“Not Following But Showing the Direction”, Says Irina Kostyuk, FILM.UA Producer and MRM Co-Founder

Media about us
• 10.03.2016

Irina Kostyuk, FILM.UA producer and UA Formats project initiator, believes that TV formats industry in Ukraine can be created in just several years, and in the nearest future productions will come to observational reality shows, series for digital platforms and feature content in the virtual reality format. This is what she told “Filmed in Ukraine” project initiated by in partnership with Media Group Ukraine.  

“TV market has changed a lot since the ban on Russian products. The players (broadcasters and productions alike) are forced to adapt to the new conditions. We had to react quickly and sharply, like a person unable to swim but left to their devices in the very middle of the lake,” says Irina Kostyuk who is very emotional about the situation at the TV and film production market. FILM.UA producer, co-founder of media consulting company Media Resources Management (Ukraine) and former producer of TET TV channel, she told us about it in an interview to “Filmed in Ukraine” project.

For less money and with less flash

Irina, you worked in television for a long time. Which experience turned out to be useful in production?

I have a unique experience because I worked at TET TV channel and commissioned content from productions, and now I work from the other side. I was both here and there. I understand the needs and peculiarities of TV channels and productions, what should be offered to whom and which approach should be used.  

What is your opinion about the ban on Russian audio and video content on TV channels?

TV market has changed a lot since the ban on Russian products. The players (broadcasters and productions alike) are forced to adapt to the new conditions. We had to react quickly and sharply, like a person unable to swim but left to their devices in the very middle of the lake. I wish everything happened gradually, in a correct way, without stupid and ill-considered bans. The TV channels had many slots freed up which are to be filled with something, but the budgets haven’t grown. There is much less money for production than before.

How low has the TV advertising market fallen?

The volume used to reach half a billion dollars before, but now it is $120 million. The difference is significant. The channels have lost big money also because the content (from Russia— had been already procured but not broadcast in the end.

Now most TV group owners are not in a hurry to subsidize their television businesses. So the channels have very little money left to fill up their slots. And the content for these slots is still needed.  

What can replace the Russian series? Are American TV shows an option?

You cannot put American TV shows in prime time of big national TV channels. Our market had never been ready for it; American series never had been in the prime time of the top six channels (with rare exceptions).  

Plus there is Ukrainian audience, incredibly spoiled in the aspect of content. Nowhere, not in any European country the viewers are shown two or three episodes of new premiering series daily. In Poland, for example, the TV market is much bigger, but they show one episode a week. Foreign series are not even dubbed like they do it here – there is the same male voiceover for everything. When you see it, you totally get the impression that you got back to the Ukrainian television of the 1990s. But the audience has gotten used to it. As for our spectators, they are used to daily premieres, expensive content and other extravagances our foreign neighbors do not indulge themselves in.

It turns out that the television and its audience lived well…

Very well. The quality of shows all channels could afford was very high just as the cost of production. They have raised the bar so high that now they are having trouble with keeping it up. Many channels just sit and look around in disbelief: why don’t the spectators watch this and that? And to the other side of the screen, there are spectators looking around in the same disbelief when they see what kind of quality they have to put up with now.

Presently there is no significant effect from all these new factors; it will become apparent in the new seasons.  

On the other hand, this situation will probably be an advantage, it will serve as an impetus for the industry. Because now all productions work at their full capacity, even the smallest ones produce something for our TV channels. Of course it’s done for less money and with less flash… Well, it’s all just peculiarities and natural difficulties of the transition period.

What will happen to the market this year? Will it fall, stagnate or start slowly growing?  

Now it is the period for adaptation and regulating mechanisms. We have to adjust to the new circumstances. The TV channels haven’t yet had enough time to test new audience preferences. Now everyone is out on a search.

Can any clear signals from the audience be discerned – what it likes and what it doesn’t?

