It Takes Two

European-DramaThe European drama business is booming, creating a host of new opportunities for companies from within the region and around the world.

Europudding: A television program or a film produced by and starring people from several different European nations, and hence often considered to be lacking in coherence, individuality, or authenticity. So defines Oxford about those infamous productions that came of age in the ’80s and have haunted the European co-pro landscape ever since. The good news for those in the business of scripted today is that Europuddings have been supplanted by high-end, fresh, creative stories involving multiple partners from the region that not only rate well in their home markets but sell broadly too.

Take, for example, the high-concept thriller Midnight Sun, from Scandi hitmakers Mårlind & Stein, which was produced by Nice Drama and Atlantique Productions for Canal+ in France and SVT in Sweden and landed slots, courtesy of STUDIOCANAL, on ZDF in Germany, DR in Denmark, SBS in Australia and M-Net in Africa, among others. The dialog is in English, French, Swedish and Sami.

“Audiences are becoming much more comfortable with multiple languages, especially if it makes the narrative more authentic,” reports Rola Bauer, the managing director of STUDIOCANAL TV. “Midnight Sun has transcended boundaries and been sold to more than 90 territories.”

While there have been several shows over the last few years that have employed multiple languages, many in the industry see Narcos, the Netflix drama about Pablo Escobar and the DEA agents tasked with bringing him down, as a significant turning point in the international drama business. A good portion of the show is in Spanish.

“Before Narcos, people thought that international audiences would not tune into something that is not relevant to their country or their language,” observes Atar Dekel, the head of global co-productions at Keshet International (KI), which has been ramping up its scripted activities in Europe. “Language is less of a challenge now.”

Dekel’s colleague Anke Stoll, the company’s London-based director of co-productions and acquisitions, cites as an example a show KI has in development in Belgium about a Jewish family involved in the diamond trade in Antwerp. “We are thinking it will be made mainly in Flemish, but maybe the Orthodox Jewish family speaks Yiddish from time to time. We don’t want to force languages on an idea. The most important thing is the idea.”

For Vanessa Shapiro, the president of worldwide distribution, acquisitions and co-productions at Gaumont, producer of the aforementioned Narcos, “organic” is the key word when determining what language an international co-pro should be made in. “The projects we have are mostly in English. It’s a little bit like the Narcos model, where organically people speak in their own language. But we’ll have series, like Spy City, which can be in multiple languages.”

Spy City is Gaumont’s new period piece, penned by William Boyd and set in 1960s Berlin, focusing on British, German and French spies. “The series is still 80 percent in English, but if a German spy speaks to the German government, they’ll do it in German,” Shapiro notes. “The common language among themselves is going to be English.”

Banijay Rights also has in its portfolio a drama made in multiple languages: Occupied. The first season of the suspense thriller had the backing of TV2 Norway and ARTE, both have committed to a second season alongside a new partner, Viaplay. “Some of it is in English, some in Norwegian, some in Russian,” notes Caroline Torrance, the company’s head of scripted. “Occupied lent itself well to a co-production. It’s one of those stories that, by being set in the very near future, you can see how it has so much relevance for different countries. Different places can all look at it and say, I can see that happening here.”

Finding a storyline that is going to resonate with viewers in multiple markets is no easy feat, and there’s no simple formula to follow. “The most important elements for a successful drama to have are an emotional storyline and compelling characters that viewers will want to spend time with and engage with,” observes STUDIOCANAL’s Bauer on the qualities she looks for. “A narrative that is enlightening, entertaining and hopefully educational will always captivate global audiences. Of course, certain themes and books will transcend better, but ultimately it is the emotional heart that is key—whether it is within a local story setting or a more international one.”

KI’s Dekel, on hunting for concepts that can be co-produced between Israel and other markets and then distributed across the globe, says that shows “need to be loud” to cut through in a competitive landscape. The team at KI believe they have found that kind of compelling concept in The Steins, the finalist of a joint call for projects the company initiated with France’s Newen. “It revisits the myth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by the Jewish mythology of the Golem,” Dekel says. “We found it very interesting to deal with a myth that has such deep roots. It brings a modern take on this mysticism. We’re currently in discussions with French broadcasters and global OTT platforms.”

