In its 45-year history, there’s one thing HBO has never produced for the U.S.: a subtitled foreign-language series. But that will change this year with the premiere of “My Brilliant Friend,” an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s bestseller made with Italy’s RAI and filmed entirely in Italian.
HBO’s move is part of a landmark moment in global TV production that the Berlinale’s Drama Series Days program will explore during the Feb. 19 panel How to Make Series Travel moderated by Variety’s Stewart Clarke, which will examine how shows are being developed, produced and marketed for international exploitation.
This panel and the growing episodic slate in Berlin’s traditionally film-focused fest reflect the increased importance of TV to film producers, as buyers such as Google and Apple roll out multibillion-dollar 2018 spending plans, while Amazon and Netflix appear to be slowing down their film buying (as seen at this year’s Sundance) and more projects originate or get co-produced overseas for global audiences.
“All of these SVOD platforms are giving us the opportunity to get more eyeballs onto our series,” says Rola Bauer, panelist and CEO of Studiocanal’s Tandem Prods., who oversees all of her parent company’s U.S. TV productions and co-productions. “That means you’ve got to think in a global way. But they are all fighting for their individual profile/positioning—their brand—in the market, so we always encourage direct contact with the program decision makers, listen carefully to what they actually require and don’t waste their time sending program ideas that don’t fit their needs.”
Netflix’s content deals were just the first wave of how international buys are shaking up the TV sales market. “Our preference would be to control as many of the sales as possible and maximize the potential of international,” says Global Road Entertainment president of scripted Mark Stern. “When you sell projects to companies like Amazon, or Apple now, Netflix certainly, who want to take the world, it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about it. But there’s also a downside, in that they’re not necessarily selling the whole world — they’re just tying it up. And you’ve locked in a certain value that you might be able to shake lose if you were able to sell it yourself. Having said that, if it’s the right home creatively and financially, of course we’re going to go there.”
Some global companies are using internal synergy to expand their audiences. “My partner in drama series, David Levine, and I are working aggressively to forge equal relationships with every counterpart across HBO in Eastern Europe, the U.K., Asia — all around the world where HBO has teams — to figure out, ‘Is there a story that we can come together on to co-produce?’” says HBO exec VP and co-head of drama programming Francesca Orsi, who is overseeing the Hebrew- and Arabic-language drama “Stray Weeds,” which is expected to premiere next year.
English-language remakes of foreign series have long been the norm, but cult hits in the U.S. including “Deutschland ’83” (which aired on SundanceTV and Hulu), Netflix’s “Narcos” and “Dark” have shown audiences are amenable to programming with subtitles.
“This generation has grown up reading text on phones while consuming entertainment at the same time, so the bridge where outlets say, ‘We can’t possibly show a foreign-language drama because people have to read text at the bottom’ has gone,” says panelist Sarah Doole, director of global drama at FremantleMedia, whose German subsidiary UFA is producing the follow-ups “Deutschland ’86” and “’89.” “And what we found when we researched it is that the satisfaction factor of watching subtitled drama tends to be higher. You’re not ironing or eating because you have to read and watch at the same time, so you’re totally concentrating on the drama, which makes it a much more intense experience.”
Of greater concern is how foreign companies can produce or co-produce series that will travel in the same way as U.S. superhero films do overseas. “Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are primarily concerned with attracting viewers to their platforms, and the best way to do that is to deliver something with a budget that looks so rich, sexy and amazing that you would never find it somewhere else, and to empower amazing filmmakers to tell stories that aren’t typically being told,” says Eli Shibley, president of international distribution and co-productions at Global Road Entertainment. “We’re going to see that over the next five to 10 years from these platforms. What that will create is a market ripple effect in which regional platforms need to compete, so you’ll see rising budgets and more creative stories throughout these regions.”
Ask execs what elements will allow series to work in foreign markets and you’ll hear a wide variety of answers. “International territories are trending similarly to those in the U.S., moving toward lighter fare and unique voices, with a focus on quality,” says Participant Media’s senior VP of narrative television Miura Kite. “From our standpoint, the shows that are resonating the most globally are those that are inspiring conversations about social change.”
“A great story with local DNA that can travel globally – that is the key!” adds Studiocanal’s Bauer. “And having international talent like Donald Sutherland (“Crossing Lines“) and Michael C Hall (“Safe“) on our [TV] projects helps to break through the market barrier.“ To that end, her outfit recently took a 20% stake in Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, Sunny March TV.
See-Saw Films television COO Hakan Kousetta notes that it’s “important to have a distinctly authored series with themes that make it relatable to an audience beyond the borders of where it’s set. In addition, bringing on commissioning broadcasters in more than one territory is a testament to the show’s ability to travel.”
Kousetta adds that “if you can add internationally recognizable elements — acting talent, director, writer or source material — then you increase your chances of having an internationally appealing series. ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ is a perfect example — with British and Australian commissioning broadcasters, we were able to bring U.S. and French broadcast partners to the mix, with over 20 territories sold already.”
Female characters carrying the narrative are also important to a show’s global appeal. “Today you have to have strong, unusual, believable, or even crazy female characters,” says FremantleMedia’s Doole. “It’s not enough for the woman to be the sidekick or the fluffy love interest on the sidelines.”
Not all producers are setting out to make shows with a global reach. Vertigo Films co-founder James Richardson, creator and exec producer of the Sky/Amazon fantasy series “Britannia,” says that “asking yourself, ‘Does it have international appeal?’ can sometimes kill it. Each project has to be led by its own creativity and editorial direction.”
But when they do play overseas, he says, the right promotion is also crucial for managing expectations in a crowded marketplace. “We worked incredibly closely with the Sky marketing team to set the creative tone of the campaign, because it had to say “Don’t expect ‘Vikings’ or ‘Game of Thrones’”— that it’s playful and irreverent.”
“We’re not that concerned about the international market, and we never think about what is popular outside Norway,” says panelist Ivar Kohn, head of drama at Nordisk Film & TV Fond, which produced the Netflix series “Lilyhammer,” the serial killer drama “Monster” (picked up by Starz for its on-demand and TV Everywhere services) and several projects (“Eyewitness,” “Mammon”) that have been remade in other countries. “If we make something that they haven’t seen in the states based on Norwegian culture, it feels so original that it works internationally.”
Kohn’s fellow panelist, Beta Film managing director Moritz von Kruedener, also feels that productions from international territories should play to their strengths.
“Local is the new global,” he says. “If you see the tremendous international success of ‘Gomorrah,’ an Italian show shot in a Neapolitan dialect which even most Italians can’t understand, you realize that authenticity is crucial, and the big SVOD platforms support the acceptance of European productions in the English-speaking world.”
Netflix, for example, has the $40 million Beta Film-produced German hit “Babylon Berlin” available in both dubbed and subtitled versions. “We are very interested to see its impact,” he says.
Still, Kruedener Studiocanal’s Bauer and others are realistic about just how far local series can travel. “The big goal would be to get a German show on primetime on an U.S. network, but frankly, there is a long way to go.”