The scripted bubble shows no signs of popping anytime soon, as leading producers and distributors step up their efforts to secure, finance and sell standout European concepts. And as the cost of production rises worldwide—driven in large part by the well-funded streaming giants—cross-border partnerships remain essential.
“The co-production model is the rule rather than the exception nowadays,” observes Chris Stewart, commercial director for scripted at Banijay Rights. “Pretty much everything we do is co-produced with at least two territories. It’s tough to fund shows with premium budgets out of one territory.”
“To produce bigger-scope series with more ambitious budgets, we are working more and more with European partners on co-productions and presales, starting very early on in the process,” agrees Françoise Guyonnet, the executive managing director for TV series at STUDIOCANAL. “We are able to work closely with Canal+ in France and Poland to get the ball rolling for many productions.”
Robert Franke, the VP for ZDFE.drama at ZDF Enterprises, believes that co-productions will become even more important against a backdrop of “streamers popping up like mushrooms…and massive consolidation—everyone is trying to build huge catalogs to feed their own platforms. I think there will be even more co-productions going on because everyone is trying to mitigate the investment risk. They are seeking partners. One result of that trend is that content companies are trying to integrate their business models into the value chain. As a distribution company, our revenue model is distribution, so traditionally we would take something once it’s finished and bring it to market. Now, to make money along the way, we get involved earlier, we help to package and finance from a very early stage. We are evolving into being a financing-producer. We’ve always been active in co-productions, but in this market environment, we are doing more co-productions to earn money in different ways.”
Alexandra Heidrich, the head of acquisitions and sales for international TV and SVOD at Global Screen, reports that it’s also crucial to use a variety of different funding models: “Our huge acquisition department is not just looking for MG deals; we do the full range of financing. We are an all-in-one partner with financing, production, world sales and distribution. We have to be very flexible and look at each project individually. Sometimes if a one-pager fascinates us, we finance the development of the first script or the concept. Sometimes people come to us with a bible and the first script, and they just need co-development money. From A to Z, we do whatever is necessary to finance a production. It all depends on the project.”
Like STUDIOCANAL’s Guyonnet, ZDF Enterprises’ Franke stresses the importance of early involvement in projects: “Our philosophy is that we don’t want to be involved in something that is too far developed or already fully developed. Our USP is we know the European market; we know the worldwide market. We know what those platforms look for and what the channels look for. Of course, we can always come in as a distributor and pay a minimum guarantee against the rights. But we prefer to come in as a co-producer. We have a whole department of people scouting the worldwide market. We changed our structure in a way that merged acquisitions and sales, so my sales team is also acquiring content. That gives us a holistic view of the market. We have early access to relevant projects and then we take those projects and talk about them with the team to evaluate whether there is a chance to sell them worldwide. The sooner we are involved, the greater the influence we have in the development process. It’s not because we want to be involved in the creative process; we want to make sure we steer the financing process. If you know how to package something, you know who your potential clients are, the more you can tailor-make things. Otherwise, it’s a shot-gun approach, and you acquire content opportunistically. We’d rather do it strategically.”
Eccho Rights is also looking at a variety of financing models, Fredrik af Malmborg, the company’s managing director, notes: “First of all, I think the original platform should pay for most of it, and the producer should keep as much IP as possible. If they can’t afford that, then we [can help with the] financing. Financing should be in return for a small share of the IP, rather than just being an advance. We’ve done some deals with external investors; for example, we did a series in Turkey called Wounded Birds, where we had [some financing] from a Korean investment fund, Timewise. With the existing model, it’s quite difficult for investors to go into TV series. We can get more investment in the industry if we share a bit of IP with the investor and if we have a transparent distribution model.”
As for what kinds of shows companies are investing in, it’s a little bit of everything in this landscape. High-concept serialized shows, blue-sky procedurals, lush period pieces, gritty crime and cost-effective family dramas are all vying for the attention of financiers, commissioners and distributors. “We often get asked what genres we’re looking for,” says Global Screen’s Heidrich. “We have clients that are only looking for romantic stories. Others are looking for crime stories. I’ve seen some exciting horror and high-concept supernatural series. So it’s not really about the genre.”