Now 1+1 has discovered a new trend: the more local themes are discussed in the product, the more interesting it is to our audience. This is the Moskal effect. They started filming this series in totally different conditions, but then everything changed abruptly, and the theme targeted the right place at the right time. This is why the rankings were so huge. As for Kvartal studio with Serving the People show, it also appeals to the audience and its relevant demands, somewhere even with populist slogans – point blank and specific.  

Others still do not understand in this turbulence what is happening and what they can offer to the audience.  

Putting eggs in different baskets

Can success be calculated or is there always this “out of the blue” effect – it is not clear why it worked or didn’t?   

You can analyze one hundred times in a row, you bang your head against the wall, you watch the ratings, you have calculated everything to the tiniest detail and profiled the audience – and it doesn’t work, no matter what you do…  

Some things remain unexplainable. On the other hand, sometimes there is a stroke of luck or a hunch… At times you simply risk everything: it’s hit or miss. That is, there are general  rules and regularities of course, but everything can be really unexpected, especially in our not-so-stable conditions.

Actually, unlike TV groups, we have it easier with the risks: we are a big independent profitable company, we can diversify the risks. There are such projects as The Sniffer: we risked, invested half a million of our money per episode — and everything paid back manifold. We got an international product beating all the rankings, great for commerce and company image.  

But still you try to safeguard yourselves in some way, right?

We put eggs in different baskets. That is, we make less risky projects, such as Dr. Baby Dust. You can babble about the quality all you want: yes, it’s filmed in the pavilion, yes, the dialogues are “not right”, but it enjoys unprecedented commercial success in our library. It is the most profitable of our products, The Sniffer included. Dr. Baby Dust has been shown many times in Russia, it is shown here, it has huge rankings, it is bought time and again. And you ask yourself, why is this? Because it’s simple, a very clear story, easy to understand, simple dialogues, kind doctor, babies and aww.  

Offering new genres to those ready to risk

Are you ready to offer the market something totally unexpected?  

Yes, we are always experimenting and want to try something new not to follow but to show the direction. However, the channels presently like to play it safe and broadcast something tried and tested. Unfortunately, now is a bad time for experiments. Especially in current situation when there is no “winter fat”, nobody can afford risks. You show unique projects to the TV channels, and they are like, yeah, it’s cool and unique, but it’s risky, you put the cart before the horse. It hurts to hear it, so we are forced to offer something specific, clear and tested that is in demand.

If we talk about new genres and formats, now the channels simply don’t have such genre as observational reality shows. Like the policemen, firemen, or doctors – you just come in and film their daily life without any dramaturgy involved, without special cases and intrigues building up. This is very popular in Europe, especially in the UK. Such shows are slow and paced.  

We offered this new genre to ICTV, and they risked. In March, they launched documentary reality show about the police, Patrol Officers. It is risky because our audience is used to the action and drama, to a visible script. In this case the channel needs to take a risk. Still, you’ll never know unless you try.   

Which of your products can be in demand for the young generation, with a different mentality and way of life?

For example, web series for digital platforms. It is not just for YouTube; they can be for any digital platforms –Megogo, OLL.TV, Netflix, Amazon, etc.

And when will it become profitable to make series not for TV screen but for digital content?  

Presently this industry is not that developed in Ukraine to make such product commercial and achieve a payback for all costs. But in the future we’ll come to it anyway. That is why, spending time and money now and understanding that presently we are in the red, we pre-empt this niche for us in the future. So that when everyone comes running in, we’d already be there, monetizing and telling everyone we were the first.

The same pertains to virtual reality. Recently we tested how feature content can be filmed in the virtual reality format. For example, Megogo already launched such content format. And we want to create this type of content. We understand that it won’t come soon, but by that time we’ll have developed our own technologies and know-hows.  

Looking for the style of its own

Now in the world, on the one hand, the borders between countries and nations are getting blurred and, on the other hand, the national specifics become more and more of interest. What is our strength? Are there any recognizable features of Ukrainian films and Ukrainian TV?

