To succeed in the motley and polyglot world of 21st-century media, where the borders between film and TV have grown porous, and global streaming platforms have become such a disruptive force that the very word “TV” seems old-fashioned, one could do worse than get a schooling in the rough-and-tumble world of Ukrainian television in the post-Soviet era.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, the old ways of doing business were crumbling, new players were emerging, and the boundaries of the new media landscape—much as the physical borders of the former Soviet republics—were being rewritten on the fly.
“During that time, the media market changed so much,” says Vlad Riashyn, president of Star Media. “There were no longer any rules to play by. We were at the very center of it all. We were making the rules.”
A certain appetite for risk was necessary, and Riashyn proved as much en route to growing a small, local production company into an international media group that’s set its sights on becoming a major player in global production and distribution.
Riashyn’s career in television began as a creative producer in the 1990s in Ukraine, where he was behind a string of hit TV series. In the early 2000s, he became chairman of the board of the Ukrainian TV channel Inter, presiding over the network at a time when the industry was undergoing rapid and sweeping changes.
“TV in those times was expanding very fast, and audiences wanted new and exciting and different experiences,” he says. Riashyn and his team had a keen understanding of what viewers were looking for, and Inter quickly became among the most-watched television networks in Ukraine.
The years that followed saw the rapid growth of the post-Soviet media landscape, with many of the old certainties about the business coming undone. “The 2000s was a fascinating time for the media industry in Ukraine,” Riashyn recalls. “TV series production was on the rise, and most networks started exploring new forms of content.”
When Riashyn and his partners launched Star Media in 2006, it “gave us the space to experiment and reimagine the industry,” he says, making them among the first wave of innovators to disrupt the business.
From the start, their focus was on production and distribution of high-end content, a strategy that’s helped it evolve into a fast-growing global media house, with offices in Russia, Ukraine, Cyprus and the U.K., and a library boasting more than 7,500 hours of content available in more than 60 countries worldwide.
Among its properties are production arms such as Kristi Films, which produced the 2020 Venice Critics’ Week prize winner “Bad Roads,” and Babich Film, a docudrama specialist which produced the Amazon Prime historical drama series “The Romanovs”; the pay-TV channels Star Cinema, Star Family, and Bolt; and a multichannel network on YouTube, where it’s the largest film and TV content aggregator in Russia and CIS, working with a range of partners from across the region, as well as foreign companies such as India’s ZeeTV.
The business continues to grow, with Star Media developing the anti-piracy software ContentScan and making its first forays into the production of VR and AR content. Riashyn says the company plans to expand its family of channels “in the near future” and is also developing an OTT service, although he says it’s too soon to reveal further details about the venture.
Star Media is meanwhile ramping up production on a slate of films and series geared toward both the local and international markets, capitalizing on what CEO Maria Grechishnikova sees as an era of boundless possibility and untapped potential for content producers.
“It’s a great and interesting time we’re living in,” she says, pointing to the rise of streaming services and the steady demand for new content across platforms as a “great opportunity” for rights holders.
“Star Media is an independent production company, and this is very important for us,” she adds. “We prefer to stay as independent as possible, producing for all players on the market.”
That has pushed the company to increasingly set its sights overseas, with Riashyn describing it as “a very important direction for us, to make projects with different international partners for different international markets.”
Two years ago, Star Media launched its first co-production, the 10-episode thriller “The Pleasure Principle,” which it produced with Poland’s Apple Film Productions, Canal Plus Poland and the Czech public broadcaster Czech Television. Another cross-border collaboration, the six-episode thriller “Silence,” is currently being filmed with Croatia’s Drugi Plan, Germany’s Beta Film, and the Ukrainian VOD player Oll.tv.
Other anticipated projects in the works include “Bolshoi” (pictured), a feature documentary about the world-renowned Russian theater, produced with Germany’s Kinescope Film, Arte, and Salzgeber, and “Shtetl,” a story of true love and unlikely friendship set in a small Jewish town in Western Ukraine, which will be produced in collaboration with French and Belgian partners.
Another upcoming feature, “The Last Mercenary,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, is the first production to spring from a partnership launched last year between Star Media and the British media company OLLEV. The film will drop on Netflix in July.
It’s a slate that reflects the company’s increasingly global ambitions at a time when streaming platforms have made the world of film and TV production feel like a smaller place. Just as a typical Friday-night viewing diet might include a Mexican narco-thriller, a German sci-fi mystery, and a Regency-era period drama set in London high society, Star Media is pushing beyond the old Soviet borders to take its place on the international stage.
As the company celebrates its 15th anniversary, Riashyn reflects on the strategy that helped get it there. “I can’t remember who said the phrase: ‘When you play to win, you have to take risks,’” he says. “When there are no risks involved, you are not playing to win; you are playing only not to lose. The media business means taking risks every single day, and we at Star Media are really good at that.”