TBI Weekly: Testing the temperature of the industry at Berlinale

The Swarm

Berlinale is becoming a key event on the international circuit and this year’s 73rd edition of the German festival came at an opportune time. Nick Edwards tests the waters to find out what execs & creatives have made of 2023 so far.

The TV wing of the Berlinale film festival marked the first major European industry gathering of 2023. Consolidation, advertising and a more cautious approach to commissioning are all now entrenched in the streaming world, not to mention the impact of high inflation and a cost of living crisis. The sands are shifting and contradictory outlooks abound for a foreboding year.

It’s the economy, stupid

Some writers in attendance felt one upside to a less abundant work load could be that better projects will get made, something that will be good for the industry in the long run. Confident execs and producers feel they can deftly manoeuvre around changing circumstances: “I find opportunity in these kind of challenging marketplaces,” said ZDF Enterprises’ VP drama, Robert Franke, “you have to be entrepreneurial in how you look at things.”

There is further dissolving of the boundaries between film, series, mini-series and one-off productions – somewhere in this space is where an outbreak of artistic creativity is most likely to occur in these straightened times

It’s not the economy, stupid

Attention grabbing headlines of financial armageddon have also limited the amount of room for other trends, some of which have been gaining momentum for some time. One of the festival’s big events, the premiere of ZDF’s The Swarm, based on the best-selling German novel by Frank Schätzing, is emblematic of perhaps the most significant of these.

The eight-part eco-thriller (that also has France Télévisions, Rai Fiction, Viaplay Group, Hulu Japan, ORF and SRF, amongst others, on board) is the kind of high-budget, event series we have come to associate with global streaming services. A point underlined by the fact that Frank Doelger – a former EP of HBO’s Game of Thrones – was attached as producer.

“At the time ZDF was looking for their entry into the new world,” says fellow producer Eric Welbers, over a coffee in Potsdamer Platz.

Talks with ZDF started around the time the streamers’ dominance looked unquestionable and following ARD’s co-financing of Babylon Berlin, which partner Sky Deutschland first aired. But the PSB explained to Welbers: “It’s very difficult for us to do shows for niche audiences because our audience is big.”

Welbers, who was NDF’s MD before launching Bravado Media last year, replied: “The Swarm is what you need to do because it combines what is right for a big audience – it’s about a disaster, it’s a thriller and so on. But it’s also thought provoking. It’s not pure entertainment, it has many angles.” With global streamers facing challenging times, this could be a significant moment for one of Europe’s biggest broadcasters.


Tables are turning

Not only have PSB’s and their commercial rivals moved into global platform territory but as they get closer to market saturation, the streamers have no choice but to go after mainstream audiences if they wish to grow.

Netflix shows that have achieved really big numbers, such as Money Heist, Emily In Paris and Lupin, are lighter, more entertaining and generally more in line with traditional primetime TV drama programming. They are “free TV shows in their DNA,” says Welbers. Even Netflix’s biggest hit, Squid Game, despite its dark dystopian premise, has more in common with high-concept sci-fi/fantasy movies than it does with the dark, slow-burn masterpieces of serialised TV’s much-discussed ‘Golden Age’, such as The Wire or Mad Men.

“The mind-set that ‘I’m a streamer, I need to do something different to public television’ is becoming less relevant,” continues Welbers, who in the past worked on co-productions, such as Gomorrah and Borgia.

Magic where TV & film meet?

Berlinale also underlined the evolving relationship between film and TV, most notably during the panel ‘Producers Embracing New Horizons’.

Producer Christine Vachon, who co-founded Killer Films – it had two films at the festival, Past Lives and She Came To Me – pointed out how post-pandemic binary perceived wisdoms are flawed.

“I feel it’s very short sighted to say either ‘theatrical releases are over, get over it,’ or, ‘film will always prevail’. I think the answer is always somewhere in between,” she says. Vachon, who also produced HBO’s Mildred Pierce and Netflix’s Halston, pointed out that the directors she works with are “equally inspired by The Sopranos as they are Mean Streets.”

This discussion gave the sense that a further dissolving of the boundaries between film, series, mini-series or one off productions are all on the horizon. Somewhere in this space, it seems, is where an outbreak of artistic creativity is most likely to occur in these straightened times.


Thirsty for IP

In the conference halls, bars and after-parties, there was a reluctant admission that the value being put on IP is now greater than ever. It is a trend that highlights broader insecurity throughout the industry.

Though successful books or articles in prestigious publications have always been seen as a means to providing interesting ideas, characters and story lines, increasingly they are being relied upon to provide the illusion of lowering risk.

This, it is perceived, can remove culpability if a show flops. In the US, this practice has reached comedic levels. During the panel ‘Entrepreneurial Showrunners: The Future of Creative’, Adi Hasak the creator of Shades Of Blue said he’d heard stories of outlets advising producers: “If you have an original idea, find a journalist, have that journalist write an article and then come back with the article.”

Who knows…

The bars and after-parties were also buzzing with crystal ball gazing and predictions aplenty. One exec, who wished to remain anonymous, warned that those in the industry who are not concerned about the recent changes were either not aware of them or were putting on a brave face. Either way, 2023 will certainly be an interesting one to watch…

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