MIPCOM 2011: Steve Van Zandt Talks 'Lilyhammer,' Netflix Deal and the Television Revolution (Q&A)

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Steve Van Zandt

"These technology platforms are looking for some sort of niche and original content is how they can define themselves," the E Street Band guitarist and ex-"Sopranos" star tells THR.

He’s been one of MIPCOM 2011’s most enthusiastic and inquiring delegates. Market first-timer Steve Van Zandt – the E Street Band guitarist and longtime star of The Sopranos -- has thrown himself into the five-day sales confab, attending launches, meeting buyers and listening in on Fox Entertainment boss Kevin Reilly’s creativity keynote.

He even got a backstage tutorial on the golden ratio – the biological and mathematical phenomena expounded on in Tim Kring’s upcoming Touch -- from none other than its star Kiefer Sutherland (“It’s in pineapples, daisies, even pine cones when you cut them,” the 24 star was overheard explaining.)

PHOTOS: MIPCOM 2011's Most Buzzed-About Projects

But Van Zandt isn’t here to bask in the Riviera sunshine even though he has just spent six months in chilly Norway, where his Norwegian-language gangster drama Lilyhammer wrapped production.

He’s here to deliver a serious message about imagination and potential, taking time to tell The Hollywood Reporter why he is passionate about global content, new sources of financing and a way out of television mediocrity.

THR's Complete Coverage of MIPCOM

The Hollywood Reporter: Lilyhammer is being distributed by Netflix in North America. What is the thinking behind that?

Steve Van Zandt: These technology platforms are looking for some sort of niche, and original content is how they can define themselves. Ordinarily the networks are very conservative, so people are going to be very conservative in the kinds of content they make for them. But here comes [Netflix chief content office] Ted Sarandos saying, "I think that America is actually ready for subtitles and ready for foreign language product and I’m going to invest in it." Now, everyone making content is thinking, "Well let’s look at that, let’s think about it, let’s expand our own expectations."

THR: Do you see technology players as a support for content creators?

Van Zandt: You are going to get an infusion of money – from the people who actually have money – and that’s what content creators desperately need. We need the extra money to get back to the original high standards and high quality or else we are just going to be drowning in reality shows and lose the sense of balance between reality and really good drama. That is what the industry is made of. You aren’t going to have an industry if it is just full of reality shows. And for the technology players they get an identity that makes then a bit special. Eventually, 99 percent of all content on platforms will be the same, but that that little one percent difference will identify your brand and that’s what opens up taking the chance.

THR: How did the experience of working for a Norwegian broadcaster in a mostly Norwegian-language project compare to working in America?

Van Zandt
: I am sure it is not just true of Norway, but I met really brilliant writers and actors and directors and I am sure the same thing is true in other countries but we don’t get to know about it. I just happened to be there for six months and really got into it and discovered all these wonderful talented people. It’s a tribute, by the way, to the government which really supports the arts, which we don’t really do enough in America. But I think it is something that probably exists all over the world.

THR: What do you think the potential could be?

Van Zandt
: It opens up a very interesting new pool of content at a time when all these digital channels are going to need new content. What could be the next step is what we are going to try and make happen in Lilyhammer: doing the scene in the local language and then, if possible, immediately shooting it again in English. This is not to impose English as some sort of imperialistic language on the world, but it is the closest thing we have to a universal language. You can do that without much more money and is going to add up to not much more than the original investment but all of a sudden the content and actors and authenticity can travel and that really opens things up. Suddenly there’s a way where some really cool drama in Italy or Japan or Norway can travel and be seen.

THR: What do you make of MIPCOM as a first-timer?

Van Zandt:
The international aspects of television are sort of a new thing to me, but I don’t think you realize how big it is till you get here. You don’t realize just how many channels and countries are out there. And my first thought is there are all these channels and opportunities. Can’t we just make the content a bit better and get really good content out there.

THR: What have you seen that you liked?

Van Zandt:
Look at Touch, the new Fox drama. How exciting is that? You have to give credit to Kevin Reilly for taking that risk. The average head of a network is not looking to quantum physics and complicated ideas to expand their audience and give them great entertainment. But he is and it gives you hope when you see that.

There’s a new generation of people like Kevin and Tim and Ted [Sarandos] and Mike Lang [Miramax] who are a different breed, they really are a different species. They are not looking to contribute to the mediocrity we are all drowning in. They are looking to elevate out consciousness and entertain us at the same time. I love that. I relate to that. I’ve always tried to do the same thing. We proved it is possible with The Sopranos. It isn’t a theory.