Monday, January 30, 2023

Beta Film Execs Outline Plans for Growing Central and Eastern Europe Market (EXCLUSIVE)

Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto was in his twenties when he left his native Slovakia in the 1970s, embarking on a career as a journalist before joining the German media giant Kirch Group and finally taking the reins of the Munich-based independent in 2004. Nearly half a century later, the 73-year-old admits a part of him has never left. “Obviously, there is a piece of [my] heart there,” he tells Variety.

It would be a stretch, however, to write off Beta Film’s growing investment in Central and Eastern Europe as nostalgia on the part of its venerable head. For a company that partners with and holds stakes in production companies across Europe, such moves are a natural extension of a strategy that has helped it evolve into one of the continent’s more formidable production and distribution powerhouses, behind the strength of titles like “Gomorrah” and “Babylon Berlin.”

“The market [in Central and Eastern Europe] is developing very rapidly, in terms of increasing quality and increasing international quality,” says Beta’s general manager Moritz von Kruedener. “We want to be as present as we cannot miss one of these opportunities…to build a bridge to other parts of the world.”

This week a team of Beta execs have arrived in Croatia to take part in NEM Dubrovnik, the leading TV industry confab in the CEE region, where the company will celebrate the world premiere of “The Silence” (pictured), the new crime drama from Croatia’s Drugi Plan, and will also present a special screening of “Dead Mountain – The Dyatlov Pass Incident,” its hot-selling series from Russia’s 1-2-3 Productions.

The two titles are among a growing slate of prestige productions Beta is selling from the region, with a portfolio that includes the Czech series “Wasteland” and Agnieszka Holland’s award-winning “Burning Bush,” both from HBO Europe, as well as “The Pleasure Principle,” an ambitious crime series from Poland’s Apple Film, Czech Television, and Ukraine’s Star Media. Beta is also handling international sales for a pair of buzzy Russian titles – the drama series “Trigger” and the comedy-drama “257 Reasons to Live” – that were both Canneseries competition selections.

Distribution of content from the region, however, is just a small part of a blueprint that includes co-financing and co-producing prestige series, as well as taking stakes in outfits that share Beta’s core philosophy when it comes to the production of high-end content – as when the company bought a majority stake in Drugi Plan last year.

Navigating such ambitious partnerships, of course, can be fraught with challenges. Mojto says the key is identifying “what is the show we want to deliver and how to achieve that without falling into the trap of false compromises.” He adds: “Cooperation doesn’t mean creative compromises. This balance is very delicate.”

It’s a balance Beta struck with “Maria Theresa,” a limited series about the young empress who took the helm of the Habsburg Empire in the 18th century and set it on a course to have an outsized influence on Europe for the next 150 years. Released as two 100-minute installments – with another two-hour episode currently in post-production – the series has been a hit on broadcasters across the region while also selling to the U.S. (Walter’s Choice), the U.K. (Walter Presents), Italy (RAI), and a host of other territories.

“Maria Theresa” is produced by Maya Production in association with MR Film and Beta Film for Czech Television, Austrian pubcaster ORF, Slovakia’s RTVS, and Hungary’s MTVA, with a writer’s room comprised of Czech and Austrian scribes and Emmy-nominated, Romanian-born helmer Robert Dornhelm (“Anne Frank: The Whole Story”) attached as director.

Von Kruedener cites it as a case study of Beta’s approach to collaborations that offer both a financial and creative upside. “‘Maria Theresa’ is the perfect example of where the elements of the original story can bring together different partners naturally, due to the historical period,” he says. “It speaks about taste, it speaks about why is it possible to combine financial and creative sources in this case, and it speaks about creating something which then can also travel outside the region.” It’s a formula the company hopes to replicate with the epic historical drama series “Rise of the Raven,” a joint venture with Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films that’s being billed as the biggest-budget TV series ever produced in Hungary.

