The Netflix Effect: The Impact of Streaming Sites in Diversifying Hollywood
Online streaming services have revolutionised the way we consume film and television by offering a wide catalogue of film and television available in full at the click of a button in exchange for a monthly fee. The online giant Netflix has claimed dominance in this arena through its wide range of content and has made headlines as champions of diversity and racial representation (Edmond Jr., 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to explore why they have made the ‘risky’ move to greenlight numerous minority-led and minority centred stories and what allows them to do this. Through this exploration, there are issues raised to the extent of how diverse Netflix and whether their business reflects their message because their workforce does not seem to replicate the diversity in their catalogue (Edmond Jr., 2018). Finally, this chapter will look at the fight Netflix has been battling with the awarding bodies, since the success of foreign language film Roma at the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony there has been backlash from the industry insiders, who believe that Netflix productions are not worthy of Academy acclaim because they do not conform to traditional cinematic releases.
Before looking at why Netflix has decided to make a commitment to diverse programming, it is important to understand how the company works and how their system supports the risk-taking associated with piloting projects with stories focused on minorities and led by minority casts. The risk under discussion is, as Nielsen’s Vice President of Multicultural Growth and Strategy outlines, the “assumption that content with diverse casts or themes is niche, and therefore comes with inherent perceived risk because of limited audience appeal,” (Berg, 2017). Mike Royce, the co-executive producer of Cuban-American remake of One Day at a Time, summarises Netflix’s operating system very well by comparing the service to a supermarket, “you can go in and get whatever you want whenever you want as opposed to just one thing on at one time, so [Netflix is] happy to try things out,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, like a supermarket trying out a new product, Netflix can put these new projects on display but if they are not successful with their buyers, they can remove them from the shelves, just as a supermarket would. Streaming sites like Netflix do not play by traditional televisions rules, as they provide on-demand content and television series in full rather than televisions one episode a week release in exchange for a monthly subscription fee (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Additionally, the service does not rely upon the funding of advertising neither do they have to fight for the primetime episode slots (Paulsen, 2018). Thus, their model focuses on content distribution, which allows them to give the creators free reign. Cindy Holland, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Content describes her production philosophy as “creator driven,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The attractiveness of Netflix is supported by content creators, such as Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Brancato said that when he spoke to Holland, "I said [Spanish subtitles] could be up to 30 percent of the show, and she looked at me and said, 'Or 40 percent?' And I remember feeling like my head was about to explode, because you very rarely if ever get back that kind of suggestion at a regular network,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). This move shows that Netflix is committed to the diversification of programming and are willing to take the risks that network television would not do so easily. There have been questions around whether Netflix is really committed to diverse programming with Kashann Kilson comparing the move to 90s-era Fox (Kilson, 2016). In the 90s, Fox was in a similar situation as Netflix was in 2016 in the fight for legitimacy (Netflix with network television), as Fox was trying to become the fourth broadcast network, but with a limited budget Fox executives focused on creating urban comedies and dramas that the other networks would not (Kilson, 2016). The formula was successful because it took on shows that would not be touched by other networks, casting minority actors, which gave them a week’s worth of programming for pennies on the dollar (Kilson, 2016). Essentially, they were high risk but at a low cost and they became successes because there was nothing like them on television. The production of shows like In Living Color gave Fox the legitimacy they were fighting for with successes of the shows and when this was achieved Fox moved onto, as Kilson calls it “whiter pastures,” with the network being found to be the whitest network in the 2000 Screen Actors Guild report (Kilson, 2016). The worry is that Netflix may take the approach Fox has done and that after the immediate success of a few programs they will lose focus on diversity. However, Pilot Viruet ushers in positivity with Netflix’s commissioning of Dear White People, a series based on the Justin Simien’s 2014 film, which not only features people of colour but is about people of colour and explores issues of race and culture of African-American students in an mostly-white Ivy League university (Viruet, 2017). The show is an excellent example of why producing diverse content is still considered a risk. After the release of the trailer, Tim Treadstone, a former Buzzfeed writer and member of the alt-right tweeted the show was anti-white and promoted “white genocide,” alongside a screenshot of his deleted Netflix account (Viruet, 2017). This resistance was a risk that paid off for Netflix with the show releasing its second season in 2018 scoring 100% critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and has been commissioned for a third series (Rotten Tomatoes, 2018; Nguyen, 2019). Furthermore, a recent Nielsen study echoes the notion that programs with a “predominantly black cast, or a main storyline focusing on a black character, are drawing a substantial non-black viewership, too,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, demonstrating that programs like Dear White People, which are focused on black characters and their stories are not limited to the black audience and that Treadstone’s criticisms and deletion of his membership have had little effect on the success of Netflix’s move to diverse programming. Netflix’s success can also be measured in the stars it has created. Their original series Orange Is The New Black (2013-) has launched the careers of black actresses Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, who is also transgender (Kilson, 2016; IMDb, 2019). By taking the risk in casting these minority Cox and Aduba, Netflix has created Emmy nominated actress and producer Laverne Cox and Emmy winning Uzo Aduba (IMDb, 2019; IMDb, 2019). Furthermore, the support for streaming in championing diversity is evident in a University of Southern California study (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The report found that in streaming content 29.4% of speaking roles were given to black and other minority characters compared to 26.7% in film (Smith, et al., 2016). The Huffington Post carried their own study by applying the “DuVernay Test,” to original scripted dramas and