Non-English dramas, the new owners of global rankings

Companies from different parts of the world and diverse areas of the business share their views on the past, present and future of non-English-speaking productions.

11 OCT 2021

“La Casa de Papel” (Atresmedia - Netflix)

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Streaming platforms came years ago to stay permanently in people’s homes. Their massive popularity changed the way audiences watch content and created consumer habits that are now the norm. Back in the 2010s, Netflix pioneered a digital revolution that today has thousands of players, which generates an unprecedented content offering.

Simultaneously, the almost unlimited supply of content led to consumers discovering programs that they previously did not have access to. Slowly, English-spoken shows had given way to non-English-speaking content in the global rankings of the most-watched series and movies.

Charts previously dominated entirely by English-speaking shows now display a tremendous diversity of languages. For example, last month, two of the three most popular Netflix shows were Non-English dramas: the successful Spanish series “La Casa de Papel” and the surprising South Korean hit “Squid Game”.

The current popularity of content produced in different languages suggests that the traces of the “language barrier” that many productions faced in the past is gone. To better understand this phenomenon, Señal News spoke with companies from different parts of the world and from diverse business areas, who shared their views on the past, present, and future of non-English-speaking productions.

Julie Meldal-Johnsen, EVP of Global Content

“Non-English language drama has definitely increased in profile over the last several years with some great examples of series breaking through internationally. For example, our own ‘Balthazar’ has been sold in over 75 territories, including the UK, USA, Australia, Japan, and throughout Europe. But although some successful series have widened audience for subs and dubs, it is still true that, in most cases, it is easier to access financing from English-speaking countries for predominantly English language shows”.

“For a drama to break through internationally it needs to be a story that resonates with people globally, and that is told from a fresh new angle that audiences have not seen before. Known IP can help and, of course, can production values. On a practical level, it also needs to attract a strong distribution partner to reach audiences globally, whether that be a global platform or an international sales business”.

José Antonio Salso, Head of Acquisitions and Sales

“In most territories, language has never been a great barrier when it comes to selling content, although it is true that thanks to the great success of ‘La Casa de Papel,’ more and more companies are looking for Spanish content. Those series, in which the public can easily identify with the characters and connect with them, are the most successful. They must tell engaging stories with great dramatic impact. Of course, dynamism, action, and a touch of love are also key pieces”.

“Series are conceived and created from the beginning for a global audience without losing the local essence that gives them personality. Those shows address topics and stories that everyone can relate to. On the other hand, the increase in the offer has made it more and more difficult to differentiate and stand out. That is why at Atresmedia we created the brand Series Atresmedia, to be able to include our productions within a quality seal that was recognizable in the international market”.

Shelia Aguirre, EVP Content Distribution & Format Sales, LatAm, Caribbean, Hispanic US

“Fueled by the accelerated growth of global digital platforms that have made more options available, English-speaking territories are now more open to foreign-language drama. However, for territories where English is not the dominant language, this has never been an obstacle. Fremantle represents several producers from around the globe. Therefore, our catalog features series in several languages. In Latin America alone, we have sold Italian, German, and Nordic language series to many different platforms across the region”.

“A series’ ability to travel depends on the story itself. The story is crucial. Even if the characters and story are local, as long as it is something relatable, as long as there are human emotions to connect with the audience, it can achieve global appeal. In terms of writing, if you have a good story with good writers on board, tweaking it to make it more global could lose the story’s authenticity. The effort to reach global appeal should not be forced. At the same time, dubbing has become a necessity, but as in windowing, producers and distributors need to have a well thought out strategy to ensure maximum revenue potential”.

Kelly Wright, SVP Distribution and New Business

“More and more viewers around the world are now enjoying foreign-language dramas than ever before, as platforms and buyers that previously were not interested are starting to pick up content from other countries. It is great that global platforms have proved a growing appetite for content from unfamiliar countries, whether these shows are dubbed or subbed”.

“Great stories travel, period. A compelling, well-told ‘local’ story is a great starting point. It is the universality of its themes that can then make a show globally appealing. For us, here at Keshet International, one size does not fit all, both for formats or finished shows. Particularly now, that demand for foreign-language dramas is growing so strongly. We take a truly bespoke approach to each title, depending on which broadcaster or platform we are talking to and for what territories. It’s about responding to our client’s needs”.

Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia, Senior Acquisitions & Co-production Manager

“It has certainly become a lot easier to sell foreign-language drama. The rise of the streamers and the increasing globalization of content mean viewers are accepting more subtitled and dubbed shows, and buyers are no longer focused on US content. German drama, in particular, continues to get more ambitious in terms of production values and budgets and the scope of its themes and storylines. Trends come and go quickly in scripted, which is why it is important to have a broad mix of scripted content on offer”.

“One of the biggest changes to the business model is the rise in the importance of the regional streamers. Their contribution to the drama’s financing process is crucial. Regional European streamers, in particular, have become major players, offering financing as an element of flexibility. They are multi-territory as opposed to global; so we can put together diverse financing partnerships such as a combination of linear broadcaster and streamer”.

Fredrik af Malmborg, Managing Director

“The investment in language assets is, of course, a challenge to get series flying internationally. We are to an increasing extent investing in language assets from the start for all different platforms, and then the costs may be shared by several clients. In Europe especially, where the dubbing fees are high, it goes without saying that it has to be a hot series to motivate the investment”.

“More than ever, the focus is important right now when launching a series internationally. Even though platforms buy some projects for a global reach, series sold regionally or locally bring a much higher margin potential for producers and rights holders. The global deals may be attractive for producers; however, to reach anything more than a cost-plus deal where the streamer pays the costs plus a small margin, producers need representation to keep reasonable margins and to be able to finance development and high-end productions”.

▸ INTER MEDYA (Turkey)
Can Okan, Founder and CEO

“In our business, language is the most important factor of distinction. Emotions and ideas can be experienced in the same way in every language, but it is vital to convey them in another language without compromising the authenticity. In recent years, language has stopped being a barrier in our business. The channels started adding more foreign-language dramas to their line-up, and audiences got used to watching them”.

“Every project has a potential buyer across the globe. High production quality, strong characters, remarkable costumes are always an advantage to appeal to global buyers and audiences. Dramas touch the audience’s emotions with their strong narrations, and people become fascinated by their gripping stories bonding with the characters. The successful use of locations and music also strengthens that bond. If a drama wants to succeed in the international arena, it is crucial that it carries universal codes and meets different countries’ cultural values”.

▸ NENT GROUP (Sweden)
Filippa Wallestam, Chief Content Officer

“There have always been great stories in every language. The difference today is that these stories are more available than ever before. International streaming services like Viaplay are a big part of that because we take down barriers to access. Streaming does not redraw the map; it pretty much ignores it. Audiences now see just how much amazing content is out there, and the demand for Non-English content keeps growing as a result. We see this directly in our markets, where six of our ten most-watched titles in the first half of 2021 were Viaplay Originals”.

“In general, it is all about bringing together the right talents to tell the right story at the right time. This year, we will premiere 50 Viaplay Originals, and the interesting thing is that even the most local stories can say something universal. In the Nordic region, some of our most-watched shows in Sweden are from Norway and Denmark. We are going through a fascinating era, and I believe more drama, Non-English in particular, is being produced now than ever before. For us, streaming and our opportunity to expand beyond our original countries mean that we can produce more shows, which also drives more variety”.

Elisa Aquino, VP Sales & Marketing; and Kaitlyn O’Neill, Chief Production Officer

“Dubbing allows for a much wider audience to have access to content and to be able to enjoy the vast number of shows produced and distributed worldwide. With the proliferation of streaming platforms, dubbing has become increasingly critical to the entertainment industry. For example, Netflix offers lots of Non-English speaking content, and slowly, American audiences are watching dubbed versions, and they are enjoying it. Content distributors have much bigger chances of increasing distribution to new territories if they dubb versions into key languages”.

“Dubbing adaptation can be something extraordinary. There is much to consider when localizing a script. There is always a need to focus on ensuring that all factors work harmoniously together. All talents have to make the most of the performance required of them. That process needs to maintain the style of the show, lipsync, and the correlation of the plot. Most importantly, what’s best for the audience is always the priority of any drama’s dubbing project”.

By Federico Marzullo