Heidrich has her eye out for standout ideas and authentic stories. “You have to have an emotional bond with the characters right away,” she says. “And, of course, a sophisticated script that has a multilayered narrative.”
The company’s diverse current slate includes a crime series from Belgium called A Good Year; Turbulent Skies, about airline pioneers Albert Plesman and Anthony Fokker; Dark Woods, a true-crime drama; and the Canadian series Amber Alert.
Banijay Rights also has an eclectic offering, including new seasons of Bang and Rebecka Martinsson, as well as the brand-new GR5: Into the Wilderness, Bäckström, The Hunt for a Killer, Thin Ice and We Got This.
On what it takes to stand out today, Stewart notes: “It could be a piece of casting or some strong IP or subject matter that is relevant. Thin Ice is interesting because, although it’s been in development for five years, it’s now very of the moment in terms of climate change and even Trump talking about buying Greenland, where it’s set and filmed. [A project] needs something that is either very relevant to contemporary culture or has some kind of IP that people are familiar with. That’s why we’ve seen a huge resurgence in series based on true crime or real-life historical events.”
STUDIOCANAL’s Guyonnet observes that buyers and commissioners are keen on a fusion of genres, including dramas that come with a dose of comedy. “Not necessarily laugh-out-loud, but a clever and sophisticated look at life in all its forms,” she notes.
On that front, STUDIOCANAL is pre-selling RED Production Company’s Finding Alice, which has Keeley Hawes in the lead role. The studio has a pair of new thrillers: the period piece Shadowplay, set in 1946 Berlin, and the multi-language Possessions, which was filmed in Israel in French, Hebrew and English.
Eccho Rights, meanwhile, is plugging what it is calling “Nordic romance—instead of Nordic noir!,” af Malmborg quips. “In general, there is a saturation of crime procedurals” on the market, he notes. “I think we’re going more toward human stories, romantic stories, real-life, easier-to-relate stories.”
The company is showcasing Love Me from Viaplay and Swiping from SVT. “What’s unique about Nordic romance is it tends to be more realistic in a way, more relatable, more blue sky and very involving,” af Malmborg explains. “At Series Mania last year, it looked like all the series were imitating Nordic noir because it was raining in every city! I think people are tired of that.”
ZDF Enterprises’ Franke agrees, stating, “There is a massive shift away from the dark, heavy shows. Those are no longer what people want to watch. Frankly speaking, if we want to see bad news, we can turn on the news! We have climate change, we have Trump, all these things in the news right now. I think people are getting tired of that. They don’t want to see people with super-existential problems. It’s more about blue-sky crime; we see that is in demand. And genre blends. A lot of channels are looking for elevated genres, for example, taking a crime show and blending it with light sci-fi or fantasy. It enables you to cross more demographics. You’ll take something known to one audience and add something else to the mix, and all of a sudden, you’ll get viewers who would not necessarily watch a crime show, and vice versa. We like that trend very much. Our development slate is going in that direction.”
Meanwhile, the ZDFE.drama team is promoting the sports thriller The Window, the first-ever European-Japanese scripted co-production. The English-language series is made with Fuji TV. Also on the company’s slate are the Swedish crime series Top Dog; Sløborn, produced by Syrreal Entertainment; and Standing Tall, made by Publispei for RAI.
Franke adds that there remains a strong demand for procedurals, with exhaustion setting in for over-complicated, heavily serialized shows: “There is so much out there, and it takes a lot of commitment to finish a series. That’s why we see commissioning editors and platforms looking for miniseries and series with fewer episodes and procedurals. Sometimes you want to come home, switch on your TV and just watch one episode and have a satisfying viewing experience; the crime is solved and there is a catharsis at the end of the episode. It’s low commitment, and it’s escapism. We will see that more and more from the streamers.”
Global Screen’s Heidrich sees equal demand for both returnable series and event miniseries. “I recently read that 2020 could be the year of miniseries,” she notes. “They appeal to audiences worldwide. I think we will see more limited series, but the long-running shows are still very popular and very profitable for the broadcasters. It always depends on the story, of course. For some territories, especially Eastern Europe, they are looking for long-running, episodic series. We are looking for those, but they are harder to find! When people come to us and pitch us their ideas, it seems like 95 percent are horizontal, and the rest are episodic storytelling. If we can’t find them out there, we just have to produce them ourselves.”
