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Israel, Ukraine Distributors Talk Conflict

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Israel, Ukraine Distributors Talk Conflict

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With terrible conflicts raging in the Middle East and Ukraine, the world has rarely felt so troubled and simultaneously intertwined with geopolitics.

Few industries are immune to the impact of these shocks and the ever-changing world of TV distribution is no exception, having been posed difficult questions for the past 24 months.

As execs, sellers and all and sundry travel to the English capital for next week’s London TV Screenings, these conflicts will cast a shadow over what has tended to be a spirited affair. Industry sources tell Deadline that they have rarely paid so much attention to goings-on around the world in relation to their own work.

Speaking on an RTS panel late last month, renowned analyst Claire Enders described current global shocks such as the Russo-Ukrainian War and Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House as casting a “seething mass of uncertainty” over the entertainment industry, which is “causing an enormous withdrawal of resource.” This is all part “of this wider world coming in to bear on an incredible creative sector,” Enders posited.

And what of the sales houses?

In February 2022, as the reality of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine began to reveal itself, the TV world watched as, one-by-one, distributors withdrew resource and pledged to stop working with Vladimir Putin’s nation. Within the space of a couple of days, the likes of BBC Studios, ITV Studios, All3Media International, Fremantle, Banijay Rights and a clutch of major U.S. players had placed trade with Russia on ice until further notice — notice that is yet to run down.

Deadline reached out to all the leading distribts for this article and all declined comment on how global conflicts reshape their strategy. But one source at a UK sales house says that, during those frenetic few days nearly two years ago, the companies were led by government guidance rather than following the lead of the other. At the time, hard-line sanctions were being imposed on Russian businesses and prominent figures as the UK worked frantically to keep up with the turning tide.

With the Israel-Hamas War having joined Russia-Ukraine more recently as a devastating conflict dominating the front pages, the question becomes how sales houses both inside and outside of these war zones react, and how strategy is revised.

“The good thing about working in the entertainment industry is that there are two purposes for us,” says Sharon Levi, who runs Fauda seller Yes Studios. “We have the ability to voice ourselves through content and to reflect the situations that are going on in countries around the world, and we have the ability to entertain. Sometimes when people want a break from the news, they simply want to watch content that comes from all different types of places in the world, from different backgrounds and different cultures.”

Asia Bataeva-Dokalenko heads up the content monetization division at Starlight Media, Ukraine’s largest broadcasting group. She says the war with Russia, which will hit its two-year anniversary in three days’ time, was followed by a number of quite distinct stages for the Ukrainian people, with sales houses adapting accordingly and learning to be nimble.

“Work during the war is about complex contexts and challenges,” she tells Deadline via email. “At first, security was the most important task, since most members of our team are in Ukraine. Then there were also economic effects of the war, which influenced our production ability, especially during the first year, when the advertising market collapsed dramatically.”

After they had somewhat recovered from the initial shock, Bataeva-Dokalenko says her team was forced to face up to the reality of having a “very limited amount of content compared to the pre-war years.” To counter this, it expanded to distributing shows from third-party producers, while “acquiring a unique co-production experience with international collaborations at a level we did not have before the war,” with a focus on documentaries.

Distributors in Israel, meanwhile, tell us that one of their raison d’etres since Hamas’ bloody October 7 attack has been to take as much of a BAU approach as possible, while keeping relationships with those outside the country intact.

“As a distributor, we are always working internationally – from the outside looking in – and while it took us a few weeks to regroup I think we can now probably say we and others are pretty much working normally,” adds Levi.

Nadav Palti, who runs Shtisel producer-distributor Dori Media and was one of the few Israeli execs who travelled to last year’s Mipcom Cannes, says there was a short stop in production of around two months at the start of the war, although filming continued on projects in Mexico and Uruguay, with Dori’s long-running association with central and Latin America playing its part. That has meant there has barely been a lag in what’s on offer in the catalog.

During that two months, Dori was able to double down on development, writing and post-production, which Palti says yielded “great results.”

For Palti, the learnings taken from the Covid-19 pandemic have served his company well since October 7. “We can continue to work even during periods with restrictions because almost everything can now be done remotely,” he says. “Our team has learned to adapt to new situations and be flexible.”

Revising the content mix

Kelly Wright, MD of distribution for Israel’s best-known seller, Keshet, stresses the benefits of being part of a large, vertically-integrated outfit when the going gets tough and content demands are changing rapidly, helped by having hubs across the world.

“We are fortunate to be part of a company that also owns and operates Israel’s leading network and news company,” she explains. “So we were able to respond quickly to requests from clients for reliable, locally produced stories about the October 7 attacks and the aftermath.”

