TBI Weekly: Making sense of an eventful Series Mania 2023

Record attendances, a juggernaut of top European and international execs, plus protestors’ running battles with police across Lille, made this year’s Series Mania Forum one to remember, writes Richard Middleton

If there was any doubt before, the record crowds at Series Mania Forum this week underlined its ‘must-attend’ status in the scripted schedules of European execs and, increasingly, those from further afield.

But there was no ignoring that it was taking place against a backdrop of turbulence: across Lille and beyond, pension protestors fought with police as tear gas filled the air.

Series Mania Forum

Inside the Grand Palais, the air was thick with talk of what might come next as the industry continues to grapple with the basic economics of streaming.

Profits comes first, even at HBO

One thing is becoming clear: no one knows just how to make global streaming pay and the scale of change that has hit the industry over the past year underlines that. It is, probably, best summed up by Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD)’s presence at this year’s event.

In recent years since the pandemic, HBO Max execs have been out in force as they talked up the potential of regional productions and the importance of local content to the then-nascent streamer.

Fast-forward 12 months and – to their credit – WBD left it to none other than HBO & HBO Max chairman and CEO Casey Bloys to outline how that mission has changed. Barely five minutes into his keynote, the veteran exec – who will have been with HBO for two decades next year – was talking money and cable bundles.

“Streaming is how people want to watch… but for HBO we have to work out how to make it a profitable business,” said Bloys, suggesting that pre-David Zaslav, the focus had perhaps been elsewhere.

HBO Max’s soon-to-launch streamer, which is yet to have a name but which will carry Discovery+ content alongside HBO shows, will look to replicate the hugely profitable cable business that has been recently been dismantled by cord cutters, Bloys said.

Casey Bloys

While he might have an economics degree, Bloys is also one of Hollywood’s most-praised creative execs and shepherded many of the most popular shows of recent years – from The Last Of Us and Succession, to The White Lotus, House Of The Dragon and Euphoria.

But there was no creative dodging of the question: streaming has to start paying its way, he said. “Historically we have made a lot of money [at HBO] and that has allowed us to make a lot of great shows – we have to now work out how to set this for the next 10, 20 or 50 years,” he said.

That means the new combined service needs “to appeal to as many people as possible” in order to make economic sense. But talking to TBI prior to his keynote, Bloys also admitted that the turbulence affecting the industry is likely far from over – check out TBI next week for more on that.

Franchise, franchise, franchise

One way for streamers to reduce their risk profile and lock in engaged audiences is by building out universes. At least that’s what Paramount hopes.

Certainly it has worked well with Yellowstone, and Paramount+ international chief Marco Nobili told delegates that the prequels strategy with 1883 and 1923 were examples of how the strategy will play out in future.

Marco Nobili

Shows including Dexter and Billions are among existing IP being spun but Nobili said returning to pre-existing IP would not dent original programming – a franchise strategy “does not mean reducing creativity”, he enthused.

“Look at 1923 or 1883 and Yellowstone. If you do a sequel, the audience often tends to reduce – but a prequel often amps up the entire franchise. You can watch it without seeing the original show it came from and it requires originality, that element is not going away.”

Nobili also pointed to the expanding role of unscripted formats within Paramount, noting Rio Shore – the 2021 spin-off from MTV’s Geordie Shore – and Drag Race, which has recently launched in Mexico and Brazil.

A new Italian version of the latter was also confirmed shortly before Nobili’s session and the exec said the strategy is to take “big swings” both locally and globally.

The Paramount+ exec added that content spending is expected to top $6bn this year, but the company is “way ahead” of its target to have 150 originals by 2025.

Nobili also touched on the potential impact of a writers strike in the US, but he – like most of the US execs – played down its impact, should creatives down tools.

“We don’t know how much of the strike will turn into reality but our pipeline has been well fed in the last year and a half, so we come well prepared. There is a long list of great shows until the end of this year that will come through,” he said, adding that international content “is also ready to step in”.

Building the Citadel

The franchise refrain cropped up several times on the Grand Theatre’s mainstage, with Amazon Prime Video’s international chief James Farrell also on the look-out for more international franchises that follow the model of the Russo brothers’ upcoming drama Citadel.

The US show had a budget of around $160m, but it also has lower cost Italian and Indian spin-offs in the works that expand the universe.

James Farrell

Other country-specific shows are also in development and Farrell described franchises as “a cool way to take [customers] on a journey, which is something no one has really done before.”

Further franchise moves are “highly likely”, he said, while outlining how Prime Video’s LA-based team interacts with his 21-country remit and that of recently installed MGM exec Rola Bauer.

