Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant Are Redefining Power for the 21st Century

Matthew Belloni
·12 min read
Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter

From Town & Country

Barack and Michelle Obama are seated at a small dinner party in the Brentwood home of interior designer Michael Smith and his husband James Costos, who was Obama’s ambassador to Spain. It’s a few months before Los Angeles will be locked down, and Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson, and Shonda Rhimes are there, as well as Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant, Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas, a formidable Democratic fundraiser and Sarandos’s wife. Smith begins a toast in honor of the man he says has been the single most positive and powerful influence in the lives of millions of people around the world. Shifting his gaze pointedly past the former first couple, Smith delivers his punchline: “Thank you, Ted Sarandos.”

The joke kills, according to people in the room, likely because it has some truth to it. Over the past half-decade, Netflix has become the dominant force in Hollywood—and our living rooms. With about 200 million subscribers worldwide receiving a something-for-­everyone firehose of content—from guilty pleasures like Tiger King to award contenders like Aaron Sorkin’s recent The Trial of the Chicago 7—it has revolutionized how entertainment is consumed and disrupted L.A.’s traditional studio-dominated hierarchy. The company had traded its David status for that of Goliath long before we all became captive viewers at home, but as the pandemic took down movie theaters, theme parks, and, for a while, the sports leagues that together power most entertainment companies, Netflix has become something like a public utility, and its stock has surged in 2020. In the process, Sarandos and Avant have planted themselves firmly at the nexus of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, politics, and philanthropy, becoming a new kind of supercharged West Coast power couple. Together their spheres of influence form a Venn diagram of L.A. status and impact.

Photo credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Recording Academy
Photo credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

With seemingly half the town’s talent working with Netflix (including the Obamas and, since September, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex), and with a focus on progressive causes guiding both their personal and professional lives, Sarandos and Avant are redefining the role of entertainment power player for the modern age. “Previously, being in power meant being the gatekeeper, which mostly means different ways of saying no, denying access to the club,” says Sarandos, 56, sitting with Avant in the library of their Hancock Park home on a Sunday afternoon. “I never thought about it that way. How do you use that power to open the gates—not be a gatekeeper—and make different ways to get more people to the table?”

Avant, 52, takes a similar approach to her work, which includes high-level political fundraising, activism, and philanthropy. She started in the music industry, but she became involved in politics supporting Black candidates like Harold Ford Jr. and gained attention for her ability to fundraise outside the traditional big-ticket donor pool. In 2008 she excelled as the finance co-chair for the Obama campaign in Southern California, bundling millions from entertainment, business, and philanthropic circles. It’s a skill she learned from her father Clarence Avant, an entertainment industry mogul known as the godfather of Black music. “You must go and serve other people,” she says. “Power equals service.”

Photo credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix
Photo credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix

As Netflix’s co-CEO, a title he took on in July, Sarandos is spending about $17 billion on content this year, placing himself at the center of the global creative community. He has used that deep wallet to lure such creative talent as Ryan Murphy and Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Netflix landed Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s production company with a reported $100 million offer, besting such suitors as Disney and Apple. Sarandos has also made major commitments to creators of color, including Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish), while bringing foreign hits like Money Heist (Spain) and Dark (Germany) to a worldwide audience.

At the same time, thanks to Avant’s circle of contacts and her friendship with the Obamas—she says she talks to Michelle almost every day and thinks of her “more like a sister”—she and Sarandos have become key fundraisers and social connectors for the anti-Trump resistance class. Avant has co-hosted several major events for the Joe Biden campaign, including Kamala Harris’s first as a candidate for vice president. On the local level, she has chaired such L.A. organizations as A Sense of Home, which combats homelessness by assisting youths who are aging out of foster care. Sarandos is taking the lead on the board of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, scheduled to open in April.

Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter

“Obviously, Nicole’s and Ted’s careers speak for themselves, but what I love about them is their genuine decency,” says Michelle Obama. “They’re not solely focused on what they can do for themselves but instead on the positive impact they can make on the world around them. That’s a big part of why we’ve become such dear friends and confidantes.”

