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BERLINALE 2024 EFM

Uncertain times ahead for the drama-series landscape, say experts

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- BERLINALE 2024: During the Berlinale Series Market session, the panellists covered topics such as commissioning trends, high-profile projects, audience shifts and non-English-language productions

Uncertain times ahead for the drama-series landscape, say experts
Danna Stern (left) and Yi Qiao during the panel debate

On 19 February, CinemaxX hosted a Berlinale Series Market panel titled “Silver Linings – Overcoming Crisis through New Opportunities”. The event saw the participation of Danna Stern (founder and managing director at In Transit Productions), Yi Qiao (director of Drama at ZDF Studios), Sabine de Mardt (president of Gaumont’s German division) and Roy Ashton (partner at The Gersh Agency). The conversation was moderated by Deadline’s Stewart Clarke.

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First, Stern highlighted how the last year has been rough in the industry, resulting in the loss of many jobs. She said, “The best way forward is not to live in the past of the heyday where we used to be,” but rather to look to the future. She added how crucial it is, still, to ask basic questions when it comes to developing a project (especially the “who” in terms of target audiences), and that there is no point in trying to bring back viewers who have been lost, but rather to focus on retaining those who are still loyal. One of the common issues she touched upon is how shows get very old while going through development and production.

Qiao agreed with Stern, underscoring how development remains crucial, as producers and creators “need to know their project from the inside out from the very start”, having a clear vision in terms of the pitch, target market and commissioners. The main goal is therefore “transporting creative ideas” while also “thinking about the economics”. Besides, many producers come with ideas that may sound appealing, but they are somehow stuck in their own bubbles. In this respect, having an international partner while developing the project may be a good choice, but it’s also important to understand in which way it can affect the creative process.

De Mardt touched upon Gaumont’s work in different countries and how the group aims to “combine entertainment with relevance”. She stated that in terms of content, the outlook should be optimistic, as we need more and more “touching and relevant stories”. In this regard, she named the likes of Anatomy of a Fall [+see also:
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, films she labelled as “very arthouse but also commercially successful. […] We’re more on the commercial side of things, but we need all of that,” she said, while adding how important it is to keep focusing on new IPs.

In his contribution, Ashton said that despite navigating difficult waters, the drama-series landscape is still far too overloaded with content. Shows, he said, cost too much money – he mentioned the Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon costing $23 million per season 1 episode and $28 million per season 2 episode, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians roughly $18-20 million per episode. He expressed doubts about how strong their reception has been, as even his own 11- to 14-year-old kids, who should be part of the target audience, don’t seem interested in those shows.

On the topic of non-English-language content, Ashton said how Turkish content creators are now literally “printing money” as they have built up a huge customer base spanning Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Hispanic USA and Latin America. South Korea and Australia were also mentioned as thriving places for drama-series production.

De Mardt later called for more favourable regulations in Germany, as they’re currently “not compatible” and pushing German shows to be shot in Eastern Europe. She also confirmed how the consolidation trend is indeed happening, but AI might bring new opportunities, further shaking up the drama landscape.

Stern later admitted, “Nobody knows anything,” and Qiao agreed. Most of the work they do, Qiao argued, is about timing and taking their best guess: “Breaking Bad, for example, came at a time when nobody knew [it would have been so successful].”

On the topic of algorithm-focused commissioning, Ashton said, “We are at a time when networks know what they want, but not what the audience wants.” He was also negative about the lack of individual “greenlighting power” in the USA and large players’ focus on “monetising library” instead of gifting “something new to the audience”.

“There’s still some magic in stories, as they work with the right ‘ingredients’. […] I don’t want to sound too romantic about this, but it’s important and makes you think out of the box. It’s like broadcasters saying, ‘We don’t do period any more,’ and then they do it again. [We need to bring back the] culture of making mistakes, and not get fired for it. Then you can achieve the quality you need,” de Mardt concluded.

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