Interview: Shawn Cauthen, the Director of "Netflix vs the World," a Documentary About Netflix That's on Amazon

May 18, 2020 Topic: Netflix Blog Brand: Techland Tags: NetflixAmazonAmazon PrimeTechnologyStreaming

Interview: Shawn Cauthen, the Director of "Netflix vs the World," a Documentary About Netflix That's on Amazon

How did Netflix grow from an unheralded startup in 1997 that first drew attention for sending its subscribers DVDs, into an entertainment colossus that's worth more than Disney? That's the subject of "Netflix vs. The World," a new documentary that's now available for rental and purchase from… Amazon Prime.

Netflix, these days, just about rules the world. It's at the forefront of popular culture, winning Oscars and re-writing the rules of what entertainment is. Netflix has movies, concerts, comedy, and all kinds of entertainment both highbrow and low.

This is especially the case during the coronavirus pandemic, with much of the world stuck at home and streaming more than ever. Netflix's stock is at an all-time high, with its market capitalization nearing $200 billion.

How did Netflix grow from an unheralded startup in 1997 that first drew attention for sending its subscribers DVDs, into an entertainment colossus that's worth more than Disney? That's the subject of "Netflix vs. The World," a new documentary that's now available for rental and purchase from… Amazon Prime.

The documentary is based on Gina Keating's 2012 book "Netflixed: The Epic Battle For America's Eyeballs," and Keating is credited as the documentary’s writer. Featuring interviews with several ex-employees of the company, as well as those of its onetime rival Blockbuster, "Netflix vs. The World" traces Netflix's history through its humble beginnings, the Red Envelope era and its battle with and triumph over Blockbuster. It then covers the company's pivot to streaming and high-profile original content, the Qwikster debacle, and eventually the company's growth into a Hollywood superpower.

There are also some funny stories, about how much the company struggled with how to make DVD packaging that wouldn't break, and about the time Netflix produced a DVD of President Bill Clinton's impeachment testimony which was shipped to customers who, due to a supplier mixup, mistakenly received Chinese pornography.

The National Interest spoke last week with Shawn Cauthen, the director of "Netflix vs. the World," about the film, what Netflix thinks about it, and how a movie about Netflix ended up on Amazon.

Q: How have you been doing in quarantine?

A: You know, good. Just trying to hold down the fort and get this project out. It's earlier than we thought we were going to release it, but when all the film festivals started shutting down, it just seemed like the time was now, because holding on to it did nothing. . I'm also working on another docuseries… it's called "Fan Level Midnight: Devoted to The Office." I went cross country with some people to discover the fandom of "The Office."  It was something that I discovered while I was doing "Netflix vs. the World.”  I saw that "Friends and "The Office" were, you know, their top shows at the time which I found interesting, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

Q:  My first question for you about the movie is, how exactly did you come to direct this particular movie?

A: I was working on another doc called "The Orange Years The Nickelodeon Stories," about the origin of Nickelodeon And so I was in post on that I'm not the director of that one I was just a DP and co-editor. But I was looking for my next project, and there's two projects I was looking at doing.  One was on Fred Rogers which I'm glad I didn't go down that route because they were already in the process of making  "Won't You Be My Neighbor. And the other one was Netflix.

Because I'd read a book called "Netflix'd: The Epic Battle For America's Eyeballs." And I always loved that book, I always love the entrepreneurship and the whole Silicon Valley race to it. So I reached out to the writer to see if she would let me interview or for a documentary that I wanted to make, and she was like 'I've actually shot a few interviews, maybe we could team up.' So that's kind of where it came about.  So we teamed up and I kind of took over the directing role.  We reshot some of the interviews she did it because did them in  HD but I wanted him to be more future-proof. So we went back and shot them in 4K , with a Blackmagic URSA, which is one of the cameras that Netflix asks that you should use if you're going to shoot for them. So of course you've noticed this isn't on Netflix so that's a whole different story.

