Netflix's VPs of Original Series Get Real about Representing Females Onscreen and Off
Two of the driving forces behind another smash hit, The Crown, which premiered this week on Netflix, were recently in town to celebrate the series’ second season. Nina Wolarsky and Allie Goss are both Vice Presidents of Original Series for Netflix. Wolarsky is Executive Producer of The Crown and The OA, while Goss one of the driving forces behind the Marvel Television partnership.
Together they sat down with Bumble to consider a a range of subjects, from how and why Netflix puts stories about strong women front and center, and what it’s like being a woman at the top in Hollywood during somewhat tumultuous times.
Can you both tell us a bit about your careers? Where it started and where are you now?
Allie Goss: I started at Netflix in 2006, six months before we launched streaming. So I've had the incredible opportunity to see a US-based company transform into a global entertainment company. I’ve had pretty much every job on the content side as my career at this company has spanned 11 years, and it’s been amazing to be a part of this team that has been part of this major evolution within entertainment industry.
Nina Wolarsky: I started off in film. I worked on an independent film in New York and did both development and production. I then moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to work with George Clooney and Grant Heslov who had just started a new company called Smoke House Pictures. I joined Netflix in 2012. When I joined, we were in production process on our first original series.
My first day in office was actually the first day of the production of Orange Is The New Black. I started working on that and now we are on Season 6, five years later which is amazing.
When you both first started at Netflix, what was the climate like for women in film and television in comparison to what it is now? Did you envision that there would be as many female-led/female dominated shows?
AG: It’s interesting because I think Netflix is in a unique position where it can find audiences that you wouldn’t be able to find on linear networks or different platforms. So for that reason, we get to champion not only these stories starring women, directed by women, written by women, but stories across the board. We have a massive subscriber base of 110 million around the world in 190 countries serving those diverse tastes that are stories for women, stories for men, and we feel excited both personally and professionally to be able to tell some of these stories that hadn’t come to light before.
Everyone knows the huge disparities in the pay for actors and actresses, so I wanted to touch on this and see if this is the case behind the scenes. Have you found women have been prejudiced against at all in your industry?
AG: At Netflix, the nice thing for us is that, once you reach a certain level there is open communication, so we all know what each other earns. It’s a great way to weed that out. This is also highly beneficial for those who don’t have access to this information as they can still ask, and we are all willing to share.
How important have you both found it to see leading female figures both in similar positions to yours and on screen?
AG: Extremely important. I have always been struck by how many strong female forces there are inside the company at Netflix and how many are in positions of leadership in our LA offices. We get incredibly excited to work with female showrunners, filmmakers, and everyone else. We are currently working with Shonda Rhimes, Marta Kauffman of Grace and Frankie, Veena Sud from The Killing, Brit Marling who wrote The OA.
We are really lucky to be able to champion all these projects and allow them to tell their stories in the best way possible. Netflix is a place where it’s not just women championing women (even though we have lots of women in positions of leadership), men are also championing women and other men. It is a very different experience than some of our counterparts have in the entertainment industry.
So do you think that it took an industry outsider such as Netflix to come in and challenge the status quo?
AG: I think everyone has the ability to change it, if they choose to. Luckily for us, it's within our walls that we feel comfortable and protected. As managers and colleagues, it's our responsibility to ensure there is a safe working environment for everyone. It is something we take very seriously.
Have you guys now got to the stage where you’re now releasing a new original season each week?
I don’t know the exact number per week, but [in 2018] we will have over 1000 hours of original programming — 600 titles over 52 weeks!
You mentioned starting Orange Is The New Black. Was there any difficulty in creating it? Did you have people who thought an all-female cast wouldn’t work or be unpopular?
NW: I don’t think so. I wasn’t there before production, it was really our boss Cindy who ordered the show at the time. But I think one of the amazing things early on is that most of the cast were relatively unknown at the time and it was really exciting to see audiences embrace this discovery. So I think we learned early on, in terms of our initiative, rather than the more traditional way of thinking that you need to get a big name in, instead you find the right actor for the role and then audiences will love it.