In retrospect, their courtship seems made for a Netflix rom-com. She’s a child of Hollywood… the tagline might go. …Now he’s running it! Sarandos, son of a Phoenix electrician and a stay-at-home mom, grew up “somewhere between lower middle class and working poor,” he says. After quitting school to work as a video store clerk, and then manager of a chain of video stores, he took a job in 2000 finding movies and TV shows for an upstart DVD-by-mail company called Netflix. By 2008 he was a divorced dad of two teen­agers when a friend, the producer Lawrence Bender, asked him to fill a couple of seats at a fundraiser for then-senator Obama, for whom Avant was working. Their meet-cute happened in the shadow of a future president.

Photo credit: Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Photo credit: Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Avant comes from the other side of the tracks—Beverly Hills, to be exact. Quincy Jones is her godfather. Sidney Poitier comes for Thanksgiving dinner. Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali, Bill ­Withers—just guys in the living room. Avant’s mother Jacqueline Avant is an avid art collector who was involved in community organizing in Watts. She taught her daughter how to talk to anyone, and the importance of giving back. Jacqueline was “one of the rare women of color to straddle high society,” says Susan Fales-Hill, the author and TV producer (and T&C contributing editor), who has known Avant for decades. “Nicole was born and bred to be an ambassador; the only thing missing was the title.”

Avant and Sarandos hit it off immediately. “Nicole and I talked for three hours that night, much to the chagrin of my date,” Sarandos says. After they had been seeing each other for only a few months, they found themselves backstage in Chicago with the new president on Election Night. Not long after that they were married, at L.A.’s city hall (Sarandos’s kids were best man and maid of honor), and soon she shipped off to the Bahamas. Avant left her posting after two years to return to her new family.

“It’s the modern-day love story,” says Cornelia Guest, who met Avant as a teen on a family ski trip to Aspen. “She has everything in her own right. She comes with her own clout. They balance a family, two great careers, and they do it on a very high level.” Fales-Hill echoes the sentiment. When Avant and Sarandos visited her on their first trip to New York together, she says, “What struck me was how easy they were together. It was as though they had always known each other.”

Today the center of the couple’s universe is a 1925 ­Spanish-meets-Italian-Revival gem designed by Gordon Kaufmann. Miles from L.A.’s traditional mogul magnets of Beverly Park and Brentwood, and just a couple of blocks from Koreatown, the 15,000-square-foot home has become what Michael Smith calls “the Netflix Embassy,” a reference to Avant’s old job and also to the stars and politicians parading through the house for events like Sarandos’s famous toasts before award shows.

Photo credit: Todd Williamson/Getty Images
Photo credit: Todd Williamson/Getty Images

“It’s old guard L.A., very Buffy Chandler, with an understated elegance,” says Fales-Hill. “It’s not one of these McMansions on the hill.” Smith says, “Whether it’s a meeting with Jane Fonda or Gavin Newsom, there are these beautiful rooms, and they fill them with warmth and graciousness.” (Avant and Sarandos also spend time at a retreat up the coast in Montecito that they bought from Ellen DeGeneres a couple of years ago.)

Events at the house can feel like star-studded political salons, even if the point is just to plug a movie. The last time I visited, in early 2017, Sarandos and Avant were celebrating Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Years before systemic racism would come to dominate headlines, the couple got behind the searing documentary about criminal justice with Oprah Winfrey and Van Jones leading a discussion on the lawn about police misconduct and mass incarceration. “These issues that are coming to the surface now have always been a part of my life,” Avant says. The film went on to score an Oscar nomination, and it recently resurfaced on Netflix’s most viewed list amid the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Inside the Embassy, Avant has curated what she calls a “forward thinking” art collection: Al Hirschfeld drawings on loan from her father; pieces by Harmonia Rosales, an Afro-Cuban-American artist whose work focuses on female empowerment; and, in the main dining room, dramatic paintings by Chaz Guest, whose portrait of Thurgood Marshall hung in Obama’s Oval Office. The home’s library is packed in equal measure with biographies of political leaders and comedy books by the likes of Steve Martin and Carl Reiner.

