Unpacking the serious intent behind CEE drama’s global push

Polish crime series Erinyes is among a number of ambitious dramas emerging from CEE

Central and Eastern Europe’s scripted industry has faced a turbulent 12 months, with HBO Max cutting commissioning and SkyShowtime entering the region. Richard Middleton finds out what’s next

When news broke earlier this year that SkyShowtime was preparing to launch its first Polish original in June, producers may well have raised an eyebrow or two.

On the surface, series such as Warszawianka (aka Still Here) seems to be the type of show that streamers in particular always say they are after. It follows the tragicomic adventures of a 40-year-old ‘urban legend’ in Warsaw, offering universal themes that can appeal to local audiences and those further afield.

Yet the 11 x 40-minute series had, of course, already experienced a fair bit of drama of its own. It was initially part of the extensive slate pencilled in for HBO Max, building on the critical success that former Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) exec Anthony Root had forged in the Central and Eastern European region for years, most notably via the HBO Europe brand.

Warszawianka was originally destined for HBO Max, before it was rescued from cancellation by SkyShowtime

When WBD chose a different course for its CEE scripted efforts, shows such as Warszawianka and The Winner – a six-part Czech and Slovakian family comedy – along with Root and many of his team found themselves somewhat surplus to requirements.

For the programmes at least, there was a happy-ish ending. SkyShowtime, the recently launched Comcast and Paramount joint-streamer, spotted an opportunity and acquired the 21 former HBO Max originals, snagging exclusive European rights to 168 episodes – more than 150 hours in total.

The deal, which handed the nascent streamer the option to acquire worldwide rights on any renewed shows and to order new seasons for several shows, provided light relief for producers who had spent years getting the series off the ground but it also underlined demand for ambitious, bigger budget CEE dramas.

SkyShowtime CEO Monty Sarhan, meanwhile, described the acquisition as a “landmark deal” for his service, providing it with “an immediate foothold in the original programming space well ahead of plan.”

CEE’s scripted outlook

That foothold has of course come at a price – TBI understands there were other parties exploring an acquisition of the titles – but while the cost of the shows was not disclosed, their appeal is clear.

The series, which also included Hungarian drama The Informant and a raft of shows from Spain and beyond, provide SkyShowtime with the opportunity to point to local originals and exclusivity with none of the hassle of having to actually produce anything.

It also raises questions about where CEE’s drama industry is heading next. The region is diverse and viewers’ tastes differ widely, but international audiences with relatively broad minds are already well aware of the appeal of dramas from countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

The latter’s public broadcaster, Czech TV, has been a long-standing commissioner of scripted series, with crime the dominant genre – a trend that fits neatly with broader regional and global trends.

“Czechs love their crime. As my former boss once said, you Czechs are not Slavic people, you are German people pretending to be Slavic people! And like Germans we love our crime dramas, the whodunnits,” Jan Maxa, Czech TV’s director of content & new media, tells TBI.

There is also a long history of co-productions in the region, with broadcasters from what was then West Germany and Czechoslovakia regularly collaborating on shows such as The Visitors and Arabela almost 40 years ago.

The Czech Republic’s public broadcaster is now looking to forge closer ties with some of those international partners, with its ZDF co-production We’re On It, Comrades! one upcoming example.

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 and reflects the interest in German-Czech coproductions that were a regular occurrence.

[We’re On It, Comrades!] is interesting for our audience and Germans because it reflects the spirit of co-productions that happened between German broadcasters and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s,” explains Maxa. “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 show is being sold by ZDF Studios and underlines Czech TV’s increasing interest in co-produced dramas says Maxa, with We’re On It, Comrades! receiving funding from the Czech Film Fund, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund and the Moravian-Silesian Region.

It also underlines the shifting models of financing that producers in the Czech Republic and other CEE countries are employing.

“In the past we would fully finance everything, but now producers are becoming more adept at finding other sources of financing,” Maxa explains, 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 the rest of world,” Maxa adds, highlighting that shows are typically running to budgets of around €400,000 ($430,000) per episode, outside of Christmas specials.

Grander ambitions

While global streamer strategies flux on regionals, local commissioners are increasingly looking to combine firepower to create shows that can stand alongside series from both Western Europe and the US.

