Speaking at the TV Drama Festival today, ZDF Studios’ Robert Franke and Yi Qiao outlined the rising importance of English-language drama from the U.S. and the U.K. as the company continues to expand its international scripted presence.
In conversation with World Screen’s Kristin Brzoznowski, the session, available here, saw Franke, VP Drama, and Qiao, Director Drama, discussing how ZDF Studios has been aligning with key creative talents in English-language markets.
“We have been prioritizing English-language drama for a while now,” Franke noted. “As a company based in Germany, it was hard to make sense of how things are being put together, packaged, financed and ultimately produced. We took our time to learn the ropes and how to produce English-speaking drama. We’ve done that with European languages for almost 30 years. Roughly five years ago, we started looking into it and learning about financing models. When Yi joined us in 2020, we decided that now is the time to go full force into it.”
Funding models continue to evolve, Franke said. “We see a massive shift in power dynamics right now in the market, driven by the general economic environment we are all facing. After these boom years, driven by a lot of streamers setting up shop and starting to produce a lot of original content, we see that this market is contracting. I would say it’s getting back to a more sustainable level. We are coming out of these years where it was all about subscriber growth. You don’t subscribe to Netflix because you think the brand is cool. You subscribe to it because there is something you want to watch. Now that people are feeling the economic pressures, they’re asking themselves: How do I sustain all these subscription services? Now it’s much more important to produce at a budget and ensure that the money you’re spending is well spent and that you don’t overspend.”
Co-productions are especially valuable in this environment, Franke said; it’s an area ZDF Studios has long been involved in, and the company is now bringing that skill set to the English-language space. “This expertise is exactly what is needed in this current state of the market.”
Qiao also referenced the return of the co-pro model. “Before the streamers came in, the co-production was very common. You had two broadcasters partnering, and maybe a distributor coming to close the financing, and then you go into production. When the streamers started coming in, a lot was targeted towards one global commission. Now, we are going back to the initial co-production model, even with streamers. Streamers now carve out certain territories and co-produce with a local partner. Then you still have a distributor to come in and close financing, retain rights and sell internationally. People are taking fewer risks in general. That’s why the importance of distributors is coming back. We are so crucial to the financing of a project that we are sometimes the ones that are sending projects into production without having partners on board.”
Clean Sweep is an excellent example of that traditional co-pro model, Qiao noted. “Shinawil, the Irish production company, came to us with the creative package. It was already at the point where RTÉ was on board as a commissioning broadcaster, and Sundance Now in the U.S. was attached. There was a deficit that needed to be closed.”
Incendo in Canada also came on board, and ZDF Studios then closed the deficit and went into production. Sales have been secured in markets like Sweden, Finland, Australia, the Middle East and the U.K. with BBC Four and iPlayer.
Across the board, ZDF Studios is trying to build a diverse slate, Franke said. “We are servicing many different clients all over the globe. There is a learning curve to building a catalog and building a slate. You have to make sure that you have enough of something that you know is proven and will work globally. You have to also take small risks to innovate and find buyers you haven’t sold to before. This is the foundation of building our English slate because, ultimately, the goal is to use these shows not only to sell to our existing clients but also to sell to new clients. That is why we are trying to get a good mix of things into our slate. What is most important to us is the quality of the storytelling. We really need to make sure that the content we are producing in English is up to par with what we are selling in terms of foreign language.”
Understanding the nuances of financing is also integral, Franke said; “otherwise, you end up with a slate of like ambitious multi-million-dollars-per-episode, high-end fiction shows in your development slate that you’re never going to produce because there is just not enough demand in the market for it. That’s why we do not intend to produce something like The Swarm every year because it’s unrealistic to get that off the ground every year. We’re trying to find a good balance between smaller shows that are on brand with what we are bringing to the market in terms of foreign-language and big ambitious shows that we put together as co-productions globally.”