How Female Executives Are Leading the International Streaming Business
Streaming heavyweights have big global aspirations, and they’re relying on a growing cadre of women to realize them.
Female leaders abound at Netflix and Amazon Studios, where international programming initiatives are well underway, and they occupy top roles at Disney, ViacomCBS and HBO Max as the businesses expand globally. In a sign of how important these initiatives are to Netflix, the streamer elevated Bela Bajaria, formerly head of local-language programming, to head of global TV in September as part of a broader corporate realignment. Earlier, in June, it lured Eleonora “Tinny” Andreatta, who shepherded HBO’s cross-national hit “My Brilliant Friend” as head of RAI drama, to oversee Italian originals. At Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, a proponent of global franchises, is relying on an all-female regional leadership team to grow the company’s international fortunes. Over at Disney, Rebecca Campbell gained oversight of global streaming when Kevin Mayer exited in May, while Kelly Day was named president of international streaming for ViacomCBS in October; HBO Max recently put Christina Sulebakk in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
These executives are all competing for creative resources — and subscribers — as global streaming numbers surge amid the pandemic and hits such as Netflix’s French-language “Lupin” hint at a post-Hollywood creative world moving forward.
Variety surveyed many of these players for our annual International Women’s Impact Report. What’s the outlook ahead? How do they balance global and local needs? The answer depends on the exec and the maturity of the market they oversee.
But the view from the top is a shared one: International growth is a huge priority and streamers are willing to spend money on local-language productions to drive it.
“Audiences everywhere want to be seen, and they want to see themselves reflected on-screen,” Bajaria says. “Local stories and local shows definitely increased subscription in many countries.”
What’s more, local shows have proven that they can travel, engaging viewers far outside their region of origin. Last year, Netflix viewership of non-English language programming rose 50% in the U.S., according to the streamer, while K-Drama viewership nearly tripled amid a surge in Korean entertainment globally. This phenomenon wasn’t limited to the U.S.; Season 4 of Spain-originated “La Casa de Papel” (Money Heist) and “Barbarians” from Germany were popular worldwide, while Season 2 of “Kingdom,” a period zombie series from South Korea, proved a hit with U.S. viewers.
“Members discovered many different kinds of shows and different kinds of genres that we have on the service,” says Bajaria. “It’s been amazing to see these great big shows come out of so many different countries last year.”
E-tailer Amazon, which bundles its streaming service as part of an annual fee that includes free shipping services, has rolled out reality format “Last One Laughing” from Japan to Australia (Rebel Wilson is the host Down Under) and Latin America. Local originals include medieval series “El Cid” in Spain and soccer drama “El Presidente” from Oscar-winning screenwriter Armando Bó (“Birdman”) in Chile; a trans dramedy about a woman who meets the son she fathered years ago is in the works from Amazon’s Brazilian team.
Overseeing the world from her Culver City perch, Salke considers cultivating voices and content within each country as equally important to globally recognized tentpoles such as “Jack Ryan” and recent hit film “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” “Elevated, local originals have outsized impact in delighting customers and well as driving new subscribers for Prime,” she says.
The key: finding the right mix of global franchises, originals and licensed content, and calibrating the recipe if needed. “All three categories play significant roles, and we strive to strike the most customer-focused balance,” Salke says. “It’s not a perfect science.”
The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into streamers’ international expansion plans last year, delaying releases and increasing costs when productions ramped back up, in order to conform to safety protocols. But shooting has resumed, and international shows have made their way to diversion-hungry audiences around the globe.
“Lupin,” for example, was days from completion when Netflix shut down European shoots due to the health crisis, according to Kelly Luegenbiehl, then in charge of the region’s local productions. When production ramped back up, the French crime series, which stars Omar Sy, eventually drew a projected audience of 70 million during the month following its Jan. 8 debut, exceeding the number that watched Season 4 of “La Casa de Papel” during its debut month.
“Lupin” has several elements that Luegenbiehl looks for in her current role as VP of global franchises: It is inspired by a well-known literary character — gentleman thief Arsène Lupin — that dates back to 1905.
