Martin Scorsese. Ryan Reynolds. Shonda Rhimes. Park Hae-soo. Julia Garner, Rob Morgan, June Diane Raphael, Keith Jardine, John Early, Will Arnett, and Amy Sedaris. These are just some of the names of actors (and showrunners) that have found homes of sorts on Netflix, becoming faces that Netflix subscribers globally point to and go, “I’ve seen them in another Netflix thing.”
For Netflix, talent is the brand, and the brand is talent. In a IP-focused world — where it doesn’t always matter who is playing Spider-Man or Darth Vader so much as the importance of Spider-Man and Darth Vader appearing on screen — Netflix’s focus on talent creating recognition for consumers can feel refreshing.
Similar to how movie studios used to operate, when talent would sign to one picture house and produce a number of films under one banner and become representative of the studio as a whole, Netflix wants its global subscriber base to think of Netflix when it thinks of both emerging and top talent. As Netflix becomes more global, and as many of its shows start to travel more internationally, finding and relying on talent that people in South Korea, France, Brazil, Canada, and New Zealand — alongside every other country Netflix operates in — come to know through Netflix is vital to establishing a brand.
With that in mind, what are some notable examples of Netflix using talent as its brand across multiple shows or films? We can better see this by examining four prominent cases:
- Squid Game and Money Heist boosting audience in South Korea
- Rob Morgan and the Netflix’s Marvel Universe
- Comedy legends entertaining in a variety of ways
- And, naturally, the holiday universe
The Power of Park Hae-soo
Park Hae-soo is likely best known to global audiences outside of South Korea as Sang-woo from Squid Game, Netflix’s most watched show of all time. In Squid Game, Park Hae-soo plays one of the main characters whose intellect and manipulative skills get him to the end of the week-long torture games. Alongside co-star Lee Jung-jae (Seong Gi-hun), Park Hae-soo stole the show, becoming a global icon within the first 30 days of Sqiud Game’s release.
Casting Park Hae-soo as Andrés “Berlin” de Fonollosa, a very sick jewel thief who plays second-in-command to his brother, the quintessential Professor. He’s manipulative, arrogant, and psychopathic — but also charming. If that sounds familiar to Squid Game viewers, it’s because the character has much in common with Sang-woo. Working with Park Hae-soo to bring that character to life in South Korea is crucial.
Consider that South Korea and the APAC region as a whole is a core priority to Netflix. Over the last few quarters, APAC subscriber growth has accounted for roughly 30% of all net customer additions. At the same time, subscriber growth has slowed in regions like LATAM while it’s stalled or actually seen some loss in UCAN where the highest rate of household penetration exists. In fact, nearly 47% of Netflix’s subscriber growth between Q1 and Q3 2021 came from its APAC region. The second strongest growth? EMEA with just over 38% of all net additions.
Over the last five years, South Korean viewers have also seen demand for original South Korean series increase as investment from companies like Netflix has grown. The Top 10 in-demand shows in South Korea between November 18th and December 18th in 2015 featured 30% original South Korean series. Between the same period in 2019, that percentage grew to 80%. Between the same time period this year, that became 100% of all Top 10 in-demand series.
Worldwide, the Top 10 in-demand South Korean series globally between the same period also saw an average of 17.1x every other show in the world. To summarize: demand for South Korean content was growing globally, and South Korean viewers are willing to sign up for streaming services like Netflix if there’s local content that they’re interested in watching.
One of the best ways to establish a presence in a region like APAC is leaning on talent that audiences know and love. Working with them on a variety of projects also reiterates their “home” on Netflix to viewers, who may spend additional session time on the app or come back to watch another show the actor stars in.
The Squid Game cast is a great example. Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Heo Sung-tae, Kang Dan-i, and Lee Byung-hun all appear in various Netflix productions pre-and post-Squid Game. Park Hae-soo has La Casa de Papel, as stated above. Lee Jung-jae appeared in Chief of Staff, Heo Sung-tae starred in Beyond Evil, Kang Dan-i starred in Romance is a Bonus Book, and Lee Byung-hun, one of the most in-demand Squid Game cast members in South Korea, starred in Mr. Sunshine.
