International Insider: Probe Spooks UK Drama Biz; Laying Out The Layoffs; WBD’s Turkey Plan

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Probe Spooks UK Drama Biz


Trust issues: The UK’s fabled drama production community has been beset by short- and long-term issues in recent times. While Mr Bates Vs the Post Office has reminded everyone how a good scripted show can cut through, that knowledge isn’t much of a comfort to ailing freelancers whose expertize doesn’t always feel as valued as it should be. And it is freelancers who are at the center of a major six-month investigation into “suspected anti-competitive behavior” at a number of the country’s biggest drama powerhouses. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced the probe back in October. There was little follow up after the announcement as those involved tried to understand what was coming and news dried up. However, Max this week dropped an investigation of his own, outlining the situation. He found that the producers’ initial surprise at being targeted had quickly turned to fear. BBC Studios, ITV Studios, Hartswood Films, Hat Trick Productions, Red Planet Pictures, Sister and Tiger Aspect — responsible for the likes of SherlockDracula, Derry Girls and Chernobyl — are now seeing WhatsApp messages and emails go under the microscope, we understand, with the CMA suspecting the group of colluding to fix freelancer rates, which is forbidden under UK competition law. They are also racking up legal bills estimated to be topping seven figures, we were told by two connected sources. Ominously, the case is filed under a ‘Civil Cartels’ label.

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Unwitting mistakes?: Somewhat unfortunately, sources fear they have unwittingly engaged in the behavior by creating informal WhatsApp groups during the Covid-19 pandemic in which production companies exchanged information on navigating lockdown protocols, government guidance and, yes, potentially freelance rates. I recall hearing about these groups at the time. The feeling was broadly positive — that indies and broadcasters were doing what they could to get the industry, including freelancers, working in conditions nobody had ever experienced before. The situation is complicated and sources queried why the CMA didn’t first do more to understand the sector’s informal structures before the probe. Max has done a cracking job of outlining what’s happening now and next.

High-end slides down: More bad news followed later this week for the UK drama biz, I’m afraid. Annual BFI stats on high-end TV and film showed spend was down sharply. The £4.23B ($5.3B) figure for a strike-hit 2023 was down 32% on the previous year, though the number was comparable to before the pandemic. In reality, the numbers aren’t a surprise, given the production delays caused by the U.S. actors and writers strikes and a reduction in global spending by the streamers, who have ditched subscriber growth for profitability. BFI CEO Ben Roberts said the figures “reflect the different dynamics at play” across the sector, and added that, while a large portion of the blame lies at the strikes’ door, the stats also highlight “concerns for lower budget UK films,” which have been challenged for many years without a clear funding solution in sight. Can 2024 provide struggling UK scripted freelancers some respite? We’ll see.

Laying Out The Layoffs

What’s it all 4?: Next week, I’m going to demand Max only collates feel-good stories for Insider, because downbeat ones dominated this one. Not only is production spend challenged, but 2024 has begun with significant layoffs across the globe. On Monday, it was Channel 4’s turn to announce cutbacks, revealing it was shedding a “substantial” number of roles (around 250, or 15% of staff) and merging several departments in a bid to restructure for a streaming-first future. TV drama and Film4 will merge, as will the docs and factual entertainment division that is behind Gogglebox. Same story for the entertainment and reality units. Producers have long talked somewhat disparagingly about the number of commissioners the broadcaster has compared with counterparts, and this move will vastly reduce the current number. Staff impacted are entering consultation talks, and at least one major name is set to exit, with Head of Fact Ent Alf Lawrie understood to have chosen not to apply for a new post at a merged division. Several others will either depart or are set for big promotions and we’ll have more on that soon.

Skyfall: Channel 4 wasn’t the only UK-based TV giant announcing layoffs this week. Sky confirmed an FT story that it is axing 1,000 staff (or 4% of its 27,000 Britain-based staff) as it pivots from its traditional satellite dish model to a streaming strategy led by the success of its Sky Glass connected TV sets. Word from within Sky’s west London HQ is most of the cuts will be at the engineering division, with less need for staff to make home visits to instal wired boxes and dishes to the sides of houses. While the move is somewhat understandable and the layoffs figure lower in percentage terms than Channel 4, it’s still another example of a country whose TV business is under stress like never before. The move also comes soon after the exit of Sky UK and Ireland CEO Stephen van Rooyen and amid rumors Sky parent Comcast is frustrated with stalling growth.

There’s more: This all comes as context to ongoing cutbacks at Amazon Studios/Prime Video, which has axed several international offices and reshaped its U.S. business, and upcoming layoffs at Paramount Global. The latter is set to eliminate around 800 roles across the business this month, and we hear noises about content culls. Don’t bet against more elsewhere, either.

“Black Monday”: A day after the Channel 4 announcement, Roughcut TV boss Ash Atalla said on an RTS panel that it had felt like “Black Monday in the world of TV,” as he predicted fewer shows would be made this year than last. That followed alarming research from the Film & TV Charity that 40% of freelancers are struggling financially. In a somewhat unfortunate but telling moment during the same event, a VT was played asking senior execs what they were “most excited” about for this year. First talking head was Maria Kyriacou, Paramount’s International Markets President, whose exit was last Friday. Second was Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, who has overseen the drastic cutbacks at Horseferry Road. Doh.

