Seven weeks after joining a company, most top executives are expected to have sat down with everyone they will work with. Banijay: the TV giant behind shows like Peaky Blinders, Survivor, black mirror, SAS Rebel Heroes, Marie Antoinette, kitchen master, keeping up with the Kardashians, Eldest brother and many, many more, isn’t that your average company, as its new global head of script Christian Wikander quickly found out?
Thanks to an acquisition campaign that didn’t stop after he closed on his $2.2bn purchase of Endemol Shine in mid-2020, Banijay now has a roster of more than 60 record labels working on their books and from all corners of the world. world. With seven weeks on the job, it’s impressive that Wikander even managed to get face time with more than half.
The Swede, who left his role as HBO Max Nordic’s managing editor and vice president of original programming in 2022 as part of Warner Bros. Discovery’s major restructuring, replaces Lars Blomgren, the veteran executive who returned to his roots as a producer earlier this year by joining the morning program Media Res from producer Michael Ellenberg. He went from having his department essentially shut down to a new company where, he says, the script is seen as a positive part of his future.
speaking to the hollywood reporter from Stockholm in his first major interview since starting at Banijay, Wikander explains why he thinks streamers pulling out of the originals actually offer him more opportunities, the importance of engaging with AI, and why scripted companies should be faster to react to audience demand. including “parking lot” projects that don’t get traction.
What are your impressions of Banijay so far?
I’m really enjoying this: I was coming off of HBO Nordics, where it was mostly about shutting down and taking care of desk clearing. So I’ve really enjoyed being here so far, looking to the future and being in an environment with people looking forward and building things. So I’m very, very positive about it.
Banijay is a huge company, with over 60 scripted imprints. How do you try to keep on top of everything? Have your first seven weeks been basically a series of endless Zoom meetings?
From a personal perspective, I think it’s important that you accept the fact that you really can’t keep up with everything. And to be honest, it’s not really about being on top of everything, because the queens and kings of the company are the producers. So my role, and the team’s role in the script, is about supporting them. So I started traveling and sitting down with each and every label. I’m already more than halfway there. I started far away: in Los Angeles, New Zealand, Sydney and Mumbai. It’s really been about listening, trying to understand where they come from, what are their strengths and what are the challenges. And with that kind of overview at the beginning, it’s potentially easier to see where we need to focus more or where we can provide the best support.
Where do you think you should focus more?
The short answer is that it’s about continuing to do what we had been doing and what Lars had been doing so successfully. It’s about connecting the different labels and getting them to share their experiences. We’re in a market that’s in this kind of correction, where buyers are moving away from the default setting of buying global rights every time, and that presents a huge opportunity for us. Because it means that we returned to the window system, we returned to co-financing. And co-financing is something that, in a group like this, is a strength. If we can really help and support each other in accessing money, accessing markets and producing services, there are a lot of things we can really help facilitate.
It’s interesting that you’re talking about the current situation, where streamers are pulling back and cutting spending budgets, as a positive for you. So are there definite ways in which you can see this as a gain for Banijay?
Absolutely. My apartment was closed in Stockholm and after the merger, the streamer [HBO Max] decided not to make any more original scripted content in the Nordic countries. I think part of that actually makes sense. Because we come from an era where global buyers have poured a lot of money into scripted content to create a local presence, much like a marketing scheme. But they rarely talked about the actual performance of each title. So when Netflix 18 months ago was a success for the first time, you could see something was changing, I think that really led to the fact that every title today, in any territory, has to be there on its own merits and we be. measured on their own performance. I think it’s a big change.
What are the big titles coming out of Banijay that people are talking about?
