From Turkey with Love

In the Istanbul neighborhood of Arnavutköy, overlooking wooden homes that are remnants of Turkey’s ancient architecture, you’ll find Yazi Odasi, the country’s first, and only, U.S.-style writers’ rooms.

In a three-story converted house, Yazi Odasi’s founders—the in-demand writing duo of Kerem Deren and Pinar Bulut Deren—are churning out scripts for the current hit Maral and developing new projects with teams of senior and junior writers. The pair, whose portfolio of successes includes Ezel and Suskunlar (Game of Silence), created Yazi Odasi in response to the dramatic shifts that have taken place in the country’s content sector over the last few years.

A ferry ride away, on the other side of town, an aban­doned shoe factory has been converted into the sprawling Beykoz Kundura Film Plateau, which houses, among other sets, a replica of a 13th-century palace for Dirilis Ertugrul (Resurrection Ertugrul).

On the banks of the Bosphorus River, in the upscale district of Üsküdar, a massive mansion serves as home base for the drama series Paramparça (Broken Pieces).

As the capital of Turkey’s content business, this huge city—home to about 14 million people—has very few parts that aren’t being used as backdrops for the hundreds of hours of drama (known locally as Dizi) being produced throughout the year.

The volume of scripted content being made in Turkey, which is the Country of Honour at MIPCOM this year, is pretty staggering. Each of the major eight free-to-air networks has a different scripted title on in prime time every day. These shows run anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes each week. Around 100 new titles launch each season, and 20 to 25 percent of them get the axe within four weeks of premiering.

For those that survive, local success is no longer the only reason to celebrate. Over the last few years, Turkish drama series have been popping up in the Middle East (not so unexpectedly, given the cultural similarities between the two regions); in Latin America, where they are taking on entrenched telenovela slots; in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Turkish series are now said to be on the air in about 75 countries, delivering $200 million in licensing revenues to the sector. Izzet Pinto, the CEO of Global Agency—which represents two of Turkey’s biggest international hits, Magnificent Century and 1001 Nights—says that the boom in Turkish scripted exports “came out of nowhere and now has so many regions under its control.”

But it has taken years of hard work for the country’s leading distributors, starting in smaller territories—with negligible licensing fees—and working their way up to major markets.

Calinos Entertainment, for example, sold its first series internationally, Deli Yürek, to Kazakhstan, in 2001, well before the Turkish distribution sector started to take shape in 2008.

Ozlem Ozsumbul, the head of sales and acquisitions at Kanal D, reflects on her first experience selling Turkish content, back before she had a distribution role at the company.

“For 19 years I was just buying Hollywood movies for my channel to broadcast. One day my boss called me and said, We have a guest from the Middle East, please join me for the meeting. He was from MBC Group; it was Fadi [Ismail, group director of drama production and distribution at the Dubai-based broadcaster]. He told a story about his holiday in Anatolia with his family. At the hotel he had watched some shows on Kanal D. He didn’t know any Turkish, but he had understood what he was watching. He said, We have a channel in the Middle East and we want to show Turkish titles in our territory. We were shocked! We said, why not? We signed a deal on the table, it was for $500. We said, this is a good thing for the channel, and we made some money from our library! That was an important starting point for Turkish distributors and channels.”

When Kanal D’s Gumus aired on MBC as Noor in 2008, it was a phenomenon, sparking an increase in demand for Turkish series across the region. With that rising demand, licensing fees have soared.

Can Okan, president and CEO of ITV-Inter Medya, provides an illustration of just how much Middle Eastern broadcasters are willing to pay for high-end Turkish drama. “The original Desperate Housewives sold in the Middle East for $8,000 per episode. The Turkish remake sold for $40,000. Now, we have reached $225,000 per episode in the Middle East.”

Global Agency’s Pinto confirms that licensing fees are up dramatically in the Middle East, rising by as much as 100 percent in the last year or two alone. Elsewhere, fees are up by multiples of six or seven, he adds.

Soon after the Middle East showed an affinity for Turkish content, Central and Eastern European markets followed suit. Global Agency made its first drama deal in the region in Bulgaria, with 1001 Nights. Based on the strong performance of the show, “I was able to license it to all the neighboring countries: Serbia, Croatia; it was like a domino effect,” says Pinto.

Broadcaster ATV followed a similar route, beginning in the Middle East and the ex-Soviet states. “Kazakhstan was one of our main territories,” says Muhammed Ziyad Varol, head of sales at ATV, whose biggest international success has been Sila. “Of course, the Balkans and CEE have been good markets for us. Later on we managed to enter bigger markets like Croatia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.”

The biggest news for Turkish distributors over the last year has been the massive success of their series in Latin America, where broadcasters are making room for these shows on their telenovela-heavy schedules.

“The Latin Americans tried not to surrender to the Turkish content for quite some time. They resisted it!” says Mehmet Demirhan, deputy head of the television department, acquisitions, sales and co-productions, at public broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television (TRT). “The soap opera is Latin American. We don’t call our shows soaps, but they’re in the same genre. Now the region is wide open. We have incredible ratings in the Chilean market, and in other countries.”

With the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America all now conquered, Turkish distributors are looking further afield, to Asia, Western Europe and the holy grail for any international content company: the U.S. “If Turkish content is working in such a wide range of cultures and countries, then why not the American industry?” asks TRT’s Demirhan.

A Turkish-language series hasn’t achieved that goal on a mainstream channel (although Spanish-language MundoMax previously aired Magnificent Century), but the door has opened to Turkish scripts. Global Agency’s Suskunlar (Game of Silence) has spawned a U.S. version that is launching on NBC with Carol Mendelsohn as its executive producer.

