In just a few short years, Turkish actor Can Yaman has become a global star on the back of the rising popularity of the country’s drama series. He tells DQ about his approach to acting and why he’s a fan of rom-coms.
In a matter of weeks, Turkish heartthrob Can Yaman will lose the gorgeous locks that have stolen the hearts of women the world over.
Yaman’s iconic top knot will get the chop and he will have to go clean-shaven to complete his obligatory military service. For 21 days in January, Yaman will undergo basic army training in case he is called up to serve his country.
The 29-year-old seems disappointed about the style overhaul, particularly because he fought so hard for the look in his recurrent role in global smash drama Daydreamer (Erkenci Kuş). Having a big say in the styling of the characters he plays is a deal breaker for the star who insists on dictating a character’s looks.
“I have to deepen the character and I help with the styling because it’s important to the character. I choose his hair and what he wears. That’s not written in the script,” he tells DQ at Mipcom. “The way I do things is really hands-on.”
Yaman started his professional life as a lawyer before becoming a model and then only four years ago turned his attention to acting. In that short time he has become one of Turkey’s hottest exports, starring in dramas such as Daydreamer and as a clean-cut businessman in Bitter Sweet (Dolunay). This year he won the Best Foreign Actor Award at the Murex D’or in Lebanon and E! News named him TV’s Top Leading Man, a title he wrested from Supernatural’s Jensen Ackles, a four-time winner of the title.
But Yaman’s international fame is not simply off the back of Daydreamer’s success, it’s also down to the rise of Turkish drama globally.
Produced by Gold Film and distributed by Global Agency to territories such as Spain, Greece, Israel, Croatia, Bulgaria, India, Iraq, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic and Lithuania, the show is about a troublesome daydreamer, Sanem (Demet Özdemir.), who falls in love with the free spirited photographer Can (Yaman).
Daydreamer has made an A-list celebrity of the star. A giant, multi-storey billboard depicting Yaman kept a watchful eye over Cannes’ Croisette during Mipcom in October and the star couldn’t go anywhere without being followed by fans and paparazzi.
As the face of Turkey’s growing drama presence, Yaman credits his industry’s work ethic as the reason why everyone loves drama from both sides of the Bosporus.
“I would really love to see Turkey grow faster than this,” he says. “We produce a lot [of television] because we have a lot of channels in Turkey. When we make one episode it runs for, like, 140 minutes and can be cut into three episodes, so it’s a paradise for anyone who is buying it.”
Turkey’s high turnover of content may have garnered it international praise, but it has taken a toll on Yaman, who is looking forward to his military service as a welcome break from the gruelling shooting schedule.
“It can be devastating,” he says. “You’re working 16 hours a day, every day. So you have to love what you’re doing, love your character and love the people you are working with.”
The relationships amongst cast and crew is critical to not only surviving long days on set but to also giving the actors space to improvise. “We are laughing or joking on the set because we have a good relationship; if we didn’t have it would be very hard,” Yaman says.
On improvising, which is essential to his process, he adds: “Some characters have to be by the book and stick to the script. But I can’t do that, I hate it and I have to improvise.”
Romantic comedies are also more conducive to improvising, which is just one of several reasons he is keen to film as many as possible in the coming years.
Conscious his 30th birthday is looming, Yaman’s future is weighing heavily on him. He wonders whether he can continue in the genre and is now eyeing action roles.
“There’s a romantic side to me which women love. But when I’m 35 or 40 I may not be able to make rom-coms, so my producer and I are talking about switching gear,” he says. “People also want me to do action, but a lot of actors can do action, while not many can do rom-coms. Rom-coms make you go deep into a character and you have to help people be connected to the character.”
Make no mistake, Yaman is a man’s man who reveres some of the most alpha-male characters in recent TV history, from Walter White in Breaking Bad to Californication’s Hank Moody and Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother. They also inform his acting method and his desire to spend a lot of time curating and developing the characters he plays.
“I like shows that are character-driven. I can like the show only if the characters are strong,” Yaman says. “I have to be able to relate to the character and they have to inspire me.”
