Netflix’s two top film and TV executives said the streaming service still has plenty of room for progress with diversity, but predicted results in 2020 will likely show improvement over 2019 when all of the numbers are tallied.
“I think we are definitely going to improve,” TV chief Bela Bajaria said. “If you think about last year, with Bridgerton and Gentefied and Never Have I Ever — and this is scripted, it’s not including non-fiction — I think we have a lot of titles and we have a commitment to improve every year.”
Film boss Scott Stuber said staffers in his group “definitely feel like we’re improving,” citing releases like Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Da Five Bloods, The Old Guard and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “But the point of this benchmark is to constantly be held accountable. … The whole auspice here is not to pat ourselves on the back. It’s to say publicly, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.'”
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The executives offered their perspectives during a Zoom panel organized by USC. The hour-long event began with a presentation by Stacy L. Smith, a communications professor and founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The group will release a major study on Netflix’s inclusiveness metrics on Friday, comparing 2019 with 2018, and indicating some significant strides for the company in terms of representation. Joining Stuber, Bajaria and Smith in a panel discussion were filmmakers Alan Yang and George C. Wolfe, whose directing and producing projects include Netflix titles Master of None and Ma Rainey, respectively.
Bajaria, who was born in India, said she brings a personal sense of mission to her efforts to include a broad spectrum of on-screen characters and more people of color behind the camera. “Growing up, I never saw myself represented” on television, she said. “I take it very personally when we talk about the invisibility of women of color because I know what that feels like.”
Bridgerton, the Shonda Rhimes drama whose first season made history as Netflix’s most successful original to date, connected so strongly because it was a new, inclusive spin on something familiar, Bajaria said. “The Regency Era has been told one way all the time,” so it was “massive impact that people saw themselves in an era of history told in a different way.”
The global platform of Netflix, whose more than 203 million subscribers are in more than 200 countries, means “we’re not just exporting Hollywood stories,” she added.
Stuber, who was a longtime Universal production executive and producer before joining Netflix, acknowledged that it helps not to have to persuade exhibitors about the theatrical playability of projects. “Our distribution platform is definitely an advantage because it’s an equalizer,” he said. “We’re going right to the audience. You know the audience is diverse. There’s different gender. So it gives you freedom and opportunity.”
Expanding representation on screen is “better business” because it opens up possibilities for who will connect with a given film, he added. Jingle-Jangle, a Christmas musical featuring a mostly Black cast, resulted in an “outpouring” of appreciation from viewers, he said.
One upcoming project, conceived as a Black take on Indiana Jones, fell into place because of the kinds of relationships Stuber hopes to keep cultivating. Netflix’s relationship with Spike Lee and Stuber’s long-ago championing of a successful Universal project directed by Lee’s cousin, Malcom D. Lee, The Best Man. In a similar fashion, Spike Lee connected the parties involved in a project Stuber is eager to see to completion: Gordon Hemingway & the Realm of Chthulu, directed by Stefon Bristol (See You Yesterday) and starring Jonathan Majors (Da 5 Bloods). Stuber describes it as an Indiana Jones-like adventure with a Black star and director.
Both executives acknowledged some significant revelations in the USC report. Asked by panel moderator Elvis Mitchell, a former New York Times critic who is now a professor, radio host and film programmer, about the biggest surprises in the findings, Bajaria immediately replied, “LGBTQ+.” She added that she “almost fell off my chair” when looking at the numbers. “I feel like we’re so active in storylines, and always have been, with big, impactful roles and shows. I think what this study doesn’t show is sometimes the prominence or impact of that storyline and that role,” she said. “Because there’s the amount of people [as a percentage of the total cast] … but I think we’ve been very forward with big, huge roles and storylines with impact. I was very shocked that we’re not doing great there.”
Beyond just LGBTQ+ as a broad category, Bajaria added, the specific deficit with Netflix turned out to be gay parents. “That’s not what the world looks like,” she acknowledged.
Stuber said the stunner for him in the data was a lower level of Latinx and Asian-American representation. “Those are areas we have to do better in,” he said. “I think we’ve made good strides. We’ve had films in those areas but we need to continue to reach out to people in those filmmaker communities.”