One example is Erinyes, produced for Telewizja Polska (TVP) and recently picked up for global distribution by GoQuest Media. The 12 x 45-minute crime series is based on the short stories written by novelist Marek Krajewski and stars Marcin Dorocinski, who became known after TVP partnered with the BBC on Spies Of Warsaw.

Acclaimed director Borys Lankosz tells TBI that the show, which is set in pre- and post-war Lviv and Wrocław, was an ambitious ask from the outset.

“It is extremely rare for Poland to produce series on such a scale. Erinyes is also distinguished by the fact that it is based on quality literature. These stories take the audience seriously. They don’t fawn over viewers; they don’t suck up to them. They come from the old tradition of detective fiction, which was, of course, entertainment, but for demanding readers who think independently, avoiding clichés and intellectual prostheses.”

Lankosz says this approach is, increasingly, a rarity, and not only in Poland. “Few industry decision-makers treat the viewer as an adult (and by that, I mean something more than the fact of being 18 years old and having access to watching nudity and blood on screen).

“You have to invest something of yourself, some kind of alertness and focus, and then the world of Erinyes will open up to you and swallow you up for good. This approach seems quite unique to me.”

For Jimmy George, VP of sales & acquisitions at GoQuest, Erinyes’ “vast fan following” was vital, something that Aleksandra Kaźmieruk, head of worldwide film & TV sales at TVP, agrees with.

“We have funded all premium dramas ourselves, which is a pretty standard business model for broadcasters… however, we might welcome other partners to work on a high-budget project” Aleksandra Kaźmieruk, head of worldwide film & TV sales, TVP

She adds: “From our experience and the analysis of buyers’ needs, I also see that there is still a high demand for crime and costume dramas. It’s great if we can have both genres combined in one show, as in Erinyes or our latest title Moth Hunting.

But to travel successfully, shows must of course be well written and have “strong leads” but also “perhaps an unconventional approach to presenting a story, which will pleasantly surprise the viewers.”

Kaźmieruk, like Maxa, adds that funding models are adapting and while most scripted series at present are fully financed by the broadcaster, she says that adding partners on higher budget projects would be welcome.

Tax incentives are also helping to entice producer-distributors such as Beta Film further into the region, with the German firm behind upcoming epic Rise Of The Raven, which has Hungary’s TV2 and Austria’s ORF already attached.

“What we need to boost production activities is to develop and implement innovative financing models,” says Moritz von Kruedener, MD of Beta Film. “This goes not only for CEE but for all regions. A good example is Maria Teresa about the Austrian empress, which was financed, developed and co-produced entirely out of the region with partners from Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Slovakia.”

And while HBO Max might have departed from the region, streamers such as SkyShowtime and entrenched operators such as Canal+ Poland also offer potential.

Beta Film’s Rise Of The Raven is set to be one of the biggest budget dramas from CEE

Beatriz Campos, SVP of global sales & production financing at Studiocanal, points to two series – Klangor and The Teach (aka Belefer) – as shows that highlight how CEE’s scripted output, particularly from Poland, has been rising and resulting in broader global sales.

Both series were produced with Opus TV, which rose to international prominence after the Academy Award wins for Ida and Cold War. Since then, its drama hit The Teach has been sold globally, including to Walter Presents for the US and the UK, as well as Belgium’s M7 Group, Polar+ in France and SBS in Australia.

Co-productions between the Canal+ Group also make sense – there are “synergies” as Campos puts it – while crime and thrillers continue to be the preferred genre, she adds, because the stories tend to translate well in different territories, although she admits there remain markets where English-language still dominates.

“Slowly but surely, we are finding ways to introduce our Polish language series in territories like Lat Am and Asia. Europe continues to be an extremely flexible region when it comes to taking risks with different languages.”

Campos says the fast-shifting streamer strategies means more flexibility in terms of rights and windows, adding that “there seems to be more opportunity to collaborate together.”

For Lankosz, the key to delivering more shows that compel viewers outside the region to watch relies on commissioners embracing risk.

“With the growing importance of streaming platforms and the possibility of global exposure associated with them, I see a tendency to ‘Americanise’ domestic productions,” he tells TBI.

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be readable, understandable to people outside of my country or civilization, but it does not mean that we all have to make and eat hamburgers, right?”

For now, the industry is watching the CEE market carefully, particularly to see how SkyShowtime’s shows fare. Ambitions are rising, as are budgets, and if the “foothold” proves stable, regional producers could find momentum to take their dramas to new heights.

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