The ‘Squid Game’ Effect: Overseas Producers Are Cashing in Amid the Foreign-Language Streaming Boom

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“This isn’t just even an American phenomenon,” one international producer says

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The Streaming Wars have gone global — and nobody knows that better than Kim Ji-yeon. Kim, the CEO of Siren Pictures, saw his company’s star rise just as dramatically as its most famous production: Netflix’s world-conquering “Squid Game.”

“It definitely raised our profile,” Kim told TheWrap over email through a translator. “People tend to think that the reputation of a production company is not determined by a single project, but the unprecedented international success of ‘Squid Game’ undoubtedly put us on the map globally and enhanced our reliability as a production company to reckon with.”

Kim’s Siren Media joins a number of international producers looking to cash in on the fast-growing appetite from Hollywood for foreign-language content. After a pandemic-fueled boom in streaming subscriptions over the past two years, growth has begun to slow, particularly among U.S. customers. Streaming heavyweights are putting more of their money into growing their oversees footprints as they look to court international subscribers.

Disney alone will spend $33 billion on content this year, an $8 billion increase from 2021, citing “higher spend to support our (direct to consumer) expansion.” While Disney did not disclose any further breakdown, it has some 340 local language series in production. Netflix, which has scaled up its international business over the last few years, plans to spend $17 overall billion on content and acquisitions, up from $14 billion in 2021. WarnerMedia and Discovery have stated they expect to spend $20 billion on content once the companies’ merger closes later this year. And among Amazon’s biggest projects is “Citadel,” a global spy franchise from the Russo brothers that will consist of a main crossover series and multiple local-language spinoffs.

“You’re going to see more and more investment in local storytelling, across movies, across series, across documentaries and specials,” WarnerMedia Jason Kilar said. HBO Max, which has so far launched in 46 territories primarily in Latin America and Europe, plans to expand to 190 by 2026.

Kilar continued: “I happen to believe that Hollywood-style programming is going to continue to punch well above its weight — actually, it’s probably not the best way to describe it — it’s going to continue to have a big footprint. But I just think that you’re going to see like in our case, we’ve had great success stories like ’30 Coins’ out of Spain, ‘Kamikaze’ out of Denmark, and a whole host of programming throughout Latin America. I just think we’re gonna see a lot more of that.”

Omar Sy in Netflix’s “Lupin”

Even before “Squid Game,” Netflix was reaping the benefits of bringing foreign-language shows to U.S. audiences, with hits like “Money Heist” out of Spain, “Who Killed Sara?” from Mexico, “Lupin” from France and Germany’s “Dark.” But since the success of “Squid Game,” which generated nearly $900 million in value for Netflix, Kim said he sees Hollywood changing its attitude toward subtitles — which American audiences were long thought to reject.

“Having met with many companies in the U.S. recently, I could sense that they are not only interested in working with Siren Pictures, but in expanding their range from English films or series within Hollywood to non-English slate in general,” Kim said. “I was surprised to learn that many of these companies were already well prepared by having acquired the global distribution rights for Korean shows, too.” He added that Siren has gained interest for two projects currently in development: a zombie time travel story called “Return Survival” (working title) and the historical romance “Hidden History.”

“There’s just a lot of players in the field right now. Aside from the competition for particular titles, as the studios and the crews in all of these places get booked up, then they become more valuable resources. So that’s why you see Netflix having studios in Spain and the U.K. and just booking out stages,” said Matt Brodlie, co-president of Upgrade Productions, an L.A. based banner focused on international content. “It’s great for crews all over the world because their prices are going up. Because they are a valuable resource for all of these productions happening all over the world. It’s becoming more competitive and more expensive.”

Brodlie, a former Disney+ content executive who launched Upgrade with Sierra/Affinity’s Jonathan Kier last October, is already working with producers in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Japan. “We got very lucky that we launched our company the week that ‘Squid Game’ was declared the most popular show in the world,” Kier said. “It made the pitch easier. This has been coming for a while and we seem to be at this place now, where not just the quality of the product internationally is great, but the access is there.”

Streaming’s ability to be an all-in-one global distributor for the likes of Netflix and Disney has helped shatter the long-standing foreign-language barrier. “It’s really the access that’s kind of changed the game,” Kier said. “It’s around the world. That was a big story about ‘Squid Game’ was that it was being watched everywhere. So this isn’t just even an American phenomenon.” Within its first 10 days, “Squid Game” ranked No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10 list in 90 countries — spanning territories like Qatar, Oman, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Kilar predicts that international subscribers could eventually account for 70% of HBO Max’s overall customer base. That’s already been the case with Netflix. The majority of Netflix’s new customers are coming from the Asia-Pacific and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) regions; Asia alone contributed 4.6 million subscribers through the first nine months of 2021. The U.S. and Canada region has only added a net total of 88,000 subs in that same timeframe.

“The streamers are seeing most of the growth coming from outside the U.S., and most of that growth isn’t necessarily coming with Hollywood imports, but with homegrown talent and homegrown stories. People want to watch themselves on screen. And so if they want to participate and succeed in each of those territories, they need to have local content. And so it’s just increased the demand for local content,” Brodlie said. “Because previously, it had been the local territorial film distributors or the local broadcasters would make a few shows and a few movies. And now that the streamers are hoovering everything up, more needs to be made. And so it’s kind of a boon to international local-language production.”

Aaron Levitz, president of text-based storytelling platform Wattpad Webtoon Studios, argues that the increase in hits from abroad will change how Hollywood operates. For starters, Levitz predicts we’ll see fewer U.S. remakes of foreign-language films. “It doesn’t behoove us to remake other people’s stories when we want to understand why they told that story in the first place,” Levitz said. “Every time we remake something in other countries, especially now when we have the capability to show things globally, it really is taking away from that original storyteller’s view.”

Kim attributes “Squid Game’s” success in part because it was not American. “The key takeaway for me was that this level of success is possible for a Korean story rooted in culture that is foreign to global audiences. This is strictly my personal view, but I feel that ‘Squid Game’ perhaps offered a timely alternative to Hollywood shows when audiences around the world were getting too used to it.”

In the past, a project like “Squid Game” would have been bought and re-adapted into an Americanized version. The fact that Netflix bought the international rights outright reflects the changing attitudes that U.S. entertainment giants have toward foreign-language content. “What’s become super clear over this time period, is that the U.S.’s previous view of international, which was about, ‘Can we find something that we can pick up, because we need to fill a slot?’ or ‘We can sell some formats into another country,’ that’s really fallen,” Levitz said. “That old image really is almost nonexistent as we go forward, and it’s proving that IP is going to drive storytelling globally, wherever that IP starts from.”

Hollywood executives are increasingly looking at content as targeting certain fan bases that go beyond traditional groupings. “The old way of looking at entertainment was always demographic: this age, this country, this language. And it’s truly a psychographic, and people want to see brilliant stories from all over the world that really speak to those psychographics,” Levitz said. “And that’s only going to be prevalent as we go forward.”

Diane Haithman contributed to this story.