May One’s Johnathan Young & Ioanina Pavel

In February, former HBO executives Johnathan Young and Ioanina Pavel launched May One, a production company and creative hub with a mission to produce dramas in Romania for local and global audiences. Filming is underway for the producer’s first commission, Netflix’s Subteran. Young and Pavel discuss with TV Drama Weekly their vision for May One and how they’ve tapped into their experience at HBO, how to produce content with a “glocal” appeal, creating with Romanian talent and how low overhead can keep the firm nimble.

TV DRAMA: What is your vision for May One? What was the motivation behind its founding?
YOUNG: We were working together at HBO, and we had a really good, healthy development slate in Romania. Then, HBO decided to stop making original productions in Central Europe. We had writers, directors, producers and creators who were keen for us to continue to work on the projects. We thought, We definitely need to set up a little company and see what else we can get made. We’re very keen to do Romanian shows in Romania for Romania, but we’re also very keen to build on the success of Spy/Master and work with producing colleagues in other countries. We have very good relationships with producers in Poland and Hungary through HBO, as well as in Germany and [in the U.K.]. We’re looking at doing German-language and English-language shows that have that Central European DNA.

TV DRAMA: How will May One cater its content to Romanian audiences while still achieving global appeal?
PAVEL: We are developing shows for the Romanian market, but the thing that really characterizes us as a production duo is that through HBO, we’ve done shows that cater to the local tastes and the color but also are high-quality television. They’re the kind of series you’d see on Netflix, and you wouldn’t think twice about seeing them next to the other shows. These shows can stand at the same level as the others.

The market is also heading toward co-productions. Co-productions often have some English-language component that naturally fits into the story. That makes it an easier sell and provides a window for audiences around the world. And to be frank, Romania has so much English spoken. It’s easy for those kinds of shows to cater to the Romanians as well, because Romanians are not used to seeing dubbed shows; we’ve all grown up on subtitles. The English language is prominent here.
YOUNG: This is what we say to all the Romanian writers we meet: We are looking for authentic, local voices. We’re looking for writers who have something to say about Romania now, about Romania’s position in the world, about relationships in Romanian families. We’re very much looking for stories that have high stakes and a strong genre element to them. That’s what makes shows travel. There needs to be charm. “Wit” sounds like “comedy,” and I don’t mean that, but there needs to be spice. There needs to be an energy about the shows, but really, it’s high stakes and genre that make a show accessible. Our shows need to tick those boxes.

Romanian movies have had huge successes in social realism, although we’re not the place to come to with those types of stories. Those are harder for a big, international audience to access.
PAVEL: And they’re hard to do as a show. That’s the thing. The Romanian New Wave has been pretty [successful]. But I don’t think that it can hold up in a series format.
YOUNG: It’s harder to stay within six episodes. [That genre produces] brilliant films, but what’s the hook? Where are the twists? You have to have those for a show to travel.

TV DRAMA: What about the Romanian market excites you both? What motivated you to base the new venture there as opposed to anywhere else?
PAVEL: During Covid, Johnathan got stuck in Romania, and he now lives there. I’m based there. I headed up the Romanian office for HBO’s original productions, and Johnathan was overseeing the whole of Central Europe. Being stuck in Romania, we developed a lot of shows together. We had a lot of writers who had entrusted us with their material, their voices and their stories. There is also less in the way of series-making production companies in Romania.
YOUNG: There’s no premium drama series specialist company in Romania. There are extremely good film and documentary companies. There’s local television, but there’s nobody doing quite what we do. We hope we’ve filled a gap in the market.

Ioanina can articulate the Romanian experience, and I can look at things and say, That’s really interesting. Also, Romania is changing. People have preconceptions about Romania. As you spend time there, you start to understand how wrong they can be. We’re excited about that. We don’t want to change the world, but we do think there’s dramatic potential in puncturing people’s misconceptions.
PAVEL: There is a lot of Romanian culture everywhere. It’s just about understanding the culture clash, what is similar, what is not. Johnathan brings a fish-out-of-water window to it. That will help our shows stand out on the international level.

TV DRAMA: How have you tapped into your experiences at HBO for the new firm?
PAVEL: What we used to be doing at HBO is what we’re planning on doing going forward. We develop the script from logline to shooting draft, work on set as hands-on producers and work together with the line producer and in postproduction. I don’t find it very different, to be honest. The only thing is that I don’t have as many emails to send—the whole corporate overhead.
YOUNG: That’s what we’ve learned on the practical side. Having worked with a number of different broadcasters, I can say that the HBO culture is very, very special. Everybody in Romania remembers when they first got HBO. It was a game changer for the local market because it introduced people to a world that they simply hadn’t had an opportunity to see before. It wasn’t just another channel; it represented something much more profound. Every HBO show was made with 100 percent determination to make it as good as it could be. I learned from HBO how to keep writers on your side when they’re going through the very difficult process of development. Quite often, the development process can be years. That takes some getting used to, and it takes building a lot of trust. You have to believe it’s going to be worthwhile. And what makes it worthwhile is when that show goes up on the platform, people see it and you’re proud of it. That’s what we want to bring to everything we do.

TV DRAMA: How is May One navigating the current drama landscape, especially as a new company?
YOUNG: We’re very small. We’re very agile. We will stay very small and very agile. Otherwise, we’ll be a slave to the overhead. We’ll also nurture the relationships that we have and work with the best possible partners.
PAVEL: We’re nurturing our projects from very early on through the whole process. We need to have the bandwidth for that commitment.
YOUNG: You can understand the nervousness that people feel when it’s harder to get commissions. But with us, that’s not the case. We don’t have a big overhead, but also we’re just starting, so it’s going to take time to get projects underway. We have to believe that the projects will be valid in three or four years’ time. We’re not really worried about 2024 or 2025. We want to make sure that we have a great slate of projects in ’26, ’27 and ’28. We want to get stuff away as soon as we possibly can, but we understand it takes time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for us.