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CULTURE | 25-04-2024 16:15

Netflix is betting big on Latin America to expand its viewership

Netflix attracts viewers from all over the world, but its biggest untapped audiences lie outside the United States.

In the middle of a vast swathe of farmland a windy six-hour drive from Bogotá, Colombia, lies the heart of the biggest Netflix production ever attempted in Latin America. It’s spread over 21 square miles (54 square kilometers) of sets, tents and stages, and includes a breathtaking replica of the fictional town of Macondo, the beloved setting of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Netflix Inc is adapting the novel to film for the first time — an estimated US$50-million undertaking—and just released a trailer that gives a flavour of what’s to come. “Netflix in the last few years is taking a big gamble, in a very good way,” said Alex Garcia Lopez, one of the directors, who gave Bloomberg Originals a rare look behind the scenes for an episode of The Circuit with Emily Chang

One Hundred Years of Solitude is just one of several Netflix local-language productions in Latin America. In Brazil, the streaming giant is producing a biographical mini-series about the legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, no doubt inspired by the success of its long-running franchise Drive to Survive. In Argentina, there’s the adaptation of El Eternauta, a popular science-fiction graphic novel. And, in Mexico, the company is shooting the movie Pedro Páramo, based on another iconic book.

It might seem that Netflix is hoping for the next Squid Game, a blockbuster survival drama series that put South Korea at the centre of the company’s global expansion. But executives insist the priority isn’t a global hit, but rather a local success that wins the hearts and minds of its home audience.  

“If something we do in a specific market is not extraordinarily special and successful for our members in that country, then somehow, creatively, we haven’t hit the mark,” says Francisco Ramos, who oversees Netflix’s Latin American content. “We’ve also learned that the more accurate, successful an ambition is locally, the more it resonates outside of home territory.”

Netflix first expanded into Latin America in 2011 as it started looking outside the US for new viewers. It established its headquarters for the region in Mexico City in 2015 and began staffing up. One of its early Spanish language hits was the comedic drama Club de Cuervos, which was shot in Mexico and first appeared in 2015. Then came Narcos  later that same year, an English-Spanish hybrid about the Colombian drug trade. While a smash hit outside of Colombia, some Colombians felt the series perpetuated unfair stereotypes.

That said, many residents interviewed for this episode of The Circuit were excited about One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the region’s most revered stories. García Márquez is considered to be among the greatest writers of the 20th century and a Colombian national treasure. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, based largely on One Hundred Years of Solitude. The author died in 2014 in Mexico City.

Netflix attracts viewers from all over the world, but its biggest untapped audiences lie outside the United States. Even for Netflix, which has almost 270 million subscribers globally, the hunt is always on for more eyeballs. The company added 9.33 million more subscribers in the first quarter, though gains will be lower in the current period. Netflix shares have tumbled since the company said it would stop reporting subscriber numbers in 2025. 

In Latin America, the opportunity spans 700 million viewers, but there’s stiff competition from homegrown networks like Globo and TelevisaUnivision. And of course there are US rivals like Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.’s  Max, Disney+, Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., all trying to close Netflix’s gaping lead.

Part of that advantage is attributable to Netflix’s bigger investments in overseas content, and not just in Latin America and South Korea, but also Europe with hits like The Crown and Lupin. Bela Bajaria, who oversees Netflix content globally, says networks and studios have historically focused far too much on domestic audiences. “We’re a global service,” Bajaria says. “The goal is investment in local storytelling and without a ‘Western lens.’”

But there’s a famous maxim in show business: “Nobody knows anything.” Even in the age of algorithms, success is never guaranteed. 

by Emily Chang, Bloomberg

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