The co-production of European works of fiction comes under discussion at Series Mania

– ZDF, X Filme Creative Pool, ITV Studios and the European Producers Club analyse the relatively low incidence of co-productions and potential ways of improving the situation

(from left to right): Alexandra Lebret (European Producers Club), Simone Emmelius (ZDF) and Michael Polle (TV – X Filme Creative Pool) during the debate (© Marc Vidal/Séries Mania)

23% of European films might be international co-productions, but for series the rate is as low as 13% (7 % if we exclude “linguistic” co-productions such as French-Belgian or German-Austrian collaborations). Scandinavia is very open to series co-production, Spain and Italy less so, while the smaller European countries only co-produce with their bigger neighbours with whom they share a language. Such is the conclusion of the European Audiovisual Observatory which gave rise to a fascinating debate organised within the Series Mania Forum and moderated by Alexandra Lebret (Managing Director, European Producers Club), who believes that “in order to compete with streamers, we need to co-produce and find solutions”. It’s a line of thought revolving around the example of “good student” Germany, which co-produces a significant number of series as a minority partner. Here are some highlights of the discussion…

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Simone Emmelius (Senior Vice President of Co-Production and Acquisition at ZDF): The important thing isn’t knowing where the story comes from, but whether or not it’s a good one and whether we believe it capable of drawing in audiences. It could be from Iceland, Croatia, France, Germany, etc. It doesn’t matter; what counts is to share a common vision. Over the past three years, we’ve gone so far as to double our co-production volumes. It was harder a few years ago, but we do have strong local production capabilities. On the other hand, these co-productions are different and allow us to target a younger, more cosmopolitan, more intellectual public; a public which broadcasters are at risk of losing. So it’s an opportunity to associate such collaborations with our brand, because they respond to the needs of this generation who travel a lot, who have international work colleagues, etc. The reality which we show in these series is already theirs.

Michael Polle (Producer, Head of TV at X Filme Creative Pool): The major change is that platforms have allowed greater accessibility to programmes from all over the world. This is a generation which has grown up with subtitles.

Julie Meldal-Johnsen (Executive Vice President of Global Content at ITV Studios): There are two types of co-productions: either a meeting between two producers based around one same vision which isn’t driven by financial motivations, or a vision requiring a budget which is far too onerous for just one broadcaster, and which needs to find an additional partner sooner rather than later. But it’s easier to get one yes than it is to get two. It’s a complex market with lots of development and competition. There are production companies out there, like Cattleya or Danish outfit Apple Tree, who have co-producing in their blood, and streamers are also starting to co-produce. Some of our bigger budget dramatic series are clearly aimed at broadcasters like ZDF, France Télévisions, public TV in Australia, etc. There are also co-productions set up between the BBC and Netflix who share exclusivity windows between them.

How about co-producing with a streamer? And opening ourselves up to private-equity-style funding?
Michael Polle: As it stands, there can’t be rules on whom we should or shouldn’t work with. Fury (co-produced with Norway), for example, united the Viaplay platform in Scandinavia with the public broadcaster in Germany ZDF. When we made Babylon Berlin, we set up a co-production between a pay TV (SKY) service and a public broadcaster (ARD). But if a project has too high a budget to be a co-production, or if the creative vision is better suited to platforms, we talk to Netflix, Amazon, etc.

Private equity funding? It’s too complicated, because when you set up a co-production with public aid, it’s hard to incorporate private equity providers: they want a return on their investment as quickly as possible and, considering the waterfall-type system involved in co-productions, I don’t think there’s a place for this type of finance right now.

In Germany, we now have a fund which was introduced by the Ministry of the Economy rather than that of Culture. Why? Because research revealed that the creative industries are very similar to the car industry in Germany. So we’re important to the country’s general economic wellbeing. It’s also a political subject which should be discussed throughout Europe: we’re not only representatives of culture; to produce a programme like Babylon Berlin, we needed 1,500 employees in total. Moving forwards along such lines of thought would definitely help to increase funding capacities and would also help bring about some real European co-productions.

Alexandra Lebret: Eurimages is thinking about introducing a fund for series, the Media Programme has new tools to improve funding in favour of this sector, specifically in terms of equity… It’s true that, at this point in time, it’s difficult to incorporate private equity partners, but one solution might be to do what Anton Capital does with Federation Entertainment: to inject money into the company rather than into a specific project.

Julie Meldal-Johnsen: It might be difficult to co-produce with Netflix or Amazon, but there are other streamers out there who are far more flexible.

Simone Emmelius: It depends on whether you share the same vision for a respected project, and on the way we work with producers, which is on an equal footing in terms of responsibilities, all the while investing in development because we know that it needs to be funded. If a streamer is on the same wavelength as you, you won’t have any issues co-producing.

Michael Polle: Production budgets are increasing all over the world, but if you want to compete with a tech streamer, you have to find solutions. That’s why professionals are increasingly open-minded in terms of project funding structures. The work of a producer is more and more about the development of such structures, so you have to be very up to date on what’s going on all over the world and to talk in order to uncover the best idea for bringing such and such project to life.

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(Translated from French)

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The co-production of European works of fiction comes under discussion at Series Mania