Great storytelling – the key to HBO’s hits across Europe
BY Yako Molhov
What unites countries like Hungary, Spain, Norway, Croatia and the Czech Republic? It’s not the language, it’s not the culture, it’s not even similarities in viewing habits; it is HBO. In each of those countries, HBO Europe is present and developing HBO Original Dramas – aimed not only at the local market but also at international audiences across the continent and beyond.
The hard job of finding the stories and creating the future hits of the HBO brand in the region is in the hands of Steve Matthews, who is in charge of all European productions of the US pay TV giant. Yako Molhov tried to find out what is the right approach when working with creative talent from such diverse territories and what is the right formula to making a hit series.
Valea Muta
Steve, you are the EVP, Original Programming and Production at HBO Europe. What are your main tasks at this position?
I provide development support to writers and creative teams in all of our territories. We are passionately committed to supporting local talent and developing stories from the community. It is challenging sometimes as I am always working on translated scripts, and the deep cultural resonances of a project will always be slightly out of my reach. And of course, I couldn’t do it without the hard work of our talented executives in each of the territories. But when it works well, I can use my experience to show writers how a script or story can be improved. The crucial point is that I’m never telling writers what to do - the job is to try to understand and what the writer is trying to achieve and help them get the best possible version of their own vision.

That’s basically my job: finding the best way to support and work with a writer - to bring what skills and experience I might have to strengthen or support a universal story structure but always leaving space for the writer’s voice and vision and style to shine through.

What are the territories you are responsible for at HBO? What is HBO’s development strategy in each of those?
I am currently across the slates of all HBO Europe Original Programming territories. That is Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Adria, Nordic and Spain. I spend a lot of time at airports!

There are differences between the different territories of course. The markets work in different ways, but more important to me in my role are the concerns and themes that lie in the zeitgeist are different. Across the territories the strategy is the same – to create an opportunity for local writers, directors and producers to do a kind of work no one else in the region is attempting. This is inherently exciting but brings its own challenges: as no one else is doing what we are trying to do we have to educate the local creative community about HBO creative values, and the kind of ambitions we have for television drama.


Where would you like to put more efforts into?
That’s an interesting question! I suppose the answer is “Everywhere”! We all know competition is increasing as new players enter the market, so we have to focus our efforts to make sure we’re finding, developing and making the best material in all our territories.

You have worked on projects like Blinded by the Lights in Poland, Hungarian series Aranyelet, Czech miniseries Wasteland and others. What would you say are the specifics of CEE series compared to other regions and what made them popular internationally?
When I joined the company, we were only producing in four Central European territories - Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and Hungary. The exciting thing about working there is the wealth of stories to be told and the exciting pool of writing talent. However, those markets are not as mature as for instance the UK in terms of TV development experience - sheer hardcore day to day storylining, so we tend to drive development more than a broadcaster say in the UK who would expect the production company to do that work. My newer territories of Nordic and Spain are different in that they have highly mature markets of independent production companies with huge experience in development. But we’re finding the same applies: we like writers, we support writers, we like to get involved.

As for international popularity - well of course, Nordic Noir showed us all the international potential for non-English language series. We believe that a local approach is the right way to go: we are looking for universal exciting and emotional stories, but we also believe that the more rooted a story is in its local culture the more it resonates with a sort of integrity. All we can do is tell good stories and hope people like them - but why shouldn’t the next big breakout hit come from Zagreb or Belgrade?

Last year HBO announced its expansion to the Adria region. What are your plans for this region?
Our creative strategy in Adria is the same as that we have applied to our territories of Central Europe and beyond - identifying and developing key creative talent and supporting them in bringing us exciting ideas. We’re looking for daring original series ideas from authors with distinctive voices and passion - universal stories rooted in local culture and themes. Above all projects should grow organically from the local talent.

Uspjeh/Success, our first original series from the region, is a perfect example of this. We discovered the project and its creator/writer Marjan Alčevski through our First Draft competition which we launched to uncover talent from the region. His script showed an incredibly high level of professionalism, with an exciting narrative and a real ambition to say something about the world we live in today. After developing it with Marjan, his first series for television is now in production with Oscar-winning Danis Tanovic directing.


What are HBO’s latest scripted projects from the CEE region? How many series do you have in the pipeline and how many will debut this year?
We have a very exciting raft of new material to be broadcast in the next year. Three brand new drama series: Hackerville, a high-tech thriller from Romania which is a coproduction with Germany, our Polish gangster epic Blinded by the Lights, and of course Uspjeh from the Adria region. In the Czech Republic and Hungary, we have returning for third seasons Terapie and Aranyelet.

Is it harder to produce series in CEE than in the rest of Europe?
No, I don’t think so – producing great shows is hard anywhere! As I’ve said the territories have different levels of experience in developing high end series, but I would add that the crews are fantastic. All the CEE territories have proud cinematic traditions and have been supporting big international series (Game of Thrones being an obvious example) and commercials for many years. The production values are amazing.

You have held script competitions in the CEE region. Do you plan to continue with such events and will you add additional territories?
We have used script competitions a number of times and they are very useful. The concept reflects our commitment to local talent and local storytelling. We are delighted that we are in production with the joint winner of our competition in Adria - it achieved exactly what I wanted which was to find the raw talent. We would certainly use the strategy where appropriate.
STEVE MATTHEWS is EVP of Original Programming and Production at HBO Europe. He has worked on HBO Originals like Pustina, Aranyélet and Valea Muta. Steve was Consulting Producer on all three series of The Borgias for Showtime Networks, and produced four series of RTE’s award winning Dublin gangster series Love/Hate. He was formerly Head of Development at Size 9 Productions. He worked as a script editor for BBC’s Silent Witness and co-created and produced Channel 5’s late night horror series Urban Gothic.
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