High Drama

European drama distributors weigh in on the trends at play in the landscape today.

In March, the highly anticipated, big-budget eco-thriller The Swarm opened to almost 7 million viewers on German pubcaster ZDF after racking up more than 10 million views on its digital service locally. The show also scored a 23 percent share on Austrian outlet ORF.

From showrunner Frank Doelger (Game of Thrones), the ambitious eight-parter features a wealth of partners; it is produced by Schwarm TV Productions—itself a joint venture between Intaglio Films and ndF International Production—for ZDF, France Télévisions, Rai Fiction, Viaplay, Hulu Japan, ORF and SRF, in co-production with Bravado Fiction and Beside Productions and co-operation with ATHOS. ZDF Studios and Beta Film are jointly handling distribution.

“There is no better deal than when several partners with similar values and production strategies come together and co-produce,” Norbert Himmler, director-general of ZDF, told World Screen last year. “You pay for one or two episodes and receive eight to ten for your program in return! And it is the only way for us to match financially the streamers’ deep pockets in production.”

The streamers’ deep pockets may not be as bottomless as they were a year ago amid a slowdown in the growth of subscribers, but broadcasters are still having to find innovative ways to pool their resources to take on the global giants, especially as inflation drives up the cost of production. The streamers, while scaling back, are still making significant investments in scripted; per Ampere Analysis, spending on original titles by global streamers will top $26 billion in 2023—a quarter of all commissioning worldwide—with some 90 percent of that going on scripted. And per many operating in Europe’s drama landscape, even the platforms that for a time wanted nothing but global rights are becoming more open to new financing models as they look to meet local content quotas and drive subs in a slightly more cost-efficient manner.

“Drama production is getting more and more expensive everywhere,” observes Béatrice Nouh, head of sales at Spain’s Onza Distribution. “Streamers are trying to maximize revenues and offer more content, so co-productions are a great way for them to face these challenges. Platforms are more open than a few years before to sharing rights and windows to enter projects with higher production values without assuming all the risk. At Onza, we are always trying to push the possibilities of multi-windowing, either in the same territory (for example, a streamer and a free-to-air channel) or between territories.”

Nouh continues, “What is missing in Europe is one big European streamer that would foster European co-productions. For now, most of the streamers present throughout Europe are from the U.S. and focus more on local production country by country and not so much on several countries at a time. The main organized strategic attempt to create these kinds of European co-productions is The Alliance with France Télévisions, Rai and ZDF, but for streamers, it is still very [rare] in Europe.”

The team at Bavaria Media International has also seen new flexibility on the part of SVOD operators to second windows and non-exclusive rights sharing. Broadcasters, meanwhile, are becoming slightly more risk-averse given the potential of a looming recession alongside reduced ad revenue forecasts.

“Clients are looking for titles that perfectly fit their slot requirements in terms of format, genre and content,” says Helge Köhnen, head of content sales at Bavaria Media International. “Unless you have a strong and unique show, they tend to minimize the risk by looking for well-proven formats. Also, there has been a trend for relicenses to cut expenses in acquisitions.”

Onza’s Nouh, meanwhile, has seen increased requests from linear clients for “big prime-time event series; the ones that can [bring in big] audiences and thus help them generate ad revenues.”

She elaborates: “There is a trend in prime-time series to reduce the number of episodes to create a short event (one or two nights). Ten years ago, most of the seasons were between 12 and 24 episodes, and now broadcasters are sometimes asking for between three and six episodes. We see that the idea is to get more premium event series than filling a slot.”

Global Screen lands at MIPTV with the new event series DAVOS, made by Contrast Film Zürich and Letterbox Filmproduktion Hamburg. “The cinematically stunning and thrilling six-part show is being co-produced by Amalia Film, Swiss television broadcaster SRF and the German production company ARD Degeto,” says Julia Weber, head of sales and international acquisitions. “The exciting series will feature an outstanding cast led by Dominique Devenport, Jeanette Hain and David Kross. DAVOS finished shooting in March and will be broadcast as a holiday season highlight.”

