In a session this morning at NATPE Budapest International, Eccho Rights’ Fredrik af Malmborg, Bavaria Fiction’s Moritz Polter, all3media international’s Stephen Driscoll and Keshet International’s Paula McHarg discussed working with international partners on successful scripted shows, including local remakes and co-productions.
The session, titled “International Drama Production: Maximizing Cross-Regional Partnerships,” kicked off with each of the panelists highlighting the importance of CEE to their respective companies. Driscoll, the executive VP for EMEA and head of European co-productions at all3media international, said that Central and Eastern Europe is a “broad-spectrum market,” noting that the company has found success with both finished programming and formats in the region. “We haven’t yet represented a finished program from CEE, but we are actively looking.”
Keshet International has also done business in the region with both finished shows and formats, explained McHarg, the company’s senior sales manager. Keshet International has in its catalog a series from Croatia that recently sold to Netflix. McHarg pointed to the potential for scripted-format adaptations in CEE as a particularly bright spot at present.
Af Malmborg, Eccho Rights’ managing director, highlighted the company’s ten-year tradition of selling an “enormous amount of Turkish drama series” in the region. He added that Eccho Rights is looking very actively in CEE to find new series to represent. “So far, the appetite to buy something from a neighboring country has been poor or non-existent,” he said. “I’m still a little bit puzzled [about] why a Czech production isn’t broadcast in Hungary, or vice versa. That’s hopefully changing.”
Polter, executive producer for international TV series at the production outfit Bavaria Fiction, added that German programming “does work quite well in Europe…. We are looking at co-producing [in CEE] because we feel that to find good stories, you have to open up your mind and go broader than you did before. With the conventional routes of France, the U.K., Italy or co-productions with the U.S., a lot of people have tread those routes and you want to get ahead and look for interesting stories. It’s not about where your stories are set; it’s about the stories themselves and the characters. So why not look to your neighbors to see what more you can do?”
Polter then presented a case study of the partnership that came together on the event series Das Boot, which is set to launch before the end of 2018 and is based on the novel and movie of the same name. “Sky had been very vocal that they wanted to do their first German original,” and they were a good fit as a partner, he said. “We already knew we had European partners, but only one voice, which we all know in a co-production is very important. We were looking at the rest of the financing, and I spoke with Sonar and they were immediately enthusiastic about it…. So it was Sky, Sonar and Bavaria Fiction producing one of the biggest—or the biggest—German-language shows of the past decade.”
There are three languages featured in the production: German mostly, but also French and English, as well as a bit of Russian. “It was very important to stay authentic,” Polter said of the decision regarding the use of foreign languages. “It wasn’t determined [from a sales perspective] that we had to have this much German or this much French. We just tried to tell a story. We wanted to be in the same area as the book and the film, and that world is in La Rochelle, [France]. If you’re in La Rochelle, most people will speak French, so French was clear from the start. Our main female protagonist plays someone from Alsace, so she is intrinsically bilingual,” as the region is located on the French-German border.
This sparked a conversation among the panelists about the different approaches to tackling the use of multiple languages.
Driscoll gave as an example Hinterland, which is in Welsh and English. “It was commissioned by S4C in Wales, and at the time, five or six years ago, the feeling was that in order to reach a wider audience and be paid attention to by more international buyers, they needed to have an English-language version. So they took the approach to double-shoot every scene in English and in Welsh. That worked extremely well.”
He noted that the market has changed, though. “If that discussion were to happen again, we’d probably feel comfortable just going with whatever language worked for the story and the characters. The market is becoming more accepting about language, particularly in the case where you’ve got VOD platforms that allow you to watch in your local language or with subtitles.”
Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg added, “The overall trend is a higher acceptance of the original language. Netflix has done great work of opening that up.” He pointed to the success of Narcos on the streaming platform, as the show is predominantly in Spanish. “Americans watch it with subtitles. That is the ultimate proof that the market is changing.”
Polter noted how Netflix is also dubbing into English on certain programs, such as the German-language original Dark. “That’s very interesting to [observe] whether in the U.S. more people will choose to watch it in English [dubbed or] choose to watch it in German with subtitles. I think the verdict is out as to which one is going to prevail…. If [Netflix] can get Americans to feel comfortable watching dubbed programming, all the better for us! I’ll be thanking Netflix for a very long time.”
McHarg mentioned that the Israeli drama Fauda, which deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, is dubbed in English. “Their use of language is such a vital point of the story that to watch it dubbed is very strange. I turned it on [with the dubbing] briefly to see what it was like and I couldn’t watch it; it felt inauthentic and it lost the strength of the original.”
She noted that in some cases, to make it feel more authentic, productions have the actors from the original dub their own voices. “Prisoners of War was dubbed in French by one of the original actors,” McHarg said.
The next case study examined all3media international’s dramedy Step Dave, produced by South Pacific Pictures out of New Zealand. “The original show was very successful in its own right.,” said Driscoll. “We found that it has worked well as a scripted format for us. Perhaps because it wasn’t a big international success—it didn’t go on an SVOD platform or get a big audience in the U.S.—and was relatively quiet; broadcasters in Hungary and Ukraine felt they could adapt it to the local market without feeling that their audience was going to have the conflict of whether to watch the original or the local version. The Hungarian version for TV2 and the Ukrainian version for STB were both very successful in their local markets.”
As to why the scripted format was able to sell into CEE in particular, Driscoll said: “It had a nice, clear format structure that buyers could get into. It wasn’t a very big, expensive, high-concept show, so the price point of doing it in your local market was very affordable. That helps, frankly, with scripted formats. Once a show has gotten to the point where it’s been done in lots of local markets and then gets a U.S. version and the budget is up [quite high], it’s very hard for broadcasters in smaller countries to see how they can make it at their price point.”
Keshet International’s case study focused on Traffic Light, an Israeli sitcom that ran for four seasons very successfully, “which is actually quite a lot for Israel,” McHarg said. “We don’t have many long-running series.”
The U.S. version was the first adaptation, “and it was not very successful actually. It was a very loose interpretation of the original. Shortly after that, there was a Russian version that was almost a one-to-one adaptation; they translated the scripts and changed a few local elements. That went on to surpass our original version and has had ten seasons. This past year we had local adaptations in Lithuania, Slovakia and one is in production in Greece right now that will be on air this fall.”
As to why the U.S. treatment wasn’t so successful, she said one reason perhaps is that it strayed too far from the original version.
Af Malmborg chimed in that “there is a tendency in America to change them too much and not listen. The biggest battle when you adapt a format in America is always to get the consultancy in; they pay for it, but they don’t want it. They’ve destroyed so many IPs in America by not listening.”
Keshet International has seen success with scripted adaptations in the U.S. though, McHarg noted, pointing to Prisoners of War, which was remade as Homeland. “It was completely different [from the original]. Prisoners of War was much slower, more of a psychological thriller. And Homeland is like a big American action thriller. It’s very, very different. In that case, the changes did work.”
Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg presented a case study of Nurses, a medical drama from Finland that has been adapted in around six markets. It is currently in production with different versions for Slovakia and Slovenia. “That has worked because we don’t really adapt the script. The Swedish version was done with a Finnish script without even involving a scriptwriter…. There were some adaptations but not many, just to make it cost-efficient. It’s now ordered for seasons three and four in Sweden.”
He also spoke to the strength of the Turkish dramas in the company’s catalog and their ability to sell globally. “I think the creativity in Turkey is amazing. We [have a lot of series from] Scandinavia, Spain and Korea as well. We are focusing on non-English-language dramas so far—there is a lot of potential.”