Hollywood’s Hero of the Year Is… Bela Bajaria

Bela Bajaria
Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
December 26, 2021

You don’t need me to tell you that Squid Game was the biggest piece of professionally-created entertainment this year. Those staggering numbers—sampled by 142 million accounts in 90 countries (and finished by 87 million of them) in its first 23 days; 1.5 billion hours viewed in its first 28 days; the kind of global fandom usually reserved for soccer stars and Avengers movies—speak for themselves. The nine-episode, South Korean sci-fi thriller that Netflix bought for $22 million has created $900 million in value, according to internal documents that were revealed in October by Bloomberg, and its stars became subjects of everything from TikTok memes to Halloween costumes to a talent agency frenzy to sign them.

What’s most interesting to me isn’t that Squid Game happened, it’s that this kind of foreign super-breakout was inevitable, and that television success in the future will be defined mostly on these global terms. Anyone paying even casual attention can see what happened in 2021 as a flashing signpost of where this is all headed: Huge investments in local-language programming lead to mainstream-able hits that can be algorithmically promoted to a global audience that’s trained to embrace subtitles and foreign actors; that, in turn, will create nearly instant, exponential growth in consumption of that content. In other words: Massive f-ing hits. And hits translate into subscribers, perpetuating the virtuous cycle. 

That’s not breaking news. In some ways, this has always been the TV business: big, broad hits pay for all the busted pilots and wasted overall deals, eventually spraying cash across the entire industry. But now, with truly scaled platforms, and paying customers willing to sample whatever is served directly to them, it’s all happening way faster, way bigger, and without the various middlemen. The entire lifespan (and revenue waterfall) of a TV show can be compressed into a few months on one platform.

And don’t forget, Netflix keeps all the upside here. Imagine if Squid Game were, say, a Warner Bros. show created by someone like Chuck Lorre or Greg Berlanti. Hundreds of millions of dollars would fly out the door. But not here. Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has said he didn’t make much from Season 1, and the Netflix deal provides for a second season. He and the cast got bonuses, of course, and I’m not saying this is great for the overall health of the talent ecosystem, but the windfall for Netflix on this show is just massive.

That was the Netflix vision from the beginning–the justification for billions and billions in content investment (plus buying out backends), and the narrative that caused Wall Street to go all in on streaming. It has been buying and making international shows since at least 2015. In 2021, the strategy produced Squid Game. There will be many more.       

There’s no better avatar of this strategy than Bela Bajaria. Love her or hate her (and she’s got her share of detractors), as V.P. of global TV for a service with 214 million subscribers, only a third of which are in the U.S., Bajaria has been leaning into international scripted shows and exportable reality formats since she joined the company in 2016 after getting fired from NBC Universal. Local-language stuff was her specialty until last fall, when she replaced Cindy Holland in the top TV job under co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos. A lot of people were pissed about that move because Holland had built the Netflix TV ethos with pricey shows like Stranger Things and The Crown. She’s great, but now the shift seems obvious. Holland had great taste and threw money at people like Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris because, in its formative years, Netflix needed to show it could compete with FX and HBO and ABC, the outlets that its target customers were watching.

But that game has changed. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and to a lesser extent, Disney+ and the others, are finding that the U.S. streaming market is fully penetrated and oversaturated. Domestic sub growth is slowing at almost all the services, dragging down share prices with it. In fact, until Squid Game appeared in the early fall, Netflix was in the same boat, actually losing North American subs in the second quarter, its stock down for the year. Then it rebounded in Q3 and is forecasting a big Q4, mostly from international. The Squid Game effect. These services know the growth is coming from outside the U.S., and supporting that growth is the priority. Netflix just has a massive advantage here: Scale, consistent branding, no legacy entanglements, and, of course, shit-tons of money. 

I’m sure you’ve seen at least some of these Netflix numbers: $1 billion spent on Korean programs alone, including $500 million this year on films and series there. That’s on top of $1 billion in the U.K. and $400 million in India in 2019 and 2020. Latin America is similar. Netflix is making shows in 40 different countries, it subtitles content in 37 languages, and it dubs in 34. Nobody except Disney is close, and Disney has all those pre-branded franchises.   

In response, viewing of non-English titles by Netflix members has more than tripled between 2018 and 2021, with 97 percent of U.S. members watching at least part of one non-English title in the last year. It’s normal now for regular, non-industry people to discuss at dinner parties shows like Sweet Home and Alice in Borderland from East Asia; La Casa de Papel from Spain, Sex Education from the U.K.; Lupin and Call My Agent from France; and, my favorite, Fauda from Israel (disclosure: my wife manages the creators). 

Netflix isn’t alone in investing overseas, of course; HBO, for instance, makes tons of great foreign shows, and its executives get annoyed when people talk about how amazing Netflix’s output is. “We’ve been doing this for years!” they say. But that’s sort of my point. Everyone is doing it, but at least for now, Netflix’s scale and focus gives it the best path to creating global hits. (HBO Max, for instance, doesn’t even exist yet in key markets like Germany and the U.K. due to wholesale agreements, something new Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav needs to fix.) The hierarchy of global platforms will be built on global content, and Bajaria has to be considered the leader right now.

A rumor reached my inbox last week that Netflix is planning big layoffs in its U.S. television group in the new year, re-deploying development resources from domestic to international. Netflix denied it when I asked, but this shift seems almost inevitable. The company has bulked up on L.A.-based D-people for the past five years, and that’s just not where the business is heading.

Bajaria knows this. It’s probably why she focused on the less flashy genres of TV, international and unscripted, in the first place. Big, global hits is where the money is in streaming, even if they’re not as fun to talk about over lunch at the Bungalows as, say, Succession. A hero is someone you follow into battle, and in the Streaming Wars of 2021, the Netflix international strategy seems pretty damn heroic.