How Netflix’s Greatest Show Was Born

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“We always knew it would be an iconic title for Korea, but there’s no way we could have predicted it would be so important.”
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Netflix

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Netflix’s ability to turn non-English shows into global hits is nothing new, with shows like Narcos, Dark, La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), and Elite everything has exploded in a big way over the past five years. But these triumphs begin to fade alongside the burgeoning success of Squid game, a massively addictive dystopian drama from South Korea that, barely two weeks after its premiere, has become a massive social media phenomenon – and the streamer’s No. 1 show in 90 countries, including states -United. What is his size ? Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO of Netflix has recorded this week, predicting that the creation of writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk could soon dethrone Bridgerton and The witcher as the platform’s most sampled original series launch already.

As always, when trying to quantify streaming audiences, it’s important to keep in mind that Netflix’s claims about the popularity of any of its titles aren’t independently verified, and for a dozen or so. different reasons, should not be compared to measurements such as Nielsen ratings. That said, there is plenty of evidence beyond the streamer’s own spin to suggest Squid game – in which a group of people in financial difficulty hoping to make millions find themselves in a Hunger Games–style competition for survival – is really emerging as a legitimate pop culture sensation and attracting a large global audience.

?? Parrot Analytics, whose “demand index” quantifies the popularity of content by examining everything from online buzz and Google searches to the frequency of illegal downloads, this week called Squid game “a worldwide word of mouth sensation” and noted that, as of Sunday, the series is now the most requested show in the world, with 79 times more audience interest than the average title. It is gaining ground in the United States, but not as quickly as elsewhere: Monday, the day before Sarandos’ declaration, Squid game was the 18th most requested American series by Parrot, generating about 33 times the demand for a typical show here, and just behind the top of the charts Strange things among all Netflix originals.

?? Squid game also broke into audiences faster than some other recent Netflix hits, according to Parrot, peaking in the company’s global demand index faster than Money theftthe third season of or the debut of the British import Sex education.

?? Although Netflix has not widely distributed previews of the show to the US press – sending them only to outlets that have requested them, a representative for the platform said – Squid game is now slowly building a base of positive reviews, by aggregators Metacritic and Rotten tomatoes. Critics fans of IMDb also weighed in, propelling the show to No. 2 on the site’s ranking of the world’s most popular TV shows, ahead of Ted lasso but just behind Sex education.

?? And yes, of course, the memes have arrived. Highligths.

The almost instantaneous enthusiasm for Squid game is all the more impressive since the series is not based on any pre-existing intellectual property.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Netflix

Netflix’s head of global television, Bela Bajaria, says her colleagues at Netflix Korea, under the leadership of the head of regional content Minyoung kim, has long been waiting for great things from Squid game, especially when the first images started to arrive. And because the consumption of K-dramas Among US Netflix subscribers has exploded 200% in the past two years, the company was optimistic that Hwang’s epic story could outperform here and in other parts of the world. “But we couldn’t imagine that it would be this big globally, ”Bajaria told Vulture. “We always knew it would be an iconic title for Korea, but there’s no way we could predict it would be that important.”

The almost instantaneous enthusiasm for Squid game is all the more impressive as the series is not based on any pre-existing intellectual property, such as a book or comic book series, and therefore did not arrive with a corresponding built-in fanbase or even recognition of the name of something like Lupine. And while Bajaria says the show received a substantial promotional boost in Korea and other Asian countries, there was virtually no marketing in the United States other than a trailer tailored for American audiences. . Instead of, Squid game appears to have simply erupted through what the executive calls “an organic fandom,” fueled in large part by Netflix’s ability to get the series to more than 200 million homes across the globe at once. Followers “have tweeted and TikToked about it, and it has only grown through word of mouth,” Bajaria said. “People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to it, which helps to grow the show outside of what we do.”

It also helps that in addition to spending billions to produce its programming, Netflix invests millions more to ensure that shows like Squid game are easily watched, even for people who do not speak the language they use. Netflix offers subtitles in 37 languages ​​and doubles its shows in 34, more than any other major streamer. This means that subscribers who don’t have the patience for subtitles (read: a lot of Americans) are now much more likely to get involved in shows and movies that they would otherwise have ignored (dubbing rumbles to be cursed).

This, along with streaming’s lack of time and space constraints, has dramatically widened the potential audience for local language content. Watching a new foreign language film, for example, once required a residence in a big city or a tolerance to drive a few dozen kilometers in search of an arthouse cinema. But in the age of streaming, even though “you might not be the type of person who would like to do that, you can hit ‘play’ on Squid game,“says Bajaria. Netflix’s decision to make international content widely available and easy to watch, she adds,” removes the barrier of entry… and opens up a different narrative for more people. “And it clearly works. in the US: Bajaria says streaming of all non-English content is up 71% since 2019 among the platform’s US audience.

Bela Bajaria, Head of Global Television at Netflix.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Netflix

Bajaria, who spent two years focusing solely on non-U.S. Netflix content before taking on the streamer’s senior content position late last year, says her time outside of Hollywood stressed the importance of investing in international creators. As US-made entertainment remains a massive global draw and a strong selling point for the service, Netflix’s ability to grow its subscriber base increasingly depends on serving non-audiences. American shows and films from local creators. “If we want to have members in dozens of countries, we want programming that they love and that resonates with them – they see themselves represented, they see their stories,” says Bajaria. Whether these shows can then explode and become hits in other regions – or, as with Squid game, a worldwide sensation – is an added bonus for the streamer. “If something is traveling the world, it means our members really enjoyed watching something they might not have seen before,” she adds. “But the local impact is the most important thing.”

The local-language Netflix originals that are thriving around the world may not be a new concept in 2021, but the speed and scale with which Squid game Increased suggests that the platform’s ability to build its own franchises from content grown anywhere is growing exponentially, justifying a strategy that the streamer’s executives began to shape years ago. . When I spoke to Sarandos in 2018 for a series of stories about how Netflix works, he told me that, as happy as he was with the early success of non-English shows such as Dark and Money theft, he was aiming for something bigger. “What’s exciting for me would be if the next Strange things came from outside America, ”he said. “Right now, historically, nothing of this magnitude has ever come other than Hollywood.”

Sarandos and other executives believed it would become more likely as the streamer’s subscriber base in non-English speaking countries grows and even exceeds its core membership in the United States. When that happened, they theorized, the language of a production would become almost irrelevant to its prospects for success.

This turned out to be a pretty smart theory, which paved the way for Squid game to suddenly become a whale.

During my conversation with Bajaria, she also revealed some additional information about Squid game:

There was a debate over the title: Bajaria told me there had “definitely been a conversation” about what to call Squid game, although the final decision was not made in Hollywood. “The team in Korea debated the title, but when they looked at it they were like, ‘This is what it is. It’s interesting, and it’s a bit strange but really memorable. So they really got down and bet on the title. Now I can’t imagine his name being any other way.

Nothing firm has been decided on a second season of Squid game, but Bajaria seems optimistic about the prospect and suggests that it would depend on Hwang’s agenda and his desires as to how to proceed. “He’s got a movie and other stuff he’s working on,” she says, noting that the creator enjoys collaborating with “other writers” who might be part of a new chapter. “We are trying to find the right structure for him.”



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