Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos accepted the Producers Guild's Milestone Award on Saturday, paying tribute to his late mother in a moving speech at the Hollywood Palladium.
“This is the highlight of no night ever, the executive acceptance speech—but thank you so much,” he started, on a night his Netflix had several nominees in the running including Motion Picture noms The Irishman and Marriage Story, as well as When They See Us and Unbelievable among others. “I want to thank the one person who introduced me to the new technology that would completely transform the entertainment industry—my mom, Susan. For those of you who don't know me, I grew up one of five kids in a pretty low-income household in Phoenix. My parents were young, and generally struggled all the time, and we always joked about my house because we never had all the utilities at the same time. But in this weird, reckless, beautiful thing, my mom bought a VCR. Before I knew anyone who had one, we had a VCR.
“My mom was the original early adopter. It was almost like she had a vision for me and my future that I didn't know about.”
Subsequently, Sarandos reflected on the second in a series of strange events, which would culminate in his position at Netflix. “The second video store in the state opened up a few blocks from my house, and that’s where it began for me. The love of TV and films became the love of the business of TV and films,” he said. “I came to this business as a fan, and I operate in this business as a fan.”
Reflecting on the moment eight years ago when Netflix ventured into creating original content, Sarandos noted the huge success of one of the streaming service's first efforts, which was written about at the time as a risky project for the company to take on.
“If you ask me, the real risk-taker was David Fincher. House of Cards was about the best package of a show I’ve ever seen. They could have sold that show anywhere, but they took a chance on us, even though we’d never produced or released an original anything. It was a start of something entirely new for us, and as it turned out, something entirely new for the whole business,” he said. “The explosion of production that followed has blown the doors open for new voices, has given a platform for seasoned professionals to practice their craft. We've created a place where creative excellence and creative freedom are not in conflict, and that dynamic will protect the future of TV and film, the raw emotional power of a great story well told.”
“The current state of cinema, as defined by the art form, is alive and well, and the future has never looked brighter,” Sarandos said. “The future of cinema will be written by the people who make it, and the people who love it.”
The top honor bestowed by the PGA, the Milestone Award recognizes an individual or team that has made “historic contributions” to the entertainment industry. In 2019, Warner Bros. Picture Group Chairman Toby Emmerich accepted the prize. Previous recipients include Sherry Lansing, Clint Eastwood, Jim Gianopulos, Alan Horn, Bog Iger, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Steven Spielberg and Tom Rothman among others.
Speaking with Deadline before the ceremony, Sarandos reflected on the roots of his Netflix, which this year received 24 Oscar nominations—the most of any distributor. From the early days of the company, he said, his vision for Netflix was for it to be a home for great filmmakers, as well as prestige pictures.
“Early on, even back to our old DVD-by mail-days, our superpower was that we could find a big audience for out-of-the-mainstream films because our distribution model was so national and efficient, and we could make a small film into a big film,” he said. “I think we have leaned into that from the beginning, so our relationships are deep in that world, but I think the best recipient of this has been the fans of those kinds of films that usually don't have access to it, depending on where they live.”
Sarandos noted that over the past decade, it's been quite rare to find a film in the top 10 global box office “that takes place on Earth, is not animation, not part of a franchise, [where] no one has superpowers. So, I think the opportunity that we have is to be able to tell great, grounded stories with great filmmakers that don't have to be otherworldly.”
As for Netflix's relationship to theatrical exhibition, and how he believes it will evolve in years to come: “I think that we have to keep making the films that are undeniable, and if that's the case, I think the exhibitors will change their ways, and guilds and awards and all those things all follow,” Sarandos said. “The key is we just have got to make great films that are undeniable, and that’s all we’ve been focused on.”
Netflix has revolutionized entertainment, providing a platform for auteurs whose films might not otherwise get made within the studio system. Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood helmer Quentin Tarantino, Sarandos found an unconventional route to the top of Hollywood. Dropping out of college to manage the Arizona video store he'd worked at since high school, he subsequently became Western Regional Director of Sales and Operations for East Texas Distributors, one of the largest video distributors in the U.S., where he negotiated revenue deals to transition the company from the VHS format to DVDs. Serendipitously, Sarandos met Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at just the right moment in 1999, joining the company in 2000 and riding the wave of revolution he sparked.