Television Business International

HBO Europe: Root’s cause

Antony-Root_7981_PortraitHBO Europe is well established as a producer in central and eastern Europe, and has now restructured to produce programmes from the Nordics and Spain as well. Original content chief Antony Root tells Jesse Whittock about the plan.

While HBO is best known for its agenda-setting US programmes such as Game of Thrones and Westworld, its European production business has been in operation since 2010. Through series such as Wataha and Burning Bush, it is now established as a name in the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Romanian markets.

Last year, HBO Europe’s executive VP of programming and production, Antony Root, revealed to delegates at Drama Series Days in Berlin that the company would next be targeting originals out of the Nordic region. Danish Film Institute commissioner Hanne Palmquist was duly hired to oversee the push.

That news had followed a restructure that saw HBO’s Nordic chief Hervé Payan taking over as HBO Europe CEO from Linda Jensen, consolidating bases in the Netherlands, Nordics and CEE region under his control. With new management in place, HBO has also launched a subscription VOD service in Spain, and has hired former Canal+ and Movistar channels chief Miguel Salvat to create originals in the southern European territory.

Root has since handed some of his duties in CEE to Jonathan Young, with drama development chief Steve Matthews now working across the three regions under the new structure.

In Spain, the challenges for HBO include attracting subscribers in a territory notorious for its high levels of piracy. Though focused on originals, Root says, “The evidence so far, in terms of subscriptions, is it seems to be quite clear that there is a market for what we’re offering.”

The challenge with original programmes, he says, is gaining traction in a market that is “very well served in drama by its terrestrials” such as RTVE and Antena 3. Spain has also witnessed the arrival of Netflix, which is producing a pair of local shows, and has Movistar+, which is pouring massive investment into its SVOD service and has around 20 shows in various stages of development.

“I have, having worked for HBO for more than five years, huge confidence that when we talk to the top creative people in any market there is an immediate correspondence and engagement,” says Root.

Salvat, who worked with HBO for more than two decades before joining the Time Warner-owned company, has already held meetings with “some of the heaviest-hitting talent in the country”, says Root, noting there will be no immediate announcements on new shows with Palmquist’s Nordic team is next up to reveal its first series.

“If we’re talking methodology, we’re trying to take Miguel’s sixth sense about us and analytical powers of the market, coupled with some of the experiences my team and I can bring,” says Root. “Where we’ve been working in Europe, we have been trying to do a derivative of the American HBO, but with difference.”

“Tens of shows” have been pitched to HBO Nordic, says Root, and in order to debut an SVOD original in the region by 2018 as planned, a show will need to be greenlit by the second half of this year.

#1-PUSTINA-(wasteland)Projects that reflect talent’s passion are more likely to be commissioned than cookie cutter shows, as HBO Europe originals must pair well with their US counterparts. An example is Wasteland (above), an eight-part small-town mystery drama from Czech Republic that debuted last year.

“What I’m optimistic about is that a combination of rigour and instinct will give us the kinds of shows that audience know wouldn’t have been on other providers,” says Root. “That has to be my goal.”

Further plans for HBO Europe include plans for original production in the Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro regions. HBO appealed last year for scripts from local talent, with a submission deadline of last November, and has now put a pair of titles into development. “Working out what is right for that region is complex because it is multi-lingual,” says Root.

Having received more than 500 entries, HBO has selected Marjan Alčevski’s Crotian drama Uspjeh, which is billed as “a multi-stranded character-driven drama about a group of disparate people linked by a violent crime, offering a dark dissection of today’s society”, while Serbian writer Ivan Knežević’s Otok is a “contemporary investigative thriller, exploring the challenges faced by a region that stands at the crossroads of modern Europe”.

“At HBO Europe, we aim to work with local talent and develop quality series that resonate with local audiences,” drama development chief Matthews said in a statement. “The First Draft Contest was launched to discover writers and stories across the Adria region and we’ve been really impressed with the quality of the submissions – so much so that we’ve selected two projects for further development rather than one as we initially planned.

“Both Uspjeh and Otok embodied the criteria, with authentic and passionate storytelling at their heart, and we’re looking forward to working closely with talented writers Marjan Alčevski and Ivan Knežević to develop them further.”