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Interview: Malin-Sarah Gozin

A Conversation With Walter Iuzzolino

Walter Iuzzolino of curated international VOD platform Walter Presents sat down with Tabula rasa and Clan showrunner Malin-Sarah Gozin to talk content curation, acquisition, streaming services and audience development.

The Italy-born, UK-based Iuzzolino brought his trademark infectious enthusiasm for non-English-language television drama to CONNeXT in Ghent by first explaining where his idea to create a curated international VOD platform came from.

Iuzzolino first began to grow the idea of creating a dedicated home for foreign-language TV in the U.K. about five years ago when public broadcaster BBC Four was finding success with Scandi Noir series, particularly Borgen and The Bridge. “In fact the first show that changed the attitude [in the U.K.] towards foreign-language drama was French, Engrenages (Spiral),which I think is, in many ways, an extraordinary piece of television.”

Iuzzolino wanted to launch a “one-stop shop” for dramas from around the world, not just one particular region.

As an executive with Channel 4 for many years, Iuzzolino had worked in the factual space before becoming a creative executive at a company that made programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. “I knew and understood the value of a good relationship with a linear broadcaster. My ambition, and I was quite naive about that, was I wanted to launch a channel called World Drama or something like that and it would be a channel that for 24 hours everyday would show dramas because that is what I wanted to see.”

Admitting his vision was “impossible and insane as a business plan,” Iuzzolino set about gathering a collection of curated programmes and began conversations with potential broadcasters. “The conversation with Channel 4 [in the UK] came around to, how can we create a brand that exists inside the Channel 4 ecosystem that delivers over the top services to all viewers free of charge,” Iuzzolino said.  So he went to them after a couple of years of due diligence and watching lots of dramas himself with a collection of around 1,000 hours. With his business partners he cooked up plans for viewers and discussed how they would position this brand. The idea was to create a so called “amphibious brand.”

“I like frogs. The idea is that a frog jumps from one piece to another over the ecosystem of Channel 4. Effectively, Walter Presents as a collection sits inside ALL4, which is the on demand free AVOD platform. That used to be just catch up, now there are lots of original programmes there.”

Ad supported just like Channel 4, ALL4 shows have three breaks during every hour like a more traditional commercial television platform. The entire collection sits there and is refreshed and renewed all the time. “We now have about 80 to 85 series for about 1,000 hours more or less and so that’s the ultimate home of the brand,” Iuzzolino said. “But being amphibious like a frog the brand jumps from one piece of the Channel 4 ecosystem to another.”

It means Channel 4 offers selected linear runs of the shows, some late night slots, and Walter Presents also has a slot at 11pm on a Tuesday night. There are some premieres whereby the debut episode of a show unspools in a premium Sunday night 10 pm slot. The episode gets two weeks promotion and trails so press and exposure for the show is significant and then the rest of the series is available online.

“It almost launches and lands in an actual way so when the show is out, it is fully out,” Iuzzolino said. “That is born out of necessity because Channel 4 cannot play foreign-language drama every night and so they thought, ‘How can we expose the broadest possible range of shows but still not sacrifice our slots too much?’”

Iuzzolino wanted to launch a “one-stop shop” for dramas from around the world, not just one particular region.

Understandably fewer people watch foreign-language drama. If a broadcaster gets 1.5 million viewers for Homeland, it will be lucky to get 300,000, sometimes 400,000 for a foreign-language drama. It may consolidate better figures but it is generally below broadcast slot requirements.

“There was starting to be quite a bit of activity around foreign drama and we wanted to say, ‘We are the home of a certain kind of  curated proposition,” Iuzzolino says.

It was an interesting experiment because it corralled an audience around a very clear bespoke brand where people love it if they know where it is and will watch everything, Iuzzolino believes. “And they write and demand another one, they ask ‘where is season two, season three?’ So it has created a space where a broad national audience can consume something that would be otherwise quite niche.”

The current Walter Presents slate in the U.K. spans 29 series from 16 different countries.

INTERNATIONAL GROWTH

Malin-Sarah Gozin noted it took just over a year to expand the Walter Presents international footprint.

Iuzzolino says the U.K. launch delivered success both in terms of press coverage and volume of views. “I think the first year we beat our target by about 8 or 10 million streams. It got around 20 million streams in year one, more in year two, so a lot of hours were streamed on the service,” Iuzzolino said.

Buoyed by the confidence of such a successful launch coupled with the backing of Channel 4, Iuzzolino and his partners decided to launch in the U.S.

“The idea there was a two-fold idea,” Iuzzolino explained. “We wanted to somehow ringfence the territory.

“But what matters is that once you message that the show is there that millions of people go and consume it online,”

The idea from the start was the Walter Presents founders wanted a broadcast partnership in the US like it has with Channel 4.

“I am not vain and kidding myself that we didn’t need them and their muscle supporting us, bringing the shows to the foreground in terms of PR,” Iuzzolino said with a smile. “So I’ve been very alive from the beginning to the importance of a partnership between OTT [over the top] and internet broadcasting.”