Genre is less important than a fan following, and Netflix also prizes stories with “a lot of different access points,” she says, citing “The Witcher,” a fantasy drama based on the book series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, now in production on a second season, as another example of a show being developed as a franchise. A spinoff series called “The Witcher: Blood Origin” and anime spinoff “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf” are also in the works.
“‘Casa de Papel’ being Spanish language, ‘Lupin’ being French language and the original books for ‘The Witcher’ being Polish language, these are all really exciting signals that a franchise really can come from anywhere,” says Luegenbiehl, who has been based in Amsterdam but will soon be relocating to London. “I think that debunks this idea that Hollywood is the beginning and ending of storytelling. It really equalizes the playing field for the rest of the world.”
Bajaria gives her international team greenlight authority, figuring that the leaders best know what will resonate with their regions and are better plugged into the local creative ecosystem. Minyoung Kim, then head of Korean content for the streamer, said yes to “Kingdom,” period gore and all, because it seemed so different from anything else she had seen on TV. “One of my team’s favorite questions to ask any creator is ‘What’s the story you’ve always wanted to tell but never been able to?’” posits Kim, now VP of content for Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. “When we asked [writer] Kim Eun-hee this question, she then told us about ‘Kingdom,’ and unbeknownst to her, it was exactly what we were looking for — it was original; it was different; it was bold.”
The first season of “Kingdom” debuted in January 2019; by December 2020, The New York Times had dubbed it one of the best international TV shows. Apocalyptic South Korean offering “Sweet Home” followed late last year. Having gained oversight of her additional territories under Bajaria’s October reorganization, Kim is in the process of relocating to Singapore, where she will oversee the broader region. Programming needs depend on the country and maturity of the market.
“In a country like Korea, where we have a growing slate, the challenge is continuing to push into new formats, new stories. We’ve built a robust library of Korean programming, but there is so much room to try new things, whether that be in films or stand-up comedy, and really build on the foundation we have,” she says. “In other markets like Southeast Asia where we are just starting, we have to continue to embed ourselves in the local creative communities so that creators and talent know how we work and the kinds of stories we are looking for.”
Georgia Brown, head of European originals for Amazon Studios, launched her initial lineup last year, with programs including soccer docu-series “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” and “El Cid.” As a former exec at Fremantle, Shine and the BBC, she’s used to thinking about programming from a global perspective. “But really Amazon’s remit and my team’s remit is to specifically put the spotlight back on local production,” Brown says. Focusing on too broad a regional audience can result in “Euro pudding,” adds the exec, who joined Amazon Studios in 2017 and built up her division from scratch. “So, when I greenlit ‘El Cid,’ that was specifically for my Spanish audience and its success was whether it worked for our Spanish audience.
“But the joy of that show is that it resonated with Amazon Prime viewers around the world.
“We need shows to work in the local market. We are a subscription service, and my remit is to attract new subscribers. I want new people to take note, and see what we’re doing, and think they want to come and join us, and give me some of their very privileged few hours every evening to watch the shows that me and my team are creating.”
But by the same token, as a global service, Brown explains that “there’s a lot that we can do in terms of taking creators to the global stage, which is exciting. It’s exciting for the talent, and it’s exciting for us.”
Malu Miranda, head of Brazil originals for Amazon Studios, was about to shoot her first scripted shows for the streamer when the pandemic shut down production. “That was really, really challenging,” says Miranda, noting that Amazon Prime was less than six months old in Brazil at that point. “We were able to go to a neighboring country that had really strict protocols in place [where] we were able to shoot a couple of our shows.”
Her colleague Javiera Balmaceda, head of originals for Spanish-speaking Latin America, also had to pivot during the pandemic: Her team was in the middle of editing “Pan y Circo” (Bread and Circus), Diego Luna’s food-filled political talk show — and ultimately decided to film another episode of the series addressing the crisis. Instead of having a renowned chef make dinner, Luna prepared it himself. “He hosted over Zoom and had everyone’s food delivered,” Balmaceda says, “and everyone had an amazing conversation about what it is like to live through a modern pandemic.”
Looking ahead, Miranda is eager to make more Brazilian shows that focus on joy, figuring that, after such a challenging year, people will want to watch things that delight them. Andreatta, meanwhile, as head of Netflix Italy, has bigger goals in mind — aiming to bring Italian storytelling to the world.
