Amid turbulent times for global streaming services who continue to course correct after years of pursuing subscriber growth at all costs, TV writers and producers in Eastern Europe are pondering the next step for a region still searching for its first international breakout hit.
“The biggest challenge is the great Netflix correction — the recalibration, the reassessment of dollars,” Ioanina Pavel, who served as creative producer on the HBO Max original series “Spy/Master,” said Friday at the Transilvania Film Festival. “It’s not a bad thing, but it is a challenge. There’s been a glut. The Golden Age of TV is now coming to a close. It’s not a bad thing; it just means a reallocation of money.”
“Spy/Master,” a six-part drama series set during the Cold War that dropped its final episode last week, is one of the last productions from Central and Eastern Europe for Max, after parent company Warner Bros. Discovery announced last year it will no longer produce originals for the streaming service in the Nordics, Central Europe, the Netherlands and Turkey.
The move sent shockwaves across a region where HBO Europe was long one of the leading commissioners and co-producers, and where local broadcasters have struggled to marshal the resources necessary to produce premium drama series for the international market. At the same time, Netflix and other global streaming services have likewise rethought a business model that prioritized spending on premium content to attract subscribers — a decision sparked in part by a revolt from investors eager to push the platforms toward profitability.
“We are looking at a time when money is shorter for the big streamers,” said Johnathan Young, the former VP of original programming and commissioning editor for Central and Eastern Europe at HBO Max. “On the other hand…there’s no question that people need local content. The challenge is how to make local content that travels but retains its authenticity.”
“Let’s be honest: It is difficult for a Romanian show to cross borders,” said Gabriela Iacob, head of scripted content development at Romanian broadcaster PRO TV. “We all are praying that ‘Spy/Master’ is the success that it deserves [to be], and it will prove that this part of the world…can deliver great stories.”
Friday’s conversation in Transilvania also included screenwriter Geo Doba, vice president of the alumni network for the Berlin-based Serial Eyes TV writing program, and Marta Habior, a producer at No Sugar Films in Poland.
The booming Polish market is perhaps the most encouraging sign for an Eastern European industry looking to join the global TV conversation. Netflix, which opened its Central and Eastern Europe headquarters in Warsaw last year, has produced 40 original local Polish films and series to date, leading a crowded market that includes Canal Plus, SkyShowtime, NENT Group’s Viaplay, TVN Discovery-owned Player and Disney Plus, which also launched a Warsaw office last year.
Just five years ago, Young noted, HBO Europe was the only player in the country. “The premium drama market in Poland now has 12, maybe 15 series a year. It’s dramatically different, and that has had a significant effect on the production community,” he said. “The whole way that people think and talk about drama series in Poland has changed in the last five years.”
That success, however, hasn’t been replicated elsewhere in the region. Challenged by a Romanian screenwriter in attendance about the slow growth of streaming investment in her own country, Iacob nevertheless cautioned patience. “This is an opportunity,” she said. “[The streamers] are coming. Take the time, find the right shows and write those stories. Be ready.”
Drama Room participants make their pitch
Earlier in the day, participants of Drama Room — the dedicated TV strand of the Transilvania festival’s industry arm — pitched five series in development to an audience of industry guests. Among them is the coming-of-age drama “Export Only,” from Romanian super-producer Ada Solomon, whose credits include Radu Jude’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.” The show marks the first foray into scripted drama series for Solomon’s award-winning outfit microFILM.
At an award ceremony Friday night for the Transilvania Pitch Stop co-production forum, the prize for the best Drama Room project went to “The Kids Are Alright,” a coming-of-age series from Bucharest-based scriptwriter and director Serghei Chiviriga. It tells the story of a reckless foreign student who’s sent home from boarding school, forcing his roommates down a dangerous path when they have to decide what to do with his hidden stash of weed and who to trust.
