It came out of the gates with spy series Deutschland ’83, which subsequently became the first German-language scripted series to launch on a U.S. network when it debuted on SundanceTV.
In 2018, the service launched in the U.S. via PBS and it is now distributed in ten countries, across four continents and is available to over 6M SVOD subscribers in addition to being available to a number of free-to-air audiences and is on target to deliver 50M streams in the UK alone.
When it was launched by Walter Iuzzolino, Jason Thorp and Jo McGrath (below), the plan was to have 1,000 hours of content in its first three years and five years in it is now up to 1,800 hours, including French mystery dramas, Icelandic crime shows, Japanese horror series, Bulgarian thrillers and Italian dark comedies as well as much more.
Iuzzolino tells Deadline that the company is proud to have conquered half of the world and over the next few years they want to expand to the other half, this time scaling up with pan-regional deals and bigger partnerships.
He says that the one-inch problem of subtitles – a term coined by Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho when the Korean film won the Oscar – has now gone away.
“In the English-speaking territories we contributed significantly to that. When we launched, the only bit of subtitles in the UK was a bit of Scandinavian drama, it was one genre. We’re now launching fantastic shows from Croatia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic [and many other countries],” he adds.
Recent launches have included Bulgarian crime thriller The Devil’s Throat, which follows the investigation of the murder of a retired police officer in the border town of Smolyan at the height of the refugee crisis and French crime procedural Astrid, centered around Astrid Nielsen, who has Asperger’s syndrome and works in the library of the judicial police. These join long-running series such as Danish family saga Seaside Hotel, which is in its eighth season.
Since Walter Presents’ debut in 2016, foreign-language drama has been on a tear; the number of high-quality productions from across the world has risen. This is in part as a result of a growing interest in premium, local content as well as the rise of the streaming market helping to fund it.
“At the time we launched with Deutschland 83, suddenly big and small countries realized that if you make a drama and the production values are high, this can become an International Emmy winner. That sparked a desire from creatives and commissioners,” says Iuzzolino. “It grew crazily. When I started, I’d buy one show out of 25 I watched and now it’s three in five.”
There was a moment when Walter Presents thought it might have to compete directly with the global streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon. However, these companies were less interested in finding the diamonds in the rough from around the world than funding their own slates of original shows, leaving plenty of top programming for Iuzzolino and his team.
“Netflix and the big streamers realized that they want to own their IP so cherry picking the odd show from the Czech Republic is too messy for the amount of money they can bring to it so it’s easier for them to commission their own shows,” he says. “That’s excellent because it brings money and energy into the sector and it still leaves an enormous amount of content that’s made by the terrestrial broadcasters entirely available.”
The service has also grown steadily in the U.S., a market that had never previously had that much foreign-language television on its screens. Walter Presents is available via the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel as well as having linear slots on both PBS’ regional stations and national schedule. It is also available via Comcast’s Xfinity SVOD platform.
“We started [in the U.S.] as an experiment; we knew the audience was sensible and sensitive in terms of international drama because they liked Downton Abbey so they had an umbilical cord to the UK, which is already a leap for mainstream American audiences,” he adds. “It’s now beyond our wildest dreams. Viewers have loved the content and they dive quite deeply into it. What started as a couple of launches a month, we’ve ramped up, it’s one show a week. I’m veraciously acquiring.”
Andrea Downing, President of PBS Distribution, agrees. “What started as a bespoke curated collection has grown into a significant content offering, which is not only streaming on Prime Video Channels but also broadcasting across the U.S. on PBS stations where viewers have shows a considerable appetite for premium foreign-language drama,” she tells Deadline.
Elsewhere, the service is available via Cindie in Latin America, Discovery in Italy, Start in Russi and VTM in Belgium and Walter Presents now wants to scale this up significantly over the next few years. “We want more content partnerships in territories that are big enough and also on a multi-territory basis. We have an incredible library of content, we have 1,800 hours of premium content, we have a brand that can be integrated with platforms. It’s about having conversations about scale, pan regionally, and quickly finish the tectonic shift so we are launched worldwide.”
Iuzzolino says that he and his team are now pre-buying content from scripts from trusted writers, directors and producers and its participation often allows international producers to unlock pan-regional funding.
He says that while scripted originals are continuing to flourish in western and central Europe, highlighting the recent success of Belgian drama, he adds that this is now moving east, and he is buying more shows from countries such as Ukraine and Bulgaria.
The types of content that Walter Presents is buying is also relatively broad. However, he admits there are still a handful of genres that dominate. “The mega mainstay will forever be the crime thriller but I also think a lot of psychological and family drama is now growing in the Killing Eve way. Costume drama is also interesting; it used to be relegated to the traditional linear viewing on a Sunday night but Bridgerton has changed that a lot and it has brought an enormous amount of young people into the genre and it’s made it hysterically funny and entertaining.”
The service has helped fuel the growth of Channel 4’s own digital service All4 in the UK. In the past five years, it has more than doubled annual views on All 4, in 2020 viewers were 153% up than in 2016 and in the first half of 2021, it has grown 34% year-on-year. This has seen it deliver more than 180M streams from more than 4.5M All4 accounts in its time.
Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon says that the ad-supported, public broadcaster, which is currently fighting against privatization, is “thrilled” by the “glorious success” of Walter Presents. “I have always believed that the alchemy of creative excellence and the tapestry of individual cultures can create brilliance and appeal to people everywhere,” she tells Deadline. “The team behind Walter presents have proved that beyond doubt, selecting the best of the best from individual nations, from writers, directors and woven them together in a brand and a product that appeals worldwide. Walter Presents has quite literally opened up the world of scripted excellence and curated it into a mainstream commercial content proposition for a large, highly engaged and incredibly upmarket global audience.”
Iuzzolino is now keen to see what its future partnerships will look like and where it where it will be in five years. “There’s a lot more work to be done,” he adds.