In the two weeks that followed Squid Game’s release, all of those aforementioned series saw bumps in demand, going from average for shows like Mr. Sunshine and Chief of Staff to good statuses. Through algorithmic recommendation and individual research, these shows are discoverable to an entirely new audience. In turn, talent becomes core to the overall brand Netflix is trying to build.
Which brings us to La Casa de Papel. The series is one of Netflix’s most in-demand series, and one of the few franchises that Netlfix has managed to get off the ground successfully. In creating the adaptation, Netflix wants to ensure the talent is there to carry the series but also hold viewers’ attention and interest. Park Hae-soo, coming off Squid Game and with his maintained demand, is the perfect option.
If we examine consumption affinity — the overlap in demand for series over the last seven days, which translates to what other series fans of specific titles may watch next — Squid Game and La Casa de Papel are both at the top of each other’s lists. Those who watch La Casa de Papel are very likely watching Squid Game, and those who are watching Squid Game are very likely watching La Casa de Papel.
In December, both La Casa de Papel and Squid Game ranked amongst some of the most in-demand for South Korean audiences. They achieved 10.5x and 27.75x the average demand of all other shows globally, putting them in the outstanding category, which only 2.7% of all shows ever reach. Audiences in South Korea, and specifically Netflix subscribers, are into Money Heist already. Squid Game has sat at the top of the country’s demand list since it debuted at the end of September. Park Hae-soo connects those two groups even more.
Park Hae-soo establishes Netflix as the home of South Korea’s favorite franchises. He, alongside the series that he’s a part of, becomes part of the Netflix brand that people recognize. Much like how Iron Man or Jedi are so closely linked with Disney, Park Hae-soo and his castmembers become directly linked with Netflix. Their faces remind audiences of Netflix shows they love or have to watch; their appearance in another Netflix project reaffirms that Netflix is investing in more content for new and current subscribers than any of its competitors; and their continued presence creates a universe that isn’t insistent on multi-billion dollar IP.
“Weren’t you in…?” With Rob Morgan
Most fans of Netflix’s Marvel universe might say the most crucial actor is Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), or Kristen Ritter (Jessica Jones). Arguably, the most integral actor is Rob Morgan.
Morgan appeared in every series that constructed Netflix’s Marvel universe: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders. He played the same character in every series, but only had a prominent role in Daredevil. The other series used cameos to tie the universe together (something very common in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe), but he becomes the constant fixture for fans coming in at different entry points.
“It’s one of those things where I can walk the streets and people will run up to me and be like, ‘Wow, you’re the king of Netflix!,’” Morgan told Variety in 2018.
Not only did Morgan have an impact on Marvel; just after he appeared in Daredevil, Netflix subscribers would met Morgan again during his work on Stranger Things, the streaming service’s first real blockbuster franchise. Reddit boards at the time started noting Morgan pop up in their favorite Netflix shows — and this came at a time when Netflix was still trying to figure out its branding.
How could Netflix stand out from the rest of its competition? The answer wasn’t just talent, but how Netflix approached and used talent. Similar to HBO in its earliest days, before HBO was, well, HBO, Netflix’s early days weren’t full of original franchise IP or a consistent string of hits. Bringing A-list talent to the platform wasn’t cheap. Netflix spent $100 million on two seasons of House of Cards, effectively beating out competition by agreeing to terms for producer David Fincher and company that others wouldn’t.
As much as Netflix’s teams want to bring directors like Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuaron, actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence (stars of Netflix’s Don’t Look Up), and showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy to it, they also need to embrace a wider selection of talent to help create a consistent stream of content for its more than 215 million global subscribers. First time directors, emerging writers and, crucial to Netflix’s brand, fresh faces that can appear in several different Netflix projects, is key.
“Let’s be that home where we can find the next Spike Lee, find the next Kathryn Bigelow and be there from the beginning with them,” Netflix’s film chief Scott Stuber told the Los Angeles Times in 2020.
As Vanity Fair pointed out in a 2018 article that examined 16 actors Netflix helped discover, since A-list actors become very costly, and Netflix is already spending tens of billions of dollars on content )let alone budget needed for the technology side), “Netflix often turns to lesser-known performers to round out an ensemble—fully green first-timers, or reasonably well-seasoned performers just looking for their big break.”
