TBI Weekly: What’s working & what isn’t in international coproductions

Dagmara Brodziak & Michał Krzywicki

Cold Courage scribe Brendan Foley reflects on what’s working and what isn’t in the emerging world of scripted co-productions following his trip to the Heart Of Europe International TV Festival in Poland.

I blame my parents.

One of the first toys I can remember was an aged tin box with a handle on the side. It had once contained something that went Boing and popped out when the lid was flipped, but by the time I inherited it, it was just an enigmatic empty box.

Luckily, when cranked by an enthusiastic three-year old, it still played wonky music. My mother told me the tune was It’s a small, small, world.

The Nordic Alliance partners seem to have taken the time to develop a very specific shared understanding of how each could contribute and benefit, rather than just rely on who had the loudest voice, sharpest elbows or sneakiest lawyers

Maybe that’s why I’ve spent most of my career loving working internationally across 77 countries, first as a reporter, then a features journalist, then book author, then writer-producer-director of indie co-pro features, and for the last decade as a writer-creator of multi-country TV drama.

The thing that ties it all together? Storytelling for ever-changing audiences, always working with people who look, think, seem or sound a little different from me.

My most recent wanderings took me to Warsaw, Poland, partly to discuss some Polish stories in international development, but mainly to listen. I did so at the gathering of public broadcasters from all central Europe, from Estonia to Bulgaria and all points in between, at the Heart Of Europe Forum.

It was fascinating. The public broadcasters were hosted by Polish state broadcaster TVP, in the third year of the initiative. Delegates from a dozen state broadcasters, some distributors and festival folk discussed – often with admirable honesty – the challenges they face.

These included:

  • Squeezed budgets at a time of economic hardship for many of their viewers, whose earnings fund the pubcasters’ existence through taxes.
  • The increasingly tricky tightrope of meeting audience expectations when their national audiences are often politically or culturally divided internally, as well as segmented in terms of age, gender and interests. Someone, somewhere is always outraged.
  • The challenges of the drive to coproduce internationally while fulfilling national remits. In order to reach levels where stories will stand a better chance at international distribution, both the content and budget have to work locally as well as internationally for all the co-pro partners and audiences. This needs a very different skillset from just tailoring shows to a home market these pubcasters always know inside-out.

In my corner of the business, the creative and development end of international co-pros, these regional needs sound very familiar from other parts of the world.

Working with China, for example, many of the bigger deals between US and Chinese giants in the past decade foundered, with both sides thinking that their way of structuring development or recoupment was the ‘right’ way, and ‘big country certitude’ sometimes getting in the way of finding middle ground. Yet smaller, more tailored East-West creative alliances have often worked out well and my own experience on the development side with China with streamers and producers have been much more positive.

On the other hand, several speakers at the central European gathering, singled the Nordic alliance of 12 public broadcasters (N12) as an example of how buying power and budgets could be beefed up without sacrificing national creative needs.

Our man in Warsaw, Brendan Foley

I have been involved in several series in the Nordic region and I have always admired the ability of people from countries from Iceland to Finland and all frosty points in between, to find subject matter and economies of scale that work for all involved. The alliance’s origins lie in the more prosaic broadcaster need to get on board earlier in projects and to compete with the buying power of the streamers, but I think their success has been down to more human factors.

The partners seem to have taken the time to develop a very specific shared understanding of how each could contribute and benefit, rather than just rely on who had the loudest voice, sharpest elbows or sneakiest lawyers.

Many moving parts

In Western Europe on the other hand, working methods and funding models first developed in the Wild West of the indie feature world, machines with many more moving parts than my childhood music box, became increasingly common in TV drama.

The task of building budget levels and finding subject matter that would work for several broadcasters and distributors together helped get many international series over the line, sometimes without turning them into a creative ‘euro-pudding’.

One of the panellists at the event, Markéta Štinglová of Czech TV Česká Televise, generated a forest of vigorously nodding heads when she described the challenges of coproducing internationally. Česká has a longstanding and very successful collaboration with French cultural channel Arte, which has built up trust on both sides over years.

Most public broadcasters in smaller countries do a great job with biopics and dramas about national heroes and figures from their past in arts, science and politics. In their homeland, all of these figures are household names, but apart from the real global giants, some of them would still draw blank stares internationally while being household names at home.

Markéta pointed out that in choosing their subjects, they often go for someone who had a strong link to the copro country, maybe having lived in or worked in France, making them more accessible outside their own back yard. But that in turn requires the need not to dumb down the character for the home audience, who often know their lives in minute detail and will switch off if they feel patronised.

She says with good co-pro partners it is always possible to strike a storytelling balance, making the local universal and aiming for shared cultural experiences – it just needs some work.

Breaking tax burdens

Similarly, the previous ‘arms race’ for which country could deliver the newest, shiniest national production tax break has resulted in some location-hopping multi-country co-productions. Sometimes these made sense on paper, but saved little money in the long run when dragging talent around the world and having different crews working in different locations with little shared overview of the project as a whole.

These were just some of the issues wrestled with at the Heart of Europe Forum. Luckily, there was very little navel-gazing and a lot of looking at how to co-operate in the future.

The real difference between success and failure in co-pros seems to me to be more human – a willingness to put yourself in your partners’ shoes, to listen, and to identify creative stories that speak to more than one audience

Typical of the presentations was Matthew Trustram of the EBU who said that the body did not want national broadcasters to work on co-productions out of some sense of duty as ‘the right thing to do’ but that they should seek out projects that worked both financially and culturally for all the countries co-operating, on a case by case basis. And the public broadcasters are of course just one side of the coin, with the shifting priorities of the streamers being the other.

While I was there for the Forum, a huge part of the event was a pitching contest in series, features and documentaries from across the region. My personal favourite was a sparky young couple of Polish actor-producers who deservedly won the feature pitch contest with the interestingly titled Why God Doesn’t Play With Time, a near-fi drama in the vein of Black Mirror and a dash of Blade Runner, if not necessarily the budget.

Marek Solon Lipinski, TVP’s director of international relations who hosted the Heart of Europe event, said he was delighted to see the gathering’s evolution, with countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea, previously with little detailed knowledge of their professional neighbours, now developing year by year a greater understanding of related history, sometimes shared cultures, economic possibilities and changing national broadcast remits.

TVP plays a pivotal role not just in the event, but the region. As the biggest pubcaster in the biggest regional economy, it seems to me to operate as something of a co-pro mothership for the numerous other smaller pubcasters, many of whom were delighted to spend time comparing notes in animated Eurenglish with their neighbours.

My own experience is that whatever combination of countries you end up working with, and regardless of the region of the world, some things are universal. Having complimentary rather than competing objectives, clear creative expectations and transparent division of costs and labour are always good starting points.

Certainly all of that needs beefy legal agreements. As Robert Frost observed: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

But the real difference between success and failure in co-pros seems to me to be more human – a willingness to put yourself in your partners’ shoes, to listen, and to identify creative stories that speak to more than one audience; to build co-pro structures that deliver win-win solutions, even if no one has done it before in that exact way.

Now, if only I can find that old tin box and turn the handle, maybe it can still squeeze out one more verse of It’s a Small, Small World.

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