Iuzzolino wanted to move quickly into the U.S. because it was already late into the market as everybody was launching SVOD services.

“We launched direct to consumer SVOD [in the US] but from day one our aim was to find a broadcast partner,” Iuzzolino acknowledged. “We had fantastic coverage from the New York Times, LA Times, the usual suspects and racked up nice numbers of subscribers at the beginning because there was a burst of real interest in this.”

Iuzzolino described the campaign as running along quite a funny line: “Donald Trump might raise a wall but we will bring immigrant drama into your living room.”

Screenings at Scandinavia House in Manhattan and French cultural institutes in Los Angeles and Chicago “were all brilliant. But it became clear we needed a lot of money to market the proposition and we didn’t have tens of millions to do it.”

That situation made partnering with a US broadcaster ever more critical. It took just over a year but Global Series Network (the company Iuzzolino co-founded with  Jason Thorp and Jo McGrath) sealed a deal to partner with PBS. “It is very exciting because on the Amazon space we are going to be sitting in their master proposition which is already a hugely significant space, they’ve got big iconic British dramas, which in America are considered international.”

Audiences wanting to watch Victoria or Downton Abbey are already very internationally minded. “It may sound strange but that’s true. There is also some linear rounds that we are going to be getting and knowing the effect they have I am delighted because it means that a lot of shows that I love and believe in, including Belgian shows, may have a chance to be aired.”

The arrangement with PBS in America works in a similar way with the arrangement in the UK with Channel 4.

“We select what we would like for them to consider and ultimately their linear people will say we’ll have that and that and that.” Iuzzolino said. “For those shows to get into American living rooms of potentially millions of audience I think is very exciting.”

Walter Presents has also launched in Australia with FoxTel — again it’s the same model, programming on linear with Foxtel’s Showcase channel alongside a Friday night double bill premiere slot with the entire collection sitting in their OTT space.

And most recently the brand launched in Italy, with Discovery. “That’s the first European country outside the UK,” Iuzzolino said. “But in every market we effectively create and develop a bespoke relationship with a terrestrial player and that is critical for us because we are small.”

Any plans for Benelux, particularly Belgium, wondered Malin-Sarah Gozin. “I cannot confirm but I would say I would love to come here. I think Belgium is a very fertile territory,” Iuzzolino replied, praising Belgian viewers as “genuinely forward thinking” with audiences who “are already embracing what outside of here would be considered more arthouse.”

Iuzzolino believes there is a sense of tone, complexity and a wider variety of programmes in Belgium than in other European nations.

NATURAL SELECTION

Iuzzolino is creative director and curator of the platform. So how does he work and what kind of selection procedures does he use?

Iuzzolino said because it all started as an act of passion and personal enthusiasm, it wasn’t a structured media onslaught on foreign-language drama. “It was more like a guy who couldn’t bear old fashioned, boring television and he wanted to do something that he wanted to watch and do something interesting,” Iuzzolino mused.“ The process developed over time but it was pretty much homemade: You have a task to watch about 10 hours of telly a day.”

Iuzzolino’s background was in scripts. His studies, his degree and his PhD were all in literature and he became a script reader for film funders like Pathe and British Screen for many years when he landed in the British capital. It was the fabric and the texture of a script that piqued his interest.

“But then I had a pause in my life when I worked on factual TV to pay for the mortgage frankly and I enjoyed it very much, it was interesting,” Iuzzolino said. 

He sat down with a giant MIPCOM guide and went from A to Z, spending a year calling or emailing every production company that he found, to get a sense of the market place for foreign drama.  

Iuzzolino believes there is a sense of tone, complexity and a wider variety of programmes in Belgium than in other European nations. 

He learned “a sense of what was terrible, what was daytime, what was primetime, what was expensive, what was cheap,” Iuzzolino said, stressing his believe that the best thing he could do would be to devour stuff and build his own knowledge base. 

“When I was a script reader, no-one taught me how to do it. But after you read three scripts a day for three months you understand structure better than any Harvard professor would ever teach because you just know when you want to turn the page or when you want to burn the script,” Iuzzolino explained. 

VIEWING FIGURES

“In a very similar fashion I would say, the first year and a half were just structured eight to ten hours day viewing. That was uncluttered because we (Thorpe, McGrath and Iuzzolino) didn’t have jobs. We had our business cards to show at markets, because it was like a recce to find out what was out there.” 

The very undisturbed year and half of viewing and creating lists of what interested Iuzzolino meant he honed a sense of the tonality of a Belgium drama versus German drama versus Italian drama. 

“It is stuff you think you know but it is only when you watch many many many many series that you go, ‘I understand’.” You sort of assimilate it,” Iuzzolino said. “It’s a bit like music or literature, the more you are exposed to language and texture, the more you internalise it. “ 

Since launching Walter Presents, Iuzzolino’s viewing habits have subsequently altered and now must fit around travelling, airports or watching in the evening. 

