Série Series 2021
Industry Report: Series
At Série Series, Steve Matthews details the methods and successes of HBO Europe
The VP executive producer in Drama Development emphasised the importance of local talent in creating original European series
The 2021 edition of the Série Series festival offered, as always, a series of talks with experienced professionals from the series sector working in Europe. Producer Tasja Abel moderated a conversation (over the internet) with Steve Matthews, VP executive producer in Drama Development at HBO Europe, who explained how the company finds new projects and helps talent.
Asked what key qualities he and his team look for in projects, and what all of the series offered by HBO have in common, Matthews first answered that the writing is key. He explained that the challenge with certain territories, such as Central Europe, is the lack of a pre-existing structure and therefore of experienced writers. Since HBO Europe is determined to work with local talent, seasoned development executives and producers are therefore hired to work together with these local and less experienced writers. Matthews’ task is therefore to “find that line” between originality and genre, in order to make work that is both authentic to its birthplace and yet universal by existing within a certain genre.
Abel wondered how involved Matthews could be, given language and cultural barriers. It is for that reason, Matthews said, that HBO Europe set up different offices in each country it works in, with their own development executives. “I try not to be the stereotypical Western suit,” he explained: the goal is to “devolve as much trust down to the local authority as possible”.
Working with writers, Matthews’ speciality is usually the structuring of a script and its exploration of genre tropes. He argued that the best way to work with writers is to “get deep into the idea and talk about it at an early stage” in order to be on the same page for the rest of the writing process. He described his job as “not telling writers what to do, but opening doors for them”.
To illustrate the different ways in which HBO Europe works with creators, Matthews discussed two recent series. Foodie Love [+see also:
series profile], created by established Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, came together through a more traditional process, since Spain had the infrastructure in place to develop original series. Matthews highlighted the particularly ingenious premise of the show, with each episode centred on one meal and a love story as the narrative throughline, allowing for playful permutations within a simple structure. Coixet was able to focus on her creativity while Matthews helped on a more architectural level.
By contrast, the Czech series The Sleepers required more planning and brainstorming. The writer, Ondrej Gabriel, had never written a series or film before but had an authentically local story to tell about the Cold War that, for once, didn’t use Central Europe as simply a backdrop and which would challenge the accepted narrative of 1989. The project began three years before the 30-year anniversary of the end of the Cold War, providing Matthews with a ticking clock to make this complex and ambitious series with an inexperienced writer. Nevertheless, Matthews remarked that in such cases as well, a profound connection with the writer is key.
Finally, he pointed out the one red flag that would signal to him that a project wouldn’t suit HBO Europe: if the writer claims that their story can be set anywhere, it reveals the project’s lack of authenticity and cultural specificity.
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