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The stories behind the news.

Postcard from Content Warsaw

‘Hyper-local’ content was the order of the day for the big players at the inaugural Content Warsaw and piracy was on the minds of those looking to expand their pay TV or subscription streaming offers.

C21’s inaugural Content Warsaw drew big players from all around CEE

It has not been unusual over the years to travel to television conferences in places like Budapest, Kiev, Dubrovnik, Prague and listen to large international conglomerates talking up their commitment to producing locally.

It’s also often been hard to shake the impression they were simply paying lip-service to that ambition – a nice line that PRs tell of businesses flooding into Bulgaria, or that other one, ‘Hungaria’, with their library of US content and back catalogue of Western formats. With perhaps the odd Polish doc or Czech drama here or there, just to keep the natives happy.

At the inaugural Content Warsaw this week, things have changed. A buzzy, busy event, packed with producers and projects. And for the big boys, even local productions are no longer cutting ice here. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find it clear these productions were designed mainly with an international roll out in mind. This week it’s been about the ‘hyper local’ projects – genuine local docs and dramas that are lapped up by the domestic audience which also, lo and behold, can be surprise sleeper hits further afield because of their authenticity.

Netflix has doubled down on its commitment to producing and licensing original scripted series and movies in Poland, with execs from the streamer laying out a detailed strategy for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) on the first day.

Michael Azzolino, VP of content for CEE at Netflix, and Łukasz Kłuskiewicz, the streamer’s director of films and content acquisitions in the region, were in the Polish capital keynoting to a standing-room-only audience.

As well as presenting exclusive first-look previews of ferry disaster series Heweliusz and forthcoming movie Bokser/Boxer, starring Eryk Kulm Jr, both execs restated their long-term commitment to producing and acquiring scripted content in Poland.

Łukasz Kłuskiewicz

Kłuskiewicz said: “Netflix is here to stay for good. We want to invest in local content and support the community in the process of delivering great stories to the screen.

“In CEE for many years we had a bit of a complex around Western Europe and the US, where we wanted to make Polish movies look like US movies. Ideally, let’s do our own Polish movies, root them locally so they have meaning for local audiences, and then also hopefully they will be of interest somewhere else.

“There used to be a very, very strong confidence that local content from Poland would not travel to Hungary or Romania and so on. The Netflix experience has proved that it was, at least to some extent, wrong. The last few years proved that there is some common bias in those markets. It can be inspiring for companies that distribute, say, Romanian films, and the producers that there are some similarities among the audience, and it just depends on the quality and execution.

“Something I’m absolutely more confident about than ever is local specifics and local relevance of content. Romanians, for example, having an opportunity to identify with the story on the screen is super, super important. If they recognise the reality, they recognise characters, they recognise certain events, it’s really important for them.

“We definitely like and have full respect for anything coming from local markets. We never think about creating something big which would appeal to the universal audience somewhere in the world.”

Azzolino added: “Our local audience is our primary one and we’ve found the best way to please that local audience is to focus locally. In Poland, it’s really vitally important that whatever series or film in whichever genre we do for Poland first and foremost finds a sizeable and passionate audience in this country.

“Sometimes not only will the local audience appreciate the content but there’s a much greater chance for that series or film to travel. Sometimes it’s very surprising to see certain things resonate in certain places. But it’s the one thing that we say every single time we meet with a writer or a director or a producer in any country: we need to find locally authentic stories told by locally authentic storytellers first.”

There were three days of debate and discussion

A+E Networks EMEA’s senior VP and general manager for CEE, Izabella Wiley, was another of several execs preaching a ‘hyper local’ approach to original commissioning.

“In trying to find local relevance we’re going deeper rather than shallow and wide,” she said, adding commissions didn’t have to work across the whole region. “Sometimes they do; Baltic Gold has been popular pan-European. It doesn’t have to work in all CEE markets.”

