House of Cards and Netflix are synonymous with each other: The Kevin Spacey series made the streaming service a serious player as a non-linear TV network, and being on Netflix initially helped the show stand out amid the glut of quality dramas that now populate TV. And yet, House of Cards could’ve easily been an HBO or FX series. Before Netflix agreed to buy two seasons of the show, sight unseen, its producers pitched it all over Hollywood, entertaining offers from multiple outlets before ending up on the nascent streaming network. It was a breakthrough deal, and the fact that it’s succeeded wildly — critical love, Emmy nominations, a prominent place in pop culture — has created a new dynamic: Showrunners and agents now routinely include non-linear services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon on their list of stops when setting up pitch meetings for new projects. “They’re all competing in the same sandbox,” one studio executive says of the world order post–House of Cards. “We’re in the most robust, aggressive market [for creators] it could be.”
Recent evidence of the streaming surge has been abundant. As Vulture first reported in June, Judd Apatow’s new comedy series Love was in play at multiple networks, including Hulu, before ultimately landing at Netflix with a two-year pickup. And today, Hulu announced a big deal to air an hourlong drama adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/23/63, to be produced by J.J. Abrams. Traditional broadcast and cable networks still land most projects, of course, if only because there are far more of them and because they can still offer a clearer path to big money in success. But the new Big Three of streaming — Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — are all in the game, and they’ve all got a pile of cash to spend. If you’re a producer looking to take the plunge into the non-linear world, how do you decide where to pitch your project? Let’s take a look at what each of the three networks is looking for and how they’re choosing:
Who should sell here: Anyone looking for the biggest (potential) audience — and a big payday. Two executives who’ve had dealings with Netflix both say that when there’s a hot project in the marketplace, Netflix is usually, as one put it, “by far the most aggressive” bidder, assuming they’re interested in the idea. Adds the other exec: “The perception is that Netflix is spending more money on bigger projects with the most prominent stars. They feel more advanced. The rest of [the streaming players] are trying to get their sea legs.” Indeed, while Netflix isn’t any older than its rivals — it began streaming content in 2007, same as Hulu — it dominates the streaming space on multiple levels. It has two buzzy, Emmy-nominated shows (Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards); its base of roughly 36 million U.S. subscribers puts it on par with HBO in terms of reach; and it’s got a huge international reach (with subscribers in over 40 countries and counting). Netflix also most closely replicates the HBO model in terms of original programming, offering much more than just comedies and dramas: stand-up specials, documentaries, and soon, a talk show with Chelsea Handler. While the Netflix imprimatur doesn’t automatically convey success or acclaim (see Hemlock Grove), getting a show green-lit by Netflix all but guarantees it will get noticed.
How it chooses: In the early days of Netflix originals, all the way back in 2013, much was made of the service’s reliance on its storied algorithm — that super-advanced computer program that is always recommending what subscribers should watch next based on past viewing habits. Initially designed to help guide users through Netflix’s vast feature-film library, execs publicly stated the algorithm was also used when it came time to decide how to proceed in the development of Netflix’s own original series. “It gave us some confidence that we could find an audience for a show like House of Cards,” a company rep told the New York Times’ David Carr in February 2013. Perhaps, but the Kevin Spacey series didn’t come to life because a computer told Netflix to build it: House of Cards was pitched to multiple networks by producers, with Netflix snagging the show after it agreed to go straight to production on two seasons of the show — no pilot, no let’s-see-how-season-one-does. More than anything, that sort of boldness is what really has guided the Netflix development process: Unlike Amazon and its “pilot season,” Netflix decides it wants to do a show before a single frame is filmed. Even HBO usually does pilots. Last year, Sarandos told Vulture that willingness to go big is what will ensure he gets the best shows for his service. “By going straight to series, the people [who] have a great story to tell will bring it to us first,” he said. Of course, now that Netflix has established a track record for success, getting those projects first is likely even easier.
The downside: The success of Netflix’s first few originals means expectations for all of the service’s new shows are high, perhaps unreasonably so. Producers bringing shows to Netflix now have to worry about jumping over the high bar Netflix has already set. Pressure to be really good isn’t a bad thing, of course, and any producer pitching to a service such as Netflix or AMC or Showtime almost certainly does so because she thinks she’s got something special. (If you’re just looking for a big payday, network TV is still a much better option.) But Netflix doesn’t have unlimited promotional resources, and reporters who cover entertainment can sometimes be wary of giving too much coverage to one service. As Netflix keeps expanding, newer shows might get lost in the shadow of its monster hits. It’s also quite possible that as Netflix matures — or if subscriber growth starts to level off — it could cut back on how many new shows it adds each year, making it tougher to land a series order there.
Who should sell here: Producers who want to make independent movies, but in TV series form. Projects such as Transparent and the just-released Whit Stillman pilot The Cosmopolitans have shown Amazon is willing to nurture ideas that don’t instantly scream "mass appeal" and work with creators who might not have past experience building blockbusters. “If you want to create SST Records, or some awesome label, you have to focus on having a high bar,” says Amazon Studios chief Roy Price. “There are a number of adjectives that are bad. ‘Good-ish’ is bad. ‘Solid’ is bad. You want a show that is doing something interesting and groundbreaking, and you want to be working with the best, most interesting, most passionate creators ... We’re really looking to empower creators with a vision.” Price also points to the loose infrastructure at Amazon as another selling point for would-be producers. The development process at the company “is pretty nimble, in terms of decision making and a lack of bureaucracy,” Price says. “Things get done. There aren’t a lot of priorities other than making a good show. We’re 100 percent aligned with producers on that goal.”