“We all know about the Golden Age of Italian cinema: We want to make this happen again,” says the executive, who also developed shows such as “The Name of the Rose” during her eight years at RAI. “Italy has a lot of incredible talents and stories to be told, and we are committed to betting on our Italian identity and on using our best talents and stories to create an appetite for our stories not only in Italy but around the world.”
As Netflix manager of originals in Africa, Dorothy Ghettuba is determined to develop a wide range of fare from local perspectives. “Africa is the most diverse continent in the world, and it is easy to fall into the trap of looking at Africa as a monolith,” says Ghettuba, who debuted the region’s original offerings with the South African crime drama “Queen Sono” last year. “Historically, Africa’s point of view has always been dominated from the outside, at least in the space of TV and film,” she adds. To counter that, her team is “encouraging African creatives to reach for the untold and forgotten stories and share them with the world.”
The biggest challenge ahead for both global and local established digital players is increased competition from Hollywood legacy companies expanding their streaming footprint: Disney Plus, HBO Max and Paramount Plus are all ramping up overseas this year.
Netflix acknowledged this reality in its January shareholders note while reaffirming its global strategy. “This is, in part, why we have been moving so quickly to grow and further strengthen our original content library across a wide range of genres and nations,” the company stated.
Amazon’s Balmaceda is also feeling the heat as she considers the legacy upstarts. But she accentuates the positive: “There’s so much competition coming, which sometimes can be a little scary, right? We have Disney Plus, and HBO Max — and Paramount Plus is also launching. But I think it’s an exciting challenge. It means you get to raise more voices up; you get to find who is that next Diego Luna, who is that next Armando Bó.”
Erika North, who last year joined Amazon Studios as head of Asia-Pacific originals, breaks it down at a territorial level: “Our job is to try and help create the kind of content that cuts through the fray,” she says. “We strongly believe that to be successful globally, we need to be successful locally.”
Bajaria says the key to making shows that can travel is to keep them authentic. “I always feel like if you try to make a show for everybody, you make a show for nobody,” she explains. “When we look at ‘Unorthodox’ [inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography], for example, it was told mostly in Yiddish, very authentic to her story, and a time and place very specific to her journey. And that show really struck a chord around the world.” The series, largely set in Berlin, won an Emmy for Maria Schrader’s direction and was nominated in seven other categories.
“Ultimately, people love just great storytelling,” Bajaria observes. “You know, it’s interesting, because the more specific and more authentic something is, actually, the more universal it can feel.”
All this international programming comes at a cost, however: Netflix’s 2020 content spending increased 13.3% to $13.6 billion, according to “Dare to Stream,” a recent report by Variety analyst VIP, while Amazon’s rose 23% to $7.5 billion.
During the same period, Netflix paid subscriptions grew 23% worldwide to top 200 million, the majority of them outside the U.S., and its revenue rose 24% to $25 billion. Amazon doesn’t break out its Prime numbers, but its subscription service revenue, which includes Prime fees, rose 35% during 2020 to $25.2 billion.
And Disney Plus, which surpassed expectations to finish its first year with 86.8 million paid subscribers, is just getting started with its ambitious international plans: Last month it unveiled its first slate of European originals and integrated its new general entertainment brand Star into the service. The 10 projects include a female-led mafia crime thriller and a supernatural mystery; Disney plans to commission 50 European productions by 2024.
Disney acquired India’s popular Hotstar service through its 2019 acquisition of Fox assets, and those subscribers account for a hefty portion of Disney Plus subs worldwide. The entertainment giant is opting to build Star as an international brand instead of Hulu, which has a lower profile outside the U.S.
HBO Max, meanwhile, is scheduled to launch in June in 39 territories across Latin America and the Caribbean, and to roll out in Europe later this year. The AT&T-owned WarnerMedia division promises more details about its programming over the next few months.
In other words, don’t expect major U.S. streamers — and the women who lead their efforts — to cut back on international content spending anytime soon. With consumers’ appetite for streamed entertainment rising, competition increasing and the theatrical market still in disarray, there’s too much revenue at stake not to invest more heavily.
“We are all striving for the attention and long-term commitment from valuable customers all over the world,” Salke says. “The most original, relevant and entertaining content will be the key. That’s what we focus on every day.”