Kevin Spacey lends Edinburgh a golden Netflix glow
The big cliffhanger: will investors love its original content strategy?
His characterisation of television executives as interfering types who only water down creative visions didn't prevent him from receiving a standing ovation from a crowd populated largely by commissioning executives, “money people” and other “suits”.
Listing a creamy crop of US dramas beginning chronologically with The Sopranos and ending with House of Cards, Spacey said the challenge now was “to keep the flame of this revolutionary programming alive by continuing to seek out new talent” and give it autonomy. He was “disappointed” by laziness and complacency, he said. “I don’t think we do enough.”
Wearing a zip-up oatmeal cardigan with upturned collar in the classic Hollywood style, Spacey participated in a question-and-answer session on Friday morning in which he implored executives employed as de facto talent-spotters to go watch theatre performed in basement theatres and investigate the undiscovered storytellers performing comedy over on the other side of town at the Edinburgh fringe.
He also backed the idea - typically regarded as uneconomical by the creative industries - that giving people permission to fail is the path to their success. The writers’ room of The Sopranos had individually produced “a lot of crap” before they struck mafia gold, he said. “But they had paid their dues and they were learning.”
Not everyone was ready to give Netflix all the plaudits for their creative originality. House of Cards, as Dara O’Briain joked to the conference, is, ultimately, a US remake of a BBC drama (in turn adapted from a Michael Dobbs novel) that ran in the early 1990s. It introduced the phrase “you might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment” to the political lexicon back in the era of VHS.
More pertinently, investors in media companies don’t always back Spacey’s assertion that “the risk-takers are rewarded”. In the first quarter, House of Cards buzz helped Netflix gain 3 million subscribers. But in the second, the addition of 1.2 million new subscribers fell short of the high expectations of Wall Street analysts wary that its original content strategy could go wrong at any time.
Now boasting almost 38 million subscribers, including 1.5 million in the UK and Ireland, Netflix has proven itself as the global player most willing to take expensive risks in 2013 - even ones that are mitigated by being fronted by big names. But that doesn’t mean the consequences of failure won’t cast a shadow over its creative confidence in future, just as it does for older broadcasters with shrinking piles of cash to burn.