Foreign-Language Entertainment Is Having Its Soft-Power Moment

As foreign-language entertainment grows in popularity, audiences from all over the world can finally enjoy a much broader and immersive experience of other cultures.
Franthiesco Ballerini, Netflix news, Netflix foreign films, Netflix foreign language shows, popularity of foreign language films, Hollywood soft power, English language soft power, cultural soft power, most popular Netflix shows, O Globo TV Brazil streaming

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Since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, non-English films from all over the world used to compete for a nomination in one single category, best foreign film, as all the other Oscars traditionally went to American and, sometimes, British productions. But in 2019, Netflix’s Spanish-language “Roma” was nominated for best picture. It won for best director and, as predicted, best foreign film. This year, the first non-English feature won best picture, Bong Joon-ho’s Korean film “Parasite.”


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The Oscars may be just following a much bigger trend in entertainment in the past few years, with non-English-language shows becoming international hits even in markets like the US and the UK that don’t consume a lot of dubbed or subtitled content. The American review website Rotten Tomatoes chose Netflix’s first German-language show, “Dark,” as the best Netflix Original series among 63 competitors, getting 80% of the 2.5 million votes, against English-language hits like “Mindhunters” and “The Crown.

Bound to Lead

Latin and, much later, French, were the international languages for diplomacy, the theater and literature. British imperial power put the English language at the center of world affairs and, right as that empire faded, American dominance reinforced its importance. But it was Hollywood’s soft power over the 20th century that made the English language seductive and attractive the world over.

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In his 1990 work “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power,” political scientist Joseph Nye used the term “soft power” to define the ability to get something by persuasion, not coercion or payment. Governments need to spend much less money when national culture, ideals and values appeal to the wider world, generating revenues in tourism, arts and entertainment. In other words, soft power is a smart tool for any nation to reach its worldwide goals instead of opting for threats, guns and war.

Hollywood shaped the preferences of a large number of audiences for English-language films and TV shows since the creation of the studios in the 1910s. Other countries took advantage of that. The British Council, established in 1934 and currently presented in over 100 countries, invests in keeping the English language a powerful medium in which the arts, diplomacy, entertainment, science and technology are conducted. With a budget of £1,3 billion ($1,6 billion) in 2019-20, the organization views English as a way to communicate culture, allowing the British Council to frame culture and language as political tools through which soft power can be garnered, strengthening the UK’s reputation across the world.

But quality entertainment like “Dark” can make even a difficult language like German more appealing to a global audience. The second season of Iceland’s “Trapped” was watched by 10 million people in the UK, Germany, France and across Scandinavia. It focuses on a series of mysterious murders in a freezing small town where policemen never fire guns — a cultural shock for audiences accustomed to violence in Hollywood productions. Distribution demand for the Spanish “La Casa de Papel” soared for its fourth season: From April 3 to 5 this year, the show was 31.75 times more in demand than popular English-language series like “The Walking Dead,” “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones.”

The show not only broke the aversion to foreign languages among audiences, but also made popular other forms of expression instead of repeating well-worn Hollywood formulas. John Doyle writes in The Globe and Mail that “La Casa de Papel” is a “heist-centric multipart drama that upends most clichés of heist movies and celebrates others. It is also deliciously melodramatic at times, riffing on the telenovela style of telling one concentrated storyline that has outrageous twists and much passion.”

Leaving the Telenovela Behind

Netflix, which is represented in 190 countries, has become one of the main producers of foreign-language hits, with other shows breaking the English barrier, such as the Turkish “The Protector,” French “Osmosis,” Polish “The Woods” and South Korea’s “Kingdom.” According to Louis Brennan, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who researches Netflix’s international expansion, the success of non-English language shows can be explained by the natural appeal of local products, together with a tendency toward broader and more diverse tastes of consumers in the 21st century.

As John Hazelton writes in Screen Daily, American programmers feel a growing appetite for foreign-language shows despite the fact that foreign films are being watched less in the cinemas, suggesting a migration from the big to the smaller screen, and streaming. Hazelton quotes Jan Diedrichsen, the general manager of Sundance TV, saying that “Back in the day, if audiences wanted something adventurous they would go to arthouses and see those independent or foreign films. Now on television we’re providing that adventure and a window into some of the best stories from around the world.”

In the US, the viewership of non-English titles on Netflix increased 50% this year compared with 2019 and the consumption of dubbed films and shows is rising 120% every year, according to some of the very few audience statistics the company shares.

Known for exporting its telenovelas for more than 130 countries for the past 30 years, with 100 million daily viewers worldwide, Brazilian TV Globo is aware that the telenovela format may become less relevant as streaming subscriptions soar all over the world. In 2015, the company launched GloboPlay, its own streaming service. This year, TV Globo released the terror thriller “Desalma,” with clear intention to overcome the image of a telenovela channel, aiming at international markets.

To compete with major players like Netflix and Amazon Prime, GloboPlay announced a partnership with Disney Plus, launched in Brazil this November, with subscriptions for both streaming services starting at 37,90 reais ($6,99). US-based network HBO recently announced six new local productions for the following years as Brazil is fast becoming one of the key global streaming markets.

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Just a few years ago, producers who wanted to reach an international audience needed to embrace English-language soft power even if that caused cultural distortions in the final product, like in Fernando Meirelles’s 2008 film “Blindness,” the English adaptation of the Portuguese book of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, or “Love in the Time of Cholera,” directed by Mike Newell, adapted from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel of the same title. In both cases, the original language — Portuguese and Spanish, respectively — are key elements to the charm and beauty of the novels. The slang, local accents and neologisms were all the elements that helped both authors win the Nobel Prize for Literature but were, unfortunately, partly lost in translation to film.

With local artists and producers getting the taste of English soft power, audiences from all over the world can finally enjoy a much broader and immersive experience of other cultures from the comfort of their own homes — and with good entertainment, of course.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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