Reed Hastings on Netflix, Hollywood and the Future of Streaming

Does it really feel good to be the man who killed Hollywood?

“No,” mentioned Reed Hastings, who nurtured Netflix into the Godzilla of the leisure world. “But, of course, we haven’t killed Hollywood.”

At 59, the slender, gray-haired Mr. Hastings stays a thriller in the business he dominates. “He’s a complete cipher here,” one Hollywood macher mentioned.

You received’t discover Mr. Hastings hanging with the stars at the San Vicente Bungalows. He doesn’t bellow at the pool at the Hotel du Cap or swan round at premieres. He could present up in line at Sundance, however he’s not slicing the line.

He began a supply system for films, and now his firm is one of the strongest forces in films. In the capital of drama, Mr. Hastings is, with out drama, ripping out the infrastructure and changing it along with his personal.

So how did a self-described “math wonk” whose favorite pastimes are walking and thinking, a man who trained for a time with the Marine Corps before switching to the Peace Corps, teaching math in Swaziland, render old Hollywood irrelevant?

Mr. Hastings said that his mother was a Boston debutante from a Social Register family who married a lawyer who later worked in the Nixon administration. She was repulsed by the world of high society and taught her children to disdain it. So young Reed grew up thinking that it was a good thing to distance yourself from elites and avoid pretensions.

The new overlord of the land of artifice and playacting hates artifice and playacting.

“Probably it all comes down to, you know, your mother or your father,” he murmured.

The height of his flashiness was posing on a Porsche in 1995 on the cover of USA Today, when he was a tech executive. He said he put aside that kind of “superfun” immaturity and sold the Porsche in favor of a Toyota Avalon. (Now he drives a Tesla.)

But for all the low-key charm, there’s no doubt that Mr. Hastings — along with his more wheeling-dealing Hollywood-based partner, Ted Sarandos — is running the show.

“The heart and soul of our content,” is how Mr. Hastings describes Mr. Sarandos, who grew up glued to the TV and dropped out of community college in Arizona to work in a video store. Mr. Hastings, who recently moved over to share his C.E.O. role with Mr. Sarandos, describes their partnership as “a positive, low-ego thing.”

Ms. Min notes that “there are all sorts of ways people have tried to hate the company,” for not getting their calls returned or not being able to schmooze their way into a big production deal with a friend or not getting cushy back-end deals. People whisper about the Netflix culture being arrogant and cultlike, a culture of fear.

“But now,” Ms. Min said, “they’re too big to hate.”

Netflix is like the British Empire at its height, expanding across the globe. Indeed, in addition to all the royals in “The Crown,” Netflix now has its very own prince. The company this week signed Harry and Meghan to a multiyear deal.

They join the Obamas; Ryan Murphy; Shonda Rhimes; Kenya Barris; Ava DuVernay, who is teaming up with Colin Kaepernick for a Netflix series; and the erstwhile lords of HBO, the “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are adapting a Chinese sci-fi epic by Liu Cixin called “The Three-Body Problem,” about humanity’s first contact with alien civilization.

After a long period when the club of mostly white, supposedly liberal men running Hollywood secured the power in a lockbox, keeping a death grip on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and acting shocked anew every time a movie with Asian or Black or female leads did great box office, Netflix is swiftly democratizing things.

“Sounds like a good storytelling device,” he said dryly, though he conceded that Disney bosses do get mad when he steals executives and talent.

For our Zoom interview, the Netflix mogul looked comfy in a checked shirt, khakis and bare feet in his “Covid hide-out”: his son’s old bedroom, in the house in Santa Cruz, Calif., he shares with Patty Quillin, his wife of 29 years.

“It was great sport making fun of this bedroom on our earnings call four months ago,” he said, smiling. “I don’t want to really set up a home office because I want to believe that the pandemic is going to end soon. So, month by month, I stay here without fixing it up out of kind of stubborn hope.”

Because he believes “any locked area is symbolic of hidden things,” he does not have an office or even a cubicle with drawers that close, even at his headquarters. He writes that he might grab a conference room if he needs it but prefers walking meetings.

“He makes his own cappuccino at machines, and we have no private dining rooms in our Hollywood office,” said a Netflix colleague. “He and Ted get food in the cafeteria like everyone else.”

Has the pandemic altered Mr. Hastings’s perception of the competition?

It’s the “sideways threats” that bite companies, he said. “If you think of Kodak and Fuji, competing in film for 100 years, but then ultimately it turns out to be Instagram.”

He thinks if Mr. Trump wins re-election, “it would not be good but I’m not worried that it’s the end of America. I mean, America is super-resilient, and I feel great about our civic institutions, whether that’s the military or the Civil Service. It won’t be as traumatic as the Civil War or the Great Depression.”

He is supporting Joe Biden, but he is not as outspoken as he was last time and didn’t watch either convention.

“You know, C.E.O. announcements about politics don’t carry much weight with most people,” he said.

I asked if he would ever give Mr. Trump a Netflix deal like the Obamas.

“I haven’t thought about that,” he said, noting that he doesn’t try to tailor the company to his own political views.

