From Greta Gerwig’s plans for Narnia adaptations to wooing Denzel Washington and Steven Spielberg, Stuber shared Netflix’s vision of film’s future in a wide-ranging Q&A with Variety executive editor Brent Lang that was held Nov. 8 as part of Variety’s Business Managers Elite Breakfast presented by City National Bank. Stuber, an experienced producer and former top Universal executive who joined Netflix in 2017, offered his candid thoughts on the streamer’s changing film strategy and the competitive environment during the sit-down at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The conversation took place about seven hours before SAG-AFTRA ended its nearly four-month strike against Netflix and other major Hollywood employers.
What has been the impact of the strikes on Netflix and your business?
They’ve been difficult, obviously. Creativity needs momentum, and we’ve had, with the pandemic, that was a difficult time, and now the strikes have slowed it down. It’s challenging just in terms of, do you have enough film and television on a basic business level? But on a spiritual and artistic level, it’s been really challenging. My friends who are writers and actors and directors — we’re all frustrated and hopeful and obviously sometimes these things need to happen in a changing business model where the artists want what they believe is fair. So it’s a challenging time, but I think right now what we’re all hoping for is to get back to what we do together best and that is to tell great stories.
So as a Netflix subscriber, am I going to start to see the impact of these strikes in terms of the amount of content available to me?
There’ll be some things next year just in terms of delays in some of our television and film stuff. But we’re lucky that as a global company, we make stories from all over, so we have a lot of storytelling [from] around the world that has continued. We’re also different in terms of the way we do it compared to a traditional studio, there’s also a big licensing component to it. So in the film offering, so much of what I’m doing is looking at all the components of the live-action teams, the documentary team, the animation team and then also the licensing team, who works with me as well. So we can actually keep a full slate of storytelling for our audience.
When you came over to Netflix in 2017, what was your mandate? What was your mission when you took over the job?
It was interesting. When I was younger I ran Universal Studios, and then I left to be a producer. I never really thought I’d go back and be a studio executive. … The opportunity to start something new rather than inherit or come into an old system that really doesn’t want to change was exciting and different. And so the ambition was build a new film studio, and build it from a unique place with a different distribution model. And it was challenging. It was way more challenging than I thought.
We came out of the box with nothing. So you’re dealing with 100-year-old studios that have IP and have development. And so you’re really starting from scratch. And it was fun. It was a challenge. You had to go to your friends and beg, and sometimes they would say, ‘No, I like you. I’m going to have dinner with you, but I’m not going to work there.’ And you’re like, ‘Ah, can we do it?’ And you keep coming back and you keep coming back. And someone who I’ve admired for a long time, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of movies with, was Denzel Washington, who said to me, ‘I’m not doing it.’
And I was like, ‘OK.’ And then we just kept coming and kept coming. And then he had the August Wilson catalog. And so we made ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and now we’ve just made another one that you saw Sam Jackson talk about ‘The Piano Lesson.’ And now we have two movies that Denzel is going to star in. So my job is to make creative talent feel great, to feel like I’m going to protect them, I’m going to tell their best stories and get them to a place of understanding what we’re doing. And so sometimes resiliency, as I teach my kids, is everything in life.
A couple of years ago, you announced that Netflix was making a new film every week. So over 50 films a year. But you’re moving away from that. What’s the new number that you’re looking for?
That was a reaction to the competition. How do we make sure that our consumer who’s used to a lot feels like there’s a lot? It was difficult. And as I’ve said many a time, there’s not 70 great ideas on the planet for a movie. So it really was like, “OK, let’s get to a back to a place.” So to me, I don’t want a prescriptive number anymore. I really want what is the best version of that and great is always perceived in all of our minds what that thing may be, but perception is really in the reality of what that is. So it could be a teen comedy. If it’s a teen comedy, make ‘Superbad,’ make ‘American Pie,’ make the best version of that thing I’ve ever seen. If it’s a drama, make ‘Boogie Nights,’ make ‘Goodfellas.’
There’s definitely a perception that a lot of things that are produced for streaming are disposable, that they don’t really latch on and capture the zeitgeist. I wonder, do you think that’s true?
I think there’s a variance of just the amounts of stories out there and the speed with which things come at us. Now, I do think when things are great, we hold onto them. And I do think we have to recognize that there’s different things that are challenging attention. I watch it with my kids and my kids like movies because I make them and it’s in their DNA, but they do watch a lot of TikTok and they watch a lot of YouTube. If you really watch YouTube, if you watch MrBeast, he’s a brilliant storyteller and he’s more popular than ever. And so I think we have to be cognizant of that and the ubiquity of what it is. But I do believe that great always gets through. … For some people it’s ‘Too Hot to Handle,’ which is a great dating show. And for others it’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ which is a Marty [Scorsese] movie. So I think really the impetus is just deliver the best in class on what you’re trying to do.
So when you’re going out and you’re trying to get talent, what is your competitive advantage? What can you offer people that those 100-year-old companies can’t offer them?
When I first took the job, I did have a moment two weeks in going, ‘Oh my God, this is really hard,’ because you have nothing. And you’re so used to a system where there’s 200-300 things in development. You have a big piece of IP, you’re going to make another ‘Jurassic Park’ movie, you know you’re going to make another Marvel movie. And so there’s a familiarity and a comfort to that to some extent. And I realized, ‘OK, well then we have to be what everyone else isn’t. We have to change our perspective and not wallow in that.’
But how do you create an environment where people can tell original stories and how you can break new talent?
