ZDFE brings the best of Europe to market
Fred Burcksen, president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises, discusses the company’s playlist for C21 Digital Screenings, which spans kids, drama and factual programming.
ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) may have the largest collection of German-language programmes in the world, but it is nevertheless always on the look-out for hits in other languages, particularly non-English-language dramas.
The Mainz-based firm, the commercial arm of German public broadcaster ZDF, has already had a big hand in drawing international audiences to non-English-language scripted series by being an early adopter of Scandinavian crime drama. “We were the first to market Nordic noir internationally and paved the way for its success and countless remakes in other countries,” says Fred Burcksen, ZDFE’s president and CEO.
Now considered as one of the chief architects of the Nordic noir boom, ZDFE distributed international ratings hits such as Danish police procedural Forbrydelsen (The Killing), acquired by broadcasters and platforms in more than 120 countries, including by the UK’s BBC, and Danish-Swedish crime thriller Broen (The Bridge), which was remade by US network FX and starred Diane Kruger.
But regarding the next big thing in television, Burcksen isn’t so sure. “I do not necessarily see a new hit genre, because there are simply genres that have always worked and will always continue to do so. A good thriller or a nail-biting cop show or a romantic comedy will always be popular with audiences,” he explains.
“We should, however, look more at territories that have been maligned in the past because the style or quality wasn’t up to scratch. Times have changed and now – for example, great series are coming from Ukraine, Spain, Russia and Colombia.”
As for gripping thrillers, Burcksen has selected three ZDFE titles, ANA. all in., Huss and Before We Die, for the company’s Digital Screenings playlist, each produced in a different European language.
“We feel that audiences are becoming more and more international and like to watch productions from other countries. People travel more than ever before and open their minds to foreign cultures. They want to continue to do so when they are back home,” Burcksen says.
Produced by Spain’s TVE, Tornasol, DeAPlaneta, ZDFE and Gobierno de Navarra, Spanish-language crime drama ANA. all in. (6×48’) was created by Robert Santiago and adapted from his novel Ana.
The series follows a criminal lawyer who hits rock bottom and spirals into self-destructive behaviour, until she receives a call from her brother who has been arrested on suspicion of murder and needs her to defend him in court.
Swedish drama Huss, meanwhile, was produced for Viaplay and Discovery and directed by Jörgen Bergmark (Grey Zone, Beck), who co-writes with Peter Lindblom.
Burcksen says: “Inspired by Helene Tursten’s bestselling novels, the crime drama Huss centres on Katarina Huss, an ambitious new graduate of Sweden’s police academy who is drawn into a tangled web of corruption and betrayal.”
Six-parter Before We Die, commissioned by commercially funded UK pubcaster Channel 4, is an English-language adaptation of the Swedish series of the same name. It stars Lesley Sharp as a detective facing a tough choice when she discovers her estranged son is an undercover informant in a brutal murder investigation involving Eastern European drug gangs.
Before We Die is produced by Eagle Eye Drama in association with Caviar. Written and adapted by Matt Baker and directed by Belgian director Jan Matthys, it also stars Vincent Regan and Patrick Gibson.
Also on ZDFE’s scripted slate is French-language period drama Voltaire in Love (4×52’), produced by Siècle Productions and France Télévisions. It stars Thomas Solivérès (The Intouchables, Cyrano, My Love) as one of the world’s greatest philosophers, Voltaire, alongside a supporting cast that includes Christa Theret, Eric Caravaca and Hippolyte Girardot.
Each episode of Voltaire in Love captures a different period of the philosopher’s turbulent life, including his childhood suffering, his years of imprisonment in the Bastille, his ambiguous relationship with the French court and his return to France after exile.
As for how consumption of drama has changed over the past year, Burcksen says he was surprised that demand for romantic comedies didn’t skyrocket. “You would assume that people would want to watch more romcoms during the coronavirus pandemic, because reality was already hard enough. However, this was not the case at all,” he adds.
One trend he did see last year, however, was co-viewing. With lockdowns being enforced around the world, families spent more time together than ever, meaning that programmes suitable for all ages became a necessity to avoid squabbles over the remote.
