2020 was a good year for ZDF Enterprises
BY Yako Molhov
In this interview, ZDF Enterprises President and CEO Fred Burcksen tells Yako Molhov how his company adapted to the “new normality” during the hardest period of the coronavirus crisis and successfully closed the year 2020. Now, the German distributor is making its comeback to the big markets with a rich catalog of high-end drama productions from Spain, Belgium, Russia and Ukraine. The company’s big premiere at MIPCOM 2021 – the new super production The Window - will further expand ZDFE’s geography of great stories to Japan.
Fred Burcksen,
ZDF Enterprises President and CEO
Fred, what have been the main challenges for your company during the pandemic? What adjustments did you make to continue to operate smoothly?
Bound into a strong group of 18 subsidiaries and affiliated companies, ZDF Enterprises manages the largest German-language program stock worldwide and an impressive portfolio of international productions, consisting of series and miniseries, TV movies, documentaries and children’s programs. We provide a comprehensive, full-service offering and covers every step in the chain of creation and exploitation of successful content, from development to production and marketing. ZDF Enterprises’ core company handles program distribution, acquisition, co-productions and L&M. These activities were only affected in a way that e.g. our distribution activities were delayed due to production delays. We could not launch new titles in an appropriate way and sales starts had to be rescheduled. At the same time, we benefitted largely from our huge catalog with thousands of hours over all genres. However, many of our subsidiaries are directly involved in production and they, like numerous other production companies in our industry, were directly affected by the pandemic. Overall, we must say that despite the pandemic, 2020 was still a good year for us and we have to be grateful that we were not hit hard like many others in our industry.
You represent content from different kinds of genres. Have you witnessed certain changes in what your clients are interested in the most during the lockdowns around the world?
In the beginning we thought, like probably many others as well, that audiences would only be looking for soft topics and romantic TV movies. The real world outside was looking worse than in a disaster movie and the end of the pandemic was not in sight yet. This was maybe the case in the first months, but then people returned to their accustomed viewing habits.

We even launched our drama series Sløborn, which was produced in 2019 before the pandemic was even in sight. It centers around a fictitious island in the North Sea that falls victim to a merciless and mysterious virus. After three teenagers are infected with the “pigeon flu” from two bodies that washed up on shore, the deadly virus spreads like wildfire throughout the town. Quarantine laws are enacted, masks are mandatory, conspiracy theories abound, forcing residents to make life or death choices. Despite the topic, the series turned out a real success and is now in its second season.

MIPCOM is one of the first markets that returns to on-site meetings, following a long period of virtual events. What are your expectations for the market after such a long break?
First of all, we are thrilled to now be able to attend live markets again. Everybody has now gotten used to using all kinds of video conference tools, companies have ramped up their IT equipment and invested high sums in digitization. And we now know that it works and business can still be done using these new technologies. However, there is one thing that we all have been missing very badly: the personal contact with our clients, the human touch. The unexpected business opportunities that arise from a meeting in a hallway, the friendly smile of a business partner one has not met in a long time. We all might be technologically advanced, but this is a people’s business and personal contact often is decisive.

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You will be holding a market screening at MIPCOM. What are you presenting?
We will present the first episode of our new drama series The Window on Monday, October 11, from 14.15 to 15.15 in Auditorium A of the Palais des Festivals.

Before the screening, there will be a panel hosted by Elsa Keslassy (International Correspondent, Variety), with Yuri Akimoto (Producer, Fuji Television), Mirela Nastase (Director ZDFE.drama, ZDF Enterprises), James Payne (Creator, Writer and Executive Producer) and Rolant Hergert (CEO and Producer, Boogie Entertainment). It will certainly be most interesting and also available online on MIPCOM.com later.

ZDF Enterprises represents content from various territories. How do you choose what projects to include in your sales catalog?
It’s all about the right ingredients. The topic has to be catchy and able to travel internationally, the production quality excellent, scripts well-written and/or based on successful books or the concept innovative. We decide on a case by case basis. Non-English-language scripted shows used to travel only among non-English-language territories. That has changed. It probably started with the Scandinavian noir series some 15 years ago. I remember The Killing. The BBC bought the series from us and decided to televise it in the original language with English subtitles. That was daring at the time and a real breakthrough. Since then, it comes down to the story, not the language. The Scandinavian wave is still very strong. We’ve seen it flow towards Belgium, which offers a good output of original content. Spain is coming up, and we are currently looking at Central and Eastern Europe. We have some great content from Ukraine and Russia. It’s not about the language anymore.

What about co-productions, what are the main prerequisites for a scripted or unscripted title to catch ZDFE’s attention? What new projects do you have in the pipeline?
Basically, the same rules apply as for the sales catalog. However, since we are investing a lot of time, effort and money, we will take an even closer look at the project and the partners involved.

Scream Street

Are there any territories that you would like to particularly focus on during the new TV season?
Not really, we do sell worldwide and have no particular focus.

There are new SVOD players constantly popping up or expanding their footprint, both independent and owned by majors. How much of your revenues come from such services and what is your strategy for them for the upcoming years?
We have been working with SVOD partners from the very start of this business and value this relationship. There are opportunities and challenges. What we are discussing is called vertical integration. The big groups cover a complete chain of rights, and they have their own playouts like Netflix and WarnerMedia. They try to keep things within their group, which is fine, and to be honest; we do the same. ZDF Enterprises is basically a studio. We cover the whole chain of rights from early development through financing, production, sales and longtail sales as well. Our group consists of some 30 production companies and distribution companies. It’s about vertical integration.

On the other hand, if you want to be a partner for the other groups, you need to be involved very early in development. You need to control the development process as well; otherwise, there’s no chance to play a role in the project. That’s what we try to do.
Premiering at MIPCOM 2021

Created and written by BAFTA and EMMY award-winning screenwriter James Payne (The Musketeers, Hooten & the Lady, Mr. Selfridge), The Window is a drama thriller that explores the complex and dark off-field machinations of the world of soccer. The Window is a character-based thriller set in the world of elite professional football. Focusing on an ensemble cast of players, agents, club owners, administrators and journalists, the series explores the cutthroat off-field machinations of the game.

The series begins at the end of the English soccer season – with the transfer window opening. Across ten episodes The Window charts one summer in the life of Jordan Burdett, a 17-year-old Wunderkind who is on the wish list of every club in Europe. The tug of war begins…
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