Björn Lifvergren, Executive Chairman of LinQ Media Group, joins SlatorPod to talk about dubbing, subtitling, and the media localization industry.
Björn starts with his route into the media & entertainment and language space; where, after two decades of leading (and eventually selling) BTI Studios, he founded LinQ Media. He gives his take on delivering localized content at scale and reacts to Netflix revealing its subtitling and dubbing stats for the first time.
Björn talks us through LinQ Media’s geographic market focus and experience in retaining dubbing and subtitling talent in the Nordics. He delves into dubbing services and the dynamics between owning a physical studio, using the cloud, and running a hybrid model.
Björn reflects on his experience working with private equity and gives insights on how language service providers can work with investors. He shares his outlook on the media localization market and how linear TV and cinema will evolve in the next decade.
Finally, he outlines how the strong demand for Nordic-language subtitling has allowed them to avoid post-editing machine-translation workflows for now and offer subtitlers a more traditional approach to their craft.
First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with an update on the lawsuit between Super Agencies Lionbridge and TransPerfect, with the former prevailing — for now.
Esther talks about Netflix’s surprising revelation from the COO, who disclosed that the streaming service subtitled seven million and dubbed five million run-time minutes in 2021. She also touches on the website OpenSubtitles.org, which announced that a hacker had gained access to nearly seven million users’ personal data in August 2021.
Florian shares Meta’s latest unveiling of an AI supercomputer, which will be fully built out by mid-2022 to develop advanced AI for computer vision, NLP, speech recognition, and power translation in the metaverse.
Florian: Tell us a bit more about your professional background in the media loc industry and where you are today.
Björn: I would say my work life is synonymous with the media localization industry. I started as a video editor adding subtitles to master tapes. That was my first job and I was 20, 21 years old. After a few years, my boss died and I started working on taking over parts of the company. Back then we were still adding the subtitles to master tapes. I remember we were doing the Bold and the Beautiful and we were doing two episodes per day. After a while, I took over the company and moved it to Stockholm. We were a one-client company and I started transforming the company. I was 24, 25 years old and I wanted to develop the company. I wanted to become an international company and to grow that. That has been my driving force ever since. After a few years, we were picked up by SBS Broadcasting, a large organization that had broadcasting units in seven or eight different countries. We were with them for seven or eight years until they were acquired by KKR and Permira. A lot of the larger subtitling and dubbing and localization companies started to zoom around us. I did not like that idea. I wanted to continue to grow. We have grown from 300,000 dollars in a basement to 125 million euros when I sold the company. It was an amazing journey, but it could have stopped already back in 2008 if we had not done an MBO together with Valedo and I am thankful for that.
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Florian: We just picked up on an amazing data point in a Netflix earnings call that I want to run by you. Their COO disclosed that they subtitled 7 million and dubbed 5 million run-time minutes in 2021. Sounds a lot to me. What does it sound to you?
Björn: It is enormous. I would say that has increased almost 25-50% since I left the business in 2019. In those two and a half years, they have increased the volumes enormously. Of course, with that comes a lot of problems. We see that they are dealing with things slightly differently at Netflix today and we liked that. If you look at all the non-English content that is coming onto the market, a lot of that is thanks to Netflix. People are starting to subtitle, not only from American shows into local languages but also all these vast volumes that are coming through. Now we are in a position where basically in 2020, 2021, there was a very limited production stall happening. People started dipping into the archives and a lot of the archives have not been translated into 28, 30 languages. It has never been dubbed in a lot of languages and I think that is what is happening now. In 2021, these volumes have been subtitled and dubbed. Another interesting data point I got during the year was that there has not been any time where there have been more productions going. I heard around 6,600 series episodicals are being recorded right now across the globe.
Esther: Let us come back to your part in that. What is it that you are doing at LinQ Media Group and your route to founding the company with your former colleagues from BTI?
Björn: After leaving BTI’s Board in 2019, I worked a lot for private equity. I worked on a few interesting deals in the localization sector. It is not the same thing being a consultant being inside on an M&A as doing your own company. I missed it a lot and I find that I can do a lot of the things I used to do remotely. I do not have to travel 150 days a year, so I got talking to two of my former colleagues. After I left BTI, within two years most of the senior management were gone and I had a possibility of picking them up. The other thing was the consolidation in the market. The larger companies consolidated first, BTI consolidated with Iyuno, then Iyuno consolidated with SDI. That was the starting point for me to start to think, maybe there is room for us, maybe there is room for a small, easier to maneuver company that will not be able to do everything, but we can do certain things. We can do high quality and we can do the upper end on the scope. That was the starting point and then I and two other guys from the BTI era set out and started our office. We moved into our building here in Stockholm in Kungsholmen and it has been an amazing year.
Florian: When you start from scratch with a new brand, a new team, a new everything, where do you focus? Especially in a space that is a little more asset-heavy with dubbing and subtitling. How do you decide what to do? Where do you put in your initial client wins and things like that?
