SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
So I discovered this amazing three-part film series on Netflix recently. It has everything for a rom-com. There is forbidden love.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEEPING UP WITH THE KANDASAMYS")
MAESHNI NAICKER: (As Shanti Naidoo) Maybe we should just tell them before they all find out.
JAILOSHINI NAIDOO: (As Jennifer Kandasamy) No one can know about this.
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
HERSHIPS: It is amazing. It is called "Keeping Up With The Kandasamys." And the series is the story of these two Indian families who live next door to each other in South Africa. And it's one of all these new foreign series that Netflix and Amazon and other streaming platforms have been posting lately, like "Lupin," a French-language thriller set in Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUPIN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking French).
HERSHIPS: Seventy-six million viewers around the world watched it in the first month. And for a foreign film, that feels kind of like scoring an almost Super Bowl-sized audience.
WOODS: Take Netflix. Only a third of its audience is in the U.S.; the rest is international. So in order to keep growing, Netflix needs to expand its international audience even more. One of the ways that the company is looking to do that is by making movies and TV shows with a really particular country in mind or for these really specific cultural groups. Like, the "Kandasamys," it's made for the Indian diaspora.
HERSHIPS: Netflix is set to spend $17 billion this year on content. And there's an economic principle here which is allowing companies like Netflix to increase profits. And it's the reason that I here in the United States ended up seeing "Keeping Up With the Kandasamys." I'm Sally Herships, and I am a "Keeping Up With The Kandasamys" fan.
WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods, a soon-to-be "Kandasamys" fan. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. On today's show, we're going to take a look at how streaming services are changing and how economic forces are pushing foreign TV shows and films all over the globe.
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HERSHIPS: Ashanti Omkar is a film critic based in London, and when I told her about my obsession with the "Kandasamy" series, she had some kind of harsh news for me.
ASHANTI OMKAR: I don't think that this film was ever made for you, Sally.
WOODS: Ashanti says the series was made for the 18 million Indians who live around the world, which is a great customer base.
HERSHIPS: OK. Here are some critical details about the plot of the series, which is three films. There are these two families. They're next-door neighbors. The two moms hate each other, so, of course, their kids, who are college age, fall in love. And the moms do everything they can to sabotage this budding relationship. But spoiler alert, plug your ears - I will just say that by the second film, there is a wedding.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KANDASAMYS: THE WEDDING")
NAIDOO: (As Jennifer Kandasamy) Oh, Shanti, this is going to be the wedding of the year.
NAICKER: (As Shanti Naidoo) I'm so excited. I've got some top ideas.
NAIDOO: (As Jennifer Kandasamy) I'm sure you do.
NAICKER: (As Shanti Naidoo) So I was thinking we must have that big gold Ganesha on the main stage.
NAIDOO: (As Jennifer Kandasamy) No.
WOODS: It's not looking promising.
WOODS: But Ashanti says the "Kandasamys" films have been a hit, and she's not surprised. Members of the Indian diaspora will see themselves in the series.
OMKAR: When you saw "Kandasamys: The Wedding," you might have noticed a lot of that one-upmanship. And this really happens, and I could just resonate with it. And when you're looking at the Kandasamy family, they're South African Indians. And if you see Malaysian Indians or if you see Indians of the diaspora, we all have very similar things going on in our lives in terms of what we're dressing as going to the temple, the rituals. All these things kind of come together for us, and it's very much part of our lives.
HERSHIPS: Before streaming, at least here in the U.S., it could be really hard to see international films. Like, take "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which is the highest grossing foreign film of all time in the U.S. If you wanted to see it in the states when it first came out, you would have had to book a plane ticket to New York or Hawaii to go to a film festival, which in theory sounds great but is maybe a lot of money to spend on a movie ticket.
WOODS: And this is where our special economic principle comes in. It's called marginal cost. That's the cost it takes to produce one more unit of a thing - so for a film, not the production of the film itself, but to show it to one more person. And back in the 20th century, that meant shipping physical containers of the film, popping popcorn, turning on the lights. But when you have digital streaming, aside from licensing and marketing, the marginal cost of Netflix or Amazon or Disney Plus, showing that to one more person, it's effectively zero or pretty close to it. So these streaming companies stand to increase their profits pretty well if they can recycle these movies and TV series overseas.
HERSHIPS: Also, for viewers, if you're going to watch a movie compared to actually getting off the couch, going to the theater, buying a ticket, streaming is low stakes. You can just try something out. That's the beauty of streaming. You don't have to worry about committing, which means if you're an Amazon subscriber in Japan who doesn't normally watch French films or Nigerien or something in Finnish, it just feels a lot less risky to take a chance and watch something new.
WOODS: And for filmmakers, especially in markets that are smaller than Hollywood, like South Africa, getting on Netflix can be a big deal.
OMKAR: And of course, getting that distribution on Netflix, part of it is prestige. Part of it is the fact that you can say - I don't know - like, 10 million households around the world in every single region has watched it. And that feels like a great number for somebody to reinvest.
HERSHIPS: Which is exactly what happened with the "Kandasamy" films. Rea Rangaka is a director and an actor in South Africa.
What are you working on today?
REA RANGAKA: (Laughter) I actually can't say much about it, only that it has to do with fashion and, you know, beauty products.
WOODS: Rea's secret project is for a streaming network. And he says streaming has been great for his career. So he's had a couple of projects picked up that way. But Rea says for filmmakers, there can be real downsides to doing business with large corporations.
RANGAKA: We do know that this is a business at the end of the day, and we have to be careful of selling a version of ourselves that is, yes, it would be successful but, at the same time, at the cost of our own authenticity.
HERSHIPS: Rea says, for example, for years, whenever there was a casting call in South Africa for an international film, leads were pretty much off limits, especially if you were Black or African.
RANGAKA: You're either playing a villain, you're playing some victim of some kind of racial injustice, you're playing some kind of kid from the township who surmounts, you know. And I'm not saying that these stories are bad because they exist and they are around here, but I almost feel like at times we were getting to a point where we were guilty of selling Afro fetishism in terms of the total sum of who we are as South Africans is only measurable by the amount of trauma that you've seen us go through. And, you know, when the Amazons or the Netflix come through and they're like, we want to hear your voice, it's important to say, do you really want to hear my voice or do you want something to sell?
WOODS: But international streaming does have its upsides. Our film critic Ashanti, she says in the past, yes, the entertainment industry has repeatedly played on stereotypes of Asian people and African people. But today, we're seeing the industry increasingly breaking down distance between viewers and cultures all around the world.
OMKAR: Thirty years ago, people might have seen Apu in "Simpsons" and laughed about him. But now it's like these people are entrepreneurs. They have got the money.
WOODS: Gone are the days when those entrepreneurs were mostly British companies selling us period dramas set in musty old houses where everyone in England was a lord or a lady.
HERSHIPS: And here is a thought to end on - streaming lets us transport ourselves into these different worlds, which is a good thing, especially in America where only about 40% of us have active passports. But when it comes to streaming - get ready for it - around 80% of American households subscribe to a streaming service. And of course, during the pandemic, travel has become even more difficult to do. So, Darian, where are you going to transport yourself to next?
WOODS: Well, after your recommendations, I am definitely going to watch the "Kandasamys" and head to South Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Emma Peaslee and fact-checked by Michael He. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEEPING UP WITH THE KANDASAMYS")
MADHUSHAN SINGH: (As Prishen Naidoo) Make me the luckiest man in the world. Jodi Kandasamy, will you marry me?
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