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Keeping a close Eyeworks on Belgium

Peter Bouckaert of Eyeworks’ Belgian outpost discusses the impact of M&A on local prodcos and the trend for coproduction and offers a glimpse of his development slate.

International drama The Twelve originated at Eyeworks in Belgium

When major multinational groups buy up local production companies, foreheads usually furrow. The worry is that the independence and creative spirit that made the prodco so interesting to its new parent company in the first place will suffer.

“I think we’ve successfully proved the opposite,” says Peter Bouckaert matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t make sense to focus on Belgian drama production out of LA. So that’s us doing that. We’re the competence centre.”

Bouckaert is the MD and creative director at Eyeworks Film & TV Drama. The Belgian subsidiary of the Amsterdam-based Eyeworks, it originated such international scripted hits as The Twelve, Cordon, Missing Persons Unit, Red Light and, most recently, 1985.

Fifteen of Eyeworks’ outposts in 16 territories were bought up by US studio Warner Bros in 2014 and became the core of Warner Bros International Television Production. The move more than doubled the LA studio’s handful of international territories, giving it footholds across Europe and South America as well as New Zealand and Australia.

Peter Bouckaert

“They saw what we were doing and wanted us to continue doing it,” says Bouckaert. “And they support us in doing that. It might have been different if we were rolling out entertainment formats. But we produce drama series and feature films, and Warner Bros had the same vision as we did.”

One of Eyeworks’ hottest Belgian products at the moment is The Twelve, a 2019 courtroom drama told from the point of view of several jury members that was commissioned by VRT’s Een channel. It had been sold to multiple territories when Netflix stepped in and released it globally. Foxtel later commissioned and aired an Australian remake, which won several AACTA and Logie Awards, including best miniseries at both events.

“It’s a fresh take on the nature of a murder mystery where viewers only get information when jury members get it,” says Bouckaert, explaining the show’s success. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, and then you hear new testimony and you change your theory again. You evolve in the same way that the jury members evolve.”

The second season of The Twelve is airing now in Belgium, with Australia also in production on its second season. Belgium’s second season, and a planned third, are standalone, with new stories and characters, and it remains to be seen if Netflix will pick them up.

More acquisitions could be a necessity for the streamer if the bottom falls out of the SVoD industry, as is widely expected.

Styx is based on the novels by local author Bavo Dhooge

Bouckaert, in any case, doesn’t expect the rocky streaming road of the near future to affect Belgium’s place in the market. “The big streaming platforms have had a huge impact in larger European countries, like Germany, France and Italy,” he says. “But they have had less of an impact in small territories like Belgium. They didn’t create a big boom, so there’s also less of a decline.”

And Belgium’s place in the international market is ever growing. “We manage to bring quality to the screen with stories that have a certain magic touch, a certain identity that makes them stand apart from other productions.”

Some of this is down to a unique take on a traditional setting, as was seen in The Twelve. This could also be said of new series Styx (8×50’), based on the novels by acclaimed Belgian author Bavo Dhooge and currently in post-production at Eyeworks. Shot in the moody coastal town of Ostend in Belgium, it is a horror-crime hybrid. Jeroen Dumolein is directing a script from Michel Sabbe.

“We’re playing with the original zombie myth,” explains Bouckaert. “A police inspector gets into a very weird situation and tries to figure out what is happening to him and how it’s related to a number of crimes taking place in Ostend. We’ve been looking around and haven’t found anything to compare it with. In the horror genre, there’s a big difference between, say, The Walking Dead and The Sixth Sense. This is more The Sixth Sense.”

New Eyeworks drama Juliet is in post-production

Also in post-production at Eyeworks is new drama Juliet (6×45’), which also takes place on the Belgian coast, but this time in De Haan, the only town that has preserved its Belle Epoque architecture from the Interbellum period. The titular police officer must return to her hometown from Brussels to settle her father’s estate and finds herself facing just the responsibilities she left the town to avoid.

Both series have coproducers – VTM, Streamz, Dutch firm Hollands Licht, Scio Productions and a major international streamer are onboard Styx while VRT, ZDF, RTL Videoland, Scio Productions and Germany’s Leonine are partners on Juliet – and it’s a trend that Bouckaert says is increasing.

But he is cautious about coproductions being an inevitability. “For some kind of series, you want a local focus, a local DNA,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not very healthy if the final financing needs to come from another territory. Perhaps you’ll have to change your story in order to get that last 20% of financing, and perhaps the project will be less coherent.

“I’m not looking at it in a negative way, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. It’s very important to find partners who have the same vision about what the project has to be.”