I was excited to see that the purity of the Birmingham Literary Festival has been infiltrated this year by the lowly gogglebox. In amongst the bearded academics and the beat-boxing poets we find Walter Iuzzolino, the driving force behind the staggeringly successful world drama mission on Channel 4 and their streaming service All4. In just 9 months they’ve taken a chance on 24 series from around the globe and been rewarded with 15 million streams. That’s a lot of viewers.
This is Walter’s first time at an event like this (he says the first time in front of an audience!) He’s a wiry and energetic man, looking great in a fancy tie and robust walking boots, like he’s ready for any occasion. He did seems initially nervous but straight away you can see he’s extremely knowledgable and passionate about his project, and delighted to be able to tell you about it. BBC Midland’s Qasá Alom is the facilitator tonight, but won’t have to push hard to get at the answers.
Walter might be a little shy, but there’s nothing shy about his statement of intent which launched on All4 in January:
In 3.5 years he says he’s watched 4,500 hours of tv. His business is built on a personal passion and the belief of a couple of colleagues who invested time and money from the off. A couple of years ago they were sitting around their kitchen tables watching and assessing foreign language tv with an eye to “obsessive purity”. Speaking of eyes, he says he also has a large collection of eye drops to keep his overworked peepers healthy.
Walter is Italian by birth, and he’s been living and working in the UK for 21 years. He was a commissioner and producer of factual tv but because of his upbringing he had a passion for foreign drama. He says UK drama has always been of a fantastic quality but narrow scope. Growing up in Italy he watched dubbed drama from all over. Terrible really, he says as every character had the same speaking voice, but it was a “cheerful circus” of international television. Some good, some bad, but so much broader and more interesting than what was available on British tv.
Despite being happily signed-up by Channel 4, he gives props to the BBC for opening the international door with French cop show Spiral in 2006. Just 200,000 viewers per episode but it achieved notable critical acclaim (Walter has masses of facts and figures in his head – this is where you see the businessman ). The Killing and Borgen followed and he was sure the time was right for taking a risk on what became Walter Presents.
Because the WP offerings have been curated by real people the shows have a very high quality benchmark. From the off he wanted his service to look like the best Netflix and HBO offerings. Two out of three of the rules of WP have to be met before the show can be bought:
- It has to be a beautiful, high quality drama.
- It has to have had a big success in its own country – it has to be the Spanish equivalent of Downton Abbey.
- And it has to have critical recognition.
Despite his business acumen, Walter’s scholarly side is never far from the surface. He says drama is a lot like Victorian serialised fiction – the Dickens, Balzac or Elliot of our day. Whether in print or on-screen, audiences love a cliffhanger to keep them on tenterhooks until the next episode. This might sound like a bit of a stretch, but I find myself nodding along when he says the Netflix subscription is a lot like a Victorian magazine subscription to The Atlantic for example, a way for commerce to fund high art.
While the bar for quality is set high and set to go even higher, the content and character of each show is different. Like an artist Walter describes tones and textures specific to each country. He says it’s like landing at the airport and a local taking you to the best restaurant. WP is the opposite of a giant supermarket – this is Walter’s deli. Channel 4 suggested he sell it to the audience personally, as he sold it to their executives. He was a reluctant spokesman and still gets asked is he is real or just a construct for social media.
Qasa Alom presses him on the variations he describes and asks him to explain these international drama characteristics. He says British drama is literary, this element stronger than any other country (which goes down well with the assembled lit crowd!). German is voyeuristic. French is morbid (in a good way). He pauses on Swedish and thinks for a while – I want to yell “It’s about light and dark!” He says it’s homely warmth even in the midst of a thriller. I think you can tell we’ve both watch a lot of Scandi noir, and admire their fancy kitchens and beautifully lit living rooms. Via tv we’re all learning about new countries and he himself knew little about Polish culture until watching and buying The Border (another one reviewed and enjoyed by yours truly).
Most surprisingly to me he says British telly audiences are progressive and advanced, with an openness not found anywhere else. I’m flattered but not sure about this, especially in the light of continuing Brexit shenanigans. I think there’s still a lot of resistance to watching subtitled programmes but maybe Walter’s stats prove things are changing faster than I thought. WP wants to prove there are big commercial pieces out there in Europe, South America and further afield – quite different to niche and elitist indie cinema. Walter says the foreignness is a hook, not a turn off, and it makes each show feel more meaningful. A couple of episodes is like a trip away, a budget version of a weekend in Copenhagen.
The subtitles mean you have to work harder to engage and you’re rewarded by the feeling that this is your own discovery “like finding a perfect truffle” and sharing it with your own circle of friends. Speaking of subtitles he says they need to be impeccable, as story elements can easily be lost in translation. From the outset he wanted the best team and they chose an expert company who work on the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. They use eye tracker technology to check how many words people can cope with on screen and still enjoy the experience.
With the recent successes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House of Cards to name but a few, foreign producers looked to America and saw shows that are global media brands. World producers realised drama will travel and doesn’t have to be homogenised for an international market. Now we’re coming full circle with American producers looking outward for remake opportunities (The Bridge, The Returned, The Killing – not exactly a roll call of success, but it proves the American interest is there). The latest to get American wallets open is Eye Witness, a Norwegian drama about teenage boys who witness a gang killing. It won an international Emmy and is coming soon to WP:
Walter says the future looks very bright indeed. He predicts that soon more countries will join the club of excellence, so that he no longer has to turn down Portuguese or Turkish dramas that have 80-110 episodes!
He still can’t believe success of WP and is so happy about it. His joy and love for the medium shines through and he is constantly delighted that he and his original team were never “arrested as fantasists” and laughed out of their pitch meetings.
The key to WP success is online accessibility – whenever you want to dip in to a new show, a new country and some exciting uncharted waters. The festival audience are extremely grateful and love the “book club feel” of a curated selection. He gets a very warm reception and a thank you from a woman who lives in my home town of Lichfield. She describes it as a little town with no cinema. I’d never thought of it as lacking in culture (it’s got a cathedral, museums, Tudor buildings) but there’s very little to do in the evenings unless you want to develop a drinking problem.
And I should add my thanks too. You were an incredible guest for the Lit Fest to book and your passion is inspirational. I promise, hand on heart, to try to follow your advice to give each programme at least three episodes before I decide if I like it, even if it doesn’t start with a bang. And I’ll be sure to stock up on eye drops to keep me going.