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Challenges and Opportunities – an interview with Nataša Buljan, Fiction Development Director at United Media

9th May, 2024

Nataša Buljan was recently appointed Fiction Development Director at United Media which is among the biggest players in the CEE region with operations in 8 countries, including former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece. In the exclusive interview for CEETV, Buljan talked about the challenges and opportunities United Media faces in the region when it comes to scripted productions and their successful export and adaptation into other markets.

Nataša, in January 2024 you were appointed Fiction Development Director of one of the leading media companies in CEE – United Media – which operates channels in 8 territories. How would you describe the current status of the CEE fiction market which has been booming in the past years – can we expect a slowdown due to the crisis?
The CEE fiction market has been growing in recent years, with more local productions and adaptations of foreign formats. While the prolonged crisis creates some challenges, such as budget constraints and shifting audience preferences, there is still a high demand for engaging stories and entertaining programs. It is likely that output and investment could decline marginally, but the market’s overall momentum will undoubtedly continue.

What are the major challenges for fiction producers in the region, alongside the financial crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine?
Major challenges include navigating diverse cultural landscapes, accessing sufficient funding for high-end productions and competing with international content. Additionally, there’s the ongoing need to balance creative storytelling with commercial viability to attract both local and international audiences.

Do you find any significant differences in the taste of viewers in the 8 territories you are responsible for? For example, your Croatian family comedies No Matter What, At the Border have been successfully adapted in Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, etc. Did those formats need major changes in the different territories?
Taste differences are indeed notable, but some common themes and storytelling aspects frequently connect across borders. While adaptations such as No Matter What and At the Border have proven popular in numerous regions without major interventions in the story, some changes are occasionally required to conform with local sensitivities and cultural subtleties. However, the fundamental pleasure of well-crafted storytelling remains unchanged.

United Media has produced more than 40 series projects that have been adapted and sold in more than 30 countries around the world. What are your most-popular titles, both in terms of local ratings and international distribution?
United Media’s most popular titles, both locally and internationally, include a diverse range of genres such as family comedies, dramas, and crime series. As most popular, I would highlight the crime series Awake and The Hunt for Salamander, as well as already mentioned titles No Matter What, At the Border and The Best Man. In the last year, the movie Guardians of the Formula has garnered huge interest from both the domestic and the global audience and was not only the most watched film in 2023 in Serbia but was also awarded internationally – at the Locarno Film Festival and participated at the festival in Palm Springs.

What are the latest trends in CEE in scripted, from your observations? Shall United Media viewers see more period dramas which have become very popular in Central Europe but are more expensive to produce?
We already have several important period dramas that we worked on in Serbia. These are the series Alexander of Yugoslavia, which is set in the period of the creation of the former Yugoslavia until his assassination in Marseille in 1934. We also adapted for the screen important historical novels Time of Evil and Time of Death, set in the period before and during the Second World War. We are committed to producing high-quality, high-budget content and we will continue with this strategy. In fact, we are deep in development and entering preproduction with another period drama of which we have really high expectations.

How many projects do you currently have in the pipeline in the different territories?
We have many titles in development across various genres: a crime series based on a true story about a member of the international Pink Panthers gang, a drama series called Marija based on a true story of courageous Marija Lukić. Additionally, we have several other very interesting projects in various stages of development, which will certainly be discussed in the upcoming period. Most of them are either based on a true story and/or tackle a topic of great importance to society.

There isn’t an abundance of co-productions in CEE when it comes to fiction (with the exception of Czechia and Slovakia), although this has started to change. Is United Media looking into producing scripted projects with partners from other territories and how will this work in terms of IP?
Yes, we plan to seek partners for several projects, and we believe that we will mutually benefit from it.

Can you walk us through the process of creating a successful United Media series – where do you usually get your ideas from, how do you pick the projects to be commissioned and do local teams in each country have full creative freedom? Do you look for more universal themes and stories so the series can be popular in other territories as well? Is AI also something that helps in the process?
I wouldn’t say that this process significantly differs from other productions. The process of creating a successful series involves finding and recognizing ideas from various sources, including in-house development teams, independent writers, and international formats. Projects are selected based on their overall quality and potential to resonate with the target audience and align with the company’s strategic objectives. While local creative teams have a degree of autonomy in shaping the content, there’s also a focus on identifying universal themes and stories that can transcend cultural boundaries. AI technology may play a role in data analysis and audience insights, but creative decisions ultimately rely on human intuition and expertise.

Let’s talk a little bit about budgets of CEE fiction – are there major differences in the budget of series produced across your territories, for example are Croatian series more expensive than Bulgarian series and what is the average budget for a United Media-produced scripted project? Have you been forced to cut budgets in the past few years?
Budgets for CEE fiction can vary significantly depending on the project’s scope, requirements, and creative vision. Across our territories, we’ve observed a diversity in budget allocations, reflecting the unique demands and market conditions of each production. At United Media, we prioritize delivering high-quality content while ensuring efficient resource utilization. As with any dynamic industry, budget considerations are constantly evaluated to best accommodate the evolving needs of our projects and the market landscape.

Many people involved in the CEE TV industry have noted that there is no strong tradition of screenwriting for TV and local governments and producers should do more to nurture and support young talent. Do you share this opinion and what can be done to improve this?
That observation is indeed valid. To address this, United Media is actively involved in initiatives aimed at nurturing and developing emerging talent in the region. In previous years, in Serbia and Croatia, we had contests where young writers could seize the opportunity to submit their works, and the best among them had the chance to develop them through mentorship with more experienced colleagues. By investing in the future generation of storytellers, the industry can ensure a vibrant and sustainable creative ecosystem.

The Pula Film Festival (PFF) and United Media have launched the partnership project “Make the Scene!” and announced an invitation for an international workshop on the development of television series scripts. Please, tell us more about the initiative, what are your expectations from the event and which countries are expected to submit the highest number of projects?
We are proud of our partnership with the oldest film festival in Croatia – the Pula Film Festival, and collaboration on this project.

The “Make the Scene!” workshop is part of the festival’s Industry days and talented authors are invited to submit original, high-quality TV series projects either independently or with production companies. The winning project, chosen by an expert jury, will receive a €10.000 prize and the opportunity to further develop the series in collaboration with United Media. Expectations for the event include discovering new and compelling voices, forging partnerships for future collaborations, and elevating the quality of scripted content in the region. While it’s difficult to predict which countries will submit the highest number of projects, the initiative seeks to attract diverse perspectives and narratives from across the Adriatic region.

You started your career in advertising as a copywriter and a creative director of many successful ad campaigns before focusing on scriptwriting. Can we draw some parallels between creating a successful ad campaign which reaches many people and between writing a hit TV series that enjoys high ratings?
Both require a deep understanding of the target audience, effective storytelling techniques and the ability to evoke emotions and capture attention. Just as in advertising, where the goal is to convey a message and persuade consumers, in TV series, the aim is to engage viewers and keep them invested in the narrative. At their best, both advertising and scriptwriting capture human experience in the way that people recognize and connect to it. All that said, scriptwriting gives you the opportunity to tell more and it is more difficult and much more magical.

You have worked on series from different genres. Do you prefer to write telenovelas, dramas, crime series? Do you have a favorite series or characters?
I don’t have that kind of (writing) preference, it really depends on the story and what it means to me, genre or format make very little difference. I do, however, have favorite characters, in every series that I worked on I had a character that I loved the most and even fell a little bit in love with that character. Even many years after the projects I think of them almost as if they are real people, someone with whom I used to be very close.