In the Hunt for the Next ‘Squid Game,’ Industry Execs See ‘Unlimited Potential’

·5 min read

If the unexpected success of Netflix’s Korean sensation “Squid Game” has taught the TV industry anything, it’s that the next breakout hit can come from anywhere at anytime. That’s given international producers more leverage than ever before, as global streaming services ramp up their commission and acquisition of scripted hits from around the world.

The rules of the game are being rewritten on the fly, and according to a host of leading industry execs at a panel hosted by Rome’s MIA Market on Saturday, the sky’s the limit for both local producers and the streaming services looking to satisfy audience demand for fresh and original shows.

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“There’s unlimited potential,” said Douglas Craig, ViacomCBS Networks International’s SVP of international, programming and acquisitions, who predicted that streaming subscriber numbers overseas “will dwarf the U.S.” in a short amount of time.

For the company’s Paramount Plus streaming service, he added, local will be key. “We wholeheartedly believe that in every territory that we’re in, local content, local originals, is critical to our success.”

For producers outside the glare of Hollywood, this moment has been a long time coming. “All of my career, I’ve been fighting for non-English-language content,” said Paper Entertainment CEO and founder Julien Leroux, executive producer of the Apple TV Plus hit “Tehran.” “It’s been really difficult for so many years – especially in the U.S.”

“It’s really taken a lot of knocking on doors, and pitching and pitching and pitching, and getting opportunities to say, ‘Please consider my story,’” said Mo Abudu, CEO of Nigeria’s EbonyLife Media, which in recent years has inked deals with the likes of Netflix, Sony Pictures Television, AMC Networks, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Studios. “I think for us as an African producer, for the first time our stories are being considered seriously.”

Seizing on the unprecedented demand for international hits like “Squid Game,” Craig said overseas content will play a major role in the global expansion of Paramount Plus, which has launched in some two dozen territories so far. He cited “Miss Fallaci Takes America,” a high-profile TV series from ViacomCBS and Italy’s Minerva Pictures about the iconic Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, as “the first of many” such collaborations for the company as it ramps up its international push.

“We do think that content is traveling everywhere a lot easier than it has in the past. It’s an exciting opportunity,” he said. “Even if it is an Italian production, we are looking at how we can use that in other Paramount Plus territories as well.”

While a host of emerging local and regional players enter the global streaming fray, such as the ambitious Scandinavian streamer Viaplay, Yes Studios managing director Danna Stern noted that “the gatekeepers are still American,” something she described as “daunting” for foreign producers.

“Every single one of these streamers, they’re all U.S.-based,” said Stern, whose Tel Aviv-based production company is the outfit behind the acclaimed Netflix drama “Fauda.” “They’re the ones to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to these shows.”

“The gatekeepers are still very white – in most cases, very white male,” added Abudu. “They are going to have a particular mindset about the types of stories that they want told. So there must be room for other gatekeepers.”

Craig stressed that he was “in agreement and alignment” with criticisms leveled at the industry as a whole when it comes to diversity, adding that in terms of Paramount Plus’ international plans, “we are trying to tell those stories from all points of view, from all countries.”

Abudu, however, pressed him on the company’s Africa strategy, sparking a spirited exchange among the panelists when the ViacomCBS exec said the media giant was “looking at Africa.”

“You always say that,” replied Abudu. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry to say this. I have heard that…for the last 10 years. ‘We are looking at it.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, when are we going to go from looking to actually doing?’” She added that a flight from London to Lagos takes six hours – “literally the same time to go from New York to L.A.” (Speaking to Variety after the panel, Craig clarified his remarks, noting that ViacomCBS Networks International is in active talks with a number of African producers.)

It will perhaps fall to local broadcasters and streaming platforms to bridge that divide, according to Leroux, who said that “Tehran” wouldn’t have been possible without a commission from Israeli public broadcaster KAN.

“They are the ones who are also creating a first step towards global success, because they allow young, emerging talents to express themselves locally as a first experience, to then possibly go to the next level, which is reaching global audiences,” he said. “Local players have a very important role that is really working along with the global streamers. It’s not one or the other, it’s the two together.”

While Netflix has made the most of its commanding head start in the streaming space, it’s just a matter of time before rivals catch up, according to Jeff Cooke, vice president of programming at Starz, something that bodes well for emerging players jockeying to carve out a niche. “It’s so early in the streaming game for everybody else,” he said. “I think in two, three, four years, you’re going to see other platforms have these global hits.”

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