U.S. Streamers Bulk Up With Non-English-Language Shows

The Investigation
Courtesy of HBO

'The Investigation' premiered on HBO’s linear network Feb. 1 and will stream on HBO Max.

In a rush to build libraries with originals — and with an eye to rolling out services worldwide — platforms are increasingly buying finished shows off the shelf.

At the heart of Losing Alice, a new drama series from Israeli Dori Media is a Faustian bargain. Alice (Ayelet Zurer), a 40-something female film director stuck in a personal and professional rut, becomes obsessed with a young screenwriter femme fatale (Lihi Kornowski). In classic neo-noir style, Alice's obsession will lead her to sacrifice her moral integrity in a bid for power and success.

Losing Alice premiered on Israel's Hot 3 network last summer and was scooped up by AppleTV+, which bowed it online Jan. 22.

Alice is the second big Israel show for Apple — the first, espionage thriller Tehran, a co-production with Israeli broadcaster Kan 1, just got a second season order — and the latest in what has become a flood of global shows on U.S.-based streaming platforms.

WarnerMedia's streaming service HBO Max secured U.S. premieres for the likes of Spanish series Veneno, about Spanish trans TV personality Cristina Ortiz, Italian mob drama Gomorrah (whose first two seasons debuted on Netflix), and Uri and Eli, an Israeli family comedy about a widowed man and his adult daughter. Hulu recently bowed No Man’s Land, an Israel/French/Belgian drama, and German thriller Deutschland 89, which first premiered on SundanceTV stateside.

Non-English-language TV series used to be a niche proposition, with a handful of international shows making it to the U.S. But the success of Netflix’s global titles — from Spain’s Money Heist to Kingdom from South Korea to French hit Lupin — and a need for streamers to quickly build their libraries is leading to a buying frenzy.

"Just five to six years ago, if you had a non-English show, in Europe for example, your market was basically limited to the dubbing territories, so Germany, Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe. Now you can sell it anywhere," says Jens Richter, CEO of International at Fremantle, which did deals with Hulu for No Man's Land — a series with French, Kurdish, English, and Arabic dialog — and with HBO for The Investigation, a Danish true-crime drama, which premiered on HBO's linear network Feb. 1 and will stream on HBO Max.

"The advantage with the streamers is there are no broadcast 'slots'" notes Richter, "there is no limit to real estate. So the platforms can experiment."

In the past, the standard procedure for U.S. networks was to adapt hit international shows into English. Israel's Hatufim became Showtime's Homeland. But in the rush to build up their libraries of original series — with an eye to rolling out services worldwide — platforms are taking a short cut and buying finished shows off the shelf.

"Getting originals up and running in-house is a long journey and there's a need for a lot of content right now," says Matt Creasey, an international sales and production executive with European production outfit Banijay. "Platforms know they can get the quality they need on the international market."

For international producers, this increased demand can mean major paydays. Creasey admits doing U.S. deals for international shows "that were bigger than the show's original budget" and several executives mentioned the "eye-watering" price Apple paid Cineflix Rights for Tehran.

The budget for The Investigation, a fictional look at the Danish homicide deal that solved the "submarine murder" of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, was about twice that of a typical Scandinavian series. "That was only possible because we knew we could sell it worldwide," says Richter.

For U.S. platforms, however, these shows are still a bargain. The budget for even a major Israeli drama is in the low six figures, compared to $5 million-plus per episode for a big U.S. series.

"I like to joke that the catering budget on a U.S. show would pay for an entire episode of an Israeli series," says Hadas Mozes, of Tel Aviv's ADD Content Agency, who brokered the Uri and Eli deal with HBO Max.

"You definitely get a lot more bang for your buck [with an international series]," says Julie Meldal-Johnsen, executive vp, global content at ITV Studios, the production and sales division of the British commercial network. "Even producing in Europe, in Belgium, Italy or Scandinavia, doesn't cost as much as in the U.S. or U.K."

And with acquisitions — or with series co-productions, where several channels or streamers jointly finance a show — the U.S. partner doesn't shoulder the whole cost. An American platform can pick up a hit international show for a fraction of the cost of a home-grown production and market it to its subscribers as an in-house original.

This has been the model for years at smaller networks and niche streaming services, several of which — including Acorn TV, Britbox, and MHZ Choice — specializes in acquiring international series for a mainly U.S. audience.

"You just have a lot of different options now," says Meldal-Johnsen. "An Italian crime series can be a primetime show on a big free-to-air network in France or Germany and a streaming original on MHZ or HBO Max."

Those options mean new funding models are possible for international shows. ITV Studios has partnered with Israeli channel Hot on the new thriller series Jerusalem, which just began shooting, with ITV deficit financing a portion of the show's budget and banking on future worldwide sales.

For global platforms or ones with global ambitions, non-English-language programming plays another role.

"As platforms rollout worldwide, they need to attract international audiences and the way to do that is with local programming,"  notes Tom Harrington, an analyst at London-based Enders Analysis. "Everywhere, in every country, the most successful programming is local programming."

This local appeal, and the relatively low cost of international production, explains why Netflix has opened regional operations in Mexico, across Europe, and now Asia — with the announcement last month that it would lease nine sound stages at two facilities in South Korea in order to increase its production of Korean films and series. As WarnerMedia rolls out HBO Max internationally the studio can tap into already existing supply lines from regional operations HBO Europe (producers of shows like Romanian/German thriller Hackerville), HBO Latin America (Mexican International Emmy winner Sr. Avila), and HBO Asia  (Taiwanese rom-com Adventure of the Ring).

"We know viewers also want to see unique, authentic, and entertaining local stories that reflect the places and faces on their doorstep,” said Georgia Brown, Director European Amazon Originals at Prime Video on Feb. 2, announcing Amazon's new slate of German-language originals, including period drama We Children of Bahnhof Zoo and fantasy series The Gryphon.

In certain territories, streamers will also have to meet local quotas for home-grown production in order to operate. New regulations in France, for example, require international platforms operating in the country to invest 20 percent of the revenue they earn in the territory to French production.

Thomas Anargyros, head of pan-European studio Mediawan, expects budgets for international series to continue to spike as deep-pocketed global streamers compete for top-end local talent.

"The competition is not with the national channels it is between these international streamers — between Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Apple, Disney+," says Anargyros. "That is what is driving up the budgets. Lupin was the first huge French success for Netflix and it's a big-budget show. So if AppleTV, for example, wants to launch a new French show they want to have the biggest French stars, they want a Vincent Cassel, an Omar Sy, a Marion Cotillard."

But for most international TV producers, money isn't the prime motivator. It's the opportunity, finally, to get these stories told in the way, and the language, in which they were intended.

"I just think it's incredible that we are exporting something else from Israel than what people are hearing from the news," says Hadas Mozes. "Personally, I'll do any deal with any territory, no matter how small, just to get our stories out there."

International creators, accustomed to having their series ignored, or at best adapted for the U.S. market, are for once, and unlike the director in Losing Alice, not being asked to compromise between integrity and success.

A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.