Spearheaded by Ottoman Empire-set shows such as Magnificent Century, Turkish drama is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Turkish drama wrapped 2014 with an estimated US$200m worth of global sales – its best figures ever, according to Izzet Pinto, founder and president of Global Agency, one of the country’s leading content distributors. Sales have risen from US$150m in 2013, while forecasts for next year are as high as $240-250m.
The country has been doubling its drama exports annually over the past five years, and 2014 saw Turkish drama take on Latin America, with sales to the region now rivalling stronger export markets such as the Middle East.
For Global Agency, at least, it all started with a drama called 1001 Nights (Binbir Gece). Made by Turkish prodco TMC Film for Turkish net Kanal D, the show kickstarted the company’s growth and has now racked up sales to 56 countries worldwide and counting.
The poster boy for Turkish drama globally, however, is historical Ottoman drama Magnificent Century, dubbed the ‘Turkish Tudors.’ The TIMS Productions series, originally scripted by Meral Okay, ran to a fourth season on Star TV in 2014. It has aired in almost 70 countries across the globe, turning international growth into a boom for Turkish drama, says Pinto.
TIMS, founded in 2006 by Timur Savci, was originally set up to plug a gap in the market for local youth-skewing series. Selin Arat, its director of international operations, says Savci is now taking a break “to step back and look at the market and see what he can do next that would hopefully surpass Magnificent Century.” The company is currently working on sequel Ottoman Empire drama Kösem Sultan, due in fall 2015.
Fredrik af Malmborg, MD and co-founder of Swedish distributor Eccho Rights, is another early champion of Turkish drama. With approximately one-and-a-half billion people watching dubbed drama in primetime around the world, and US Anglo-Saxon drama having lost some of its attractiveness, the field has opened up to others, and “the next hit could basically come from anywhere,” he argues.
Eccho Rights’ breakthrough hit was Ezel from Ay Yapim. “We mentally put it in the cupboard as something with a very strong local flavour that you couldn’t sell abroad. But then I watched it,” says Malmborg. The drama went on to sell to more than 80 countries, including format rights to four or five different local adaptations, now in production.
Malmborg believes Turkey’s largely family-themed drama with universal themes, quality scripts and high production values hit the right note with non-Anglo-Saxon markets: “I felt that compared with Anglo-Saxon drama – usually some type of crime – Turkish dramas take family and emotional issues seriously, without excusing them as something else, and I really like that. Only a few Western countries have dared to buy Turkish drama, but I think that will change.”
Ay Yapim suspense drama The End (Son) offered Western Europe its first taste of Turkish drama when it launched on SVT2 in 2013 as a daily drama in access primetime at 19.30, doubling its slot average.
And script rights are doing brisk business in the West, with Eccho Rights generating format sales worth US$3m in the last year alone. Nine different versions of The End have either been optioned or are in production, including a pilot remake for Fox in the US. In addition to options for France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Mexico and India, a Russian version made by Russian World Studios is now on air.
Now that Turkey is selling its dramas to Latin America, the country has come full circle from the days of importing telenovelas back in the 1980s. But the genre has left its mark. “A whole generation of new producers were inspired by them and started to do their own thing,” says Malmborg.
Culture and language aside, there is a big difference in production values. Telenovelas are traditionally made on budgets of around US$50,000 per hour, but in Turkey this can very from between US$200,000 and US$600,000 per hour, Malmborg reveals. “Culturally, perhaps Turkey is probably better suited to delivering to a worldwide audience because it is somehow a mix of Europe and Asia, and not too far from our own culture,” he adds.
Said to be the largest single producer of drama outside of North America, ahead of individual Latin American countries and most probably Bollywood, Turkey pumps out up to 90 dramas a year on seven free-to-air channels. Each channel airs two dramas back to back in primetime across the week, and nearly all of them are long-running series comprised of 90-minute episodes. This drama frenzy continues for up to 38 weeks a year between September and early summer, while summer months also include dramas – those being piloted for the following season.
This industrial-scale drama output takes place in a highly competitive, fragmented television landscape, so dramas that fail to impress viewers are dropped within weeks. There’s a very tight relationship between viewers and the dramas’ ratings, with scripts shaped week by week depending on how audiences react.
“With period drama you do need some pre-production, but with contemporary drama sometimes the directors get the scripts the day before shooting,” explains Arat.
“It’s very different from the US where they commission 10 episodes back to back and then shoot the series like a film and hand it over to the broadcasters. In Turkey you can’t do that. It’s a highly competitive market and if your ratings aren’t going up after four or five weeks you might get cancelled. So you need to be writing along live according to the viewers’ reactions every week, not months before.”
The rise in Turkish drama’s global popularity has inevitably boosted its bankability, for the productions themselves, the production companies and the sector as a whole as a target for potential takeovers by international players.
