Global Content Strategy: How Netflix Became the World’s First Truly International Movie Studio
In our interconnected digital world, where the internet enables the free flow of stories across state lines, borders, and oceans, creative studios have a lot to gain from developing a global content strategy.
The rise of streaming services has forced the entire entertainment industry rulebook to be rewritten, allowing providers like Netflix to simultaneously premiere a new movie or TV series across multiple territories with little more than the click of a button.
Creators should no longer feel restricted by national borders or language barriers, because it has never been easier to distribute content that reaches and resonates with an international audience.
By producing local-language content, telling stories that are both specific and universal, and hiring international voice actors to dub dialogue in different languages, you can ensure your content will soar on a global scale.
Let’s explore how Netflix harnessed a global content strategy and gradually built themselves into the first truly international movie studio.
How Netflix Went Worldwide
Netflix is perhaps the most salient example of a major entertainment company that has not only leaned into, but dived headfirst into its global content strategy—and it has the receipts to show that it paid off.
After launching their video-on-demand platform and beginning to downscale their DVD delivery service back in 2007, Netflix made its first foray into the international market by expanding their VOD offering to Canada in 2010.
Now, only a decade later, the streaming service has accumulated more than 193 million global subscribers in over 190 countries.
On the winding road Netflix journeyed toward establishing itself as the go-to entertainment service for a vast portion of the world’s population, one of the most substantial leaps that the service made was from licensing other studios’ content to producing their own.
The initial Netflix model involved filling their library with pre-existing shows and movies that already had built-in audiences. However, licensing and re-licensing properties can be costly, and it caused Netflix’s library to shapeshift dramatically as beloved titles were pulled from the service when contracts expired or when studios decided to launch streaming platforms of their own.
Netflix soon pivoted to playing the long game. The streamer transitioned into the new strategy of funding and producing their own catalog of new, original content to which they would own the rights in perpetuity. Netflix Originals would remain in the Netflix library forever.
At first, Netflix’s original programming mostly resembled a compilation of prestige TV, offbeat film festival fare, and critically-panned comedies that nonetheless performed exceedingly well. As their subscription numbers climbed, the company decided to adopt a new strategy that would help them continue to grow as they expanded internationally: produce local-language content specifically geared at audiences in the different territories they were making inroads to.
Breaking Into New Territories with Local-Language Content
Between 2019 and 2020, the amount of Netflix subscribers in international locales increased by 98 million, representing a 33% year-over-year growth. To stay relevant and attract a steady inflow of new customers, not only does Netflix have to produce viral hits, but it also needs to put in the work to win over regional audiences with original content that feels less like a distant Hollywood import, and more like something that reflects the audience’s culture and lived experience, and is accessible in their mother tongue.
Producing original local-language content is all part of the process of localization. As this rundown of global ad campaigns explains, “localization ensures that words, dialects, and cultural and social conventions are all considered so that the message will resonate with the specific needs of a local audience or market.”
In some instances, Netflix incorporates international language considerations into the very DNA of its new shows. Their original competition reality show, Ultimate Beastmaster, was originally launched in six different localized versions: Brazilian, German, Japanese, Mexican, South Korean, and American.
Netflix has routinely partnered with international broadcasters to helm co-productions in the native language of the region where they reside. For instance, they recently signed a deal with the South Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM’s Studio Dragon. Netflix also often acquires content produced by local broadcasters and, by releasing it on their platform, makes the content accessible for an international audience—as was the case with the Canadian series Anne with an E.
One of the greatest benefits of producing localized, country-specific original content is the cost: it’s a lot more affordable to shoot films and TV outside of the United States. Netflix is also in the process of investing in studios and developing production networks in territories where they have identified the potential for future growth.
This local content strategy has more than thrived in regional markets. In 2019, Netflix reported that the most popular titles throughout India, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Thailand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were all local originals. In fact, the libraries of most non-English-speaking countries are made up of roughly 90% foreign language content.
Netflix has become the ultimate destination for anyone in search of both the buzzy new title trending worldwide, in addition to the work that was conceived in their native language and shot domestically with a local cast and crew.
Plus, Netflix’s localization efforts aren’t just limited to their library of content—they’re also present in the streaming service’s marketing materials.