Other studios, like Disney and Warner Bros., bet big on talent as well — but it’s increasingly becoming a bigger bet on character. Who can carry a character across three or four movies? Who can best carry an IP for half a decade or more? Iron Man may not have worked without Robert Downey Jr., as Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has said in the past; but it’s also arguable that newcomers joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe now are designed to carry the character, not for the character to carry the actor.
Similar once more to HBO and other prestigious linear cable networks in the early to mid-augthts, Netflix gives actors and creatives a place to hone their craft without being attached to a multi-year, CGI-heavy, superhero franchise. Netflix then relies on this talent for other series or films, creating a well known universe of talent who have found a home and global audience on the streaming service. Case in point: Rob Morgan.
Netflix’s relationship with Morgan continued into the feature side as Netflix started working on more original films. He starred in Mudbound in 2017, and appeared in Netflix’s award nominated mini-series Godless. Much like the cast of Squid Game in South Korea, Morgan became the connecting tissue throughout Netflix as it was starting to build up its brand in the United States and internationally.
Most recently, Morgan appears in Netflix’s The Unforgivable with Sandra Bullock and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, two of the streaming service’s bigger movies this year. Going forward, Morgan will continue to work with Netflix (as well as other studios whose films subscribers may discover on Netflix, including Warner Bros. Just Mercy). In many ways, it almost feels like the old studio model from the earliest days of cinema, when stars would sign with one company and make films exclusively under their banners.
Discovery and repeatability
Signing these stars to exclusive contracts helped to create studio faces that audiences recognized and, in turn, would help to convince people to do two things:
- Seek out other movies from that studio
- Follow the star to whatever they did next
Morgan’s appearance in countless Netflix series and films may help to accomplish a similar goal.
The best way to think about content affinity as it pertains to subscriber acquisition and retention on a platform, and in terms of viewership, is that if there’s strong overlap between a genre of titles or platform exclusives (ie, Marvel shows or Netflix originals) this is a good sign of high retention. For example, in the third chart above, there is strong overlap between Daredevil with other Netflix Marvel shows and other superhero series like The Flash and Agents of SHIELD. Viewers are sticking within one main content ecosystem.
Therefore, the opposite situation is when there is not strong overlap between certain genres and platform exclusives. This typically leads to an increase in subscribers or engagement because a specific title is bringing in new customers or encouraging others to spend time on the app. A perfect example is content affinity for It’s Bruno, the first above chart. People who came to watch It’s Bruno, or who might have clued into it because of Morgan, don’t share strong overlap with other Netflix series. It’s only a few (When They See Us and Derry Girl).
Morgan becomes a face of Netflix, for several different groups of audiences, and helps to reiterate the concept of Netflix as a brand. A more direct comparison might be looking at the consumption patterns around Red Notice when the movie debuted on Netflix at the beginning of November.
As Parrot Analytics’ senior strategy analyst, Julia Alexander, noted in Puck, “Ryan Reynolds’ 6 Underground crept back into the global top 10 thanks to Red Notice [and] Johnson’s Central Intelligence and Jumanji: The Next Level also charted…people who watched Red Notice were recommended other Johnson movies or sought them out.” Red Notice actors saw a significant jump in talent demand after the movie debuted.
By better understanding how audiences react to talent across a variety of objects, Netflix (and other companies) can expand franchises and nurture home grown talent to create a significant brand recognized globally.
There’s Nothing Funny About It
John Mulaney is best known on Netflix for two different roles: one as stand up comedian extraordinaire with a few popular specials, and the other as an animated pubescent teenager trying to make his way through teenagehood in Big Mouth.
Through both avenues, Mulaney has maintained his position as one of the most in-demand comedians in the United States alongside podcaster Joe Rogan, Bo Burnham, and other Saturday Night Live alumni including Jimmy Fallon and Pete Davidson. Whether audiences come to Netflix to watch Mulaney’s stand-up or through the streaming service’s award winning animated series, Mulaney’s voice and comedy chops create a universe for fans to discover.
