TBI Weekly: Reflecting on NEM Dubrovnik & what CEE teaches us about streamer strategies

NEM Dubrovnik 2023

It’s famous as the market with the view but this year’s edition of NEM Dubrovnik also warrants a good deal of intrespection as the intricacies of local markets butt up against the ambitions of global streamers.

The 2023 edition again took place high above the azure blue seas of the Adriatic but the waters for global streamers in this part of the world are decidedly choppy.

Pay TV remains strong across swathes of the diverse Central and Easter European (CEE) region and while US-based streamers are attempting to find customers here, the economics remain tough to figure out.

This is partly why Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) pulled its original scripted efforts in the region last year, but the economic models of the US studios are by no means the only game in town, as this year’s NEM underlined.

SkyShowtime’s raison d’etre

This rather unique streamer – born from apparent rivals Comcast and Paramount – highlights one way in which US-based operators are looking to grab their slice of the subscription pie.

Warszawianka

CEO Monty Sarhan was in town to discuss how the streamer had fared so far and reasserted its commitment to increasing original programming, having gained something of a headstart following the package of shows picked up from HBO Max earlier this year.

“Others have exited the scripted space,” Sarhan noted diplomatically, “but we are still very much committed to programming in all its forms and that can be scripted or unscripted. We look across all genres, including comedy and drama,” he said.

It’s not quite Netflix in South Korea but Sarhan said SkyShowtime would offer 10 originals this year – a combo of US fare such as Poker Face and programming from Europe. But the former Comcast exec admitted that the range of countries in which his streamer operates means a nuanced approach.

“Our markets are not a monolith – there is a richness and diversity. People say we launched a streaming service, but we really launched something more akin to seven or eight streaming services because these markets are so different.

“It requires a very bespoke strategy for each market, and these countries are in very different places in terms of their voyage and streaming futures. In CEE, linear is still hugely important. Satellite and MPVD’s are still very important partners for us, because that’s where people are consuming content and that is a very valuable ecosystem for us,” he said.

Partnerships will indeed be vital in CEE but it is unclear how producers in the region might fare in terms of additional demand. SkyShowtime was created at least in part to provide a way to monetise existing content owned by Comcast and Paramount, with Sarhan adding it is not simply “a flyover service” but rather one that “exists because of these markets.”

But the question is how this translates into production budgets and commissions. Had the streamer not acquired the HBO Max package of shows, one assumes that a handful of truly new shows would be in the works. Yet that deal with WBD has somewhat muddied the waters in terms of what SkyShowtime wants from its local producers. It also means there is no desperate rush to get the new commissions into play quite so soon.

Pouncing on partnerships

Comcast and Paramount’s joint efforts on SkyShowtime reflected another theme across this week at NEM. If there was a one-word takeaway from this year’s event, it would be ‘partnerships’.

Mark Young

Telcos want partnerships; streamers want partnerships; producers and distributors want partnerships. In troubled times when the market is soft, there is clearly safety in numbers across most facets of the business.

Sony Pictures Television (SPT) is also looking to expand its partnerships across CEE, with coproductions of increasing interest to the US studio as it looks to expand its global activities.

SPT’s EVP of distribution & networks in Europe, Middle East and Africa, Mark Young, spoke to TBI on stage during NEM about his company’s ambitions and said he was focused on “really expanding our production capabilities around the world”, with copros key.

It was a theme that Beta Film’s MD Moritz von Kruedener also picked up on. The German company has been a regular operator in the CEE region, distributing shows and more recently providing serious financing firepower to get shows off the ground – most notably with upcoming series Rise Of The Raven.

It has TV2 in Hungary and ORF in Austria attached, but its budget is similar to that of a premium Western European drama – the Beta Film chief declined to dive specifics but doing some basic math suggests his company is feeling bullish about shows from this part of the world. And more importantly, it seems to be writing cheques to back up those feelings.

Proof in the pudding

And while it is is sometimes easy to talk up partnerships and coproduction wishes, Beta backed up the claim with news of a new series, set in Ukraine.

In Her Car

In Her Car (10 x 25 minutes) has been created by showrunner Eugen Tunik together with Kyiv-based Starlight Media, with Gaumont setting up and closing the international financing and co-production.

Beta is selling globally and Germany’s ZDFneo and France Télévisions are already onboard the project, which draws on lived experiences of Kyivans scrambling for shelter following the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Each episode follows local therapist Lydia (played by How is Katia? star Anastasia Karpenko) shuttling a different person to safety, with the seriestold from inside the protagonist’s car.

Production is underway in secret lcoations in Ukraine and the show is set for next year, highlighting that the warm words of cooperation in this region can also turn into action.

Reigniting relationships

Yet these expanding relationships should not be a great surprise.

The Czech Republic’s public broadcaster is also looking to forge closer ties with international partners, with one of its upcoming series – We’re On It, Comrades! – reflecting the type of show that were a fairly common occurence 40 years or so ago.

We’re On It, Comrades!

The Czech TV show also has ZDF coproducing and Jan Maxa, director of content & new media, said it was shaping up to be an intrigjing series that “reflects the spirit of coproductions that happened between German broadcasters and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.”

“Those shows were focused on family fantasy series that treated the paranormal as something that disrupts the normal lives of the ordinary citizens instead of going into fantasy. That is the spirit that this show has.”

 The procedural, which is from Barletta Productions’ Matěj Chlupáček and Maja Hamplová, tracks the activities of an investigative division that explores paranormal activities during the 1980s. It is being sold by ZDF Studios and also underlines the potential of soft money in this part of the world, with the series receiving funding from the Czech Film Fund, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund and the Moravian-Silesian Region.

“In the past we would fully finance everything, but now producers are becoming more and more adept at finding other sources of financing,” Maxa told TBI, adding that the broadcaster is looking to build on existing relationships that see it partnering with countries such as Slovakia, Poland and Austria.

“Typically we want all rights for Czech Republic, then our other financing parties can have all their rights and then we split whatever proceedings from rest of world,” he added.

It is an innately flexible set of requirements that are largely replicated by FTA operators across the region and in many parts of the world, which is why coproductions have surged over recent years. It is also these local operators that have the on-the-ground expertise and experience, with the knowledge of what’s gone before and what might come next.

For the global giants, CEE remains a market with “headroom” for streaming growth, as Sarhan put it, but these markets are not laced with riches at present. As WBD’s regional chief Jamie Cooke admitted, cord-cutting is not being seen “in a meaningful way” and streaming does not have anywhere near the hold seen in other regions.

Consumers are also “incredibly price sensitive,” he added. It is for all these reasons that WBD pulled its scripted budgets from the region and while SkyShowtime is experimenting, a serious injection of money does not look likely in the immediate future.

Yet bigger budget projects are emerging courtesy of ambitious creatives and broadcasters, plus some savvy financing partnerships. It is these types of shows that could yet provide a considerable filip to local producers and international partners looking for unique scripted fare.

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