Meanwhile, as international broadcasters look to Turkey for inspiration, the country is increasingly looking outside of its borders for ideas to feed its massive content-creation complex.

The wealth of Turkish stories available should not be underestimated; all of the distributors and broadcasters spoken to for this feature are working with production companies on ideas conceived and developed internally that are inspired directly by Turkish culture. There are a number of historical Ottoman-era epics on offer, from Global Agency’s Magnificent Century Kösem—a spin-off of Magnificent Century—to TRT’s Dirilis Ertugrul and Filinta. Many shows speak to the cultural, economic and societal divides in the country, which crosses two continents, Europe and Asia.

Nevertheless, foreign scripted formats are a hot commodity: Jane the Virgin, Pretty Little Liars and Revenge are among the shows being adapted by Turkish broadcasters.

There are a couple of major challenges Turkish writers and producers face as they come up with compelling ideas for viewers—number one being time, or lack of it. “We write for 15 hours a day,” says Yazi Odasi’s Kerem Deren. “We have to. You need to have 120-some pages written in about four days.”

While writers, directors and on-screen talent have all lobbied for shorter episodes, broadcasters are standing firm on their need for shows to fill 90- to 120-minute slots.

There is also an undercurrent of self-censorship being employed by writers who know that broadcasters will often be unwilling to show scenes that could offend Turkey’s religious heartland or the ruling party. Meanwhile, since the implementation of a new people-meter system, broadcasters have become quick to dump any show if early ratings aren’t positive. “Producers and networks prefer stories that are more like soap operas or romantic comedies,” says Yazi Odasi’s Pinar Bulut Deren. “They don’t want to take risks.”

International companies are looking to bring some of their own creativity to the Turkish market. Among them,  Endemol Shine Group “has the advantage of being the only international player with its own [Turkish] production company,” notes Nilüfer Küyel, head of acquisitions and format development at Endemol Shine Turkey. The company’s first scripted show, Paramparça (Broken Pieces), a family drama, has been a huge success domestically and has emerged as one of Global Agency’s strongest international sellers recently.

MBC has set up shop in Istanbul with O3 Productions Turkey, which is working on the local version of Pretty Little Liars, among other shows. 21st Century Fox owns the free-to-air FOX network in Turkey, and many of its titles are now being taken worldwide by FOX International Channels Content Sales. Sweden-based Eccho Rights has been active in the market, making deals to represent several Turkish production companies’ shows worldwide, including Ezel.

The years that homegrown independent distributors like Global Agency and ITV-Inter Medya have spent fine-tuning their relationships with production companies should keep them stocked with product for the foreseeable future.

“For the international market, at our own cost, we cut episodes into 42-minute versions,” says ITV-Inter Medya’s Okan. “We do all of the publicity at our own cost. That’s why the producers are happy with our services—and the revenues we’re bringing them.”

“Having the most successful Turkish product internationally gives us a good reputation,” says Global Agency’s Pinto. “This reputation helps us with the producers.”

One of the key issues for Turkish distributors is deciding when to start introducing a show to clients, especially given broadcasters’ high cancellation rates. “It depends on the region,” says Okan. “Sometimes we presell our titles, especially in the Middle East or in some of the bigger territories.”

“The first episode is really important,” says Pinto. “If the ratings are good, then we feel comfortable it will run for a while—at least for one long season. After ten episodes, we feel even more comfortable.”

Given the uncertainty of taking new shows to the international market, it’s not surprising that Turkish distributors continue to plug series that have completed their runs. Kanal D’s Fatmagül, ATV’s Sila, Global Agency’s Magnificent Century and ITV-Inter Medya’s Kara Para Ask (Black Money Love), among others, are still premiering in new markets even though they are no longer on the air in Turkey.

Black Money Love was a huge success for us,” says Okan. “It sold in over 40 territories in eight months’ time. The number of territories it has sold in is picking up every day.”

Ozsumbul points to Kanal D’s library as a major asset. “We have titles from some independent companies and we are also  a producer. We’ve sold more than 60 titles abroad since 2006.”

In addition to having large catalogues, distributors benefit from carrying titles with high-profile leads. Halit Ergenç (Magnificent Century), Tuba Büyüküstün (Black Money Love), Erkan Petekkaya (Broken Pieces) and Bergüzar Korel (Karadayi) have become some of Turkey’s most bankable and recognizable stars.

With the Turkish drama-series business as crowded as it is, distributors are also looking to expand their portfolios. Global Agency started its business in unscripted formats, a segment that has remained a huge part of Pinto’s international activities. Kanal D has had success with its homegrown format My Partner Knows—which the company has sold to eight markets. ITV-Inter Medya is now entering the format business, bringing a selection of game shows to MIPCOM. And TRT arrives in Cannes with a slate of more than 30 TV movies, after putting out a call for ideas that attracted more than 900 applications from filmmakers. There is also a small, but growing, animation sector, led largely by Dusyeri Animation Studios. The company, which has in-house production and licensing and merchandising divisions, now has its eye on the global market. It is heading to MIPCOM with a slate of kids’ series that have been hits on the Planet Çocuk channel in Turkey.

Scripted formats are also an important growth area for Turkish companies. “From our Latin American clients, we are getting lots of feedback about format rights for productions,” TRT’s Demirhan says.

Those conversations with buyers will undoubtedly be taking place at MIPCOM, where Demirhan, for one, is looking forward to basking in the Turkish spotlight.

“It’s not only about making money. Our business is based on creating a difference. Content is the key. We have the potential to offer this difference to the global industry.”

Background information and translations provided by Professor Arzu Ozturkmen at Bogazici University and Sinem Erdogan, Yeliz Çavus, Sarp Çolgeçen, Yeliz Çelebi and Sevinç Çalhanoglu.