Todd Yellin (Ep. 44)
BY Future of StoryTelling — August 18, 2021

Netflix Vice President of Product Todd Yellin discusses content personalization, interactivity, and his vision for the future of digital storytelling.



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Additional Links:

• Watch Todd's FoST Film



Episode Transcript


Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling. Welcome back to the FoST podcast. Today I'm joined by Todd Yellin, Vice President of Product at Netflix. Todd's forward-thinking leadership has helped drive both the company's business and its innovation for over 15 years. To put it broadly, Todd's role is to envision the future of how audiences will experience Netflix and bring that vision to life. He helped build the company's cutting-edge personalized recommendation engine, led its expansion from America into over 190 countries around the world, and has shepherded its foray into interactive programming with projects such as Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own-adventure style episode of Black Mirror.

What I love most about Todd is that he comes to his work, not just as a talented tech executive, but as a filmmaker himself with a passion for experimentation and a deep respect for the art and craft of storytelling. Given Netflix's position as one of the world's most influential companies at the intersection of media and technology, Todd's work is actively shaping how we're all going to experience stories in the future. I'm honored to call him a friend and excited to share our conversation on today's episode.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Todd Yellin. I am so excited to have you on the Future of StoryTelling podcast. Welcome.

 

Todd Yellin:

Pleasure to be here, Charlie Melcher.

 

Charlie Melcher:

This is so fun. So listen, you and I go back a bunch of years. I think it was 2014 when we had you come and speak at the Future of StoryTelling Summit. And I remember we found you from this incredible article. Was it in the Atlantic? I think somebody had basically surmised that there had been this intense personalization project at Netflix to help create better connection between your viewers and their content and figured out that this program must have been happening. And then they found you. As the person behind it.

 

Todd Yellin:

That is correct. So, that was the Atlantic magazine. Your memory is impeccable, seven years later. Yes. Impressive Charlie. And yeah, basically what it was, that was the work that I did back in 2006, when I first got to Netflix and it was, how do we personalize? How do we do better putting the right title in front of the right person at the right time? And people always think, "Oh, it's all algorithms." No, no, no, no. This is a collaboration that's really driven by people because we put in the information. And so I tried to categorize and then I built a team to do this, but I first did it in a ripped up old armchair before Netflix fortunes really went up into the light. And I was just trying to figure out every genre, sub-genre, type. Everything about a movie or TV show that I could think of, whether it took place in outer space, it was a western in outer space and it had chimpanzees in it. And bam, you put that together and you have an outer space chimpanzee western.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I think I saw that movie. So, what I loved about it was that you were working to try to figure out how to make better connections for people in an age where there was just too much information, right? Like there were too many options, streaming television. There was just so much to watch, so much to view. And so it was really this matchmaking you were doing. This intimate, like "How do I serve somebody something that they're going to fall in love with?"

 

Todd Yellin:

I love how you phrase the love part of it. Which it really is a dating service between people and what to watch. And when you make a great dating service, you have to understand both of them, so they can make a great choice and they're compatible. And we want to really understand our members. And we really, at Netflix, want to understand the content and what we're matching them up to. And that was the initiative to push that forward. It's gotten a lot more sophisticated since then. We've gotten a lot better at it since then, but those were the early days.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Well, that use of the term love comes from the video we made together called "Stories You'll Love," which is, by the way, still one of the videos from FoST films that I love the most of all the ones we've ever made.

 

[Excerpt from Todd’s FoST Film]

You might think, “If we know someone's a 17 year old guy versus a 67 year old woman? Done.” You know exactly what they want to watch. Show the 67 year old woman lots of things with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Show the 17 year old guy lots of Marvel superheroes, lots of explosions. And you'd be wrong, because that's not how it works. And the reason is, it really depends on understanding people's mood.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I happen to know you are a hardcore film buff, right? Tell us about your love of movies.

 

Todd Yellin:

Oh my God. It's crazy. It goes way back. It goes to sneaking to watch the VHS tape of A Clockwork Orange when I was 12 and my parents didn't know about it. And I fell in love with Kubrick. I know it's quite edgy. And it goes back to those days. It goes back to the days of shooting Super 8 film, for those who go way back like I do. On the hills of Long Island, making my cousin do death defying stunts, as I was shooting them and then cutting them together. So it goes back to that. Goes back to film school. Being a film critic. It goes all through my life. I love cinema.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And now you're in this position, right? Your role is VP Product at Netflix. Which I love because it sounds actually kind of vanilla and kind of like corporate and plain. And yet what I really think is happening is you're Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory. I mean, you are literally there getting to kind of create and invent the future of how we're going to interact with our stories.

