Having had the chance to work with Netflix on two TV shows, “Arrested Development” and “Ozark,” it seems clear that their decisions are based entirely on the merits. Yes, they’ve got the data, but you get the strong sense they would much rather have something they could be proud of than a generic effort that’ll simply gather a larger group of viewers. Obviously, not being beholden to ratings or box office allows that kind of position, but it still takes some discipline and restraint to take advantage of that.
The first time I met Ted Sarandos was on “Arrested Development” in 2012, when we were doing the first batch of episodes. He came with his son and was so warm and friendly and seemed genuinely happy to be watching the creative people he had hired do their creative work. He was there as our boss and as our leader, yes, but you would’ve only known that if you asked someone.
When I pitched “Ozark” to him years later, he was the same warm and supportive person. There were two reasons I wanted to be at Netflix with the show. One was my desire to direct a project that was more like a 600-page movie. I was really excited about challenging myself to oversee something long-form like that. Since they release everything on the same day, it had the possibility of being viewed in one large chunk or in a few chunks. And No. 2, I knew that if I was lucky enough to accomplish on set what I had in my mind, the team and Netflix — and the audience they had built —might be receptive to it.
Netflix reached out to me with an offer that I’d never heard before. Come and make what you’d like to make. We’d like to work with you as an artist, and we’ll support you in that vision. That sounded a little too good to be true. I was attracted by the prospects of a fraction of it. What I ended up getting was so much more.
It truly is a safe, productive artist space. Helping hands is what the creative experience is like. I was able to go off and do my thing. That all comes from Ted Sarandos because he’s created an environment where all the executives feel so confident they don’t have to hold on to everything so tightly. Their notes are very normal — not like studio notes. They are not prescriptive. I never got a note that said, “Fix this.” This is the first place I ever went to where somebody said: “Gosh, I love this. Don’t you want to do more?” I don’t have the money for that. “Oh, we’ll give you some more money.” What kind of place is this?!
For my documentary, “13th,” I literally thought it was going to be on the back channels of Netflix and downloaded by some librarians. They said, “This is something special. Let’s see if the New York Film Festival will have it.” It ended up being opening night, as the first documentary ever. They were the ones that launched the Oscars campaign. They were the ones that pushed it into theaters. Their vision for the way it would reach people was greater than my own.
I can tell you it’s exciting to be on a new train heading very quickly into new territory. I’ll give you just one example. The first season of “Grace and Frankie,” Lily Tomlin and I were in New York doing promotion. The series began streaming at midnight on a Thursday. We were already asleep because we had to get up early to fly to L.A. the next morning. By the time I landed, I was getting emails and calls from friends who had seen the entire season.
I’m not young, and I have never had an experience like that. It really feels amazing when people can consume an entire season overnight. Lily and I would like to do it until we’re in wheelchairs, which could happen quite soon for me.
I like the democratic aspects of what Netflix does. The kinds of movies that I make at my age are more character-driven, so streaming is fine. If a lot of people see a movie, it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t bother me at all.
As for Ted Sarandos, on a personal level, I really admire him. A couple years ago, I was in Cannes, and I went to a speech he was giving that was followed by a Q&A. It was intense. In France, there’s a lot of hostility toward Netflix. The way he handled it and positioned Netflix was impressive. He’s a very progressive, kind man. You can’t ask for anything more. And he throws great parties.
My first conversation with Ted Sarandos was explosive. Literally. I was in Rio for a television conference and was taking advantage of the tropics to get some pick-up shots for “Beasts of No Nation,” inserts of rocket trails and explosions in trees. This was before Netflix had acquired the film, and Ted was pitching Netflix as its potential home as well as his vision for the future of Netflix — all while pyrotechnics were exploding on my end of the phone. His passion and conviction for the film and what Netflix could provide in terms of a viewing audience rose above the din.
Since going with Netflix meant we would be the launch of their original movies division, nobody knew what that would look like. Even though I’d been a consumer of Netflix for 15 years, I’d never thought of it as a premiere platform, and as Netflix’s first foray into this field the potential was as huge as it was frightening. One thing that remained important to me was the theatrical experience of the film — I’d shot it for that audience. Ted recognized this and promised a theatrical component to our release in tandem with Bleecker Street and Landmark.
I went on to spend the next year of my life working with Ted and his team. After years of working on something, all you want is for people to see it. Ted stood by his word. He supports storytellers, and despite being such a huge company, he was always there when I needed him. And despite the nostalgic appeal of a cinema-only release, I have no doubt if “Beasts of No Nation” had gone with a traditional platform release there is no way as many people would have seen it as they did on Netflix.
Ted’s vision for the future is now the present. For the last couple years, acquisitions have been dominated by online platforms, and viewership of films that would have otherwise disappeared in cinemas have found audiences worldwide, accessible anytime, anywhere. Ted’s vision has literally exploded the old order and provided a venue with growing opportunities for filmmakers to present their films to the world.
