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Paprika Studios: Conquering CEE from Budapest
 05 Jul 2022
The brief history of Paprika Studios is not only a local success story, but also a phenomenon that proves that talent, hard work and devotion can lead to serious international results. How did it start? What were the drivers behind its impressive achievements and expansion? We asked Ákos Erdős, the CEO of Paprika Studios about their background and future plans. (You can also read this interview in the digital version of TVBIZZ Magazine.)

Paprika Studios is the leading production company in Central Eastern Europe and the Baltics. This June, you are celebrating your 15th anniversary. What were the company’s highlights during this period?

We have a super-intense and exciting fifteen years behind us – for about half of that time, I was involved as well. It was Peter Marschall who founded Paprika Studios. Originally, the company mainly produced reality shows, such as Fish on the Cake, which were the first “in-house” productions. The company originally started in Romania and Hungary. After its initial successes, Paprika started to expand its operations and opened branches in other countries such as Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.

When I joined in 2013, Paprika was not only producing successful shiny floors or reality shows, but was also represented in five countries. After my arrival, we had great ambitions to accelerate our expansion and launched several initiatives. By the end of 2015, we’d doubled our number of branches, and have been operating with local offices in ten different CEE countries producing shows with own local teams.

Once the footprint was established, we decided to build on our reputation as producers of reality and entertainment shows and sought to exploit more of our skills and expertise in “unconquered” content areas such as fiction. So we put together a team of creatives and writers who provided us with brand new and original ideas. This initiative quickly led to Paprika producing fiction in three different countries.

It was then that we also built another important initiative: namely, we realized that we have an excellent pool of outstanding, talented CEE professionals, and that we can also generate premium material much more cost-effectively than in Western Europe. This led us to capitalize more on our great teams and to open up towards international markets. We started to cooperate with more and more Western European and Scandinavian production companies, and entire new business segments developed within our company.

If I had to highlight the most important achievement of our work, I would emphasize that we’ve not only gained full coverage in the CEE region, but also great potential in production skills and expertise in our local offices that enable us to provide world-class productions, attracting millions of viewers to the screens over a dozen countries. I’m also very proud that we were able to evolve from a reality show producing company to an overall content provider that can facilitate content in a wide spectrum of genres such as branded materials, fiction series, documentaries, entertainment, reality shows, and more.

In September 2021, Paprika Studios, became part of the reorganized Viaplay Studios. Have there been any major changes following this reorganization?

Paprika Studios has always found an ideal, healthy balance between operating independently and belonging to its mother company at the same time. Our operation remained intact, and the changes did not affect our position in our shareholder’s visions. We’re working on many projects with Viaplay Studios and Viaplay Group that not only fuel our ambitions, but also enable us to explore our skills in depth. As of today, Viaplay is the leading SVOD platform in Scandinavia and the leading provider of Scandinavian content – this keeps us motivated to continue upgrading our company and creating better content.

Most importantly, Paprika Studios is and always has been an independent production enterprise that works with all kinds of parties and keeps its eyes open for possibilities to create quality content that’s exciting, engaging, and fun. If I had to put it in numbers, then I’d say that we’re probably working with twice as many professionals as we were just a few years ago.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the type of content you produce and some of your recent successful productions in the region?

As I’ve just mentioned, we produce content in all main genres and formats, which means that we create branded content for Facebook or YouTube as well as commercials or different types of TV programs, ranging from entertainment and reality shows to documentaries and fiction. Speaking of which, we’ve become very focused on fiction content, working on dozens of different series and exploring the opportunities that long and short feature materials can offer us. Personally, I consider as successful all our productions that we deliver on time, in keeping with our standards of quality, and within budget – an aspect that presents additional challenges, due to our quickly changing economic environment.

With regards to fiction content, I must mention the unbelievable success of The Teacher, a series we started in Hungary in strong cooperation with RTL Hungary, and which became so popular that it drew attention from other CEE broadcasters. This was followed by Paprika producing it in Slovakia, where it became the most successful TV series of the year. The story continued in the Czech Republic, where we also adapted the show for Czech viewers, where our show attracted an average of about 1 million viewers in weekly ratings – an exceptionally high number for the Czech Republic.

We are already shooting the fourth season in Slovakia, and have just started the next season in the Czech Republic. Most importantly, we still have further plans with this show.