 

Todd Yellin:

Yeah. I wish, in response, I could have the wit of Gene Wilder from the original Willy Wonka movie, which is an absolute classic. I can't live up to that bar. But yeah, I like how you described my title as vanilla because I see it that way too. I would have never predicted that title for myself many years ago when I thought I was going to be at Netflix two years and going, "How the heck am I going to thrive in a corporate environment? I've never worked for a company in my life." But the mission and the impact we have at Netflix in actually changing the way stories are told at a global scale has kept me coming back for more and more. And, Netflix, what's kept me here so long is we are the DNA strands coming together between technology and video storytelling. And taking both and evolving the art form. And that's what I'm super excited about. Vanilla title or no, that's what keeps me coming back for more.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So tell me a little bit about something that you're working on. That is an example of that future.

 

Todd Yellin:

If you look at storytelling, it's on a spectrum between truly passive storytelling. Kickback. Put that bucket of popcorn in your lap. Whether you're in the movie theater, whether at home. And the director is going to take you and the writers and everyone else involved, he's going to take you on a journey. And you're going to watch that journey with your feet up and so forth. The other way on the other extreme of that spectrum is pure interactivity. Which is you getting involved and you being part of that story and so forth. So where can you go where you have some agency in the story? So our proudest example of that was Bandersnatch, which we did a couple of years ago. My favorite thing ever on Netflix has been Black Mirror. Maybe my favorite show runner and creator is Charlie Brooker, brilliant guy.

And so I approached Charlie because we had picked up Black Mirror and we were creating new ones. And I said, "How about if we did something a little different? How about if we combine some interactivity?" And Charlie goes way back in gaming. He used to review games back in the day, I think, for The Guardian. And he has just a ridiculous, fertile mind when it comes to the interaction of technology and storytelling. Just look at the narratives of Black Mirror and they will tell you that.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yeah.

 

Todd Yellin:

So when we pitched the idea to him about how about if we did some multibranch storytelling or there are moments in the story where the user gets to choose, his first answer, his knee jerk was "Thank you for approaching me, but no thanks. That sounds like it's going to explode my mind." Then two days later he got back, he goes, "Yes, it's exploded my mind and I want to keep on exploding my mind because I'm a glutton for punishment. Let's do it."

But that's only one step on that spectrum that I was referring to. So we announced recently at Netflix, just very recently, that we're going to start experimenting with that whole spectrum further along on where TV shows and movies head down that spectrum heading towards the video game realm. And video games have also played with much more narrative games like Telltale Games. They did their Walking Dead version. They've done Batman and so forth. And those are more interactive than Bandersnatch, but we want to play in that space. And then we want to go even further. And really find, for our audiences, start breaking down the difference between what is a game, what is a movie, what is a TV show and really getting them involved. And really it becomes about what does the artist have in mind that they want to create along that spectrum and break down the barrier that "I'm a game developer" versus "I'm a film director." And really, "I'm a storyteller."

 

Charlie Melcher:

Now I'm curious when you're thinking about this, cause again, you said this is for your big audience. Like, that's the amazing thing of getting to play where you get to play is you've got a global distribution network. Truly, truly global. When you're doing this and you're thinking about those audiences, you are thinking about them in all these different countries, all these different languages. Are these experiments that are happening everywhere, or do you just focus in North America?

 

Todd Yellin:

So the idea of Netflix is making storytelling much more global and opening it up to storytellers and to audiences on a much larger scale. And in America, we've had figurative walls up for years. Especially when it comes to culture and our allergy to subtitles and not wanting to watch "Oo it's a foreign film. It must be Bergman or Fellini. That's not for me." And that was the old school way. In the new school way, it's like, I don't care if you're from Brazil or a Ghana or Germany or Philadelphia. You might be a great video storyteller and we want people to see this. And so at Netflix, we're very much into making this global, and whether it's more interactive storytelling, the games, interactive storytelling, movies, and TV shows, we try to get into. Right now, we'll subtitle into over 30 languages. We'll dub into a dozen languages for everything. Because we want to give people access to all of this storytelling.

So the beautiful thing is, now people don't even think twice about it when it comes to a great popular mystery show, like Lupin, which I just watched with my wife, it's French.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yep.

 

Todd Yellin:

Oh, you watch it too?

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yeah. I watched the whole thing. It's great.