“We know the community, we know the great writers, the great programme makers and distributors and the broadcasters and they all like and respect what we do,” Iuzzolino said. “We are not a Netflix type, we don’t have money to pay big cheques. What we do is we really curate, and we really position press and we go all out there to market them to do screenings.” 

He thinks Walter Presents has created an echo chamber that has conjured fortune for certain shows otherwise abandoned on the shelf. “I quite like the abandoned orphans because then you can grow them into beautiful things,” Iuzzolino said. “That’s kind of how we work. But now it is bit more structured because there are more markets we need to serve and so I am more concentrating on going around and looking at projects in the early stages of development  and then liaising with creatives.” 

Walter Iuzzolino and Malin-Sarah Gozin © Bea Borgers

He still watches an average of three shows a day now, or about five hours, some for his own pleasure. “The interesting thing when you have a job that is capturing something you would do anyway because you really like it, it doesn’t feel like work,” he says.  

His average day to day in the London office is lots of admin and meetings. “But when my colleagues leave and I am alone in the office or go home at six, then I think, ‘OK, I’ve got this great new French show’ and that’s a pleasure as well.” 

“A lot of shows I watch start to happen in episode three so I always try to watch as much as possible. But by three episodes if it doesn’t happen, I have to let it go”

He found, particularly in the first year, that when he watched something he truly loved, something weird clicked in his mind. “When I do viewings in the office it tends to be the stuff that doesn’t work. So I watch a couple of episodes of something and I pretty much know if it’s not worth it. And if I like it I will carry on until the very end. I like to understand shows inside out. But when I really like a show, I fall in love with it straight away, I don’t watch it in the office, I hold it and take it home and watch it with my partner.” 

THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

So, do you watch one episode or a whole season? Gozin inquired. 

Iuzzolino explained he tends to watch at least two episodes to avoid the problem that European programming suffers from: A slow first episode. “Unlike most American television where everything happens within the first 15 minutes, a lot of shows I watch start to happen in episode three so I always try to watch as much as possible. But by three episodes if it doesn’t happen, I have to let it go,” he said. 

Does the audience follow that principle? Gozin quizzed Iuzzolino noted he is constantly talking to writers and creatives about that but while he personally likes convoluted, long-winded, complex, emotionally draining narratives, he is very aware that audiences don’t have time and they need to be shaken into embracing a piece of television relatively quickly.  

Iuzzolino said it is a big part of his job to ask audiences and the press to give his picks time to engage. “I just bought a show and I said to my colleague, ‘This is one where I will really have to do an introduction with press and say I may have bought the most unwatchable show in the history of television. Give it four hours because by hour five and onwards it will be one of your favourites.’” Iuzzolino said.  

PERSONAL SERVICES

Viewers and press sometimes write to Iuzzolino personally to complain or ask if it is really worth sticking with a show. He’s a curator and he has developed a relationship with audiences. And it is fairly unique in the world of small-screen broadcasting. 

Gozin asked for more detail about how Iuzzolino’s bespoke dedicated introductory videos he makes for each series on the service came about. 

Iuzzolino said his introductory summaries and pitches arrived despite his own personal misgivings. “The truth is you’re dealing with a mainstream British audience and you have one minute to hook them and tell them why they should watch it,” Iuzzolino said, stressing it wasn’t his idea. “I am not a crazy maniac, I didn’t want to call the service Walter Presents at all, all I wanted was to do a job I liked. When I presented it to Channel 4, the idea was to call it World Drama,” Iuzzolino explained. 

At the time the three founders didn’t know where their programming would end up or which platform: Channel 4, Sky, BT or Virgin were all in the conversation.

“We wanted to be tarts and keep doors open, so it could be 4 World Drama, Sky World Drama, BT World Drama,” Iuzzolino said. “Keep it simple so anybody could write their own story of this brand.”

Channel 4 wanted to do World Drama and they gathered a whole team of stakeholders including marketing, press and branding executives to listen to what Iuzzolino had in mind and to take in the shows. Iuzzolino went to the meeting armed with a collection of five or six shows and went through them, effectively pitching them.

“I was saying this is a bit like a Pedro Almodovar film meets Prison Break, I was trying to distill and simplify each show to tell them if you like The Affair, you’re going to like this. To make it quicker,” Iuzzolinosaid.

Iuzzolino’s ambition, albeit in a smaller way, is to find gems and eclectically collect them in his very own cabinet of wonder.

One of the heads of branding and the broadcaster’s CEO at the time enjoyed Iuzzolino’s passion and enthusiasm and suggested the story of the brand was inextricably linked to Iuzzolino’s enthusiasm for the shows he’d picked. 

“‘Why don’t we try and model it around you?’” the executive proposed. “Which I didn’t want to do, I am actually quite a shy person. I have always been behind the camera so I wasn’t sure how that was going to play out, I was quite nervous about it.”

