Netflix’s Documentary Strategy. Diego Buñuel’s presentation at Sunny Side of the Doc reported in detail by D-Word’s Eli Brown

Netflix programming exec Diego Buñuel presented to two standing-room-only audiences last Tuesday at Sunny Side of the Doc in beautiful La Rochelle.

  • It was the ‘event with the event.’
  • Delegates lined up for an hour beforehand to secure their seats.
  • Netflix is that hot!

The generous Diego is a former producer who comes from that great family in the history of the cinema.

Following are Eli’s D-Word notes.

  • I have marked places where Diego shared a slide or clip, but these are not available right now.
  • Many thanks Eli and D-Word on behalf of my readers!
  • And congrats to Sunny Side for producing a ground-breaking session.

© StudioOuest / Jean-François Augé / Sunny Side Of The Doc 2019

Diego Buñuel’s Presentation “Working With Netflix”

Big Numbers

I want to start with a few big numbers:

  • 190 countries. Netflix is a global platform. When we launch a program, it’s available everywhere at the same time
  • 38 languages. The technological feat of this is insane. We are a big tech company and not just a content company.
  • 155 million members worldwide.
  • About 400 million viewers, total. A lot of people watch Netflix on a global scale!
  • Netflix is available on over 1,600 devices. I didn’t know there were that many devices!

Programs that Punch Through!

  • We are an entertainment company.
  • The pitches you want to pitch to us need to answer the question, “Is your story strong enough to punch through?”
  • There is no series, documentary or film section: there is just rows of stories. So, it’s the strength of the narrative of the story and the entertainment value of the story.
  • There is the couch test. It’s Tuesday night, you’re on your couch and you turn on Netflix, do you want to see your story? Because there’s Marvel or a Space sci-fi story — does your story punch through the grid and make yourself interesting to the people who are watching?

The D-Word hosts discussions about the art, craft, business and social impact of documentary film. Our Public topics are open to all but limited to just a few discussions. Documentary professionals, however, can apply for free access to a wide range of industry discussions (and more!) in our Business, Creative, Social, and Technical topics. SIGN UP FOR FREE NOW!

Testing! Testing! Testing!

  • We have 300 million homepages built per day. Every day, we build specific rows and content on your homepage. We have more content than you’ll see on your home page. That’s how the algorithm works, it pushes a certain content for you. Your Netflix is not the same as my Netflix. Here is a slide about optimizing the artwork for discovery on the site. All these images were created around the Our Planet (there is a grid of 16 slides).
  • Global icons are different depending on where you are. We create 20-30 icons per title and we test them every day and if you go on and no one is clicking on a certain icon, we’ll swap it for a different one. You’re not just 1 icon among a bunch of other ones. We test every icon in different countries and different territories.

So, let’s talk about documentary and feature films.

  • There is a quote – “Few People have the imagination for reality.” I think that in my career that sentence explains why I’m fascinated by documentary. I’m sick of scripted shows based on true fact. No one can make up reality, it’s that amazing. Here’s a trailer of our offerings…
  • [The trailer shows the documentaries that are available on Netflix.]
  • So, this shows the diversity of the stories that we tell. We have great series, feature docs, mostly contemporary issues. Historical documentaries are not really our thing. I think that history is – we buy history docs, but we don’t commission them so much. We feel that we don’t bring anything new. We’re not going to compete with the broadcasters but to give a different offering. We like contemporary stories; we don’t look for themes, we look for stories. I’d rather have 1 great narrative, 1 great character, a dense story that will allow us to talk about the issue that people will follow and be fascinated with.

© StudioOuest / Jean-François Augé / Sunny Side Of The Doc 2019

The Netflix Algorithm & Netflix People

  • Let’s talk about the algorithm. The algorithm decides what you will watch, but doesn’t decide what we commission. There are people behind this decision making.
  • Lisa Nishimura is the head —  Kate Townsend and I are in London. Bernardo Loyola, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Adam Del Deo are in LA (US & Canada).
  • Kate & I moved to London to be closer to the teams in Europe.
  • There are more people — Sarafina DiFelice is in charge of Acquisitions at festivals. So don’t call her up – she will see your film there. We don’t acquire individual titles. We have acquisition teams in LA that buy catalogs of films.

Viewing Record

  • (Shows a chart)
  • Two thirds of the 400 million viewers have watched at least 1 original documentary. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and the idea that millions of people are watching documentaries is mind-blowing.
  • This is something that Netflix has done – we’ve made documentaries a popular form of entertainment and we’re seeing it in our viewership.

The halls are packed with Sunny Side delegates hoping to find a seat for Diego Buñuel’s Netflix presentation.

Success in 2019

  • 2019 has been a record start – Our Planet, Knock Down The House, Ted Bundy Tapes, Fyre — we need FUN documentaries. That’s the kind of stuff we want. Docs tend to be dark and serious, but there is room for fun. There are 3 formats — Feature Docs.
  • We want everything; feature documentaries that we want; it is an object that is carried by a director with an artistic vision of a great story to be told as a feature. Our goal is to be seen at festivals and to create events where people will share in the storytelling. The Legend of Cocaine Island, for instance, is a fun doc that we commissioned. But we want our directors and our producers recognized at these events.
  • Shorts – we do several shorts per year, they work very well at the service. Period End of Sentence was our short that won the Oscar last year. We’ve done a short series, Explained, for instance, that shows something that we like. It’s a great format. People watch it on their mobile devices. And limited series — we have been known for, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, and many others.
  • And we’ve worked with the best directors in the industry — those are mostly British and American directors. I want to work with the best in Europe. Europe is our biggest market and it is increasing at a tremendous speed. I want to find the great producers and directors and we can all have docs that resonate in Europe and globally.