Turkey Time

BluTV's Deniz Sasmaz Oflaz, WBD's Jamie Cooke and Turkish series Kiyma & Çekiç ve Gül: Bir Behzat Ç. Hikayesi
BluTV's Deniz Sasmaz Oflaz, WBD's Jamie Cooke and Turkish series Kiyma & Çekiç ve Gül: Bir Behzat Ç. Hikayesi

Purple patch for BluTV: Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) has been scratching around to find the perfect streaming formula in Europe and the Middle East, making its recent takeover of local streamer BluTV particularly intriguing to industry geeks like me. I spoke with BluTV CEO Deniz Sasmaz Oflaz and regional WBD boss Jamie Cooke to drill into what the deal means and how it might inform what you’ll see the U.S. giant do in the MENA region going forwards. Cooke’s response was insightful and provides some indication of the direction of travel. Oflaz, meanwhile, was able to capture the local picture, addressing rival streamers, original content and the continuing demand for Turkish shows globally. In a country with an increasingly conservative and intolerant government, BluTV’s risqué approach to content making is a story to watch. Read the full interview here.

Antisemitism Rears Its Head… Again

Broadcasting House Israel
Broadcasting House Israel

Alarming updates: Another week, another sad round of stories about antisemitism in the entertainment world. As the world continues to reckon with the human tragedy unfolding in the Middle East, the Israel-Hamas conflict is still causing divides. Yesterday, Max broke the story that a senior BBC schedule co-ordinator, Dawn Queva, was facing disciplinary action after making string of antisemitic Facebook posts in which she referred to the holocaust as the “holohoax” and peddled extreme conspiracy theories. As of today, she has neither taken the posts down nor apologized. That incident came a day after Jake revealed BBC Director General Tim Davie had held “listening meetings” with staff over internal unrest about perceptions of bias in how the UK public broadcaster is covering the Israel-Gaza war. Meetings are believed to have taken place with those who feel the BBC was being biased against Palestinians and Israelis, which is an indication of how emotive the ongoing tragedy remains.

Goteburg Gathering

Thierry Fremaux and Ruben Ostlund.
Thierry Fremaux and Ruben Ostlund.

Lancashire to Sweden: Sweden’s Goteborg Film Festival wraps this weekend, and it’s been a relatively quiet one. Handling the Undead, the Sundance title starring buzzy Norwegian actor Renate Reinsve, opened the fest. However, the two most high-profile events fell in industry sidebars, the series-focused TV Drama Vision and the Nordic Film Market. The former hosted an onstage Q&A with Happy Valley‘s Sarah Lancashire, and the latter hosted Cannes Delegate General Thierry Fremaux, who was in conversation with Swedish filmmaker and two-time Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund. Lancashire’s session was brief as she dug into the philosophy behind her new indie, Via Pictures. “It’s a small production company, and we’re very much about developing our own ideas and fresh takes on existing ideas,” Lancashire told the audience. She continued to tell the crowd of industry insiders about Via’s future development plans. “We weren’t looking to adapt any books, but we found a book. Or it found us, and it’s a remarkable piece of writing and fiercely difficult to adapt,” she said, without revealing its name. Fremaux and Östlund were in a much more provocative mood during their talk, which was chaired by outgoing Goteborg Artistic Director Jonas Holmberg. “My role is to sometimes talk to the press or to fight with policemen,” Fremaux joked as he began the session — a reference to his altercation with a local police officer on the pavement outside the Carlton Hotel at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The trio discussed a bunch of hot-button topics, including streamers, particularly Netflix, and the effect Fremaux believes they are having on filmmakers. “He’s still a great filmmaker, but he doesn’t exist at the same level in our hearts and minds as in the past,” Fremaux said of filmmaker David Fincher in reference to his overall deal at Netflix, which has so far produced two films — the latest being The Killer. “He wants to work alone, quietly, making his films for platforms,” Fremaux continued. “It’s a different world. We miss him. We want him back in our world.” Östlund also teased his next feature, The Entertainment System is Down, telling the Goteborg crowd that he plans to create “the biggest walkout in the history of the Cannes Film Festival” with one scene he has written for the pic. Goteborg runs until Sunday. After Holmberg’s departure, the festival will be helmed by Pia Lundberg, former Counsellor for Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Sweden in London.

The Essentials

JK Rowling has adapted 'The Ink Black Heart' for 'Strike' Season 6
JK Rowling has adapted 'The Ink Black Heart' for 'Strike' Season 6

🌶️ Hot One: J.K. Rowling detective Comoran Strike is returning to the BBC and HBO, as Jake reported first yesterday.

🌶️ More of the same: In further Rowling news, Peter White revealed the scribe for the upcoming Harry Potter drama series is close to being unveiled.

🌶️ Spicy: Hulu and A+E boarded the long-gestating, Bellingcat-inspired drama series The Kollective.

🌶️ Hot, hot, hot: A big-name cast has been set for Wilder & Me, a buzzy EFM package from director Stephen Frears.

🇦🇺 Aussie, Aussie, Aussie: Ben Feldman is starring in and exec producing Australian comedy thriller Population 11, as the trend for U.S. actors to head Down Under continues.

🏪 Setting up shop: Former Blue Ant Media execs Solange Attwood and Asha Daniere launched Serial Maven Studios.

🚀 Launch: Diana revealed industry veterans Richard Kondal and Patrick Fischer have unveiled co-pro house Big Safari, with Nick Frost and Lena Headey thriller Svalta on the slate.

🕺 New job: ITV Studios’ well-respected U.S. distribution boss Greg Johnson joined Cineflix Rights, we revealed Wednesday.

🍿 Box office: Relationship drama Rewind became the Philippines’ highest-grossing film at the international box office with $16M, per our new Asia reporter Sara Merican.

🖊️ Signed up: Emilia Clarke and Leo Woodall at Hamilton Hodell in the UK.

📋 New slates: For Netflix in SpainMENA and Southeast Asia.

🌍 African M&A: Canal+ is making a play for African entertainment giant MultiChoice.

🎥 First-look: At Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Netflix India period drama.

Zac Ntim contributed to this week’s Insider

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