One way in which Keshet innovated was by packaging a set of current affairs reports produced for news network Keshet 12 titled This is War: Inside Israel, a strand that could then be sold to third parties such as streaming platform Izzy. Furthermore, Keshet has been busy striking deals for “compelling” dramas such as Series Mania competition winner A Body that Works, which was picked up by Netflix and others, while demand for “scalable, fun, escapist fare” is of “particular interest to buyers” and will be on the table at the London TV Screenings. “A hit format is still a desirable ‘get’ for every buyer’s schedule, no matter from where it originates,” adds Wright.

Several documentaries about the day that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis were changed forever have also entered production at breakneck speed. Yes has been shopping #Nova – spotlighting the tragic events that took place at the Supernova music festival – and we hear advanced talks with U.S. buyers are progressing. “We are hoping to reach non-Israeli and non-Jewish viewers and educate them,” says Levi. “It’s not even a ‘distribution thing,’ it’s more a purpose or calling for us to get it out there as much as we can.”

This clearly-defined “purpose” drove the day-to-day distribution activities in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian War, according to Starlight’s Bataeva-Dokalenko.

She says her team “felt additional responsibility not only to find our way to produce quality products but also to tell the world the truth about the war Russians are imposing on Ukraine.”

Bataeva-Dokalenko recalls examples of well-known entertainment producers such as Ukrainian Bachelor EP Hanna Kalyna turning their hands to wartime docs. Kalyna worked with Novyi Channel producer Sasha Tkachenko on a documentary chronicling the experiences of Ukrainian mothers who gave birth during the war, and Starlight sold it.

“Fatigue” with docs such as these set in after a year or so of war, acknowledges Bataeva-Dokalenko, which coincided neatly with the Ukrainian industry “slowly starting to recover series and fiction film production.”

International outreach

Ukrainian distributors also had to get up to speed with the notion that one of their biggest clients, Russia, turned from investor to enemy in the space of a few days. “No price can justify a partnership with those who kill and wish to destroy,” adds Bataeva-Dokalenko, not mincing her words.

For this reason, international outreach has become crucial to the recovery of the sector and Bataeva-Dokalenko celebrates co-productions and distribution agreements on the likes of Talpa gameshow The Floor and drama series In Her Car.

One of the most prominent scripted shows to emerge from the rubble of war has been Film.UA anthology Those Who Stayed, driven by the impressive Kateryna Vyshnevska, who has been a regular fixture at content markets and was one of the brains behind the $20M Ukraine Content Club.

German-headquartered seller Red Arrow Studios International has been pivotal to the success of Those Who Stayed, jumping aboard early and striking deals with networks far and wide, some of which plan to air on the war’s second anniversary.

Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia, Red Arrow’s VP Scripted Acquisitions & Co-Productions, says he had wanted to work with Film.UA prior to the war and Those Who stayed was a tonal fit for his drama catalog. Furthermore, it served as a blueprint for getting the local Ukrainian production sector back to work, with large distinct crews working across each episode of the anthology that tells one story per ep about the people who remained in the war-torn nation, from a member of the territorial defence forces to a cleaner in a zoo.

But Red Arrow’s involvement with the series is in no way charitable, Herrera Ibarguengoytia stresses, and conversations have already commenced over projects the pair could work on in the future.

“There is a challenge with this, as it is close to the heart, but [Red Arrow] tried to have that distance and look at the stories in a way we would any other project, to work out what has the most dramatic impact,” he explains. “This was with an eye to making this as much of a commercial proposition as possible, to make sure it could travel and be seen widely.”

On the wider strategic question, Herrera Ibarguengoytia stresses that Red Arrow’s distribution strategy is constantly being modified depending on a wealth of factors, rather than specifically in response to conflict.

“Since Covid, we have been facing one challenge after another, so it is more about discussing the general status of the industry rather than events,” he says. “But we are not alone in that. Partners and competitors are facing the same challenges, so we have to be aware of the situation, and have patience and a long-term vision of the market.”

The involvement of sales houses such as Red Arrow or Servant of the People seller Eccho Rights continues to be celebrated by those from within conflict zones.

While Levi says a small number of relationships have been placed on the “backburner” due to the war, she adds that most in the industry based outside Israel are “intelligent and open-minded,” and have responded with kindness to her plight. Keshet’s Wright, meanwhile, says she has been “overwhelmed and so very touched” by messages of support.

A drive and resolve emanates from each and every one of these distributors, who, through it all, remain confident in their wares. The content will out.

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