Justinas Docka, chief content officer at TV3-owned Baltic streamer Go3, said in his small territories of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the difference between a programme resonating or not can sometimes be a matter of kilometres.

“The Baltics is a tough market: three small countries with a total of 2.5 million to three million households,” Docka said. “These are very individual markets; something that works near the Latvia/Lithuania border doesn’t work only 50km away even if you use actors from other countries.”

Izabella Wiley, A+E Networks EMEA’s senior VP and general manager for CEE

Docka is using YouTubers in his content to try and stem the flow of young audiences away from linear, while Wiley said A+E had found success in bringing younger viewers back to linear through the medium of true crime podcasts to compliment TV series.

SkyShowtime’s Kai Finke was another pan-European exec in town talking up local content ambitions, particularly in unscripted where he used his Wednesday keynote to unveil a swift preview of forthcoming doc series Schmeichel on the famous Danish goalkeeper.

In his keynote interview with moderator Hayley McKenzie, Finke said local originals and acquisitions are “an important cornerstone of our strategy – content that resonates and complements our slate.”

When considering ideas, Finke said his team asks: “Can it resonate broadly? Can it be mainstream with an edge? Is it returnable in success? Are the budgets realistic? That’s how we’re choosing and picking projects.”

Delegates descended on the Polish capital

Finke said he was keen to build out a bigger, better, broader slate of unscripted programming. “We should be open to entertaining the idea of more true crime or personality-led documentary like Schmeichel,” he said. “Our partner Comcast has a reality streamer, Hayu, airing shows like Below Deck or Real Housewives. We’re following closely how popular that is and listening to our subscribers about what we’re lacking, so maybe that’s something we need to push into.”

One of the other big talking points of the week has been piracy which remains a “huge problem” in CEE markets, according to local executives, who have called on governments and advertisers to do more to combat the issue.

“Piracy is maybe our biggest competitor. It’s a big issue for producers and platforms, which are suffering,” said Mykhailo Khyzhniak, CEO at OTT service, who blamed advertisers who support the platforms hosting pirated content.

“They are keeping pirate businesses alive by injecting them with money for advertising. In a world without piracy, producers and platforms would earn more, so it’s a question for the whole market,” said Khyzhniak.

In her keynote ahead of Max’s launch in Poland next week, Katarzyna Drogowska, head of AVoD streaming and Player editorial director at WBD in Poland, said: “Piracy in Poland is strong. We have a special department in our organisation and speaking to them yesterday they say we’re fighting hundreds of thousands of violations. It’s a lot. We’ve been in this fight for 14 years, trying to cut off money to pirates, but it’s not easy. We do everything we can.

“What might be useful in Poland is implementing the directive that makes it the responsibility not just of the subject who downloads the content but also the operators and the middlemen. In Germany, there is an approach where this activity is tracked and someone is fined automatically €500 [US$544] for a single download through the mobile operators. In terms of what sort of tools might work well, maybe that is something that would be good for Poland.”

Crowds gathered to celebrate a successful event

Elsewhere, a landmark coproduction alliance between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia’s public broadcasters is set to kick off with a Baltic version of a BBC Studios music competition format, with the three pubcasters on the hunt for more formats to adapt together.

C21 learnt here this week that classical music-themed series Maestro, originally broadcast on BBC Two in the UK in 2008, is being lined up as the first project to be officially coproduced under the alliance. The pubcasters are currently in talks with the commercial arm of the BBC to secure the format and hope to launch it this fall.

Hungary-headquartered Paprika Studios, meanwhile, is eyeing expansion into Serbia, having completed its management buyout from former Scandinavian parent Viaplay Group at the beginning of the year.

Finally, Paprika Studios CEO Ákos Erdős told C21 he is looking at the Balkan country to grow the footprint of Paprika, which is already one of the largest TV production companies in CEE and the Baltics. The company currently has a presence in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and, most recently, Poland, where it opened offices in 2021.