How it chooses: Before you get a series order, Amazon will put your show under a very public microscope, putting the pilot episode online for customers to rate. While this means your efforts will at least get some audience — unlike the dozens of TV pilots churned out each year which never get beyond network screening rooms — it also ups the embarrassment level if Amazon ultimately passes. Some producers might also not like the idea of their work being trotted out for the masses like a contestant on America’s Got Talent, particularly since many TV shows take several episodes to come together. But while Amazon’s version of the Netflix algorithm may seem a bit gimmicky, Price has always been careful to note that user reviews are just one factor in deciding what gets made. And even when he’s looking at said data, he’s not particularly interested in how many people gave a show a thumbs up. “You’re not just looking for the show that the largest number of people liked,” he explains. “You’re really looking for a show that can become a group of people’s favorite show, that they think it’s a great show. The goal is to get shows people really, really like. That’s when [data] becomes useful.”
Possible downside: Unlike Netflix and Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video (the formal name for the service) is not a stand-alone product. Its subscribers include millions of Amazon users who signed up for free two-day shipping and might not even know they have access to shows such as Alpha House. “It’s hard to say what the Amazon demo is because it has a dual role,” says one TV-industry insider. By itself, this distinction doesn’t matter much: There’s no evidence Amazon users are any less (or more) passionate or engaged in content than those who subscribe to a video-only streaming network. But long-term, the fact that Prime Instant Video isn’t its own entity could make it a whole lot easier to shut down should Jeff Bezos decide the cost of making expensive TV shows isn’t responsible for either attracting or retaining Prime subscribers. To be sure, there’s been absolutely no indication any such plug-pulling is in the offing, and if more projects such as Transparent break out, the service’s long-term future should grow even more secure.
Who should sell there: Any producer who wants to be the next Matt Weiner or Chuck Lorre. Assuming Transparent breaks through with audiences the way it has with critics, both Amazon and Netflix will have found one or more signature series, shows which define them in the eyes of viewers. So far, Hulu — despite getting a modicum of buzz with half-hours such as The Awesomes and this summer’s The Hotwives of Orlando — simply doesn’t have that singular success. “There’s a unique opportunity for the right group of creators to come in and help creatively define the service,” says one TV-industry insider familiar with the streaming space. “AMC was John Wayne movies before Matt Weiner got there, and now he’s the guy who kind of built AMC. For the person who can get a show on Hulu that connects with the Zeitgeist, they can be part of the team that builds this thing. And that’s attractive to a lot of talent.” Another selling point for producers pondering where to park their pet projects: Hulu’s new content chief, Craig Erwich. Unlike the techies at the top of Netflix and Amazon, the veteran Warner Bros. and Fox Broadcasting exec is a Hollywood development veteran whose modest manner has won him many friends around Tinseltown. He’ll likely lean heavily on those relationships as he hunts for his big hit.
How it chooses: Like any streaming service, Hulu has the ability to mine reams of data to help guide its development process. It knows who is watching its shows and how they’re being consumed. But while there’s a basic overlay of information that’s factored into decisions, Hulu picks its shows in a pretty old-school way, Erwich says: “It comes down to passion, guts, inspiration — on our side and on the side of people doing the show.” It’s also worth noting that whatever process Hulu has had in place for developing shows is in flux: Both Erwich and his boss, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins, have both been on the job less than a year.
Possible downside: Your show will be interrupted by commercials. Unlike its main rivals, Hulu Plus features advertising, despite charging its 6 million subscribers $7.99 per month. (The ad breaks are targeted and more limited than on the free version of Hulu, but they’re still there.) This fact may turn off a few producers (and some potential subscribers) — but as basic cable networks such as AMC and FX have proven, there’s no reason great TV and advertising can’t coexist. Advertising can also be an upside: Hulu will often promote its own originals during commercial breaks, giving newer Hulu shows a type of marketing support Amazon and Netflix can’t match. What’s more, while Netflix and Amazon only let paid subscribers regularly watch its shows, Hulu Plus series frequently will appear on free Hulu as well (albeit with more ads, and sometimes without the ability to watch a whole season at once). That means a producer setting up a series at Hulu could potentially reach a bigger audience. “Beyond our 6 million subs, there’s a huge amount of traffic driven to our platform from Hulu,” Erwich says, noting the site’s 30 million monthly unique users and the presence of next-day episodes of broadcast network hits. “So there’s massive circulation. There’s a huge chance to get sampled."
The Other Players
Crackle: Sony’s ad-supported network has one legit hit — Jerry Seinfeld’s twist on the talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee — and a slew of other action-oriented, dude-friendly fare featuring slightly recognizable stars such as David Arquette, Gina Gershon, and Patrick Warburton.
Yahoo: The internet giant’s free, ad-supported VOD service has been slowly building up the quality of its content: A deal last year brought SNL’s classic sketch catalogue to the site, while a partnership with LiveNation this year has resulted in a regular series of live concert events from acts such as Justin Timberlake and KISS. The possible game-changer comes early next year, when the sixth season of Community will air exclusively on Yahoo.
Vimeo: Originally known for music videos and user-generated content, the site has just started investing in original content, setting aside $10 million to help develop indie movies and funding six episodes of the pot comedy High Maintenance. For now, it’s offering titles on a pay-per-view basis, iTunes-like, rather than as part of a monthly or annual subscription fee.
Playstation Plus: The subscription-based component of Sony’s gaming platform gets its first big injection of TV-like content in December with the superhero drama Powers (based on the graphic novels by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming). Sony is expected to add more TV and movie content as well as it looks to get more of the millions of PS users to upgrade to the subscription service.
*This is an extended version of an article that appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.