The Netflix psyche is dissected in Mr. Hastings’s new book, written with Erin Meyer, “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.”

The book was born from the Netflix Culture Deck, a famous — and infamous — show of 127 slides that Mr. Hastings put online in 2009. It was hailed, in a 2013 GQ article, as possibly “the most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley” by Ms. Sandberg. (Mr. Hastings was on the board of Facebook at the time.)

Even Ms. Meyer, a business professor, loathed some of the tenets at first and compared the company culture to the Hunger Games. But Mr. Hastings believes it was essential to his revolution.

Netflix pays top dollar and wants what it calls High Talent Density, which means only stars, no average people. Some of the rules of the Freedom and Responsibility workplace sound rigid.

“Adequate performance gets a generous severance,” one rule says.

Managers use The Keeper Test to figure out which employees are merely average and to weed out complainers and pessimists. How hard would you fight to keep someone? If the answer is “not that hard,” that employee should go. As one former executive frets in the book, they are more like penguins, who abandon those in the group that are weak or struggling, than elephants, who nurture the weak back to life.

Employees are also encouraged to use The Keeper Test Prompt, to ask bosses if they would fight hard to keep them.

Maxing Up Candor, getting rid of the “normal polite human protocols,” is a part of daily life at Netflix with a daily Circle of Feedback and annual written and live 360 Assessments, in which you meet with the team to get ripped apart.

Mr. Hastings, who grew up in a house where emotions were never discussed, said he got the idea for more transparency after going to marriage counseling.

By making things less hierarchical, Mr. Hastings believes the company can be more nimble.

Employees are encouraged to critique those above and below them at any time. (This does not seem to apply to top talent, like Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy.) Staff members must Farm for Dissent and Socialize new ideas. Failures should be Sunshined, talked about openly and frequently.

He writes in the book: “We all stay friends and there is no shame.”

One fired Netflix executive told me, “When Reed views somebody’s contribution as less than the problems they’re causing or potential risk, he gets rid of them. He’s an extraordinary guy, but he’s coldly rational and calculating. But the trade-off is, you get to go on this amazing fun ride, make a lot of dough, and when your number’s up, your number’s up.”

Ms. Meyer initially wondered whether Netflix’s culture represented bad management — “hypermasculine, excessively confrontational and downright aggressive” — and whether it was “ethical to fire hard-working employees who don’t manage to do extraordinary work.”

How could people feel safe to “dream, speak up and take risks” if they were being injected with fear daily?

But she concludes in the book that Netflix’s “incredible” success is hard to argue with, and employee surveys show a high degree of satisfaction. She said she did not discover the back-stabbing she expected.

Mr. Hastings writes that all the rules apply to him: “I tell my bosses, the board of directors, that I should be treated no differently. They shouldn’t have to wait for me to fail to replace me.”

He adds: “I find it motivating that I have to play for my position every quarter, and I try to keep improving myself to stay ahead.”

But, I pressed, the board wouldn’t really dismiss him, right? With a cascade of tears and apologies, he survived the Qwikster debacle — a separate company he created in 2011 to handle the DVD market — after the Netflix stock dropped more than 75 percent and “everything we’d built was crashing down.”

“They really would do it,” he said of the board, “if there was a better leader.” But he conceded, “I guess it’s unproven, so I’m sure it doesn’t generate a lot of credibility.”

The book describes the problems of imposing “the Netflix Way” on other cultures, especially in Asia and Brazil, where it can be considered rude or debilitating. (The Dutch seemed fine; they’re even more blunt than Americans.) But Mr. Hastings does not give up. He simply doubles down: “With less direct cultures, increase formal feedback moments,” including feedback clinics.

“A high sharing environment,” as Mr. Hastings calls it, is my idea of hell. That’s why I’m not on Facebook.

I broke the news to Mr. Hastings that I could never work at Netflix because I am extremely sensitive to criticism. (I know that is ironic, given my job.) I like to complain and be pessimistic.

“There are a few probably, like you, who don’t like the criticism,” Mr. Hastings said, noting that Netflix is not a good fit for everyone.

With trepidation, I asked Mr. Hastings how I would fare if he gave me The Keepers Test based on our interview.

“Would you fire me right now?” I asked.

Mr. Hastings decided to be diplomatic. “I look forward to having a redo sometime when we’re in person,” he said, “which I’m sure is just richer in every way.”

[How about a Confirm or Deny binge?]

Maureen Dowd: Your favorite movie on Netflix is the erotic flick “365 Days.”

Reed Hastings: Let’s say it’s more stimulating than most people realize.

You still haven’t figured out if you’re subscribed to HBO Go or HBO Max.


You have never felt the need to Netflix and chill.


Jeff Bezos is going through a midlife crisis.

Well, I’ll firmly deny. He is a great and thoughtful guy.

But you do have a tattoo of the Albanian Army logo on your back.

I’ve got my Albanian Army dog tags.

The Netflix lobby is the new MGM canteen.


TikTok is your toughest competitor.


You sold vacuum cleaners door to door and served coffee at a computer company in Boston.


Executives at media companies make too much money.


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