The streamer procured Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2021 South Korean Netflix Original series, Squid Game, for roughly $21.4 million. The streaming service profited nearly $1 billion with the huge viewership ratings and revenue amassed by the dystopian survival thriller series. While it was a massive boost to the streamer’s finances, the global success of Squid Game hints at the larger picture – how Netflix and its renewed model has helped increase interest in foreign-language content globally.
Linguistic barriers have often made many viewers shy away from watching foreign content. To quote the acclaimed South Korean auteur, Bong Joon-ho, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” While the director made history with his film Parasite being the first-ever foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, his speech reflects how linguistic barriers have often prevented the osmosis of culture.
Ever since Netflix became a streaming service in 2007, they began gaining streaming rights to various popular films and shows, besides producing Original content. While they started with shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad, the streamer soon realised the importance of appealing to a global audience. In 2012, Netflix gained the streaming rights to the first-ever foreign-language series, Lilyhammer, a Norwegian-American crime show that saw the characters alternating between the two languages. While most of it was in English, introducing a bilingual show was a good headstart for the streaming service.
However, Alex Pina’s Spanish series, Money Heist, was a game-changer for the streaming service. In 2016, with the release of Duffer brother’s English language sci-fi show, Stranger Things, Netflix gained a massive subscriber count as people were intrigued by the nostalgic ’80s sci-fi elements weaved into a Stephen King-like setting. Strategically, the streamer introduced the Spanish heist series following the increased audience interest in their content.
While Pina had just cancelled Money Heist on the local Spanish programme due to the show’s epic failure, the streaming service roped in the actors once again, made Pina helm the series and added a bit of their creative output to remodel and rerelease the series. Money Heist went on to become a global phenomenon with five riveting seasons. With its finale in 2021, not only did it popularise the Salvador Dali masks and the Italian song of resistance, ‘Bella Ciao’, while seeing a massive pop-cultural hysteria but also increased audience interest in the Spanish language and culture itself. Following its meteoric success, the streamer saw a piqued interest in Spanish language content. They began indulging the audience by producing more Spanish content, starting with the hit 2018 teen high school drama series, Elite.
By 2020, due to the pandemic, Netflix reached its peak with a whopping number of 221.8 million subscribers. With a saturated subscriber count in places like the United States and the United Kingdom, the streamer began to extend its demographic of target consumers and ventured into more localised content. The previously untapped markets, including France, Germany, India, Africa, Korea, Phillippines, Japan and others, began to come to the fore as the streamer wanted to be inclusive and diverse in its content. In 2021, they released a collection of films called “Palestinian Stories” that featured various Palestinian voices, narrating their every day, war-ravaged lives. While many detailed harrowing accounts of despair and distress, others spun tales of love, pride, hope and faith.
However, the increased interest in foreign-language content resulted from the unimaginable success of South Korean content on Netflix that led them to invest in more than 20 titles in 2022. To stay abreast of the competition between the various streamers, including Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others, Netflix has realised the importance of global localisation. If brought to the fore, the untapped markets can be a game-changer and help the streamer retain its undefeated position of being the top streaming service in the world. Besides the massive success of Squid Game, 2021 releases like Hellbound and My Name added to Netflix’s increased interest in investing in Korean content. The 2022 high school zombie apocalypse drama, All Of Us Are Dead became equally famous, reaching the Top 10 in more than 90 countries.
While the streamer is now aggressively venturing into the African market to create an archive of indigenous voices, it is crucial to understand and acknowledge their contribution in helping the global audience learn more about other cultures and countries. Not only is the audio-visual medium an effective mode of learning about new countries, societies and cultures, but it also helps in battling the global linguistic problems and helps establish individual mother languages as equally vital and acceptable as that of English.
Their increased efforts to help realise the value of previously overlooked foreign-language content is highly appreciated and will help them stay ahead in this vicious streaming race.