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RIGA 2020 Magnetic Series

Producing non-English drama series at the centre of debate in Riga

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- The inaugural edition of Magnetic Series, held during this year’s Riga IFF, provided an opportunity to discuss the opportunities and the future of non-English drama series

Producing non-English drama series at the centre of debate in Riga
Tom Grater and Xavier Rashid (© Magnetic Latvia/LIAA)

On 16 October, the Riga International Film Festival (15-25 October) hosted the inaugural edition of a brand-new international pitching and networking event called Magnetic Series, which included two panels and two conversations about how to produce and acquire independent, non-English-language drama series, as well as the challenges posed by the outbreak.

The one-day event opened with speeches from the Director of the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia, Kaspars Rožkalns, the Director of the National Film Centre of Latvia, Dita Rietuma, and Tet’s Entertainment and Media Director, Inga Alika-Stroda.

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The first panel, moderated by Deadline’s journalist Tom Grater, was entitled “Future Perspective. How to Produce Independent Non-English Drama Series” and saw the participation of five speakers, namely Danish TV series Next of Kin’s co-creator Valeria Richter, Finnish outfit Elisa’s Head of Content Ani Korpela, producer Alexander Rönnberg from Sweden’s Northern Fable, producer Artem Vasilyev from Russia’s Metrafilms and Fremantle’s President of Global Drama Christian Vesper. After Grater’s initial introduction, Richter explained that the disruption caused by COVID-19 forced the production to roll cameras only in September and gave more time to the writing of the series. The script wasn’t significantly affected by the pandemic, besides “the addition of the word virus in a few places”, while the biggest troubles were caused by the reluctance of previously chosen locations to host the shoot and the current search for an alternative to Spain as a place for filming, owing to the worrying developments of the healthcare crisis in the country.

Elisa’s Korpela hopes that this moment of hardship can reinforce international co-productions and highlighted that her platform seems to be mostly watched by Finnish and Estonian viewers willing to find domestic content. During the pandemic, Elisa recorded a significant growth, bringing in new audience segments. Asked whether this trend would continue or was just part of a bubble caused by the circumstances, the head of content was uncertain about the prospects of this transformation and added: “We’re very realistic. We’re not totally relying on consumption remaining at the same level, but obviously we brought in a new audience and we need to find ways to keep them engaged.”

From the producer’s perspective, Northern Fable’s Rönnberg said that “the main concern remains insurances” — though the situation has gradually improved — and touched upon shooting challenges posed by the pandemic and the Swedish “approach”.

Metrafilm’s Vasilyev said that production on animation series had remained essentially untouched by the crisis, and that the company’s focus was gradually shifting to TV miniseries in order to reduce risks. He also spoke about the development of Pawns, a comedy spy thriller series set in 1965, “probably the first international series with Russia at the helm, co-produced with Germany and Latvia”, predominantly shot in Russian and German, which seems to confirm Russian markets’ will to stop being “insular”. This change, however, is happening “little by little” and investors still consider that backing domestic productions is safer.

Speaking about the question of the growing appetite for non-English shows in the international market, Fremantle’s Vesper argued that this had definitely evolved, with the demand not growing but nevertheless remaining consistent. He added that multi-language productions are generally easier to place but that the risk of releasing “Europudding pieces” was always present, and that a show’s multilingualism should be organic to its story in order for the show to succeed.

The second panel, moderated by Grater and entitled “Launching Non-English Drama Series”, saw the participation of Berlinale Co-Pro Series’ Head, Julia Fidel, Xavier Rashid from London-based outfit Film Republic, and Gabrielle Rozing from Dutch firm Fortissimo.

In terms of cracking into the Chinese market with sales and co-productions, Rozing admitted that “it’s still very difficult”, because of the territory’s totally different production processes and audience habits. Owing to the current circumstances, she added that it was obviously easier to work with streaming platforms than to plan theatrical releases, though the Chinese situation has significantly improved following the reopening of cinemas.

Next, Rashid spoke about the emerging trend of what he called “episodic cinema”,  namely pieces of content in between films and TV series where filmmakers and producers can target multiple slots. Moreover, he talked about the importance of placing storytelling at the centre and favouring a producer-driven perspective, instead of concentrating efforts on premiering productions at A-list festivals and exclusively serving the director’s vision. The emergence of this “episodic cinema” is also favoured by new fragmented fruition modes, where, for example, “one can start watching a feature on TV and then play it on his iPad on his way to work the day after.”

Fidel’s take on the lesson learnt from the pandemic was rather positive, as she argued that the crisis reinforced the crucial role played by markets and festivals and represented a chance for streamers and television productions to rethink their strategies and invest in local talents.

Finally, the event was brought to a close by two conversations, both moderated by The Hollywood Reporter European bureau chief Scott Roxborough. The first focused on the making of Russian TV mini-series Dead Mountain: The Dyatlov Pass Incident and saw the participation of Beta Film’s vice president of international sales and acquisitions Leonid Godik alongside producers Evgeniy Nikishov and Valeriy Fedorovich, whilst the second centered on German sci-fi drama series Biohackers, presented by its showrunner Christian Ditter.

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