EXCLUSIVE: Upgrade Productions, the Los Angeles-based production company focusing on local-language content, has unveiled an initial trio of projects from around the world.
Launched by industry vets Matt Brodlie (ex-Disney and Netflix) and Jonathan Kier (ex-Sierra/Affinity) late last year with backing from German major Constantin, the outfit is looking to feed into the current boom of content emerging from outside of the English-language that finds audiences on a global stage.
The first three projects confirmed, all expected to head into production in early 2023, are as follows:
Twenty Faces (Japan): Based on the popular books written by the Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Ranpo, the show is co-produced with leading Japanese production and distribution company The Klockworx (Crunchyroll’s Room Camp) and is produced with Akiko Funatsu (The Goddess of 1967). Anime writer Seishi Minakami (Paprika) is attached as writer. Ranpo published 62 books from the 1920s until his death in 1965 and many are still read throughout Japan today. The series will follow a group of teens who help a detective solve mysteries in 1930s Japan.
The Cage / La Jaula (Spain): an original fantasy horror series co-produced with Spanish production and distribution companies DeAPlaneta (RTVE’s court thriller Ana. All in) and Minoria Absoluta (Netflix’s romantic comedy I love you, stupid). The supernatural show will be directed by José Luis Montesinos (Goya Award-winner for the short The Runner) who will also write alongside Iakes Blesa and Lluís Altés. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, a group of kids sneak into an abandoned mansion to celebrate the end of the millennium, only to discover that their party house is actually the lair of a dangerous group of vampires.
Sausages (w/t) (Australia): An original series from the Australian comedian Ryan Shelton, who is behind numerous Australian shows such as We Can Be Heroes. Shelton will write, produce and star in Sausages, with Upgrade Productions serving as executive producers. Set in Australia, the show follows the comedian’s semi-fictional struggle to get his first television show off the ground. As he leaps into the production of a sketch show with his friends, the series explores the heady mix of megalomania and vulnerability that goes into putting your original ideas on screen.
Below, Brodlie and Kier detail why these projects are the first to market, which further territories are exciting them the most, and discuss their deal with Bron that saw Kier take the role of President of sales, marketing and distribution at Bron Releasing as part of a wider strategic partnership.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your mission with Upgrade Productions.
BRODLIE: We’ve always worked in this space [international content], it’s been a passion of ours. We watch a lot of what used to be called “foreign-language” content. Over the last few years that has become a very important piece of the business for all of the studios and streamers, while remaining important for all of the local theatrical distributors and broadcasters. There’s a real need from all of these buyers for local-language content, which dovetails very nicely with what our passion has been throughout our careers.
DEADLINE: Is it time to drop the “foreign-language” moniker for good?
BRODLIE: Yes! 100%. It’s not foreign to everyone. That’s why we’re always talking about ‘local-language’.
KIER: One of the three projects we’re announcing today is Australian, so the local language is English. People ask us if we’re interested in English-language as well and the answer is yes – particularly in the UK, South Africa and Australia.
DEADLINE: So it’s less about local-language, and more about culturally specific content?
BRODLIE: That’s right, we always want everything we do to be authentically situated somewhere, yet with universal themes. It’s important to be true to the location.
DEADLINE: Is the focus more on producing content for local audiences in those territories, or are you specifically trying to make content that will cross borders?
BRODLIE: First and foremost the film or series should work in its home territory, that’s where it has the most impact. That’s why a lot of these global buyers are interested in local-language, because they are attempting to attract subscribers or box office, to penetrate deeply into that particular territory. When it crosses borders, that’s fantastic, but we’re not necessarily constructing it that way. We want it to be successful locally because that’s what the buyers are looking for.
DEADLINE: Taking an obvious example, Squid Game, what’s your take on why that was so well-received outside of Korea?
