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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

The time to wait and CEE is over

With Content Warsaw taking place next week, can recent landmark coproduction successes between Western and Central and Eastern Europe encourage more formal scripted alliances and collaborations across CEE?

Which region is showing constant improvement when it comes to the quality of its drama series? Look no further than Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), according to Vivek Lath, MD at Indian distributor GoQuest Media.

Vivek Lath

The Mumbai-based outfit began looking at global drama trends in 2018 and, since then, CEE is “a clear winner,” says Lath, who has overseen the addition of a host of scripted series from countries such as Ukraine, Romania and Serbia to the company’s sales catalogue.

After Netflix shows such as Money Heist and Squid Game helped to pique viewer interest in international dramas, there has been increased demand for CEE series among buyers, says Lath.

“A lot of our clients wanted shows that presented a unique view of a country or culture,” he notes. “The success of Money Heist and Squid Game triggered many of our clients to allocate budgets to shows coming from international markets.”

Meanwhile, the continued popularity of Turkish drama means some buyers have been priced out, so scripted content from CEE can often be “the next best option,” says Lath, adding: “The market has seen increased demand for CEE dramas, but it could have been much more if not for the turbulent times in Ukraine.”

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 rocked the international content community. The actions of the Russian government led to many companies – but not all (GoQuest, for example, attended a TV market in Moscow in mid-2023 under an Indian pavilion) – cutting ties with Russian producers and distributors in protest.

“On the supply side there was a huge impact. Ukrainian producers were going from strength to strength. We were anticipating that Ukrainian content would have the most demand from international markets,” says Lath. “The demand did not go down but, in our opinion, the growth would have been much more if not for the war. Audiences outside Europe would have had more chances to experience content from CEE and build subsequent loyalty and affinity. Buyers, on the other hand, needed consistent quality supply to effectively monetise audience affinity.”

Lath hopes the supply of drama from CEE will increase in the coming years, pointing to markets such as Poland, Greece, Croatia, Serbia and the Czech Republic as sources of new shows, with the company looking to replicate the sales success it had with Ukrainian hit Ruby Ring.

High-end Spanish-Serbian drama Cicatriz (Scar)

Most Ukrainian dramas in 2024, however, strike a radically different tone from pre-invasion productions like Ruby Ring, with the day-to-day realities of war reflected alongside characteristic Ukrainian dark humour, as seen in Those Who Stayed (6×30’), the anthology series from Ukraine’s Film.UA Group in coproduction with public broadcasters SVT in Sweden, YLE in Finland and NRK in Norway.

In Her Car (10×30’), meanwhile, is a Ukrainian war drama coproduced by Starlight Media and France’s Gaumont. Other partners on the project include Germany’s ZDF, France Télévisions, Switzerland’s SRF, Finland’s YLE, Denmark’s DR, Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s SVT. Beta Film has been handling international sales and the series has so far been sold into markets such as Japan, Latvia, Slovakia and Austria.

Meanwhile, France’s Mediawan and Israel’s Keshet are among the other distributors to have added CEE series to their libraries recently as the industry looks for alternatives to the so-called ‘Moscow noir’ genre that emerged during the pandemic.

Olena Martynova, chief marketing officer at Starlight Media, describes coproductions as “a very important direction for us, because it is about investment by partners who can help us make a big project. But it also has an ideological aspect because, for Ukraine, it’s a very big challenge to go to the European and international markets and cut off relationships with the post-Soviet market.”

Martynova singles out the Nordic model, where countries in the region have shown how effectively they can work together on the international stage, as one to which CEE players should pay attention. She also points to the Ukrainian Content Club, which launched soon after the outbreak of war with a US$20m fund to invest in Ukrainian drama and received further investment from the international market. “We should find our own way to collaborate, [both] inside our country and with neighbours who are close to us in a cultural and economic context,” she says.

