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IndieWire: Subtitles Vs. Dubbing: The Big Business of Translating Foreign Films in a Post-‘Parasite’ World

by Chris O'Falt | Feb 25, 2020

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Each country’s movie-going culture is different, but as the localization market expands with streaming, so does dubbing.

Even before “Parasite” won Best Picture, this was a very good time to be in the business of dubbing and subtitles

Hollywood is no longer a dominant international force, and as global markets grow, streaming is expanding the reach of foreign language films and TV series. In America, localization is no longer the sole domain of arthouse theaters; it belongs to streaming platforms that translate shows like “Money Heist,” with platforms like Netflix offering an English language dub for those who don’t want to read subtitles.

Chris Carey, chief revenue officer and managing director of Iyuno Media Group, sits at the center of the rapidly evolving localization business. Iyuno (formerly BTI Studios) is one of the biggest subtitling and dubbing companies, generating 44,000 hours of dubbing and 300,000 hours of subtitling in 2019 alone.

“Generally, our market is on the upswing, in terms of attention, dialogue, business potential, and growth,” said Carey. “Just the fact ‘Parasite’ was nominated and had gotten so much buzz increased the level of dialogue and discussion. There’s been momentum throughout the winter, we’ve seen it, and ‘Parasite’ was just one of a thousand data points of why.”

Carey was part of the team that helped Disney digitize in the ’90s and ride the DVD wave that followed. As CTO of Technicolor, he led the company to become a major player in the post world when its film business was disappearing, before taking over technical operations at Paramount. He also led revenue and business development at Verizon as it built the video streaming networks still used today.

Here are seven important take aways to understand the world of localization, and why dubbing could become a growing part of our diet, as Carey sees it.

1. A Different Script for Dubbing

A script from the film or TV series is used as the same starting point for both subtitling and dubbing, but the work flow quickly diverges as the art of each process is quite a bit different.

“The linguistic adaptation is different, because when I’m doing a dub, I need the script adaptation to take into account lip flap and visible sync,” said Carey. “We may adapt a script less literally for the dub so that the words in [the other language] tend to sync more closely with the amount of syllables and lip movement that the actor has.”

In other words, having some level of lip sync is important. Even the best possible dub with live action actors is going to be noticeable, but the closer the words and mouths match up over a consistent stretch of time, the better chance the viewer will move past the dubbing and become involved in the story.

“When we create the subtitle, we don’t have to worry about lip flap sync, so we’ll do, in many cases, a more literal translation,” said Carey. “Then we’re only worried about how many words can fit on a screen, how long do the words need to stay on the screen so an average person can read it before the next one comes up. So there is some timing for subtitling, but it’s a very different art and criteria for how you do that adaptation.”

2. A Good Dub Costs (at Least) 10x a Subtitle

The industry standard is that dubbing will cost 10 times as much a subtitling, and often more. What makes a good dub is both a creative and technical process requiring talent and time – the usual turn around is six to 12 weeks for a dub of a feature-length movie.

“I need one linguist to sit in a room and do the translation. That’s going to have a cost,” said Carey. “I then need to bring in 12 actors into a studio, record them, direct them, edit it, mix it.”

Getting a good performance that syncs up to the film requires experienced performers and directors. Carey said it is a steep learning curve for actors and directors without dubbing experience and often takes significantly longer (and more money) to get a good dub. The sound engineering and mixing are also key components — the more the dubbed voices sound like they were naturally recorded on location, and blend into the soundtrack, the less noticeable the dub voices will be.

3. The Decision to Dub Depends on Individual Country’s Film Culture

Each country and culture is different. In Europe, where Hollywood has been distributing films for decades, the decision to dub is in many cases well established. France, Spain, Germany and Italy are the four markets where the consumer demands and expects dubbing. In Northern Europe, specifically Scandinavian countries, the decision to not dub is equally practical.

“For example, the Danish learn English in Elementary school, English is a second language in those markets,” said Carey. “If it’s an English content coming over, that programmer will say, ‘I don’t need to spend the money on dubbing.'”

Outside of the more well-established market of Europe, the decision to dub is also, in part, dependent on the movie-going culture of the individual country, but it also a financial decision as the Global market changes and expands.

4. Dubbing Grows with a Changing Global Market

“Increasingly, we are seeing a global marketplace,” said Carey, who added that the sub-and-dub market was previously a one-way pipeline: “It used to be Hollywood [movies translated for other markets]. Now, every market is serving every market.”

Carey estimates that one-third of his business now is localizing non-English language content for non-English speaking countries, and that is the fastest-growing, most in-demand part of his business. Not only are English language movies no longer dominating the international box office top 20, but the aggressive international growth of streaming services is increasing the foreign language offering to all countries. In a subscription model, viewers are also trying different shows and movies.

Carey said that there are parts of the Asian market that — not unlike the U.S. arthouse and film festival market — are anti-dubbing, with the emphasis placed on hearing the original screen actor’s emotion and intonation. Generally speaking, the mass Asian market is moving toward dubbing.

