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Netflix is an American media services provider that was first conceived in 1997. The company’s primary business is its subscription-based streaming service that gives access to a library of films and television programs. Over time, the number of Netflix users had grown to 147 million in 2018, and 154 million if one considers free trials (“Netflix by the numbers,” 2018). Fifty-seven percent of users (around 80 million) are now streaming internationally (“Netflix by the numbers,” 2018). In 2018, the total revenue had amounted to $15.8 billion with the number of employees approximating 5400 people (“Netflix by the numbers,” 2018). Since 2012, Netflix has been putting more emphasis on in-house production, and so far, many Netflix-native movies and programs have been quite successful. For this reason, many creatives see Netflix as a perfect platform for realizing their potential and making their artistic endeavors known by broader audiences. This paper goes into detail on how a Canadian producer can pitch an idea to Netflix: eligibility, restrictions, and success recipes.
Netflix Canada: Emergence and Specifics
The Canadian market was the first international market that Netflix tapped into – in 2010. Since then, Netflix has become part of Canadian culture with an estimated number of subscribers of 6.9 million (Statista, 2018). In just nine years, the brand has got to command the largest prime-time audience in Canada. Surely, not all local producers and broadcasters were all that enthused about the emergence of a powerful foreign contender. For instance, at an industry summit this year, Catherine Tait, president of the CBC, expressed her concerns for Netflix’s expansion into the Canadian market. She even went as far as calling the US company an imperialist, occupying power.
It is true that Netflix has revolutionized the way modern media is perceived. For the industry, its solutions have been disruptive and, for this reason, so successful. In the case of Canada, on top of offering users services under fairly attractive conditions, Netflix has yet another competitive advantage. As a foreign company, it does not have to contribute to the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) that finances Canadian content or collect the GST (5% Goods and Services Tax) as Canadian firms are obliged to do (Olive, 2019). The industry’s chief regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and its largest trade body, the Canadian Media Producers Association, believe, given the revenue as large as $942 million in Canada, Netflix should make contributions to the CMF (Olive, 2019).
However, all these concerns might be proved ungrounded: in actuality, Netflix is one of the things that makes the Canadian film industry healthier. In 2018, the brand pledged to use $500 million toward creating and promoting Canadian content (Greenwood, 2018). Later that year, the US company reported the establishment of what they called Netflix Canada, a new entity that would focus completely on championing grassroots content. The scope of responsibilities of the new body would include shooting and releasing shows and films themselves, buying the rights and distributing films internationally, and holding summits and workshops for creators.
At the same time, in 2018, budgets for Canadian production had surged to $8.9 billion, with a 6% increase as compared to 2017 (Greenwood, 2018). Arguable, without a bump in foreign investment, that number would have been unachievable. Every year, Netflix spends as much as $100 million, supporting and licensing Canadian originals. A new production hub in Toronto is projected to employ as many as 1,850 people (Ahearn, 2018). Thus, Netflix expansion might mean more jobs for Canadians – hardly a threat to the industry.
In January 2018, in an interview for the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Indiescreen magazine, Netflix’s Director of Global Public Policy explained why creating Netflix Canada could be good news for local producers. The following insight from the interview is especially helpful: as of now, Netflix cannot make certified CanCon without collaborating with a Canadian broadcaster or Canadian distributor (Olive, 2019). This means that the brand is required to enter co-production with native companies to launch CanCon originals. This fact alone opens a lot of opportunities for starting partnerships. As Wright states, Netflix already attracted some Canadian talent such as director Tony Elliot who worked on the movie ARQ (Olive, 2019). However, in cases like that, the end products are not certified for CanCon. At the same time, Netflix’s director claims that the brand does not wish to put too much emphasis on the labels. The main goal of Netflix Canada is to make high-quality content for a diverse and dispersed audience.
