Welcome to my blog, which will focus on the story of Netflixed—why I wanted to write this book and what I encountered while researching it. I have a lot of fascinating (to me, anyway) tidbits that I couldn’t quite cram into the book without taking the narrative on a Nantucket sleigh ride (whaling reference), so I decided to share them here.
First, a little background:
I joined Reuters in June 2002 as a general assignment reporter after having won a few awards for investigative stories I wrote for a Los Angeles legal newspaper. I planned to continue my investigative work at Reuters, the world’s largest news agency, but two years later was swept into the financial beat in a news room reorganization. Little did I know that what I considered a long career detour would provide the seeds for my biggest investigative project ever—my first book.
These days, the life of a wire service financial reporter consists mainly of sitting in front of a pair of computer screens, and monitoring stock movements and a constant flow of company press releases. It was fascinating to learn about the market and every day was fast paced but did not allow deep analysis of the big themes or personalities I was covering. For me, meeting and observing people, learning their stories and motivations and watching their choices and narratives across months or years imbues a life in journalism with its richness and beauty.
That’s why the Netflix-Blockbuster story, with its David-and-Goliath aspect as well as tragic elements of hubris on both sides, appealed to me so much. Although I spoke regularly with Blockbuster Chairman and Chief Executive John Antioco and Netflix Chairman and CEO Reed Hastings, the interviews (usually after quarterly earnings calls) were generally brief, rushed and centered on financial results and strategy. The subtext of the monumental struggle between the two—what was really going on inside the companies, how they managed to stay focused, what inspired them—was never revealed. The story was so tantalizing, but out of reach for a wire service reporter.
I very much admired DisneyWar by James B Stewart—the Walt Disney Co was one of the companies on my beat—and I thought Stewart did a brilliant job describing how the clash of personalities at Disney affected its financial performance and by extension the dynamics of the U.S. entertainment industry. I thought I could do the same sort of narrative with Netflix.
After eight years and thousands of stories written at Reuters, I decided to risk everything, quit my job and try to write the story that had obsessed me for so long. The deciding moment was a conversation I had with my brother, John A Sopuch III, in which he told me over dinner at Morton’s in Burbank, that he was tired of listening to my echolalia over whether I should quit to write a book. “Just quit. You’ll be too scared to fail.”
He was right, and I dedicated the book to him.
I knew most of my protagonists and many of them knew that I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about Netflix and Blockbuster. My first interview for the book was with Shane Evangelist, the former general manager of Blockbuster Online who had by then moved on to become CEO of US Auto Parts Network in Carson, California. It was the first of several conversations we would have over the next two years about the amazing ride he had as a 29-year-old head of the only rental company to give Netflix a real run for its money.
Shane persuaded former Blockbuster Chairman and CEO John Antioco to meet with me the next time Antioco came to his Southern California vacation home. Antioco, who had left Blockbuster three years earlier and was running the Red Mango yogurt chain, told me flat out that he didn’t think there was enough of a story to fill a book. He changed his mind when I reminded him of the multiple dramas—both inside Blockbuster and against Netflix—that he had dealt with during his decade at the helm of the world’s largest video rental chain.
Next, I tracked down Marc Randolph, the guy who had co-founded Netflix with its Chairman and CEO Reed Hastings. We first met at a breakfast joint in Los Gatos, where Netflix headquarters is located. When I learned about Netflix’s founding and early years from Marc, I knew I had a great story. There was no real record of the company’s early struggle to define its image and business model, so hearing about that from Marc and his founding team was thrilling. Although all of the founding team except Hastings had left Netflix before I started covering it in 2004, most of them kept mementos of their little startup. I was pretty excited when Marc showed me this sheet of yellow legal paper with the names they considered before settling on NetFlix.
Shane and John and Marc opened a lot of doors for me after our first meetings in the spring and summer of 2010. I subsequently met the tremendously talented teams who worked for these guys. Each person added a dimension to the story that made it live for me—and I hope for readers of my book. I’ll write more about them in coming posts. But I’ll leave you with one of my favorite photos of Netflix’s early years.