“The general attitude is that a dub is good, they want the dub. So it’s never really a question of, ‘Will I never dub in the Asian market, but of cost,” said Carey. “For the mass market – and this is increasingly true around the globe – people want to multitask, they want to watch it on their phone, they want to cook in their kitchen, they want to glance away and not miss a line of dialogue.”

Carey said the decision for a programmer to offer a dub in a specific language will be dependent on the distributor or platform’s reach and the size of their customer base in that language. The issue isn’t if the buyer wants a dub, but, “Can you get us a dub at a price that makes economic sense based on the number of subscribers, or ad revenue?”

To that end, Carey said that he and his competitors are increasingly investing time and resources in new global markets. That means building up a roster of local talent, locating studios with better acoustics, and investing in better technology in these regions.

“Increasingly, a global company like ours, we’re building scale, we’re building capacity, we’re building a network of actors, we’re creating more efficiency,” said Carey. “So we’re trying to drive the quality up and prices down, a very natural law of any service business.”

Carey believes that as the cost comes done in these markets, the demand is such that dubbing will take off. In September 2019, Carey’s subtitling and dubbing company BTI Studios merged with Iyuno Media Group under the belief that the future of localization was to bring some level of automation and lowering costs through artificial intelligence (AI).

5. Does Dubbing Increase Engagement?

For obvious reasons, a bad dub will lower audience engagement. The more conscience the viewer is that voice they are hearing – whether it’s from a bad performance, a lack of sync, or poor mix – the harder it is for viewers to suspend disbelief and give themselves over to the story. Conversely, can a quality dub increase audience engagement?

“We have seen data – and this is all very new and current, and a relevant trend – actually a good dub has a higher consumer retention, so high engagement,” said Carey.

The data Carey is referencing is from proprietary reports from more than one of his studio and streaming platform customers, which he declined to name. He did say that his clients have seen evidence that customers streaming a foreign language episodic series were more likely to finish the series if they chose dubbing over subtitling. While there is no conclusive, publicly available data that dubbing increases engagement, that most major streaming platforms are now treating a dub version as standard deliverable in many markets, including English speaking ones, speaks for itself.

6. Is the U.S. Market Anti-Dubbing?

Following “Parasite” winning four Academy Awards last week, including Best Picture, political blogger Kevin Drum wrote a story for Mother Jones that set Film Twitter aflame, starting with its provocative headline: “It Should Come As No Surprise That Most Film Audiences Prefer Dubbing to Subtitles.” The backlash epitomized American arthouse audiences’ aversion to dubbed movies.

Carey, who spent decades of his life working for American studios and closely with Hollywood directors and post-production artisans, said that he personally prefers subtitles, but he also believes cinephiles like himself represent a vocal minority.

“I think the opinion about anti-dub is very much the IndieWire audience, the film buff, the enthusiasts,” said Carey. “The community we live in a lot of our time is not actually the consumer reaction at the broad America level.”

Carey believes the general American moviegoing and streaming audience is opposed to dubbing for two key, far less philosophical and artistic, reasons. He argues that older audiences, experienced bad, out of sync, dubbing of Asian and European films in the 70s and 80s, and haven’t been exposed to a good dub. But more importantly, until recently, the mass American audience hasn’t been exposed to foreign language content like most of the rest of the world.

“I think we were close off to dubbing because we just have so much English entertainment to choose from, that we haven’t really cared to,” said Carey. “Foreign language content hasn’t had much exposure because the commercial gatekeepers, the people who run the platforms and the pay TV service, have had enough U.S. entertainment, that haven’t needed to.”

7. Streaming Is Changing the U.S. Foreign Language and Dubbing Market

The success of “Parasite,” according to Carey, is just one of many data points of the U.S. market’s changing attitude about foreign language films and series in general. It was only a few years ago, when Carey ran video streaming for Verizon’s fios cable service, that the onDemand offerings to cable subscribers were a limited number of newly released English language hits.

“We would mostly just want to buy the top hits because 80 percent of what was being bought and rented from the Pay TV services was the top Hollywood blockbuster movies for the first six months they are available,” said Carey.

The world of on-demand streaming has changed with the continued rise of stream platforms, and so has the offerings.

“Now with streaming there are so many more choices,” said Carey. “The big platforms, like Netflix, all of them now, they have a much deeper library to offer that let’s consumers search, ‘I’m looking for a drama,’ ‘I’m looking for crime,’ and they will find foreign products.”

Carey is also noticing a change in the way that the big streaming platforms are treating localization, where the calculation of what to spend on original series is tied to the global reach of the series or movie.

The big streaming players always have the same questions, Carey said: “What’s it going to cost to produce that show? It’s going to cost us this much to make? It’s going to cost us this much to localize. And we’re going to be able to get this much subscription value out of it.” He added: “The cost of localization is very much part of the greenlighting process for original content, and it’s very much a part of the cost of acquisitions.”

While the choice to create a dub for all markets is still an economic one, Carey said the choice to do both a sub and dub is increasing, and will continue on that route as automation and demand for dubs drives the cost of a dub down.

In the U.S., the aversion to dubbing may change with exposure. As an experiment, one might try finding a foreign language series on Netflix, or another major streaming platform, and turning on English dub. Are you able to get past the dubbing and engage in the series? That question won’t go away anytime soon.