When it comes to the Netflix series Stranger Things, no two fans are exactly alike–something that Netflix considers when it markets the show to its users. For instance, fans of action movies and thrillers prefer a poster image with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), her face fixed in mind-bending concentration. Comedy lovers prefer an image showing two of the show’s teens looking up in the sky, their mouths agape in disbelief. For documentary aficionados, it’s local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) who most resonates. And for drama and sci-fi fans, it’s a simple black poster with the show’s familiar logo and a silhouette of Eleven.
These details were recently revealed by Netflix in a rare look at how the company works behind-the-scenes–at a remarkably granular level–to make a show like Stranger Things a global phenomenon. Although Netflix does not release ratings, the sci-fi, ’80s nostalgia show’s first season became a buzzy, water-cooler topic and media sensation–not just in the U.S. but around the world, where it’s available in 20 different languages (including Turkish, Castilian Spanish, and Japanese) and 190 different countries. As Todd Yellin, Netflix’s head of product, reveals, Canadians took to the show even faster than Americans.
“In Canada, they just dove in and were binging and watching the whole thing faster than any other place in the world. So they were the tastemakers,” Yellin says.
The show was also popular in Italy and Germany. And, in a Netflix first, Stranger Things attracted the service’s first user in Antarctica. “We are confident that we can double or triple or even quadruple that number for season two,” Yellin jokes, adding: “I have no idea how someone got the freaking internet in Antarctica–it must have been some satellite hookup or something like that. It’s very ingenious.”
Attracting a global audience isn’t just a matter of luck–nothing at Netflix is. Rather, Yellin and other colleagues go through endless rounds of AB tests and experimentation on everything from how to position the show to different users, how to dub a show in order to maintain authenticity in tone and language, to how to pick the right dubbing actors. (In order to maintain continuity for Winona Ryder fans, the same actor who dubbed Ryder’s voice in Beetlejuice and Bram Stoker’s Dracula dubbed her voice in Stranger Things.) The idea is to personalize the show in as many ways as possible for every single Netflix member, regardless of where they live. In the past, Yellin explains, Netflix thought about its international users more by market. So a user in Morocco, say, would be shown the same poster art and other materials related to a show, as everyone else in Morocco. But Netflix found that “taste communities” transcend borders, and that your own “taste doppelgänger” might live on the opposite side of the globe. Now Netflix instead caters to its 2,000 taste communities. “We want the people who tend to watch the same things,” he says. “If we know that you watched the same thing as a whole other group of people, we’ll put you in the same taste community and we’ll understand how to suggest titles to you and know which ones bubble up to the top.”
Yellin and Denny Sheehan, director of content localization and quality control at Netflix, expanded on how they do their jobs and how the new season of Stranger Things is a glimpse into Netflix’s overall global product strategy.
Netflix and the New Art of Dubbing
Although Yellin admits that some still consider dubbing “a dead art form” and that most people have grown accustomed to watching foreign TV shows and movies with subtitles, Netflix is devoted to reviving the practice.
“We think of subtitles and dubs as really enabling access to the story,” says Sheehan. “And so our goal is to use creative intent as the North Star to really create culturally relevant and resonant translations for the content so that it has a wide global appeal. One of the ways we do that is through our Key Names And Phrases tool. KAP really is, essentially, an interactive wiki where my team, the translators, marketing, and PR can all input translations so we can make sure that we’re consistent across the product and also consistent across titles. So we want to make sure that the translation for Demogorgon in episode one [of Stranger Things] is the same in season two. We also want to make sure that Demogorgon, which is from Dungeons & Dragons, is actually transliterated the same way that it was transliterated in the 1980s when it came out. We also talk about homestyle Eggo waffles–are we making sure that we’re actually using the translations of that product in all the markets where it’s offered? So there are a lot of nuances that help tell the story of Stranger Things and that capture the zeitgeist, and we want to make sure that we’re capturing them in a way that is reflective of the time and the place.”