He was told to try it and it turned out to be the right strategy – the opposite of Netflix and Amazon and their algorithm-driven recommendation system based on previous likes and wants.

“It’s the sort of difference between high street and couture, you go to couture because you believe the vision of the person that will say, “Listen, wear this and you will look great,’” said Iuzzolino. “Channel 4 wanted to create almost a retro thing where you develop a relationship of trust with an old-fashioned presenter. Sometimes I’ve been called to say ‘You’re like a weather announcer.’ But it was an interesting bet and I think it paid off.”

THE ART OF CURATION

The world is full of authentic brands and everybody is competing for the same space. Everybody wants original, exclusive, extraordinary, glossy, premium, cheap.

“Who are we and how are we going to punch through?” Iuzzolino said. Walter Presents would be small, personal and discreet with no algorithmor research input in the editorial choices.

“When people ask me ‘Who do you buy programmes for?’ I always say, ‘for me,’” Iuzzolino said. “I really don’t care about the audience and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Having worked in broadcasting for quite a long time I have learnt how dangerous cosiness and ultimately creatively draining it is to try and second guess an audience based on research.”

After all, what does Iuzzolino know about what a single mother in her 60s who lives in Yorkshire wants to watch? “I don’t know that woman, I could never hope to second guess her and if I try to through research, I will pigeonhole the individual into a boring version of themselves created by some marketing department,” Iuzzolino said. “All I know is what I like and what my friends like and what you like, because I have conversations with like-minded people.”

Iuzzolino, without wanting to sound patronising, really feels Belgium TV is one of his discoveries.

He puts his trust in that and believes if he likes it enough he will be able to find enough people out there who want to give it a go and end up liking it too. “In that sense the selection process is very eclectic and is very inclusive,” Iuzzolino mused. “There isn’t anything specific, it’s going to be Scandi noir, it’s going to be Israeli comedy, it’s going to be anything that is of quality.”

He says HBO provided him with a benchmark.“HBO is still a channel that has delivered historically stuff that goes from the romantic, nostalgic Six Feet Under-type family sagas, to The Sopranos, to Sex and the City which is funny and girly and now it gets into Game of Thrones and True Detective and Big Little Lies,” Iuzzolino pointed out. “The texture and variety of what they deliver is so incredible and ultimately the filter is just quality.”

He believes the audience knows the voices in HBO programming have been allowed to pursue their vision. “You may not like Succession and you may not like Girls but they sit in the same home very harmoniously.”

Iuzzolino’s ambition, albeit in a smaller way, is to find gems and eclectically collect them in his very own cabinet of wonder.

COMMUNITY CHEST

Gozin says the audience participation with Iuzzolino via social media, whether it is tweets, Instagram stories or trailers on Facebook, is full of admiration for his recommendations.

Iuzzolino says the personal social media interaction plays a big part in Walter Presents for one simple reason: “The principle is so lovely. Think about all the marketing in the world. What’s stronger than a friend of yours saying read this book, or come to the cinema with me? It is someone you like and trust.”

Gozin wondered if it was a sort of pay-it-forward principle?

“Exactly. In trying to do that we genuinely establish that relationship with viewers and they ought to be heard, all of them,” said Iuzzolino. “And I actually even quite like when they answer and complain, ‘Oh, that show was terrible, I hated it’ and I say, ‘Okay, tell me why you hated it.’”

Iuzzolino firmly believes television programmes are created because of a desire to engage an audience.

After all, Iuzzolino doesn’t imagine everybody will like everything he picks. Sometimes shows are picked because of the desire for diversity of the programming on offer.

“Even now in our collection some shows are obviously doing well and they tend to be crime thrillers. They tend to be either Northern European and now increasingly Spanish. But I cannot make the mistake of repeating what works,” Iuzzolino said.

There will always be room in his picks for mainstream success stories such as the Belgian crime drama 13 Commandments, Walter Presents’ biggest hit this year in the U.K. so far.

13 Commandments

“I cannot have 113 Commandments so it is crucial we keep the Israeli romantic comedy or the quirky show from the Czech Republic because that is the only way people will discover it,” Iuzzolino said. “That’s my biggest argument against the algorithm thing, I hate the idea you feed people simply what they like.”

Iuzzolino describes such methodology as a terrible, lazy, cultural drain akin to an intellectual cul-de-sac and “the equivalent to intellectual masturbation: You do something that is going to work but isn’t going to make you particularly happy.”

JOY OF DISCOVERY

For Iuzzolino, much of the joy in life is discovering something that you never knew you would love something and letting it lead off in a fresh direction. “I think that our brand still needs to be the place you come to discover the new as oppose to where you come to get the great big hits. That’s not what we are going to do.”

So just where did Iuzzolino’s passion for foreign language TV drama come from and when exactly did he get bitten by the TV bug? wondered Gozin.

Born and raised in Italy, Iuzzolino was exposed to dubbed television which meant artistically everybody spoke with the same three voices. It meant Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop and Angelina Jolie all spoke with the same woman’s voice. While the voice in question may have been lovely, it flattened performances and artistic expression.

