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Dramatic Entrance

Mansha Daswani explores the rising interest in non-English-language drama across the globe.

It wasn’t too long ago that the prospect of a major premium pay network in the U.S. airing a foreign-language series in a prime-time spot would have been unthinkable. That was in a world before Germany’s Deutschland 83 became a cult hit on SundanceTV and Netflix changed the game with the dual-language Narcos and the worldwide hit Money Heist. It was before Walter Presents proved that even in a prolific drama-production market like the U.K., viewers would eagerly watch compelling subtitled shows from around the world. HBO boarding My Brilliant Friend as a co-commissioning broadcaster and airing it in its original Neapolitan language—and then committing to a second season of the Elena Ferrante adaptation—is a testament to just how much the business of non-English-language drama has changed over the last few years. From Turkish and Indian serials conquering audiences in Latin America to SVOD operators like Netflix and Amazon making local-language hits into global sensations, the international drama landscape is no longer dominated by English-language fare from the U.S. and the U.K.

“There’s definite momentum building, and those non-English-language slots are starting to open up more and more because there’s so much content being produced locally,” says Rebecca Dundon, VP of scripted content at Fremantle.

“When I worked at companies like ITV, Endemol and BBC in the past, you would probably not even look at something that was in Polish or something!” quips Caroline Torrance, the head of scripted at Banijay Rights. “Now, if it’s well produced and it’s a great story, you don’t dismiss it just because of the language it’s produced in.”

Banijay Rights has indeed amassed a strong slate of non-English-language series that have traveled well beyond local borders, tapping into the strength of parent company Banijay Group’s global portfolio of production companies.

“I always think of us as being quite instrumental in the sudden interest in non-English-language [drama],” Torrance continues. “We distributed The Returned, one of the first series on an international basis that got people’s attention. It was the first [foreign-language] series that Channel 4 in the U.K. picked up for its main channel. From there, it went to SundanceTV and traveled around the world. Braquo, which was also made for Canal+, was incredibly successful internationally. More recently we had Occupied, which had a bit of English but was primarily Norwegian and Russian and has been hugely successful for us. We are launching a Spanish drama, Hierro, produced by Portocabo for Movistar+. That’s our first Spanish-language drama.”

Fremantle, too, has carved out a position as a leading supplier of dramas from across Europe, from a slew of Scandinavian hits to offerings out of France, Germany, Italy and more. The company is currently rolling out Deutschland 86, the follow-up to the international hit Deutschland 83, as well as My Brilliant Friend. Of the Elena Ferrante adaptation, Dundon notes, “It is a very local show in terms of its core creation—it’s an Italian, Neapolitan piece of IP that focuses on the relationship between two girls and their journey. It’s a very intimate portrayal of Naples at that time, but it has such scale and breadth in terms of its production values, the look, the feel and the tone that it is instantly propelled into the global space. [Having] HBO as a partner has elevated the series into such an exciting space.”

all3media international has upped its investment into foreign-language series, collaborating with its German sister company filmpool. “They invited us to partner on a full drama commission, Die Andere Seite for TLC Germany,” notes Maartje Horchner, executive VP of content at all3media’s distribution arm. “And independent of the group companies, we were, of course, aware of the appeal of Scandinavian drama and its influence, [leading to] our investment and partnership with FLX, C More and TV4 on Blinded (Fartblinder), which is in production in Sweden.”

On the heels of the success of Narcos, whose scenes alternate between English and Spanish as it follows the U.S.’s war on drugs in Latin America, series filmed in multiple languages have captured the interest of many distributors.

Narcos actually started the trend for non-English-language dramas, and introduced audiences to the idea that they could watch and enjoy a show that is in English and Spanish,” observes Vanessa Shapiro, the president of worldwide TV distribution and co-production at Gaumont, which produces the series for Netflix.

“With content becoming more universal and ‘glocal’ becoming a real trend internationally, scripts quite often will come in with dual language,” says Dundon at Fremantle. “We have a number of those projects that straddle a 70/30 or 60/40 split. We are in development with Haut et Court on Fertile Crescent, which will be in English, Kurdish and French. For us, the challenge is that we don’t want to go back into the days of the Europudding. That’s not the business we’re in. For us it has to start with the creative brief—are those languages essential to the narrative, to our character’s journey? Adding an element of German language just to get a sale in Germany is not going to work in the current market. It’s too competitive. The slots that multi-language can fit in are still an anomaly. If it’s not 90-percent English, it’s still challenging to get those English premium drama license fees. That’s something we’re having to work on.”