Whether a one-off or a returning brand, there is a sense in the market today that audiences are seeking slightly lighter fare when it comes to their drama offerings.

“I hear that brands do not want to be associated with topics that are too violent or dark, especially for daytime, so some linear free-to-air clients are asking for lighter content, but still premium enough to attract the audience,” Onza’s Nouh explains.

She adds, “With risks on ad revenues, linear broadcasters need to rely on safer options when they produce something. It’s not the moment for them to try something transgressive.”

Broad appeal is the focus of the lineup from Italy’s Lux Vide, with Barbara Pavone, chief sales and marketing officer, highlighting the company’s slate of “family-oriented, long-running TV series of all kinds of genres—crime drama, light crime, mystery and comedy. We continue to bring broad, heartwarming family stories with proven international appeal to our buyers,” she says.

Fredrik af Malmborg, CEO of Eccho Rights, is of a similar opinion, noting, “There’s an appetite to be a bit safer. In Turkey, it’s the same—we’re going back to the roots of how shows were made some time ago.”

While broadcasters are looking for high-profile event pieces, they need a steady, reliable supply of content that will engender viewer loyalty as they brace for what is expected to be a challenging year. Turkish distributors are ready to fill that demand.

“The appetite for Turkish dramas continues to grow worldwide,” says Asli Serim, head of international sales at Calinos Entertainment. “Turkish scriptwriters [have] started to evolve stories according to daily social media feedback. This flexibility and pace positively affect the global audience and the local ones. And the buyers love this trend.”

Turkey’s atv arrives in Cannes with a slate of long-running, established hits, reports Müge Akar, head of sales for Europe, Africa and Asia. To appeal to buyers—and audiences—atv is emphasizing that its shows all boast “successful directors and producers, well-known casts and high-quality production [values] with unique stories.”

Aysegul Tuzun, managing director of MISTCO, highlights the “sustainable” nature of Turkish dramas and points to the company’s openness to co-productions as it expands its global footprint. “We aim to create an international title with the contribution of our partners all around the world—so we are quite open to co-production discussions,” Tuzun notes.

Whatever the origin, crime dramas and known IP remain in demand as buyers and commissioners look for safer bets to stand out in a crowded landscape. ZDF Studios, for example, is showcasing a wealth of suspense and thriller series, including Before We Die, an English-language remake of the beloved Scandinavian series for Channel 4; and two seasons of the Stories to Stay Awake anthology reboot. “Four top Spanish directors—Rodrigo Cortés, Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Paula Ortiz, Paco Plaza—bring Chicho Ibáñez Serrador’s iconic horror series back to life with a modern cinematic edge,” reveals Mirela Nastase, Director Drama.

All3Media International also has an abundance of thrillers to showcase of varying stripes, including Better, which David Swetman, senior VP of content and commercial strategy, describes as a “messy, human, crime-filled story from the award-winning team at Sister, set in the atmospheric Leeds and led by gripping performances from BAFTA-nominated Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan.” Meanwhile, from Australia, Black Snow is a crime drama meets coming-of-age series from Goalpost Pictures “that champions unique, distinct voices from the local South Sea Islander community and features outstanding performances from Travis Fimmel and newcomers Talijah Blackman-Corowa and Jemmason Power.”

Indeed, “topics such as diversity, female empowerment and sustainability have gained much higher importance,” reports Köhnen at Bavaria Media International. “Also, the number of youth-related themes has been growing.”

With war ongoing and an abundance of clutter to cut through, the region’s key scripted distributors know that 2023 is set to be a challenging year. Still, the opportunities are clear, especially as a writers’ strike looms in the U.S. During the last one—which ran for 100 days in 2007-08—international content was a blip on the radar for American viewers; today, that situation is vastly different as audiences embrace subtitled content and stories from across the globe.