EFM Drama Series Days: Launching the Next 'House of Cards' Before the Binge-TV Bust
As the EFM launches the second edition of its small-screen sidebar, insiders wonder if the TV bubble is about to burst: "It’s very exciting but very frightening as well."
The golden age of TV has become a tired cliche by now ("more like a golden shower!" snorts Steve Coogan in character as hapless journalist/failed celebrity Alan Partridge in a recent op-ed for The Guardian).
However, it’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of high-end drama being produced worldwide and the vast sums being pumped into series. The shows picked by Berlin’s European Film Market for its Drama Series Days showcase are a mere sampling of what has become an avalanche of complex, challenging and binge-worthy content, much of it now being made outside the U.S. and often not in the English language.
"It’s a kind of frenzy; nobody wants to miss out, and because there’s the opportunity that something small from anywhere in the world can become a cult hit, everyone is looking at everything," says Amelie von Kienlin, senior vp scripted acquisitions and co-productions at Red Arrow, an umbrella group that controls about a dozen TV production companies across Europe and the U.S. "It’s very exciting but very frightening as well."
Frightening because where there is a boom, a bust must follow. At the moment, the money is flooding in. Broadcasters worldwide are shifting their budgets away from reality and entertainment shows to drama series, adding to the cash being pumped into the market by SVOD giants like Netflix and Amazon. Netflix alone will invest hundreds of millions of dollars on international series productions this year, including a jaw-dropping $140 million for the first two seasons of its new British series The Crown, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Claire Foy, Matt Smith and John Lithgow.
"We are definitely in the midst of an investment boom; all the new platforms are taking big bets," says Philipp Steffens, head of drama at leading German commercial channel RTL, who, like many in the industry, sees the boom as a bubble waiting to burst.
But with all that money coming in, and with independent film — despite the record sales out of Sundance — still struggling, it’s no surprise that moviemakers are moving into TV. Every big indie film company now has a TV division — even French cinema specialists Wild Bunch launched a small-screen operation last year — and the above-the-line talent for international series is impressive.
Increasingly, these series also are financed like indie features — as co-productions among two or three countries and with a world sales company on board to handle distribution.
"We put together Cleverman in patchwork fashion, like an indie movie," says Rosemary Blight of Goalpost Pictures, a producer on the heavily hyped Australian sci-fi series that premieres in Berlin. "We got ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corp.] as an anchor network, then Red Arrow came in as a major sales partner and took rights for the world, then we got subsidies from Screen Australia and used the New Zealand/Australian tax rebates. It’s very much the model that independent film has been using for years."
One reason this is happening is the international television market is diversifying. Only a few years ago, every major territory was dominated by a couple of big free-to-air broadcasters only interested in broad-appeal, mainstream series. Now niche networks — on cable and online — are everywhere. As of this year, Netflix is available in every country in the world bar three (China, North Korea and Syria, plus the disputed Crimea region). AMC International Networks offers its specialty channels, including versions of its flagships AMC and SundanceTV, to nearly 400 million homes worldwide. Even traditional broadcasters are going niche with digital and on-demand services — see Channel 4’s Walter Presents, which specializes in foreign-language shows, including German spy thriller Deutschland 83, Danish vampire series Heartless and French comedy Kabul Kitchen.
Perhaps no series in Berlin better illustrates how much the TV world has changed than The Writer. The Sayed Kashua dramedy looks at the life of an Israeli Arab, living, Kashua says, "in constant confusion as a minority in the Jewish state." Even the show’s Israeli network, Kashua says, was scared of commissioning a series "so close to reality, it hurt." But The Writer is in Berlin, and sales outfit Keshet International is confident it will find buyers.
"I’ve heard we are reaching a saturation point when it comes to series, but I think the audience is still there for blue-chip drama," says Blight. "If it’s a bubble, we’re still in it, and while we are, we’re going to try to do as much high-quality stuff as we can."
Hakan Kousetta, COO, Television at See Saw Films — behind last year’s festival hit Mr. Holmes, Jane Campion’s TV debut Top of the Lake and a producer on Love, Nina — sees a bust coming, at least for the newbies to the television scene, the indie film producers.
"TV is a different business," he says. "Broadcasters are still the cornerstone, they commission the shows and they are always taking a risk. You live and die by those commissions. You can have the best concept with the best talent, but you still have to deliver. That’s why so many [film producers] find it so hard to break into the business. In the next few years, I think you’ll see a consolidation, with most of [the newcomers] falling away."
Rola Bauer, a producer of such international TV productions as Pillars of the Earth and Spotless and now head of StudioCanal’s U.S. television production business, says the real trick is keeping local viewers satisfied while also appealing to an international audience.
"Look at House of Cards. It isn’t a global hit, but in the countries where it lands, it’s very successful," he says. "The question is, how can we do that? That’s our challenge."
Correction: Rola Bauer and StudioCanal did not produce The Last Panthers. Haut et Court TV and Warp Films produced the series, while StudioCanal is a joint distributor of the show with Sky Vision. The Hollywood Reporter regrets the error.