Thanks to the pandemic, everyone is more than familiar with the Netflix interface. With theaters closed to the public, Netflix was one of the few ways to watch something new. And watch we did: Americans binged more than 600 hours of Netflix on average in 2020. Since 93% of Americans have a Netflix subscription, that’s a lot of Tiger King, Stranger Things, and Cobra Kai.
However, getting movies and shows in front of an audience is only one part of the streaming platform’s business. The company spent about $17 billion creating content last year, and it’s projected to spend the same amount again for 2021.
“If you take how much content we produce each year, it’s basically the output of the rest of Hollywood combined.”
Said Chris Dhanaraj, Senior UI Engineer at Netflix. To help bring all that content to market, Dhanaraj creates apps for the company’s content production arm to make it easier to produce the next big hit. On the latest episode of our podcast, Decoded, Dhanaraj took us behind the scenes of the software that helps make movie deals possible.
Making Movie Magic Happen
The process of making a movie or show requires hundreds of people — from the writer and director to the lawyers and accountants — working together as one. Dhanaraj said that Netflix Studios uses about 150 different applications to manage every part of the process, making all of Hollywood their user base. These apps help democratize information access and improve the speed of deal flow, allowing the company to scale its massive production needs.
As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, one of the hardest parts about making a movie is making the deal. While technology like CGI is now a major part of movie making, until just a few years ago the process for managing deals was still very manual.
“When I interviewed users, they would tell me, ‘When we worked at Warner or Disney, we used to have a filing cabinet. And we would just rifle through papers until we found the correct one.’”
By providing apps to make it easier to track pitches, agree on deals, and manage production, Netflix Studios has been able to revolutionize the way movies are produced, allowing it to quickly grow from a handful of original productions a few years ago to hundreds of hours of original programming today.
While the apps he creates help facilitate billions of dollars of production, Dhanaraj is challenged by the fact that his team creates apps for a very narrow audience. While his counterparts for the Netflix streaming service have millions of users on whom to A/B test features and functionality, Dhanaraj lacks the user data he would ideally like to have to make decisions. Instead, he has to discover user preferences the old-fashioned way: by asking them.
“Prior to COVID, I was in L.A. at least once a month, if not more. And we would chat with the users, see what they're doing, what their pain points are. It's a big pro because you can build a relationship that way. It's also a bit of a con because, like in consumer products, users don't always know what they want.
“You are very much a product engineer. You have to wear a PM hat sometimes, you have to wear a designer hat sometimes. It's a bit more chops that way — you can't just come to work and code — which is actually fun.”
For Dhanaraj, this insight allows him to create apps that feel almost bespoke to the user while ensuring all their needs are met. This helps the upstart studio build and maintain the Hollywood relationships that are critical to getting access to the hottest talent. As he explained:
“For us in talent relationships, if something goes live early, if something goes off air, if we leak something, then it has massive effects for us as Netflix and how we deal with talent in Hollywood, which is so relationship based. If we mess something up here, then we may never sign a deal with this person ever again.”
While Netflix has its heart in Silicon Valley, “move fast, break things” doesn’t work when half-baked features can cost you a major production. Dhanaraj says that the studio side of the business learned early on that it is better to ship well than to ship fast. He said:
“I think the biggest lesson I've learned at Netflix is the importance of well-defined product memos. That upfront research time is well worth the cost. I think it's sometimes hard for people to say we're going to spend more time figuring out what we're doing, as opposed to immediately going down and just writing some code.”
Tune in to our full conversation with Chris Dhanaraj to hear more about the intricacies of building for the entertainment industry.