This year we had a film called ‘They Cloned Tyrone.’ It’s a young filmmaker, Juel Taylor. It’s a brilliant piece, kind of look at the inner city through a lens of science fiction. And it’s really an incredible narrative for a first-time filmmaker. We have a film called ‘Fair Play’ with a woman named Chloe Domont, which is a really ballsy, smart, interesting movie and a real vibrant young filmmaker. So that to me is what our differentiators, how can we take new talent and break them? And then how can we say to storytellers, ‘Come here and make something original.’ Like Bradley Cooper, who I’ve been friends with a long time, has been trying to get ‘Maestro’ to the screen. And four years ago we sat down for three hours and went through it and talked about it, and I loved it and believed that in his eyes he was going to do something remarkable and he has done something remarkable. So I think you have to be an advocate. One of the things… I started in the business with a filmmaker named Richard Donner and his wife Lauren Shuler Donner, they were excellent storytellers and made ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘The Omen.’ I was at Warner Bros. and [former co-chairs] Bob Daly and Terry Semel created this place that felt like family. I still feel like that was the high school I went to because every filmmaker rooted for each other. And I’ve always thought that’s how you create a studio. You don’t make it feel transactional. We know it is, but we don’t want to feel that way. We want to feel like we’re part of something bigger than what we’re doing. We want to feel respect. We want to know the studio cares about what we’re doing and respects it.
Some of your streaming competitors like Apple and Amazon are now offering very robust theatrical releases. What’s your approach to theatrical?
I mean, we do it more often than people think. Everyone’s like, “You don’t do it.” And then they study it at the Academy and go, ‘Oh my God, you put all these movies in theaters for so long.’ I mean, the business models are all shifting. You guys study this, this is what you do for a living, right? They are shifting. And we have 250 million customers. Every time we put a movie out, I know that 2.2 people watch it at home.
I want to ask you about some upcoming films. You have Greta Gerwig adapting C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Why did you decide to make that deal? What about her as a filmmaker made you feel like that was a good fit with that material?
Greta’s been a friend for a while. Her husband, [director] Noah Baumbach, we’re close to, we’ve made I think three films. We’re starting another one. We have a big deal with them. If you don’t know her, she’s truly one of the greatest people, not an artist, but a human being. She’s just got this great soul. When we had [2019’s] ‘Marriage Story’ and she had ‘Little Women,’ we all spent quite a bit of time on the awards trail together at dinners.
[Gerwig] grew up in a Christian background. The C.S. Lewis books are very much based in Christianity. And so we just started talking about it. And like I said earlier, we don’t have IP, so when we had the opportunity [to license] those books or the [Roald Dahl Co.] we’ve jumped at it, to have stories that people recognize and the ability to tell those stories. So it was just a great opportunity and I’m so thrilled that she’s working on it with us and I’m just thrilled to be in business with her. And she’s just an incredible talent.
Is she writing many of these adaptations? What is her commitment to this?
Obviously, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is kind of the preeminent one, but there’s such an interesting narrative form [to the Narnia series] if you read all of them. And so that’s what she’s working on now with [producer] Amy Pascal and trying to figure out how they can break the whole arc of all of it.
I wanted to ask you about your deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. When that was announced, people were surprised because Spielberg is seen as such a traditionalist. Do you think he’ll direct one of the movies that Amblin makes for Netflix?
I think he’s at that place where he’s looking for what inspires him. And it’d be great if we could find it, if we could be the company that found it. He’s just such a treasure and such an incredible storyteller. It’d be great to find a film for him to direct because he’s one of my idols. … I’m a kid from the Valley, this whole thing is kind of weird to me at times. When he calls and my phone says ‘Steven Spielberg,’ I kind of giggle. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s happening.’ Like I almost want to screenshot it and show my parents and be like, ‘Yeah, he’s calling me.’
When you look at these new models, it can be very difficult as an outsider to figure out what is successful and what is not. So how do you measure success for your films?
I run it just like I ran Universal. I have a P& L. I have an addressable audience of 250 million people. I have a budget on a movie that is, say, $100 million. I have a marketing component of what I’m going to spend and all those things. And then I go, ‘OK, I need X amount of people to complete it.’ So when I started [in the movie business], there was something probably a little bit easier in the sense you don’t have that feeling every weekend where you have tracking and you’re on pins and needles for four weeks. But now it’s harder than theatrical in some ways because you are very competitive. My eco-system is like the AMC 6000. Because as an audience member, you can leave that theater by pressing exit very quickly. If you exit my movie before a certain time, I don’t get the ticket. So if you go to AMC and you buy and you leave, they get the ticket. I don’t. And if five of you watch ‘Rebel Moon,’ I get one ticket. And if you go to AMC, I get five tickets.
What has surprised you the most about your experience at Netflix?
I think the ability to adapt. Actually, one of the things that surprised me the most was, you read the [Netflix] culture deck and you’re like, ‘Really?’ … I’m like the new kid at school where they speak a different language than I do — like legitimately speak a different language. They don’t use paper. I came from paper. They use computers. Everything’s got all these acronyms and I’m like, ‘I have no idea what they’re saying.’ And Reed [Hastings] knew every single person’s name and took criticism about a decision that was made before I got there and took it — like really understood that he made a mistake.
And I was like, ‘OK, this is special.’ This is the creator-CEO, who has the intimacy to know his people all the way down through the organization personally, and also is willing to know that something went wrong, take the criticism and fix it. And that to me is any good organization. Leadership has to be open to thought and criticism in order to evolve. The people who work under all of us need to feel the spiritual connectivity to us on a level that we know who they are, but also to be able to say, ‘I have an idea,’ or, ‘I don’t think we should do it that way.’ And that’s what makes any company great. Collaboration and respect is everything in creation and business.
(Pictured: Variety’s Brent Lang and Netflix’s Scott Stuber)