“Ted is a huge comedy fan,” says Jimmy Kimmel. The late night host first befriended Sarandos at the Emmys, and today their families are close, getting together for dinners at Republique or small parties at the Embassy. Sarandos tends to stack the guest lists with his comedian friends and heroes: Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Dave Chappelle, all of whom have made projects for Netflix. “It’s like if you’re a baseball fan as a kid, and then you end up managing the Yankees,” Sarandos says. Molly McNearney, Kimmel’s wife and his show’s co–head writer, adds, “At the last party I had a great conversation with Tiffany Haddish that went from ‘How do we help low-income kids in Los Angeles?’ to ‘What makes a male stripper the best kind?’ ”

This type of reach—hosting comedians and congresspeople, throwing cocktail soirees and social justice salons—isn’t something every L.A. power couple can pull off. It requires a pair who are comfortable with influence but don’t take themselves too seriously. Netflix paid Sarandos a whopping $34.7 million in 2019, but in red carpet photos he looks casual next to Avant’s Dolce and Gabbana gowns, in his button-downs and jeans.

When planning events, Avant “stresses about everything,” McNearney says. “And she has the best linens and most glamorous table settings. You leave her house hating your own.” Kimmel adds, “If it were up to Ted, he’d have a 12-pack and a bunch of pizzas delivered.” (During the quarantine, Sarandos says, he would sometimes venture out to “pick up Panda Express,” a phrase that prompts a momentary flash of horror in Avant’s eyes.)

Sarandos credits Avant and her family with opening his eyes to emerging Black creative talent, and social justice issues, which have influenced his work at Netflix. “I was definitely open prior to [the relationship] but not well informed,” he says. For instance, “I was Nicole’s plus-one at a screening of Ava’s movie Middle of Nowhere,” he recalls. Avant’s friendship with DuVernay helped Sarandos develop his own, which led to 13th and When They See Us, her Emmy-winning miniseries, as well as a new deal to adapt Isabel Wilkerson’s hot bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

And when Netflix was pitched City of Joy, a documentary about women surviving violence in Congo, Jane Fonda, a proponent of the film, initiated a Plan B—or, rather, Plan N. “Jane knew Nicole would be into it,” Sarandos says. “She’s smart,” Avant says. “She sent me a note that said, ‘I’m sending you something. Please watch it tonight.’ I’m scared of Jane, so I said I’m watching it, and this film was so profound. I said to Ted, ‘Please watch this with me.’ ” Netflix picked up the project.

Just as Avant embraced Sarandos’s kids (Sarah, now 26, works in film production, and Tony, 24, just graduated from Chapman University as a film editor), Sarandos became close with Avant’s family, especially her father, now 89, who doesn’t shy away from heavy issues at the dinner table. “My father talks about the Klan like it’s like going to Starbucks,” Avant says. “ ‘Remember when we had to run from these Klan members?’ ‘Remember when we couldn’t stay in this hotel?’ I would watch Ted and his head would go back and forth just listening to all these stories.”

Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Those dinners, and Avant’s passion for telling her father’s story—son of a domestic worker becomes trailblazing power broker—led Sarandos to greenlight a Netflix documentary on him, The Black Godfather. “I wanted to show achieving the American dream through a Black person’s lens. We don’t get to see that,” Avant says.

Sarandos took a little heat for commissioning a film on his father-in-law, produced by his wife. But when the end product—featuring everyone from Obama and Bill Clinton to the late Chadwick Boseman—screened to a standing ovation in Los Angeles in June 2019, the crowd included a who’s who of Black influencers, from 1970s fashion guru Audrey Smaltz to musician Pharrell Williams. After the screening, with Sarandos at her side, Avant greeted all 400 or so guests individually, in a quasi-receiving line—just as an ambassador would.

A version of this story appears in the November 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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