comedies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the Big Three U.S. networks ABC, CBS and NBC (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The test named after director Ava DuVernay and created by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis assess diverse programs as those which include black and other minority characters with “fully realized lives” rather than token characters (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Out of the 61 streaming shows they examined 36% passed the DuVernay test and 33% of 58 network shows passed the test (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). From this, the conclusion that can be drawn is that television and streaming are not that different in their representation of minorities. Nevertheless, this initial push from streaming services has ushered in change within traditional film and television production with their award wins cementing streaming’s legitimacy in the film and television industry, it seems like executives are taking note from the numerous studies that diversity does sell. This is demonstrated in HBO’s Insecure debuted in 2016, which follows “the awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American woman,” and draws in 61.5% non-black audience (Berg, 2017; IMDb, 2019). The figures show that this risk associated with producing non-white led shows and stories will not draw in the viewership is not the case anymore and with the help of streaming showing this it had has let to network television to follow suit. Netflix is not perfect in its move towards diversity with its release of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six (Viruet, 2017). The project was so offensive that Native American cast and crew walked off set in protest to insulting scenes about Native elders and women (Schilling, 2015). These included Native women’s names such as “No Bra” and misrepresentations in the dress of the Apache tribe (Schilling, 2015). Furthermore, despite their commitment to diverse programming the company has come under fire for not reflecting this commitment with their workforce. Alfred Edmond Jr. draws attention to this in his 2018 article, which shows that Netflix’s board, senior management and executives are all white, and only 4% of their workforce is black (Edmond Jr., 2018). This is echoed in a 2017 study conducted by the Directors Guild of America, which ranked Netflix studios last out of 10 studios for the diversity of its film and TV directors with 29% of the episodes on the service were directed by women or people of colour (Shaw, 2018; Directors Guild of America, 2017). The previous examples raise similar issues discussed in the previous chapter surrounding minorities in executive positions. With Sandler’s offensive depictions of Native Americans in The Ridiculous Six, it is worth considering that if there was more minority representation higher up in the workforce that a production like that would not have been screened. Moreover, the company has been the centre of racial controversy with the firing of Jonathan Friedland in June 2018 after the use of a racial slur among human resource executives (Shaw, 2018). With the light shone on the diversity problems within the company, Netflix has worked their way towards change in the workplace. Following the firing of Friedland, Netflix hired an executive to lead their diversity and inclusion campaign, with CEO Reed Hastings wrote in a memo that they have “started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster,” (Shaw, 2018). This commitment to not only diversifying content but also the workforce has been sustained and can be seen in the new employment figures for the company. From 2019, 42% of the company is from a racial minority background, with 31% in leadership roles, 41% in creative and corporate roles and 44% in tech roles (Netflix, 2019). Finally, with Netflix produced Roma garnering numerous Academy Award wins at the 91st ceremony, it did not come without debate, which demonstrates the sheer influence that the streaming giant has had on the industry and how we consume film and television. Members of Hollywood criticised the Academy and Netflix for its push on Roma during awards season arguing that the streamed project is not worthy of academy accolade because it does not reflect the cinematic experience (Scharf, 2019). The controversy stems from Roma’s nomination for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards because of its limited theatrical release. Netflix showed the film in a token number of theatres saying it fit within the same width of release that a foreign language film would receive from a traditional distributor (Zeitchik, 2019). Netflix further broke with tradition by showing Roma for only three weeks before debuting it on their streaming platform, which angered defenders of the cinematic experience, such as Academy member Steven Spielberg who began championing rival production Green Book as a vote for cinema (Scharf, 2019). The backlash to Netflix and the way it has chosen to stream Roma so soon after the cinematic release shows the way streaming is challenging how we consume film. Netflix’s actions are showing that the cinematic experience has changed and is not confined to the big screen. Additionally, Roma’s success at the Oscars further legitimises Netflix as a distributor and challenges the perception of what makes an ‘Oscar-worthy’ film. Without working with Netflix Roma would not have been made, at least not in the vision of the director, with one studio reported to pass the project on because of its unknown actors (Scharf, 2018). Director Alfonso Cuarón expresses his concerns in an interview, in which he stated he was worried about the theatrical release because the film is a ”Spanish-language drama shot in black and white” featuring “a cast of unknown actors,” (Scharf, 2018). He elaborates on this in an interview with Variety after the Oscars (Scharf, 2019; Lang, 2019). Cuarón outlines how difficult it is to see foreign language films in the cinema because most theatres play “big Hollywood films,” and states that Netflix “were willing to change their model to accommodate what we were looking for,” which he did not get from traditional studios when they were approached (Lang, 2019). Cuarón’s concerns further emphasise the struggle that filmmakers go through in producing authentically diverse productions by highlighting the resistance that the traditional studio shows. Thus, leading to creators moving towards streaming services, like Netflix, who give the creators control over their productions. In the end, Netflix has changed the way film and television is consumed by giving the consumer full control over what they watch and when they watch it, as well as giving their creators a level of control over their projects which has not been seen in traditional film and television production. Through critical acclaim, Emmy and Oscar recognition they have legitimised the streaming platform as a valued competitor among network television and Hollywood film. It is through this legitimacy, that they have influenced network television into taking the risks of producing stories about minority characters led by minority casts because they have shown to pay off for the streaming giant. Yet, Netflix is not perfect in its representation with their workforce needing improvement in its racial representation, but they have taken the risk Hollywood was too scared to do first.