MAKING A COMMITMENT
Banijay’s Stewart says that six to eight episodes per season has become the norm, down from ten-plus, and he also sees a resurgent demand for event productions. “There are certain people in certain territories that are more risk-averse, so a six-episode run is a bit of a safer bet to launch a first series rather than going in with ten. Equally, people are looking for returnable series that they know will perform well for their audiences. As are we—we want those series that we know are going to come back year after year. But I think there has been an increase in demand for those big showpiece miniseries. With things like Chernobyl doing so well, there is a lot of interest in close-ended series that people can throw a lot of marketing weight behind.”
As STUDIOCANAL’s Guyonnet puts it, “event miniseries are key to help entice and retain subscribers; whereas returning series keep viewers loyal to a channel.”
Meanwhile, the industry as a whole continues to shift as the global streaming landscape braces for the arrival of the new Hollywood-backed services, while local platforms proliferate. “We are continuing to be very pragmatic and aware of this ever-changing world and are open to different ways of selling our series,” Guyonnet says. “There is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to sales.”
Guyonnet’s words reflect a sentiment that is widespread across the distribution landscape: windowing is just not what it used to be, and there’s no easy way to figure out how to best exploit a property around the world.
“In the past, it was quite obvious: you had a series and you knew precisely if this was something for free TV or pay TV or a platform,” Global Screen’s Heidrich says. “Nowadays, when I look at our clients, even the free-TV channels, they have become much more courageous. We have to look very carefully at each project and make a strategy. Do we sell it territory by territory or go with a streamer first and then the second window on free TV? Or go the other way around? You have to look very closely at each project to make sure you find the right windowing.”
“It’s difficult to pin down any particular windowing strategies anymore because this is such a fluid place,” agrees Banijay’s Stewart. “There are so many platforms and broadcasters seeking to get full exclusivity on things to stay competitive. It’s difficult from the outset to say that we will do a linear first window here and a VOD second window there. Ultimately, it depends on the content and who is interested and how we work it from there. It’s much harder to map that out than it used to be. It’s not the traditional windowing system. It’s more on an ad-hoc basis.”
ZDF Enterprises’ Franke adds: “It’s more sophisticated now. Two years ago, you could say, generally speaking, you would have a six-month window for linear and then another 12-month window for another [service]. Right now, you have to negotiate every window individually because every channel, every platform, has a different strategy. You have to tailor-make your whole exploitation strategy and you build it around the anchor partner on a project.”
And as the competition intensifies, distributors will be focusing on making sure they can move quickly to adapt to changes in the market. One trend that Heidrich is keeping her eye on is OTT platforms upping their commitments to local programming worldwide. “We have to look out for the original local productions from the streamers and see how they change the habits and the tastes of viewers,” she says. “That, of course, changes our strategy for what we have to acquire. Also, short-form and snackable content are trending. This seemed to be something for the younger generation, but I don’t think that’s the case any longer. As a distributor, we’re still trying to analyze if we can make a financial success with short-form.”
Companies are also keeping an eye on budgets as costs continue to escalate. For creative producers, that shouldn’t be an issue, Banijay’s Stewart notes. “I’ve never bought into the rule that bigger budget means a better show. The size of the production budget does not necessarily have a reflection on how good a series is. We have plenty of fantastic series that are of a lower budget than some of the U.S. or premium U.K. shows that I would argue are nowhere near as creatively written or directed or produced.”
Af Malmborg at Eccho Rights predicts that on-demand platforms will become more open to non-exclusive deals. “In Korea, it’s pretty much standard that American series are on ten different platforms, with some revenue share. We’re doing the same in Russia; we have deals with multiple platforms. Direct-to-consumer rev-share deals are also getting more important.”
With new platforms arriving, beginning with Disney+ landing in Europe this spring, “The superiority race is going to continue for at least another 12 months as everyone tries to find their place in the market,” says Stewart. “The only real way they can do that is to buy more premium or super-premium content. It doesn’t feel like there’s going to be any slowdown in the demand for drama. Whether that will last longer than 12 or 24 months remains to be seen. I can’t see everyone surviving in that marketplace. But for the time being, it feels like it’s not on any kind of slowdown. It feels like we’re still ramping up.”