Farrell’s team is predominantly looking for shows with budgets of between $1-$3m per episode, meaning a scripted series of eight eps might run up to $24m.

Bauer’s remit is for shows that lie north of that, while the LA-based Amazon Studios operation takes on the high budget swings such as The Rings Of Power. But the key is to create a “complimentary” slate, Farrell said. And while LA-born Citadel – which looks likely to move into a second season – has a big budget, the lower cost regional versions from his team are designed to create an interlinked world.

Filling the gap

While Prime Video hasn’t been swinging the axe on budgets too much, its US counterparts have been quick to cut back on spending as they navigate what’s shaping up to be a tricky year.

For those outside of the high-cost US bubble, it could mean fewer Stateside partnerships, but that’s not necessarily a problem.

Meghan Lyvers

Sky Studios came out swinging this week, with director of original drama Meghan Lyvers talking up the Comcast-owned company’s ability to deficit finance more scripted projects without a US partner.

The European operator has previously tended to secure US partners on its high-cost dramas ahead of commission, with the likes of AMC joining Sky’s Gangs Of London and Comcast sibling Peacock joining the remake of Day Of The Jackal revealed last year.

Lyvers, who confirmed that Eddie Redmayne would headline that show, told Series Mania that the current environment means the “touchpoint” with the US is now occurring later.

“Like everyone, we have had to work out how to build our finance plans in a synergistic way,” the former CBS Studios exec said.

And with US streamer spending slowing, Lyvers talked up the capability of Sky Studios to fully fund shows, which can then be sold back to the US via NBCU’s sales arm, or third parties, depending on deals.

“If it’s not working in the US, we can deficit finance ourselves and sell it later, or we can go in with more coproductions partners on this end, where we might not have done previously. If we can support it ourselves and then sell it on later, then we will do that.”

Netflix’s marketing push

While US studio-backed streamers are struggling, Netflix’s share price has almost returned to where it stood this time last year – having almost halved before its more recent ascent.

It reflects the fickle nature of quarter-to-quarter investors but also the warmer waters in which the streamer is currently swimming in.

Jenny Stjernstromer Bjork

Perhaps that’s why its appearance at this year’s Series Mania was more party-cum-marketing push than anything else, with DJ’s spinning tracks to an extended reel of clips that were very much not to be shared, with some over officious security guards ramming home the message – including closing people’s laptops – rather too strongly.

But once the music stopped, Netflix chiefs in the Nordics and Germany talked up their vast regional slates, which ranges from Swedish gang heist drama Barracuda Queens to Danish series The Nurse, and The Chancellor Diaries (working title), a comedy about Germany’s first Black Chancellor, Plötzlich Kanzlerin.

Katja Hofem, VP of content for DACH (Germany, Austria & Switzerland), then discussed her own “passion project” but admitted that representation across the production industry makes such projects difficult.

“We see challenges around the scarcity of writers, producers and directors in Germany when it comes to diversity,” she explained.

“We want to tell all the stories in the market and one of my biggest passion projects is to tell the migrant story about the Turkish community that came [into Germany] during the 1970s.”

Hofem said Netflix had started its Academy program to increase the diversity of talent in the country, adding that a Turkish-German writers room workshop is being created to provide experience to less represented groups.

Jenny Stjernstromer Bjork, VP of content in the Nordics, said Netflix faced a similar challenge in her region, pointing to the lack of representation of Sámi voices. The streamer struck a pact with the International Sámi Film Institute to provide more opportunities but Bjork said that shows such as Stolen, which explores Sámi culture, remain challenging.

“Telling a story like that [means we need] talent with experiences to make it real and resonate. It is such a challenge and although we are working on initiatives to populate a show like that with talent, it is still a challenge.”

A Team boards Fremantle bus

And while not strictly a Series Mania story, it wouldn’t be seven days in TV if we didn’t have a new addition to the Fremantle fold to report on.

This week did not disappoint, with news on Thursday that the RTL Group-owned producer-distributor had acquired a majority stake in A Team Productions, the Belgian firm behind Baghdad Messi.

Founded in 2009 and led by Kobe van Steenberghe and Hendrik Verth, it is behind the recently launched Ketnet series Kids On The Block, upcoming scripted series Alter Ego and documentaries including Entre Sol Y Sombra, What About Eric? and The Circle.

That acquisition followed the launch of Undeniable earlier in the week, a new London-based factual label focused on documentary features and series.

It’s a canny name and comes at a time when “undeniable content” is rivalling that oft-repeated exec phrase that “a good story is a good story”.

Neither really means anything, of course – but then that’s probably the point. What execs are really saying is that they, like the rest of us, have little idea how any of this will play out as the turbulence of the past 12 months shows little sign of abating.

Read Next