Submissions and the Idea-Seeking Process
Concerning handling unsolicited submissions, Netflix Canada adheres to the same policies as Netflix in other countries. The company acknowledges that due to the growing popularity of the brand, a great number of people would like to use it as a platform for developing their own ideas. However, for now, not a single regional Netflix center accepts unsolicited submissions (“Unsolicited submissions,” n.d.). At that, Netflix does not discriminate against the form of submission, be it an idea or a fully developed script. If someone wants to pitch an idea to the company, they need to find an appropriate medium. For a submission to be solicited, it needs to be forwarded through a licensed literary agent, producer, attorney, manager, or entertainment executive. Regardless of their job title and position, the person who facilitates submission needs to have a pre-existing relationship. If an idea is submitted through any other means, it is classified as unsolicited and will be automatically declined.
Netflix Canada employs a number of strategies to ensure a constant flow of creative ideas and submissions as presented below:
- Netflix hires a team of creative experts – executives and buyers, who review pitches for shows and movies to filter those who fit the format the best;
- Netflix maintains deep relationships with the creative community and talent agencies of Canada, who often serve as a source of ideas for shows and movies;
- Netflix experts frequent film festivals and established venues and might purchase finished works there;
- Many ideas are generated within the company and forwarded to writers and other creatives for further development (“Unsolicited submissions,” n.d.).
From the company’s news policies, it becomes clear that given the growing audience, Netflix is on the lookout for the next big thing. For instance, in February 2019, Netflix CFO David Wells unveiled a new piece of statistics that was quite eye-opening regarding the company’s expansion plans. In the next year, the number of shows that Netflix will roll out is likely to be in the 700 range. Out of these 700, 160 will be in-house productions with 80 of them being US originals and the other half – foreign-language movies and shows (Patel, 2018). Seven hundred projects from a single network is an ambitious goal, and it is only natural that Netflix will soon set itself on the next content-seeking spree. However, despite the possibility of mutual interest, independent producers should still ensure that the process takes place through an official that the company trusts. Thus, making such a connection is the first step for anyone who wants to conquer Netflix Canada, and pitching the actual idea only comes second.
Since Netflix does not allow unsolicited submissions, any ambitious writer or producer has to seek representation. The process might be tricky and require a creative to redistribute their energy from their artistic processes to management-related tasks. One way to go about finding a representative is by generating more publicity. Online, it may take the form of submitting scripts to specialized Canadian platforms as well as promoting an idea on social media. The latter is especially useful since it gives a writer a chance to test the waters and figure out whether broader audiences would be accepting of a new show. Offline, it is possible to gain some traction by attending festivals and entering contests. A Canadian-specific option would be to apply for a Netflix production hub in Toronto that is opening this year. Netflix has expressed commitment to providing 1,850 jobs in Canada and ensuring that studio and sound stage leases belonging to the hub are multi-year (Ahearn, 2018). The foundation of the Toronto hub is a positive development for Canadian filmmakers. Netflix is going to become closer to grassroots communities and come into contact with Canadian talent directly. It is expected that the hub will facilitate finding representation and pitching ideas.
Pitching to Netflix
Learning to pitch a show is as important as knowing how to write a good script itself. A writer can put together a solid pilot that can still fail if he or she is not able to communicate their ideas. Apart from great writing, one should be able to get past the financial gatekeepers, i.e. Netflix Canada executives by proving that their ideas have it all: originality, longevity, and the “wow-factor.” In the case of Netflix, the cinematography is business as much as it is art, therefore, it is imperative that an idea proves to yield benefits in the long term. In order to pitch successfully, a writer should answer the following questions:
- What kind of pitch should it be to sell this one particular idea?
- What should be included in the document?
- How should the pitch be tailored to suit the particular entity – in this case, Netflix Canada?
The first idea that comes to mind is to research the entity for answers. When asked what Netflix Canada is looking for in a pitch in terms of genre, the brand’s Content Executive Elizabeth Bradley replies “Everything.” (Kornfeld, 2018) According to Bradley, Netflix aims at diversifying its content and does not discriminate against the genre. It can be a sci-fi, thriller, drama, or comedy; even remakes of classics are accepted (Kornfeld, 2018). The only thing that really matters is a writer’s confidence that his or her story will resonate globally. As Bradley puts it, when pitching to Netflix, writers should ask themselves as to why their idea is exciting and how it is capable of making a difference. Once Netflix has faith in the producer’s vision, the rest is merely technicalities. Bradley states that the company does not put that much emphasis on the package of directors and actors. According to her, casting and hiring are all solvable problems. However, what Netflix cannot solve easily is subpar writing and storytelling.
