Foreign Affairs

Kristin Brzoznowski explores the continued demand for non-English-language drama.

From stark-white Nordic skies to the bustling backstreets of Madrid to the heart of historic Istanbul, many of the drama series making their way to audiences around the globe nowadays are set far away from the bright lights of Hollywood or the soaring skyline of New York City. And, for the most part, the characters are speaking in their mother tongue. It’s not simply a case of buyers being less enamored with American shows (though, that’s true to some degree); the engaging stories of scripted series from a slew of different markets and sophisticated viewer tastes have brought a new vibrancy to an already competitive drama landscape—one where language isn’t really an issue.

“What buyers are looking for are really strong series, and language is a secondary consideration,” says Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Banijay Rights. “They want something that is really authentic. If it so happens that it’s in French, Swedish or Danish, that’s fine. Over the past few years, we’ve seen that people are much more open to series wherever they come from and in whatever language.”

In general, she says, requests are for local stories that will work internationally and feel authentic. “Somehow, it just doesn’t feel authentic if you’ve got people only speaking in English all of the time,” Torrance adds.

Sarah Doole, director of global drama at Fremantle, agrees: “If it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter to us what language it’s in—a good story is a good story.”

Currently, of the shows that Fremantle is taking out to the international market, around 50 percent of them are not in English, says Doole. “We don’t even really distinguish now, because we’re telling stories in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, German, French, Italian, Spanish (all different kinds of Spanish too). It’s really about finding characters that the audience will believe in and then working with the very best talent to make those stories authentic. That’s the key! Whatever language it’s in, the language has to feel like it’s part of the story. Growing up in Britain, we’d have German stories about the war with English actors speaking in a German accent. You would never get that now! Thank God those days are over.”

“We’ve seen a ton of series that artificially imposed English storylines with zero contribution to the overall narrative quality of a series,” adds Robert Franke, ZDF Enterprises’ VP of ZDFE.drama. “We don’t believe so much in the notion that this will increase the marketability of a series. It will give you a higher chance to sell into the English-speaking markets, but then again, we are not willing to sacrifice the integrity of a story just for an increased chance to sell into the U.S. or U.K. if it doesn’t make sense organically for the storyline.”

Eccho Rights, which has long built its business on non-English-language fare, is among the distributors basking in the glow of the market’s openness. “There’s absolutely a growing appetite for non-English-language drama,” affirms Fredrik af Malmborg, managing director. “The trend has been going on for quite some time, but it’s continuing at full force. Local-language drama is becoming more and more important, but also non-English-language is traveling much more.”

He notes that Turkish series “helped to break the ice, but now Nordic dramas are performing really well and we see the prices increasing. Russian drama has now started to sell more, too. We just sold Silver Spoon, a Russian series that is a few years old now, to two clients in Spain for a major amount.” The company also licensed the Russian-language Trotsky to Netflix, which itself has been ramping up local-language programming efforts across the globe.

Calinos Entertainment has also been breaking new markets with its slate of Turkish dramas, which now includes the catalog of FOX Turkey. “There has been a steady increase in the demand for foreign-language dramas around the world,” agrees Firat Gulgen, Calinos’s CEO. “VOD platforms such as Netflix, for example, have been investing in foreign-language productions for a few years now, too. This trend demonstrates that great stories can come from anywhere and can travel everywhere. The notion of what feels foreign versus local has evolved as generations increasingly spend more and more time online, and it’s playing out in how we consume media as a whole.”

In the last two years, Calinos has found international traction with the Turkish-language series Woman and Our Story, and the company believes Forbidden Fruit will travel to a wide variety of markets as well.

“At the moment, we are conducting negotiations for co-productions in several countries,” adds Gulgen, noting that the aim is to find common stories.

A+E Networks International embarked on its first international co-production with the period crime drama Miss Scarlet and the Duke and has followed up this effort by taking on global distribution for the Spanish-language Hernán. Produced by Spain’s Onza Entertainment and Dopamine, a unit of Mexico’s Grupo Salinas, the scripted series chronicles the journey of the legendary 16th-century conquistador Hernán Cortés—telling a story that resonates both locally and globally, according to Helen Jurado, senior director of content sales for Latin America and U.S. Hispanic at A+E Networks.

“For a long time, we had been looking at Latin America specifically for something that was like our version of Planet Earth,” she explains. “Planet Earth was such a big emblem for the BBC, and it was a piece of IP that sold well across all platforms—digital, pay, educational, free to air—and it never went out of style. We needed something that was really globally relevant, but that was also relevant for Latin America.”

With Hernán, A+E saw the potential not only for LatAm success but “there was already interest from Spain and some other European countries like France and Italy,” says Jurado. “It made sense for us to invest in that IP, not just for those territories but also looking at other markets.” The deal was heralded by the company as “a watershed moment” in expanding the scope of its international IP distribution business.

