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Smart thinking from the people running the content business.

Panenka pushes boundaries

Kato Maes of Flemish prodco Panenka outlines the company’s goals for the future, as she aims to score global hits by thinking locally and tackling a wide range of genres.

Drama Two Summers was screened by VRT and Netflix

Rapidly approaching the end of its first decade in business, Panenka has established itself as one of the leading indie producers in Flemish-speaking Belgium.

Founded in 2014 by Tom Lenaerts and Kato Maes, the Antwerp-based firm has achieved critical and commercial success in scripted, documentary and entertainment. Not content with making its mark domestically, it has sold scripted series to Netflix, licensed its formats globally and carved out a robust capability in international coproduction.

“Tom and I were at big companies before forming Panenka, and we missed the experience of working at a smaller entity. So we decided to start again from scratch. Our goal was to focus on quality and not just get big for the sake of it,” recalls Maes, managing partner at the company.

Strong pre-Panenka track records meant Lenearts and Maes scored quick commissions from public broadcaster VRT – and they’ve never looked back. “We had an early success with a very artistic piece for VRT channel Canvas called Clinch,” says Maes. “We also developed a drama series for VRT called Over Water, which ran for two seasons and sold to Netflix. Our gameshow Switch was another hit and is still running after nine seasons. That was adapted by Game Show Network in the US.”

Maes says the company has always sought to make brave and unconventional editorial choices where possible. She cites the example of Emmy-nominated factual entertainment series Taboo, which uses the medium of comedy to take a frank, humorous and thought-provoking look at complex social issues. A hit for VRT, the format has since been remade in Australia, Switzerland and Canada, among other territories.

L-R: Tom Lenaerts, Kato Maes and Kristoffel Mertens

In a similar vein is Canvas series We’ve Got To Walk, a sensitively constructed series that explores the parent/child relationship. “It’s a beautiful programme, which won an EBU Format Award,” says Maes. “The show aired in spring 2023 and has already secured a second-season order and international format options.”

Cross-generational co-viewing content is a live theme at Panenka, with factual entertainment series The Eighties for Teenagers another example. Commissioned for VRT flagship channel VRT1, the show saw comedic host Steven Van Herreweghe bring the 1980s to life for contemporary teens in an offbeat, entertaining way. The show was then followed by a second series focusing on the 1990s.

Panenka’s quest for a rich editorial range stretches to scripted, with hard-hitting series Putain (10×30’) set to shoot in early 2024 for Flanders streamer Streamz and Dutch OTT service Videoland. Based on the troubled early life of hip-hop artist Zwangere Guy, the series tells a multilayered story about the gritty underbelly of Brussels.

Also in development is Ten Little Monks, created by Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Niels van Koevorden (both known from Becoming Mona) and Sanne Nuyens (The Twelve). This compelling drama, says Maes, is inspired by the true story of a group of Trappist Monks who brewed a Belgian beer that became the most sought-after tipple in the world – triggering emotional, political and commercial challenges in the process.

The format to factual series Therapy was sold into Israel and the Netherlands

While Panenka has continued to gain momentum both at home and abroad, Maes acknowledges that the market has become tougher in recent times – particularly when it comes to raising budgets for scripted series. “Nine years ago, we could probably fund a drama show with one local channel, the Belgian tax shelter and film funds, but that’s not possible anymore. Now you always have to go look for international coproduction and a good distribution partner. So it takes more time to organise.”

A classic example is Two Summers, a series that played on VRT in Belgium and Netflix internationally. Also onboard was France TV Distribution (FTD), which licensed the show to Canal+ in France. The show, which appeared at Series Mania in 2022 as part of the International Panorama selection, is now being pitched as a format.

Maes says the international potential of the company’s shows is always part of the development process, but adds that the company has no desire to open its own distribution arm. “We want to be able to focus on our content and the creative process. There are lots of great distributors that we can partner with.”

Aside from FTD, the company works with Lineup Industries, which has licensed the format to Panenka’s factual series Therapy into Israel and the Netherlands. Elsewhere, Panenka is working with Federation Studios on a high-end documentary series called The Vatican, which explores the inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church. The series won the Perfect Pitch Award at Antwerp trade event Connext in 2019, with Kat Steppe as director.

While the Panenka principals are keen not to get too big, expansion is certainly on the cards. Last year saw the introduction of Kristoffel Mertens as a new partner, after five years producing fiction and documentaries at the company. And there are ambitious production plans for 2024.

Emmy-nominated fact ent series Taboo

These include the company’s first feature film, Mist (working title), and its first English-language scripted series, This is Not a Murder Mystery, part of the CoPro Series Selection at Berlinale in 2022. The latter is co-created by Christophe Dirickx (The Misfortunates, Tabula Rasa) and Paul Baeten (Over Water, Two Summers). Based on an original idea by Matthias Lebeer and Dirickx, the show will be directed by Hans Herbots (The Serpent) and Lebeer.

Also coming in 2025 is Mobutu, a four-part documentary series about the Congolese dictator who died in 1997. The show is an intriguing example of how the French-speaking and Flemish communities within Belgium can pool resources behind projects of shared interest. A historical retrospective that will link Mobutu’s time in power to modern issues such as Black Lives Matter, the series is a copro involving VRT, French-language Belgian public broadcaster RTBF, telco platform Proximus and Liège-based Les Films de la Passerelle. It is produced with the support of the Flemish Film Fund, Centre du Cinema of the French community in Belgium, Screen Flanders and the Belgian Tax Shelter.

On the subject of the Belgian Tax Shelter, Panenka has been very sure-footed, tapping into the support available to realise its creative goals. Maes says: “It’s very well regulated and absolutely crucial to get the financing for shows. It can bring in gross financing of around 30% and net financing of around 25%.”

So in these tough times, how can indies like Panenka thrive? “Only the best projects survive,” says Maes. “So we have to keep working with great talents and give them time to develop their projects. Quality will always be the difference.”