Yet for Iuzzolino the beauty of dubbing meant there was no real sense of foreign in Italy because everyone speaks Italian.

“When I was growing up and even now on prime time, Rai or even Sky you have the French show, the German show, they are not always great shows because the taste value is different, but you are used to other textures. It is not just Italian mafia or family drama,” Iuzzolino says. “When I finished university and moved to London to go to film school, I was missing that texture.”

Everything was so British and American and, while he had nothing against British or American drama, it all felt unilateral. At the time Britain was showing the glossy American Housewives type of stuff, pre-Mad Men and British costume dramas.

“I found it quite suffocating. I was a viewer, even in Italy, of the Canal Plus stuff, I was aware of other textures and independent cinema,” said Iuzzolino. “I’ve always been a fan of independent cinema. For me international drama was almost a way to channel interest and that passion.”

Then France’s Spiral arrived, “and there was “something slightly disgusting and unpleasant but also emotionally draining in a good way” for Iuzzolino. “It just felt like a really interesting piece. And so did Borgen,which I thought was incredible.”

Iuzzolino thinks Belgium seems like a country where drama “is very authored and writer driven.” 

Iuzzolino thought there had never been a better time to try and speak to an audience “and say, ‘If you like these dramas, there’s a lot more that is made in Belgium, or in Germany or in Brazil, places that you never visited culturally in that way.’”

But isn’t the U.K. a notoriously difficult market for subtitled content? Gozin asked.

“Correct. But also because of the class system in the U.K., subtitles tend to be associated with the incredibly snobbish and very intellectual,” Iuzzolino said.

At the time of launching Walter Presents, “a subtitle person” in the U.K., meant liking opera, Curzon Cinemas’ arthouse theatres and films one of Iuzzolino’s colleagues referred to as “dripping tap films” or “cello films”.

“Those films where you have a beautiful black and white shot of a 1930 monastery in Estonia and there’s a drop of water and it keeps drip dripping and it’s a meditation on the reality of life,” Iuzzolino said. While he has nothing against those arch arthouse films his ambitions for Walter Presents lay firmly elsewhere.

“We wanted to say ,”We’re not going to be elitist, we’re not going to say come here because you will feel very intelligent and very sophisticated. Forget that. I am in factual, I come from another world where three or four or five million people watch [celebrity sweary chef] Gordon Ramsay and I like that,” Iuzzolino says.

The idea that structure and format and thought can covert into viewers appeals to Iuzzolino. “That’s the filter I applied when I looked at drama. I thought let’s just change the perception and let’s just make this very mainstream and very entertaining.”

Iuzzolino firmly believes television programmes are created because of a desire to engage an audience.

“If you’re trying to make television and it costs hundreds of thousands if not millions per hour to make, it is a collaborative thing, a lot of people will come into it and hopefully a lot of people will watch it,” Iuzzolino said.

It means one of his main filters and criteria in choosing a drama for his curated platform is the show’s performance in its country of origin. It is not the only criteria but Iuzzolino likes the idea that millions of people in Italy, Germany or Belgium love something and he gets to understand audiences there.

“Then you look at the layers, the writing and the acting. You look at the critical side of it, you look at the awards and how the critics have perceived the show. There’s a lot of factors that you bring into the equation but it is not a snobbish service at all.”

SNOBS NO MORE

A key element of the UK launch strategy was handpicking three shows across genres from three different countries, Deutschland 83 (Germany), Clan (Belgium) created by Gozin, and Heartless (Denmark).

Iuzzolino describes Deutschland 83 as “all nostalgia and sexiness in a Mad Men kind of way but also with a funny funky reluctant 20-something spy”; Clan is “an absolutely brilliant, quirky, wonderful crime family comedy drama”; and Heartless, a “sexy show about Danish teenage vampires” set in a boarding school.

It meant the spectrum of audience was huge. “It wasn’t snobbish people in their 70s, which is fine I love them too, but it was a much broader piece that said if you like entertainment come here,” Iuzzolino said.

Iuzzolino clicked on Clan’s trailer and loved it because it “wonderfully confused” him in a good way.

Clan (The Out Laws)

And so, two years on, did it mean subtitles are acceptable in the U.K.? wondered Gozin, whose show Clan, which aired as Out-Laws in the U.K., was one of the first to be used to do just that.

“Entirely,” Iuzzolino said while noting it’s not all down to Walter Presents. He acknowledges they’ve played a part as more programming on Netflix and YouTube gets loaded, complete with subtitles. “When people consume on their mobile phones they switch on subtitles anyway because you can’t hear stuff on the train or the tube. So I think  that dread and that fear had gone away from the UK before.”

BELGIAN PROGRAMMING HITS THE RIGHT NOTES

Gozin looked at the use of categories across the Walter Presents menu with one particular category, Belgian Noir, catching her eye. You have an appetite for Belgian shows?, Gozin wondered.

