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Berlin: Netflix Disrupts Euro Drama Status Quo

As Netflix continues to expand its European footprint local players are forming alliances with the streaming giant famous for high-profile scripted shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

The U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Germany are driving growth in Europe, but with an estimated 5 million U.K. subscribers, Netflix is almost as big in Blighty as it is in the other four countries combined. There it has around 5.4 million subscribers, according to Digital TV Research.

In the U.K. Netflix dwarfs SVOD rivals, Sky Go, Amazon and NowTV (owned by Sky), which respectively have 2.9 million, 2 million and 1.3 million subscribers.

Do producers and broadcasters regard Netflix as friend or foe, a rival for eyeballs or a potential partner that can help stretch budgets?

Undoubtedly Netflix’s emergence as a key player, particularly in drama, has galvanized the European market. For producers, the impact of the big SVOD companies is massive.

“Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have changed everything. They’re game changers and it’s irreversible,” says Andy Harries, CEO of Left Bank Pictures, producers of the Peter Morgan-scripted, high-end royal extravaganza “The Crown.” “We now live in a global TV market,” he says. “ ‘The Crown’ will air simultaneously in 220 markets. The more buyers, the better. Netflix is a good buyer who commissions high quality shows. No one else can afford to fully fund a show in the way Netflix can.”

The U.K.’s biggest free-to-air broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, were both outbid for “The Crown,” reportedly costing £100 million ($142.4 million) for 20 hours. Is this something troubling the world’s most famous pubcaster as it continues to seek economies?

Not at all, insists Polly Hill, BBC controller of drama commissioning. “‘The Crown’ was only one show,” she says. “We are commissioning hundreds of hours of drama a year.”

Her latest hit is a lavish reboot of Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace,” a partnership with the Weinstein Co. “Internationally there is a huge appetite for drama,” adds Hill. “This can only be a good thing. It’s not the case we’re fighting off Netflix for shows on a daily basis.”

Indeed, despite favorable tax breaks for overseas producers in the U.K. there are believed to be only two Netflix shows currently in production in the region, “The Crown” and “Black Mirror.”
“Competition is a good thing. It makes everyone raise their game,” Hill says. “Having Netflix in the market doesn’t change what the BBC is looking for and what we do. Writers and producers want to bring their best ideas to us because of the relationship we have with them and because we take risks. We’re always looking for the very best creative ideas that can make an impact both in the U.K. and internationally.”

The BBC is yet to co-produce with Netflix, but last year the SVOD behemoth acquired streaming rights to the BBC crime thriller “The River,” made by Kudos and written by Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan.

At ITV, drama supremo Steve November suggests he is open to forming partnerships with Netflix although co-production is not a big part of his business. “Netflix provides competition for ideas and viewers,” he says. “They do have a lot of money and all of us are keeping an eye on them.”

Adds November: “What Netflix is looking for is not necessarily what ITV is looking for. We are not directly fishing in the same pools. But talent — in the shape of writers, directors, actors — now have another market they can develop ideas for.”

Recently Piers Wenger, Channel 4’s head of drama, announced his first co-production with Netflix, the high-concept youth-skewed “Kiss Me First,” penned by Bryan Elsley of “Skins” fame.
“We hope ‘Kiss Me First’ is the first of a number of shows we’ll be partnering with Netflix on,” Wenger says. “We’d struggle to finance this kind of show by ourselves. Netflix has enabled us to make the most of the script’s potential and take it to a scale, including quite a lot of CGI, the story requires.”

Pay box Sky, on the other hand, looks unlikely to team up with Netflix, hardly surprising since each outfit is competing for subscriber coin. Sky has been splashing the cash on a handful of high-end drama. They include two thrillers, “Fortitude” and “The Last Panthers.” By focusing on blockbuster series the objective is to keep subscribers coming back for more and avoid any cord cutting.

Drama topper Anne Mensah emphasizes that Netflix’s dramas complement Sky’s, which can pool resources with Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland. “Our research suggests that what Netflix does is complementary to our own drama,” she says. “There seems to be an insatiable appetite for high-end drama. Audiences no longer watch mediocre drama, because there are so many high-quality shows. At Sky we aim to give our customers shows that are genuinely distinctive.”

Meanwhile, France is proving to be a tough market for the streaming giant. Since bowing in September 2014, Netflix has reached 770,000 French subscribers, according to IHS Technology. It faces stiff competition from local SVOD platforms, not least Canal Plus-owned CanalPlay, and the pay box itself. Both show French-language content.

“Netflix performs strongly in markets such as the Nordics, which have an appetite for U.S. or English-language content,” says Jonathan Broughton, senior analyst of Television Media at IHS. “In these markets Netflix can leverage synergies from Netflix original content or from multiterritory deals with content owners. France has a strong offering of local content and as a country likes to promote the French language.”

Netflix commissioned one French-language show, “Marseille,” a “House of Cards”-style political drama starring Gerard Depardieu, produced by Federation Entertainment and created by Dan Franck (“Carlos”). The show bows in May.

In Italy, Netflix is producing its first original Italian series “Suburra” in tandem with local pubcaster RAI. The show looks at the ties between the mob and politics in contemporary Rome. Cattleya, the Italo shingle behind internationally exported TV hits such as Sky Italia’s “Gomorrah,” is shepherding the skein.

The producer also made a “Suburra” feature film that kicked off the saga. RAI Cinema released the film theatrically last October in Italy, with Netflix distributing day-and-date in the U.S. and Latin America. The “Suburra” skein will go out on one of RAI’s general channels in Italy following its global rollout on Netflix.

The game-changing advantage for Cattleya is they financed directly without any pre-sales. Production of the series is planned to start later this year.

Elsa Keslassy and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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