I cannot say that Ukrainian cinema has a style of its own; here we are still looking. But I see this style very clearly in television non-feature content, such as shows and programs. Our perk is top-notch non-feature content. All our shows produced by big TV channels are a cut above the products of our nearest neighbor, Russia. It might have more money and a more developed market, but the quality of our shows is much higher both in the appearance and in the sincerity of the content itself. If you analyze it in detail, the different is obvious: our reality shows are populated by real people.  

I can vouch that 80 per cent of our non-feature content is not scripted. Our authors are able to cast efficiently and get the people to show their emotions. Our people are open, they can live in front of the camera, and it has had its effect on the TV content. The audience trusts the content and believes the host and the participants in any reality shows.  

Why was The Voice so successful in Russia? Because it was the first sincere and heartfelt product. The people felt it immediately, because all the other shows and programs they have are lifeless and plastic. Many Russian reality shows are scripted, and the participants simply act the part. Sincerity and openness is our real perk.  

Is there a difference between the series filmed this past year and those which were aired two to three years ago?  

The series aired in 2013-2014 were produced in 2011-2012 and were intended for two markets, Russia and Ukraine. And this is a totally different approach.

The series which appeared now – Moskal, Serving the People, 15 Vladimirskaya Street  – are local stories. To add to the above, there are products in the genre of scripted reality: Prosecutors, Department 44 ­ – these are low-budget vertical products. It is a separate category of content already made in the new conditions, with new budget and only for the local market. This is a totally different product.

When we have the volume, we’ll have the industry with its own formats

The sales of The Sniffer, especially to Japan, are mind-boggling… Who else sells their formats?  

Kvartal 95 sold their League of Laughter and Make the Comedian Laugh to about 14 territories, including Asia.  

It’s just the permanently grumpy phonies who shout that there are no formats and no ideas. Everything is there, just not at the conveyor stage yet. We have other tasks in the priority; we need to fill the channels with local product.  

Do you believe that quantity will transform into quality and creativity?

When we have the volume, we’ll have the industry with its own formats. We are trying to move it. Our initiative is UA Formats where we collected about 20 Ukrainian formats. We already sold House Left on Dad to Lithuania and Latvia. Karaoke in Maidan is a great format; European sellers took to it instantly. Actually, raising this industry to its feet in Ukraine is totally realistic. Not immediately, but it is realistic.  

So it’s in 15 years at least?

We are already collecting everything, compiling format “bibles”. We have produced a catalogue and take it with us to TV exhibitions. This works, people have seen that there are formats in Ukraine.  

Has anything new appeared lately?

Formats are like fashion – they come in waves. When quest shows are in demand, everyone runs there. Then poof, and they are gone. The crisis of ideas follows… There was a time when everyone was saying there wasn’t anything new – old formats had their comeback afterwards, but with some added stories. For example, a European company which started selling Karaoke in Maidan format as an exclusive distributor for a year, advised us: your story with participants collecting money during performances is good, but it should be more interactive. They offered to develop an app where apart from singers walking around with a hat and collecting money the audience could also vote and put virtual money in the hat. Time passes, and we are to follow up with new technologies.

We are now going to another market to sell one more of our technologies. Kvartal has a “People’s World” section in its Evening Kyiv. The guys sit at the table and discuss various topics but instead of their heads there are animal heads attached with the help of CGI technologies. The heads were added afterwards, virtually – this is a complex and expensive technology. However, we developed a know-how to do it quickly, in a week, so that the program does not become outdated. That’s also a novelty for TV formats: you can add a vegetable or an animal head for your show hosts.

Which product are you the most proud of?

Doctor on Call is probably the most significant product for me, because we are making it for the smallest amount of funds in our history. It looks like a series but actually it is scripted reality technology: vertical stories, amateur actors playing background roles. However, unlike in scripted reality, we do not have an off-screen voice normally present in small-budget projects because otherwise it is hard to tell the story using dramaturgy only. Even though it is aired in the daytime, it has sound scripts and good authors. Besides, it is the first medical series made fully in Ukrainian.