Iuzzolino regards Belgium as “an extraordinary country in terms of its output” and trumpets Clan as “the first show that made me understand Belgian drama in a way that I think I understand it now.”

Clan is one of his very first acquisitions, Iuzzolino was attending MIPCOM and had just heard from Channel 4 that they were willing to back his idea.

“We went from a year of saying to everybody we will launch this thinking, oh god, if we don’t launch this next year, we’re going to have to get plastic surgery and we’ll have to change names,” Iuzzolino said.

With confirmation of launch, Iuzzolino and his team switched from promise mode to shopping mode.

“It was the first time, at that MIPCOM, that we could start to buy shows and say this will launch in January. Now we can write a cheque, however modest.” Iuzzolino knew he was going to land Deutschland 83 because he had been lobbying hard for it for months. That night he spent and evening in his rented flat in Cannes going through the ZDF catalogue “watching every trailer that was available and programme availabilities.

A lot of shows were available because foreign-language drama — apart from two or three typical Scandi noirs — simply weren’t selling into the U.K. at that time.

Iuzzolino clicked on Clan’s trailer and loved it because it “wonderfully confused” him in a good way.

“It made me laugh, it made me slightly scared, I was thinking, ‘Is this a comedy, is this a thriller, how is it going to play out?’ So I was entirely hooked by the dual tonality and to me it was a very meta-linguistic piece right from the very beginning,” Iuzzolino said.

That night in his room with co-founder Jo McGrath, they were sent a link for episode one by ZDF and watched it.

He turned to McGrath and said, “This is going to have to be a launch piece. It’s the kind of piece to me that suggests how far a country has come and how they create television. And it’s never really been done before.”

Iuzzolino, without wanting to sound patronising, really feels Belgian TV is one of his discoveries.

“I’ll tell you why: the BBC had tried Cordon and dumped it straight away. For them if it ain’t Scandi it’s not going to work,” said Iuzzolino. “In the U.K. when I was pitching this no-one had even a sense of what Belgium drama was or could be and I thought it was extraordinary.”

Iuzzolino thought he could build and build and build to a point where the public and the press would recognise Belgium output as a genre in its own right.

This year Walter Presents aired 13 Commandments and then acquired the older Code 37. The Guardian published a two-page spread penned by one the most of U.K.’s the most feared TV critics, Mark Lawson, declaring Belgium as the new hotspot for television. “It’s my favourite European country for creative drama, hands down,” Iuzzolino said.

The audience sat back and enjoyed footage of three titles, 13 Commandments, Clan and Professor T. before Gozin asked what Iuzzolino thought the trio had in common. “The fact that they are constantly and forever unpredictable. In all of them there is something that goes against genre,” Iuzzolinosaid.

He thinks in Belgium creators possess the intellectual power to create astonishing things but always with a1mm detachment “where you can step back and look at it and twist it and not take it too terribly seriously. And I think that that makes me as a viewer more serious about it because there’s an element of meta-language in it. You are doing something but also reminding me with very gentle accents that you are making a show.”

“What I don’t like, sometimes in the U.K. what makes it turgid is when a piece believes itself too much and its own hype. So you are making a comedy about a family and it becomes Modern Family and you go, eeeeurrch, it’s saccharine and it’s heavy,” Iuzzolino said. “I like pieces that are what they need to be but with a sufficient degree of twist and agility intellectually whereby you are reminded as a consumer that this is ultimately a show.”

Is this what distinguishes Belgian Noir from Scandi Noir? asked Gozin.

Iuzzolino has no doubts: “It’s completely different. As I said, there’s a quirky dark humour that runs through everything I have seen from Belgium. Sometimes it is overt, sometimes it is implicit. 13 Commandments in some bits is really funny and yet it is not a funny piece of drama, it is dark and absorbing.”

Gozin said she believes Belgians opt not to make specific genre choices when making TV.

Iuzzolino thinks Belgium seems like a country where drama “is very authored and writer driven.” 

He thinks shows are different from one another. “Everything has the core of a warm heart about it but also it feels like it can only be driven either by a production company or a writer,” Iuzzolino says. “It feels slightly less industry driven.”

It is in contrast to successful global or U.K. drama — often costume period dramas — which feel genre driven. “In my mind Belgium shows feel first like a story and that story creates a context and an industry,” Iuzzolino says. “I haven’t yet seen a Belgian show that feels cynical and programmed for the international market.”

His hope and advice to everybody working in Belgium is to keeping making their projects Belgian. “Make them for your audience because the minute you go, let’s make a global hit, you will do something irreversibly bad.”

BELGIAN DRAMA IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES

Gozin said it was nice to hear Iuzzolino talk so positively about her country’s output, likening it to a box of chocolates. “Some have nuts, some white chocolate, but they are all Belgian chocolates,” she smiled.

The Belgian desire to surprise and play with genre and constantly shift the goalposts is more my bag than a more prosaic, British approach.

