Balkan Telecoms Ramp Up Investment, Raise Bar for Local TV Production

When it comes to creative pedigree, it would be hard to argue with the bona fides of Bosnian crime drama “The Hollow,” which was co-created by Oscar-winning director Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”) and had a splashy premiere Saturday night at the Sarajevo Film Festival. The series is directed by Tanović and Bosnian filmmaker Aida Begić, whose latest feature, “A Ballad,” also received the red-carpet treatment this week in Sarajevo’s official competition.

More than just a prestige drama from a region that’s increasingly exporting its shows to the world, however, “The Hollow” could represent a paradigm shift in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where global streaming services have been acquiring titles such as “The Paper ” (Netflix) and “The Silence” (HBO Max) but are yet to put significant investment into local production.

“The Hollow” marks the first foray into original drama by Bosnia’s BH Telecom, which plans to pump 27 million marks ($14 million) into local content by the end of 2024, according to CEO Sedin Kahriman. Speaking at a showcase of new BH Telecom content in Sarajevo on Tuesday, Kahriman said the investment marks the company’s determination to become “the strongest domestic platform for producing content” in the small Balkan nation, with a slate of premium series in production and development — including “I Know How You Breathe,” a crime drama from Oscar nominee Jasmila Žbanić (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”) — geared toward the international market.

It’s a sign of the growing influence of telecoms on the region’s screen industries that the Sarajevo Film Festival set aside two sessions this week for BH Telecom and Serbian powerhouse Telekom Srbija to present their slates to industry guests.

On Monday, the state-backed Serbian telecom giant presented six upcoming series in Sarajevo, including the crime thriller “Pasjača” from creators Dejan Prčić, Dunja Ilić and Milica Jevtić, and the dramedy “Walking With a Lion” from writer Andrej Šepetkovski. That night it premiered the first two episodes of “The Fall,” a new crime drama produced by Serbia’s Firefly Productions.

Since launching into feature film and television production in 2018, Telekom Srbija has produced more than 850 hours of original content, closing deals with global players such as Flix Latino in South America, Globo Play in Brazil and Disney+ Hotstar in India.

Its flagship titles for the foreign market include the psychological thriller “Black Wedding,” produced by Firefly, and “Besa,” a British-Serbian crime drama from Adrenalin and Red Planet Pictures, both of which racked up a slew of nominations — including best drama series — at this week’s Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards.

Production is currently underway on 11 titles across a range of genres, with the company’s head of production, Jasmina Lakobrija, insisting that a varied slate of local content offerings is essential to growing the telecom’s subscriber base. “We firmly believe that the future of telecommunications is in bundling and in the customer’s need for high-quality and diverse content,” said Lakobrija.

BH Telecom’s Kahriman echoed that sentiment, citing Bosnia’s rich cinematic tradition and telling Variety: “We believe in the idea that content is a concrete advantage” over the company’s competitors.

For the region’s creatives, such convictions are a game-changer, according to Amra Bakšić Čamo, producer and co-creator of “The Hollow.” “We’ve always wanted to venture into series, but it was impossible before this opportunity that we have for [BH Telecom’s] BH Content Lab,” she said.

The veteran producer said that the company’s initial slate of offerings “sets the tone” for its future plans, which will create opportunities not only for iconic filmmakers like Tanović and Žbanić but for a generation of emerging creatives. “It’s not only about money,” she said, citing the free rein she and Tanović were given to produce a show that matched their creative ambitions.

Čamo is developing the sitcom “Prince From LA” for BH Telecom, and is also in talks to produce series with Slovenian and Croatian partners — possibilities that didn’t exist just a few years ago, when the industry was entirely reliant on cash-strapped local broadcasters. “Independent producers working solely on scripted content, we were not able to push ourselves,” she said.

With the financial muscle of the local telecoms behind them, producers like Čamo can approach foreign partners with domestic financing and distribution in place, a guarantee that opens a range of opportunities for collaboration across the region. “It’s something that puts you in a position [as a producer] to change the way that we operate.”

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