On Feb 6, 2012, Lilyhammer, starring The Sopranos and E Street Band’s Stevie Van Zandt, marked the first original series to premiere on Netflix and introduced the binge model of releasing full TV seasons at once. The streamer’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos marked the anniversary with an essay posted on Netflix’s Web site and a video chat with Van Zandt in which the two reminisce about how the show got on Netflix and its legacy.
There is an asterisk to Lilyhammer‘s place in Netflix’s history. As Sarandos and Van Zandt admit in the video, House Of Cards was the first original series ordered by Netflix in a mega deal that shook up Hollywood. It was that news that prompted Van Zandt to seek a meeting with Sarandos. At the time, Lilyhammer already had a completed first season, so Netflix acquired a finished show that leapfrogged House Of Cards to the air. (Lilyhammer also makes for a more straight-forward celebration and a far less awkward conversation than a video chat with that series’ star Kevin Spacey.)
Both Sarandos and Van Zandt acknowledged the symbolism in the fact that Netflix’s first original was a local Norwegian production featuring subtitles. The streamer went on to make local production a cornerstone of its global expansion, taking non-English shows mainstream and turning series such as Lupin, Money Heist and Squid Game into global hits.
Read Sarandos’ note and watch the video below. In the chat, Sarandos also skewers Hollywood’s penchant for remaking non-American fare — even when it’s in English — and there is an amusing parallel to today with both Sarandos and Van Zandt chuckling to the latter’s comment how Netflix’s stock price was down at the time it was entering original scripted programming with Lilyhammer.
Celebrating 10 Years of Netflix
Series With ‘Lilyhammer’
By Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO, Netflix
When you think about Netflix’s first original series, what do you think of? The White House? The Litchfield Correctional Institute… Nope, not those. Our actual first original series was Lilyhammer and today, February 6, marks the 10th anniversary of its historic Netflix premiere.
A seminal moment in Netflix history began in a recording studio by the North Sea. Bergen is where Norwegian creators Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad approached Stevie Van Zandt about a show they wrote for him set in a small Norwegian town called Lillehammer. A few months later, having heard that Netflix was looking for original content, I got a call directly from Stevie, who wanted to send us the series. I asked if we could read the scripts and Stevie said “Scripts? I can send you the whole season.” We watched it and we loved it. I thought it was a classic fish-out-of-water story, with Stevie playing a role loved by audiences, and the interplay between his no-nonsense hitman Frank Tagliano and the gentle community around him made for some great comedy. It was a character that was so familiar in a culture that few audiences had seen. I wasn’t sure what would come from that first phone call with Stevie. I was (am) a huge fan of his music and I loved him in The Sopranos, so I was happy just to get to talk to him for a few minutes.
In his new book Unrequited Infatuations, Stevie said that the call led to the best business meeting of his life – which was when we got together in person. I remember that Stevie was a much better actor and musician than he was a salesman; he would humbly describe the show as “different, odd, quirky, sometimes it’s in English and sometimes it has subtitles…” almost like he was trying to talk me out of it. What he didn’t know was that we had already watched the episodes and were in love with the show. We agreed to buy it and commission a second season, not knowing that Norwegian TV shows mostly only ran for one season and usually took long hiatuses between seasons if they did return. We worked out a deal.
The meeting was great and Stevie loved every idea, except one. When I told him that we would not be showing the episodes one per week, we would deliver the entire season all at once. That stopped him in his tracks. “You labor and suffer and someone can watch a year of your work in one night? That sounds a little weird,” he said. “It’s not weird,” I told him. “It’s just like working on an album.” He laughed and agreed.
After first airing on Norwegian broadcast TV NRK on Jan. 25, 2012, we debuted Lilyhammer on Netflix Feb. 6, 2012, offering all eight episodes to our members in the US, Canada and Latin America (followed by the UK, Ireland, and the Nordics later that year). This was the first time we streamed a show across multiple countries and languages…and it worked.
Looking back, Lilyhammer was perhaps an unorthodox choice for our first show. But it worked because it was a deeply local story that we could share with the world. The jokes and references worked locally and the more universal themes of the shows traveled perfectly.
Since then, we’ve seen so many great local stories resonate with people in other countries and from other cultures: shows and films set anywhere, and told in any language. Lilyhammer was the forebearer of so many great shows to come – Dark Desire and Who Killed Sara? from Mexico, La Casa de Papel from Spain, The Rain and The Chestnut Man from Denmark, Dark and Barbarians from Germany, Lupin from France, Sacred Games from India, and of course, most recently, Squid Game from Korea, our biggest show ever.
But the first always will be Lilyhammer.
Thank you Lilyhammer and Stevie Van Zandt for starting this incredible ten-year journey. It’s always hard to predict what’s to come in the next ten but one thing is certain: we’ll have many more great stories from anywhere that can be loved everywhere.