 

Todd Yellin:

Yeah. And so that's been watched by Americans. A French story. The same thing with La Casa de Papel, also called Money Heist. Super popular all around the world, edge of your seat entertainment. And here's the dirty secret. Dubbing actually works. Shocking. Dubbing. You think of Godzilla and kung fu movies from the seventies. Nope. 50% of people who watch content from other languages in the U.S. are dubbing it. Some people want to hear the actors originally, but you're also, your eyes are going to the bottom of the screen. Sometimes some people are more interested in their facial performances, but you're hearing another voice. So it's always a trade-off technology. We'll get rid of that one day, stay tuned. But right now we're just trying to make storytelling accessible to everyone, whether it's interactive or straight up lean back.

 

Charlie Melcher:

For a long time at the Future of StoryTelling we've been promoting, and I'm thinking honestly, more dreaming that the potential of the worldwide web, to give us access to stories from other lands, from other cultures, from other creators from other languages would come true, right? Because we live in America, we grew up with this kind of in cultural imperialism. And it's like we had the gates up and then nothing could get across the moat. And we've been so cut off from all the amazing creators all over the world. And honestly, Netflix is the first company that has started to fulfill the promise of being able to have stories go both ways. Not just us sending our stories to the rest of the world, but us starting to really, really have access to and enjoy incredible storytelling from other countries. By the way, you're dubbing is actually done by humans, right? It's not being done by AI?

 

Todd Yellin:

It's done by humans and we try to get really high quality actors to do this. So we don't want it to be schlock. And we're really trying to use state-of-the-art dubbing. You'll see this more and more. Other services will do this as well. And we'll get more and more breaking down that American exceptionalism and starting for people in our country to say, "Yes, I'm going to see how the other half or the other, honestly, 95% live."

 

Charlie Melcher:

And of course, if we're ever going to start to think like a human species, we actually need to start to understand each other through the stories that we tell. Like that is one of the ways we gain empathy and a sense of connection. And if we ever want to get out of a kind of extreme nationalism or deal with problems that are truly global ones, say climate crisis, I really do believe that it's through the exchange of stories that will shift our perspective and start to be able to think as a planet, as a species.

 

Todd Yellin:

I like that. And it's not only that, it's also who's acting in those stories? Who's telling those stories? More diversity on screen is usually important. That's finally happening. Why did it take so fricking long? But that's super important so people can look up at the screen and go like, "Oh, they're like me."

 

Charlie Melcher:

One of the things I know that you've invented recently is a button that'll choose for you what to watch. I just want to say this is so valuable because it reminded me ,when we started talking about how do we make good choices for the things we're going to really love. And it reminded me of the early days of my courtship with my wife, when we used to go, "Hey, let's rent a movie." Remember? You'd go to blockbuster and you'd pick a movie and grab some dinner and we'll go home, watch a movie. And we'd end up spending an hour in the blockbuster store, unable to make a choice. And then we'd come home with like four movies. But it was sort of almost too late to even watch them. So tell us about this new feature.

 

Todd Yellin:

By the way, I identify with that choice dilemma, that being paralyzed by it. That's a challenge of the internet because we have so much choice. What everyone eventually wanted is kind of what now paralyzes them. And they don't want it as much as they thought they did, but it is great to have it all out there. Double-edged sword.

So play something. It's a feature on Netflix. We launched a few months ago and here's the deal. Sometimes it's like, "Damn it. My brain cells are burnt out after a long day at work or a long day at school. And I just can't make any more choices." And behavioral scientists approved this out. The more choices you make in a day, the more your brain gets exhausted. And the longer it takes to make your next choice. So by the time you get home, "Damn it, for my entertainment I have to pick a movie or a TV show to watch?" So based on what we've seen you enjoy, we take a guess about what we think you'll enjoy next. You hit that button and we'll just play something that's personalized for you. If that isn't quite the right choice, you could play something else. But we've seen like a majority of users have tried this. They've used it more than once. It is a good fallback and we're going to keep on making it better and better.

 

Charlie Melcher:

What are the biggest challenges when you have one of the world's largest platforms? Global platforms? And your job is to think of the future? What is it that you run into that's really a challenge for you?

 

Todd Yellin:

So people assume, oh, Netflix is a big company. So we have endless resources and we could just build everything. That's never true. So the first thing is, it's a big funnel that we have. You brainstorm. Whether it's you brainstorm and throw up a bunch of post-it notes on a white board, whether it's your brainstorming with another person and riffing off each other, whether you're standing in the shower way too long, and just thinking of ideas. You list these out. You have all these great ideas of what you might want to try, and then it's really sizing up, "What should you do next?" And how do you make that decision and how do you run an organization to make it so that you're not just having centralized decision-making. So it's not just out of one biased person's brain, who is kind of running the show.

