Friday, March 31, 2023

With a Boost From Sarajevo Film Festival, Balkan Drama Poises for Breakthrough

The premiere of Serbian drama series “Bad Blood” Wednesday night at the Sarajevo Film Festival was more than just the usual red-carpet event. An ambitious, decades-spanning period drama that chronicles the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, it was the first series from the festival’s CineLink Drama co-financing forum to go into production since its launch in 2016.

“We have now closed the full circle for TV series in the festival,” says Sarajevo’s long-time industry head Jovan Marjanović, who recently became the festival’s co-director alongside founder and director Mirsad Purivatra.

Five years after Sarajevo added a TV strand to its CineLink industry platform, drama has become an ever-larger part of the festival’s program. In addition to CineLink Drama, the co-production market which presents six high-end drama series in development from Southeastern Europe, there’s Avant Premiere, which this week introduced “Bad Blood” and four other anticipated Balkan dramas to local audiences with splashy big-screen premieres.

The festival also hosted the inaugural edition of the Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards, the first event of its kind celebrating the best of the region’s TV production – something Marjanović describes as a “game-changer” for the Balkan industry.

“There are now bigger companies interested in producing high-quality, high-end TV series across the region. And we see a bigger interest both from the audience and from the investors in making these series,” he says. “This is an opportunity for the filmmakers and for the producers that we as a festival have been pushing for a while. And I think now we can see how we can become a platform for that as well, to launch these series and to launch them abroad.”

Goran Stanković, of “Bad Blood” producers This and That Productions, says Sarajevo has quickly become the key litmus test for high-end Balkan drama looking to reach the global market. “You’re pitching it to relevant people. And you’re bringing your idea to an international audience,” he says.

Three years ago, Stanković and producer Snežana van Houwelingen used the CineLink Drama market as a launching pad for “Bad Blood.” In 2019, they pitched the upcoming drama series “Sabre,” a political thriller revolving around the 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and a reporter’s investigation of the murder.

International distributors are circling, say the duo, a hopeful harbinger of things to come for a region that – despite a long and storied history of cinematic achievements – has only just begun to realize its potential as a producer of high-end scripted drama.

A wave of recent acquisitions have bolstered those hopes. Three years ago in Sarajevo, Netflix acquired “The Paper,” a gritty political crime thriller produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, the production company also behind “Success,” a noirish thriller directed by Oscar winner Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”) that was the first local-language series for the fledgling HBO Adria label.

Earlier this year Keshet International boosted its slate with the Serbian crime drama “The Group” – the latest in a string of acquisitions from the former Yugoslavia – while Amazon Prime last year acquired its first Serbian series, the historical drama “Black Sun.”

Serbia has thus far been the pace-setter, with an output unmatched by its smaller neighbors. The region’s economic heavyweight, it’s witnessed a boom in local production spurred by spirited competition amongst its three leading players: public broadcaster RTS, Telekom Serbia, and United Media.

One of the fastest-growing independents to cash in on that boom has been Firefly Productions, which last year broke ground on a sprawling studio complex 25 minutes from central Belgrade, where it will both produce its own series and host some of the growing number of foreign productions shooting in Serbia.

Firefly has a dozen series in development and production and was the big winner at this week’s Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards, where its five-part miniseries, “The Family” (pictured), about the final days of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, won best drama series, best series creator, and best actor for leading man Boris Isaković. As Variety previously reported, the show has been picked up for North American distribution by OTT service MHz Choice.

Boban Jevtic, who co-founded Firefly in 2018 with Ivana Mikovic, says a regional ecosystem is developing that will boost all the Balkan industries. “I think the first step was really to create this boom of TV series,” he says. “The second step was this kind of regional recognition, and [the Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards] helped enormously in that. And the third step will be co-production – to get these companies [from the region] to work together.”

Drugi Plan co-founder Nebojša Taraba says the Zagreb-based production outfit has stepped up its partnerships with both regional and European companies in recent years. “We see that this somehow is very organic within Europe,” he tells Variety.

Currently on the company’s slate is “Anatomy of a Crime,” a crime drama set in 1960s Yugoslavia co-produced with Serbian production outfit Film Fantastika, as well as “The Possibility of an Island,” a first-of-its-kind co-production between the Balkans and Scandinavia, which Drugi Plan is co-producing with Iceland’s Glassriver.

The series follows on the heels of “The Silence,” a true-crime drama that Drugi Plan co-produced with Beta Film and Russia’s Star Media and will be distributed internationally by Beta, which acquired a majority stake in the Croatian company last year. Many in the region are hoping that the move by the Munich-based production and distribution powerhouse is a sign of greater investment to come from other regional and global players.

The biggest game-changer, of course, would be if Netflix were to commit some of its vast resources to the region, as it’s done in Spain, Poland, and Scandinavia. But so far, say leading Balkan producers, the Los Gatos-based streaming giant has stayed put. “The market is small,” says Danijel Pek, of Zagreb-based Antitalent, comparing the diminutive Croatian market – population 4 million – to European heavyweights like Poland (38 million). “[In bigger countries] they have much easier returns.”

Regional players are nevertheless looking to fill the gap. This June, Bosnia’s BH Telecom launched an 18 million mark ($10.8 million) fund to support local TV production, with crime dramas from Tanović and Oscar nominee Jasmila Žbanić (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”) among the projects already greenlit. This week at the Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards, the company’s CEO, Sedin Kahriman, announced a new funding call with an additional 18 million marks available to producers from across the former Yugoslavia.

For a region with deep cultural and historical ties – as well as a recent history mired in bloodshed – such cross-border collaboration remains both urgently needed and frustratingly elusive. Taraba, of Croatia’s Drugi Plan, recalls how he and a Serbian co-producer arranged a sit-down between the public broadcasters of their respective countries to discuss a slate of projects – the first ever high-level meeting between the regional rivals. “We think it’s really crucial,” he says. “The war will finish when two main public broadcasters start to cooperate.”


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