When I was leaving E!, I was getting offers to do other things. I was like, if I really had my druthers and was going to continue to do a talk show and experiment, I wanted to be at a place like Netflix. It was before everybody went over there. It had the vibe of these are the people who are innovators. There were endless hours of programming, endless niches. It was the one person who wasn’t actively hitting on me, and I like not to be hit on at a party. So I went and hit on them.
We sat down and had a great conversation. Ted gives license to artists. He really loves comedians; he’s a total comedy nerd. He loves laughing. He’s an easy person to collaborate with. I said, “I want to take some time off” — I’m big on time off — “I want to do something out of my comfort zone. I’d love to do some documentaries, and then I’ll start my talk show after that.
They are very much about you asking for feedback; they aren’t helicoptering around you. Ted and I had a talk at my first launch party. I was like, “Just tell me if you don’t like something.” He would email me: “Great episode. I would have liked to have seen more time with this person.” And then when you’re off and running, they let you do your own thing.
I feel happier at Netflix because I’m pushing myself more. I can have scientists on, athletes on, celebrities on, politicians on. I set out for it to be a college education. I’ve learned a lot — not about myself but about the world and all the things I missed growing up when I wasn’t paying attention and doing too many drugs.
Also, the best thing about Ted is his wife. She’s just a badass, and she gets it.
What is it about Netflix? My kids are really into Netflix. I’ve seen kids as young as four pick up their iPad and go to Netflix and pick a show. I don’t think any other service is that easy to watch, honestly. And you see a lot of comics that have broken in the last five or 10 years get hot off Netflix — Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari. It just seems that a lot of young comedy is happening there. Let’s face it: Streaming is the future. I’ve known a few people that don’t have cable anymore, and I know more and more every day.
I binge-watch “Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards,” “Making a Murderer.” I had a meeting with Ted Sarandos about doing a documentary a while back. He’s a cool guy. People over there let me know that I was welcome. I have my comedy special for Netflix. I’ll film it sometime in the fall. I’m still refining it; the world keeps changing every day. There’s a few people who did specials last year before the election. It’s like, “What were you thinking?” You got to do these things at the right time. I’m not Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, but I’ll do some politics.
I hope we can keep it up. I’d like to do a bunch of stuff on there. Maybe do a TV show. The shows people send me are just not that good. I’d like to do another documentary. Maybe produce. I’m open for business is what I’m trying to say.
It’s interesting because for the past 10 years, the producers of “Full House” really championed to bring it back. They were trying everything. Warner Bros. owned it, and there was no way to do it in the regular television mold. Then we talked about a “Full House” movie. If it wasn’t for the existence of Netflix, these new shows wouldn’t be happening. It’s a miracle! I liken it to “Star Trek” — that was a 10-year hiatus. This was a 20-year hiatus.
It was about timing and the changing of media as we know it that made it possible. I didn’t expect it, but I wasn’t surprised. I got the phone call, and they were like, “Would you like to come on as the legacy cast?,” which sounds like Sigourney Weaver is opening a chamber and we come out with dry ice. Here we are. Ted Sarandos had this vision. Netflix wanted to broaden it into a family comedy, and the girls all had their acting chops. The love of the show never went away. It’s brought so much joy to people. That’s what Netflix and Ted figured out.
They went and rebuilt the damn thing. When I walked onstage, I saw the Tanner house. Nobody else could have done it. Nobody had the money. It was not a cheap show to bring back. Honestly, to do a four-camera show filmed in front of a studio audience is very difficult. And then there are the salaries.
Some people say, “You’re exactly the same.” I think half of America needs an eye checkup. I was 30, and I’m now 61. I’m not a Hollywood wax figure like John Stamos. I’ll do it for as long as it goes. One day the show will be called “Fullest House,” and it will be me in an urn by the window.
I feel like it’s the family. This is the family that has our back. For Ted Sarandos, should we go down the list of achievements? He’s the chief content person at Netflix, which is the worldwide empire that he and Reed Hastings created. He was a clerk at a video store back when we had video stores. He’s been living and breathing for the audience. What do people want? How do they want to watch it?
As a person, he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in this industry. You can just trust him. It’s as simple as that. That kind of authenticity is such a relief. It’s so pleasing to be around, given we’re going in our sixth year of “House of Cards.” It’s a beautiful thing to say I want to go back to my family. I know I can count on my family.
When we launched “House of Cards,” it was a hypothetical. Is this going to work? Do people want to have that kind of freedom? Be careful what you ask for. I think it was a no-brainer and also a crapshoot. The box sets of “The Sopranos” were a success, and people bought those box sets. That in itself was giving the consumer freedom to watch however much they wanted at one time. In essence, it was like you purchase a book — you put it down after a chapter, or maybe you read half of it in a night. Give the people what they want so they can design their desires instead of the network designing when you watch it. I think that kind of liberty opened up a whole new paradigm for this medium.