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Feb 11, 2019

The Netflix Production Legal Lab: Cultivating Business & Legal Affairs Expertise

I was hired by Netflix nearly a year ago to develop a training program for attorneys with little or no experience in the business. The program, now known as the Production Legal Lab, was devised for the purpose of addressing a dilemma that arose as Netflix continued to scale its in-house productions. This is the story of how that adventure began and where it stands today.

The Dilemma

From a hiring standpoint, it's almost impossible to find attorneys with experience and skills that precisely correspond to the job in question. This is especially true for production legal work, wherein the attorneys preside over the sensitive and often complex engagement of services and procurement of rights from creative professionals such as actors, writers, directors and producers. Here’s why:

  1. The competition among employers to find and hire seasoned attorneys to do this work is fierce.
  2. The proprietary nature of feature film and episodic series production and the associated fast pace, high stakes, confidentialities and risks are such that few employers offer entry-level attorney positions; for this reason it’s difficult to find and hire even junior attorneys with applicable experience.
  3. While studios share the same mission of producing and distributing filmed content, they each have their own culture; they in addition adhere to differing policies and procedures, and further organize their business and legal affairs responsibilities, workflow and teams in different ways. Over time, production attorneys can become quite bespoke to a particular studio as a result.

And herein lies the dilemma that arises from the foregoing dynamic.

  1. There's more work to be done than there are qualified people to do it.
  2. There are brilliant attorneys out there who are passionately interested in this work, and who could excel at it if given a chance and the proper instruction and mentorship.
  3. However intelligent and experienced they may be, a small and exclusive pool of professionals with uniform attributes are disadvantaged in terms of fostering innovation in the workplace and the industry because there's insufficient diversity of personal and professional experience, intellect and resources among them. Diversity and inclusion in the form of fresh eyes brought to bear on the modus operandi bring new ideas and vantage points to the fore; free of ingrained long-standing industry customs and routine workflows, they're more likely to ask "why" or “why not,” and challenge leaders to rethink how things are done.

This dilemma is what ultimately inspired Netflix to create the Production Legal Lab: a learning and development program wherein talented and motivated attorneys with little or no experience in entertainment law may be hired on a full-time basis and trained to hold their own as production attorneys at Netflix. But how to go about it?

Contracts associated with the production of a film or series impact dozens if not hundreds of professionals working together on the same project; a motion picture and/or television production is nothing if not a team effort. In order for a production attorney to make a meaningful contribution to the team, it’s important that he/she develop an understanding of the contributions of other professionals to the production in question: who does what, when in the production cycle do they do it, and what are the expectations of these professionals with respect to the attorney’s contribution to the production.

To this point, the development of the Production Legal Lab first required a deep dive into how feature length and episodic productions evolve at Netflix, from start to finish, for the purpose of establishing detailed learning objectives for the training program. It was during this early phase of the program’s development that I was hired and first experienced the shock and awe of what it’s like to work at Netflix.

Netflix, I learned, does things differently. There were many times I encountered an internal business or legal policy, procedure or principle and thought to myself: “that’s wrong, that’s crazy, you just can’t do that.” On a good day, I’d succeed in holding my tongue, reserving my judgment, and leaving my preconceived notions of the production process at the door. On a bad day, I’d test the patience and goodwill of my colleagues.

As I endeavored to understand the reasoning behind these differences, it helped me to keep firmly in mind that Netflix is primarily in the relatively new business of Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD), which entails an array of concerns that are vastly different from those of the theatrical studios and television production companies I’d served over the years. More significantly, it helped me in gathering my bearings to keep in mind that Netflix was the first organization to commit to the SVOD space at this scale and so it was left largely to them—working together with the industry’s other key stakeholders (e.g., creative partners, artist representatives, other studios operating as production and licensing partners)—to innovate and hammer out the landscape and the blueprint for a working business model. But the biggest distinction for me, and the most exciting and meaningful one for me personally, was that Netflix isn’t limited to curating stories and nurturing motion picture productions in the English language for an American audience. They’re passionate about discovering stories and showcasing artistic endeavors from motion picture artists around the world, in their original languages. It helped me to keep in mind that this initiative in particular brings with it a host of international business and legal considerations that naturally departed from my more limited experience. The overarching lesson I learned in my first few weeks at Netflix was that outsiders and new employees can’t possibly intuit the reasoning behind everything that this company does; this understanding and acclimation requires the application of curiosity, communication, tenacity and time.

Another challenging aspect of my introduction to the company was that it’s a highly innovative, collaborative and meeting-intensive work environment that values people over process and constantly pivots to improve. This made it very challenging for me to gather a notion of who is responsible for what with respect to the process of development and production. In the end, curiosity, communication, tenacity and time prevailed, and over 90 seasoned film and series professionals at Netflix stepped up to devote their time as Production Legal Lab instructors in their various areas of production related expertise. Poet William Butler Yeats once remarked that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The generosity and care with which these subject matter experts stoked the passion of the brilliant attorneys hired to participate in the inaugural edition of the Lab has been and remains touching to me on a deeply personal level that words fail to describe. What I found is that the people at Netflix are extremely passionate about what they do, they’re proud of what they’ve built, and they’re excited to share what they’ve learned and done with those folks who elect to join the company’s ranks. They truly live and breathe the company’s culture.

What’s Next?

For the inaugural edition of the Lab, Netflix identified and hired a diverse group of 5 exceptional attorneys with varying types and degrees of experience. Some were seasoned transactional practitioners, others were accomplished litigators, but all had achieved 3-6 years of solid legal work, and most joined the company from large firms or renowned boutiques. They’ve completed their formal training sessions, and are rotating through several business and legal affairs teams to apply what they’ve learned and obtain further knowledge and skills through mentorship and hands-on work experience. In the meantime, everyone participating in the design of the Lab is busily incorporating enhancements to improve the program for the next incoming “class.”

As for me, I feel enormously fulfilled in continuing to listen, learn and apply what’s needed to assist Netflix in equipping the Lab’s participants to succeed in this exciting new chapter of their careers.

*Applications are now open for the 2nd edition of the Netflix Production Legal Lab; see link.

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