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Inside the Netflix Upfront: A Clear Message, Cameron Diaz and Lots of (Earned) Bragging

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A year and a half after Netflix launched an ad-supported tier, the dominant streamer made an upfront pitch — at least in person, in Manhattan — for the first time. There was bragging about the overwhelming statistics of annual hours viewed, a second appearance this week from Jamie Foxx and an open invite for deeper relationships with brands looking to cash in on Netflix’s wildly popular slate. Just ask Mindy Kaling.

“It’s [a series] about a strong woman making it in the male-dominated world of professional basketball,” the writer-producer said of her latest creation for the streamer, Running Point, “and I cannot wait to fill it with commercials about laundry detergent, anti-depression medication, cigarettes, whatever you guys wanna sell … Picture Kate Hudson smoking an e-cigarette.”

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“Smoking is so cool,” added Hudson, the series’ star.

Obviously, the duo were hamming it up. (There are still laws about cigarette advertising, right?) Plus, prior to their bit, chief marketing officer Marian Lee announced that there would be no free-for-all on branding. “Our teams are ready to work with you to build something really amazing, but there’s just one rule: our members [read: subscribers] come first,” she said. “Everything has to be really creative, strategic and enrich the experience for the audience.”

Sandwiched between chief content officer Bela Bajaria and advertising president Amy Reinhard — as well as the barrage of talent we’ll get to in a moment — Lee made one of the most cogent and simple pitches of the week. Addressing members of the ad community who made the cut for the intimate Pier59 Studios presentation, a prelude to second event on Thursday, she made the oddly rare ovation of relating to them. “I’m also an advertiser,” she said. “I want our shows and films to be at the center of what people are talking about. I want genuine and authentic connections. I don’t want to just put an ad out in the world and hope that someone sees it. I want to put it closer to where our culture is happening.”

Watching the presentation, Netflix attempted to make it clear that it is the culture. Subscribers’ 2023 tally of 183 billion hours watched, it was noted, equals a rather obscene 21 million years of Netflix programming watched. And Stranger Things, Squid Game, Bridgerton and Wednesday weren’t just touted as Netflix’s biggest shows or streaming’s biggest shows, they were billed as “the biggest shows of all time.”

It being the eve of Bridgerton’s season three return, the drama opened the presentation with the screening of a softly steamy scene and an appearance by executive producer Shonda Rhimes. “I’d been making a very particular brand of television for a long time and was very proud of it, but I really wanted to spread my wings and try to do more,” Rhimes said of her 2017 move from Disney to Netflix, before turning up the full brand evangelist. “We reflect the society that we live in, and that’s pretty much what it’s all about. It’s why it’s been such a comfortable environment for me.”

If being good enough for a kingmaker like Rhimes or Kate Hudson wasn’t enough, Netflix also trotted out San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. The latter two were on hand to plug their upcoming film, Back in Action. It was Foxx’s second appearance this week, following Fox on Monday, notable only because he has kept such a low profile of late. Diaz has also been out of the public eye, “retired” from acting for a decade, and bringing her back to the screen was something the presentation emphasized as a point of pride.

So much ground was covered in the tight hour that the most seismic news of the day, possibly the week — that Netflix would indeed be hosting live telecasts of both NFL Christmas games — was nearly glossed over. “Its hard to know who has the most rabid fan base,” said Bejaria, borderline casual about the coup, “Netflix or the NFL.”

Upon releasing their guests from the dog and pony show, Netflix then opened its “experience” — apparently the focal point of Thursday’s upfront for a wider audience. Part guerilla marketing, part Museum of Ice Cream, it included a handful of immersive vignettes like a WWE wrestling ring, a mini Regency Ball for Bridgerton and a non-lethal version of Squid Game’s “Red Light, Green Light.”

But when beckoned by a staffer to take the place of one clumsy media buyer who’d just been figuratively killed by a replica of the series’ robot doll, Young-hee, this reporter demurred. I’ve already been through quite enough for one week, thank you.

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