Behind the scenes of EST’s Broken Pieces
Spearheaded by its latest hit, Star TV drama Broken Pieces, Endemol Shine Turkey is successfully changing drama production models in the country. Gün Akyuz reports.
It’s early June and the final day of shooting is underway for the last episode of Broken Pieces (aka Paramparça), Endemol Shine Turkey (EST)’s hit drama production for Star TV. The location is an imposing Ottoman villa in Kandilli on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, one of three main sets used by the Istanbul-based production.
The family drama, in which two baby girls are mistakenly switched at birth in hospital and then unknowingly raised by each other’s families, develops into a tense romance between the wealthy father of one of the girls and the lower-class single mother of the other, as the girls’ real parentage is discovered following a DNA test.
It topped the Turkish 2014/15 television season, racking up impressive domestic audiences as well as stirring significant international interest. Launched on Star TV in December 2014, the drama overtook ATV’s hit series Karadayi – the country’s leading drama of the previous three seasons – increasing its ratings episode after episode. The season ended on June 29, averaging a 22.5% share and 9.2% rating of all viewers (five years-plus) across its run – more than double Star TV’s channel share average (10%). The series has been recommissioned for a second season.
Remarkably, it’s also EST’s first local Turkish drama production – the first of three to launch in 2014/15 – and with it the company has opened up a new path for production methods and business models in Turkey.
“Even though Endemol Shine Turkey was an established brand and production company, we had no track record in drama production. With the success of Broken Pieces we have been approached by more (as yet undisclosed) channels to work together on our upcoming projects,” say Gökhan Tatarer, EST MD and producer of the series.
EST entered into drama production in 2014 following the appointment of Hülya Vural to lead the company’s drama business, explains Tatarer. Vural was joined by Özlem Yurtsever, whom Tatarer describes as one of the best executive producers in Turkey.
“Marina Williams, COO of international operations at Endemol Shine Group, supported our ambitions and opened the door for us to have the financial support of the group,” he says. “We started to discuss our long-term projects with talent from different fields of the industry, optioning and licensing scripts. The belief Star TV had in the project has also been key in its genesis.
“We’ve had two other dramas launch this year – Sparrow Palace, for Star TV, and Overturn for ATV. But it was Broken Pieces’ story that appealed to viewers most and became a hit.”
Underscoring the singularly competitive nature of the TV market EST is navigating, ‘dizis’ (or Turkish dramas) dominate the primetime schedules, and the country’s eight main free-to-air nets launch around 100 titles between them every season. Up to 25% of these are cancelled within four weeks of launch. Around 50 new series launched in the 2014/15 season, between September and May, and more than half of them (28) were cancelled, explains Nilüfer Küyel, EST’s head of acquisitions and format development.
Broken Pieces is a high-profile, big-budget production, starring leading Turkish actors Erkan Petekkaya (Dila, Time Goes By) and Nurgul Yeşilçay (Love and Punishment, Ivy Mansion) as central characters Cihan and Gulseren. The scriptwriter is Yıldız Tunç (1001 Nights) and Cevdet Mercan (Asi, Gönülçelen) is the director. EST producers for the drama include Tatarer, EST commercial director Hakan Eren, executive producer Özlem Yurtsever, EST head of drama Vural and line producer Selma Yücel.
A total of 130 people worked on the production, alongside 30 regular actors and a further 10 to 20 in supporting roles – plus up to 300 extras and 27 locations per episode, says Yurtsever. In addition to the three main locations, including Gulseren’s house and Cihan’s villa (the one on the Bosphorus), there are a further 14 fixed sets, plus locations from restaurants, parks, shops and hospitals to a jail. The season finale included 18 extra locations.
Vural says the drama’s success is down to the story’s “simple yet very universal dilemma encouraging the viewer to put themselves in the position of our protagonists, and question what they themselves would do.”
She continues: “It is a story about family, so all viewers can relate emotionally. The fast-paced story is a completely new approach, as Turkish dramas traditionally have a much slower tempo. In addition, our principal cast is very popular and has great on–screen chemistry. This, combined with a fantastically collaborative production, keeps everyone motivated.”
The development of Broken Pieces was initially funded by EST, and production began once the show was commissioned by Star TV. “Here in Turkey it is usual for production companies to finance initially, with remuneration from the broadcaster after the series has aired,” says Eren. Meanwhile, Turkish distributor Global Agency came on board early on with minimum guarantees.
However, EST’s international corporate structure and financial backing from the Endemol Shine Group gave the company a head start, allowing it to take a risk with a high-end production, which is unusual in Turkey, says Eren. “Being part of the larger group meant we were able to create long-term business plans, and our vision set an example for many others in the Turkish market,” he adds.
EST has not revealed the production’s budget, but per-episode costs for higher-end local Turkish drama can range from anything between €300,000 (US$333,460) and €500,000 per episode (as is the case with period drama).
With the production company bearing all the risk of funding at least three or four episodes before making a return, prodcos without financial backing – and whose productions could be cancelled after four weeks – struggle to survive, explains Küyel. “The upside in this business model comes from international distribution,” she notes.
Broken Pieces director Mercan, who joined the project once the script was developed, agrees, welcoming foreign investment in Turkish drama as an important development: “It has a pioneering effect. The Turkish production industry has done well so far and equals EST’s production values, but the fact that a global company is investing in our market will have an effect over the coming years.”