Global + Local 

  • This is part of the strategy — Local – Global – Global. One of the main aspects of this is that there are more Netflix subscribers outside the U.S. than there are in the U.S. And there will be more non-English speakers. I think that this will give us an opportunity to have new voices and new ways of telling a story. We’re looking for original, local voices, and strong stories from these countries.
  • [Trailer of sample  –  Killer Ratings]
  • I like our subtle trailers… (gets laugh from audience — trailer was VERY over the top with music and editing style).
  • This film had a Brazilian team, British producer. Great, insane story. This is one of the important aspects — if the story goes A-B, that’s not enough for us. We need A-B-C-D-E-Z, crazy stories, that you can’t make up. I’m going to show you a trailer of a film for France that fits this Local-to-Local strategy.
  • [Trailer of sample – Anelka]
  • This is again a local-to-local strategy. Local doesn’t mean it’s only going to be shown in the country. Local means that our PR teams will push that title stronger in that territory. As we have higher numbers of subscribers in other countries, we need to start addressing their stories, their narratives and their issues. We need great local stories and great local people to tell the stories.

What are we looking for?

  • Features – distinct, award-winning, undeniable stories. Big things that people can connect to — one word to walk out of this talk with is BIG. We need big things because we are trying to reach a lot of people around the world. If it’s not big enough, it will disappear.
  • Local stories with a global impact (Local to Global!). This is the new initiative, so we’ll start seeing that in parts of Europe, and then in 2021 we’ll be in Poland and the Middle East.

Two teams: Originals and Unscripted

  • I represent Original Documentaries, which is distinct from the Unscripted team. They do some documentaries also. What we do at originals is limited series or feature films. A story that ends.
  • Anything that has a story that continues, that belongs in our unscripted department. Series-focused things are like You v. Wild, Dating Around, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Dope, Queer Eye.

Coproductions

  • The unscripted team is a huge team and they do a lot of co-productions. We don’t do many or any co-productions. We fully commission documentaries and we take all rights, all territories, as long as possible. Why? We pay for the rights, but when you launch a film on the service and you have 190 countries, and people are connected globally and they all need to be able to see the same thing for our consumers. If someone in Brazil is watching it and texting his friend in Spain, they need to have the same experience and see the same thing and allow that to travel virally. So we don’t give rights to some countries and not others. We only do that with acquisitions.
  • Why long rights? How many times have you heard, “Hey, you see this great film?” It will always be there for the future on Netflix so you can track it down and watch it.
  • When we launch a film, it generates a huge conversation. We do co-productions in some very small examples. With The Staircase, we took global rights outside of France, because it was an American story produced in France. So that is one case where we would do a co-production.

True Crime in France

  • This is a first look at a documentary coming out in late 2019, it is about a true crime story in France, that instead of focusing on the killing, but about the insanity that gripped the community and the media for about 35 years
  • [Trailer – Gregory] That was the first 2 minutes of the first episode and there will be 5 episodes.

QUESTION TIME

Q: About natural history – how much natural history might you be looking for?

  • We’re interested in more content, but we’ve got several in production right now. You can pitch to us. How to pitch to us – we don’t do development. So, you have to have a director and production company and you need a full pitch deck, with number of episodes, synopsis, look/feel.

Q:  How do you pitch?

  • There is not enough time to talk to me. First send me an email with the pitch. Then I will answer to you, “This works for us” within 10 days – 2 weeks. But I always give an idea of what works best for us.
  • My email is dbunuel@netflix.com. I get about 200 a day, so it won’t make a big difference if you all email me.

You didn’t mention Australia?

  • Any story that comes through me, I will send to our APAC group. We have an editorial meeting with all of our teams and we go through the projects and take your pitches seriously.

Do you have to pitch in English?

  • All pitches need to be in English. And trailers work very well for us.

How transparent are you going to be with how the filmmaker’s programs are working? Are you going to move toward third party verification?

  • We are in the middle of a big cultural change at Netflix where we will be giving our talent more information. I’m not really a part of that – that’s a big executive decision that they’re making. In the UK we started to do our top 10 lists. We usually do something at Netflix that is a big change by testing it and then we, if it works, we will go all the way in on an idea.

Your thoughts about increasing the amount of content made by women?

  • We need more women directors and more stories about women and minorities. We do well with minorities, we try to reflect the quality and diversity of our audience, but women – we don’t have enough stories about women and we need more women directors.

I worked with you when you were a producer- what do you remember and miss about being a producer?

  • I have no recollection of my previous life!! (Laughs) Everyone who works at Netflix were all directors and producers in the field at one point.
  • We understand the field and the budgets and that is very distinctive of our team at Netflix. And the difficulties that you might have we are aware of; we are very much in dialogue with our producers when we work with them.

My Netflix Study: What You Need to Know Now!