Comedy for Netflix isn’t a joke. Not only is co-CEO Ted Sarandos a self-proclaimed comedy aficionado, but giving acclaimed comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Kevin Hart alongside fresh voices like Nicole Byers and Mulaney helped bring in subscribers when Netflix was still scaling. It seems to have worked on multiple fronts. Netflix executives Robbie Praw and Lisa Nishimura (Praw is still at the company, Nishimura has since left) told the New York Times in 2018 that “50 percent of its 130 million subscribers have watched a special in the last year, and a third of those viewers have watched three such shows.”
Most interesting, however, was that by examining taste clusters, Netflix’s team discovered that viewers of certain stand-up specials also watched non-comedy entertainment. For example, those who watched Hannah Goldsby’s award winning stand up special also watched Wild Wild Country, a documentary about a cult leader, the New York Times reported. Nishimura said both titles drew audiences who were interested in the “human condition, what motivates people under pressure.” Understanding these affinity cycles can help not only with looking at potential other talent to bring to the platform, but better programming and curating recommendations that aren’t just reliant on what an algorithm may suggest.
By 2019, Netflix was investing in all different areas of comedy, cutting back on the amount of stand-up specials ordered (down from 50 to 30 in 2019), and turning to comedic areas that Netflix needed more of, including sketch comedy. (The results of which include Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave Now, which inspired countless Halloween costumes in 2021). Netflix has continued to increase its investment in all forms of comedy entertainment, and the impact continues to be seen.
Comedy was the second-most in-demand digital original genre for SVOD subscribers in the United States in the most recent third quarter, Parrot Analytics data discovered. Most notably, comedy dramas were the second most in-demand subgenre behind superhero series and just ahead of sci-fi dramas in the digital original space. Sitcoms were the fourth most in-demand subgenre in the US, with cartoon and animated comedy coming in seventh and ninth respectively.
With that in mind, consider what Mulaney has done for Netflix over a very few short years: his stand up specials have become some of the most revered and created a cultural zeitgeist for the platform — something Sarandos holds near and dear.
Big Mouth is a comedy cartoon that has found a dedicated fanbase. John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is a school-age special that has won multiple awards, and even the adaptation of his Broadway play, Oh, Hello (that also tars Big Mouth co-star Nick Kroll) has found its audience. Mulaney isn’t just one of the most in-demand comedians, but through his own personalized Netflix universe, has managed to create series and specials that hit upon numerous in-demand categories for different audiences Netflix is trying to chase. He connects it all; he becomes the Netflix brand.
In Q3, the share of demand for comedies and sitcoms on Netflix was directly in-line with the number of series that fall into those categories, as seen in the chart above. Conversely, there was a higher demand share for dramas compared to the share of titles available. On the flip side, there was a higher supply of reality and documentary series than there was demand.
With comedy, Netflix has hit the precise balance for supply and demand. The level of spend Netflix is investing into comedies, and the continued demand the company is seeing on aggregate, is positive. As comedians find more of a home on Netflix, there’s room — and demand — for more projects from various talents in a multitude of ways (animation, live-action, and stand up specials).
Don’t just take our word for it — look at the list of Netflix’s 2022 comedy festival lineup. It’s full of talent Netflix has worked with to create its “Just A Joke” brand. Comparing some of the top headliners to talent demand for actors and comedians in the United States alone over the last 30 days (this creates a median of 11.8x the average demand of other talent in the United States, putting them in the outstanding category, which only 2.2% of talent reach), the impact is significant and obvious.
Most people would ascertain that Hallmark is the queen of holiday movies. The company has made more than 150 holiday films since 2008.
Part of the way that Hallmark Channel keeps costs low is casting relatively unknown actors and filming in small, but picturesque Canadian towns keeps budgets low. Part of the Hallmark staple is that, aside from one or two familiar faces, films star newcomers who help to make the small town story about unexpected love far more believable. (If George Clooney was suddenly a local baker-turned-millionarie who fell in love with a random actress, the attention would solely be on George Clooney).