The other part in terms of them being unknown is also that, as a cast, they are women of every age, every ethnicity, every size, every sexual orientation. That show was embraced by audiences around the world which really tells you something about how special programming can be used as a global platform. It is groundbreaking and has opened up so many doors about how we think about programming and what stories we can tell and what audiences we can find which is a real luxury.
Do either of you have a favorite female protagonist or character?
AG: The obvious answer is the one that we are launching — The Crown [Season 2]! It’s hard to pick a favorite. Of course, Claire Foy’s portrayal as Queen Elizabeth is truly remarkable, as are the other women in that show.
But I’m a fan of Jessica Jones. I think she she’s a pretty cool badass. The Orange Is The New Black women as well of course, are incredible.
What "makes" a female protagonist?
AG: For me the best female characters, whether in TV or film, are those that feel like real women in real situations, dealing with real struggles, having real relationships. Those are the things that I and others can identify with. I think something we don’t take lightly is the depiction of women in a positive light and also honest light — making sure the women are portrayed in programming are breaking bias and barriers and the stereotypical stories that have been told before. There is a real excitement in that and we think there is a responsibility behind it.
It makes everything more interesting. If you’re watching the same person and the same group of people, you could get bored quite easily. You want to see what you actually see in the world.
NW: Exactly, that’s why we are trying to find as many different stories as we can and have such a diverse audience. What we really look for when people come in the door is them telling unique stories that we haven’t heard before, and those who have a strong voice behind it that is going to execute the season.
AG: We want our stories and our storytellers to be both in front and behind the camera to reflect the diverse audience. That is how we choose to see the world and that's the program we think our audiences will want to see and being responsible for some of those decisions is something we don't take lightly. We are extremely excited by this.
How do you measure the success of those stories specifically?
AG: We look at a variety of things: data to understand what the viewing audience is; are they completing the season or film; is our financial investment somewhat proportional to that audience? We also look at critics' reviews and the general reception from members and fans.
We talk all of these things through together and make a decision whether we renew and go forward or not. Combined with the fact that we want to ensure there is more of the story to be told and our creators are excited to tell the next succession of events.
How important do you think networking is in your careers?
AG: I would say for sure this is a business in which relationships matter a fair amount — but at the end of the day, the most important aspect of networking in the actual work. Being great at the work and focusing on entirely on that is what will lead to the greatest success.
NW: I guess another version of networking is focusing on the work. It’s great to meet people and spend time with them, understanding other people's experience as it helps inform your own. But really focusing on great work brings those relationships and [creates] some of the stronger bonds.
Do either of you have a strong connection or specific person you can thank for helping you along the way in your career?
AG: I don’t think for me there is just one person. I’ve worked with so many incredibly talented people throughout my career and it would be hard to just pick one.
Being in one organization for so long, two people come to mind. My first boss, Robert Ginzel, who was my first professional champion. I earned his trust, admired his work, and I feel so fortunate that this was my first work experience.
I’ve had several bosses in between that have been amazing, but I think the other one I have spent most of my time working with is the head of our group currently — Cindy Holland. She is another great champion that I have learned immense amounts from. She’s an incredible balance [in] wanting to learn from us also. She is not above hearing our point of view or what we think. It’s a pretty special relationship that we both love.
NW: Without question [Cindy Holland] is a mentor for us.
Do you have any advice for, not just women, but anyone going into the film tech industry? What is the key thing you come away with?
NW: I think going back to what we were talking about focusing on the work. I think it starts with loving the work and I think for all of us who do what we do, we are fans first of all, fans of film, series and all of the incredible talent we work with in terms of writers, directors, actors etc and everyone behind the scenes. When you love work it doesn't really feel like work.
AG: And I would say that I agree with you. You’ve got to love it first then focus on it. Some days (I wouldn’t tell my boss this), but I think I would do this for free! There are other days that are grind but if those things come together you are fortunate to be doing something you love. The only other part in this is both professional and personal. You can be successful and do a great job with in the entertainment industry and still be great human being that is kind to others. I don’t think either of those things are mutually exclusive and they are important to remember.
This interview has been edited and condensed.