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Putting heart and sole into Turkish drama

Global Agency founder and CEO Izzet Pinto had a humble start before finding his feet with one of the world’s leading independent TV distributors, in part driven by the CEE region’s penchant for Turkish drama.

Izzet Pinto

Global Agency founder and CEO Izzet Pinto describes his career as having gone from shoe business to show business. It’s a journey that has taken him from selling footwear in his home city of Istanbul, through studying in the US, to trading in Thailand and returning to Turkey as a literary agent before establishing one of the world’s leading TV distributors.

“I hate the shoe business, but I love show business,” says Pinto. “And besides shoes, I tried 19 other businesses, selling photocopy papers, hair gels, electronics, bicycles… I tried 20 times and I failed every time but this – Global Agency – was my 21st try and it worked, so I’m not leaving this business.”

Pinto, however, is in reflective mood. The English-language edition of his autobiography, The White Butterfly, incorporating the tale of how he tried to achieve success before his father died, was published recently.

“It’s a story about my journey, but it’s a father-and-son relationship story so not only an entrepreneur story but a very emotional family story. My biggest dream is to see it one day as a movie. Let’s see what time will bring.”

For the time being, Pinto’s focus remains very much on Global Agency’s catalogue of Turkish dramas, many of which follow similar themes of love, ambition, succession and redemption – indeed, the major tenets of classical storytelling that have made some of these shows hits the world over.

Take 1001 Nights (Binbir Gece), for example, the first drama Pinto began representing when he set up Global Agency in 2006. He initially sold the series – about an aspiring architect who goes to desperate lengths to pay for leukaemia treatment for her son – to Bulgaria.

Magnificent Century tells the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Hürrem

Broadcasters in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, Romania and Albania then snapped up the show, which in the end ran to 90 episodes and was credited with putting Turkish drama not only on the Central and Eastern European (CEE) map but that of the world. 1001 Nights proved a hit in Chile too and spread to Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, helping stoke the now stock trade of soap operas and telenovelas between Turkey and Latin America. Netflix picked up the title for the US, further cementing international interest.

Then came Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl), a dramatisation of the lives of Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Hürrem, followed soon after by spin-off Kösem. The franchise proved another smash hit in CEE and elsewhere, amassing more than 200 million viewers in over 50 countries.

“The growth of Turkish dramas really kicked off in CEE. In the last 15 years, in every country in the CEE region, we have Turkish dramas in primetime and they’re perfect for family viewing since Turkey produces quite conservative shows,” says Pinto.

“In many senses the countries are very different and the languages are different as well, but it does seem that audiences in the region are generally more wedded to traditional broadcast television. I believe that when they watch Turkish dramas, they feel like they’re watching a local drama because our looks and culture are similar.”

The hottest contemporary scripted title on Global Agency’s current slate is One Love (Kızılcık Şerbeti, aka Cranberry Sherbet), which has proven a huge hit for Turkish broadcaster Show TV, according to Pinto, and again is based on the common telenovela/melodrama theme of social strata-defying forbidden love.

1001 Nights

What’s been intriguing for Pinto too is how Global Agency has begun to move into scripted formats.

“If we talk specifically about the CEE region, in the past, the channels didn’t have much budget, so they were looking for Turkish dramas as finished tape, but right now they are looking for good stories to be produced locally,” he says.

“That’s very exciting for us. We’ve had several shows produced in Romania, Greece and Bulgaria as local adaptations, so remakes are on the rise in the CEE region.”

The exec cites Lia, My Husband’s Wife, a local version of Turkish drama Never Let Go (Asla Vazgeçmem), which debuted earlier this year on Romania’s Antena 1, as a recent example, while 1001 Nights has been adapted in the Middle East for MBC under the title Sara, the finished tape of which Global Agency also represents.

“Lately, I have been hearing that more and more companies from abroad want to coproduce with Turkey. Sometimes that’s co-financing or co-development, but this year I have been hearing lots of foreign demand for that, so we are trying to concentrate on that too,” says Pinto.

“We try to find a title that’s appealing for worldwide audiences and we can partner with international producers, so I am checking that opportunity at the moment.”

Indeed, while scripted formats represent a growing part of the Global Agency story, the company in fact had its routes in unscripted, with Pinto’s first title being wedding competition format Perfect Bride. The exec admits that when he started out he had no idea how to sell TV shows and didn’t even know what a format was, so he turned to Google and soon the word ‘Mipcom’ cropped up.

One Love (Kizilcik Serbeti) proved a hit for Show TV

“I had €500 [US$537] in my savings account and I remember so well that the stand was €10,500, so I was missing €10,000.” In the end, a friend lent him the money and Pinto managed to secure deals in Cannes with broadcasters in Lebanon and Italy after subjecting acquisitions execs to a 13-minute trailer, with the Italian exec taking the full licence since Pinto didn’t know what an option was and insisted that he buy it.

Perfect Bride went on to be remade in Romania, Bulgaria, India, South Korea and China, among others, and still sits within Global Agency’s unscripted catalogue alongside other third-party titles. These include Shopping Monsters, a makeover competition series that has sold into 40 countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Latvia, with M6 in France and Vox TV in Germany having aired thousands of episodes.

“Having it produced in France was very big for us,” says Pinto, whose interest in formats was well and truly piqued by these experiences and he soon turned his attentions to developing in-house properties.

“I’ve always believed in formats. If you can find a very big idea then it’s like winning the lottery, so I’m always chasing to find a great idea and I hope one day it happens,” he says.

Keep Your Light Shining was Pinto’s first such success in this space, a singing competition format snapped up by ProSieben in Germany with Ricky Martin on board. “It cost €10,000 to produce a pilot and it brought US$1m to the company,” says Pinto, but he notes how hard it is to break through in this space.

“Some of my formats have aired in like 10 or 15 countries, but it’s a real success if you achieve maybe 20 or 30-plus territories,” he says. “Either you have to become a bestseller, or you get lost in the ocean. But if you can reach 30 or 40 territories, then it becomes a big franchise. That’s what I like about formats. Once they work, they continue for many years and can come back again.”

Blind Duets, another singing competition show, is Pinto’s latest attempt to hit the formats big time, with a Vietnamese version ordered earlier this year but a French adaptation put on hold.

Singing competition show Blind Duets

While Global Agency’s catalogue at present remains evenly split between scripted and unscripted, the exec confesses the push to grow its activities has, in part, been driven by shifting dynamics in the Turkish marketplace. As a pure distribution outfit, the company has historically depended on relationships with many compatriot third-party producers, but some sizeable groups, such as Medyapim and Ay Yapim, have set up their own sales operations over the past five years.

“Nowadays, because producers are like factories, they open their own distribution arms and I can’t do anything with that, and that’s okay, but maybe I want to grow our original formats,” says Pinto.

As a serial entrepreneur at heart, he is also exploring new areas. “I always like to find ways to grow the company and maybe the next step for us will be to come up with a nice app that will be for youngsters, either in gaming or social media,” he says. “I believe that all of us need passion in our businesses, so to boost the excitement you want to come up with some new ideas and maybe global apps can be ours.”

Pinto is monitoring developments in artificial intelligence but at present has no plans to jump in. “I’m just watching it and trying to see the best business models that could work for us because I want to make sure that it’s an idea that will work. I don’t want to fail.”

Not that his experiences as a shoe-seller seemed to put him off trying.