Few companies in the global television industry have been better placed than Netflix to take advantage of the surge in demand for premium international content. But when it comes to the explosion in programming from outside of Hollywood, the company’s former VP of international originals Erik Barmack admitted on Thursday, “We didn’t see it coming.”
Barmack, who left the Los Gatos-based streaming giant to launch the production company Wild Sheep Content last year, was speaking on a panel of global executives at Rome’s MIA market looking at the changing face of international TV production. Also taking part were Superna Kalle, executive VP of international digital networks at Starz; Vince Gerardis, CEO and founder of Startling, Inc.; and Thomas Benski, CEO and founder of Pulse Films. The session was moderated by CAA Scripted TV agent Michael Gordon.
“What we knew, as Netflix, was that we were going to have to be more international, and that part of being international was going to be telling stories from around the world,” Barmack continued. “Initially, that venture was very much focused on local storytelling…[and] the belief was that it would help strengthen our business for a variety of reasons by having investment in local programming.”
That gambit would soon pay off for the streamer, with the breakout of such international hits as Brazil’s “3%,” Germany’s “Dark,” India’s “Sacred Games,” “Money Heist” from Spain and Denmark’s “The Rain.” “That only happened because we were willing to take a risk on local content storytelling to begin with,” said Barmack, “and the technology and the platform were ripe for change.”
Gerardis announced on Thursday the launch of a new production company based in Rome. The move was driven in part by a personal desire to establish a foothold on the continent, and partly by the untapped opportunities he recognized in Southern Europe.
“The U.K., and France, and Germany certainly have robust and mature businesses,” said the “Game of Thrones” co-executive producer. “But I felt that there was opportunity in Spain and Italy, and so I’ve committed to invest and making sure that I’m able to try to bring some interesting content form Italy to the world, and Spain to the world, and vice versa.”
Such globe-trotting ambitions come at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has upended travel plans and production schedules for the industry, forcing creatives to adapt on the fly.
Pulse recently wrapped post-production on season two of the Sky and Cinemax crime series “Gangs of London,” with Benski noting that the entire team “had to be creative and plan for the different eventualities.”
“I wouldn’t say it was flawless, but the most important thing is to keep going. To show not only our team, but the world and the industry, that we’re resilient to this,” he said. “I think this is a moment where we need to continue to create content, and as producers, the emphasis is on us to try and find ways to do that in the best possible ways, and without compromising storytelling.”
Adaptability, he added, is built into the nature of the industry at a time of massive, paradigm-shifting changes. “What I’m seeing a lot is innovation in the business model,” he said. “Specifically when we talk about big-budget shows outside of the U.S., terrestrial broadcasters, or the traditional players, might not have the budget capacity to fully finance. So you’re having to utilize co-productions to do that. The question is, every show has a distinctive flavor, and it’s about finding the best partners for it.”
“I think it’s a golden era to be doing international TV,” said Barmack. “On a macro level, the market is growing. You have more buyers who are interested in figuring out global content… I think having big IP outside the U.S. is going to be super important. Really understanding these global markets, and who’s producing at quality, is going to be really important.”
While that shift opens up a raft of opportunities for international collaborations, he added that the market “requires a real focus in a way that perhaps it might not have even three years ago.”
Gerardis, who acquired Italian citizenship last year, highlighted the steep learning curve when it comes to bridging the cultural divide.
“There’s no question that navigating the television business and the culture all at the same time—I mean, partnering is not a normal mode of business for a lot of these people,” he said. “And they’re all excellent producers, and they’re used to keeping their share of the deal. And so finding producers that want to share, and want to work with the resources that we can access, and the talent that we can access, and the stories that we can bring: it’s not easy, but it is possible.”
It is also, perhaps, inevitable, with Barmack pointing to the “rapid investment by global platforms…[who] are willing to invest in new types of shows that they hadn’t before.”
“It’s probably the case that as U.S. TV gets more and more expensive, that it’s going to reach a breaking point, where you just cannot fill that much television per week for the appropriate audience size,” he said. “There’s going to be room…for 50 or 60 shows per year on a global level, and it’s just going to stand to reason that fewer of them are going to be English over time.”
While that might sound like an enticing prospect for producers with globe-spanning aspirations, the glut of high-end international content means that even the most prescient producer might ultimately pass on the next “Gomorrah,” “Money Heist,” or “The Bridge.”
For Benski, that’s just fine. “I just think less is more,” he said. “The passion, and the commitment you have—you can’t commit to everything all the time, and I think you’re better off taking big swings at [fewer] things.”
He continued: “I’m totally comfortable to miss out. I just think you have to know what you’re really good at, and the type of shows that you’re best-placed to do, and the type of talent you can attract, and bet on that.”
Pictured from left to right: Erik Barmack, CEO and founder of Wild Sheep Content; Vince Gerardis, CEO and founder of Startling, Inc.; Superna Kalle, executive VP of international digital networks at Starz; and Thomas Benski, CEO and founder of Pulse Films.