The art and science of how Netflix greenlights its original series

Detailed viewing analytics help the company screen pitches, but only humans provide new ideas

Screencap from Sense8 trailer.

A still from the forthcoming Sense8 (Netflix)

If there’s one misconception Peter Friedlander, vice-president of original production at Netflix, can’t stand about his company, it’s that its content is entirely governed by algorithms.

While the streaming company does base many of its business decisions on the huge amounts of data its users generate, its original shows are still very much organically created.

“This is a marriage between art and science and we lean heavily towards the art,” he said in a discussion this week at the company’s headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif.

Friedlander was explaining how Netflix settled on Sense8 as its next big original show, set to debut on June 5. The series was pitched to him in Los Angeles by superstar science-fiction writer J. Michael Straczynski and Andy and Lana Wachowski, the directors of The Matrix series of movies.

Netflix doesn’t go out and actively look for new series based on what executives think subscribers will want, Friedlander said, but the company does use viewer data to decide on which incoming pitches to accept.

In the case of Sense8, a show about eight individuals who are mysteriously connected to each other, the data was compelling.

“We saw how addictive it could be. We knew we had to have it,” he said.

On the creative front, Straczynski said Netflix was the only realistic outlet for Sense8, given how complex its storyline is.

The eight characters, who are able to draw on each others’ abilities, are scattered around the world. Each individual storyline had to be shot independently one after the other, in different locations.

The production moved from Iceland to India to Mexico to South Korea, and several other locations. The end result resembles a 12-hour movie more than it does a TV show.

“There’s no central base for this show. It’s a travelling circus,” said Straczynski, who also served as showrunner. “What we did with our story, no network in its right mind would agree to it.”

Both Friedlander and Straczynski said Netflix puts a lot of trust in creators since the company commissions entire seasons of shows at once, rather than just a pilot episode like traditional TV networks.

The advantage to that approach is that early episodes don’t have to be heavily front-loaded with information. Stories can be allowed to unravel slowly over the course of a number of episodes, rather than quickly in an effort to hook viewers with the first episode.

The overarching story behind Sense8 doesn’t really start to come into focus until after the third episode, Straczynski said.

“We’re in here for the long haul knowing the audience is in it for the long haul.”

Here’s the trailer for Sense8: