Erik Barmack on ‘Sacred Games’ and Netflix’s Game Plan for India
Erik Barmack, Vice President of International Originals at Netflix is back in Mumbai to participate in the launch of the platform’s first Indian original show Sacred Games. We got down to chatting about the Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte-starrer and Netflix’s game plan for India.
Q: The first Indian Netflix original is obviously a very coveted and very important project. What attracted you and your team to Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (the novel) and why did you want this to be brought to life on screen as the first Indian original?
Erik Barmack: Netflix - we’re an on demand service, and we’re trying to create stories that people are really going to want to binge on, and so we’re looking for sweeping complex narratives, which Sacred Games certainly is. We wanted to find a show that touched on a number of issues that we thought were relevant to modern society, not just India, but on a global basis, and its discussions on crime, its discussions on religion, on media, all these things combined made for a super interesting narrative.
We were interested in something that would be appealing to great filmmakers. So when we realised that we had an opportunity to work on this project and we talked to Anurag and Vikram at Phantom, and we learnt that they were as interested in the book as we were, then we felt like we were really onto something. And that’s when we knew this was going to be a great opportunity for us.
Q: What was the SOP that was followed in making Sacred Games? Did you have the rights to the book and did you approach Phantom or did Phantom pitch the project to you and say that this would make for a great series?
Erik Barmack: It was kind of all at once. It was a three way conversation where we realised that the rights for the book were available, that Phantom was interested in making the series and that we were interested in putting those two things together.
Q: You don’t have a traditional studio model as of now, so what’s the procedure that you’re going to follow in producing shows and original content? Are you going to be outrightly handing over all the production to a certain production company and just oversee it or will you be actively co-producing as well?
Erik Barmack: So, our cultural values are really to try to present great filmmakers with the opportunity to do the work of their lifetime. And what we think that means is giving them artistic freedom to choose basically how they want to tell a story. But we also want to provide resources, we want to provide feedback, if they are interested in receiving that. So what we have now is something like a shared model where we have creative executives in Mumbai, and we have executives around the world who are all looking for these types of stories and really what we’re trying to do is figure out is how we can work with the most talented people in the industry and then provide them with the resources that they need to tell the stories that they want.
Q: There was a figure that was doing the rounds that Netflix had outlined around 8 billion dollars as the budget for content worldwide for 2018. How much of that is approximately allocated for Indian content?
Erik Barmack: We don’t discuss our specific financials by market. But what we can say is that we have invested more early on in original series and films in India than we have in any other market that we’ve launched in. So we’ve announced 6 or 7 original series already. You probably know that we’ve also launched Love Per Square Foot, Lust Stories, we’re doing stand-up comedy with people like Vir Das, we have a kid’s series, we have an unscripted series as well that’s on the Mumbai Indians and the IPL. And so we take our investment in Indian content very seriously for our audience here, also because we believe that this content has the opportunity to travel around the world.
Q: India, as you know has over a billion people and there are varying languages, cultures, tastes, aspirations. What’s Netflix’s strategy for creating content for a population which is so varied and so huge?
Erik Barmack: In general our goal over time is to provide lots of different options so that different consumers can use our service in different ways. For a starting point it may look like we’re investing in different genres. So we have a crime series with Sacred Games, in Love per Square Foot we have a love story, in Lust Stories we have something that deals with a bunch of social issues that are quite interesting, and then we have a supernatural horror story upcoming with Ghoul, we have something that’s skewed more towards a young audience in Selection Day. Over time we’ll layer in more genres, we’ll do things in different languages. But really though, long term of it all is that we want to provide lots of different options for our consumers here.
Q: India is not just Hindi centric, there’s Malayalam, Tamil, there’s Bengali among a host of other regional languages and there’s a very cinema literate and tech savvy population similarly looking for interesting content. Is Netflix going to slowly explore those markets as well?
Erik Barmack: For sure. You know we’re already in discussion with filmmakers from other regions outside of Mumbai. This is just a starting point for us to have a bunch of series and films that form the basis of our local providing strategy here. But overtime that’s going to expand to other regions and languages.
Q: A couple of years ago, the Hindi film industry was going through a crisis of sorts, as it had almost become unviable to produce Hindi films because the budgets became so bloated - due to the star and director’s fees. It became very difficult for the studio itself to make any profit even if the film became a money-spinner at the box office. Roping in a star obviously means you get better eyeballs - but the question was at what cost? What is Netflix’s strategy in this regard because you will be working with the same talent.
Erik Barmack: We’re going to be working with lots of different types of talent.
Throughout our international original strategy, we’ve worked with writers in their early 20s, we’ve worked with undiscovered teenage actors, we’ve worked with experienced actors like Nawaz and Saif, we’ve worked with talent from all different gamuts. I think long term our core business model is pretty simple, which is that our consumers are giving us money with the hope and expectation that we’re going to invest that money wisely in content choices and we’re going to continue to invest in content in India for the foreseeable future.
Now what that looks like is quite different than the film industry in the sense that we have lots of different options of how we can present this content: so we can do films, we can do series, we can do documentaries, we can do stand-up. So we have lots of different genres that we can go after. We also have different audiences, so we have the audiences here, we have the diaspora and we have the global audience that are going to be interested in shows like Sacred Games as well. So, there’s no one answer to this but we’re thoughtful of how we can invest in local content and also how we can use that content to provide consumers around the world with moments of joy from Indian directors, from Indian actors.
Q: Since you’ve been probably tracking the audience behaviour in India, is there anything interesting that you came across? Are there any particular genres that Indians love to watch? Romance probably, comedy maybe, thrillers? Is there a section or an age group which is increasingly subscribing to Netflix or is there a particular time when a lot of Indians log in?
Erik Barmack: On the one hand, we’re all part of this global TV culture, so what we’re seeing is that people around the world love Casa de Papel from Spain, they love Dark from Germany, they like Narcos from Columbia, they like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why and our Indian consumers do as well. But on the other hand, what we’re seeing is that Indians love films and they have a really active interest in watching films on a consistent basis, and they like local content, and that’s an important part of our offering, not just on the originals side but how we’re licensing films from people like Red Chillies, from the Aamir Khans of the world. So it’s the mixture of those things together that we think is really a compelling service here.
Q: Finally, Erik, what’s your favourite show on Netflix right now? What’s the VP of International Originals at Netflix himself hooked on?
Erik Barmack: Gosh, it’s all so very good. I just finished watching Wild Wild Country, which I thought was an incredible documentary series about Osho - quite interesting. I am a huge fan of Casa de Papel and am excited that we’re going to be doing more of it. Sacred Games we think really has the opportunity to join this list of great global story telling because it’s so authentic, its so true and it has such fine acting so I think that’s going to join the list of shows that we’re really excited about.