KIER: It tapped into an unease and anxiety that was global at the time. The content was made very understandable. The contestants were winning 45.6 billion won, and not everybody watching was rushing to the computer to do currency conversions. But the show had a pig full of money, and that is universally understood. There were things like that throughout the show that made it very accessible to a global audience. That’s what we’re trying to do with a lot of our projects.
BRODLIE: We want the content to be accessible. That’s hopefully what we can bring to the table, thinking of things like the pig full of a ton of money. Giving notes that create that accessibility is useful in the development process.
DEADLINE: There’s essentially no formula is there?
BRODLIE: No, in this business in general if you’re trying to find a formula, you’re probably going down the wrong road. You have to try a lot of different things.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your method for identifying, developing and ultimately producing these projects.
BRODLIE: We have a development fund. We have been finding the projects mostly through our old relationships from the last 25 years with local producers and filmmakers. We don’t have a production financing fund but once we develop them we see what we have, working with the local creative team, and all decide who we think is a good buyer. Should we take the route of the global buyers, streamers and studios, or do we sell to a local broadcaster as an anchor and do territory by territory? Each project is individual.
DEADLINE: With the scale of the projects you’re doing, is it more likely to be big international patchwork financing deals or one big global deal, rather than something done with one specific broadcaster in a territory?
KIER: Correct, though it depends on the size and the scope of the project. If it’s possible to do it with one broadcaster in a local market, great.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your partnership with Constantin.
KIER: Oliver [Berben] and Martin [Moszkowicz] have been real mentors to us during this whole process. The deal is a pretty straightforward investment in our company.
BRODLIE: One of the reasons we went to them pretty much first is that it’s a strategic partnership as well. They already understand this space. We have a project that we’ll announce later on in Germany and we’re working with one of their production companies.
DEADLINE: And tell us about the strategic partnership with Bron.
KIER: It’s a joint venture specifically for feature film sales. We basically created a sales agency together for film. For Cannes I’ll be doing distributor meetings for feature sales.
DEADLINE: Let’s dig into these initial three projects. It’s an interesting spread: Japan, Spain, Australia. Why were these the first you wanted to get out of the gate?
BRODLIE: We’re excited to be working with the creatives involved. It shows a geographic and genre spread. People always try to put us in a box, but we’re out there trying a little bit of everything. We’re excited this shows the breadth of what we can be doing out there. These creatives are all very strong.
DEADLINE: It’s two original series and one adaptation – are you looking to do a mix?
BRODLIE: It’s kind of both. We have a number of projects that are based on books. A good story comes from anywhere.
DEADLINE: Are there any particular territories, beyond these three, that are particularly exciting you at this time?
KIER: Latin America. It’s very interesting because the Spanish language group is huge. But one of the misconceptions is that, despite the language similarities, it is by no means one culture – finding projects that can travel throughout the Spanish-speaking world is going to be really fun and challenging.
BRODLIE: There are eight or nine global streamers in play in Latin America now, alongside all the local players. It’s a very competitive market with a lot of buyers and a lot of opportunity.
DEADLINE: We’ve seen Netflix shed a few subscribers recently, what’s your take on how this international streaming battle might play out?
BRODLIE: Some of the numbers that came out were very interesting. What stood out to me was the addition of more than one million subscribers in Asia. That really shows that there is still growth in many parts of the world. It will be interesting to see how the other streamers, both the global ones, and the regional ones like Viaplay and Vix, will grow. With all of these streamers, what they look for is very different. Netflix tries to be something for everyone, Disney has its own model – what are the other players going to go for?
DEADLINE: How about the theatrical side, are you forecasting a resurgence?
BRODLIE: I would imagine so, the world has been partially closed then open then closed again, so the future will be brighter than the last couple of years.
KIER: It won’t be difficult to bounce back from everything being closed, but the number one theater in the U.S. is still closed [the ArcLight Hollywood]. I’m interested to see what happens with that when it reopens, particularly for speciality films. For our film projects, it will be interesting to see.
DEADLINE: Finally, any new hires?
KIER: It’s taking some time but hopefully in the very near future.
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