Q:  How much cooperation did you have from Netflix itself?  I know there's some interviews with  a lot of ex-employees and also a couple of current employees.  Did they know you were working on this, and did you have any buy-in from them? What exactly was their role in this?

A: So, they helped out not at all. The writer Gina that I did this with when she wrote "Netflix'd" they actually didn't help out until the end on her book, they came in and they helped her in fact checking and all that.  But for this one we reached out to [CEO Reed Hastings] and Reed said that he didn't have any interest in doing it because he was working on his own book at the time, so we just kind of had to go on it by ourselves. So, we have a lot of the founding team except for Reed.

Q: Are there ways in which you tell the story of how Netflix came to be, that are different from how they tell it themselves?

A: Well it's just mainly taking the different stories and finding what we found to be the truth Because you know everyone has their own recollection or memory of how events went.

Because you know I I even kind of teased it in there on Blockbuster meeting because [then-Blockbuster CEO] John Antioco remembered not even being in the meeting but [Netflix cofounder] Mark Randolph remembers him being in there. So I kind of let the audience know these are the two different sides and you can come to what you think actually happened in that meeting or who was there.  But the essence of the story is there. So I let the audience kind of understand that you know these are coming from two different points of view so you just kind of have to take it and figure out what you think the story is.

Q: So I see you interviewed [early Netflix executive] Mitch Lowe. I know he went on to become the CEO of MoviePass, which could have been an entire documentary itself. Did he talk about that at all with him?

A: MoviePass is a whole different beast…. the interview was done when MoviePass started hitting their troubles, so it was mainly just concentrating on Netflix and all that.

Q: The interview with [current Netflix content chief] Ted Sarandos-was that originally by you, or was that from the older footage?

A:  That's from a journalist friend of mine had interviewed him. Netflix used to do press all the time because you know it's all about giving that earned media. So yeah that was from a friend of mine that gave me permission to use his footage.

Q: In the part of the movie where you're talking about "House of Cards," you see a lot of footage of Kevin Spacey and knowing what's happened with him since,  did you have any apprehension about including that?

ANo, I've had people ask me about that. But from my point of view this is an historical documentary, so I mean if you're gonna talk about "House of Cards" and you're not mentioning Kevin Spacey, you're not really being historical. Just because someone's done horrible things doesn't mean they just get written out of history.  It's not like I talk about how great a person he is and everything. But you can't talk about how successful "House of Cards" was without mentioning that Kevin Spacey was in it. Because you put a different factor in that role, maybe it's not as popular or eye-catching when it was released.

Q: You seem to focus probably in the two-thirds of the movie or maybe even more than that on the early years of the company, especially the feud with Blockbuster. I know you talk at the end about things that have happened more recently, with the streaming explosion, and how they became so dominant the way they are now. Did you consider the earlier stuff more interesting, or was that just having the book [that the documentary was based on] concentrate on that period?

A: I found a lot of it's interesting, I mean in the the sheer fact that when I started this project I had the same understanding that everyone has you know, "Oh,  stupid Blockbuster, they missed their opportunity to buy Netflix." And then I was making it, I [realized] "all right, well if I put myself  in that same situation, I'm not buying Netflix." Like, when the dot com [bubble] burst, and  something that I think I could probably make you know $5 million myself, would I would [have to pay] $50 million. So I understood why they passed on the opportunity.

And some of the behind the scenes stuff with Total Access versus Netflix I found interesting because I had the misconception that I was an early adopter of Netflix because…  I got Netflix back in like 2001 when I started college at the University of Texas, but I was off by like three years. So there's just a lot of interesting stuff. And as we see now the story of Netflix continues to change and everything, so there was a certain point that we had to have a cut off because everything changes so rapidly. I mean we were making a movie we put in about Netflix passing Disney for valuation and then five months later Disney passed Netflix again. So I was going to take it back out. But then we look at it now because of COVID Netflix's now worth more than Disney. So it's just something that if you try to make a documentary about it you just pull your hair out because every weeks it would change."