Streaming demolished the insularity of the North American market. The sheer hunger for content is opening the gates that used to keep foreign entertainment at bay. Gone are the days when the best a foreign film could aspire to was getting niche distribution in art-houses. Or a TV series could strive for an American remake. Cable channels like IFC harbored cult hits like German series Deutschland ‘83, but this measure of success pales in comparison with the phenomenon known as The Squid Game, now available on Netflix.
According to the streamer, 111 million accounts have sampled the series, making it their biggest hit to date. Production company France 2 sold Netflix the streaming rights of French comedy Call My Agent!. In contrast, the violent survival drama was developed in-house by their South Korean production unit, with an eye towards the whole world. These titles may be culturally specific but relatable enough to cross-cultural barriers. The worldwide scope of its market allows it to foster talent from any region it serves. It is good if their product works there. If it breaks out everywhere, then they hit the jackpot.
This dynamic is creating opportunities for filmmakers. Check out the recent Fever Dream, a film branded as a Netflix Original, directed by Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa. It is a Spanish-language drama produced by Mike Johnson and Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain. The movie offers a puzzle narrative with horror elements, based on Argentinian writer Samantha Schweblin's novel.
The plot takes place in a distinctly Latin American setting, but the specific nationality remains intentionally elusive. Thematically, it could happen anywhere. Amanda (Maria Valverde) is a bourgeois mother, vacationing with her young daughter in a summer home on the outskirts of a small town. An ever-working husband may or may not come for a few days. Soon, sultry neighbor Carola (Dolores Fonzi) barges in with two buckets of water, cigarettes, and no small measure of charm. Friendship sparks between the women, but something feels off. Sexual tension arises without being addressed. And there is something wrong with Carola’s son, David (Emilio Vodanovich). A disquieting framing device makes everything we see a flashback: Amanda and David are having an elliptical conversation while he drags her limp body through a forest. It is very disorienting.
La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) was Llosa's breakthrough film, nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language category in 2010. In it, actress Magali Soler played a young indigenous woman struggling to survive while carrying the traumas of generations past, who lived under the reign of terror of State and militia. Anybody expecting social realism in Fever Dream will be disappointed. The movie is pricklier and stranger, closer to a fable. A great example of a hard sell: hard to finance, distribute, and market. Maybe even hard to watch for some viewers. Llosa is very talented, but it is clear that Netflix's willingness to engage with foreign filmmakers helped to make the movie happen.
Mike Johnson is a well-established Hollywood producer, with one Best Picture Oscar winner under his belt (Rain Man, 1988). Still, Llosa and Larrain's paths to a worldwide market are instructive. Both started by doing homegrown, culturally specific films. For example, Larrain broke through with Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012), three works that engaged with the history of the Pinochet dictatorship and its effects on daily life in Chile. Their success led to directing one of the most American stories you can think of, Jackie (2016), which earned three Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actress for Natalie Portman. This year, he might do the same for Kristen Stewart, who could get her first Oscar nomination by playing Princess Diana in Spencer. It is a very British affair, as far as one can tell by the trailers.
Netflix had nothing to do with Larrain’s rise, but the company is certainly willing to engage with him and make space for the talents he fosters. Last year, the streamer premiered Nobody Knows I’m Here (Gaspar Antillo, 2019). Larrain produced the musical drama led by Jorge Garcia, better known for playing Curly in J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindeloff’s TV series Lost.
Taking advantage of foreign resources is par for the course in the industry. Capital from Asia has been keeping production companies and film studios going for some time now. Historically, Hollywood has been a magnet for talents from all over the world. Some were immigrants. Think of all those great German film directors fleeing nazism, like Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak. Others get called in after striking it rich with a hit or an Oscar, like Wolgang Petersen after Das Boot (1981). Nowadays, the reach that Netflix has brings in a new order. Talent can thrive in their places of origin.
By providing its service throughout the world, Netflix can also mine it for talent. So far, it is the single-player capable of working that dynamic. Still, there are some limits. Any content produced by third parties comes with windows of distribution per region. That is why you do not get the same library of content at home as in Canada or Costa Rica. Only Netflix Originals, for which the company holds full rights, are available everywhere in the world. That must certainly have helped The Squid Game in becoming a global phenomenon.
There is some concern about how ubiquitousness can lead to homogenization. A quick scan of social media shows complaints from Korean speakers, pointing out how the subtitles and dubbing of the series oversimplifies and negates nuances in the script. Also, worthy titles can get lost in the bottomless programming grid. If the algorithm does not push the thumbnail to a prime spot, chances are viewers will never get to see a worthy offering. An idiosyncratic project like Fever Dream would benefit from a more traditional roll-out, shepherded by a boutique distributor. Too many of those Netflix Originals come and go without barely making a ripple.
In many ways, the film industry remains a small town. Llosa is the niece of director Luis Llosa, famous for making Jennifer Lopez fight a big snake in Anaconda (1997). Those Hollywood connections might have come in handy, on top of her obvious filmmaking talent. But whether you have contacts or not, as a filmmaker, you can't wait for Ted Sarandos to show up at your door with a bag of money. You need to hustle, hone your craft, and put out content that will call the attention of your local audience. And hopefully, a Netflix programmer is passing through town.
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