HBO Europe Ramping Up Local Drama Output

HBO Europe 'Golden Life' - H 2015
Courtesy of HBO Europe

After the premiere of new dramas in Poland and the Czech Republic, the European unit launches 'Aranyelet' ('Golden Life') in Hungary as local originals have outperformed 'Game of Thrones' in ratings.

HBO Europe, the European arm of the Time Warner unit‎,‎ launched new drama Aranyelet (Golden Life), based on Finnish format Easy Living, in Hungary on Thursday night with a red-carpet premiere screening of the first episode, and a party, as it continues to ramp up its original local drama output.

The ‎unit operates across 14 Central and Eastern European territories, plus the Netherlands, and has in recent years taken a page from its parent company's playbook by creating more original programming for its markets.

Thursday's launch event brought to an end a big month for HBO Europe in terms of new dramas. Before the Hungary launch of Aranyelet, about a dishonest family man trying to reform, HBO Europe launched two versions of Norwegian thriller drama Mammon, one in Poland under the title Pakt and one in the Czech Republic, called Mamon. The show focuses on a journalist who comes across information that seems to implicate his brother in a scandal.

‎Early this year, HBO Europe had also launched Umbre in Romania and rolled out the stylish adaptation of Australian crime series Small Time Gangster across its territories.

"This is a particularly strong year," Root tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Our goal has always been to have a fiction show each year in the four‎ principal territories where we produce, which are Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania. We have reached that, and we are building the volume, but we are also diversifying the kind of things we are doing." The company is increasingly developing original ideas instead of working on adaptations.

"Our development [slate] now does not rely on formats anymore," HBO Hungary executive Gabor Krigler, who as creative producer also worked on Aranyelet, told journalists Thursday. "Right now, we have six [dramas in development]. We are thinking of picking up two more. Right now, it's one original a year, and from '17 the plan is to produce and release two."

Aranyelet already ended up being more original than adaptation, he said. While it starts in similar fashion as the show it is based on, "from episode two, it's completely ‎different, it's almost like a Hungarian original," he said.

HBO Hungary's strides fit well into HBO Europe's broader vision. "We are looking to grow the amount of shows we produce for local audiences over time," says Root. "And starting last [fall] when we launched Wataha (The Pack, about a group of border guards patrolling the frontier between Poland and Ukraine) in Poland, which was our first original limited series, we are moving to a situation where the different countries are often doing different shows. That is an exciting development. It increases the number of titles that we produce and allows us to also show them in our other operating countries."

Typically, local original programming in local languages, especially when properly marketed, outperforms U.S. HBO shows and other acquisitions airing on HBO Europe, explains Root. "Audiences have a hunger for local programming. We don't give out particular ratings, but Wataha did outperform Game of Thrones in Poland‎. A version of Shall We Kiss in the Czech Republic also outperformed the acquisitions."

Taking a page from the playbook of its U.S. parent, HBO Europe a few years ago started producing first original fare ‎beyond documentaries, which have been a key focus for it since 2007 and which have won awards and attracted rave reviews at film festivals.

In 2010, HBO Europe started adapting show formats from other countries. Israeli formats In Treatment‎, a psychologist drama, and Shall We Kiss, a relationship drama, were the first adaptations. The former was adapted for Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in addition to the U.S. The latter was remade for Hungary and Romania.

In 2012, HBO Europe decided to continue adapting formats while also trying its hand at creating its own originals to air alongside such HBO originals as Boardwalk Empire and True Blood and named Antony Root executive vp original programming and production. The company has also set up original production teams in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

HBO Europe produced Burning Bush a year later as its first original local-language mini-series in Eastern Europe. The Czech drama was set during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969. 

In the summer of 2014, HBO Europe hired Steve Matthews, a consulting producer on Showtime's The Borgias, as a London-based programming executive, a script doctor so to speak, who works with the teams developing the various shows, to help it further expand its original programming output.

Talent says it likes working with HBO because of its brand promise and reputation. Szabolcs Thuroczy, one of the stars of Aranyelet who also worked on the local version of Shall We Kiss, said: "We already know what kind of standard HBO is ‎working to, so now we feel we can not go below that standard."

Said co-star Laura Dobrosi: "‎This is the second HBO series I play in. So, I already knew that it has very high standards. There is money for good-quality stuff, plus there is a very professional crew, and the screenplay grabbed my attention. It means quality and feeling safe and being able to be proud of what you are doing, and knowing it in advance."

Thursday's event in Budapest drew an estimated more than 350 people and brought HBO Europe executives back to where the unit started. After all, the first TV service launched by HBO in Europe was HBO Hungary in Sept. 1991.

But Krigler and his colleagues want to continue upping the ante with high-quality drama, saying a second season of Aranyelet could well happen, but hasn't been greenlit yet.

He said the show exemplifies HBO Hungary's goal of bringing to the TV screen issues that viewers also face in their own lives. "I was immediately captivated by the themes that it was tackling in a very entertaining way — how far do you go for happiness or perceived happiness," he said about Aranyelet. "Consumer society is relatively fresh in Hungary ... and all the challenges that capitalism presents. This is something that is so pervasive in Hungary that everyone is chasing, sort of, a ghost of happiness."