Björn: We came from this industry. I had 25 years in this industry, our CEO here Lennart Löf has almost 30 years in the industry. We had a lot of clients coming to us and asking us because they miss what BTI stood for. They miss the personal relationships and a lot of this in this industry is still personal relationships, whether other companies have not realized that or not. We came into this with an opportunity to say, we will pick up resources in the Nordic countries first, which we managed to do now. We saw that there is a massive demand for Nordic subtitling today and we have been able to offer subtitlers decent prices. We also have not launched our MT services yet which means that we are one of the few people on this market that can offer subtitlers to work in a more old-fashioned way in one respect. Working with English master templates or working directly from scratch. A lot of the subtitlers liked that, so I think that can be a way for us to retain more assets.
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Florian: You are telling me that one of the differentiators is that you are not using MT and you are allowing the subtitlers to be a bit more crafty or original?
Björn: Yes. They enjoy that. We understand that we cannot go on like that forever, but we need to take in another angle. That is something that has been very successful early on in our life.
Esther: Apart from missing the game, why is it you wanted to start all over again from scratch in this industry?
Björn: I have asked myself that a few times. I want to see what is around the next corner. For me, money has never been the driving point. I could have stopped working a long time ago if it was just for the money, but I want to see what is around the next bend. I love media localization. There is nothing like it.
Esther: What is your current geographic market focus now and where do you plan to go beyond the Nordics?
Björn: We have now full-time employees hired by LinQ Media in the entire Nordics, so we have two people in Oslo. We have people in Norway. We have people in Helsinki. Our first employee started in January, the second is starting in March, so all in all, we have about 14 employees right now in the group. Out of those, seven or eight are located here at the Stockholm office. We have a Nordic approach, but we have also hired two people in the UK, one that started January 1st. A lot of our clients are based in the UK, a lot of the international broadcasters, and there is not one broadcaster that I worked with during the BTI that has not been in contact with us. I am surprised to see how many they are and I think what is happening is that a lot of established companies have seen this surge in volume too and they are taking the opportunity to go out and see that we have to pay our resources more, hence we need to increase the pricing. Now there is a big development in pricing driven and sadly so by the subtitlers.
Florian: If you expanded into another region out of the Nordics, which one would it be? Which one is the lowest hanging fruit?
Björn: So far, we are doing subtitling only. We are going to launch our first dubbing studio in 2022. We are definitely going to go for English language dubbing. We subtitled more than 28 different languages last year. We are working a lot with digital fulfillment companies that need subtitling for Netflix assets and Disney assets. Only a third of the revenues we had last year came from the Nordic languages, so I would say definitely setting up a dubbing studio somewhere in the US or in the UK would probably be a natural step, but we are also aiming to expand into dubbing in the FIGS languages. English language dubbing studio in 2022 plus one of the other regions. When I was at BTI after I left the CEO role, I was head of M&A for a few months and I managed to close four deals across different areas. During that time I saw and investigated the markets across the FIGS, so I have a very good position on how the market looks. It might be that we do an acquisition or we might also do a startup from scratch because if you do an acquisition today, you are probably going to buy something that is already jam-packed that does not have more capacity. You are not adding new capacity to the market. I am playing with the idea of setting something up in Italy or Germany or Spain.
Esther: How are things on the talent side at the moment, especially, into English dubbing? How do you go about sourcing these people? Both on the subtitling and dubbing side, what are you seeing there?
Björn: We have started something we call LinQ Academy now in January of 2022. Basically what we want to do is that we want to add new capacity to the market, so we are going to train new subtitlers from scratch. We are going to add five to 10 new resources per Nordic language per quarter, so we hope that in the freelance capacity, we will add between 20 and 40 resources to the market this year.
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Florian: If you are setting up a dubbing studio, what is your approach there? Do you need the physical studio and the whole setup, or are you open to a cloud approach, or a mix of both?
Björn: I do not think you can start with a cloud approach, to be honest with you. I know that companies that are doing a cloud approach today have large cooperation with studios in different countries. I would definitely go for a hybrid model where some of the talent will be recording from home, but you will have somebody overseeing that from a central point. It is an investment, but you can easily build a dubbing studio today for 3/400k. That is not a big thing anymore. It used to be millions, but setting up a couple of recording rooms today is much cheaper than it used to be.
Florian: Why is that though?
Björn: Technology has advanced a lot throughout the years, to be honest with you. I know in some of the other larger territories, it still needs to look good. We probably spent a million and a half when BTI built their dubbing facility in Paris a few years back. Today, a lot of that can be remodeled a lot cheaper.
Florian: Do you think COVID has an impact because all these materials are in much more demand and there is a lot more production?
Björn: I think that when it comes to recording things, I think the pandemic opened the eyes to some of the larger companies to do remote recording. One of the bigger ones on the market. The big giant 500-pound Gorilla is doing this at scale for a lot of their clients today, so I think that has opened the market to definitely do this and it is cheaper. You can still do recordings and such things remotely.