Take, for example, the “One Story Away” brand campaign that Netflix launched at the same time in 27 countries. The brand video was customized with different voice over narration in multiple languages to represent the various language markets that Netflix has a presence in. Ava DuVernay, showrunner of When They See Us, voiced the American ad, while Maja Schöne from the German sensation Dark voiced the German rendition, and the Academy Award-nominated star of Roma, Yalitza Aparicio, voiced the Latin American video, and so on.
However, the platform doesn’t want its local content to only travel as far as the living rooms of its local audiences. Netflix believes that the international content they are producing has the potential to take off in a major way in copious other language markets around the world.
Investing in Original Content That Travels
It should come as no surprise that Netflix wants to produce hits. It’s the most cost-effective outcome for the service when one program snowballs into a global sensation and appeals to audiences across a range of language markets.
At the same time, engineering a runaway success and forecasting what kind of program will take off (and when, and where) isn’t all that straightforward.
While one might expect particular language demographics to gravitate more toward certain content, viewing data actually paints a more nuanced picture. “Stereotypes about what one region might like versus another are largely useless to Netflix,” reports Brian Barrett in Wired. “One might assume, for example, that Netflix’s anime streaming is heavily concentrated in Japan. Yet only 10 percent of the people who watch anime on Netflix live there.”
A good deal of Netflix’s programming intentionally transcends cultural specificity. The Spanish crime drama Money Heist is one such property that proves that a good story has universal appeal, regardless of its language of origin. Money Heist was a gargantuan success that shot up to Netflix’s top ten list in over 70 countries, and holds the record for being the most-watched non-English language series on the platform.
While you have the brisk-moving Money Heist on one hand, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find work like the understated Mexican family drama Roma. The Netflix original film, which garnered widespread critical acclaim and countless awards, reveals that Netflix’s overarching content strategy doesn’t simply involve being watched the most times in the most households, but also pursuing recognition from a validating institution like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It has even been theorized that Netflix’s ability to propel international titles into different language markets may have a globalizing effect on the film industry. “American films have influenced other cultures for a long time, clearly,” says cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, “and as Netflix helps bring international work to an American audience, the influence can now run the other way.”
Now that you understand the importance of both breaking into international markets using local-language content and attracting global audiences using compelling content that travels, how does a studio produce content that can thrive in language territories other than the one it is originally produced for?
Let’s look at the main tactics that Netflix uses to make this content accessible to as broad of a viewership as possible.
The Enduring Art of Dubbing
Netflix has invested a lot of time and effort into dubbing its content so that it can be easily viewed and understood by audiences in far-flung places across the globe. “Dubbing is the key focus in Netflix’s four largest EU markets: France, Germany, Italy and Spain,” writes Digital TV Europe. 60% of the foreign content in these markets is dubbed.
There are a few reasons why Netflix has doubled-down on its dubbing strategy. For one, it is cheaper to dub over dialogue than employ casts who are bilingual, or shoot a movie in more than one language (although this tactic did work for the record-breaking Indian film Baahubali: The Beginning, which was shot in Telugu and Tamil simultaneously, and later dubbed in Hindi and Malayalam). There is also the added benefit that dubbed films are generally considered more accessible to mass audiences than subtitled content.
In fact, Netflix is working with over 165 dubbing studios around the world to produce dubbed versions of all of its content in multiple languages. Whether a show is dubbed or not can be a major factor influencing whether a show takes off in other countries, especially when it comes to a fast-paced series like Money Heist, where attempting to read subtitles while following the action may prove too much of a multitasking feat for the more casual viewer. 48% of American viewers who watched Money Heist watched it with a combination of dubbing and subtitles, while 36% watched it with the dubbing track only.
The Netflix devotion to dubbing is making so much content accessible to new audiences. When the streamer licensed 21 films from Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli in early 2020, the films were dubbed and subtitled in more than 20 languages. Once Studio Ghibli’s library went live on the platform, viewers all around the world were able to press play and watch the film in their native language.
When Netflix dubs a film or series, their localization team does their best to cast voice actors who not only sound like the original cast, but also ‘embody the spirit of the character and tone.’ Once a voice actor performs the voice over for an actor in one movie or series, they will typically become attached to that actor, and repeatedly cast to voice that same actor for any dubbing projects in the future. For example, the actress who voices Winona Ryder’s character in Stranger Things “also provides the dubs for Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, and Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
Forming a dedicated localization team is crucial in order to tackle the diversity of content that the streamer is producing for the different markets where it will be viewed. While some translation may be straightforward, there are shows like Stranger Things, which features many fantastic elements and references to 1980s culture. To effectively translate Stranger Things for non-English-speakers, the Netflix localization team had to do a lot of research. For instance, they “dug into old Dungeons & Dragons materials to nail down how various cultures translated ‘Demogorgon’ in the mid-1970s.” The team was also required to track down decades-old marketing materials for Eggo waffles, due to the product’s prominence in the show’s first season.
