As it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival looked to keep pace with the rapidly evolving – and colliding – worlds of film and television with the launch of a new sidebar and industry strand dedicated to high-end TV series.
For the first time TIFF unspooled a sidebar featuring eight of the buzziest European TV dramas of recent years. The festival also launched the Drama Room, a three-day event for industry professionals in Central and Eastern Europe interested in producing scripted drama, in what TIFF founder Tudor Giurgiu sees as the first step in a growing commitment to support the region’s evolving TV business.
“We are paying more and more attention to this, like many other festivals,” said Giurgiu. “The content is really surprising and good. We are encouraging both producers and writers to learn and understand the mechanics of doing TV series and miniseries.”
A collaboration with the Midpoint Institute, a Prague-based training and networking platform that supports writers, directors and producers from Central and Eastern Europe, the Drama Room highlighted the growing interest in a region that remains largely untapped in the realm of prestige drama.
“Distributors have just started looking seriously into the region,” said former HBO Europe creative executive Gábor Krigler, who launched the Budapest-based production company Joyrider in 2019. “There is progress, but in many respects, the region is lagging behind and trying to catch up.”
Krigler led a virtual session this week on developing drama series for the international market, focused on the unique challenges and opportunities for creatives from Central and Eastern Europe.
For nearly a decade at HBO, Krigler was part of a team that became a reliable pipeline for prestige drama in Europe. At the time, however, the focus was on producing high-end series for the company’s local outfits. It was Netflix, said Krigler, that shifted the paradigm by “prov[ing] that it’s possible to break through internationally with non-English language scripted content.”
That’s led to a string of international breakout hits, such as the Spanish crime thriller “Money Heist” and German science fiction thriller “Dark.” For TV producers in Central and Eastern Europe, however, “the challenges are still telling these stories in a manner that is accessible to international audiences,” said Krigler.
Partly that requires a shift in how projects are conceived and developed in a region that has long put a premium on auteur-driven filmmaking. “People are now catching on in terms of realizing that writing for TV is at least on some level a commercial enterprise, and the product is a commercial product, as opposed to the auteur-driven feature films,” Krigler said, noting that such films traditionally benefit from state subsidies without an imperative to turn a profit.
“For producers and directors and writers now, it’s a realization and it’s a process until they figure out we are talking about a commercial product that can be of a very high artistic integrity, but must be accessible to a wider audience, because someone is actually risking an investment there.”
The region’s creatives are nevertheless bolstered by a long tradition of storytelling, as well as a deep pool of talent to tap into. “Although the high-end drama industry is relatively new in CEE, there is a rich and proud history of film and theater production in the region from which we can draw on,” said Johnathan Young, VP of original production at HBO Central Europe, whose latest Romanian drama “Ruxx” (pictured) premiered this week in Transilvania.
“Part of our task is to get this top established talent, and the best of the next generation, to embrace the opportunity to work in series television,” he continued. “Our job is to remove any fears they may have about their vision being compromised due to the technical and commercial demands of television. Instead, we want to present the opportunity that they can reach a much bigger audience, both at home and abroad.”
Global streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon have yet to make significant inroads into the region, but their growing presence elsewhere on the continent has raised the stakes for producers whose ambitions for high-end scripted drama have been hamstrung by cash-strapped broadcasters and limited public financing.
Many hoping to turn a local series into a global hit are structuring ambitious co-production deals similar to those found in independent film, working with producers and broadcasters from multiple territories to boost their series’ budgets and reach. International distributors such as Beta Film are increasingly boarding projects in the development stage as well, helping the region’s writers and showrunners to craft stories with broader appeal. “There are different possibilities,” said Midpoint program coordinator Katarina Tomkova. “There’s no one way to do it.”
Governments are also recognizing the opportunity to give their TV industries a boost. Across the region a number of countries, including Hungary and Czech Republic, have restructured their national film funding bodies to incorporate TV production as well, paving the way for producers to access much-needed public financing.
Tomkova noted that local pubcasters could also follow in the footsteps of their counterparts in Scandinavia – where public broadcasters in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland are working to jointly produce high-end series – or elsewhere in Europe, where French pubcaster France Televisions, Italy’s RAI TV, and Germany’s ZDF have banded together to form the joint production venture The Alliance.
“On the one hand, it’s super exciting, because there are no rules and you create the rules yourself. On the other hand, it’s scary in a way, especially if you’re a producer that doesn’t have that kind of experience,” said Tomkova. “It’s uncharted territory.”