Tag Archives: Gökhan Tatarer

Intersection: Is Turkey reaching a turning point?

Turkey has dominated the international drama scene in recent years without a breakout global hit. Could Intersection take the country’s scripted series to new heights?

While the explosion in Turkish drama’s popularity has seen it conquer audiences in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, viewers in the US, UK and Western Europe have yet to fall for the country’s storytelling charms.

That could be about to change, however, as the makers of Intersection believe their series could be the first drama to break out as a global Turkish hit.

Intersection, known locally as Kördüğüm, is described as a love story that examines contemporary relationships, the divide between rich and poor and the financial and moral commitments of love.

Hakan Eren: 'We believe Intersection can travel not only as a ready-made show but also as a format to be adapted. That excites us at the utmost level'
Hakan Eren: ‘We believe Intersection can travel not only as a ready-made show but also as a format to be adapted. That excites us at the utmost level’

It follows married couple Naz and Umut Özer, whose marriage starts to break down when they meet wealthy businessman Ali Nejat Karasu and Umut’s ambitious streak begins to drive the couple apart.

Produced by Endemol Shine Turkey (EST) for Fox Turkey, the 13-part series stars İbrahim Çelikkol (Ali), Belçim Bilgin (Naz) and Alican Yücesoy (Umut), and is directed by Ömer Faruk Sorak.

“Turkish dramas have become hits everywhere they have been on air,” says Hakan Eren, chief commercial officer at EST. “Last year, even in Latin America, Turkish series ranked right after English-language series. There are very few territories left like US, UK and Western Europe (without Turkish dramas on air) and they have already started to adapt Turkish dramas. I hope Intersection will be the first to break out as a global hit.”

Looking for a new series that would appeal to both male and female viewers, Eren, EST MD Gökhan Tatarer and former head of drama Hülya Vural wanted to devise a story that showed the real Istanbul, a melting pot of cultures with opportunities, consequences and choices.

But what makes Intersection stand out from other Turkish dramas? Eren says there is a trend for suburban-set melodramas or series with oriental themes that reflect the eastern part of the country, “but what distinguishes us from other productions is that the stories and dilemmas reflected in our scripts are universal, creating bonds with human emotions and conditions on a global scale, not only with Turkish culture and tradition.”

He adds: “We also try to reflect the Western side of people’s lives in one of the most beautiful and characteristic cities in the world.”

Belçim Bilgin (Naz) is well known to Turkish viewers
Belçim Bilgin (Naz) is well known to Turkish viewers

Viewers will also be drawn to Intersection because “our protagonists are not always heroes, not always perfect,” Eren continues. “They have flaws, which make them human, and they are not represented as stereotypes.”

EST also demanded the highest quality in terms of production and cinematography. “From sound editing to casting, and even in location choices, we want every element of the production to help tell the story,” he explains. “We do not just rely on the cast or the script. That’s why when viewers first watch Intersection they get the feeling of watching a movie instead of a telenovela.”

To bring Intersection to life, Eren assembled a creative team including writer Yıldız Tunc (1001 Nights and Broken Pieces) and project designer and director Sorak alongside Tatarer and Vural.

A year-long story and script development process then got underway, with some early scripts going through 10 drafts before they were approved and production began. Intersection subsequently debuted on Fox Turkey in January.

Discussing the cast, Eren says: “Belçim has appeared in many feature films internationally and here in Turkey, and Intersection is the only drama series she has taken part in. She’s currently acting in US film Backstabbing for Beginners, in which she stars alongside Ben Kingsley.

“Ibrahim is one of the top leading men in Turkish drama, while we had the pleasure of working with Alican in another of our series, My Destiny. The entire cast is very well known in the Turkish drama market, which definitely added value to the production.”

Filming began in Como, Italy, where the producers called upon Endemol Shine Italy to provide ground support, before the production moved to Istanbul – which becomes a central character in the ensuing drama, despite the difficulties posed by shooting in the city.

“Filming in Istanbul is really challenging,” Eren says. “It is a big metropolis where more than 25 million people live. It’s also an unpredictable city. Weather can change in an hour, traffic always plays with your shooting schedule, locations are extremely expensive and it’s always crowded.

İbrahim Çelikkol, who plays Ali, is 'one of the top leading men in Turkish drama'
İbrahim Çelikkol, who plays Ali, is ‘one of the top leading men in Turkish drama’

“However, at the same time, Istanbul is one of the leading characters in the series; it is unexpected but adventurous, crowded yet people feel alone. It’s so difficult to live and work there but also too beautiful to leave. Our characters face the same dilemma.”

Eren recalls countless sleepless nights when the series was in post-production as the team sought to make a “flawless” show: “Audiences these days are exposed to drama series on eight different channels in Turkey every day. We needed the production values of Intersection to be extremely high, as viewers can easily spot any differences in production quality, music or artistic design.”

Extra importance for Eren is added by the fact the show marks EST’s first link-up with its parent group’s distribution arm, Endemol Shine International.

“Our previous scripted series have been very powerful in many territories like the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe, but we believe that, combined with the distribution capabilities of Endemol Shine International (ESI) and our production quality and expertise, Intersection will open doors to Western Europe, the UK and the US for the first time. We also believe Intersection can travel not only as a ready-made show but also as a format to be adapted. That excites us at the utmost level.”

Eren’s confidence lies in his belief that Intersection is a story beyond cultural or religious boundaries: “Around the world, ambitions and desires shape who we are and they change us on a continual basis. Although we always look out for love and want to be loved by our partner, our parents and kids, we also look for self-realisation, satisfaction and empowerment. Most of the time, we find ourselves stuck between the choices we want to make and the choices we have to make. This story belongs to each one of us.”

In Turkey’s highly competitive market, where every mainstream network fills primetime with its own dramas, there is fierce competition, which means producers and writers are becoming more creative in their search for the next big hit.

The signs are good for Intersection, however, which was renewed for a second season in March after the series debuted in January with a peak audience of 3.2 million viewers, more than one million above Fox’s primetime average.

“Nowadays, the trend is either drama (romance, period or family oriented) or comedies (romantic comedies that mostly focus on 20-plus age group relationships),” he says. “At EST, although we try to follow the trends, we only produce the series we believe in. We want to grab the viewers’ full attention in all demo groups and focus on stories with an international appeal.”

That’s where ESI CEO Cathy Payne comes in. “The appeal of Turkish drama to date has predominantly been across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and the CIS, Middle East and Latin America,” she says. “These markets have traditionally embraced the rich storytelling of serialised relationship drama, and Turkish scripted is delivering a fresh take on that genre.

“Long-running, relationship-based serialised drama has traditionally travelled less in Western Europe and English-speaking US. However, with the growing number of subscription services, there are new opportunities to explore. Turkish drama already has a very strong following in Germany on YouTube and we are looking forward to talking to television broadcasters about Intersection.”

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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.

From left: Broken Pieces director Cevdet Mercan and stars Erkan Petekkaya and Nurgul Yeşilçay
From left: Broken Pieces director Cevdet Mercan and stars Erkan Petekkaya and Nurgul Yeşilçay

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.

Tatarer: 'We’re working with high-calibre casts and directors who are not only successful in Turkey but are also acknowledged in other territories'
Tatarer: ‘We’re working with high-calibre casts and directors who are not only successful in Turkey but are also acknowledged in other territories’

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).

Broken-Pieces-on-set-1With 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.”

Broken-Pieces-on-set-11Mercan 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.”

Broken-Pieces-on-set-5Like 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
a week.

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.

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