Lars Blomgren, head of scripted for Banijay, talks to TV Drama about how he uses his considerable experience developing and producing programs to oversee the group’s drama strategy.
Blomgren has produced many successful dramas, particularly stories made for one market that burst out beyond domestic boundaries and became international hits. One such show is Bron, not only a hit on its own but whose format created other successful series, including The Bridge and The Tunnel. In his position, he oversees Banijay’s drama and comedy production in the U.K., U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
TV DRAMA: It’s been a year since you were promoted. Tell us about your position, the footprint you oversee and the types of projects you look for.
BLOMGREN: It’s basically the same job, but the footprint is bigger, and I’m now across not only EMEA but the English-speaking markets too. We have more than 120 production companies in the group and more than 50 are producing scripted. In 2020, we delivered more than 100 projects.
I encourage collaboration across the group. We also look to move our scripted formats and since we are such a big group, we share best practices.
As for the type of projects, we encourage everyone to develop ideas, it doesn’t matter if it’s a local show or a global franchise. But as a group, we focus on the high-end project. We have a long tradition of keeping our promise to deliver quality. That’s important for us. And it works to our advantage. The competition is strong among the streamers, there is a move from focusing on the number of clicks to the completion rate—streamers need subscribers to finish the shows they start watching. We want to make sure that the end of a series we make is as good as the pitch.
No one is negotiating more with the streamers than we do, so we have a chance to be better prepared in negotiations. I also have a scripted fund, which is an important tool for us because we can step in and support a production company in acquiring expensive IP or maybe an agreement with talent. It’s a very useful tool to elevate a production and begin at a better level. Because pitching is different in many territories, we also offer support to bring a project to a more evolved phase, for instance, write the pilot script before we pitch it or work more with costs and prepare the package more.
TV DRAMA: Would you give some examples of best practices shared among the production companies?
BLOMGREN: We’re really close to their slates; we hear what they are developing. We talk about planning for success. It’s like a game; how early do you want to involve a broadcaster? Once you have a broadcaster attached, you can’t go anywhere else. So the first place you place your foot decides where you can take the next step. We try to talk to everyone early. What’s the best strategy? Is this a streamer project? Is it better for co-production? We try to support them in finding the best way forward.
Then, of course, since we do so many streamer deals, we try to look at them all to see if we get them right—they must be at the same level as other deals we do.
It’s also interesting because we have a lot of co-productions. It’s quite challenging at times, but it’s very good from an education point of view that we can discover from someone else. The approach in different markets and how they produce can be so varied. In some territories, the director is king; in others, it’s the writer. We can learn a lot from each other.
TV DRAMA: With the growing demand for scripted, is there enough talent? Are there enough writers, directors, actors, even crews?
BLOMGREN: It’s always a challenge, an enormous challenge. The most important selling point for talent is that if you start working with them, you must actually make the show. If that happens, they will come back. You build relationships with talent. It’s becoming more and more the same with the broadcasters. They have preferred partners, people they know will deliver.
Now a lot of talent is going into exclusive deals with broadcasters, and that’s a challenge. Personally, I always preferred to work with people who aren’t locked in. They can go wherever they want, but they come to us because we are the ones they want to work with.
TV DRAMA: The global streaming services have introduced audiences to stories they might not have seen if they only watched their domestic broadcasters. Is this opening up opportunities for your storytellers?
BLOMGREN: Absolutely, around 70 percent of our productions are non-English. We’ve managed to be successful with a lot of shows like Valley of Tears from Israel, Beforeigners from Norway or Bron that I did back in the day. From Sweden we have Vinterviken, or JJ+E as it is known in English, coming up for Netflix, and Germinal for France 2. That’s fantastic.
A game-changer happening now is the big discussion about diversity—underrepresented communities, whether because of race, disability or gender, and there are such fantastic stories to tell. Right now, they are front and center and that’s important.
TV DRAMA: Have the demand for and volume of scripted programming changed the way series are developed or produced?
BLOMGREN: Execution is becoming increasingly important, especially with the idea of the completion rate. We will stick with being really good at execution, but in every country, the process is so different. In the U.K., the commissioners still want to step into a project really early. In another territory, they want a full package. The biggest challenge right now in the smaller territories is sometimes they’re not used to taking projects to the market. We have so many projects now, and we have to test them and pitch them to more than one broadcaster. That can create difficulties because some of our regular partners take for granted when we come with a project that they will get it. But there might be someone else that is better positioned for the project. That’s a big challenge.