Banijay Rights has been in expansion mode, too, bolstering and diversifying its international drama business. “When I started at what was then Zodiak, it was at the very beginning of this non-English-language-program boom,” recalls Torrance. “We had The Returned, and that was one of the first series that broke out and showed that you could get really good ratings,” as the French-language series was a hit in English-speaking markets such as the U.S. and Australia. “That was five years ago. Distribution companies would invest almost nothing in things that weren’t English; there were really small advances, and they were lucky to get anything. It has definitely grown. Over five years, our investment in acquiring both English and non-English series has increased. There’s a really buoyant market for drama around the world, and it’s nice that that includes non-English-language as well.”

Fremantle’s “high-end-drama journey” also started about five years ago, according to Doole, with Deutschland 83. The success of Deutschland, which became the first German-language show to air on an American network (SundanceTV), proved to Fremantle that its risks in this space could pay off. “As we went on our journey, we searched for great talent who have a fresh vision of the world and want to tell a story outside their home territory—to make local content go global,” Doole continues. “Look at some of our shows over the past three or four years: My Brilliant Friend was the first-ever non-English co-production with HBO,” and the Italian show was a hit stateside on the premium pay channel.

Doole says it’s been “a gradual process” for foreign-language programming to break down borders, citing the U.K. as one of the markets that needed to be opened up. “Our first foray into that was with some Scandi drama about ten years ago, starting with subtitles,” she recalls. “The next country to conquer was America, and we sold Deutschland to Sundance, but the big breakthrough was My Brilliant Friend on HBO, which has several levels of subtitling. It was subtitled into English for the American audience, and we had quite a sophisticated process for that because the subtitles have to be written in as clever a way as the dialogue is—otherwise, the way you read it on-screen doesn’t click. You almost have to write a second script for the subtitles because there might be something quite subtle being said in a phrase that, if you were to translate directly, wouldn’t make any sense to an English-speaking audience. My Brilliant Friend was fascinating because in Italy parts were subtitled into Italian because a lot of Italy doesn’t understand the Neapolitan dialect. But initially, America was a market of resistance.”

Canada, too, has accepted subtitles now, Doole says. But the market she’s “most proud” to have cracked is Australia, where Fremantle signed an exclusive deal with SBS for a broad mix of dramas, including the Scandi series Face to Face and Seizure.

Latin America is firmly in Fremantle’s sights, as it recently bought a stake in the Latinxproducer The Immigrant. Fremantle also has a first-look deal with Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín’s Fabula to develop a slate of original English and Spanish dramas. “We’re looking at LatAm country by country and analyzing the talent we want to work with and who wants to work with us,” says Doole. “We’re not looking at quantity; we’re looking at the quality of storytelling. Rather than [the strategy] being pan-Latin America, we’re looking at it in a focused, country-by-country way, driven by the talent.”

The LatAm market is also cited by Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg as a key focus, given the region’s appetite for Turkish dramas. “We are dubbing 1,000 hours [of Turkish series into Spanish] per year and have 20 hours a day on air in different Latin American countries,” he says. “In Spain, in the last year, 20 Turkish series have been on air; we sold eight of them. They work very well.”

Calinos’s Gulgen is hopeful that the success of Turkish drama series in Latin America will open more doors into the U.S. Hispanic market. He also lists Africa and Western Europe as markets that are “in the process of discovering” the potential of Turkish drama.

ZDF Enterprises’ Franke highlights the French- and German-language The Crimson Rivers and the upcoming series Freud, co-produced with Austria’s ORF and Netflix, as “good examples of top-tier drama series coming from Europe that strike a chord with international buyers. Placing these shows with top buyers would have been much harder a few years back than it is now.”

Looking ahead, he says that ZDF Enterprises is keeping its eye on what’s coming out of Central and Eastern Europe and South Africa. “A lot of creativity is coming from these territories [that have] affordable production costs and growing economies, so we are testing the waters on how much demand there is for storytelling from these regions.”

Fremantle’s Doole is also on the lookout for fresh talent from these territories. “There are lots of areas of the world that I’m really excited about, but Africa is my number one passion at the moment,” she says. “Eastern Europe has a massive tradition of filmmaking and auteurs, so I’m looking to Poland and the Czech Republic. Those audiences are really sophisticated and have a film culture, so you’ve got great talent coming through.”

Filming recently wrapped on an ambitious new Middle Eastern war thriller, Fertile Crescent (working title), that Fremantle will be taking out globally. Commissioned by ARTE and Hulu, the eight-part drama is shot in French, English and Kurdish.

“We live in a time when the audience is the most sophisticated they’ve ever been,” Doole says. “They’re watching television in 13-hour batches, binge-watching. Most of our viewers know more about television and storytelling than we do! [Laughs] The challenge is on to be as authentic and genuine as possible when you’re bringing stories to them. If they aren’t authentic, the audience can sniff it out straight away and will turn off.”