Not quite two years ago, Netflix launched simultaneously in 130 new countries. It now operates nearly everywhere in the world. With that expansion has come explosive international growth—along with the challenge of how best to introduce its homegrown favorites, like Stranger Things, to an audience that spans all the way to the Upside Down and back.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to Netflix’s long-term ambitions that shows like Stranger Things “travel.” The streaming service needs to maintain a library that users will pay for year-round, and even with an original content budget pegged at $8 billion for 2018 it has to spend wisely to ensure it’s producing content that plays as well in Canada as it does in Cameroon. Or, from another angle: Not even Netflix has the budget to invest heavily in hyperlocal content for Estonia.
Making movies or series that play well overseas depends to a certain extent on quality, of course, and Netflix has long maintained that geography is a poor indicator of what people will actually watch. But for a show like Stranger Things—which is an Emmy-nominated and critically-praised show in the US—to succeed abroad, Netflix has to translate its genius to as many markets as possible. Literally.
Found in Translation
The world contains thousands of languages. Figuring out the proper translation for “Demogorgon” in each of them would be singularly impractical. But for the 20 languages in which Netflix does provide subtitles—and the large number in which it dubs shows—it sweats the small stuff.
That means the creation of a Key Names and Phrases tool, a sprawling spreadsheet in which teams of freelancers and vendors input translations in the name of consistency. Does the show include a fictional location? A catchphrase? A sci-fi item that has no real-world corollary? All those things go in the KNP, allowing Netflix to know how they read in Greek, Spanish, Swedish, Vietnamese, and so on.
Some translations are fairly straightforward; a university becomes a universidad for Spanish-language audiences, for example. Others, though, require substantially more legwork. Especially for a ’80s-reference-heavy series like Stranger Things that is fairly out of step with the present.
To ensure it transcended language barriers, Netflix dug into old Dungeons & Dragons materials to nail down how various cultures translated ‘Demogorgon’ in the mid-1970s. Similar efforts were made to track down decades-old marketing materials for, yes, Eggo waffles.
“It’s a really deep dive into what are the elements of the story, what are the specifics of the story, that we need to make sure we are translating the same way that things were translated, say, 30 years ago,” says Denny Sheehan, the director of Netflix’s content localization and quality control efforts. “We compile all of that into essentially a show bible, and we give that to all of our translators, all of our dub studios, so they can reference that.”
Take that Demogorgon, the big bad the Stranger Things kids named after a Dungeons & Dragons demon prince. To ensure that connection transcended language barriers, Sheehan’s team dug into old D&D materials to nail down how various cultures translated “Demogorgon” in the mid-1970s. Similar efforts were made to track down decades-old marketing materials for, yes, Eggo waffles, which play an outsized role in Season 1.
That focus on consistency goes beyond the words themselves to the voice actors saying them. Netflix says it looks for people who sound like the original cast but also, as Sheehan puts it, “embody the spirit of the character and tone.” No real surprise there. But the company also aims for voices that can work across titles. The actress who voices Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers in Stranger Things, for instance, also provides the dubs for Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, and Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
“We think of the subtitles and dubs as enabling access to the story,” Sheehan says. “Our goal is to use creative intent as the North Star, to really create culturally relevant and resonant translations for the continent that have a wide global appeal.”
A Global Concern
That’s increasingly a business imperative as well.
“Localization is very important internationally,” says Tony Gunnarsson, a streaming analyst with Ovum who follows Netflix closely. “European audiences are very familiar with US television and movies but the expectation is always to have local-language subtitles. This is a must-have everywhere.”
Netflix has already reaped some of those gains, says Todd Yellin, the company’s VP of product innovation.
“Before you localize it, you have the early adopters who speak English well enough that they can use the service in those countries,” Yellin says. “But after you localize you see substantially more growth in those countries.”
Netflix’s global accommodations go beyond subtitles and dubs, of course. The company has advanced efforts in recent years to make its service more usable in emerging markets, countries where bandwidth may be limited or unreliable. That includes the recent introduction of downloadable content, which lets users grab an episode while on Wi-Fi to watch on the go.
“What we’re doing is trying to do things like, when people are watching over a cellular network, how to get better quality for fewer bits of data, how to avoid rebuffering in more challenging internet scenarios, like you often hit in India or Malaysia or the Philippines and so forth,” says Yellin. “Those markets are very important for the expansion of Netflix.”
Of course, those technological and linguistic solutions don’t mean much if it’s a show people don’t want to watch in the first place. It’s no accident that Netflix has a multi-series deal with Marvel, whose stable of comic book characters has built-in international cache. Or that this year it invested heavily in anime, a genre that demonstrably transcends both geography and demographics.
As a Spielbergian genre throwback, Stranger Things seems similarly built for international success. The stars and creators may have been relative unknowns before the series debuted, but its tropes are universal. And it’s not just Spielberg; fans of David Lynch and Stand By Me will find familiar nuggets as well.
“My hunch is that the commercial success results from attracting several different audiences for each of which it is a cult show,” says Nigel Morris, author of The Cinema of Spielberg: Empire of Light and a film studies professor at the University of Lincoln. “All of the allusions make it a kind of interactive game as people ‘spot the references’, feel flattered by their ability to do so but also curious about those they realize they must be missing, and share them through social networking, together with speculation about what is going on and what the various clues might mean.”
The result? A show that went viral first in Canada, and gradually spread to find enthusiasts around the world. In one month, Netflix users in 190 countries watched Stranger Things, and viewers in 70 of those nations became devoted fans. A handful of people tuned in from Bhutan, and from Chad. In a first for the streaming service, someone watched Season 1 in Antarctica.
Stranger Things, too, is just one show. The process repeats itself across thousands of hours of content. Netflix already made shows based on what the world wanted to watch; the hard part, now, is presenting it in a way that people can understand, no matter where they live or what language they speak.