And it is good to stuff your face, according to Iuzzolino. After all if you eat a whole box, you are bound to come across a couple of chocolates you might not like.

Tabula rasa

“The collection is what matters,” Iuzzolino said. “I think it is about how you assemble and curate strands of knowledge.”

MUSIC TO HIS EARS

Iuzzolino also cites Belgian taste inmusic as being an exceptional constituent of its shows.

“I think very few countries have such a well-judged use of music. Because they open up for audiences.”

Iuzzolino said the Walter Presents show Professor T. has a lot of fans in the U.K. partly due to its soundtrack, which has a slightly 1960s nostalgic Italian movie type feel.

“It [Professor T] didn’t need to do it but it does. Someone had that taste and that choice and said this guy and his OCD-ness will play to the rhythm of 1960s Cinecitta stuff.”

Iuzzolino described the decision as an “interesting, quirky thing to do” and one that wouldn’t be found in the U.K.

Iuzzolino described the approach in the U.K. as inevitably being much more standardised. “It feels to me that here (Belgium) you guys cannot resist the idea of putting together contrasting elements into your wonder-cabinet (Wunder Kammer).”

Because it is gold rush time there is a danger that people will just make something good because everybody can.

He said the Belgian desire to surprise and play with genre and constantly shift the goalposts is more his bag than a more prosaic, British approach.

“Maybe it is because I watch too much drama and I understand there is room for that. In fact the overwhelming majority of the mainstream audience tends to like that unilateral approach,” Iuzzolino said “But it is something that tires me a little bit. If you know exactly how you are going to be manipulated through this whole process, you don’t want that. Who doesn’t want to manipulated, I love to be manipulated, so surprise me and scare me and make me spit out the chocolate so I can eat three more.”

So, asked Gozin, is there something we are lacking? Something we could do better?

Iuzzolino said he found it too hard to answer largely because as a fan it is more a matter of wanting more.

He said he hadn’t seen any family sagas from Belgium and would love to understand what the Belgians would do with something like The Legacy or a Dutch show he loves called Penoza, a drama about a mother and her children dressed up as a crime thriller.

“I would be very interested to see how you deal with emotion in a very hands on way and what quirks you would insert in that,” Iuzzolino said. “But the truth is I haven’t found flaws in Belgium drama, I truly haven’t.”

Iuzzolino turned the question around and ask Gozin as a creator and someone who lives in that tension between broadcaster, writer, funder and her team and stars and casting, what frustrates her? Is she aiming for other things that she is not doing now? What could she do better?

Gozin said she believed she and the industry could always do better. “I think it is a good thing that we try different genres and we kind of aim to do something new and be innovative and experiment,” Gozin told Iuzzolino. “And at the same time be commercial and focus on a broad audience. I think it’s important that we move, go forward and we can do different things.”

KEEP CREATORS POWERFUL

Iuzzolino pointed out how rare it is for the power play to shift towards the writer or the creator. “It is usually either the broadcaster or the distributor, the people putting in the money,” he said. “You have a pretty unique ecosystem here and I think that allows you to put forward all this. The audience should be grateful because you guys are fighting the fight to get interesting things on the screens.”

THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

Gozin turned to the industry’s evolutions, trends and potential territory concerns. Just what did Iuzzolino think?

But he warned that there is a risk associated with that: There is an overwhelming amount of product on the shelves and that product is too much for the strands and the brands it needs to satisfy.

He argued that while it is an undeniably a golden era for international drama and things can be forever improved, forever refined, he thinks as a curator he sees too many titles. “And they are premium, globally conceived titles that are actually culturally non-distinctive,” Iuzzolino says. “And that for me is a worry.”

Because it is gold rush time there is a danger that people will just make something good because everybody can.

“There are lots of big American companies competing for people’s subscription fees,” Iuzzolino said. “It means if people seem to like The Bridge, the idea will be to have 20 Bridges. It creates a sort of feeding frenzy around talent with a lot of international money to create supposedly premium drama that will have an edge over the rest so that customers will go to this brand or that brand that brand, and pay the 6 EUR, 7 EUR or 8 EUR a month to be there.”

Iuzzolino thinks that whilst competition and volume are always a good thing, such a wealth of content backers with deep pockets is creating a strange tension.

“I think if I was sitting in your chair as a creative and as a producer it is probably the best time ever because people will bid for you like crazy and people will see that you are clever and talented and they will want your next concept,” Iuzzolino told Gozin. “There is an excitement that goes with that because you can transcend the limitations of your market and actually project your vision and ambition onto a bigger market with potentially more money.”

But as far as he can tell, to date all the money that has been poured into this market hasn’t created stunningly distinctive HBO-style programming.

“I genuinely think that. All the big originals that are meant to be coming from Scandinavia, this that and the other, the ones I have seen to date, felt unfairly driven to be honest,” he said.

So it feels like the reason to tell the story is lost? wondered Gozin.