In another first, EST also signed exclusive deals with the leading talent involved, both on and off screen. “This was something completely new in the Turkish market as other companies only do project-based deals,” says Tatarer.
The drama was one of only a small crop of series produced in 2014/15 with a wide appeal across Turkey’s audience demographics. As well as its success among the overall audience, Broken Pieces pulled in ad-friendly ABC1 20-plus viewers (the main shoppers, generally higher educated and earning higher income), picking up a 23% share and 10% rating among this group.
It’s something that’s increasingly difficult to pull off nowadays, following changes to Turkey’s audience ratings system that have increased viewer representation in rural areas. It has been argued that content is increasingly reflecting the changes at the expense of being able to pull in more metropolitan ABC1 viewer and, by extension, international audiences.
Yet Global Agency had already sold Broken Pieces to 13-plus territories before the end of its first season, which “proves there is a market for locally produced high-quality drama with a high-end budget that can travel,” says Eren. “Ultimately it’s all about universal stories told with flair and passion.”
Mercan says the fact that the drama actually reflects Turkey’s diverse demography could also be a reason for its success: “The show portrays two different worlds: one the upper-middle-class milieu of the lead male character; the other the more down-to-earth, lower-class neighbourhood of the lead female, both embedded in the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul.
“They share similarities in terms of family life, parenthood and culture. The interaction and dialogue between these two worlds is what makes the series successful.
“The project ends touching the audience and asking the question, ‘What if it were me?’ That’s always in our minds, whether it’s for domestic or international broadcast, and perhaps that’s also a reason for its international success.”
What is less apparent to Turkish or international viewers is that Broken Pieces is adapted from the South Korean drama Autumn in My Heart, an early example of the now global Korean drama wave. The 16-parter ran for one season on KBS2 in 2000, giving rise to the drama trilogy Endless Love, which aired until 2006.
Broken Pieces scriptwriter Tunç says EST approached her to draft the script after it had acquired the adaptation rights of Autumn in My Heart. “I was on board from the very beginning, working closely with the executive producers at EST and Star TV, developing and modifying the story for the Turkish audience’s needs, tastes and expectations,” she says.
The story, Tunç continues, “explores a very universal dilemma over parenthood – is the parent the person who raised the child, or the one who gave birth? In terms of characters, the key element is that they come from totally different backgrounds.”
Tunç’s adaptation unfolds in a very different way to the original Korean version, which focused on the children who were switched at birth. “We explore the chaos that engulfs both families while also developing a love story,” she explains. “It’s an affair that, within Turkish culture, would typically be frowned upon as both characters were married and would never have met had their children not been mixed up at birth. Although theirs is a forbidden love, the characters’ authenticity, honesty and kindness have made them sympathetic to viewers, who can identify and empathise with their situation and the decisions they make.”
Like Vural, Tunç believes the atypically fast-paced script has contributed to the show’s success. “Broken Pieces is a family saga that leaves audiences gripped as the relationship between the father, mother and children develops. This fast-paced story is filled with an emotional conflict that keeps the audience enthralled at the end of each episode,” she says.
Turkish drama stands out for the length of its episodes – 90 to 120 minutes each – and the pace of production, with the average project pumping out the equivalent of a movie
With Broken Pieces episodes coming in at 120 minutes, “we decided to create and edit the story as if there were two episodes in one,” explains Tunç. “This was a huge challenge creatively, as we had to include several plots and storylines. It was especially tough at the beginning, as the characters did not know each other. We had to find the perfect sequence to intertwine the two families coming from very different social backgrounds.”
Mercan adds: “We’re doing something very different from the rest of the world. In one week we produce 120 minutes, which is something incredible. It’s very good practice, as you learn to be fast. That’s also true for the scriptwriters, who have to write around 100 pages a week.
“There is no way there won’t be some kind of slip or mistake in the acting, writing and directing at this pace. So what is important is the milieu we create on set, especially the harmony between the actors and directors, which makes our style different to the rest of the world. And we do it to a movie-quality level of production.”
From a scriptwriting perspective, Tunç says the main challenge for season one was the sheer volume of scripts required, with the opening run comprising 31 episodes. She adds: “When we began to shoot, we were already writing the fifth show, which is quite a luxury in Turkey and allowed us time to perfect each episode. We also have an extremely talented cast. All the actors are dedicated to the project and their belief has helped make it a success.”
The process of turning around scripts every week is supported by the production team, including two other writers and an assistant helping put together 90-page scripts each week. “The schedule allows us the opportunity to revise the story several times before filming,” says Tunç.
“In Turkey, programming is 70% dedicated to drama series, so it’s a priority to create and expand our local scripted projects,” observes Tatarer. “There is a high demand for drama programming, but it can be difficult to meet broadcasters’ demand for large volumes, as there is a limited pool of local writers, directors and actors. So we would like to focus on the very best projects. We value quality rather than quantity.”
EST’s main goal, says Tatarer, “is to produce local content that can travel because we are part of an international group. That is why we are working with high-calibre casts and directors who are not only successful in Turkey but are also acknowledged in other territories. We look for scriptwriters who can deliver stories for local audiences but with international appeal.”
Meanwhile, scriptwriting for the second season of Broken Pieces resumed in late July, and season two launched on Star TV in mid-September, returning to its Monday primetime slot. “We are focusing on a brand new story with different plots and huge surprises for the viewer,” says Tunç.