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Netflix’s Sky drama hire points to a major UK strategy shift

Sky drama boss Anne Mensah’s appointment at Netflix has been hailed by the British production community as a major coup that could see commissioning power shift in the UK’s favour alongside more talent deals.

After being linked to the sought-after UK scripted role at Netflix since early this year, the streaming giant revealed Mensah’s appointment as VP of content on Monday (November 12).

Set to lead a scripted series content team focused on UK production, Mensah will report into Netflix’s long-standing VP of original content Cindy Holland – a compelling sign that the appointment could form part of a changing regional strategy for the global SVOD.

Netflix’s modus operandi out of the UK has been to move quickly on content that has already been commissioned, taking second window in the UK and the first window globally on shows such as BBC One’s blockbuster drama Bodyguard as well as ITV’s Marcella.

One senior drama exec told TBI: “It has effectively been more of a licensing approach. The only show they promoted almost like an original was Channel 4’s The End Of The ****ing World. The few shows they have done that have been originals haven’t received a great deal of marketing, except for The Crown.

In contrast, VP of international originals Erik Barmack – who commissions largely non-English language content with the exception of some Australian originals – has been commissioning upwards of 10 originals out of markets such as France, Spain and Germany.

“Barmack’s team has almost 100 non-English fully-funded commissions at this point, while the UK has very few original commissions.”

While English-language content has traditionally sat with Cindy Holland, she has remained predominantly US-focused.

Herein lies the opportunity for Mensah, who is sure to wield more commissioning power from the prime position between Barmack’s international-focused and Holland’s English-language teams.

It would not be surprising if Netflix strikes a first-look deal with Elba in the near future.

Furthermore, Mensah’s relationships with British talent such as actor Idris Elba and his production banner Green Door Pictures, which recently co-produced Sky original In The Long Run, is also certain to be beneficial.

“This relationship is bound to evolve,” said the source. “It would not be surprising if Netflix strikes a first-look deal with Elba in the near future.”

Talent deals with other key talent out of the UK is also likely, given the seven-year Sky exec’s deep relationships with the scripted community.

Crunch time ahead for Netflix

However, Mensah’s appointment also comes at what is crunch time for Netflix, which will be going up against the likes of Disney+ – a “formidable” partner, according to CEO Reed Hastings – as well as WarnerMedia’s planned platform, Amazon and an international-facing Hulu.

“Something that is important, and which we have seen in the last few months, is that Netflix is more and more careful with costs. They have reassigned a few people and are doing greater cost-control of their shows,” said a source.

“They will also be more careful because they have growing competition. They will surely be going for those huge shows, and are likely to enter bidding wars with WarnerMedia and Amazon – but it may come down to making a decision between going for a huge show in the US versus the UK.”

For now, Netflix’s appointment of Mensah, who will officially start next year, has been hailed by the production community as a major coup for the UK.

Richard Yee, founder of Me + You Productions, which produced Sky One drama Sick Of It, said: “It’s great for British scripted talent to finally have a focal point at Netflix in the UK.  Anne Mensah did an amazing job at Sky, attracting A-list talent, nurturing new writers and championing diversity.

“Now that she’s at Netflix, I hope it promises increased investment in British productions and heralds a new wave of exciting homegrown dramas and comedies with the budgets and scale to compete with our American counterparts.”

Tony Wood, head of Cineflix-backed Marcella producer Buccaneer Media, added: “Anne will be a brilliant bridge between this country and the US, having been investing in indigenous high-end drama for the UK as well as the international market for years.

It all depends on whether Netflix will be producing in house or through indies. The latter is clearly better for the indie community and the former a disaster.

“Her knowledge of this market – both talent and the audience – has got to add to the UK’s opportunities with Netflix.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Norton, founder of Kew Media Group-backed Awesome Media, called the hire a “serious statement of intention” that Netflix is “entrusting her to source new stories from the UK’s creative community” adding that “she champions a creator’s vision”.

One scripted producer, however, approached the hire with some caution.

“It all depends on whether Netflix will be producing in house or through indies,” they said. “The latter is clearly better for the indie community and the former a disaster.”