When streaming giant Netflix announced plans in January to reach a total of 200 countries (excluding China) by year’s end, localization companies and producers of animated kids content took notice.
The mass growth strategy, coupled with Netflix’s increased investment in original kids series, meant production companies with existing or pending Netflix contracts could explore a whole new set of multi-territory distribution deals.
And while traditional broadcasting plays catch-up to the rapidly changing digital space, SVOD services, including Netflix and a growing number of smaller international kid-targeted ones, have been quick to extend or secure “dubs and subs” partnerships to get a leg up on the competition.
Among the top localization service providers reaping the benefits from the influx of SVODs into new territories are UK-based BTI Studios, L.A.’s SDI Media and The Kitchen in Miami, Florida.
As one of only four Netflix Preferred Vendors (NPVs) for subtitling and captioning, and a Netflix Vendor of the Year award winner in 2015 for timed text localization, large volume for the US and Europe, SDI has been a leader in the field for more than 50 years.
Owned by Tokyo-based post-production outfit Imagica Robot Holdings, the company currently operates in 37 countries in EMEA, Asia and the Americas, and in more than 80 languages with centralized hubs in Warsaw, Poland and Manila, Philippines.
Boasting a client list that includes Hasbro, Cartoon Network, FremantleMedia, Lego, Hulu, Warner Bros., Microsoft, Google, Discovery, Sony and Paramount Pictures, SDI has grown its business while control of the localization process has shifted from the broadcaster to the IP owner.
“Now that content owners have more than one place to sell, and many properties are so tied to merchandise, they’ve really started taking on the localization process,” says Roy Dvorkin, SVP of global business development and client services for SDI. “It’s been exciting for us that producers, distributors and IP owners are now responsible for localization in their contracts. They’ve never dealt with it before, so it’s a huge shift.”
A big part of the change, according to Dvorkin, is that producers now value localization as a primary asset, not a secondary one.
“It’s a big deal. They should budget for it in pre-production rather than wait until the tail end, and if the IP is good, they’ll get a sale in multiple countries. Then they can either sign a global deal with Netflix or sell to a ton of OTT and SVOD players around the world,” he says.
However, because multiple platforms with exclusive original kids content are in many of the same markets now, Dvorkin notes there is a significant problem brewing. “As Netflix continues to expand and other OTTs follow, a limited amount of talent and local recording rooms is causing a major capacity issue in a lot of countries right now,” he says. “If you look at Germany, for example, not only is Netflix there, Amazon is too, and they have a couple of local players. Talent is booked way in advance, so hiring is currently almost impossible.”
As for solutions, SDI takes advantage of its own flexibility as an independently owned and operated company. “As we’re starting to see more day-and-date release schedules, especially on the kids side, the fact that we control our studios and can move productions around, or schedule recordings for evenings or earlier in the day, has been a big deal for us,” contends Dvorkin.
BTI Studios SVP of client services and operations Elodie Powers agrees that VOD and SVOD services have raised the bar for localization and creative ownership by allowing content creators to focus on quality and new shows.
She’s also seeing greater demand for translators and voice talent. “It’s definitely opening up for more talent to come forward, but whenever there is a big launch in a territory, the market gets tapped out,” she notes. “At some point, there are only so many skilled people who are trained and ready. It’s a challenge we face with every new territory we move into.”
BTI—a Netflix Preferred Vendor whose kids entertainment clients include Disney and Cartoon Network—produces more than 350,000 hours of closed captioning, dubbing, subtitling, and audio description annually in more than 50 languages at 24 local facilities worldwide. It also helps recruit and train up-and-coming translators through its London-based BTI Academy program.
Privately owned localization specialist The Kitchen, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, also provides dubbing and translation workshops to help sustain the industry.
“The good translators are very in-demand, so we need more, but the good thing is a lot of schools now have translation departments,” says Deeny Kaplan, EVP of The Kitchen. “It’s probably one of the fastest-growing areas of the post-production business today.”
The Kitchen records primarily in English, neutral Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Parisian French, and it sources most other foreign-language translation and voice recording talent from members of its in-territory Global Language Network.
Once accepted into the network, members gain access to the company’s exclusive, Emmy-winning, end-to-end language localization software, TM Systems. It offers a suite of tools for a more efficient, less costly localization process.
With a client base that now includes Sesame Workshop, Sprout, Netflix, Nickelodeon and France Télévisions, The Kitchen recently opened an office in Caracas, Venezuela to offer better rates for neutral Spanish translation.
Kaplan says the biggest industry change in the last two years has been taking on new markets. “Ten years ago, we didn’t see anything from Turkey, but now we’re dealing with at least 30 companies for all kinds of formats. And South Africa is our biggest market at the moment,” she says. “It keeps growing nicely, especially in terms of children’s programming.”
According to Powers, BTI is also localizing more kids content—which currently comprises roughly 35% of its workload—driven by consolidation and VOD distribution deals.
In 2015, the company acquired Hong Kong-based media house Medi-Lan, opening a door to the growing Asian market. The deal helped BTI secure Bahasa, Cantonese and Mandarin dubbing contracts on a number of DreamWorks Animation TV series and specials including The Adventures of Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda Holiday and Madly Madagascar.
Another consolidating move in October 2015 saw BTI acquire kid-focused, Disney-approved Nordic dubbing facility Dubberman Studios, giving the company more opportunities to localize in Europe.
As for emerging regions, BTI is currently eyeing Turkey and Poland, where it operates a modern, 12,000-square-foot dubbing facility in Warsaw.
While BTI and SDI have both undergone changes due to consolidation in the last two years, Powers says she doesn’t expect it will be an ongoing trend.
“I don’t think consolidation will continue because it’s not necessary to be the biggest company. It is required to be the best company, especially in terms of project management, because there’s so much work right now,” she says.
The studio recently partnered with SDI to localize its hit preschool series Puffin Rock for Netflix in multiple territories (including the US and Japan).
“It was our first time localizing one of our properties, and in the end we did 13 languages,” says the prodco’s co-founder and CEO Paul Young. “It was a great experience, but it was a hard turnaround. For Netflix, our show producers and directing partner at Dog Ears only had 24 to 48 hours to turnaround approvals of voices and scripts to meet the delivery deadline.”
SDI’s Dvorkin says the power of a multi-territory Netflix exclusive is very real. “The smallest producer today can be as big a client as Cartoon Network or any large producer,” he says.
For New York-based Konami subsidiary 4K Media, which manages distribution of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise (pictured) outside Asia, the blooming of SVOD services has allowed the company to fully exploit its 700-episode library internationally.
“Localizing for so many SVODs is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Our advantage is that we have so many eps available in so many languages, we’re able to play around with the series and use analytics,” says Mark Kirk, SVP of digital at 4K.
“We can cut non-exclusive deals for some series, see how they perform and ensure we reach the largest possible audience. Then we can optimize. In the US, we’re on our fifth year of a digital strategy, and internationally, we’re a little more than three years in.”
After recently securing a Yu-Gi-Oh! Arabic-language deal with children’s edutainment channel MBC3 in MENA, 4K now has its sights set on Latin America, the Nordics and Germany.