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“It all starts with the talent; it all starts local”

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Steve Matthews • Executive producer, HBO Europe

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- In the run-up to the 2017 Visegrad Film Forum, Cineuropa talked to HBO Europe executive producer Steve Matthews about the golden age of television in Europe

Steve Matthews  • Executive producer, HBO Europe

HBO Europe executive producer Steve Matthews will speak at the upcoming Visegrad Film Forum about the recent surge in high-end miniseries in Central and Eastern Europe. Matthews has served as a consulting producer on the historical-fiction television drama series The Borgias, co-created and produced Channel 5’s Urban Gothic in the UK, script-edited the BBC’s drama series Silent Witness, and has most recently overseen the Polish series Blinded by the Lights, the Hungarian series Aranyelet and the Czech miniseries Wasteland. In 2016, he became a guest tutor at MIDPOINT TV Launch (read the news). Cineuropa sat down with him to discuss the golden age of television in Europe and HBO’s plans in Central and Eastern Europe.

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Cineuropa: You have recently been promoted to the position of VP for Central Europe, Nordic and Spain. Do you already have plans in place for these regions?
Steve Matthews:
Yes, we are making progress! Nordic has been up and running in development terms for six months or so, and we have a number of projects on the slate that we are excited about. We have really only just got started in Spain, but we already have some very cool ideas that we are bringing in. It’s a very interesting contrast. Of course, Spain is a very experienced producer of high-quality television, and of course Nordic talent has absorbed all of the confidence of Nordic Noir, which has been so amazingly successful both domestically and internationally. These markets are highly mature, so it’s a very different ballgame from our Central European developments.

The original local productions ended up being successful beyond domestic borders, earning both praise and accolades. What elements are considered before the production of such series in terms of the domestic context?
It all starts with the talent; it all starts local. We are always looking for local voices with a story to tell and something to say. This is the very heart of my job at HBO Europe – to find and support local talent and help them to shape their stories. What we have found in the Central European territories has been that there is often a lack of hardcore storylining experience at the ambitious level at which we work. But there is a wealth of raw talent. My job is to try to support a little on the storylining front, but always with the objective of keeping that raw, distinctive voice. Wasteland (read the news) is a very good example of this. Štepán Hulík is an extremely talented young writer, and in this project, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to say about his country. But it is also a crime story that uses a universal language of clues and suspects. I have a lot of experience in crime drama – if I helped at all on the project, it was in supporting him with the construction of the mystery, but as for character and atmosphere and theme, that’s all his vision. So yes, our projects are always developed for the local market and always grow from local talent. Yes, of course it’s good for us if the finished shows travel to other territories or win awards internationally, but we never impose elements purely to chase international success – indeed, crucially, we believe strongly that the more local a production is, the more interesting it probably is to people outside the territory.

What changes in the landscape of the Central European audiovisual industry are behind the rise of these miniseries of international quality? Is this also part of the so-called “peak TV” era, the recent golden age of television?
It is absolutely part of the so-called golden age of television. I think there are a lot of reasons for what’s happening in our territories. We have the Scandinavian countries to thank for this – the extraordinary success of The Killing and the other Nordic Noir series has shown that “subtitled TV” has a market, and the proliferation of platforms has created a space for it. There is a demand for great TV. The crews in Central Europe are just as good as those anywhere else in the world because of the vibrant film industries and many years of servicing international productions, plus technology like the Alexa camera has encouraged very high-quality production values at an affordable cost. I’m not a finance guy, but it’s exciting that the numbers work in such a way that we can offer subscribers ambitious, high-quality, local production alongside the international blockbusters like Game of Thrones and Westworld.

HBO Europe has announced its expansion to the “Adria” region (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro). What kind of material for original productions is HBO Europe looking for there, and will it be different to the kind of material from the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland, for example?
We’re very excited about working in the Adria region. The same philosophies will apply. We don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, but we don’t have any preconceptions – for instance, we don’t go there saying we want a cop show or whatever. Once again, it starts local; it starts with the talent. We are soon to announce the winner of our First Draft script competition in the area, and we have been overwhelmed by the response and the level of quality. This exercise is designed to bring us closer to the writing talent; we’re looking for raw, distinctive, local voices that we will encourage and support to tell the stories they want to tell.

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