“Because everyone wants to conquer the world. It doesn’t feel yet that there is a coherent, editorial strategy but probably that’s the nature of a supermarket,” Iuzzolino said. “A supermarket cannot have an editorial strategy, they need to give you anything from bread to tampons.”

You can throw as much money at something as you want but if it’s not going to work, it’s not meant to work, Iuzzolino thinks.

“How we square the issue of the culture of local broadcasting is absolutely the right place for you to grow and to nurture you and the next Malin to keep investing in writers, and in different things, and in challenges,” Iuzzolino said. “The biggies don’t do it because they just want something that is a proven success.”

The tension between continuing to seed untried, fresh things rather than pumping resource into tried and tested that while fending off the idea that there is a talent drain going in the direction of an industry that in the long term will not support them is key.

“If you look at the story of the big players, they cannot be everything to everyone,” Iuzzolino said. “Whereas the growth spurt that is happening now is good for all of us in this room, ultimately three, four or five years down the line they will not be there to fund, create and support the greatest writers in the world in every country, it’s just not going to happen.”

Somehow global and local should aim to meet to find windowing or creative or business strategies that allow money to support originality and for that originality to migrate to different windows over time.

FORMATTING THE FUTURE

Gozin said the F word: Formats?

“Worldwide the tendency is to look for the returning format,” Iuzzolino said. ”More than ever people will try and get The Bridge seasons six, seven and eight if they can. I think it’s a good thing, I like return-ability but I think there’s a genius in knowing when too much is too much.”

He noted that Scandinavian creatives have proven again and again that calling time on a show works. “Now I can think that the majority of Scandis are one season too many. You think, ‘Oh I love it, I just wish they didn’t have that one’. The wrong number tends to be four. I like structure, three’s a good number.”

HBO STILL SETS THE BAR

Iuzzolino believes there is a renaissancein confidence among programme creators and makers across Europe, particularly Italy and Germany. But as a global commissioner of great European content, Iuzzolino still holds HBO (and occasionally Canal Plus) as still working it.

“The best pieces of international drama I have seen are Burning Bush from the Czech Republic, HBO, tick. Wasteland, tick,” Iuzzolino said: “When they go at it, they do with their mentality which is still very much excellence, craft and curation. Sometimes Canal Plus does too. But I am still to be incredibly impressed by European content that hasn’t come from those two.”

You can throw as much money at something as you want but if it’s not going to work, it’s not meant to work.

Walter Iuzzolino © Bea Borgers

Gozin noted that the streaming giants have all stepped into co-production in an eye-catching way. So, asked Gozin, might Walter Presents?

“I would very much like to, but we haven’t got enough money,” Iuzzolino said. “The reality is what we do is great and it is incredibly successful but it is also successful because it is supported by us and the narrow eye just about makes it work.”

Iuzzolino said as Walter Presents grows and launches in more territories, it will be able to start deficit funding more. “The contribution you put up front when you’re in 10 territories is more significant. It will never be fully fledged co-production in that way, but there’s that.”

BELGIAN BALANCE

Iuzzolino asked the audience about how the balance between fresh talent and the funders worked in Belgium.

One audience member described the process as being conducive to experimentation and invention because no single person decides — be they from a fund, a broadcaster or a state funder.

“In other territories there are more dominant players deciding this is what is right and this is not what is right,” the audience member observed. 

Iuzzolino wanted to know more detail on the order of how projects in Belgium are put together.

“There is no single rule but mostly it’s a writer/creator/producer teaming up and going to a broadcaster,” the audience member said. “But it can be done with a broadcaster serving up an idea and saying we need a producer from the right house for you to make something which has legs. There is no recipe for it. It is always a team forming around an idea. I agree that there might be more of an industrial process in other territories whereas in Belgium it isn’t.”

Another contributor from the floor said the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) takes care of young writers. “We’re really looking for them to help them develop their projects, to be coached by experienced consultants nationally and internationally and I like to believe it is something that nourishes the industry that way.”

WRITERS’ BLOCKS

Iuzzolino ended the session explaining that in the U.K. there is an issue for wannabe writers. “There is a polemic in the U.K. that commissioners tend to be so conservative and so scared for their jobs they just want a piece written by one of three people,” Iuzzolino said. “And those three people are busy until 2073 so my producer friends say, ‘I am going to be doing something in 2024 when this person becomes free’ and then they will do this other thing in 2025.”

Iuzzolino points out there’s around 65 million people in the U.K. and that surely there must be more than three go-to writers trusted to make good television?

“And do you know what, if we look at what comes out of their very busy pens, it tends to become a little bit boring,” Iuzzolino said, “because you can just see that this industrial pressure on an obviously talented person — six months on this, then that and that —  and you think, ’Whoa, did this person not have time to go to a museum and fall in love with something again?’”

Iuzzolino said Belgium’s belief in seeding new talent and ideas in a collaborative and collegiate way was something to take back to the U.K. as he continues his search for the best TV drama from around the world to show around the world.