The French television series Hard.
The global proliferation of film festivals has gathered a lot of clamoring over recent years. And despite their preponderance, many of the festivals are barely active, which makes it difficult to pin down their exact number. A rough ballpark figure can be put at slightly under 3,000. Nonetheless, the number keeps rising in both quantity and variety. Various kinds of genres, forms, and niches are also being covered on different levels of international and national gatherings.
In the so-called “golden age” of quality or “peak" TV, episodic storytelling has become naturally assimilated into the breeding diversity of film festivals. “I was the very first of the three major film festivals to attempt that,” Marco Müller bragged reminiscing about the stint of screening HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. “And I was sanctioned and criticized, and [the] media killed me for that,” he added. Since then, television productions have grown to become a fixture at big and important film hubs.
In 2013, the International Film Festival Rotterdam launched a special section called Changing Channels under the umbrella of its Signals sidebar. The formation was conceived to display the emerging trends in small screen production, investigate television series made by filmmakers, and introduce under-the-radar offerings from underrepresented countries. That year, the amount of television series featured on the big screens of respected and established international film festivals appreciated. For instance, the first season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake ran at Sundance; while in 2017, Cannes ceased to resist the transpiring trend and introduced that show’s second season, China Girl. SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival also launched sections solely devoted to television shows.
The cinematic language employed in small screen episodic narratives propelled so-called “prestige TV” into the forefront, leaving behind mostly non-Anglo-American national productions that couldn’t fulfill expectations of high-end TV production. The battle of the big budgets and quality-productions, wherein streaming titans are over-saturating the market to cast out the competing rivals from the television industry, presents another chapter that streamlines the variety of available series.
The confluence of both factors, such as the growing autonomy of TV production on the festival circuit and soaring number of festivals, should naturally yield an independent televisionfestival on its own, as it recently did in the Czech Republic in the form of an even with the tongue-in-cheek title of Serial Killer.
Yet there is already one festival, an institution in its own right, dedicated exclusively to the television production: The Monte Carlo Television Festival, founded in 1961. The festival has well-known Anglo-American titles in its program along with quality television productions from other countries. Currently, 22 festivals revolve around television production, two of which were inaugurated this April in France: Canneseries and Series Mania.
The problem of the global landscape of television seemingly appears to be monopolization by U.S. mainstream production and cheap daytime soaps and sagas. The origin of this hitch is not only due to the raging streaming juggernauts but also the heavy syndication and voracious securing of U.S. imports for national European markets leading to mass consumption of a relatively narrow portfolio. Besides the avalanche of American series, domestic programmers are also acquiring overwhelming bulks of Latin American and Turkish soap operas since they maintain steady ratings for small cost.
The accessibility of foreign television series to either European or English-speaking public seems to be the bigger problem despite large-scale infrastructures that have been laid since the peer-to-peer era of piracy. It’s a problem that nevertheless went neglected for a long time due to the unwillingness of distributors to institute a paradigmatic shift in entertainment consumption and art curation by embracing the virtual infrastructure laid by P2P and torrent “engineers” before the dawn of VOD platforms as we see it now .
However, even the rise of the big streaming services proved to be ineffective at serving local markets. For example, Netflix and Amazon entered the smaller markets (Central and Eastern Europe) at the beginning of 2016 little fanfare. A handful of national newspapers trumpeted the long-awaited arrival of quality television and VOD service, although the conclave of eager viewers figured out a way to circumnavigate the geo-lock early enough.
For such big operations as Netflix and Amazon, they show total passivity when it comes to activating new users (even though Netflix designated PR department for Central and Eastern Europe is in Amsterdam, there is virtually none promotional or brand-building activity targeted at smaller Central and Eastern European countries) and probably expected freewheeling onboarding based on the promotions that took place on the soil of big countries in a sort of ripple effect.
Putting aside the marketing model, which does not take cultural diversity into account, it took Netflix almost a year to start offering localized content by providing subtitles for selected titles. Moreover, even the quantity issued was not that great a number. This meant that the pirated episodes and series did not end up in the junkyard of history, despite research findings that insisted that viewers are willing to pay for the small-screen entertainment.
The streaming juggernaut managed to further alienate several users via a series of ill-conceived decisions that discriminate non-English speakers. For instance, subtitle options for new content in Slovakia were only made available in the Ukrainian, Polish, and Hungarian languages, completely ignoring the fact that none of those languages is not official nor spoken in the country. For a corporation exhibiting such ravenous appetite for expansion and globalization, Netflix manifests little sensibility for cultural specifications and differences.
With a conservative approach towards foreign production by domestic television programmers motivated by potential incomes (and naturally, limited by budgets) from advertisements and public broadcasters´ lack of available slots for further programming, the road of (non-English) TV shows was always somewhat rocky and strenuous. The shortest and safest (legal) route to foreign small-screen productions transpired through HBO’s VOD service that offers HBO original programming to its audience without geographical restrictions.