Global Content Strategy Use Cases for Brands Beyond the Film and Television Industries
Now that we’ve highlighted the benefits of building your brand’s global content strategy, you may still be left wondering if these tactics apply to your company’s mission. If you’re not a studio producing entertainment content, or you don’t operate at the same scale that Netflix does, why should you be focused on tailoring your content to address an assortment of audiences in different markets the world over?
The truth is that you don’t need to be producing movies or narrative series to have a global audience top of mind. When you publish digital content over the internet, in most instances, that content can be accessed and circulated at an international level. Although you may be headquartered in one part of the world, it can still be highly beneficial for you to build an audience for your brand elsewhere. “95% of midsize companies plan to have international clients in the next 3 years,” reported CMS-Connected back in 2018.
Global content strategies have been deployed by the likes of the World Wildlife Foundation, who launched a localized Earth Hour campaign for its Norwegian web visitors based on Norway’s distinct seasonal daylight hours.
Innocent Drinks, the U.K.’s leading smoothie company, is enjoyed for having a casual, conversational marketing style. While you can find its products in 15 European countries, Innocent Drinks’ relatable branding remains consistent no matter what language its message is translated into, boosting its brand consistency and appealing to a wide audience.
Going local has also proven to be a tactic that triumphs in the world of scripted podcasts. The Gimlet series Sandra, which originally debuted in 2018, was adapted into a slew of localized renditions for different language markets. The production team translated Sandra’s script and hired A-List local-language talent to premiere concurrent adaptations of the show in Brazil (as Sofia), France (as Sara), Germany (as Susi), and Mexico (as Sonia).
“By thinking and programming locally, and using our creative teams on the ground in each market,” explains Courtney Holt, global head of studios and video at Spotify, “we’re able to develop a show that feels like a German, or French, or Mexican, or Brazilian podcast, rather than a translation.”
Crafting Your Own Global Content Strategy
If you’re a content creator producing work that is intended to be consumed far and wide, resonate with audiences across borders, and highlight the universality of good storytelling and the human experience, here are some best practices to keep in mind:
Develop country-specific knowledge
What works in one market won’t always work in another. “Netflix has demonstrated that developing country-specific knowledge is critical for success in local markets,” writes Harvard Business Review. “This knowledge needs to be both broad and deep, extending across political, institutional, regulatory, technical, cultural, consumer, and competitor domains.”
Understand where your viewers will access your content
In some geographic markets, it is far more common for consumers to access the internet on their mobile devices. This is why Netflix has put a lot of work into enhancing their mobile experience, especially for regions where viewers are more likely to be watching Netflix’s shows and movies on their phones.
Slow and steady wins the race. While launching a service in hundreds of markets at the same time is a thrilling prospect, and certainly a possibility in this day and age, you may want to take it easy and execute a more gradual rollout. Start by building a presence in territories that are less likely to pose cultural or regulatory issues. Then, strategically continue your outward expansion, and be prepared to address new challenges as they arise.
Be aware of territorial regulations
Netflix has encountered its fair share of setbacks as it has grown into new markets. For instance, in 2018 the European Parliament instituted a quota “that required all streaming services operating in the EU to carry at least 30 percent of content from the region it’s in.” This is why the Netflix library of a subscriber in Sweden may look pretty different from the library of a subscriber in the US.
The streaming service has additionally had to contend with a law in France that prevents movies from becoming available on streaming platforms before three years after their theatrical release. Rights regulations differ everywhere, so it’s well worth putting in the research before expanding into a new country.
Use dubbing, subtitling, translation, and localization to connect with your audience
Seeking out translation services, localization experts, and experienced voice actors who are fluent in different languages is the best way to strike a chord with your audience in the language that they naturally use to communicate. Studies have shown that consumers are much more likely to buy when they receive advertisements in their mother tongue, and the same is true about a viewer deciding what to watch. Making your content accessible in a viewer’s local-language can go an incredibly long way toward leaving a lasting imprint on your viewer and amassing a global audience.
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