The United States is the well-known punchline to jokes about being “monolingual,” and with some introspection, we’ll realize that for nearly 80% of us, the jokes aren’t that far off from the truth. And most, if not all, of our media, reflected this English-centric preference for quite a long time. American entertainment has mainly been ideated, produced, and distributed by the same few companies in Hollywood, keeping the English language and culturally American film and TV at the forefront.
Then, a shift in taste came with the advent of streaming. After we Americans binged American-made content for 10+ years, we’ve started to realize stateside work can seem an old hat. As production globalizes and streaming adds better subtitles and dubbing options, we’re happily consuming more foreign content than ever before.
The old way of entertainment
The path to releasing a TV show or film in the United States used to be exclusive and hierarchical. A limited number of studios and networks would be the keyholders to the wide world of American entertainment. From these keyholders would come the trends; they would decide what the public would watch and enjoy. Talent to staff, the shows and movies would be sourced from these production hubs nearly exclusively, bar necessary cost-cutting. Even the distribution of content would be under their thumb, only happening in particular spaces. Movies were only available via box office for prolonged periods of time, and shows were only on broadcast networks at primetime. Reruns and rentals would be available, but often after the works lost their popular appeal.
Streaming enters the chat
Then, streaming changed all of that. As we all know, over ten years ago, when streaming became mainstream, it completely shifted how we accessed film and TV. American audiences no longer had to wait for box sets to be available for purchase or for movies to hit stores. We could access favorite shows and movies as we wanted, when we wanted, for free or a low monthly fee.
Streaming has only just stepped into the spotlight. Traditional consumption methods, like going to the theater, still hold much appeal. When Statistica polled movie fans in 2018, 53% of respondents preferred watching a movie for the first time at a theater, while only 30% liked streaming. When they were asked again in June 2020, 30% selected the theater, and 56% chose to stream. The pandemic undoubtedly pushed this shift, but the normalization of streaming-first has taken hold. In recognition of this power, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and more choose to release their own TV shows and movies to mass popularity.
Foreign film: America’s new frontier
At this point, Americans have been scrolling through video streaming services for quite some time. Recycling old popular narratives no longer predictably points to success. For instance, the “marriage troubles” motif may have made for a successful streaming hit in Big Little Lies, but it fell flat in similarly-structured The Undoing. We have everything we could want to watch at our fingertips, and those fingertips have been itching for something new.
Enter: international TV and film. Foreign works (as in foreign to the United States) felt like an unusual entertainment choice until even a couple of years ago. Usually, only super-passionate film students or art houses would know and show the latest international TV and movies. But streaming has brought international work to the masses who are tired of repetitive American content.
International TV and films have upended the narratives we’re used to, consequently taking top spots in our collective watchlist. We could name a laundry list of imported works that hit the “cultural phenomenon” level in the United States and are positive you could too, but there are a few standouts we want to highlight.
Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s comedy-thriller, swept the 2020 Oscars. With the institutional “OK” from the Academy, American audiences piled onto their sofas to stream the movie via Hulu, making it the second most-watched film ever on the platform. After appreciating the work of art that Parasite was, the United States was primed to enjoy other foreign language films. International works excelled in 2020, with Dutch show The Rain, German series Dark, and Spanish show Money Heist hitting top spots.
Ultimately, foreign-language viewership grew by 50% in 2020 on Netflix.
Two particular shows on Netflix’s roster seeped into the very core of American culture this year: Lupin and Squid Game. Lupin, a French-language TV show based on a gentleman thief and master of disguise, debuted on the top 10 most popular show list. It also surpassed English-language shows Bridgerton and Queen’s Gambit in viewership (70M, 63M, and 62M respectively). Squid Game soon eclipsed Lupin’s success with 111 million viewers in less than four weeks, more than any launch in the platform’s history. The show soon became a fan favorite, with Halloween costumes, social media coverage, and even think pieces covering the episodes.
There’s no longer a gap in entertainment value when you look outside Hollywood for film or TV. It could even be argued that international work may soon surpass American content.
Talent can come from anywhere
Netflix’s latest starlet, Squid Game, is a case study of foreign cinema success. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk explained that the entire season totaled $21.4 million but built $900 million in value for Netflix. Creating work outside the American comfort zone is proving to be worth it. A risky concept may be worth a shot at a lower price tag. We’ve seen what’s possible, and we know it performs.
The future of foreign entertainment may also be less “siloed.” Many movies and shows enumerated here hail from one country with little to no external influence. As Americans appreciate international content more and more, we could begin collaborating with international stages and build hybrid stories, evolving storytelling as we know it.
Clear the 1-inch-tall barrier
As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” With audiences becoming more discerning in their entertainment, clearing that hurdle (or even leaning on dubs) will be the next step in discovering a vast world of excellent content. Streaming platforms make it not only easy but exciting to tap into foreign TV and film. And with the popularization of remote work and overall globalization, future entertainment could become a satisfying combination of both near and far cultures. Fantastic international TV and movies are here to stay. Kick back, turn on the subtitles, and stay awhile.