Two years ago, Ivana Mikovic—former COO of public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia—took a look at the booming local TV landscape and saw an opportunity for a bold new venture. Partnering with Boban Jevtic, the former head of Film Center Serbia, she hatched a plan to build a sprawling, state-of-the-art film studio on the outskirts of Belgrade.
“I thought we could invest in some film studios and attract…people and productions and studios from abroad to start filming in Serbia,” she told Variety. But as the duo wrangled for permits and pored over blueprints, they realized that their country could be more than just a hub for foreign shoots.”
“The ever-growing market with drama series [was] really trending,” said Mikovic. As a result, “we thought we could offer some of the more interesting stories that we can develop, which is much cheaper in Serbia, for foreign markets.”
Firefly Productions has quickly become a major producer of scripted series, launching three high-end dramas this year—including “Underneath” (pictured), a Nordic-style crime drama about a police inspector with a dark past on the trail of a serial killer, which world premieres this week at the Sarajevo Film Festival—with three more currently in production.
Mikovic also expects the €7 million ($8.3 million) Firefly Studios complex—which will include three soundstages, a water tank, workshops, production offices, and an adjoining backlot—to open by next July.
The company’s rapid growth underscores a recent boom in the Serbian TV industry, which has become a production powerhouse in the region. But optimism abounds across much of Southeast Europe, which is what prompted the organizers of Sarajevo’s CineLink Industry Days to launch the CineLink Drama co-financing forum in 2016. Originally established with a focus on the former Yugoslavia, it has since been expanded to include projects from neighboring countries.
Five series in development will be presented in pitching sessions this week to key European and regional broadcasters, VOD platforms, and distributors. The pitches will be available online throughout the Sarajevo Film Festival, which runs Aug. 14-21. One project will also be awarded a €15,000 ($17,800) development prize sponsored by the Croatian Audiovisual Center.
CineLink industry coordinator Armin Hadzic said that recent years in Southeast Europe have been marked by a welcome shift away from local creators trying to copy-and-paste the formula of successful drama series produced in Scandinavia, Israel or the U.S. “They were trying to replicate that for the region,” he said. “Right now, we are back to the roots. We are making…a mix of what we watch, what we love, with themes and settings from this region.”
While rooting their stories in the local, Balkan producers are undoubtedly thinking about global audiences. “This year, [the CineLink Drama projects are] much closer to something that you can watch on Netflix than a couple of years ago,” said Hadzic. “They have to count on those huge players in the international market. It’s not just producing for the public [broadcaster] in Romania. [They’re asking] how this can be watched not just here, but in Brazil.”
The biggest success story to emerge from the co-financing forum has been “The Paper,” a gritty political crime thriller commissioned by Croatian national broadcaster HRT and produced by Zagreb-based Drugi Plan, which was acquired by Netflix in Sarajevo two years ago.
But while that was a heartening sign for the local industry, the global streaming services are yet to begin commissioning and producing original content from the region in a significant way. “There is no initiative to acquire the IP,” said Siniša Juričić of Nukleus Film, which operates in Croatia and Slovenia. The company, which has co-produced films such as Cannes Critics’ Week selection “Sofia’s Last Ambulance,” began to develop its TV arm around six years ago. But for smaller markets in the former Yugoslavia outside of Serbia, financing options are few and far between.
“The biggest problem that we are facing [in Croatia] is…we have a national TV [broadcaster], and we have two commercial TV stations, and both are closed ecosystems,” said Juričić. Both commercial broadcasters produce their projects in-house, while pubcaster HRT tends to shy away from the risqué content that Juričić is looking to develop. “Me, as an independent producer from Croatia, I cannot count on any TV sales.”
That makes a co-financing forum like CineLink Drama all the more vital for the Zagreb-based outfit. “Our only hope is…to find somebody abroad who’s interested, produce it, and then local broadcasters might get interested,” said Juričić. “It’s crazy, because usually it works the other way.”
