Netflix has been in the original programming business for a whole decade now, as Feb. 6, 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the premiere of “Lilyhammer” on the streaming service. On Sunday, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos released an essay commemorating the anniversary and reflecting on the company’s roots in content for international audiences.
“Looking back, ‘Lilyhammer’ was perhaps an unorthodox choice for our first show. But it worked because it was a deeply local story that we could share with the world,” Sarandos wrote. “The jokes and references worked locally and the more universal themes of the shows traveled perfectly. Since then, we’ve seen so many great local stories resonate with people in other countries and from other cultures: shows and films set anywhere and told in any language.”
Although Netflix’s premiere Hollywood shake-up came with “House of Cards,” which the streamer ordered as a series before picking up “Lilyhammer,” the announcement of the political thriller series spurned a meeting between “Lilyhammer” star and executive producer Stevie Van Zandt and Sarandos. The Norwegian crime series had already finished filming an entire season at the time and was set for a premiere in its home country. Netflix acquired distribution rights to “Lilyhammer” and released the series ahead of the first season of “House of Cards,” effectively introducing the “binge” model of television releases to the world and marking the first occasion of the streamer offering exclusive content.
Read Sarandos’ full essay and watch a video conversation between him and Van Zandt below:
When you think about Netflix’s first original series, what do you think of? The White House? The Litchfield Correctional Institute… Nope, not those. Our actual first original series was “Lilyhammer” and today, February 6, marks the 10th anniversary of its historic Netflix premiere.
A seminal moment in Netflix history began in a recording studio by the North Sea. Bergen is where Norwegian creators Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad approached Stevie Van Zandt about a show they wrote for him set in a small Norwegian town called Lillehammer. A few months later, having heard that Netflix was looking for original content, I got a call directly from Stevie, who wanted to send us the series. I asked if we could read the scripts and Stevie said “Scripts? I can send you the whole season.” We watched it and we loved it. I thought it was a classic fish-out-of-water story, with Stevie playing a role loved by audiences, and the interplay between his no-nonsense hitman Frank Tagliano and the gentle community around him made for some great comedy. It was a character that was so familiar in a culture that few audiences had seen. I wasn’t sure what would come from that first phone call with Stevie. I was (am) a huge fan of his music and I loved him in “The Sopranos,” so I was happy just to get to talk to him for a few minutes.
In his new book “Unrequited Infatuations,” Stevie said that the call led to the best business meeting of his life – which was when we got together in person. I remember that Stevie was a much better actor and musician than he was a salesman; he would humbly describe the show as “different, odd, quirky, sometimes it’s in English and sometimes it has subtitles…” almost like he was trying to talk me out of it. What he didn’t know was that we had already watched the episodes and were in love with the show. We agreed to buy it and commission a second season, not knowing that Norwegian TV shows mostly only ran for one season and usually took long hiatuses between seasons if they did return. We worked out a deal.
The meeting was great and Stevie loved every idea, except one. When I told him that we would not be showing the episodes one per week, we would deliver the entire season all at once. That stopped him in his tracks. “You labor and suffer and someone can watch a year of your work in one night? That sounds a little weird,” he said. “It’s not weird,” I told him. “It’s just like working on an album.” He laughed and agreed.
After first airing on Norwegian broadcast TV NRK on Jan. 25, 2012, we debuted “Lilyhammer” on Netflix Feb. 6, 2012, offering all eight episodes to our members in the US, Canada and Latin America (followed by the UK, Ireland, and the Nordics later that year). This was the first time we streamed a show across multiple countries and languages… and it worked.
Looking back, “Lilyhammer” was perhaps an unorthodox choice for our first show. But it worked because it was a deeply local story that we could share with the world. The jokes and references worked locally and the more universal themes of the shows traveled perfectly.
Since then, we’ve seen so many great local stories resonate with people in other countries and from other cultures: shows and films set anywhere and told in any language. “Lilyhammer” was the forebearer of so many great shows to come – “Dark Desire” and “Who Killed Sara?” from Mexico, “La Casa de Papel” from Spain, “The Rain” and “The Chestnut Man” from Denmark, “Dark” and “Barbarians” from Germany, “Lupin” from France, “Sacred Games” from India, and of course, most recently, “Squid Game” from Korea, our biggest show ever. But the first always will be “Lilyhammer.”
Thank you “Lilyhammer” and Stevie Van Zandt for starting this incredible ten-year journey. It’s always hard to predict what’s to come in the next ten but one thing is certain: we’ll have many more great stories from anywhere that can be loved everywhere.