Upgrade Productions Founders on Local-Language Focus

During the dog days of the pandemic, Matt Brodlie and Jonathan Kier started to take note of the growing global demand for local-language productions. “We were looking at doing projects around the world and were seeing how important it was to people for their own stories [to be] seen on screens,” Kier tells TV Drama. “We wanted to be a part of that.”

With the financial backing of Constantin Film, the two launched Upgrade Productions in October 2021, with a remit of supporting, developing and producing local-language titles for the international market.

This focus wasn’t a pivot for either of them, who both have had decades-long careers in the entertainment industry. “One of the things that drove us to this decision was the fact that this has been our passion,” Brodlie says. “We both worked in the ‘non-Hollywood’ sphere while being in Hollywood. It wasn’t really a refocus for us; it was a continuation of what we’ve been doing for these big corporations but doing it for ourselves and being able to make the decisions ourselves.”

They were right to tap into this part of the market when they did, as Brodlie says they initially thought they would have about ten projects during their first year. “In fact, we have around 25 projects that we’re in development on with various partners and creators around the world,” he says. “The first slate of projects, we’re completing the packaging, and we’re going to be presenting them to the marketplace in the next few months.”

Currently, Upgrade Productions is working on projects with partners in Japan, India, Mexico, Spain and Italy, with more on the way. In the future, Kier says they would like to explore more in Latin America. “I also think that the Middle East is interesting,” he adds. “There’s a terrific history of storytelling there in a lot of the cultures in the Middle East. It would be really interesting to bring some of that out to the world. We’re talking to some folks there and seeing what we can find.”

Kier and Brodlie’s company, and the business of local-language productions as a whole, has been aided by the proliferation of global streaming platforms. “There’ve been a lot of technological changes over the last few years that have upended a lot of conventional wisdom about audiences’ ability and desire to engage with non-native content,” Kier notes. “You’re seeing this in the Oscar nominations, in viewership numbers from various platforms—non-English is a growing area.”

Regarding the growing acceptance of foreign-language series, though, Brodlie notes that it is important to note who this evolution has been for. “In many territories, people are used to watching content from other territories,” he points out. “In Europe, they dub everything back and forth with each other, and they watch each other’s content. In America, it’s more of a new thing, at least in the mainstream. There’s always been the ‘foreign-language arthouse’ film that’s come in and done nicely for an arthouse audience, but only with the advent of Netflix, originally, pushing local-language series did they reach a more mainstream general audience. You don’t have to be near an arthouse theater in one of the top-five markets. You could be in the middle of Iowa and watch the German show Dark on Netflix.”

Kier and Brodlie’s success is also driven by their collective extensive past experience. “I was on the other side for the whole of my career; I was a buyer for various studios, then for Netflix and then for Disney+,” Brodlie says. “I have a good sense of not only what they’re looking for but hopefully a good sense of how best to present something to them.”

That is what they are focusing the most on, and they have a development fund specifically to help develop projects, scripts, pilots and films to get them to a place that is easy for buyers to make decisions. Additionally, in light of the war in Europe and global economic uncertainties, “we spend a lot of time keeping up with buyers, both the territorial and the global,” Kier notes. “People are still consuming content everywhere, but there’s a lot going on in various parts of the world that are different than they were just a few years ago. That’s part of what our value proposition is for producers and buyers.”

In terms of what buyers are looking for right now, Brodlie and Kier have found that projects offering viewers a distraction from reality are faring the best. “What seems to be working are a little lighter, little [more escapist], kind of Emily in Paris” dramas, Brodlie notes. “That was such a massive success during the pandemic because everyone was stuck in their hovels, and there she was flouncing around non-pandemic Paris with a great outfit and men chasing her. And as we continue post-pandemic—if that’s what this is—with a ground war in Europe, inflation and whatnot, I think escapism seems to be what people are watching and what a lot of the buyers are looking for.”

As Upgrade Productions begins to roll out its first slate of projects, the future appears to be bright for Brodlie and Kier. And over the next 12 to 18 months, the pair aim to grow their slate even more. Brodlie says they plan to “go into production and deliver premium-quality projects to buyers and find more partnerships and more exciting projects.”