Netflix scrambled internally to suppress a controversial movie from search results
In September 2020, Netflix was in turmoil as the company battled its most significant PR scandal to date. Earlier that year, the streaming platform had acquired the worldwide rights to the French film Cuties after its lauded premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Maïmouna Doucouré had made the movie as a commentary on social media and the hypersexualization of young girls. But the poster Netflix released to promote it didn’t have that same self-awareness. Instead, it displayed the actors, some of whom were only 12 years old, in booty shorts and crop tops, striking provocative dance poses.
The fallout was immediate. #CancelNetflix started trending on Twitter. QAnon conspiracy theorists claimed the company was distributing child porn and started tweeting about it with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren. A Change.org petition calling for the film to be removed had more than 40,000 signatures. Texas House of Representatives member Matt Schaefer asked attorney general Ken Paxton to investigate the film “for possible violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws.”
Netflix apologized for the poster but stood by the film. After all, the frenzied response was to the marketing, not to the movie itself. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos called the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, to personally own up to the mistake, according to Deadline.
Behind the scenes, however, Netflix scrambled to minimize public backlash by suppressing the film in search results prior to its release. It removed Cuties from the “coming soon” and “popular searches” categories and excluded it from queries for “cute.” It then adjusted its algorithm so searches for the film would not surface “steamy / sexual titles” or kids’ movies.
The incident hints at how Netflix can manipulate its algorithm to navigate a PR crisis, walking a fine line between allowing for creative expression while tightly controlling a movie’s reach. Internal documents reviewed by The Verge detail how Netflix dealt with this PR crisis by, in the company’s own words, “suppress[ing] promotion and related search queries.”
In response to a request for comment from The Verge, a Netflix spokesperson said: “Our recommendations help members find great titles to watch amidst all the choices on Netflix. Not every title gets promoted in the same way, just as every member’s homepage is different.”
Inside Netflix, the fallout from Cuties has been compared to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — a moment of reckoning where the company realized it was going to be held responsible for anything that happened on its platform. “This incident demonstrated that we see ourselves as just a conduit for content,” read one analysis, called a “post mortem,” on the incident. “In contrast, our members see us as the source, as the author/presenter. As a result, we may unconsciously absolve ourselves of the need to view our content through this lens.”
The Cuties controversy also highlights why some employees have been disappointed by the executive response to Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, which released earlier this year and has been widely criticized as transphobic. While the Cuties backlash was partly driven by QAnon conspiracy theorists who likely hadn’t seen the film, The Closer’s criticism came from employees, trans activists, and prominent civil rights organizations, and Netflix did not appear to respond with the same level of urgency. Some at the company felt bad faith attacks were taken more seriously than criticism from Netflix’s own workers. This past month, Sarandos doubled down on his support of Dave Chappelle and defended his decision to keep The Closer on the platform. The company also did not suppress the special in search results, recommendations, or on platform promotional materials.
Until now, it was not publicly known the lengths at which Netflix went to suppress Cuties prior to its release. But within the company, it has been a catalyst for change in how Netflix deals with potentially sensitive content — and a sign that these issues will only continue to get more complicated.
The warning signs came as early as January 16th, 2020. Netflix’s editorial creative team, responsible for reviewing films prior to release, watched Cuties and wrote a summary of the potential issues American audiences might have with it: “The dance scenes are provocative, sexual in nature and can be sometimes uncomfortable to watch, featuring slow-motion shots of 11-year-old girls sucking on their fingers and close-ups on their crotches and behinds.”
This review process is supposed to prepare Netflix for potential backlash and make sure the right people have seen a film so there aren’t any surprises. But Netflix determined that Cuties did not meet the bar for additional oversight. In France, the film received an All Public rating, deemed appropriate for everyone. In the US, it got a TV-MA rating, meant to be seen only by mature audiences.
In March, a copywriter wrote the movie synopsis that appears on the Netflix platform when users click on the movie title: “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.” Netflix’s Spanish language translators couldn’t find a direct corollary to “twerking,” so they changed it to “sensual dance.”
Netflix decided that the image that had originally been used for the film, showing young girls running up a hill with shopping bags, wasn’t going to do well on the platform. So the company created its own poster, as it often does for licensed films. This one was far more provocative.
The synopsis, combined with the poster, made some employees uncomfortable. Yet, few were willing to speak up, according to people familiar with the situation. Some felt that because the creative aspects of the film weren’t in their direct control, it wasn’t their place. Plus, Doucouré had won the Directing Award at Sundance in 2020 for the film. Cuties had prestige.
This hesitancy goes against a core Netflix value: courage. “You say what you think, when it’s in the best interest of Netflix, even if it is uncomfortable,” reads a public culture document. But it wasn’t totally clear where employees should turn if they wanted to flag the film.
Netflix has a number of resources for employees looking to find information about how to handle sensitive content. These include a Slack channel dedicated to sensitive assets and sensitive content guidelines for scenes that could be offensive in certain countries. At the time Cuties came out, however, there wasn’t standardized guidance related to nuanced depictions of minors.
The problems were exacerbated because the rollout was happening during the pandemic. Netflix employees were working remotely, making collaboration more difficult. By the summer, Netflix knew that Doucouré hadn’t yet seen the poster but decided to move forward anyway. This was typical for Netflix, where directors aren’t always made aware of how their films will be promoted. So, on August 18th, 2020, the film’s marketing materials went live, both on the Netflix platform and in the press. The movie was added to the “coming soon” category — a key traffic driver for upcoming titles.
