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Netflix’s ‘How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)’s’ Creators on the New German Original

CANNES — Netflix’s “How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” kicks off with a police special unit, automatic rifles trained, moving in silently for  asking. The target, a buff teen drug dealer, at work in his basement lab lair. He bolts on his scooter, doesn’t get 10 yards before he’s arrested.

So this is how the protagonist ends up? No, it’s an illustration of what happens to you if you don’t secure your data base correctly and insinuate you’re dealing as a flirting technique, lectures a voice over, revealed as the confident, smiling 20-something Moritz Zimmermann.

Inspired by true facts, and sometimes whiplash-edited, “HTSDOF” turns on how Moritz, when a high-school student, 17 – living in a non-descript German village with 28,000 inhabitants, whose four most Googled words are “Google,” “Deutsch,” “German” and “sex” – sets up Europe’s biggest online drug business from out of his bedroom, with his best friend, Lenny, in order to impress his ex-girlfriend Lisa, who comes back from the U.S. a pill-popping party animal.

It’s part Generation Z guide.  “This is my generation,” Moritz says, walking into his high school corridor during break. The series drills down on its extraordinary connectivity, insecurities, sense of a dead-end future.

It’s also – say creators Philipp Käßbohrer and Matthias Murmann at Germany’s BTF – about growing up. Variety interviewed them about the Netflix series which world premiered on Saturday night at Canneseries.

The series take a classic capitalist guidebook thrust – think “Good to Great” – and applies it to how to sell drugs. That seems to be a comment on the prospects of Gen Z. Classic career structures are now far more difficult. You have to think of an alternative.  Could you comment?

Today it’s simply much more difficult for young people to find something they’re really good at. You just have to take a quick look at the Internet to find out that there are thousands of people who are better at “your thing” than you are. Our main character has found something that he’s better at than everyone else. The only catch: It’s illegal.

The series makes large use of online aesthetics: Facebook pages, pop ups. It’s also extraordinarily fast in its editing. I counted about 21 shots in Ep. 1’s first 34 seconds. Ep. 2 is more composed,. But why this whiplash editing style? And why just half-hour episodes? 

The show is a great trip for anyone who isn’t brave enough to risk actually taking drugs. It gives you an upbeat high that stays with you after it wears off. Other than possibly being addictive, we don’t know of any negative side effects. The style of the show reflects the audiovisual diversity you’re confronted with today when using the Internet and social media. Trust me, there are places in the worldwide web where people have been waiting a long time for Jonathan Frakes to explain Darknet to them.

At heart, this is a buddy movie. About Mo and Lenny, who starts selling drugs because they’re desperate. What Lenny can do for Mo, and Mo for Lenny. Again, could you comment?

Yes. It is a story about friendship. But first of all, it is a story about growing up and learning what it means to be an adult. It can be a big challenge to many friendships. It’s a question of whether the friendship is stronger than the allure of money and success. – By the way, Moritz also wants to win back his girlfriend ;)

This is consciously abut Gen Z, but also a YA drama-thriller with a far larger audience. Is that correct?

The whole show is about entertaining the kids, while frightening the parents. You know, we’re the first generation to have done things on the Internet as teenagers that our parents had no idea about. (I’m talking about downloading mp3s of course ;) – Nowadays, parents are more afraid that their kids will find porn or violence on the Internet. We’re showing them that in reality everything is much worse and more dangerous than that. Nowadays, young people can do things on the Internet that destroy their whole lives: like becoming a drug lord. Or even worse, a YouTube star.

CREDIT: Christoph Holsten

How did you get Netflix on board?

We’re still asking ourselves that same question. It’s the first fiction series we’ve done. I’m not actually sure if we ever told Netflix that.

As “How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” makes clear, early on, this is based on a true-life case. Could you go into a few details?

When we first heard about a young computer nerd successfully selling drugs for bitcoins in an Amazon-like store on the Internet, we were pretty excited immediately. We’re nerds ourselves. People who are only good at one thing and so spend all their time doing that one thing. This was obviously a smart guy. His page seemed to have a big focus on usability and shop technology rather than on the drugs. It seemed that the product itself was interchangeable. When we started to dig into the story, we found out that the true story is actually not nearly as exciting as it seems at first. Maybe he was a little bit too smart. If what he told the judge was true, then he worked alone the entire time and actually didn’t make any mistakes. Until he made one mistake, which got him arrested. His lawyer told the court: “It might as well have been shoes” he was selling. The judge sentenced him to seven years in jail.

Could you drill down very quickly on your production company?

BTF is an independent, owner-driven production company with a focus on high-concept contents for selected audiences. Our day-to-day work includes multiple genres like late night entertainment, documentaries, and sketch comedy. We just released our first computer game, “Trüberbrook.” We run our own little studio city in Cologne Ehrenfeld with round about 100 magnificent human beings.

At the  inauguration of Netflix’s Madrid Production Center on Thursday, Francisco Ramos, VP, original contents, referred to Germany as one of the countries in Europe where Netflix is ramping up most its production. Do you feel part in any way of a generation of creators which have been liberated by online scripted? 

We may have missed the golden age of television, but we are right at the beginning of the cryptocurrency age of television. If you know your basic tools, it is really fun to be a content creator in the digital world. But just to be clear to everyone who also wants to join the business: It’s still way easier to earn your money by selling drugs on the Internet than by trying to make a remarkable show about it for Netflix.

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