One I hope people talk about is three little birds, which is with Douglas Road and Tiger Aspect and was written by Lenny Henry. I think it’s a wonderful story and it’s really one of those that has something to say about our time. Hopefully it will be something that can return as a recurring series. It has great potential. another is Ronja the daughter of thieves, another character from the Astrid Lindgren estate made by Pippi Longstocking. It is in production in Sweden with Filmlance and will be at Viaplay. It’s for the family, but if you’re six or seven, you’ll probably need a pillow, because it’s going to be pretty scary. And we recently announced the French series on Apple TV+, It matters to me, which is about a cook hired to spy on the French royal court. I think it’s a fantastic story, based on real characters. And wonderful for us to have something with Apple.
Have you experienced any impact from the writers’ strike? Has there been a shift towards international productions and not WGA as you go along?
To be honest, I haven’t. But I think generally speaking and not just for Banijay, I think right now there’s a slight shift towards something more improvised to keep the deal going. we are following [the strike] attentively and I hope it is solved soon. But rumors suggest otherwise, so it could be around for a while. So of course it’s going to have an impact.
The AI issue has obviously been closely tied to the writers’ strike talks. what do you think about that?
First, great stories are in our DNA and we seek to work with creatives. So for us, that will continue to be the focus as the powerhouse that we are. But I think AI is here to stay, and like anything you feel insecure about, I think it’s very much about educating yourself, engaging yourself, and learning. I think that is very important to us. It’s a tool in the toolbox.
Do you use it at all? They keep telling me I should use ChatGPT, but I’m afraid the more I feed it, the more I’m accelerating my own unemployment..
I think you should. Because otherwise everyone else will tell you what’s good or bad, and I think it’s all about creating your own experience. Also, the speed of development… It took GPT Chat two months to reach a million users. TikTok took nine months. So the magnitude and the velocity tell me that we need to get very involved. And you can only get involved if you understand it. I just found out that one thing that comes out of the AI is that it has a very white male perspective. It is not diverse. I think that’s a very important example of why we need to get in there. We need to be committed. We need to understand it. And you have to be aware of how you use it.
What are your personal tastes when it comes to television?
Good question. What I’m looking at now… I’m looking at it again Succession. Because I want to understand how it works. Watching it again, I feel more like a melodrama, more like a soap opera. The way it is built and created is of course very unique. But I think there’s a lot of room in the market for melodrama, I really do. You don’t have to be at the level of Succession, but in some territories right now, buyers are looking at higher volume productions again. And part of the genre they operate in is melodrama. That’s why I’m investigating Succession. And it really works on a second screen. The other one I’m looking at right now is happy valley season 3, which has just arrived in Sweden.
You’ve only been in the role a couple of months, but when are we going to see the first Banijay shows you’ve been involved with or helped direct?
Scripted business takes a long time. It’s a tanker and it’s going slowly in one direction. It will probably take a year, a year and a half. But what I’ll say about the whiteboard, another thing that’s part of the changes now is that a whiteboard today for a scripted company needs to be a little more streamlined. I think commissioners and streamers are a little quicker in deciding what they’re looking for and expressing it better. Gender, for example, is something that should be on most blackboards, because I think it’s something that’s in demand.
That has definitely been the case for the last couple of years on the movie side. So has the appetite for the genre carried over to television as well?
Absolutely. And I think as a producer you should put projects that aren’t getting traction now on the back burner faster and refocus. I don’t mean to write those projects off, because they will eventually find a home, but you can’t really build strategy unless you can be quicker to focus your slate.
His predecessor was also Swedish. What about scripted senior and Swedish TV executives?
I don’t know! Maybe it’s a coincidence? But what I would say is that I was one of the commissioners in the bridge. I think what happened in the Nordic countries, starting with borgin in Denmark, it was that we began to have access to money from outside the territory and that boosted the quality of production. That, together with a huge tradition of writing and telling stories, but with few resources, led to a momentum with our increasingly attractive and internationally recognized content. Because of that, many of us who were active in the business developed a pretty good international network, and that led to a lot of different panels, situations, and meetings. I think that’s part of why people from the Nordic countries have been so present in the international market.