Almost immediately, the right-wing media latched on. “This is disgusting,” wrote the Daily Caller on Twitter. “How is this in any way okay?” “The film is pedophile grooming and also an attack on Muslims and traditional morality,” tweeted right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich. Soon, prominent Muslim-American activists joined in, criticizing the film for stereotyping the lead character’s family.
Doucouré, who saw the poster at the same time as the American public, told Deadline that she started getting harassed online. “I received numerous attacks on my character from people who had not seen the film, who thought I was actually making a film that was apologetic about hypersexualization of children,” she said. “I also received numerous death threats.” According to Netflix’s internal documents, her young cast, some of whom were as young as 12, started getting attacked as well.
Netflix believed it had a bit of distance from Cuties. After all, it had acquired the rights to it after it was celebrated at Sundance — this wasn’t a Netflix original production. But the company quickly realized that the public didn’t see a strong distinction between films Netflix made and films it distributed. “Multiple people had concerns about the English title translation from the distributor, but they did not raise those concerns as strongly as they may have if this was a Netflix Original,” an internal Netflix analysis of the Cuties incident says.
This had happened before. In June, Netflix had received criticism for a film called 365 Days, which some people felt romanticized sexual assault. As with Cuties, the Netflix poster — which showed a topless woman being caressed by her kidnapper — made the situation worse.
Now, Netflix admitted that its “guidelines and review mechanisms, which we previously believed would have prevented such an incident from occurring,” were insufficient.
By 3:30PM on August 19th, Netflix updated the Cuties synopsis. “Amy, 11 years old, tries to escape family dysfunction by joining a free-spirited dance clique named ‘Cuties,’ as they build their self confidence through dance,” the new summary read. (Unfortunately, the Spanish translators changed “free-spirited” to “sensual,” which also then had to be updated.)
By 6PM the same day, the movie had a new poster — this time just showing the main character’s face and shoulder.
The following day, Netflix tweeted an apology:
We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.
— Netflix (@netflix) August 20, 2020
On Slack, a group of managers and directors involved with the film discussed the issue. It seemed to be causing Netflix customers to cancel their accounts. One mentioned that multiple employees had been working for days to fix the growing communications crisis. It was an all-hands-on-deck moment for the organization.
The group decided to focus in part on the algorithm. Netflix search results are controlled by what a user types into the search field, the country they’re in, and the titles available in that country. But the Cuties documents reveal ways in which the company can take manual steps to hide a film from the platform. It removed the movie from the “coming soon,” “more like this,” “coming later,” “extras,” and “popular searches” categories. It also excluded the film from search results for “cute.”
The goal, according to the Netflix documents, was to “minimize press coverage” related to the poster and “avoid looking like we have removed the film page from service, are moving release date and/or not launch the film,” as “this could be seen as reactionary.” Netflix didn’t remove Cuties, but it did its best to minimize its prominence on the platform.
Netflix manually altered the search results so queries for “cuties,” “mignonnes,” (the title in French), or any variation thereof would exclude “steamy / sexual titles,” as well as kids’ movies. Prior to this change, two overtly sexual movies, 365 Days and An Easy Girl, were surfacing on Netflix as movies similar to Cuties.
The company also made sure that searches for problematic terms like “pedo” wouldn’t surface results for Cuties. Without oversight, that was a real possibility because Netflix’s algorithm takes into account behavioral data, which tracks what Netflix viewers actually watch in addition to what they search for. If members search for “pedo” but end up playing Cuties, the French film would have eventually surfaced as a result for the search term “pedo.”
Still, by August 21st, the controversy wasn’t dying down, and Netflix employees were starting to get harassed by QAnon conspiracy theorists online. “We do not believe QAnon is a sophisticated group with advanced offensive skills,” the Netflix security team wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge.
Elsewhere, the Netflix customer service organization was also in turmoil. The team fielded over 16,236 messages in the weeks following the movie’s release, making it one of the largest causes of incoming customer experience messages of all time.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Netflix promised to do better. The company compiled a list of hundreds of titles that had potentially sensitive content, which it flagged for further review. Most of the Cuties blowup happened in less than a week, but its repercussions would be felt far in the future. In September 2020, after the film’s release, Netflix cancellations were eight times higher than the daily average a year before, according to an article in Variety.
The controversy over Cuties overshadowed the film itself. “I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon,” wrote Maïmouna Doucouré, in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Instead, she and her cast were relentlessly harassed, slammed for oversexualizing young girls.
Netflix took the Cuties crisis extremely seriously, owning up to its mistake and overhauling its internal processes in the wake of the scandal. This, despite the fact that it wasn’t a Netflix original, and the company’s budget for the film was just $847,500.
Just over a year later, on October 19th, 2021, Netflix had a quarterly earnings call, where it reported subscriber growth of 4.4 million, beating analysts’ expectations. No one asked about the controversy over Dave Chappelle’s The Closer, which had occurred just a week prior, even though the story had become national news. Netflix employees were walking out of work the next day to protest the company’s handling of the crisis, and one activist had been fired for allegedly leaking documents about its cost and performance on the platform (the employee has categorically denied this allegation). But it apparently hadn’t translated into a serious business problem for Netflix.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos responded to employee concerns about the Dave Chappelle special by saying, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” He later admitted this was a “gross simplification” in an interview with Deadline.
Netflix paid $24.1 million for The Closer.