“We’ve been working on a number of Turkish series and revenues have grown every year, starting with US$120,000 per episode. The last series we sold was for US$400,000 per episode,” says Malmborg.
Arat adds: “It used to be that the broadcaster took ownership of the project before this drama boom started, but with these developments most of the big production companies like TIMS were able to negotiate better terms. Now we’re able to just to licence the rights to the broadcaster for a limited period, after which all the rights revert back to us.”
However, takeovers have yet to materialise in what is a largely non-vertically integrated market of broadcasters, producers and distributors. “Until now I’ve been surprised that not much has happened in terms of mergers,” says Pinto. “Some funds have approached producers and even some big companies looked to acquire, but it didn’t happen, so I think these big majors or big funds haven’t seen the potential yet. I believe they should look closer because I’m really surprised that, in such a booming market, mergers haven’t happened.”
Arat says her production company, one of the top three in Turkey, has had several approaches from international firms “but when you give them the breakdown of what the company is worth, it’s more than they expected and they take a step back. If they pay enough, production companies won’t say no.”
However, some are now questioning how sustainable Turkey’s largely self-sufficient drama model will be in the long term. While new markets like Latin America are joining the Turkish drama club, the cost of acquired Turkish drama is rising abroad, and local productions are becoming more attractive (and cost-effective) to regions such as Eastern Europe. Pinto himself says growth of drama exports is expected to level out in 2016.
Turkey’s national audience measurement system has also been revamped. It now incorporates more rural viewing tastes, and this has steered the overall profile of the panels towards an appetite for more conservative family-skewing content, rather than the edgier family series with greater global appeal, argues Pinto.
“For this reason, lower-quality and lower-budget productions are receiving good ratings, whereas million-dollar-budget dramas can fail,” he says, limiting the pipeline for potentially exportable dramas. “Our company is a strong brand and we pick up the best sellers, so as long as we can secure a couple of strong titles each year we’ll do just fine.”
Annually, it’s only a few high-end Turkish dramas that really sell well abroad. Of 40 dramas in Global Agency’s catalogue, 10 are selling well and five very well, says Pinto. Popular newcomers include a drama on surrogate motherhood, Broken Pieces (Paramparca). Launched on Star TV in Decemer, it’s Endemol Turkey’s first locally scripted project, serving up a new take on the Turkish family drama. Global Agency is also selling script rights to selected projects, such as its recent deal with Sony for remake rights to TIMS’ crime drama Game of Silence for NBC.
Public broadcaster TRT, which turned 50 this year, is underway with a revised strategy to broaden and renew its drama output, moving into areas that commercial broadcasters don’t do, says Mehmet Demirhan, deputy head of the television department. Demirhan is responsible for three divisions, including acquisitions for 15 TV channels, sales and international coproductions.
TRT launches around seven new dramas every season, all of which premiere on flagship entertainment channel TRT1, and Demirhan has high hopes for a pair of new period dramas that attracted interest from 80 buyers across 60 countries when they were unveiled last autumn.
Resurrection of Ertuğrul Gazi, which follows the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, launched on TRT1 in December, topping the television ratings among AB, educated high-income viewers. The show has been labelled the best breakthrough Turkish TV series of the 2014 season, with the local press comparing it to Game of Thrones.
Filinta, a detective drama set during the Ottoman period, is “an unusual genre for Turkey,” says Demirhan. “We can call it an Ottoman Sherlock Holmes.” It premiered in late December on TRT1.
“Our difference as a public TV service means we can go in different directions,” Demirhan asserts. “We have a huge archive, which has not yet been fully discovered by the international market. But I’m sure we’ll be able to do this as we change our strategy. We’re now collaborating with Global Agency and ITV Intermedya, for instance, both successful sales agencies, and we will explore the potential in full, also investing in different genres.”
For a number of reasons, coproductions have played no part in developing Turkey’s drama sector thus far. Global Agency’s Pinto doesn’t believe in them because “not a single one has happened, and that shows it’s very difficult.”
There are language barriers too. “In our series we don’t want to hear foreigners dubbed or subtitled, our people want pure Turkish products,” Pinto adds. “Production companies have grown strongly in Turkey so they don’t need to coproduce for financial reasons.”
However, TRT has other ambitions. Demirhan says it now has a couple of (as yet undisclosed) coproduction projects it is hoping to move ahead with in 2015, and is currently in discussions with a UK broadcaster, which could pave the way for a copro between Turkey, the UK and Dubai.
“The initial idea is to produce the next big global show like Game of Thrones or Vikings,” says Demirhan. “I think coproduction will be one of the solutions to the sustainability of Turkish drama and acceptance of Turkish drama in the global marketplace. We believe in that and are moving in that direction.”