Florian: I feel there is a bit of a convergence going on between certain parts of the game localization, media localization space. What are your thoughts on that? Do you see that? Or do you feel they are going to remain separate?
Björn: I think it is quite easy. We see a lot of the larger dominant players on the game localization side have moved towards the media localization side. It is the same kind of technology that is being used. Actually, there is one company that has hired a couple of good employees from the former BTI. They do a lot of game localization usually, but now they are into more media localization. I think they are tapping into this market more than the other way around. There is one big dominant player, Keywords, and they are a fantastic company. One thing I like about them is that they let the local companies that they acquire keep their own brands and keep their own identity.
Esther: Given your extensive experience of working with private equity and investors, how do you think language service providers or media localization providers should work with investors?
Björn: I have experience in private equity. I had some positive experiences and I had some more negative ones. The more positive approach I had was with Carlisle. They were interesting to work with. I was only reporting to a couple of guys. I had a couple of meetings with them every month. We were growing nicely. They had other investments in the market. If I were approached today by somebody that had other investments in the same segment, in the same industry, I know that they would understand better what we are faced with. When I was working with some of the others, it was more, this is the way we do business, this is the three-month plan you should adopt, and they want to turn every stone every time they do something. One of them was sending me 2000 emails in about six months and you will not have any opportunity to breathe or sell. I think that is the main problem. They will ask you to take your resources off the market if something goes pear-shaped so I would rather see more companies like Carlisle out there, where you have a close relationship with just a few people than having a full support team.
Florian: Very interesting, so you are saying that having a PE firm that has other investments helps because you do not need to do all the education yourself?
Björn: No, you do not have to. What they often do is go out and substantiate your data points. You say, Hey, this is due to a massive surge in demand and then they have got to substantiate that with somebody else, or there is nothing new happening on the market, the number of new series being produced right now has gone down dramatically, so they can see that.
Florian: What is your approach now? Tell us a bit more about how you are funding the company for now and if there are any plans to do any M&A or just invest in those 400k studios.
Björn: I think we are going to do both. I think there will be an investment done in 2022. We are bootstrapped. We are the main owners of the company and I think we will probably keep it that way for some time. If the right silent partner comes along, who knows?
Esther: Thinking about the evolution of the market, will we all be streaming everything? What are your thoughts on how linear TV and cinema are going to evolve in the next 5, 10 years?
Björn: I think that there is going to be a need for linear channels if they are streamed linear channels or not because I have seven or eight streaming services at home, but I still find myself turning to the streamed channels. The streamed linear channels are attractive because they do a little bit of everything. I cannot even remember which platform I watched this on. Which platform did I watch that on? It is hard to keep track of these days, so I think there is a need to have linear channels. Then if they are going to be streamed or not, that is another thing. There is another company I still work for now that is called Nenda that is basically a business-to-business streaming app and I am the Chairman of that company. We are launching that in the business-to-business sector, like hotels, care homes for the elderly, et cetera. That is a very interesting market.
Florian: We are probably going to have some form of linear TV also in 10 years from now. What about cinemas? Is this having any impact on localization or not at all?
Björn: To be honest, they have converged so much. If it is a cinematic translation or for a streaming party, it is basically just the final things that we do with the files. It does not have any big impact on how we will deliver that work really.
Esther: On the consumer side in 2020, we saw a lot of releases that were due to come out in the cinema just going straight to the TV, so maybe there is that added blurring.
Björn: Of course, they need to add new revenue streams as well. I have Disney and I always end up paying extra to see something two weeks ahead. I think that is a model that is here to stay. That will be more transactional VOD for some of these services.
Florian: One of the major pain points for buyers is getting great access to English dubbing because of all of this content, like Squid Game. Are you sourcing these actors from scratch? Walk us through the workflow there, who does the translation? Who does the dubbing?
Björn: We are not doing this today, but we will. England is a very interesting country when it comes to this because of voice acting. We need to find actors who can do this in a good way and England has a lot of small theaters everywhere, so there will not be any room. What we would do is find really good translators. Some of the translations we do today when it comes to dubbing are really good. We will work together with some of the universities. That is one of the pain points today, that this needs to be accurate translations. Another problem with Squid Game and the controversy around that is you do not understand Korean by just watching this movie, you do not understand the whole Korean culture. If this would have been a book instead, there would have been a reference and then you need to study what is actually being said in there, so you need to get your reference points. The same thing if you want to understand everything of Korean culture, you cannot deduct just by looking at this movie, so I think some of this criticism against the subtitles and the dubs are unfair.
Florian: What is your outlook for the media loc industry in the next two to three years?
Björn: I think we are going to see this strong demand stay. Everybody is launching their own brands now, so I think we have 2, 3 larger launches per year in front of us. That is the size of what we are now seeing from Disney and Netflix, so definitely that will be here to stay. On top of that, I still think that linear channels are also here to stay. They have launched their own services. In France, there has been a consolidation of a few channels. In Germany, there are channels that are coming together to be able to survive, so they will be the counterparty to Netflix and the other streaming giants.