Inside ‘Squid Game’: How Netflix’s Korean Dystopian Thriller Took Over the World

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Word of mouth can still be as useful as marketing dollars

squid game netflix

Netflix’s latest hit (and possibly its biggest ever) came from the most unlikeliest of places.

The South Korean dystopian drama “Squid Game” launched on Sept. 17 to little or no fanfare outside of its home country, yet it has become a global sensation, one that even quite literally broke the internet in South Korea. Within its first 10 days, the nine-episode series ranked No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10 list in 90 countries, spanning territories like Qatar, Oman, Ecuador and Bolivia. In the U.S. it’s been No. 1 since Sept. 21 and is the first Korean series to hold that spot.

In shattering a long-standing barrier for foreign-language content, “Squid Game” is indicative of just how global content development has become in the streaming era.

The zeitgeist is no longer English dominant.

Netflix has become used to this: Other international titles like “Lupin” (France) and “Money Heist” (Spain) show up routinely on the streamer’s Top 10 list. During last week’s Code Con, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos shared that “Lupin” was its second-most watched series in terms of accounts, while “Money Heist” had the second-most views of any TV show. It’s one of the reasons why Netflix rejiggered its TV operations last year around Bela Bajaria to focus on global production.

To the surprise of everyone (that includes Netflix executives if you gave them truth serum) “Squid Game” has blown them all away. “‘Squid Game’ will definitely be our biggest non-English language show in the world, for sure,” Sarandos said, adding that there’s “a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”

According to Parrot Analytics, which uses a mix of search volume, social media and file-sharing (aka piracy) to measure audience demand, “Squid Game” has been atypical of most Netflix series.

“The most surprising aspect of the show is the fact that when we look at Netflix originals, they tend to peak within two to four days after premiering and then tend to bleed off in terms of demand,” Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics, told TheWrap. “Squid Game” is behaving more like a weekly series, where the demand keeps building as word of mouth spreads. “It’s one of the few times that we’re seeing with Netflix where it is just continuously picking up every single day.”

As of Sept. 29, “Squid Game” was 93.1 times more in-demand than the average show in the world, and was 32.6% more in-demand than second place “Money Heist” (70.2 times the average show). The Korean show’s global demand on Sept. 29 represented a 426% increase from its global demand on its release day. Most Netflix shows, Parrot finds, typically peak around their third or fourth day of availability.

As you can see in the chart below, “Squid Game” (the purple-colored line) is still peaking — compared to other hit Netflix shows like “Sex Education” (in red), “Money Heist” (in orange), “Dark” (in green) and “The Crown” (in blue).

squid games netflix chart
Courtesy of Parrot Analytics

That’s not too shabby for a hyper-violent allegory that was rejected by local studios for 10 years. But in the last six years, Netflix has made a hefty investment in Korean content. Between 2015 and 2020, the streaming service has spent around $700 million on local productions in the region. This year, the streaming service plans on spending $500 million alone.

Since 2016, Netflix has debuted 80 Korean films and TV series and viewing of Korean content in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2019.

Hwang Dong-hyuk (“The Crucible”) wrote, directed and created “Squid Game,” which centers on a group of 456 people who are in such financial peril that they agree to compete in a series of deadly children’s games. The show, which plays like a cross between “Black Mirror” and “The Hunger Games,” includes Lee Byung-hun (“Terminator Genisys,” “The Magnificent Seven”) and Lee Jung-jae (“City of the Rising Sun”), who built a following outside South Korea, as well as local stars like Park Hae-soo, O Yeong-su, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, Hao Sung-tae and Kim Joo-ryoung. Since the show’s debut, Jung Ho-yeon has become the most popular Korean actress on Instagram with more than 13 million followers.

“It seemed like Netflix knew this was gonna be a decent hit. It’s got two actors in South Korea that are incredibly in demand both in the country outside of it, you have that star power locally in that region,” Alexander said. “Leading up to it, there was a lot of demand for it. So the people were interested in leading right up to when it premiered.”

But the show has”managed to outdo and outpace” most of Netflix’s other international series that are English-speaking, with a viewership that is comparable to Netflix’s major franchises like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things.”

More surprisingly, Alexander said, “This show was on that level with very little marketing outside of South Korea.”

The sheer volume of foreign-language production that Netflix is funding may be the key factor in the emergence of breakout hits like “Squid Game.” “It speaks to their massive advantage by having more shots on goal than anyone else at attractive prices when content is made overseas,” analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson said.

Netflix has yet to release any viewership numbers, though if Sarandos is correct and “Squid Game” surpasses “Bridgerton” as its most-viewed TV title, that would mean the show was viewed by more than 82 million accounts within its first 28 days on the service, which will come next week. However, since Netflix counts a view as someone who watches at least two minutes of an episode, it is not clear if the majority are simply sampling the series given its incredible word of mouth or watching it all the way through.

“Because there is a lot of demand for the show right now, that absolutely translates to the amount of people at least clicking on the first episode,” Alexander said. “We don’t know how many people finished it — but for Netflix, what they really generated is a type of show that every other traditional network or movie studio wishes they had.”