In one of its first major overtures to the European drama community since expanding across the continent, HBO Max commissioners used a rare Series Mania presentation to lay out their strategies and wish lists for the platform.
The team was speaking as part of a panel on Wednesday that drew a queue of at least 500 people who were snaked around the Lille Grand Palais in hopes of getting in. HBO Max is, for many a drama producer in town, the ideal partner in Europe given its existing track record as HBO Europe. (The business later revealed plans to invest $1 million into the Series Mania Institute, a training program for European TV professionals, over the next three years.)
Antony Root, executive VP and head of original production for WarnerMedia EMEA, presented the streamer’s four pillars for local originals: Local first; broad appeal; distinctive storytelling; and a diverse slate.
The task at hand, he said, is to drive subscriber acquisitions and “get people in who might not otherwise subscribe to the HBO channel, by having a broader slate.”
“We still want shows that are bold; not re-trends of other shows. We’re always looking for shows that can move a genre forwards,” Root said, noting that building out a slate of unscripted programs such as Romania’s “One True Singer,” revealed by Variety last week, is a priority alongside drama.
A diverse slate — meaning diversity in price points — was stressed by the executive, who said the platform “can’t make everything at high drama prices.”
HBO Max is currently streaming in 21 European countries with Central and Eastern Europe, Portugal and the Netherlands joining the Nordics, Spain and Andorra. The platform hasn’t yet launched in key markets like the U.K., France and Germany.
Root was later joined onstage by his commissioning team, which includes Johnathan Young, VP and commissioning editor of original production for Central Europe; Miguel Salvat, who has the same role in Spain; Christian Wikander for the Nordics; and new recruit Véra Peltekian for France, where HBO Max has yet to launch.
The main takeaways for producers at Series Mania was a need for “big hooks and big characters,” said Young, who made clear that he’s looking for dramas that can sustain an audience over a number of series with twists. Elsewhere, Salvat said the Spanish business “doesn’t like complicated, but we do like complex.”
“Everyone is looking for the lottery ticket that won yesterday. That won’t work anymore. We’re looking for the next winner,” said the executive.
Meanwhile, Wikander refused to give a specific brief when asked what he’s looking for out of the Nordics: “I don’t have a clue,” he said, citing the sheer volume of shows coming out of the Nordics every year.
“There is a flood of great content. If we are to stand out we need a red flag that is clear for the audience. How do you have a brief to get ‘Squid Game’? I don’t know, ” he said, and motioning to producers in the room, added: “So please come forward!”
Detailed regional briefs
Young, who first joined HBO in Europe in 2014, said: “We started off doing adaptations and formats, and then people began pitching originals. In every country we’ve made original projects from the region, and we’re incredibly proud of the fact that we came to do premium drama.
“People watch and love HBO shows, and with us they have an opportunity to make HBO shows in their local language,” he continued.
Programming highlights include Polish thriller “The Thaw” as well as Hungarian drama “The Informant.” Young said he was looking for energetic, passionate writers who put everything of themselves into their characters. He described “The Thaw” writer Marta Szymanek welling up with tears when describing her lead character.
“We want to capture that passion and help [the writer] translate that on screen,” said Young.
Elsewhere, Salvat said that while production more broadly in Spain was “boiling with activity,” the streamer is still “trying to understand what, locally, the contribution of original programming can be to the business, which goes beyond getting and retaining new subscriptions,” said Salvat. “It’s about the local perception of the brand.”
One example of a Spanish original that performed well for the platform, he said, is “Patria,” an eight-part drama about the Basque conflict told in two different timelines that “ticked all the boxes.”
Wikander, a former commissioner for Swedish broadcaster SVT and a producer with Twelve Town, joined HBO Europe in 2020, and said his work hadn’t especially changed between the companies he’s worked for.
“What is a challenge and a bit of surprise is how things travel or don’t within territories,” said Vikander. “The Danish material was maybe the best in the region, Swedish and Norwegian comes in second. But all in all, there’s great talent across [the board].”
HBO Europe has scored a slam dunk in the last year with originals “Kamikaze,” a family drama from Denmark, and “Lust,” a raucous Swedish comedy drama about a group of middle-aged women coming to terms with lacklustre sex lives.
“It’s been a fantastic journey,” said Wikander on “Lust.” “[The actors] have spent so many hours together talking about their own experiences about sex. Being transparent about that and from that pot of shared experiences, they started to build this universe.”
Meanwhile, France’s Peltekian also discussed her ambitions for the streamer, which has still yet to launch, and a drive to challenge preconceived ideas about what shows work for the platform. While she’s not looking for a “big volume,” she needs a “constant volume, because we need to be a permanent player in the game.”
“In France, you have many cop shows. I want to do something different. It’s not a priority to add another cop show to the lineup,” said Peltekian. “We want drama, comedy, romcoms. Something like what ‘The Return’ did 15 years ago.”