At Frankfurt: Netflix’s Kelly Luegenbiehl Announces a Series on Elif Shafak’s ‘Forty Rules’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Netflix International Originals’ chief at Frankfurt tells publishers that she came in peace: ‘I see us as partners, not competitors.’

Netflix International Originals vice-president Kelly Leugenbiehl takes a question from Publishers Weekly’s Andrew Albanese at the 2019 Frankfurter Buchmesse CEO Talk, with program organizer Rudiger Wischenbart. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Tell Us What’s Resonating With Readers’
Speaking at the 2019 Frankfurter Buchmesse today (October 16), Netflix International Originals vice-president Kelly Luegenbiehl has announced a new book-inspired series: one from Turkey based on Elif Shafak’s novel on Rumi, The Forty Rules of Love.

She also has boarded a series from Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People is going into production soon. And Tyll by the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann is a third newly named production ahead, helmed by the showrunners of Netflix’s hit series Dark, Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Friese.

Luegenbiehl’s warm bearing and ease among bookish people may go a long way toward demistifying the film and television giant and its tantalizing potential for publishers and authors. By way of reassurance, Luegenbiehl has told some of the world’s best-positioned publishers, “We’re definitely not competitors. We have no plans to go into publishing. We really want people in this room to tell us what’s resonating with their readers.”

Luegenbiehl spoke with Publishing Perspectives in an exclusive interview ahead of her appearance in today’s CEO Talk from Rüdiger Wischenbart’s “Global 50” ranking.

There are those in books, needless to say, who fear that the rise of so much superb visual storytelling for international television and film today—digitally streamed for unprecedented and pervasive world distribution—may spell the coming demise of publishing’s imprimatur in the world of stories.

Luegenbiehl has a different message: “Our hope is that these two things work together in ways that are compatible—that series and books can feed each other.

“As we’re going into having offices now in Paris, in Berlin, in Madrid,” she says, her division is looking to being “on-the-ground partners. When publishers read a book they love or meet a new author who might be a great partner to create a great series, they need to just call us and we can work together and find great production partners.

“Also know that those production partners can bring great ideas to us. So in many ways, we can work across a lot of different teams. We always say there are so many ways to ‘yes’ here at Netflix.

“A great story will find a home here at Netflix. And we want people” in the world’s publishing markets “to know we’re accessible.”

While Netflix is rated by Bloomberg to have some 7,100 employees overall and is seen in almost 200 countries, Luegenbiehl and her team as yet haven’t worked out just how many world markets they’ve drawn material from as yet. “But most of our International Originals,” she says, “we’ve found our inspiration in books for, so far.”

And the International Originals are seen throughout the service’s world markets, she says, with translation either in subtitles or dubbing.

For an idea of the reach of the network, when Bird Box was released in December in its adaptation directed by Denmark’s Susanne Bier, the film—sold to HarperCollins’ Ecco in 2014 by agent Kristin Nelson of Denver—was seen in 45,037,125 Netflix accounts in its first week alone. And an account, of course, can represent more than one viewer in a family unit, etc.

Luegenbiehl mentions Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel, and she participated in the adaptation of the book as it became the first Netflix International Original from India.

The Witcher is another, a series releasing this year with Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia from the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels and short stories. In that case, Netflix International Originals are working with production companies Pioneer Stilking Films, Platige Image, and the Sean Daniel Company.

Sapkowski’s books are published in Poland by SuperNOWA and by Hachette in English (in the States Orbit, in the UK Gollancz).

Netflix International Originals: ‘Removing Any Barriers’

Netflix’s International Originals arm has gone through various transitions as the streamer grew and built out its distribution. Not unlike audiobooks, of course, this is a medium that has benefitted by an almost born-again transformation with the advent of digital distribution, making the jump from DVDs (like audiobooks’ CDs) to eager, worldwide audience reception.

“Our team buys and executes on the non-English-language series” of the network. “We’ve been through various iterations of the team, so I’ve worked on series from all over the world. And now, we’re specifically focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.”

One such project, Paranormal, was announced in late May. Based on the bestselling books in Arabic of the late Egyptian author, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (1962-2018), the show is reportedly being produced by both Mohamed Hefzy and showrunner/director Amr Salama, Netflix’s first effort in Egyptian drama.

Luegenbiehl is also working in South African and Turkish material. She mentions the Istanbul-set The Protector and points out that in a case like that series, the content is being seen for the first time in translation.

“Our goal is really to empower local creators to tell stories to a global audience, from their hearts and from their countries. It’s really removing any barriers of entry. Our series premiere on the same day at the same time in 190 countries. They’re dubbed and subtitled into the same number of languages that any of our English-language series are.

“A great story can come from anywhere and travel anywhere.”

That potential ubiquity of good work, however, Luegenbiehl knows, is rooted in specificity. “I worked on a series we did called Baby,”‘ for example, she says, set in Rome’s Parioli quartiere. “If you say ‘Parioli’ to a Roman, they know exactly what you’re talking about.”

And one of her earliest projects was Marseille with Gerard Depardieu, a political thriller on which Luegenbiehl was executive producer for eight of the original 2016 episodes.

Even being in Frankfurt to speak at Buchmesse resonates with Luegenbiehl, she says, “because my father is German and grew up outside Frankfurt. One of my cousins even works in the German publishing industry and pinged me on Facebook as soon as she saw the announcement” of the CEO Talk.

Having also lived in Japan and traveled extensively throughout her life, the ability of popular culture to connect people across borders, she says, has always come naturally to her.

And to see more of what Luegenbiehl and her group are doing on Netflix, search international. The algorithms are set up to follow and expand on what you see, not to show you the International Originals catalogue as a category.

Publishers will also want to keep in mind that Luegenbiehl stresses the importance of “making things—we don’t like to just buy stories and keep them on a shelf.” There’s a drive to favor actual production over options, in other words, something publishers and writers appreciate.

Below is embedded the video teaser for Netflix International Originals’ The Witcher, a release of which is expected before the end of the year.

And a reminder that the magazines that support the CEO Talk with the Global 50 ranking’s data are Livres Hebdo, BookdaobuchreportPublishNews, and Publishers Weekly.

More from Publishing Perspectives on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more on Netflix is here, more on books to film is here, and more on the German market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.