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What the world’s producers, platforms and channels are developing.

Flanders fund helps keep Belgian content booming

As the global TV community arrives at the Connext conference in Antwerp today, Koen Van Bockstal, CEO of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), discusses Belgium’s growing position in the global content business and explains how VAF works with local and international producers.

VAF supported Eyeworks series The Twelve

Belgium’s film and TV industry is riding high. Alongside spectacular success for its movie output at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, TV series including Clan, Undercover and The Twelve have been punching above their weight internationally. At the same time, directors like Tim Mielants (Peaky Blinders) and Hans Herbots (The Serpent) are in constant demand for high-end series.

Several factors have contributed to this success – but there’s no question that the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) can claim some of the credit (Flanders is the Flemish-speaking section of Belgium, home to 57% of the country’s population). Set up in 2002, VAF provides robust financial and promotional support to film, TV series and gaming across three separate funds.

Koen Van Bockstal

Koen Van Bockstal, who took over as CEO of the VAF just under two years ago, says: “The Film Fund and Media Fund [for TV projects] both operate in a similar way. We provide support for projects at the scriptwriting, development and production stages. The annual budget for the Film Fund is currently €19.5m [US$19.2m] while the Media Fund is €7m.”

Looking at the Media Fund, which covers all TV genres, Van Bockstal says: “We currently support between eight and 10 projects to the development stage and two or three as far as production. One example of a series that we supported all the way to production was Eyeworks’ The Twelve, which is distributed internationally by Federation Studios and being remade for New Zealand.”

Others to have made it to the final phase of VAF support include Hotel Beau Sejour, Undercover and Clan, which sold internationally and is now being remade as Bad Sisters for Apple TV+. “Looking ahead, we’re really excited by 1985, another Eyeworks drama series dealing with the Brabant Killers, a violent gang that carried out a series of deadly assaults in the 1980s.”

Explaining what gets a series to the final stage of funding, Van Bockstal says: “The selection committee is looking for high-end TV series that have an interesting angle and high-quality talent, but don’t look like they will easily get finance from the market. Often, they don’t look immediately accessible to a mainstream audience but they tell us something about Flemish culture.”

For the current year, both the Film and Media funds received a €1m additional cash injection from the government. “In both cases, the new money came with criteria attached,” says Van Bockstal. “For the Media Fund, we were required to start supporting podcasts and focus more on collaboration between Flanders and the Netherlands. More generally, the government wants us to pay closer attention to connecting with the public. Also, and this is logical, they want us to adopt a more professional approach to the business side of our plans.”

For projects selected to receive production support, Van Bockstal says there is also a pot of money for promotional activities. “We provide some funding for better promotional materials and event attendance. But it’s important to realise this is a marketing partnership – so every euro needs to be matched by the production company. This engenders a mutual responsibility to the project.”

Forthcoming drama 1985 follows a violent gang

While the big prize is securing production finance from VAF, Van Bockstal says projects selected for the first two tiers – scriptwriting and development – also benefit from the process. “Producers tell us it is definitely an advantage. It’s very hard to get finance at these stages, so if you are able to come out of the VAF process with a good development plan, then I believe that gives you a competitive advantage when you go to the market.”

In fact, he adds: “We are currently discussing whether we should place more emphasis on the script and development stages, rather than investing so much in production.”

Van Bockstal stresses that the VAF’s role is primarily to promote Flemish talent. But there is scope for foreign-based series to benefit – if they hit certain minimum requirements. “If you look at the Flanders offer in totality, you can see we are supportive of productions coming here too,” he says.

In addition to VAF, there is the Belgium tax shelter and Screen Flanders – budget: €3.5m – which is about encouraging international productions to spend money in Flanders and use its local talent and resources. A recent case in point was Beta Films/ZDF’s The Swarm, which secured Screen Flanders funding and used the LITES Film Studios water stage in Brussels.

In terms of external factors impacting on VAF decision-making, the growth of streamers gives Van Bockstal pause for thought. “We wouldn’t exclude working with streamers, but we need to be careful when spending our money. It’s public money, so the content has to be freely available by some platform.”

As for Van Bockstal’s own skillset, he joined the VAF after a career in music and publishing. So what lessons has he brought with him?

“Four things. You should protect your content and never be naive about value of IP. You should prioritise the careful and intelligent use of data and artificial intelligence. You should seek out partnerships because we all need to work together. And finally, it always comes down to having an original story – even if you don’t manage to do the other three.”