Elisa Viihde’s Finnish Edge

Alan Sim, executive producer and commissioner at Elisa Viihde, tells TV Drama about the Finnish platform’s local drama strategy.

In the last few years, Finnish entertainment platform Elisa Viihde has ramped up its original content efforts as it looks to maintain an edge in the competitive streaming wars. As executive producer and commissioner, Alan Sim is taking the lead on local drama initiatives at the platform, which has rebranded as Elisa Viihde Viaplay since its 2020 partnership with the Finnish arm of Nordic Entertainment Group’s SVOD service. Sim’s efforts have paid off, with the company making a mark both domestically and internationally with its original series.

“From no [Finnish] series ever being on British TV, there are now four, in the space of two and half months,” Sim tells TV Drama, with two seasons of All the Sins on Channel 4, Bullets on All 4 and Man in Room 301 on BBC Four. All are Elisa originals.

The platform began original commissions about seven years ago with local comedies. Its first big original was Bullets, winner of the MIP Drama Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in 2018. “Since then, we’ve had over 30 titles in total,” Sim notes. “We’re doing roughly seven series a year and probably half of those are drama titles. It’s been a steady ratcheting up and up.”

The latest batch of dramas from Elisa Viihde includes the upcoming Bad Apples from Fire Monkey Productions. “It’s Orange Is the New Black meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Sim quips. “It’s set in a sanatorium on an island in the Baltic Sea in the early ’70s, with a primarily all-female ensemble cast.” Also on the upcoming slate is Next of Kin, featuring Sarah Boberg (The Bridge), which Sim describes as a “near-fi drama that deals with genetic manipulation. It’s very topical; hopefully, it will create some interesting discussion.” It’s made by Bufo, an arthouse film company that has now entered the TV space.

As for what qualities he looks for in potential Elisa projects, Sim says, “It has to be premium. What’s different about what we’re trying to do in Finland is we’re keeping a consistency of premium titles with real local flavor. The way we differentiate ourselves from Netflix is that we have content aimed at Finns. Whether that is location, subject matter or humor. Ivalo is set in the deep snow of the Arctic Circle, All the Sins is about a [Laestadian Lutheranism] church that you only really find in Finland and most of our titles have that cutting, laconic Finnish humor. They don’t fall into a generic space. The people approaching us have to have that tonality.”

Finland has been less impacted by Covid-19 than most other countries, so production has been able to continue largely uninterrupted. “We pushed one or two series, maximum. We’ve had almost nobody come down with symptoms on-set. Part of that is the pragmatism within Finnish production. It’s not a big American production where you have an assistant for an assistant. We’ve had smaller markups, probably 15 to 20 percent in Covid costs. However, we are starting to see some new lockdown measures now in Finland, so we’ll monitor these closely and follow the guidelines.”

As for the pandemic’s impact on viewing habits, Sim is hesitant to outline any discernible trends. “Great scripts make great series, not trends.” Yes, upbeat shows have done well, he notes, but so have projects reflecting darker material. “We had made a virus series called Ivalo before Covid and it went out on Elisa Viihde and did really well; it was our top show. We were worried about [how it would do in] the second window on Yle. They’ve just released it, we’re still in the middle of Covid, and it’s one of their top series. The bottom line is, people liked the actors, the action, the scripts; they liked it regardless of what was going on [in real life]. It was well cast and well made. So that’s why trends shouldn’t matter so much.”

He and his team do, however, tap into analytics as they make content decisions. “We do look at the data a lot and we do qualitative research. We look at what people liked and didn’t like. Who’s buying the service, why they are buying it, what they are watching. But that’s only part of the picture. It doesn’t give you a huge look into what’s happening in four or five years, which is how long it might take to make a drama. With our commissioning, we’re always looking for a good spread of series. For example, Bad Apples is an all-female-led series and we think it will have a female-skewed audience, but that doesn’t mean that men won’t watch. It’s just about having a good mixture that will appeal across the board. Now we’re Elisa Viihde Viaplay as a service. Viaplay traditionally is quite popular with sports, so will we see if our drama audience will move and change. Will we find that some of those male-skewed sports viewers are interested in more of our male-skewed drama programming? Let’s see.”

Sim is also looking forward to the prospect of greater European collaboration as regional platforms look for new ways to compete with the well-funded global giants. “Europe has always been well known for co-productions and broadcasters teaming up. I think we’ll see more of that as the pots get bigger for making drama and there has to be collaboration. We do a lot with our second-window deals locally. It means we can join together to get the money to make a show. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more co-producing within Europe.”