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Foreign Drama Enters ‘Brilliant’ Era as Global Giants Embrace Local Stories

'My Brilliant Friend' is the first non-English-language show to be financed by HBO

“The volume, quality and global reach of drama [now] is unequalled in the history of television,” Lorenzo De Maio, an agent at Endeavor Content, said Tuesday at a panel on TV drama financing at Canneseries, a festival in Cannes dedicated to drama series. De Maio’s company is handling international sales on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Killing Eve,” which plays in the festival’s competition.

The growing quality of high-end series is drawing in top actors and that is pushing up budgets, the panelists said. Eleonara Andreatta, director at Italy’s Rai Fiction, which has “Il Cacciatore” (The Hunter) in the festival’s competition, used the example of “Medici: Masters of Florence.” The producers hired “The X-Files” alumnus Frank Spotnitz as showrunner, and his influence helped raise expectations for the project, pushing the team to compete with other globally distributed series. “The first person we cast was Dustin Hoffman and that set the level for the project. At that point everything became more ambitious,” she said.

For a panel on financing, the contributors were surprising phlegmatic about the difficulties of finding funds to develop projects. “[Financing] is not the main issue, the main issue is creativity,” said Pascal Breton, president of Federation Entertainment, whose slate includes Canneseries competition title “Undercover,” written by Nico Moolenaar. “The difficulty is finding good projects and showrunners. That will be the main problem in coming years,” Breton said.

Federation has 160 projects in development, and most of them have broadcasters attached. “I’m sure at least 50 will be greenlit in the next three years. My feeling is we should do 300. It’s possible,” he said.

Sebastien Raybaud, CEO of Anton Capital Entertainment, an equity investment fund financing TV shows and movies in Europe, said that the increasing activity in original drama of streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, and the arrival of new players like Apple was compelling traditional broadcast networks to come to investors like him to help increase budgets for shows in order to keep hold of local talent. “Players like BBC and RAI are worried about retaining talent and IP, and being able to compete with these [global streaming platforms], who have far more money. That will pose some issues in terms of creativity.” He added: “The competitive landscape will be way more challenging than it has been in the past 10 years.”

De Maio said the challenge was for shows to “break through the noise.” “You want to build a show that has resonance on a global scale with massive international value,” he said. “Killing Eve” stood out because it had a female showrunner and female protagonists, working within a genre – the spy thriller – that “we are all familiar with, but it’s always male driven. It’s always the male gaze on that world.” The approach had been: “What if we took it and made it about real women, not imaginary women.” He added that the “combination of global appeal, and specificity – whether it is specificity of voice, someone like Phoebe Waller Bridge, or of story” – allows the show to rise above the others.

The highly anticipated “My Brilliant Friend,” adapted from the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, was another great example, he said. “It is as local as you can get – they speak in the Neapolitan dialect – yet the themes and IP are universal.” The show, which is being produced by Italy’s Fandango and Wildside, and was co-developed and co-produced by Rai Fiction and FremantleMedia, marks a watershed for foreign-language series as it is the first non-English-language drama show that HBO has financed.

“There is a great opportunity to break through if you have a vision and a story to tell, and the financing will follow,” De Maio said.

Finding stories rooted in the local culture but with a universal resonance was the Holy Grail for drama producers and broadcasters. “RAI decided to find our place in the international industry through our identity and our culture – both the Medici and Ferrante have strong ties with Italian heritage,” Andreatta said. “But the [Ferrante] stories are universal – they are about complicated friendships, love, compassion, jealousy and competition.”

Breton said that the ideal scenario was to team with a broadcaster from the territory where the production company and story was based and then “package it on a bigger scale with a [global] platform as that guarantees the authenticity of the show.” He contrasted “My Brilliant Friend” with another HBO show produced by Italy’s Wildside, “The Young Pope.” “There was too much English spoken in [the show]. It was not as authentic as it looks here [in ‘My Brilliant Friend’]. I think the key issue in the future will be that authenticity. There are more interesting stories in Europe than you’d expect, and sometimes many more than in the U.S. We need to protect our heritage by creating [the shows] with the best talent in Europe.”

He cited another Naples-set story, crime drama “Gomorrah,” as another great example of an authentic story that had resonated worldwide, as well as Spain’s “La Casa de Papel.”

He added: “The other big issues in coming years will be who owns the rights: the producers, the writers or these huge companies that don’t even know how much money they make because it’s billions. Of course we are ready to share [the rights] with the big companies. I think Federation is made for that: To protect talents all over the world, to share with them, and protect and optimize their position in the ownership of rights. Otherwise it will destroy a lot of value and creativity.”

De Maio acknowledged the challenges, but was upbeat about the prospects for the international scripted business, speaking of a “fantastic opportunity for the industry.” “There are big global buyers, incredible local players, and a flood of scripted drama,” he said. “We are finding that the opportunities for producers are the best they have ever been. You can work with these amazing storytellers – American, British, Italian… – and amazing acting talent, whether it’s Sandra Oh in ‘Killing Eve,’ Sean Penn in ‘The First,’ or Damien Chazelle [who is working on a musical drama, ‘The Eddy,’ for Netflix and a series for Apple]. But how do you allow producers to control that process creatively and financially? The process has to be more thoughtful than before, it has to be curated and every step has to be thought out.”

Il Cacciatore

‘Il Cacciatore’ (The Hunter) plays in competition at Canneseries (Credit: RAI)

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