And what I like about the culture here, even more than the impact at Netflix, it's the culture that's got me sticking around. Because we have something called freedom and responsibility. Which is we try to push decision-making around the company. Whether it's deciding on the next product feature that my team is going to build to make an experience better, the wrapper around the content or the actual content itself and having who green lights that content. It's not the old school studio model of some middle-aged white dude with a big cigar in his mouth. Gruffly saying, "Yes, no." With the emperor, with the thumbs up, thumbs down. In that system, you don't get diverse storytelling. You get really funneled down to one or two people's tastes. And Netflix, we have all kinds of people making decisions and they're diverse. And they come from all around the world. And whether it's what we're going to test next on the product, or what movie or TV show we're going to go produce or what we're going to try on the interactive space, lots of people making those decisions.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So where do you think storytelling's headed? If you had to look into your own crystal ball and project out, what's the experience going to be for people when they are connecting with Netflix in five to 10 years?

 

Todd Yellin:

We could talk wild and we could have some fun with it. And that's why I love the Future of StoryTelling. That's why I love to go to your conference and listen to all your great speakers and listen to your podcast. Because then I start hearing the wild, like what's out there, what could be happening, what's going on? I'll be optimistic around these things and say, we talked about things around making storytelling more global. So let's go back to the 1960s, like any one of our generation who was into this world, I was into Star Trek. And so I was into in in reruns when I was watching in the late seventies. And it was over and over again, growing up in New York. That was what I was watching old Star Trek episodes as a kid. And they had something called the Universal Translator.

And then it's like any alien. You can just immediately talk to them. Okay. A little far-fetched since they never even met that civilization. I don't know what machine learning algorithm figured out their language without ever meeting them, but it works somehow. I think we're going to get closer to that because, like I talked about, there's the effort of reading subtitles, but you're not looking at the actors face. There's the distraction of looking at the actor's face and listening to dubbing, but you're not really getting their original voice in the original performance. How do we get both? How do you get it? So suddenly our great actors or great performers are speaking in that language that they don't even know and it's synced up. And it's perfect. I'd love to see that innovation. Because, suddenly everyone becomes more accessible. There's no tax to watching something from another place and it feels like it was made for you, which is great.

So I'm interested in that. And I think that would be exciting technology to spread things more globally. So I'm interested in that kind of world. Where stories go, it's interesting because I have both my concerns and my optimism. One of my concerns is I have two teenage kids. They're on TikTok and I don't want to be the closed minded, middle-aged guy who's scorning new technology and new forms of storytelling, but they really love it. And honestly, it feels just like my parents thought I was addicted to watching too much TV, I look at them sometimes and go, "They feel like addicted to their phones and doing too much TikTok." And so forth. So my question is, does the world go in that direction? Because this is the next form. And it gets more and more short form. Or "No, no, no, that's just a younger person's thing."

But as they get more mature, they'll get more patience. They'll watch longer form. If I had to guess myself, it's that these things break down more and more, and it doesn't become, like I talked about before, the spectrum between what is a pure passive movie and what is a truly active game, and then blurring that. What is a movie? What is the TV show? We've been blurring that. What is a TikTok, 15 second video? What is the TV show? And what is a movie? And blurring that. So it becomes less and less about these pigeonholed forms and more and more of a fluid medium.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Certainly there are new technologies that do sometimes replace old and, and new forms that, that force the others to shift over and be played to their strengths or, or reimagine what they're good at. I guess I'm focusing more on the excitement of what new forms are yet to come. And I think that there will be those of us who go into immersive experiences and are moved in a similar way.

 

Todd Yellin:

My favorite FoST experience that really showed me the promise of where things might be going. You'll know the specifics. I don't remember the creator and who's responsible, but it was an Alice in Wonderland experience where it was a virtual experience where I put on a VR headset and I walked into a tent and suddenly I was Alice and I was in that world and I was talking to the giant rabbit and I was talking to Humpty Dumpty and their lips were perfectly in sync. And I was being my typical wise ass self and Humpty Dumpty was matching me being equally a wise ass and really responding to what I was saying.