Another show worth mentioning is Love Island, which we produced for Hungary, and made Czech and Slovakian versions of it as well, which were the largest-scale reality shows ever produced in those countries. The focus of the project was to attract subscribers to the newly launched Voyo, the SVOD service of Central European Media Enterprises (CME). It was an exciting direction to deliver content for SVOD platforms and even more fascinating to be the first big original right at the launch. I have to say that the results exceeded our expectations. And as a multi-country producer, the most important is that in this project, we managed to utilize our reality show expertise across our group when Hungarian, Czech, Slovak TV professionals worked together to create an amazing series.

Do you currently produce content for clients outside of CEE?

It was always a very important part of our work that we wanted to attract foreign projects to the CEE region. We are still doing that with many projects in the pipeline. We are active not only in entertainment shows, but also in fiction: we are doing multiple series for the UK, Sweden, and others, working closely with local producers in these countries, all while also utilizing the potential of the talent and devotion of local CEE professionals.

What changes have you observed in the CEE markets during the COVID crisis?

I believe that the changes were very similar in all markets. While there was an emerging demand from viewers who spent most of their time in lockdown, and thus plenty of time in front of the screen, the production business had stopped almost entirely. Therefore, we had to make major changes and adapt to the new circumstances. There were quite a few attempts for new types of “lockdown” content, but we did not believe in them, and ultimately none of them were able to deliver significant results.

Our challenge during the pandemic was to make sure that we kept up team morale while we waited to resume working as we had before. Also, we had to reorganize our schedule to allow us to change the phases of the production cycle. This gave us bigger freedom to work remotely and to concentrate more on other phases like development, pre- or post-production. And of course, sadly, many projects have been cancelled or postponed for other times. It was difficult for everybody, but our great people, our great teams were ready as soon as there was an option to return.

Last year was thrilling and busy. We’ve seen projects coming back to us or “popping up” from nothing. So I can say that the recovery and the bumping back was so fast that we were able to easily put behind us the difficulties that the pandemic caused the industry.

What new projects do you have in the pipeline?

We have many promising projects in the pipeline for this year: we’re producing many reality shows and more than a dozen TV series or seasons of TV series. I’d be happy to share more information about them, but unfortunately, I can’t go into more details at this stage. But, being in Budapest, let me mention just a few productions, like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, which we’re preparing; and the third season of the Paprika-developed series, Tiger Daddy, that we’re producing for RTL in Hungary. I also want to mention that the third season of the shiny entertainment show, Dancing with the Stars for TV2, is now in the making.

Paprika recently opened a subsidiary in Poland. What are your latest productions there and have you planned further expansion in other CEE territories?

It was a tough opening, because it happened during the hard times of the pandemic. But we were lucky to meet great people and to be able to build an outstanding local team with so much enthusiasm and inspiration that Paprika Poland has already become super busy just within the first year of its establishment. I am especially very proud of our original development, Polish Murderesses, a six-episode crime thriller produced for Viaplay which will be available on the streaming platform.

Expectations are very high, so we had to put together a team of excellent professionals to meet these expectations. After a few weeks of shooting, I have great confidence that we’re making an excellent project, and that we are on the right track to make a super exciting show. We are also opening to new genres in Poland, where we are trying documentaries, which is a new direction for us. Personally, I believe that this could serve as an excellent inspiration for our colleagues in other countries to explore the potentials of this genre. As for further expansion: if you look at Paprika Studios’ history, you will see that we’ve always been looking for new opportunities, and been keen to explore new markets, work with great professionals, no matter the language or country, so long as we can work on projects that we are passionate about.

You have just announced the new edition of Hypewriter, looking for fresh series ideas. How many productions have been born out of this joint initiative with RTL Hungary?

It is already the fourth season of Hypewriter, and we had more than 400 applicants from more than 25 countries in the last year. I feel we are only warming up with Hypewriter, but it has already become a leading pitch forum for fiction series in the region. It’s great to see how many creators have participated and brought us new ideas. It’s also been heart-warming to see that already many concepts have ended up being produced. The winner of 2019 received a “straight to series” commission from RTL Hungary, which means that it is already heading to have its full first season produced. Last year’s winning concept, which discusses very deep social topics, is also currently in production and we are very pleased to have it directed by Ildikó Enyedi, the Oscar-nominated director.

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