“You want people to be speaking the languages that make sense for them to speak,” notes Torrance at Banijay. “Why wouldn’t they be speaking in their own language? We have a crime drama, Bang, which is both Welsh and English. This wouldn’t have worked as a single-language drama as it wouldn’t have reflected the way in which most Welsh communities interact. The drama has sold well in Scandinavia. Some people are looking at double-shooting in two different languages.”

Such was the case with all3media’s Welsh noir Hinterland (Y Gywll). “We were aware of the interest from certain broadcasters in the local Welsh-language version, though of course, our main commercial thrust was behind an English-language edition,” Horchner says. “There is much more emphasis on authenticity in relation to the setting and precinct of a show—so, for example, on Hidden (Craith), more people would now be open to the bilingual version of the drama, sub­titled, where the language is very naturally chosen as the scenes prescribe. That’s true of Wales—in everyday parlance they switch between Welsh and English or encounter people who only speak one of the languages. The bilingual route adds to the authenticity of the stories that stem from those identity issues too.”

At NATPE, Eccho Rights will be unveiling Invisible Heroes, a Finnish and Chilean co-pro. “It’s about Scandinavian diplomats during the military junta years who were saving people from being killed by the military,” says Fredrik af Malmborg, managing director of Eccho Rights. “It’s a very organic co-production, in the same way Narcos is.”

While Scandi shows are a crucial part of the Eccho Rights slate, the company is also well known for its robust catalog of Turkish series, which, af Malmborg notes, continue to fare well globally despite the economic challenges at home.

“They are struggling with the fluctuation in their currency, so the whole market is a bit turbulent. That means it’s a little bit hard to finance [shows] and many of the broadcasters who normally pay the whole budget are struggling with their advertising revenues. So it’s a bit of trouble in the home market, but the international market is still strong.”

The breakout success of Turkish series in Latin America, the region that birthed the telenovela, has been one of the biggest stories in the drama business over the last few years.

“We’re currently distributing our content to more than 100 countries, but the Latin American market gives the strongest demand to Turkish content,” reports Emre Görentaş, deputy manager for content sales at ATV.

“Turkish series are still very big in Latin America,” agrees Ivan Sanchez, sales director for Latin America at Global Agency, which will be showcasing Gulperi and Evermore to clients this NATPE. “They are both strong family stories that can appeal to a broad audience.”

Another Turkish heavyweight that is optimistic about drumming up new sales at NATPE is Inter Medya. “Latin America has become a very important market in recent years for Turkish series,” notes Beatriz Cea Okan, sales executive at the company. Titles on offer will include The Pit, which recently sold into Chile, and Bitter Lands. Inter Medya also cracked the U.S. Hispanic market, licensing the International Emmy-winning Endless Love to Univision.

Ismail Dursunov, deputy general manager of Calinos Entertainment, says that The Girl Named Feriha, Woman and Our Story have sold across the region, and Forbidden Fruit will soon be available to viewers in Mexico.

New markets are, however, still opening up for Turkish series. MISTCO, sales agent for Turkish broadcaster TRT, arrives at NATPE with a slew of deals already concluded on the romantic drama Hold My Hand. “The show has been sold to more than ten territories, including Croatia, Georgia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Albania and Greece,” says Aysegul Tuzun, VP of sales and marketing at the distribution outfit. Tuzun also touts the top-rated Resurrection: Ertugrul, now in its fifth season in Turkey.

Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg references the Spanish success of Fatmagül and Ezel. “And we have sold Stiletto Vendetta and Brave and Beautiful to Mediaset, so now there are two channels, Nova and Mediaset, airing Turkish dramas in Spain, with very strong results. That is very promising. Spain is the rising star in Turkish drama in Western Europe. And we still have a daily series on SVT in Sweden.”

“After the success Turkish series received in Spain, all attention is now on the rest of the countries in Western Europe,” agrees Calinos’s Dursunov. “The Far East is also an attractive market for us and we would like to expand our presence there further.”

Asia remains a lucrative region for telenovela distributors, notes Patricia Jasin, VP of TV Azteca International, which is also seeing demand for its action series in parts of Europe and across Latin America. Telenovelas, she says, travel well because they are “evergreen stories that could fit easily in different cultures. We are also very successful with our daily shows.”

While telenovelas have long been staples on the international drama circuit, Indian series are a comparatively newer proposition for broadcasters around the world, and interest is building.

Star India, for example, has seen traction in Latin America with shows like Saras and Kumud and Yours Truly, Paakhi, according to Gurjeev Kapoor, president of India distribution and the international business at the broadcaster.

“Great storytelling cuts across geographies and this has been key for the success of Indian content internationally,” Kapoor notes. “Star India has entertained audiences in more than 100 countries and our success in the world’s biggest drama-producing markets like Turkey and LatAm indicates the potential of our stories.”