Having a strong, instantly recognizable brand as a hook also helps, says Banijay’s Torrance, citing the French-Canadian co-pro Versailles. “You’ve got to be relevant for every audience and for the people that are co-producing,” Torrance continues. “A period drama is often co-produced. They have huge budgets, and you can find something there that speaks to everybody. Sometimes a contemporary series is hard to co-produce because people will look at it and say, Well, it doesn’t look like something that is relevant to my audience. Ironically, once you set something in the past, people perhaps forget about the location, and it seems to speak to everybody rather than just to a particular country.”

“The multicultural spy story resonates everywhere!” says Gaumont’s Shapiro of the upcoming Spy City. “We try to have different nationalities of people [in international co-pros]. The one thing that would not work is a series where you only have one nationality because then it’s not a European co-pro anymore, it’s a local show. And we also do those. But for the projects we’re developing for the European market, in the English language, we try to have at least two different nationalities so it can resonate in at least two different countries.”

The opportunities to build creative exchanges across borders among writers, producers and stars of different backgrounds has many in the business excited about the face of drama in the future. On KI’s previously mentioned diamonds series, for example, Belgian producer Jan Theys, from De Mensen, is working with Israeli writer Rotem Shamir. “We’re so happy that we have the ability to help all those very talented and internationally appealing Israeli writers develop stories outside of Israel,” Dekel reports.

However the creative auspices take shape, STUDIOCANAL’s Bauer stresses that for a co-pro to work, the project must be “driven by the narrative. Our STUDIOCANAL production companies develop their projects to ensure that the content they deliver suits the platform and broadcaster it is destined for. Our goal is to match this story with a co-producing partner who connects with the same creative vision and allows our production company to protect this narrative and the engaging characters.”

Of course, the funding model also has to work for all parties involved. And it is indeed the challenge of financing high-end drama that has helped lead to the boom in international co-pros.

“Co-production and financing across multiple partners make series affordable without a drop in creative standards,” Bauer adds. “Broadcasters are therefore keen to participate as long as the narrative and the creative vision appeal to them and, ultimately, to their audiences.”

“At the moment, there is a huge appetite for high-quality premium drama,” Banijay’s Torrance says. “On one level you have the financial demands. People want to put more dramas on-screen, and the way to do that is to collaborate with somebody so you’re not paying the full cost of production. The other side is there’s a real desire to take influences from different countries and environments and creatively work together.”

And that is being borne out everywhere, be it between the U.S. and the U.K., within Europe and beyond.

Historically, U.S.-European co-ventures have had to deal with the huge hurdle of episode counts. “It used to be a nightmare working with the U.S. as a U.K. company,” Torrance says. “You’d go to them and say, We’ve got this great series and it’s six episodes, and they’d say, Six? We want 22!”

These days, however, U.S. networks and platforms have become more comfortable with ten-episode seasons. Six- to eight-parters are the preferred model in many parts of Europe. “Eight episodes as a first season works well,” Torrance continues. “Sometimes people will say ten episodes is a big risk and we want to know that it will work for our audience. So if it’s a returnable series, the six to eight episodes [in season one] works well and then the second season you can go to ten.”

“We’re completely open, especially on the European model, to do only six to eight episodes,” says Shapiro at Gaumont, adding that ten is usually the “magic number” if an American partner is involved. Making a six- or eight-episode season “limits the risk of the broadcasters—they can go through it pretty quickly if it doesn’t work.”

Negotiating episode counts, tax breaks, complex co-pro deals and the myriad issues with windowing and stacking rights has made the drama business far more complicated than it has ever been. At the same time, though, drama distributors are upbeat about the opportunities that still lay ahead.

“The great thing is that there’s so much demand for high-quality scripted,” says Torrance. “There’s demand for big period series, for thrillers—it’s almost like you can find a home for any series you have because there are so many broadcasters who have an appetite [for drama]. It’s a great time to have a good portfolio of projects because there’s always somebody who you can talk to and say, This would work for your audience.”

Pictured: STUDIOCANAL’s Midnight Sun.