One thing he knows as he contemplates the rest of his career is that he is far more interested in acting than moving behind the camera to direct.
“What I love most about acting is when you finish something you can bring your friends and family together and have about 20 people in your lounge watching it together,” Yaman says. “I don’t know if there’s any other profession where you can share what you love and do with others. That’s what makes our profession so special. I love sharing and I love what I do.”
With Daydreamer now having wrapped after more than 160 episodes, Yaman has a couple of months off before his military obligations at the beginning of next year. Other than coming to terms with entering his fourth decade, the actor plans to use the time to catch up on some much-needed rest.
“Right now I’m enjoying my freedom. I’m going to stay calm and relaxed before I have to go to the military,” Yaman says.
But he promises his producer is searching for the next script that will let Yaman sweep more women off their feet on his return.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Yazi Odasi is charting an alternative course in Turkey’s drama production sector to give scriptwriters greater freedom and creative control. Co-founder Kerem Deren reveals his vision.
Before Kerem Deren (pictured above) and Pinar Bulut came along, writers rooms were unheard of in Turkey’s prolific TV drama industry.
The two scriptwriters set up Yazi Odasi – which translates as ‘writers room’ – in 2014.
Individually and jointly, Deren and Bulut have been responsible for several high-profile dramas with major domestic and international fame. Top of the pile is Ezel, widely regarded as a game-changer in storytelling terms for Turkish drama. The thriller ran on Show TV and then ATV from 2009 to 2011, won several awards, sold worldwide and has been picked up for remakes by Fox Network Group and by Televisa for Latin America.
Close behind in terms of success is Suskunlar. The crime drama, which aired on Show TV in 2011, has been remade stateside as Game of Silence for NBC, which launched it last month.
There are other breakthroughs with Deren and Bulut’s names attached. 20 Dakika (20 Minutes), made by Ay Yapim for Star TV in 2013, was another boundary-pushing crime drama with a faster (more Western) pace of scriptwriting. It also earned lead actress Tuba Büyüküstün an International Emmy nomination.
Last year’s romantic drama Maral, for TV8, was the first to be created within Yazi Odasi’s present structure and there have been a handful of projects since, among them Uçurum (Abyss), hard-hitting drama on human trafficking that aired on ATV in 2015.
One would think that being a successful scriptwriter in what has now become the world’s second largest drama industry after the US, with exports worth up to US$300m, would carry some clout. But this isn’t the case, say Deren and Bulut, who believe Turkey’s drama production sector operates in a system that needs many changes.
The biggest issue for scriptwriters in Turkey concerns creative control and IP rights, they say, which reside with the broadcasters and producers, largely to the exclusion of writers, actors and other production talent.
“Yazi Odasi was set up because we wanted to have more creative control, a more organised say about the stuff that we get to write and how writers deal with producers,” says Deren. “In Turkey, the head of the production company usually decides everything. That’s basically the system here.”
Deren also says the country lacks a screenwriting culture. “A mentor relationship hasn’t really been cultivated in that sector, so there are very few of us and, as such, the good ones are always in work.”
But a project really starts with the writing, he stresses. “If it’s a TV series, you’re involved for, say, three years and it’s hours and hours of work. It’s good to have the project designed according to what the writer thinks. In our experience, that’s always beneficial to the show, and it works better than the system we have in Turkey right now.”
Turkey’s drama sector is dominated by a relatively narrow range of family-friendly serials and pumps out around 100 titles per year. However, it’s creaking under the strain of a ratings-driven primetime schedule that demands one feature-length drama episode per night from each of Turkey’s eight mainstream broadcasters. Some industry figures have been querying its sustainability.
For those involved in the production process, it means 15-hour days to deliver 120-plus pages of script each week for the duration of a series’ run. The demand from broadcasters is such that many shows are accepted by channels without scripts and go ahead without pilots.
Deren talks about a sector in creative crisis. Far from experimenting, the fierce competition and potential loss of ad revenues has made broadcasters risk-averse, with little scope for a wider range of storytelling and drama formats. The system is also creating a degree of self-censorship among writers and producers.
