italy’s zany true story-inspired comedic movie “Rose Island” had an early rollout in December 2020, and the French film “Oxygen,” starring Mélanie Laurent, launched in May. But German vampire genre movie “Blood Red Sky,” which debuted in July, has been Kosse’s biggest international calling card to date, reaching an estimated 50 million households within 28 days of launching. The film follows a plane hijacking in which a woman who is ill must reveal herself as a vampire to protect her son.

“That movie, made through the traditional analog method, would have had a budget that was a lot lower, and wouldn’t have had as much action, prosthetics and shooting days,” says Kosse. “But we were able to give the filmmakers a bigger canvas to create something that was beautiful in a way that German films historically haven’t been.”

As Netflix’s investment in non-English titles grew by 150% between 2018 and 2020, viewing of non-English-language content by Netflix subscribers doubled globally between 2019 and 2020. Key markets for content spend are Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Nordics, where the SVOD greenlights two to three “significantly budgeted” films every year, with a number of “lower-budget commissions” to run alongside them.

In Spain, Kosse teases that the local adaptation of Sandra Bullock-fronted hit “Bird Box” is going into production this fall. “It’s going to be amazing,” he teases. The executive stops short, however, of calling local-language adaptations of hit original movies a strategy. “We don’t do it just to do it,” he says. “If we find a great reason to do [it] and there’s a reason to go beyond, creatively, we want to do it.”

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The Spanish remake of “Bird Box” goes into production this fall. Courtesy of Netflix

There’s also an extensive acquisitions business  — for example, where Netflix will buy a movie before it begins principal photography — in the main markets as well as countries like Turkey, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“Those [acquired] movies give members in those countries a slate of local films, so in Italy it’s not just, ‘Great, there’s Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Hand of God,’ and that’s the tentpole.’ We also have a number of other films to have a consistent cadence of local movies,” notes Kosse.

Bolstering the operation is a hefty dubbing and subtitling business that now extends to 34 countries — “A traditional distributor/studio might dub in nine countries,” Kosse points out — and is consistently employed across the content slate. The vast majority of subscribers want to see the streamer’s content dubbed rather than opt for subtitles, he says.

However, Netflix’s rapid European expansion comes as the rules are drastically changing for streamers under the continent’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which aims to level the playing field for broadcasters.

In France, a major decree is set to require streamers to dedicate 25% of their annual revenue in order to access films 12 months or less after their theatrical release, instead of the current
36-month window. Netflix has said it’s aiming to invest 20% rather than 25% and wants to obtain a 12-month window.

“So far, the decree hasn’t dramatically affected the bigger-budget activity we’re doing,” Kosse says. “With the quotas, we’ll have to look at how our activity adds up to that, but generally … we’ve made quite a commitment to French content independent of this decree.”

Strict French windowing laws and a vocal exhibitors association ensured that Netflix’s first and so far only competition foray at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2017 with “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” was also its last. The fest quickly changed its rules to require a French theatrical window for all movies playing in competition. While Variety recently spotted Cannes director Thierry Frémaux cozying up to Netflix film boss Scott Stuber at the Venice Film Festival, it’s still unclear how the streaming player can make its red-steps comeback at Cannes as a competitor.

“If we’re making a French film, primarily we’re [doing so] to deliver it to our members when it’s available, not delay our members’ joy in France for 36 months,” says Kosse.

But it seems Netflix may be willing to play ball with the government and get a shortened French theatrical window in return for a heightened investment in French productions. “Part of the decree has a level of investment in films that have to go [theatrical], and whatever the final interpretation of that is, we’ll abide by it,” adds Kosse.

Turbocharging the U.K.

This year, the former Film4 chief’s focus has been growing business in the U.K., where Netflix invested $1 billion in content across 2021. Historically, the U.K. has hosted big-budget movies commissioned out of the U.S., like “Matilda” or “Rebecca,” as well as sound stage-shot films that you’d “never know were produced there,” says Kosse. A group out of the U.S. also finances movies in Britain that are made for the world, with budgets of $15 million to $30 million.

“But then we said, ‘Let’s make sure we’re making films out of the U.K. that are really for the U.K. first, and their prime audience is that U.K. membership,” says Kosse, detailing a budget of less than $25 million for these movies. The psychological thrillers “The Wonder,” starring Florence Pugh, and “I Came By” are the first of these local efforts, with more on the way.

Meanwhile, a multiyear first-look deal with “The Crown” and “Pieces of a Woman” star Vanessa Kirby and her production company Aluna Entertainment is also set to bolster the streamer’s U.K. brand. While Kosse says Netflix “isn’t leaning heavily into overall deals,” this was a “unique opportunity where Vanessa grew up with Netflix and had a unique vision, and we felt there was a real space in the material she wanted to do in the U.K. that we weren’t getting in other places.”

Though a slate is in “early stages,” Kosse envisions “dynamically contemporary, female-led stories with international filmmakers” of the “Pieces of a Woman” ilk. “That’s a space she wants to continue to explore, both as an actor and producer,” he says.

In the two weeks since this interview took place, Netflix has further expanded its footprint in the U.K. by signing a long-term deal with Longcross Studios in Surrey and acquiring the Roald Dahl Story Company. And all at a time when the streamer’s growing might has got the backs up of the U.K. government, which — threatened by U.S.-owned companies controlling the British narrative globally with dramas like “The Crown” — recently set out rules for the enhanced “Britishness” of programming.

Another government threat that’s perhaps more concrete in focus is a proposed requirement for streamers like Netflix to share the viewing data of the British broadcasters’ shows on their platform. It’s all part of a broader plan to regulate the streaming services and create a more equal playing ground for broadcasters.

Kosse shrugs and says the streamer strives to be “good partners with everybody,” including producers and the government, in their international markets.

“We think we’re good partners for the U.K. production ecosystem,” Kosse adds. “We try to be fair and generous and take the opportunity to provide a platform for storytelling that’s unique. We look at the number of producers and talent that work with us multiple times and you see they’re happy with that partnership.”