To do this, Sheehan says, “We partner with marketing, with PR, and all relevant teams to do a really deep dive into what are the elements of the story? What are the specifics of the story that we need to make sure that we are translating it the same way that things were translated, say, 30 years ago? So we compile all that into, essentially, a show bible, and we give that to all of our translators, all of our dub studios, so they can reference that. And we obviously get feedback. So we might have a dub studio that says, ‘For the dub of another title, a comparable title from the ’80s, we actually translated this phrase this way. And that had sort of a cultural moment around it.’ And so they give us feedback on the translation and then we work with them to do that, because the goal is really to have the highest-quality, culturally relevant translations, and that’s going to come from a lot of different ways.”
Another challenge for Sheehan is dubbing scenes that involve more than just an actor’s mouth moving. He points to the scene from episode three in the first season of Stranger Things where Winona Ryder strings up the lights against the painted letters on the wall and then has to call out the letters to spell a message from her son.
“This poses a real challenge when you’re translating for different audiences. So what we did with this was, we couldn’t repaint the wall, obviously, so as she’s spelling the words out, we’re making sure that we’re finding a translation as often as possible with the same number of letters. So the message that’s spelled out is ‘Right here,’ from her son. So for German it’s ‘Genau hier.’ For Spanish it’s ‘Aquí mismo.'”
The Art of Community Targeting
Netflix famously “tags” all of its content with thousands of genre terms, which factor into what gets promoted on a user’s home page and how a show is marketed to them. The exhaustive list of tags and the way they are associated with users means that Netflix can understand how a show like Stranger Things might be interesting to more than just the obvious horror or sci-fi fans.
“We have taggers around the world who are watching every piece of content and they go into a tool and they tag Stranger Things all kinds of things,” says Yellin. “If you look at all the tags that go underneath the hood, we have lots of ways to describe it. So how do we describe the tone of Stranger Things? Tense. Ominous. Scary. How do we describe the storyline? Supernatural. Psychic powers. Missing person. Family in crisis. Conspiracy. It’s also a buddy story.”
“So you can see that there are many doors into any story, and I could do this for Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, or Big Mouth–any Netflix Original title,” he continues. “There are many ways that different people might enjoy it. Does everyone love Stranger Things? No. Is it super popular? Yes. So we will promote it. We will show it to people who we think are really going to enjoy it. But their doorway in and how we feature it will be different for different members. And that includes not only how we describe it in the Netflix experience, but what image goes along with it.”
Surprisingly, one of the groups, or taste communities, that enjoyed Stranger Things was fans of teen shows like 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale, and Pretty Little Liars. As a result, Netflix is pushing the new season of Stranger Things to this group, especially to members who didn’t happen to watch the first season. “If you’ve never watched Stranger Things, that’s going to be one of the titles that’s going to bubble up to the top,” says Yellin. “We might even give it a big, hero image when we launch season two because, if you’ve never seen Stranger Things, my god! You need to watch it if you like these other titles.”
To 4K and Beyond
Most people who watched Stranger Things watched the show on a TV (that could be a smart TV, set-top box connected to a TV, game console, etc.) something that Yellin attributes to the show’s “cinematic” quality. “It harkens back to the combined influence of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King,” he says. “Combine the two Steven’s and a lot of that you can see in Stranger Things. It’s something people want to see on the bigger screen, is my guess.”
Yellin says Netflix wants all of its content to similarly be seen “in all of its glory,” explaining why the company is investing heavily in picture and sound quality. To this end, he reveals that Netflix is up to 1,200 hours of 4K content and 200 hours of HDR content. Those numbers are quickly escalating, and Yellin predicts that four times as many people will watch the second season of Stranger Things in 4K. “It’s exploding. It’s getting into the millions,” he says.
The numbers of downloads, a feature that Netflix introduced last year, are also growing. The top markets for downloads of Stranger Things are Morocco, Greece, the Philippines, and Croatia.
Antarctica may be next. Why? Yellin smiles. “Because I think penguins are gonna love Stranger Things.”