Netflix’s Global Reach Sparks Dubbing Revolution: "The Public Demands It"

Kyle Hilton

"Localized" content has traditionally been sneered at, but the streamer is driving a boom thanks to millions spent on a network of voice artists and facilities that translates content into 31 languages.

Dubbing, the art of syncing the dialogue of a film or TV series in a foreign language, is more often derided or ignored than celebrated. In the U.S., "localization" — to use the technical, more upscale term preferred by producers and voice artists — is still mainly associated with cheap and schlocky overdubs of martial arts movies and spaghetti Westerns.

But Netflix is determined to change that.

The company's research has shown that dubbed versions of hit shows are more popular than their subtitled equivalents. "People say they prefer the original, but our figures show they watch the dubbed version," noted Kelly Luegenbiehl, vp international originals for Europe, Turkey and Africa, at a talk in Berlin earlier this year. Netflix's investment in dubbing has been growing, on average, between 25 percent and 35 percent per year for the past few years, and the consumption of dubbed content on the platform is scaling even faster, up on average more than 120 percent annually, say company sources. Netflix works with more than 125 facilities worldwide to meet the demand and, under the guidance of Debra Chinn, a veteran studio executive who joined Netflix as director of international dubbing two years ago, the growth has been exponential.

Netflix has ramped up localization in regions unaccustomed to seeing nonlocal shows without having to read subtitles. The company recently signed a three-year deal with SAG-AFTRA, its first overall deal with the union representing Hollywood actors, which includes provisions to improve pay rates and working conditions for talent dubbing shows into English. In April, David McClafferty took over the newly minted position of creative manager for English dubbing.

Worldwide, growth in the dubbing business is being driven by Netflix's continued addition of languages to the mix — it now dubs into 31 languages, up from 24 two years ago — and by a rapid increase in production of animated series and films.

"It used to be only kids' movies were dubbed … now virtually everything is dubbed. The public demands it," says Fabio Nunes, production manager for Brazilian localization studio Delart, which dubbed all the episodes of Netflix's Stranger Things and Narcos into Brazilian Portuguese.

A knock-on effect of the Netflix-driven dubbing boom has been the creation of a new category of celebrity: the Netflix dubbing star. Isabelle Cunha, the Brazilian voice of Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven in Stranger Things, has leveraged her notoriety into success on YouTube, where she talks about life as a dubbing artist to her 24,000 subscribers. Cunha even met her alter ego in person when Brown attended a Netflix event in Curitiba in 2017. "I told her I was her voice," says Cunha. "I was quite surprised, because she's a lot more spontaneous in real life than she is on the series."

The logistical issues involved in dubbing across dozens of languages are immense. As is the challenge of protecting against leaks and spoilers. Here, Netflix's tech infrastructure has been a major asset. The company has a separate division focused entirely on dubbing innovation, finding the most up-to-date, and secure, solutions to localization issues. A dubbing director in Germany can access a secure Netflix server in real time to check out clips of a show and upload audio picks for a certain character or scene. So far, the company has not had a major breach or leaked spoiler.

But the real proof of Netflix's localization strategy is in the pudding — in dubbed shows that are so good, the audience doesn't know, or care, that they're watching a dub. Says one Netflix insider: "We are a data company, but this is really not about the revenue and numbers but about the storytelling."

Ela Bittencourt contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.