Peter Friedlander

Peter Friedlander

Courtesy of Netflix
Peter Friedlander

Steven Van Zandt in Lilyhammer

Courtesy of Netflix
Peter Friedlander

Squid Game

Courtesy of Netflix
Peter Friedlander

Margaret Qualley in Maid

Courtesy of Netflix
Fill 1
Fill 1
July 18, 2022
In The Mix

Peter Friedlander's Creative Journey

Freedom is a watchword for the executive, who wants to hear the best stories, and then give show creators free rein. That innovative vibe brought him to Netflix, he says, and more than ten years later, that's why he remains.

Despite its recent challenges — increased competition, subscriber losses, stock-market woes — Netflix has revolutionized the way we watch television. As Netflix's head of scripted series, Peter Friedlander is the gatekeeper overseeing strategy and creative development.

Friedlander is one of the company's longest-tenured creative executives, having joined the startup in 2011. He worked on the first Netflix original, Lilyhammer, which this year marked its tenth anniversary, as well as other pioneering series like Orange Is the New Black and Narcos. Since then, he has presided over influential shows like The Queen's Gambit, Mindhunter and The Haunting of Hill House. Prior to joining Netflix, Friedlander served as an executive and producer at Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's production company, Playtone, where he produced their Emmy-nominated series Big Love.

Recently, Friedlander sat down for a Zoom chat with emmy contributor Graham Flashner to discuss where Netflix is going, what separates it from competitors and the unlikely fictional series character to which he most relates.

Netflix is the number-one streaming platform in the world. What is the key to its success?
I think the culture we work in allows for freedom and autonomy in decision-making. It's the differentiator when it comes to people being able to make decisions and move quickly and run their own business, rather than being so focused on internal matters. We're focused on telling the best stories and working with talent and making sure that everyone has great experiences. It's what I want my team to be doing at all times: "What are you doing to make this story better or help this storyteller achieve their dreams?"

How are Netflix shows different from those on other streamers?
It comes down to authentic stories that can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere, such as Squid Game from South Korea, La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) from Spain and Lupin from France. These are stories that have a cultural connection around the world, where people can experience new voices, cultures and perspectives.

What is your content strategy moving forward?
We've always been excited to see how we can push the limits and the forms of storytelling, and having one innovation inspire the next creator. Innovation has been part of the recipe from day one — whether streaming all episodes at once with House of Cards, shooting all over the world with Sense8 or interactive with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. I also see some great opportunities in the space of spectacle TV — which is a hybrid of incredibly, visually stunning [work], like a film — married with longform storytelling. You see that in shows like Stranger Things, The Three-Body Problem and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

How do you see the pandemic influencing content as we gain perspective on the past two years?
Across the industry, the pandemic provided a lift in viewing — that was a real impact. In terms of storytelling, I'll be curious to see how themes of the pandemic penetrate stories that are being presented to us, whether overtly or subtly. For example, Sweet Tooth [set in a post-apocalyptic world] came to us before the pandemic, but it had that pandemic theme already built into it. How much do people want to experience the pandemic, relive it or escape from it? I imagine there will be audiences for all.

When producers pitch a series to Netflix, do they need attachments, like a star or director?
There's no checklist of how to bring a show in to Netflix. What's required is an incredible storyteller with an undeniable story. That could involve an attachment, or it may not. It's really up to the storyteller to bring in what they think is critical. I've seen it in every shape and form — with an attachment, a pitch, spec script, a more evolved bible — and I wouldn't want to deter anyone, because we want to be able to entertain all sorts of stories.

Is Netflix ruthless about the way it cancels shows?
Nobody likes canceling a show — it's not fun for anyone. It's painful for us as well and for the teams that invest all their time and support. It comes down to the fundamentals of cost relative to viewing — are we getting the viewing necessary to sustain the cost of the show?

Which Netflix series was a surprise hit for you last year?
We felt we had something really special with Maid [starring Margaret Qualley and Andie MacDowell]. What surprised me was how extraordinarily broad it was in its appeal. It became one of our biggest shows of 2021, despite premiering around the same time as Squid Game was starting to take off. It remains one of our top ten most popular shows of all time. 

Cobra Kai has been a huge success. Can we expect other series based on franchise tie-ins?
We have another one [now streaming], The Lincoln Lawyer [starring Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Neve Campbell], which is based on the 2011 film. 

How important are overall deals?
It goes back to why I came to Netflix, to be part of a team where we're forming long-term partnerships with creators like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It's a perfect evolution from where I started at the beginning, working with people like David Fincher [on House of Cards] and Eric Newman from Narcos. It's indicative of how we try to focus on the talent experience here. We're also trying to bring in new talent, new voices — we want to help support and cultivate their storytelling gifts.

What drew you to Netflix after building a career in the feature-film world?
The excitement of a startup mentality around storytelling. It felt like an incredible opportunity to work with storytellers I'd dreamed of working with. The other alluring thing was that Netflix is filled with the most extraordinary fans. They love all types of storytelling. That energy around true fandom is so special. It's why I'm still here.

Is there a Netflix series character that you most relate to?
I feel really connected with Natasha Lyonne [as Nadia Vulvokov] in Russian Doll. Sometimes. Unpack that. [Laughs]

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Tell Him a Story."

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