Making the pitch to Netflix

At a recent Hot Docs industry session, Netflix's Marjon Javadi - who heads acquisitions and production for documentaries with the Originals team - sat down to discuss the mechanics of acquisitions and what her banner is looking for in potential projects. (Pictured, L-R: The Square, Virunga)
May 14, 2015

Between signing a multi-year first-look deal with Leonardo DiCaprio and seeing its Originals doc titles twice reach the Oscars, VOD platform Netflix has become an essential part of the conversation around documentary distribution.

At an industry session held last month during Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Netflix exec Marjon Javadi - who heads acquisitions and production for documentaries with the Originals team – sat down with a small group of delegates to discuss the mechanics of acquisitions.

Prior to joining Netflix, Javadi served as a development executive for producer Scott Rudin, and her previous roles include working in film finance for the Creative Artists Agency and as a production assistant for Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets prodco.

The exec explains that 98% of the docs on Netflix are licensed, but Originals’ year-and-a-half-old push into docs has thus far acquired 10 films, including such heavyweights as VirungaThe Square and E-Team, and the team is now making in-roads into the docuseries space with Russell Peters vs. the World and Chef’s Table. Here, realscreen reports on Javadi’s pitching requirements and what she’s looking for in both features and docuseries.

Docuseries strategy

After launching a four-part docuseries with Russell Peters in October 2013, Netflix waited over a year before taking on Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb’s six-episode culinary offering Chef’s Table, which Javadi says came to Netflix as a detailed pitch along with a production schedule and budget. Ultimately, it was greenlit within two months of being pitched, and premiered on the platform just last month.

Javadi says the company is selective in the types of projects it takes on for series consideration – “We’re not in the development business,” she says plainly – and expects series ideas to be “a bit more packaged.”

“We had a relationship with David: we knew his producers well and it was very much where the creator really explained his true vision,” says Javadi. “We knew what we were going to get in terms of the style with Jiro, and then he came to us [and said], ‘Here are the six episodes, each chef, each restaurant. And even if you guys don’t like those, here are my five back-ups.’”

What to pitch

Anything, as long as considerations are made for marketing and PR. “There are billboards on Sunset Boulevard for Chef’s Table right now, which is bizarre to me, but they want to take that content and elevate it as much as they can,” says Javadi. “It’s the PR aspect of it all. And it’s something so wonderful we can grant for docs no matter what format, so we want to make sure we can take advantage of it at the fullest.”

Javadi says the acquisitions strategy for docs in the Originals division is very much “filmmaker-driven,” meaning that the team is looking specifically at experienced directors and the stories they’re able to tell. For doc features, Netflix expects a rough cut, and commissions aren’t generally made early on. Though Netflix did acquire Liz Garbus ‘s What Happened, Miss Simone? ahead of its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Javadi says that project was an exception. “That was Liz Garbus coming to the table and Radical Media was a producer, so it was already high-level curators that we felt comfortable taking a bet on,” she says.


For Originals titles, Javadi says Netflix takes all world rights and first-window. If broadcast rights for a doc have been sold to another broadcaster, Netflix will still evaluate the film but it won’t be presented under the Originals banner.

“If you have a doc where [PBS doc strand] ‘POV’ or [PBS funding arm] ITVS has the rights, if you bring it to us [at Originals], most likely we can’t take it, but it will still go to another colleague of ours on licensing and they’ll be able to figure out how to put it on [the] platform,” says Javadi.

Where to send pitches

Javadi – the first entry point for all doc submissions – says she is open to emails, and prefers that interested parties email first before sending tape. “Email first, and explain what the project is,” she advises. “I know it’s shooting in the dark, but even with the series, if you just say, ‘Here’s my series idea – is this even what you guys are looking for?’, it’s better to send that email and have me say, ‘No, this is what we’re looking for,’ instead of you putting all the work into it and me [saying] ‘Pass.’”

Licensing fees

Javadi says she can’t disclose the fees paid for features and docuseries, but quickly adds that it “wouldn’t even be a fair answer” because of the variety among Originals acquisitions. “The Battered Bastards of Baseball is going to be very different than Virunga ,” she says. “Those fees can get mixed up with what people think for licensing. A doc coming through CNN Films is a very different licensing agreement than someone who does their first-time doc and gets a lot of awards at the festivals.”


Anything goes. Javadi points to Chef’s Table which has a variety of lengths all between 42 minutes and 56 minutes. If a series is going to be episodic, it should be over 30 minutes, but in terms of episode quantity, it can be whatever is best for the story.

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