Burcksen describes the rebooted version of kids’ series Pan Tau (14×26’/7×50’) as “co-viewing programming at its best,” adding that a remake of the 1970s original was long overdue.
Produced by Caligari Film, Pan Tau stars Britain’s Got Talent finalist, magician and comedian Matt Edwards in the titular role, as he uses his magic powers to help the children of Westpark School solve their problems. The series also stars Hannah Chinn (Two’s Company, There’s Always Hope) and Jacob Avery (Dark Heart, Adult Material).
From the same producers as Pan Tau is The Muscleteers (45×11’), a kids’ CGI animated series. It follows four daring mice who band together to help each other escape desperate situations, from being hunted by cats and exterminators to coping with being driven away from their homes by construction teams.
Completing ZDFE’s kids’ offerings is Zoom – The White Dolphin (104×12’), produced by Media Valley and Marzipan Films. Another remake, this time of the 1970s cult series created by Vladimir Tartakovsky and Marc Bonnet, the show tells the story of a diving-mad teenager as he befriends a dolphin called Zoom and goes on a series of exciting adventures with him.
When season two of the show premiered recently on TF1 in France and in Germany on ZDF and Ki.Ka, it achieved “record-breaking” ratings, according to Burcksen. “It shows this is exactly the kind of programming that children today want to watch,” he adds.
Next up on the playlist is science show Myths – The Great Mysteries of Humanity (10×50’/1×50’ special) from Berlin-based Story House Productions for ZDFinfo in association with ZDFE. “Each episode of this fascinating series takes on a different myth, such as the curse of the Pharoah, whether aliens control the Bermuda triangle and if King Arthur really existed, and separates fact from fiction,” says Burcksen.
For wildlife content, Burcksen puts forward In Touch With a Giant Pacific Octopus (1×50’), a show he describes as “breath-taking.” The feature doc follows marine biologist and filmmaker Florian Grane as he explores the world of giant octopuses.
Scenes include a giant octopus rendez-vous deep in the reef, a mother-to-be octopus protecting her unborn babies before she dies from exhaustion and the development of a young giant octopus at the Marine Science Centre at Port Townsend, Washington. It is produced by NDR Naturfilm and Doclights for NDR in association with Arte and ORF.
Rounding off both ZDFE’s factual line-up and its Digital Screenings playlist is Construction Fails (8×50’). A fast-paced, adrenalin-driven series, it looks at the biggest and strangest mishaps in the world of construction.
Using a combination of footage that has been captured in the moment, along with original 2D animation, Construction Fails goes beneath the surface to find out what went wrong. Episodes include the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the catastrophe at the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, which left two cranes precariously dangling from the building, and the tragic collapse of the Ponte Morandi in Genoa.
Construction Fails has been produced by Yap Films in association with Bell Media, ZDFE and Newsflare, with the assistance of The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit and the Rogers Cable Network Fund.
For the year ahead, Burcksen says he can sum up ZDFE’s strategy in one sentence: “To identify and secure valuable IP, produce it and bring it to the markets.” It’s a strategy that he says will be bolstered by the return of face-to-face meetings and markets once the pandemic is over.
“If you had asked me a year ago if we could go without markets or any real-life meetings with clients, I would have said it would be impossible,” he explains. “But we all managed and we even exceeded our turnover goals for this year by a bit. However, we are very much looking forward to sitting down with clients again and having deeper conversations. We all need to discuss business eye-to-eye and not over Zoom.”
As for the ever-growing world of streaming platforms and their strategies, Burcksen says he has noticed a shift. “Initially, new SVoD platforms were looking for big packages and local content,” he explains. “But now that has moved towards commissioning their own originals. Fortunately, ZDFE is a shareholder in 20 production companies, and we have seen them supply series and originals for such platforms.”
Those prodcos include Bavaria Fiction, which made scripted series Freud, a crime drama reimagining the life of Sigmund Freud, for Netflix, and Off The Fence Productions, the prodco behind Oscar-winning wildlife documentary feature My Octopus Teacher.
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