WIRED25: Netflix’s Reed Hastings on Broadening Your Horizons

Thanks to Covid-19, the mantra for 2020 has got to be “quarantine and chill.” Good thing Netflix is here to “entertain people all over the world,” as the company’s cofounder Reed Hastings explained at this year’s WIRED25.

Sating the global entertainment palate, though, requires an undying spirit of invention as well as narratives that span both the US and abroad. Netflix’s secret, according to Hasting’s new book No Rules Rules, is that it values its workers over its work process. It’s this employee-centric attitude that allows a startup to maintain a culture of innovation as it grows from, say, a 30-person rent-by-mail DVD provider into the world’s largest streaming service, with a film production arm that rivals Hollywood’s Big Six.

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The service offers movies and TV shows made in Spain, Germany, Japan, Korea, the UK, Brazil, and more, providing lockdowners with stories from everywhere to everyone. “If you’re a globalist, like I am,” Hastings said in an interview with WIRED editor-in-chief Nick Thompson, “you want to knit the world together and you want people to understand, respect, love, and appreciate each other. And entertainment is a key part of how that happens.” And during a time of rampant nationalism, if culture is the antidote to bigotry, stream on!

Hastings’ globalist ethos, however, doesn’t translate to tracking your travel plans for better binge-worthy recommendations. So while the occasional Korean flick might pop up as its deep learning algorithm “probes the edge” to broaden your artistic horizons, it’s not snooping on you to see if you recently took a trip to South Korea. The point is variety, not data abuse.

“Nobody wants a film just like the one you watched last night,” Hastings told Thompson. “We want something that’s different, that’s fresh.”

Your data, he was also quick to note, is safe with Netflix. “We buy no data. We don’t sell any data. We are a complete, isolated data island.” Your recommendations are spawned solely through your viewing habits coupled with the preferences of anonymized users. If the company were funded by advertisers, though, Netflix—like other Silicon Valley behemoths—would be incentivized to share your information with its sponsors.

This subscription-based model has largely saved the company from the tech backlash in recent years. Plus, as Hastings pointed out, “We’re fundamentally an LA company that does incredible tech,” with two-thirds of its budget allocated to content creation in La La Land. So they’re competing more with Disney+ and HBO Max than Facebook and Google.

As for the future of Netflix, they’re going to keep creating great series and films. Those mediums, however, may eventually go the way of the novel and the opera and become a “small artform.” The uncertainty lies in “substitution threats,” things like user-created content from TikTok and YouTube and advancements in AR hardware and video gaming. Netflix isn’t interested in moving into those territories, though, “because we won’t be as good. But for now, movies and series seem like a core human format. So, I think we’re on to a pretty long-term thing but, at least in principle, someday movies and TV shows will be small.”

Before cinema becomes as rarified as Elizabethan theatre, Hastings recommends you check out Jake Gyllenhaal in Paul Dano’s “slow and beautiful” arthouse film Wildlife. Also, keep an eye out for upcoming Netflix projects by the likes of the Obamas and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, along with a bevy of other “incredible producers.” So why not stay at home and chill out? There’s plenty on TV.

Portrait by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images.


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