Yellin takes Pitt behind the scenes of Netflix


Todd Yellin, vice president of product at Netflix, spoke to Pitt students and faculty on the seventh floor of Alumni Hall about what he’s learned from working for the internationally acclaimed company. (Photo by Anas Dighriri | Staff Photographer)

By Remy Samuels | Staff Writer

It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve just watched two straight seasons of “Stranger Things” in one sitting — even though you have a test later that day.

But for Todd Yellin, vice president of product at Netflix, watching hours of shows and documentaries is part of his job description.

“I’m blessed to be able to watch as much TV as I want and never feel guilty about it,” Yellin said.

On the seventh-floor auditorium of Alumni Hall, Pitt’s Film and Media Studies Program, in collaboration with Steeltown Entertainment Project and the Center for Behavior Health and Smart Technology, presented “A Conversation with Todd Yellin.” Yellin spoke to a crowd of about 300 students and faculty about what it’s like to work for a company like Netflix, which is now offered in 199 different countries and whose content can be watched on a range of devices.

Yellin said getting a job at Netflix was a long, arduous journey. While he majored in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent most of his time in the basement of the dining hall where the TV studio was, creating comedy shows with his friends. This was when he realized he wanted to enter the entertainment business.

“You don’t get into the entertainment business because it’s lucrative,” Yellin said. “You get into the entertainment business because you can’t control yourself.”

After going to film school, working at a laser disc store in Sunset Valley, California, and shooting some of his own movies, Yellin landed a job at Netflix in 2006. He eventually worked his way up to vice president of product.

He described his role in the company as being on the “Silicon Valley side of Netflix,” meaning he is involved with exposing viewers to interesting content — which includes using complicated algorithms and personalization techniques that entice viewers to binge episode after episode.

Yellin also said the average viewer looking on Netflix for a new show flips through 40 to 50 titles. The algorithms, though, are not purely based on age and gender — so if there’s a 17-year-old boy, Netflix does not assume he just wants to watch action shows.

“There’s 17-year-old guys watching videos about wedding dresses,” Yellin said. “Finding the right content and organizing this mess is something we work really hard on.”

Netflix contains numerous categories of shows, from documentaries about science to serious, intense dramas, and Yellin said his team works hard to organize content in a way that is not overwhelming.

“We don’t put the word ‘recommendation’ anywhere on the Netflix experience,” Yellin said. “People don’t want that shoved in their faces.”

Yellin also weighed in on the debate of releasing entire television show seasons at a time — which Netflix does —versus making viewers wait week after week to see the next episode of a show aired on television. He argued that forcing people to wait for entertainment is old-fashioned and not innovative.

“Typically [with] a TV series, you have to give exposition [before each episode] because people forget things from week to week,” Yellin said. “We trust the consumer to watch as they will.”

Following his presentation, Yellin answered questions onstage from Carl Kulander — a Pitt film professor and co-founder of the Steeltown Entertainment Project — as well as from audience members.

Yellin described the nature of Netflix as both innovative and disrupting. Netflix went head-to-head with Blockbuster in 2007 because both services allowed people to rent DVDs online and shipped them to customers’ houses. Netflix took its work a step further in 2011 with streaming and is now branching out to choose-your-own-adventure-style games, where people can choose the destiny or story line of different characters.

“We’re constantly looking in the rearview mirror,” Yellin said. “We have to fail more, and we have to push more.”

When offering advice to aspiring filmmakers, Yellin warned that passion can only get one so far and encouraged students to think about what they can offer a company.

“If you want to make movies and TV shows, make movies and TV shows,” Yellin said. “If you want to put money on your table, it’s not the same thing.”

Senior film studies and fiction writing major Noah Wilps said he enjoyed Yellin’s attitude, at once matter of fact and lighthearted. He also said he was fascinated by the ways in which Netflix is expanding globally.

“I didn’t realize how much effort they put into the global aspect and having films and series from other countries,” Wilps said. “I really enjoyed that. But I think I’m a subtitle guy. I’m not about the dubs.”

Zachary Ferguson, a staff member and videographer for the University, said Yellin’s speech inspired him to make more of his own content.

“As a filmmaker — and this is true for all filmmakers — you start to have your doubts,” Ferguson said. “In the back of your brain, you say ‘I’m going to keep on going,’ and this was like a fuel to the fire.”


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