'New Subscriber Growth' as the driver of social progress

I don't think I can say enough how excited I am for the Netflix Premieres of both Alan Yang's Tigertail (out today), and Alice Wu's The Half of It (coming May 1st):

Alan co-created Master of None with Aziz Ansari, and Alice's previous film was the both groundbreaking and iconic Saving Face, a film from 2004 that 16 years later still drives an active, growing fanbase.

In the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time getting to know the Asian American film community: filmmakers, producers, actors, writers, festival directors.  It was a community held together by the festival circuit, which was often (back then) the only place where you could get your film seen.  The mainstream festivals didn't take Asian American stories or creators seriously, and without those same opportunities to screen, you couldn't get in front of distributors and you couldn't even have the shot at developing your craft.

Quality film productions require people, equipment and coordination, and hence they are by nature capital intensive.  The shift to digital has helped quite a bit in terms of lowering the cost of production, but it's also created more challenges across the board.  You could create and push your stories out to YouTube, but you often weren't seen as a serious creator.  And, the business model associated with that pales in comparison to a studio deal.

Thus, you could have all of the cost-advantages of digital, plus the distribution affordances brought about by the internet, and you wouldn't have a viable market unless there was sufficient capital for everyone to be made whole.

The prevailing winds was that Asian Americans needed to move up the hierarchy of power in Hollywood, and then that would dramatically open doors.  That didn't really quite pan out at scale.  Or, that Asian Americans investors would need to step up to fund narratives that center Asian American protagonists.  That didn't quite work either, in a world where the dominant distribution strategy was theatrical.  Few people were willing to take the leap that narratives centering Asian Americans would appeal to mainstream audiences and drive the kinds of numbers that would let you recoup your marketing costs on top of your production costs, and pay out in a profitable way to everyone up and down the chain.

Thus, social progress was hampered by a mathematical standoff.  No one wants to give it a shot because it's a risky play and a small market.  If anything, you might be able to convince someone that a small-budget feature could return capital, but nothing at a large scale.

In effect, the decision makers (the people with the capital) weren't willing to take a chance.

What changed this was Netflix.

However, it was more specifically, "Netflix at a later stage of growth".  As a public company, Netflix is constantly pushing for growth in order to please shareholders. Up until a few years ago, that growth was driven perfectly well simply through their previous model: providing a subscription service to "other people's content".

Once they got to a certain scale, the dynamics of the market shifted.  First, the other content creators decided to get into the streaming game so they themselves could get some of that sweet sweet subscription revenue.  Second, like any large incumbent, Netflix realized they needed to own more and more of the whole stack—not just the last mile to subscribers, but the production of content as well.  It was too much of a risk to not do so, because of the first point.

This worked, generally, but the more significant observation here is that this move to own the whole stack, which was a multi-billion dollar commitment was driven by a single metric that has increasingly become the one true metric for the company: new subscriber growth.  It's the company's north star, and the metric that Netflix continues to be measured by today.

When you have a metric like that, the underlying question is: "what are the most capital efficient ways in which we can effectively move that metric up?"

That framing presents a completely different question than the one traditionally posed to film studios and investors of: "what kind of return can I get on this specific project?"

It also sets the tone different.  The former brings along a mindset of experimentation and exploration.  The latter desires certainty, which is virtually impossible when you're talking about narratives vs. commodities or utilities.

And so, this focus on new subscriber growth led to (relatively) incredible experimentation at Netflix, which has brought much greater representation in both storytellers and storytelling (not just for Asian Americans) across the board relative to traditional Hollywood.  Now, whether the budgets are equitable is a different question, but everyone is getting a shot at a mainstream global audience with (relatively) high production value and industry-level pay.  It's a legit shot, which you can replicate and build upon.

And so, for that reason, it's really funny to me that the great equalizer was something as simple as a metric.  That's not to downplay the huge importance of the people at Netflix who are making these investemnt decisions and guiding these projects to completion.

However, we've always had people with the vision, intelligence and willpower.  What they've lacked is the leverage and opportunity to move an industry forward (both economically and culturally).  We all know how important narratives are, particularly in a country like the US, in terms of understanding the learning to see people as people, and how that shapes our collective behavior.

Overall, I'm grateful that all of the pieces of this puzzle have come together to allow for the creation of these wonderful films which will get the access to the audiences they deserve.  And I hope this "good weather" begets more opportunities for more storytellers like Alan and Alice, because I know we will all be better off for that.