Meet the modern age’s storyteller-in-chief

By Alvin R. Cabral

Los Angeles. Rummaging through the schedule of my latest Press trip, I was more fixated on the fact that I’d have to fly for 16 straight hours again. Twice. Not that I’m that impatient but, man, being on two flights for that long in a span of four days, sandwiching a really tight two-day tour isn’t exactly a cakewalk.

Until I (finally) noticed something scheduled on the second day: ‘Q&A with Reed Hastings’.

Alright, something to really look forward to.

“What a treat to be with you,” were among the first words he uttered during a speech welcoming us on his turf in LA.

Somehow, what I heard was something like, “I have a story to tell…”

Reed, for the uninitiated, is the co-founder and CEO of some mega-firm known as Netflix. Though rightfully having his place in the upper echelon of tech bigwigs, he’s not that oft-mentioned compared to the likes of Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and, everyone’s favourite ‘bored’ flamethrower-wielding maverick, Elon Musk.

But when he talks, you’re likely to start listening. You’d better start listening.

Storytelling is an art. I remember a famous collection of short stories back in the Philippines, called Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang (literally, The Stories of Grandmother Basyang; I’d bet only the really young ones today may be unfamiliar with it), which embodies a typical gather-round pastime in the country where an elderly person would tell mesmerising tales to children. Originally appearing in a Tagalog-language magazine, the kuwentos — stories — have since been adapted to other media, most notably on the small and big screens.

For obvious reasons, I’m seeing this with Netflix all over again with the memories — of my grandfather, who was the one who used to tell me stories, and trooping to movie houses to see the adaptations — trickling back. There were no HD TVs nor special CGI effects back then, but it was a gratifying experience for one and all.

During that two-day marathon tour — one in LA and the other in Silicon Valley — most of the Netflix top guns who engaged us in special sessions used the word “storytelling” a good number of times. This is, after all, their mission: to watch things from a whole new perspective, not just stream something you paid for onto your screen and that’s it.

“We’re trying to be, you know, good stewards of customers’ money,” Reed points out.

In the UAE, Netflix’s monthly subscription charges are $7.99 (Dh30: basic), $11.99 (Dh44: standard) and $13.99 (Dh52: premium). Not a bad deal for screen junkies, really.

When the actual Q&A session started, it was like a lottery; I’m not good at crowd estimation, but I was fairly certain that not everyone in the just-under-200 members of the media would be called to raise something.

For everything thrown at him, Reed had a ready answer. Bring it on, he seemed to say — and I didn’t even see him stutter.

About 15 minutes into that back-and-forth, I finally got picked. So I asked what they’re doing about Arabic content.

He looked at me dead in the eye and without hesitation called the Arab world “one of the great storytelling pools of all time,” then went on to flaunt Jinn, Netflix’s first original Arabic series, which will feature middle east talent, will be shot in Petra, Jordan, and is slotted for release in 2019.

Here’s the thing: throughout the over-half-hour session, Reed talked and answered in a manner that was akin to what his company is doing — storytelling.

It takes confidence, candidness and, of course, natural talent to deliver a story. Though I’ve been praised to be one (well, to a certain extent; I guess my sense of humour and my trigger-happiness for pranks have something to do with that), I still feel I’m not quite there yet.

It would’ve really been fun if I was given the opportunity to do a one-on-one with Reed. I’m quite certain that aside from the “stories” he would tell, there are many other stories behind them. Just like when he got the idea for Netflix along with co-founder Marc Randolph — they started out as a humble DVD sales and rental outfit.

But I guess the most important thing about telling a story is the impression that it’ll leave on you. I have a very good indicator if some movie or show hit me hard: when I find myself watching it over and over again. Or, during my downtime, repeating certain lines in my mind.

Anyone can tell a story; executing it is an entirely different thing. And the entire experience at Netflix made me realise something, odd and ironic as it may seem: you don’t need to dress the part nor wield the latest technology to entertain with a little tale, to get your point across.

Grandma Basyang just needed her rocking chair to make people happy. Fast-forward to today, Reed and Co have all the cool tools to take it places we could never have imagined.

Same story, different day. All good.

Alvin loves basketball, shoes, cooking and all things tech

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