Netflix UK, France execs talk pitching, development at Sunny Side of the Doc

Netflix executives from the UK and France took part in a virtual roundtable on Monday (June 21) at the Sunny Side of the Doc conference, delving into the streamer’s commissioning ...
June 22, 2021

Netflix executives from the UK and France took part in a virtual roundtable on Monday (June 21) at the Sunny Side of the Doc conference, delving into the streamer’s commissioning approach for documentaries and docuseries.

UK’s director of original documentaries, Kate Townsend (pictured), and Dolores Emile, manager, unscripted and documentary series, EMEA France, were joined by Philippe Levasseur, Newen’s head of international, and Paul Martin, co-owner of Box to Box Films, in a session moderated by Melanie Goodfellow, Screen International‘s senior correspondent for Europe and the Middle East.

Townsend said story is the “main benchmark” for Netflix’s documentary and docuseries offerings.

“By story I mean something with a clear beginning, middle and end. That sounds obvious, but we get lots of issue-based or situational pitches, and we’re really looking for propulsion and narrative drive,” she noted, adding that while social issues and themes are important to the streamer, the stories need to be compelling.

“It’s story, it’s character… Execution. What is the approach? What is your unique visual approach to this story?”

She’s largely looking to commission projects with scale, access and global resonance. On the subject of sports-focused docs — of which Netflix has found success with titles such as Formula 1: Drive to Survive (Brit to Box Films) — Townsend advised producers against pitching a standard biography.

“Whether they’re features or series, we’re not looking for those profile pieces,” she added. “Storytelling means tension points and turns; leaning into complex and controversy is always great.”

Netflix content should be evergreen, Townsend said, so producers should steer clear of projects tied to events.

“On the feature side, on the global slate, we know our audience is interested in technology… and there is a massive interest in us reflecting the moral, ethical issues,” she said. “So it’s definitely of interest to us.”

When it comes to development, producers hoping to work with the streamer should be willing to do the leg work.

“We’re learning along the way that we definitely need to know that you have more than just a name. We need to know that there are lines of communication open at the least with people because that’s the nature of documentary. We do expect people to do a bit more work than with other broadcasters but then hopefully the reward is better,” Townsend said. “People need to show that they have gone quite a considerable distance to securing access before we will step in.

“We’re really flexible to come in at any stage and we do come in at any stage… We rarely give development but increasingly we’re recognizing if there’s a unique piece of access to an individual or archives that need securing, if we’re very interested we could secure that, and generally speaking we can come in from a four-page pitch stage and… we do buy the occasional acquisition as well. We have a coproduction team.”


In France, Emile said the approach to commissioning docs and docuseries is similar to that of the UK team. She’s interested in stories with twists and turns, key figures and entertainment value.

“In France we have great storytellers and great stories… On the series it’s even more important, because we need to have enough material to tell the story.”

Emile noted the importance of working with local talent.

“We try to empower local production companies, local talent, local directors, new creatives to tell French stories, which is the most important for us as my goal is to appeal to a French audience,” she said.

Still, local stories should have the potential to resonate globally, and there are opportunities for producers in other countries to pitch local stories.

“We would absolutely make sure they were working with key local talent,” Townsend said. “I think we have a bit more baked-in flexibility in that we’re looking for that importance of being in-market, but also speaking to a global audience.”

Sunny Side of the Doc runs virtually June 21 to 24. 

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