While Turkish productions don’t formally use a showrunner system, Deren says they essentially follow the model in practice: “We were actually the showrunners on every show we did in the sense that we were really influential in deciding on things like the acting. The system wasn’t organised that way and we didn’t have the authority, but we were the ones practically running it, and that’s pretty much why we set up Yazi Odasi.
“I don’t know that we’re ‘pioneers,’ but we’re the only ones structurally and organisationally with a writers room,” Deren continues, adding that he expects his setup will be Turkey’s only one of its kind for at least a couple more years yet.
Yazi Odasi looks well placed to benefit from what is surely set to be an interesting period for Turkish drama. Netflix has just launched in the country and several broadcasters are lining up or revamping SVoD services, among them Star and Doğan’s BluTV.
Yazi Odasi has gone through an extensive preparation process in the last year-and-a-half, says Deren, recruiting aspiring writers through several workshops and a national scriptwriting competition.
That time was also spent explaining Yazi Odasi’s model to the sector. “In Turkey, production company heads are usually the leaders of every TV drama,” says Deren. “We are not used to a method where the creative team is behind the wheel. It is a symptomatic problem underlying the organisational troubles the sector is currently in. We believe Yazi Odasi is a cornerstone in overcoming these problems by placing the creator right in the middle of the creation process.”
Alongside Deren, Bulut and third scriptwriter Yiğit Değer Bengi, Yazi Odasi consists of a team of senior and junior writers, working on projects in four colour-coded writers rooms.
Yazi Odasi’s uphill battle seems to be paying off and it now has several Turkish drama projects in the pipeline, as well as two international shows.
The Turkish programmes include an as-yet-untitled romcom for Star TV to broadcast in June. Together with prodco Limon Yapim, Yazi Odasi is also developing a comedy detective series based on Peyami Safa’s books about fictional detective Cingöz Recai. No channel has been confirmed but the project is expected to be ready by September. Also in the works is a romantic comedy set in the music industry, which Yazi Odasi is developing together with prodco Sureç Yapim and is currently discussing with Fox TV.
Deren says the three projects share common ground: “Their inspirational source is local and their appeal is global. We firmly believe strong local origins, a fresh dramatic structure and good writing that reflects human concerns everywhere in the world means good drama.”
Yazi Odasi is also well underway with its next ambition – securing international partnerships. It has two projects in the early development stages with as-yet-undisclosed US partners, with Deren describing one as “our Trojan horse, something we believe will change the way TV dramas are structured in Turkey.” He expects it to come to fruition in a year’s time.
“Turkish broadcasters and producers are not taking the necessary risks to develop a wider range of storytelling,” Deren continues. “I don’t think this is going to change without some international injection from other parties and other distribution. That’s the only way to counteract it, and that’s about to happen.
“What our sector deems risky, we find full of opportunities. We want to tell these untold stories simply because if you build them well, they make great cinema. We want to break the creative barriers that keep these great stories unappreciated.”
The Yazi Odasi team intend their setup to become much more than just a base for new projects. “We want to take some crucial steps not just for us but for the whole sector,” says Deren. “The first is to create and maintain an international hub between creators, and between production companies and creators.
“It is very hard for even an established Turkish screenwriter to access the global network. We carefully craft our contracts ensuring our writers’ artistic freedom, always looking out to project their rights. We attend festivals and seminars to create a network our screenwriters will benefit from. We take on the work of agents only for Turkish screenwriters, so that we can represent them in a way that is both to their advantage and always has an eye on international communication.”
Another critical step is education, adds Deren. “We’re constantly setting up workshops to that end. This year these workshops will be international, allowing creators from everywhere to get together and spread the seeds of global alliance.
“The basic idea is this: we, as screenwriters, have a lot of good stories to tell but not the venues where they can be heard. We want them heard all over the world.”
On a recent trip to Istanbul in Turkey, I was fortunate enough to meet Kerem Deren, a leading TV screenwriter who, along with his wife Pinar Bulut Deren, has been responsible for some of the most groundbreaking Turkish dramas of recent years.