TV DRAMA: What shows do you have in production and what upcoming titles do you have?
BLOMGREN: We have some fantastic new drama coming up, including at least three big projects which will be announced in the coming weeks.
With Series Mania in mind, we have Germinal, from Banijay Studios France in the international competition, and other shows on the horizon include an Indian adaptation of Call My Agent by Banijay Asia, the love story JJ+E from Filmlance for Netflix, and we’re currently filming Then They Run with Kudos and MadeFor working with Sky Studios and Ripley from Endemol Shine North America for Showtime. And we just had a fantastic launch for RFDS: Royal Flying Doctor Service in Australia.
Of course, there’s always a wealth of scripted coming out of the U.K. with new dramas like The Rig from Wild Mercury for Amazon, SAS: Rogue Heroes by Steven Knight, from Kudos, and the highly-anticipated new season of Peaky Blinders.
TV DRAMA: You’ve been able to remain in production during Covid. Tell us about some of those experiences.
BLOMGREN: It’s been extremely tough for everyone, especially with travel bans and international productions. I always say that producers are like water going down a hill. They will always find a way forward. And the way the producers manage to invent ways to keep moving is amazing. I think there are some learnings we will keep even after the pandemic.
TV DRAMA: So there are procedures you think will continue after Covid?
BLOMGREN: Absolutely. No one has had the flu for the last 15 months, and we can learn something from that. The rate of illness on location will go down drastically because we understand the dynamics much better, and a lot of people will stay away if they’re not well. We know we have to stay away as a precaution.
And coming out of Covid, we recognize the value of collaboration even more, and long may that continue, as it’s been great for the creative process at a time when so many ideas have been in development.
TV DRAMA: What continues to interest and excite you about scripted?
BLOMGREN: It is so important to tell stories now. We need to create hope. We need to give even the darkest stories a silver lining. It’s like empathy training; there’s a lot of that.
I love originals, like Beforeigners, Peaky Blinders, Caliphate or Bron. It’s a big passion, but right now, I’m fascinated by the idea of doing remakes. This is very much on the back of my experience exec producing Scenes from a Marriage, which is coming up for HBO. That was a Swedish TV series shot by Ingmar Bergman in the early ’70s. Hagai Levi, who did In Treatment, took this story, made some major changes and made it his own.
You could take a story like Scenes from a Marriage and adapt, telling the story with a gay marriage, or one between people of different races or religions, whatever, there are so many ways you can use it and stretch it to offer a completely different take. Just like what they do with Hamlet and other Shakespeare in the theater. I’m intrigued by that. You can follow beats. You have the structure to follow, which is good, and then tell the story in a completely new way. I have always had this fascination.
TV DRAMA: Can you share a few more details about Scenes of a Marriage?
BLOMGREN: It’s basically the same story but updated and takes place in the U.S. It’s an American story. It’s been a lovely process. For me, it’s personal because we started working on this nine years ago. We had some challenges around the rights, and then once we managed to sort that out, Hagai had another project greenlit. I don’t want to spoil it, but there is a huge change in the story, and based on that, we went back to HBO, and they said yes, and we managed to get this fantastic cast, led by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.
TV DRAMA: Not to take anything away from your colleagues in unscripted, is it fair to say that high-end breakout scripted series can bring in viewers and subscribers and make a difference to a linear or nonlinear platform? They are defining in a way, right?
BLOMGREN: I’m really impressed by the unscripted world. I think both can be game changers. The huge successes can make an enormous difference. To create the best content, you just want the best creative to pitch an idea you hadn’t even considered. That’s what creates a trend.
TV DRAMA: I believe that a well-done scripted series can shed light on issues even better than a documentary or news story because if we feel an attachment to a character, we relate to that problem so much better.
BLOMGREN: A recent show like this that I’m so proud of is Caliphate. It was a huge success in the Nordics on the public service broadcaster SVT and then on Netflix. I had friends from Australia and other countries talking about this show. 90 percent of the cast is Muslim, totally unknown Swedish actors. The response was amazing. Talk about changing the world. Some people said, ‘You can’t do this because you will upset the Muslims.’ And some Muslims said finally, ‘You tell our story in the correct way.’
And Beforeigners from Rubicon is a metaphor for the refugee crisis and migrant issues, with people from a different place and time integrating into a community. It gets the audience thinking about these issues in a new way. The second series will be airing on HBO this year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.