Conversely, there’s Netflix’s strategy, which we can see using holiday movies as one example: using familiar faces throughout a number of different movies and shows to help create the Netflix brand. If Marvel’s core IP is characters (and the actors who inhabit those characters as a result), Netflix’s strength is on the actual stars who can take on different roles but become the face of Netflix. It’s less IP-focused, and more brand recognition.
Which brings us to Netflix’s Holiday Universe. Characters and actors from Netflix’s various holiday movies appear in one another’s films, providing little “Easter eggs” for fans of the films to discover, and constructing a world that is exclusive to Netflix. Here’s the chart again to remind you of the various connections.
One example of the Netflix Holiday Universe (a feat that has taken more than four years to build) that bleeds out into other Netflix titles is actor Vanessa Hudgens. Best known for her role as Gabriella in Disney’s High School Musical, Hudgens has spent years trying to move on from that typecasting and has found a home in various Netflix series and films.
Hudgens first appeared in The Princess Switch in 2018 before starring in her own Christmas movie for Netflix, The Knight Before Christmas. She then appeared in Switched Again, and then a year later in Tick Tick Boom, a musical about Rent creator Jonathan Larson. Now, Hudgens is set to appear in The Princess Switch 3 and is currently filming Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, a show based on director Zack Snyder’s successful Netflix film, Army of the Dead.
Over the last 30 days, Vanessa Hudgens has remained the ninth most in-demand actress in the United States, ahead of Anya Taylor-Joy (Joy starred in Edgar Wright's The Last Night in Soho), and just behind Kristen Stewart (Spencer) and Angelina Jolie (The Eternals). Her demand over the last 90 days has remained relatively high, as well, showcasing that fans are paying attention to her both pre-holiday film season and during it.
Holiday movies are a big business. Aside from Hallmark Channel’s dominance in the space, other competitors like Netflix are trying to figure out a way to compete. In 2014, Netflix released on holiday movie. By 2020, Netflix released 23 holiday movies, many of them interweaving in various ways. A chart illustrating this growth from Michael Beach, who writes State of the Screen, can be seen below.
As Netflix continues to find actors, established and relatively new, for its Christmas universe, the company can also determine how to spread out that talent across the rest of its catalog of original series. Netflix isn’t the only studio looking at creating a unified brand with talent. Marvel Studios works with the same actors for nearly a decade to create its Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the difference is Netflix isn’t asking actors to play the same role.
Appearing in a holiday movie on Netflix and, becoming a “face” within the brand’s growing catalog of original series establishes talent to a subscriber base of more than 216 million people worldwide. With Netflix’s content spend greatly outpacing those of its competitors — as well as giving actors a chance to appear in a series or film that isn’t superhero related — being within the Netflix portfolio is a win for talent and for the company itself.
Talent is key to Netflix’s brand, and Netflix’s continued global brand is key to Netflix. Don’t just take Parrot Analytics’ word for it: Netlix launched its first ever in-house casting department this year specifically to use talent across a variety of series, films, and specials. Here’s Netflix’s own team on the decission:
“Over the years, some of our talent have been able to seamlessly move across Netflix projects — think Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who is starring in our upcoming film The Netherfield Girls and Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo, who hosts and executive produces Prank Encounters.
“Our new casting department means that we will have more time and resources dedicated to identifying these kinds of opportunities - finding breakouts like Alejandro Speitzer, who has worked on three of our Mexican local language series, El Club, Dark Desire and Someone Has to Die and Pearl Thusi, who’s gone from our South African series Queen Sono to our upcoming film Wu Assassins: Fists of Vengeance. (See below for more of these connections from around the world.)”
Determining strengths and exceptionalities is integral to ensuring that a brand continues to grow in prominence, in adoration, and in quality. Disney’s strength is its IP that guides programming decisions. HBO’s IP is in creating trends and being seen as tastemakers. CBS’ strength is in procedurals that develop audiences for years.
Netflix’s strength is in casting, and in constructing worlds with writers, directors, and actors that its global subscriber base knows. Talent is still the heart of the entertainment industry. Netflix’s biggest strength, at a time when other conglomerates are spending the vast majority of their content on blockbuster IP acquisition and development within those various franchises, is talent. Netflix executives know this — and now Parrot Analytics’ data can prove, without a doubt, that the Netflix Talent Universe is trending in the right direction.