During CineLink Drama, Nukleus will present “The Abyss,” written and created by Marjan Alčevski and directed by Mladen Dizdar. The series follows a female detective who faces a difficult moral dilemma while investigating a series of murders of powerful men.
“‘The Abyss’ poses a dilemma between justice and revenge. What are we willing to do when we witness the system is failing us?” said Alčevski. “At its heart the show is pure genre—a murder mystery, a detective, an increasing body count and secrets from the past. While deeply rooted in Croatian reality the viewer doesn’t need to be familiar with it to enjoy and understand the story.”
He added: “The days when the Balkans was this insane, inexplicable region are past. The world has become similar to us, for better or for worse.”
Firefly will present “Block 27,” a teenage science fiction-mystery created by Ivan Knezevic. It follows the disappearance of a teenager in Belgrade, and the search by his twin sister to find him—a journey that finds her traveling to another dimension.
The drama offers supernatural elements in the vein of “Dark” and “Stranger Things.” “Nothing like that was done in Serbia before,” said Mikovic. “It’s the search for a person disappearing into a different dimension, and along the way, everybody learns more about themselves.”
Romania’s Actoriedefilm.ro and Digital Cube, meanwhile, will present “Black Delta,” written and created by the father-daughter duo Dragos Bucur and Sofia Bucur and directed by Dorian Boguta. It’s the story of a teenager and her father who investigate a boy’s disappearance and end up uncovering a religious order, mythical beings and their own family secrets.
The series is set in the brooding Danube Delta region, which Bucur sees as a natural setting for a supernatural drama. “This kind of exotic world is very powerful and real in the area,” he said. “It’s still alive. People still believe in these kinds of superpowers.”
Tapping into such local mythologies for their storytelling is hardly a new phenomenon, but Balkan creators have never before had such potential to reach global audiences—as evidenced by the historical drama “Black Sun,” which earlier this year became the first Serbian series acquired by Amazon Prime. “The stories are local, but internationally recognized,” said Mikovic. “These are the stories of people in any society—any story we’re doing, you can connect to it in a way.”
That also offers foreign audiences a chance to see the region in a new light. “Everybody knows that this side of Europe, and especially Romania, has a lot to say in the arthouse tradition,” said Bucur. “I think also on the commercial side of the industry, we could say a few things.”
Here is the complete list of projects in the CineLink Drama co-financing forum. More information about each project can be found here.
Creator: Marjan Alčevski
Director: Mladen Dizdar
Writer: Marjan Alčevski
Producer: Siniša Juričić
Production company: Nukleus Film
Logline: While investigating a series of murders of powerful men in Osijek, investigator Zora faces a dilemma: would she rather be a good cop or a good human being?
Creator: Dragos Bucur and Sofia Bucur
Writer: Dragos Bucur and Sofia Bucur
Director: Dorian Boguta
Producer: Cristian Nicolescu
Production company: Actoriedefilm.ro & Digital Cube
Logline: A teenager and her father investigate a boy’s disappearance and end up uncovering a religious order, mythical beings and their own family secrets.
Creator: Ivan Knezevic
Producer: Ivana Mikovic
Production company: Firefly Productions
Logline: When a teenager disappears in the rough blocks of New Belgrade, his twin sister, ignored by the confused parents and the inefficient police, starts a search of her own.
Creator: Seyfettin Tokmak, Selman Bayer
Writer: Seyfettin Tokmak, Selman Bayer
Director: Seyfettin Tokmak
Producer: Zeynep Koray
Production company: ZKF
Logline: The criminal Spitzer and Officer Yusuf gather to solve a series of murders. A confrontation between old and new, reason and intuition within this relationship leads them to success.
Creator: Blaž Završnik, Dario Nožić Serini, Katarina Rešek
Director: Blaž Završnik, Katarina Rešek
Writer: Blaž Završnik
Producer: Bojan Mastilović
Production company: Iridium Film
Logline: Everything needs marketing. Even drugs.