Kapoor reports that Southeast Asia remains a crucial territory for contemporary family dramas as well as religious stories and period epics, and markets are opening up in Europe.

Viacom18/IndiaCast Media Distribution recently sealed a deal to bring a raft of Indian content to a new channel on JKN Global Media’s OTT platform, Bflix, in Thailand. “‘Indian-ness’ appeals magnificently across Southeast Asia,” reports Debkumar Dasgupta, senior VP and business head of syndication at IndiaCast.

At Zee Entertainment Enterprises, meanwhile, “our biggest markets are the Middle East, Africa and Asia—largely Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia,” says Sunita Uchil, chief business officer for global syndication and production and international ad sales. “Largely the mainstay is the romantic dramas, the family dramas. Almost the entire world is watching similar kinds of content. The historical costume dramas work very well. Certain countries appreciate [Indian] history. Jodhaa Akbar traveled to over 18 countries.”

One of the keys to selling foreign-language series lies in how they are packaged to fit broadcaster slots. “Some of the Central European markets play two hours of our series a day,” Uchil says. “That’s four episodes of 30 minutes each. The duration of the episodes is not much of a problem. The bigger issue is, where does the story end? Can you end it on a high note, with a logical ending that makes sense for that market? We know what these markets require and we have condensed versions of our series.”

ATV’s Görentaş expresses a similar sentiment, noting, “Most of the TV series are being aired with 130-minute durations in Turkey, so we have to edit the series to adapt to international markets with 45-minute durations. Each episode needs to have its own climax and plot twist.”

“Depending on the content consumption habits of the audience of a country, we work closely with the broadcasters to provide content in the format that works best for them,” says Star India’s Kapoor. “This could mean we work with seasonal breaks for a long-running show or increase the duration of an episode up to 90 to 120 minutes for countries like Turkey.”

TV Azteca’s Jasin also points to the need to make “technical adjustments,” to adapt shows to the needs of global markets. “Fortunately we have a team with extensive expertise in this field to fulfill all clients’ requests.”

Many distributors are also making investments into dubbing shows in multiple languages in a bid to enhance their global appeal. “We’re dubbing a thousand hours a year to Spanish from Turkish series,” says Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg. “The financing and control of the language assets are getting more and more important. It’s always a bit of a hurdle to finance the dubbing, but once you have it, then it goes much easier and you can make a number of smaller deals. And owning a dubbing studio is a good business nowadays!”

IndiaCast arrives at NATPE with a Spanish dub of Ishq Ka Rang Safed (White is the Color of My Love), working with Latin Media Corp to introduce the show to Latin America.

“Dubbing the content gives us an opportunity to bring the story to the viewers in their language, which completely changes the content viewing experience for them,” adds Star India’s Kapoor. “Subtitling, on the other hand, works out to be a great option for viewers who are open to great content irrespective of the language. There are cost-related factors that play a critical role when it comes to the decision on dubbing the show. Our approach has been to develop strategic partnerships within the content ecosystem so that we can continue to bring great stories from India to a global audience.”

Shapiro at Gaumont reports that “traditional broadcasters still want a local dubbed version. But for the OTT platforms, audiences everywhere have been used to watching shows in foreign languages with local-language subtitles.”

Dundon at Fremantle observes that the dub versus subtitle decision is “very market-led. We tend to dub in the key Western European markets like Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Their audiences are so used to it and it’s standard practice. Across Portugal we mainly subtitle. In Central and Eastern Europe, they tend to dub themselves.”

A relatively new development, led by Netflix, is English-language dubbing of foreign-language series. “That is something to look out for,” Dundon states. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to come up in conversations for foreign-language content. Our understanding is it’s been quite successful for Netflix. I’m really intrigued by the U.K. market and what will happen there when it comes to foreign-language drama. Dubbing is not something we’re used to in the U.K. and it’s not something we naturally warm to. I sometimes switch off those dubbed versions even if they are available because it feels unnatural and I would much rather read the subtitles, but you can feel that there’s a bit of momentum and exploration happening with the broadcasters and audiences alike.”

Torrance at Banijay also has her eye on this new development. “It could be interesting for us to perhaps dub an episode into English and see if that could help sales. The shows Netflix has dubbed into English have primarily been ones they’ve been quite involved with. They’re shot in such a way where you’re not seeing the faces all the time. That makes it easier to dub and it’s more palatable to an English-language audience. In the U.S. and U.K., we’ve always been very resistant to dubbing. If you talk to anyone over the age of 30, they’re still very much, [I want] subtitles. But with the younger generation, who are clearly growing up with Netflix and dubbed shows, things may change.”

Pictured: Fremantle’s My Brilliant Friend.

About Mansha Daswani

Mansha Daswani is the editor and associate publisher of World Screen. She can be reached on


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