However much those elements might combine in a compelling way, though, Mojto says: “I do not think that there is a recipe for success.” He points to “Gomorrah,” the groundbreaking Sky Original series produced by ITV-owned Cattleya in collaboration with Beta, as an example of a show whose worldwide success was impossible to predict. “It was a local story, it was a story from Naples, not even in Italian, in the local dialect – which had a great, great international impact.

“We have to rely on instinct. Obviously on experience,” he continues. “But it’s not about repeating yesterday’s success tomorrow.” Audiences in the age of global streaming can have fickle tastes, and the Beta topper calls it a “gamble” to try to predict viewing habits several months or years down the line. “How can you know today what people will be watching [in the future]?”

Mojto is nevertheless bullish on the rising generation of filmmakers and series creators from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom have roots in the region’s rich cinematic lineage. “Even if they come out of that tradition and ambition, they were nourished by series which we all are watching,” he says, giving them a “knowledge of the international language” of television. A deep pool of talent, low production costs, and a host of attractive rebate schemes only make the region more appealing for producers.

When looking at the region’s prospects, Mojto draws the comparison to Scandinavia, where producers have pooled their resources in order to produce high-end content whose artistic ambitions aren’t constrained by limited local financing. In 2019, Beta launched Sweden-based Beta Nordic Studios to serve as an umbrella for its production activities in the Nordic region.

Though company execs are mum on whether a similar initiative might take shape in Central and Eastern Europe, Mojto notes that Beta’s strategy for the region is “to try to put together resources from those different countries and to make the best use of it for the national, Central European, and – if we are lucky – larger European and international market.”

Beta’s showcase during NEM Dubrovnik underscores the growing importance of the Adriatic region to the company’s plans. Last year Beta bought a majority stake in Drugi Plan, the Zagreb-based production outfit behind hit series like “The Paper,” a gritty political crime thriller that was acquired by Netflix in 2018, and “Success,” a noirish thriller directed by Oscar winner Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”) that was the first local-language series for the HBO Adria label.

Von Kruedener says that “it was not primarily our interest to buy into one of those companies in the region. It was more the consequence of being there, the consequence of talking to creative people in the region.”

That process led to Drugi Plan co-founder Nebojša Taraba, whom von Kruedener describes as an “extremely international, open-minded, creative player.” The Beta exec sees their partnership as a way to leverage the Croatian outfit’s creative capital and knowledge of the local market with Beta’s distribution muscle and international expertise. “It’s one way of getting close to the creative talent. And in this case, it’s probably a very good way for both sides.”

Von Kruedener stresses that Beta isn’t bringing a one-size-fits-all approach to the region. “There are companies and projects with great international potential,” he says. “And [our involvement] might be another stake in another company in the region. It might be co-production and cooperation on a project-by-project basis with different companies from the region.

“We are not principally against pure distribution,” he adds, citing an example like “Golden Boy,” from Serbian production company Film Fantastika, whose international distribution rights were recently acquired by Beta. However, he notes, “if you ask me what the future is, it will be more cooperation than anything else. And cooperation means very early creative development, very early joint development of creating stories.”

The company is investing in the region for the long haul, with von Kruedener citing “the intention to develop those relations with potential producing and creative partners” this week in Dubrovnik, in the same way that it’s established decades-old relationships with top producers and broadcasters elsewhere on the continent. Veronika Kovacova, the company’s VP of international sales and acquisitions for Eastern Europe and Turkey, says patience is a key part of Beta’s success. “We have a lot of support,” she says. “If we feel that this is the right project, this is the company or talent we should follow, we have this liberty to develop it further.”

That, in turn, has allowed the company to take big swings without the fear of the occasional misfire. “Nobody has ever been punished at Beta for having done the biggest failure in the history of television,” says Mojto. For a growing regional market that’s only begun to scratch the surface of its potential, the Beta topper is focused on the upside. “I get upset when I have a feeling that not everything has been tried to make the best out of what’s there.”


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