While Netflix’s executives propagate a diversity of ideas, customers make their own choices regarding what they look for in a show or a movie. Thus, to pitch successfully to Netflix, one should not only use executive’s opinions to guide them but also look out for trends. The top ten most-watched Netflix shows in Canada in 2018 are a mix of comedies, thrillers, and detective stories (Hazan, 2018). As it seems, the Canadian audience has versatile tastes, appreciates a compelling storyline, and prefers a healthy dose of humor. Among movies that “made” it in 2018 is Insatiable, in which a disgraced civil lawyer/beauty pageant coach takes a bullied teenager as his client. Another hit is Retribution that revolves around a horrific murder that wreaks havoc upon the lives of two families living side-by-side in rural Scotland. The Canadian audience has shown interest in documentaries – for instance, Girls Incarcerated that provides an insight into the lives of juvenile delinquents has been popular on Netflix. Remakes such as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina based on the Archie comic have also been met with appreciation.
The question remains as to how a writer or producer presents his or her idea in a way that could ignite Netflix’s interest. The general rules may still apply: regardless of the form – a TV show, a movie, or a documentary, the core concept is the end-all-be-all of an excellent pitch. Netflix is a large company with a very limited time resource. It is only natural that neither of its entities, Canada included, has time to review long scripts, all the while seeking golden nuggets. Professional screenwriters employ a strategy widely known as the Elevator Pitch: a concise description of an original idea that has just enough details to make it interesting.
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Further, any pitch package needs to include a convincing pilot script that would give the reviewing executive an idea of one’s writing style and the direction that the show may take if approved. The third important element is the so-called series Bible – a document that goes into detail about the universe of the show. Usually, it needs to cover the following:
- An interesting title that is reflective of the main theme;
- Logline, or the Elevator pitch – an impactful summation of the story in one or two sentences;
- Synopsis providing a broader overview of what is happening in the series’ universe and highlighting the most compelling thematic facets;
- Characters, including protagonists and other key players with key details on their backgrounds and lifestyles;
- Pilot outline with a step-by-step breakdown of the entire episode;
- Future prospects outlining the contents of the next episodes or sequels.
Over the last few years, Netflix has expanded deep into the Canadian media market. Some people find this aggressive expansion worrisome and express disdain for the government’s current inaction concerning Netflix’s lack of contribution to the CMF. An alternative opinion that appeases many native filmmakers is that Netflix has the potential to transform Canadian television and give local talent a chance. Since 2010 when Netflix just tapped into Canada, it has made an effort to provide jobs for locals and fund Canadian projects. Given the dynamics of investment, many writers and producers wish to pitch their idea to Netflix and make it the next big thing. As of now, the brand does not accept unsolicited submissions, i.e. those made without an official representative. The latter can be found through online platforms, contests, festivals, or at specialized hubs such as Netflix Toronto hub. Netflix does not confine potential contributors to a definite set of themes and genres. However, the company seeks out only those who are confident about their ideas and can submit a full pitching package including the Elevator pitch, series Bible, and a pilot script.
Ahearn, V. (2019). Netflix creating a production hub in Toronto that will support up to 1,850 jobs. Financial Post. Web.
Greenwood, M. (2018). Netflix makes first move with their $500 million Canadian content fund. Web.
Hazan, J. (2018). Netflix Canada’s top 10 most binged watched shows of 2018. Web.
Kornfeld, L. (2018). Pitching to Netflix: Tips from the top. Web.
Olive, D. (2019). Netflix is no cultural imperialist — It’s helping to save Canadian TV. Web.
Patel, S. (2018). Netflix’s aggressive content-buying spree creates opportunities and risk for creators. Web.
Statista. (2018). Number of Netflix subscribers in Canada from 2017 to 2023. Web.
Unsolicited submissions to Netflix. (n.d.). Web.