Historically, HBO has the most protracted presence in smaller countries; and contrary to offerings by Netflix and Amazon, it affords end users the its entire library fixed with appropriate language subtitle options, including original productions from other countries such as Romania, Brazil, or the Czech Republic. HBO even organizes PR events and actively promotes its content, domestic and foreign, to raise public awareness about its content. And that contributed to the HBO´s ability to preserve the primacy in total number of paying users of its streaming platform even after the arrival of rivals, Netflix and Amazon, in certain Eastern European countries.
The crusades held by the biggest streaming services to converge as large a public as possible into active users yield side effects. The most notable one is the pressure generated for quality content forces national broadcasters to upend their original productions to match the streaming competition. More quality television now proliferates outside the upper echelon of the streaming giants, enriching the diversity of the global production.
However, the actual access to foreign quality television remains the biggest issue, because if domestic broadcasters or international streaming services do not procure the acquisition, the sole possibility lies only in pirated content. The situation reflects, among others, a conservative approach of domestic programming teams to foreign productions (BBC production seems to be the most influential on public broadcaster´s programmers since original productions of the British public broadcaster is being picked quite often). In a similar vein, if a particular foreign series did not land a big deal over in the US or UK (as Berlin Babylon did) or was officially released with English subtitle (as with Hellfjord), it will remain to be totally inaccessible to an audience not versed in the original language, since even if the content gets ripped from television channel (or its online library), it will still lack the subtitles at least in English, the lingua franca of pirated series. Even though amateur subtitling communities exhibits incredibly robust and flexible workflow (subtitles ready under eight hours since the show´s original airing), their main translating preoccupation remains one-way—from English into domestic language. Rarely, the other way round.
History appears to repeat itself as low-profile and too-niche arthouse productions suffered the same fate. The mantra of young filmmakers, “it’s not hard to make a film; it’s hard to distribute it,” also reigns in the business of small-screen storytelling. The international film festival Nowe Horyzonty, in Poland, deems the situation so desperate that they set up a section, Lost Lost Lost, doubling as an initiative to raise the awareness about arthouse films that did not get picked for release, yet still deserve recognition.
While small-screen offerings are available for sampling to television professionals at industry ventures and mostly on B2B-basis, such as MIPTV (Marché International des Programmes de Télévision), viewers outside the programming departments, such as academics, critics and the general public, need to depend on a third party for same. The restricted access to such production begs the need for alternative distribution infrastructure. Besides, since international film festivals have grown to become steady outlets to familiarize the domestic public with offerings that likely won’t appear in local theaters—Bero Beyer, the director of International Film Festival Rotterdam fully embraced the situation by launching the festival’s very own VOD service—the same formula could apply to episodic storytelling as well.
That’s why the pilot edition Serial Killer, a television and online series festival that showcases pilot episodes, in the Czech Republic makes sense as yet another channel in the ecosystem of alternative distribution. Although the Czech festival chose a narrower path by profiling Central and Eastern European small-screen offerings, the line-up showcased titles that might find a way to streaming giants (actually one series from this year’s selection already has—Polish crime series Ultraviolet was picked by Netflix, originally commissioned by the Polish private channel AXN).
Besides proving the Danish television production preserves its vitality (as demonstrated on Arvingerne), the festival introduced German high-octane period thriller mini-series 54 Hours; small-town satire Welcome to Hindafing; and the second season of a Polish crime series, The Teach (Belfer), which follows Maciej Stuhr as a high-school teacher-cum-secret agent who against his will investigates mysterious disappearance and reappearance of students. Despite two ridiculous moments of lousy writing, the series (apparently immensely popular in its home country) could easily get acquired for television channels in the neighboring territories. Offerings such as The Teach would be usually reachable only for television programmers at markets such as MIPTV.
Besides actually facilitating an access to foreign small screen productions, Serial Killer also confirms that some kind of curatorial and guiding hand is needed to navigate and comb through the plethora of television and online productions to cherry-pick titles worthy of attention for TV aficionados and wider public. However, the major threat to such an enterprise as running a festival of television series in smaller countries is the sustainability, which besides handsome grants and funding support would have to rely on an economically wise business model.
Since the era of peer-to-peer sharing up to the current content-saturated global cyber-marketplace, the democratization and localization of foreign small-screen offerings (naturally along other non-English speaking content) falls behind the expectations based on the possibilities offered by technological development. Obviously, distribution channels are one thing, taking care of the rights to intellectual property another. Until the mobility of foreign TV shows reaches a reasonable situation on the international scale, events like Serial Killer seems like a feasible and legitimate hack.