Chiviriga said the series reflects his own “personal journey” of leaving home in Moldova during the turbulent post-Soviet era to study in Romania. “Having experienced the struggles, freedom and misguided decisions of my teenage years firsthand, I want to bring authenticity and depth to the narrative,” he said, adding that the show “captures the universal themes of self-discovery, friendship and the pursuit of dreams.
“Through the characters’ journeys, we explore the complex emotions, moral dilemmas and transformative experiences that shape us during adolescence,” he continued. “‘The Kids Are Alright’ is a story that speaks to the heart of every individual seeking their place in the world.”
Here are the five projects selected for this year’s Drama Room in Transilvania:
Writers: Radu Bărbulescu, Iulian Stanciu, Bogdan Bărbulescu
Producer: Laura Marin (Avanpost Production)
An unhappily married couple create a group specialized in creating alibis for ones in need. With each happy client, the stakes, the money and the dangers grow bigger until their daughters’ lives are threatened. When vulnerable, both parents recouple like never before to become actual vigilantes.
Bărbulescu and Marin: “The main drive for us in developing ‘Alibi’ is a desire to look deeper into the duality of right and wrong, analyzing both sides of the same coin and questioning human limits. How far will one go in order to protect a loved one? What does it truly mean to be moral, and how corruptible is the human character when faced with a family threat? ‘Alibi’ is a contemporary drama spiced up with irony and a gloomy kind of humor about protecting our family from the society we built ourselves. It’s a matter of responsibility, sometimes of guilt and definitely about love.”
Writer: Ioana Mischie
Producer: Andra MacMasters (Storyscapes, Studioset)
In a techo-capitalist society where everyone has become immortal, dying has become the most-desired luxury. Ivan and Medeea, two rebels with a cause, try their best to achieve a much-desired funeral, but the bureaucratic process makes them appreciate life differently.
Mischie: “The series focuses on characters in search of their higher purpose, while also emphasizing the rebellion against an alienated societal system. I wrote the premise of the series during my student years, a decade ago, and it grew into a multi-layered fictional world. Although ‘death’ is often seen as a taboo subject in my native culture, I aimed to steer it into a multi-layered phenomenon that can be debated from multiple perspectives. In addition, the project aims to question our freedom of choice in a time when this is perhaps one of the most pressing and marginalized matters of our contemporary societies.”
Writer: Cristina Iliescu
Producers: Ada Solomon, Carla Fotea (microFILM)
A collision between a teenager’s journey to understand her true self and her mother’s delayed trials to guide and protect her, in a Romanian border town where teens, estranged from their parents working abroad, are lured into drug dealing.
Iliescu: “I am a parent and I’m very much aware that my relationship with my daughter will shape her future emotional habits. I also know that society has no tolerance for mothers who ‘leave’ their children, even if they do it to make money and make sure they have a better future. Throughout ‘Export Only’ I want to explore both perspectives — children and parents, to build a bridge for understanding the perspectives of the others. This story is an opportunity for me to discover the multitude of greys between the white and black areas of our prejudices.”
Mom, I Joined a Cult
Writer: Alex Gorghe
Nicolas can’t stand being a mama’s boy anymore. He runs away from home to a cult he discovered through a Facebook ad but finds out very quickly that it is very difficult for him to fit in in this very eccentric group.
The Kids Are Alright
Writer: Serghei Chiviriga
After a reckless foreign student is sent back home, his teenage boarding school roommates must decide what to do with his hidden stash of weed and who to trust, leading them down a dangerous path of violence, betrayal and self-discovery.
Chiviriga: “Having experienced the struggles, freedom and misguided decisions of teenage years firsthand, I want to bring authenticity and depth to the narrative. I believe this series will deeply resonate with audiences because it captures the universal themes of self-discovery, friendship and the pursuit of dreams. Through the characters’ journeys, we explore the complex emotions, moral dilemmas and transformative experiences that shape us during adolescence. ‘The Kids Are Alright’ is a story that speaks to the heart of every individual seeking their place in the world.”