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With 100 Foreign-Language Series, Netflix Will Take Binge-Watching Global

Netflix International Originals chief Erik Barmack believes even American viewers will become comfortable with subtitles.

Roberto Garver

“La Casa de Papel”

Foto: Roberto Garver

If there was ever any doubt that Netflix is bent on global domination, we can dispel that right now. In a recent interview with IndieWire at the Scripted conference in Los Angeles, Netflix International Originals VP Erik Barmack laid out Netflix’s ambitious plans to ramp up local production in territories across the world — including Mexico, Spain, India, Germany and France. The plan is to soon have around 100 non-English language series in production across the globe.

“A hundred isn’t really a particularly magic number,” said Barmack, who pointed out that, just that morning, he’d received dailies from eight different time zones. “It would give us pretty robust slate in Latin America, Europe and then starting a slate in India, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.”

Five percent of the world’s population is in the United States and the United Kingdom, yet both markets dominate global TV. “There’s something fundamentally off about the math,” he said. “It can’t possibly be the case that the U.S. people in Hollywood and London are somehow 20, sometimes 30 times better at telling stories. When we look back at this time, five years from now, no one thinks that this should hold up.”

Barmack said he foresees a time when half of the world’s top 10 shows in any given year will be non-English productions. The rise of global streaming services have made it easier to spread local productions to all corners of the globe, and social media helps expose larger audiences to shows that might have previously been only regional hits.

“This is a foundational change in how people are consuming TV,” he said. “If you look at the Netflix of it all, look at the fact that roughly 60 percent of our audience is international. Once you’re in a world where you’re looking at subtitles or dubs, this is pretty likely to happen at least within Netflix.”

Barmack also expect to see more actors from across the world wanting to work in multiple languages. “The idea that you’re going to have to move to L.A. to be a big star is going to be a thing of the past,” he said. “If there’s global platforms with a couple hundred million subscribers, we’re going to have shows that are bigger than the countries that they’re coming out of.”

Netflix entered the international production business in 2015 with the Spanish-language series “Club de Cuervos,” produced in Mexico. Other notable releases have included the dystopian Brazilian drama “3%” (in Portuguese), the German-language thriller “Dark,” the Danish post-apocalyptic drama “The Rain,” and India thriller “Sacred Games,” in Hindi. Perhaps the biggest of them all is “La Casa de Papel,” a Spanish thriller that actually began life on local free-to-air terrestrial TV. It wasn’t until “Casa de Papel” (which means “Money Heist”) went to Netflix that it became a massive hit, popular around the world.

“Philosophically, our position is that we don’t want to be doing shows that current broadcasters in market already do really well,” he said. “In Mexico, for example, Televisa really can do great telenovelas. So it wasn’t our interest to go do a 100-episode series. We’re looking mostly to talk to filmmakers who want to do six-, seven-, or eight-hour movies and tell stories in a different way.” That includes focusing on genres that are popular but are underrepresented in a market — such as young adult shows, supernatural series, and sci-fi.

Initially, most of Netflix’s global TV decisions were made from Hollywood. But as volume increases, Barmack is relying more on regional decision makers, even going so far as to open a production hub in Madrid.

“We wanted to create this culture where we were getting a television executives from here to make decisions about how we would set up premium TV around the world,” he said. “But as we are scaling, we really feel like we need people in market. So it was possible to have five or six executives here travel a lot when our slate was 12 or 13 shows. When you get to 100 shows, you really need regional decision makers.”

Having seven or eight different offices is a different challenge to Netflix. The nuts and bolts of dealmaking and production finance is not standardized.”We don’t have a green light committee,” Barmack said. “We have teams of people. We have a group in Amsterdam, we’re opening an office in Paris, we have a team in Madrid, a team in Mumbai, a team in Singapore, a team in Tokyo and Sao Paulo. They are empowered to make decisions in the regions that they think are best for them.”

Budget levels often depend on whether Netflix believes a local show might become a bigger hit across territories. The Polish series “The Witcher,” adapted from a popular fantasy book series, is expected to be a global hit straight off the bat. That convinced Netflix to invest in the series and cast a star in Henry Cavill, who will make around $400,000 an episode (per Variety).

“These are Polish novels where we’re self producing because the scale of it,” he said. “It’s being shot in Hungary, and the scale of it is pretty immense. It has to reflect the level of investment. It’s a big fantasy series with a VFX component to it.” Two more just-announced shows out of Germany, “Tribes of Europa” and “Barbarians,” are also “huge shows that require scope.”

Budgets may also increase once a show becomes a global hit. When it became clear that “Casa de Papel” was a global phenomenon, “those budgets started to shift, both because we wanted the scope of the story to change and there is a competitive reason for those investments.”

Dark Netflix The Stranger

“Dark”

Stefan Erhard/Netflix

Netflix hasn’t done a Ryan Murphy/Shonda Rhimes-level overall deal with talent on an international level, but it is starting to make exclusive pacts with a handful of producers — including “Dark” creators Jante Friese and Baran bo Odar, who are now working on a second project, “1899.” Netflix also has a deal with “La Casa de Papel” creator Alex Pina, and novelist Harlan Coben.

“He happens to do exceptionally well with some of our international markets, so many of his books have been made into French series or films,” Barmack noted. “He is quite popular in Europe, he’s quite popular in Latin America. We felt like we needed crime miniseries. Not just in France, but in several territories. Getting access to great source material as a way of accelerating that business was exciting for us.”

Then there’s the way Netflix utilizes data in launching international series. In some cases, it’s still a great unknown to go into an untested territory. Barmack said Netflix constantly updates its international data field because “there is just a bunch of things we didn’t know. For example, in the spring we are launching our first Arabic-language series called ‘Jinn,’ which is a supernatural YA thriller. If you go for the supernatural YA part, you’d sort of look at one set of data assumptions, and then if you go to the Arabic language data part, you’d have no assumptions because we’ve never launched an Arabic-language show.”

As international productions spread, it may also impact the viability of formats. The idea of one market remaking another market’s hit show in their language may become obsolete if that original series is readily available.

“We’re reluctant to format as a company, because we believe that when there is a global platform that the authentic story wins out,” Barmack said. “We have some unscripted formats that we’re going to do localized versions of, and we have some scripted shows that we will be announcing where we’ll be doing multiple versions of an idea, but with different scripts. But it’s unlikely for us to just simply take, say, ‘Sacred Games’ and put it in California. That just wouldn’t make sense.”

What might the globalization of content eventually mean for the U.S.? “How we define Hollywood productions is going to blur,” he said. “You’ll see examples of shows that are involving talent from around the world. So the idea of having a purely L.A. production with purely U.S. talent is going to feel off for shows that need to get to a global scale. People are going to get more comfortable with watching non-English shows. That’s happening, so every month the percentage of Netflix subscribers, even in the U.S., watching shows from around the world is ticking up.”

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