It was a hard decision, which Ukraina TV channel made literally on the shooting day. 24 hours before the shooting the screenwriters did not know whether they should bring their scripts in Russian or Ukrainian. Besides, they had to make Ukrainian sound natural.  The actors were very happy to participate in a Ukrainian-language series, even though it was hard to get rid of overly theatrical, plastic pronunciation. On the other hand, they couldn’t speak surzhik [a colloquial mix of Ukrainian and Russian languages] as well.

You are saying that now is not a good time for experiments but you still experiment…  

Actually, the plan I had coming to FILM.UA was to launch content for young audience but unexpectedly I turned to senior audience, plus the one watching Ukraina TV channel. Still, we managed. Let’s hope the rankings are good. You see, the demand forms the repertoire and corrects the specialization.  

We need to develop experts for the whole market

What are the most serious challenges you are getting ready for this year?

There have always been creative challenges: the lack of screenwriters or actors. Now Ukrainian actors can become stars, because before they used to play only background roles. Presently they play the lead roles and it is great, but there are too few of them. And when local series are in full swing on TV channels, we’ll face overlapping casts everywhere.

Even now we have to meet with other productions and coordinate filming schedules so that both they and we get the actors we want. However, now we have an opportunity to shape our own stars. Well, any crisis spurs new opportunities; the main challenge is to see them.  

So there are not enough star actors for lead roles. Who else?  

Not enough screenwriters. A good script is worth gold, it is the cornerstone of success.

Now we are making Mavka, a Ukrainian 3D cartoon – no one has made anything like that before. Where in Ukraine can I find screenwriters for full-length animation strips if they have never existed here? Yes, it’s based on a Ukrainian play The Forest Song. But we searched at the local market and didn’t find anything. We found a group of Saint Petersburg screenwriters who are going to write under our supervision. We’ll also do some search in Hollywood as there’ll be an English-language script, and it’ll be written by an American author. So the script for Mavka is to be created by a big international group.  

What about making your own stars?

Naturally, we give an opportunity for young authors who are just starting to show what they can do. But they participate in other projects, such as Doctor on Call. It is a cheap project, we try out many authors there – we have students and interns working on it. We can afford some risk in this case.

As for Mavka, it is a project with an almost five-million-dollar budget. Maybe it’s not too much on a global scale (European animation pictures start from 20 million, and American ones, from 100 million) but it is a lot for us. To pay back the costs, we need to make an ideal film, which would be interesting not just for the local but mainly for the international market.

Where do you procure screenwriters now?

It’s very complicated. Some producers, my colleagues from other companies, simply believe that anyone can be taught to write. One of my colleagues says his driver and his children’s nanny also write scripts. There are people with a talent for writing who came from other professions. For example, in medical projects, there are often doctors among script authors.

Still, there must be professionals on the team: the episode must be constructed according to the dramaturgy laws. Our main author, the showrunner of Doctor on Call is Yulia Mischenko, formerly a singer in Talita Kum band, if you remember it. She decided to go into a different profession. It’s thanks to her that the project ended up being in Ukrainian language; she really wanted it.

Are there enough directors?

Good directors are always in demand as there are lots of projects filmed at the same time. The situation is just like with the actors: we compile filming schedules even in the framework of our own projects. For example, we are filming Doctor on Call and Baby Boxes, that’s also a medical series about foundlings in a maternity clinic. But it is more expensive , aired in prime time, 24 episodes, and we had to transfer the director who filmed our pilot episode for Doctor on Call to Baby Boxes.   

Directors, DOPs, editors and screenwriters are the backbone. They must be professionals; it is hard to work with inexperienced people.

Do you train experts yourselves?

We have our own acting school; there is a sound-on-film school as well. There is a whole range of training programs organized by MRM.   

And your school is not the only one…

1+1 has its own school, as well as StarLightMedia and Inter. We should unite and make one good school for the whole market, with all those resources pitched in. That’s in the interests of everyone. Some agree, some say they are better on their own. But we still need to develop experts for the whole market.


Prepared by Elena Gladskikh

Photos provided by FILM.UA