Aleksandra Martinović

However, to say the social and political history of CEE is complicated is something of an understatement. Relations between certain countries are functional but far from warm owing to historic nation-building conflict and divergent political ideologies.

Formal CEE coproduction alliances similar to those that are increasingly popular in Western Europe are therefore something to aim for rather than bank on, according to Aleksandra Martinović, director of the multimedia division at Telekom Srbija.

“Our region has passed through very difficult times. But I really believe culture and the screen industries are a bridge that can connect us. We are thinking in that direction and we consider it crucial for us to compete with very developed countries all around the world,” says Martinović.

The state-owned Serbian telecommunications company, which has been growing its original production activities over the past five years, is a major presence not only in Serbia but across CEE. The company’s strategy to begin making domestic high-end series and coproducing high-profile projects with international partners has led to eight-part thriller Cicatriz (Scar), the first high-end Spanish-Serbian drama. Martinović was at Series Mania in March to discuss the project on a panel alongside execs from fellow coproducers Asacha Media, Dopamine, Plano a Plano and Serbian producer Adrenalin.

“Our strategy goes in two directions. The first is to maintain and upgrade our status as the largest and biggest producer in the Adriatic region. And the second goes towards the internationalisation of our content through cooperations. Scar is proof of what we can achieve when we join forces with partners such as RTVE and Amazon Prime,” says Martinović.

RTL Group in Hungary and Canal+ Poland have also joined the project, which stars Serbian actor Milena Radulovic, Spain’s Juanlu González and Polish actor Maciej Stuhr, hinting towards further pan-regional collaborations across the CEE region.

Opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges remain plentiful in CEE, and Johnathan Young, the former VP of original programming for HBO Max in EMEA and production in CEE, is keen to continue the work he did at HBO Europe to foster creative links in the region. Young launched Bucharest-based May One earlier this year alongside former HBO Europe exec Ioanina Pavel to develop, produce and provide creative partnership for high-end series shot in Romania, working with established and new talent from both within and outside the country.

Its first commission, currently shooting and starring Ana Ularu and Florin Piersic Jr, is the original Netflix series Subteran, announced in October last year and produced alongside Spy/Master coproducer Mobra Films of Bucharest. The first Romanian original from the global streamer, the show follows a mother who works in IT and starts fighting undercover against the criminals of Bucharest.

Cold War espionage drama Spy/Master, which has been picked up by the BBC

Anna Nagler, the former director of local-language series for Netflix in CEE, has described Subteran as a fast-paced, captivating and “slightly absurd” crime series. At the time of writing, Young and Pavel can’t reveal more about the show, beyond confirming it is consistent with the high-stakes, fast-moving entertainment that Romanian audiences can’t get enough of.

During Young’s time at HBO, his executive producer credits included award-winning Polish series Wataha (The Pack), Romanian-German international coproduction Hackerville and, most recently, the Cold War espionage drama Spy/Master, which has since been picked up by the BBC in the UK. “We’re very interested in coproduction, but we know what it’s like to be pitched to,” says Young. “The first question we ask ourselves is, ‘What’s in it for the people we’re pitching to?’ We want to make something that touches a Romanian audience but, if we’re making it with Germany or the UK, it really must feel German or British too.”

Pavel believes the CEE market remains hamstrung by the relative lack of funding, subsidies and resources from the state available to local producers compared to their counterparts in Western Europe, all of which make a scripted alliance across CEE a challenge. This is shaping May One’s approach to copros, adds Young. “Rather than regarding coproduction as an opportunity to raise the budget to make a Romanian show, which is one model, we’re trying to think of genuine coproductions where you’re creatively aligning with someone who has as much passion about the project from a creative point of view as you do and as much input as you do.

“The UK and US can sometimes think of Central Europe as a homogenous region, but that’s to do with the communistic past. If you go back before that, the countries have different histories, expectations and senses of their place in the world. These don’t always align when it comes to copros, while the languages are a little bit different. And as Ioanina says, there’s less money – that’s the real problem.”