And then I found it, I knew in the headset, what was really going on, was an actor had motion cap, and it was matching their lips and putting them in this virtual world with me. And I was thinking, "That is a magical experience." And my technology mind moved me towards. There's a way to scale that and not have this poor actor who did a magnificent job running around that tent, playing different characters. He did a British accent and a New York accent and he was wonderful, but having to be able to scale that so it's not this exclusive experience for one user, but thousands of people can do it at some kind of destination at once, based on machine learning technology and so forth. I can't wait for that.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So I had that same, I'll never forget that moment again in my life. That was the DV Group from Paris. And I had that same exact experience. And of course not only was the rabbit responding to you in terms of what you said and did, but then you were told to reach down and pick up a mushroom and you reach down and there was an animated mushroom. You pick it up and you feel the mushroom in your fingers. And not only that, you take a bite and you're having a candy in your mouth. And there were fragrances in the room and all of a sudden the scene changes and you're in a new space and literally the world of imagination and the physical, tangible world had melded into that experience.

 

Todd Yellin:

Let me add one more thing. Thank you. Thank you. Because now it's all coming back to me. That was one of my all-time favorite entertainment experiences, period. So thanks to FoST. But I'll tell you one other thing that happened. In Alice in Wonderland, who's the evil queen, the queen of spades? Queen of hearts? What is she?

 

Charlie Melcher:

Spades I think.

 

Todd Yellin:

Okay. So the evil queen, the off with their heads queen, she's yelling at me like she yells at Alice and we're interacting. And then for some reason I had to stick on my hand and grab something. I don't remember what it was. And then my hand is slammed against something and it hurt like hell and I go, "Wow, they're really going for it." And then I had the honor of meeting the CEO of the company outside, like you said, it was a Frenchman and I'm talking to him and I said, "Boy, you guys really pushed it. That really hurt. And he goes, "That was actually an accident. A prop fell on your hand." And I go, "Well, you should add that into the experience because it even made it more visceral and then I hated that queen even more." I loved that experience.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Imagine when stories all become that way, where we are living in them. And that's why we've been bringing people to the Future of StoryTelling who understand improv. That's part of that experience that you were having with that actor. You were in the middle of an improv with that person. You didn't even know it, right? So there's all those rules of improv. It's why we bring people from gaming because gamification is one of those ways that we get you hooked in and want to play more and get excited to go on that quest. It's why we bring people who understand world building. But yes, once you get people who have the control of all of those crafts and can wield them to customize an experience that you can then live in and improv in and expand with your own… meet it halfway with your own creativity.

There's going to be a lot of opportunities for storytelling that will blow your mind. If there's one thing I think we can safely say is that as society progresses and technology progresses, it's definitely a constant march towards greater democratization. If I think about the original media, the book and how so few people could read, and it was just the high religious orders or Kings or whatever. And that's one thing that does give me a lot of hope is that these are the tools that will continue to spread and hopefully reach all sorts of people who, right now, suffer from an information divide, a digital divide. And that's one hope for the future. That we overcome that pretty quickly.

 

Todd Yellin:

We see that on Netflix with access to bandwidth, good enough bandwidth to stream content. We're constantly looking at that. We're constantly looking at the technology of how are you able to stream a movie with lower and lower bandwidth? So it's still watchable and you could still use it. And so, whether it's in Brazil or India, and we've gotten better at that, but you still need a minimum bar to be able to get those bits across the network so you can watch something. And so with the infrastructure, getting better, some countries more than others, it does make me hopeful, which is opening up all this information to more and more people and this entertainment to more and more people. And that excites me too.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So we started with a conversation about how do we get very personalized right there, pick a good movie for me tonight. And we've moved to this idea of information for everyone, across the globe as distributed as humanly possible. At the end of this, for me, stories remind me of the joy of being alive. And the stories are inspiration for experiencing your own life. And it reminds me of, Todd, you and I had the pleasure of going on an adventure together a couple of years ago when FoST did FoST travel. And we took a group to Edinburgh to go experience the Fringe Festival. And I guess I would just say, I look forward to more in real life experiences together. And I really appreciate, and thank you for the time and for being here with us and just for this incredible enthusiasm and great work that you're doing at Netflix to help bring stories to everyone.

 

Todd Yellin:

Thank you, Charlie. It's been an honor to be on your podcast.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Thanks for listening to the FoST podcast. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more, please subscribe and share it with a friend. And of course, big thanks to Todd Yellin for joining me today. You can find a full transcript of our conversation and watch Todd's FoST film, one of my all-time favorites by visiting the link in this episodes description, the false podcast is produced by Melcher Media in collaboration with our talented production partner charts and leisure FoST also creates a monthly newsletter that features articles, upcoming events, and original content showcasing the cutting edge of storytelling. Join the foster community by subscribing at fost.org/signup. I hope we'll see you again in a couple of weeks for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. And until then, please be safe, stay strong and story on.