Passionate advocates of progressive and though-provoking TV, the pair recently launched an initiative called The Writers Room (Yazi Odasi), through which they are attempting to establish a new mode of practice for the Turkish business.
Explaining how he entered the business, Deren says he studied theatre at university, at which point he “never thought” he’d work in TV. “But in around 1999 I was goofing around with some actor friends and we managed to create a show,” he says. “It was then I realised that Turkish TV was going to be a big sector where it would be possible to earn money but also to do something creative.”
Deren started pitching stuff: “At first I was doing treatments and parts of scenes. But then in around 2007 I got my first show, a youth series called The Class. It only ran for about five or six episodes but it got good critical reviews and opened up some new opportunities. I met Kerem Catay at producer Ay Yapim and we started developing a show called Ezel, which was loosely based on the idea of The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Ezel was a hit both domestically and internationally, selling to around 80 countries worldwide. It also gave Deren the chance to formulate a new way of thinking regarding TV writing: “There were two things. Firstly Ezel was creative and progressive, which showed that this kind of show could be made within the structure of Turkish TV. Secondly, we spent a lot of time working on it because we loved what we were doing.
“Usually shows are created in a very short time in Turkey, but we developed it for around a year. I think that was a key reason why Ezel achieved such a huge international following.”
After Ezel, Deren started working on Ucurum (The Cliff), another tough, uncompromising programme – this time looking at the issue of human trafficking in Turkey. Deren is proud of the fact that it tackled a subject that was not well understood, “and I know for a fact that our telephones hotlines saved lives,” he says.
Deren and his wife work on a number of projects together but also have their own projects. Ezel was a collaboration, for example, whereas The Cliff was Kerem’s project. In parallel, Pinar worked with TIMS Productions on Suskunlar (Game of Silence), which is now being remade by NBC in the US. In 2013, the married team came together again for 20 Minutes.
It was after this that they decided to set up The Writers Room, a creative collective that inhabits a beautiful purpose-built building overlooking the Bosphorus Sea in Istanbul.
According to Deren, the Writers Room was set up (in July 2014) to achieve three things. Firstly, to give writers more time to develop great shows; secondly, to give them greater control over the rights to their projects; and, thirdly, to improve the dialogue between writers and other parts of the production process.
“The writers are often segregated from the rest of the system, which doesn’t seem like a good way of working to me,” he says. “You don’t get writers as showrunners, for example, as you often do in the US. What we want is to improve the craftsmanship of Turkish writing.”
Currently, the Derens’ Writers Room has six full-time writers “who are being paid whether they are working on a live show or not. Usually writers in Turkey aren’t paid during the preparation period so this is a way to introduce a kind of paid development. In addition to this, we bring writers in on a project-by-project basis to work with us on our shows.”
Deren admits things are unlikely to change overnight in a market where writers are often churning out 120-page scripts in four days to feed a voracious primetime production beast.
“This is kind of revolutionary, but it is a necessity,” he says of his project. “Turkey has had a lot of success because the people here are so ingenious – but we have to make the system sustainable. We have to find a way to avoid writers burning out after a few years.”
The gruelling process is not the only challenge for Turkish writers, who also have to operate in a censorious environment. “There is a kind of self-censorship in the system that comes about because experienced writers and producers know what broadcasters will or won’t allow on air. So there are character types I can’t include in stories because it wouldn’t be allowed.”
Deren sees two possible solutions to this creative conundrum: “One is to work more closely with the international market, which might enable us to circumvent the system. The other is the internet. We are working on a project that is aimed at the web, where the system is freer. The main challenge here is that internet-based viewing is not well developed in Turkey yet.”
In the meantime, big-budget TV and film remains the best way for Deren to ply his trade, making a difference one project at a time. He recently directed a box-office movie and is working on a major series with O3 Media, the Turkey-based production division of MBC Broadcasting in the Middle East.
Completely fluent in English, Kerem Deren can be contacted via this link. Turkey is Mipcom’s Country of Honour this year, so look out for a lot of Turkish drama coverage in the trade press in the run up to October’s event.
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.”