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May One: Sudden surge of money flowing east unlikely
 24 May 2024
Earlier this year, former HBO Europe executives Johnathan Young and Ioanina Pavel launched the production company May One in Romania. Based in Bucharest, the company develops, produces and provides creative partnership for quality series shot in Romania. Its first commission, currently shooting, is the original Netflix series Subteran.

In this interview, the two producers talked about the fiction industry in Central and Eastern Europe, the potential for growth and why the some major international hits could come out from the region, both on television and streaming platforms.

Ioanina, Johnathan, in February this year you announced the launch of your independent production company May One that will focus on premium drama projects, skewing both CEE and international audiences. Can you reveal some details about how the idea for the company was born, how long did it take to set it up and why this was the right time to launch it?

When WBD let us know they would no longer be making shows in Central Europe our first concern was – what about the projects in development? Writers had put a lot of trust in us and energy into their work and we didn’t want to let them down. All the projects were returned to the writers but then the writers started to ask us to continue to work with them to see if we could get their projects made elsewhere.

May One is just the two of us, and we’d been producing shows together for years. So it wasn’t a hard decision, or a hard thing to set up.

The timing was not our choice. It’s a time of change and a certain amount of retrenchment. But you have to focus on your strengths. We offer something unique. We have a wealth of experience in premium series, we have great connections in Romania, CE and beyond. We can bring a fresh perspective and fresh voices to great genre ideas and we are very agile.

There is no real precedent for what we are doing so everything we do feels like breaking new ground - which is very exciting.

You are based in Romania. Why did you choose this CEE market in particular and do you have plans to expand your operations in other countries, for example Poland which has been booming lately in terms of local productions?

We had a really good run of diverse shows in Romania. During the pandemic alone we finished Tuff Money, shot and launched RUXX. We did two fantastic shows with Global Records - One True Singer (a shiny floor reality show) and On My Way (a musical road trip docuseries). And we did Spy/Master - our international Berlinale nominated spy drama. It was the range and quality of the shows and the talent that we knew so well that made us want to continue in Romania.

We have some great friends in Poland and we are discussing how we might work together - but it’s certainly not a planned strategy. We have to invest our energy in the most exciting ideas and see where that leads. This would be true of all of CE and also Germany and the UK where we have a track record.

The scripted TV market in the region has become very vibrant in the past few years. You have extensive experience with producing scripted projects in CEE, having previously worked for HBO Europe on projects like Wataha, Hackerville, Spy/Master; etc. What are the main challenges for both producers and broadcasters/streamers when shooting scripted projects in the region and what are the major opportunities now?

The challenges are the same as everywhere. You are always pushing for best in class, and sometimes pushing creators in a different direction than the film industry historically has – in a region where film has had a longer track record than drama.
There is a more conservative commissioning environment than it was. But there are amazing (and quite surprising) stories in CE, and especially now. Our focus is on finding ways to present them in really compelling, exciting ways so the commissioner really can’t say no. We are thinking this means dynamic writing, big ideas and confident genre. And top talent and an attractive production package - of course.

As far as opportunities go – the regions boasts great crews, great locations (often underused and so very exciting) and fresh voices. It has always felt like a privilege to be given the chance to make shows in CE.

Talking about HBO Europe - it was one of the leading commissioners and co-producers of premium drama series in CEE, up till 2022. Do you expect for international streamers like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, SkyShowtime and HBO's new streaming successor Max to take its place, at least in major CEE territories?

Netflix is doing amazing work in Poland, SkyShowtime have recently commissioned their first original there. But it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden surge of money flowing east. That’s not what we expect. What we trust is that the commissioners will recognize a great idea wherever it comes from, and we will be build from there.

Your first project is Netflix's first original Romanian scripted series Subteran which you are producing together with Mobra Films. What details can you reveal about the new project? Is the crime genre the safest bet for CEE-produced series with an international appeal?

We are still in production on Subteran so we can’t talk about that. But for sure a series needs a big engine. That tends to mean high stakes and a ticking clock. Crime has that. But not just crime. Anything with high stakes and urgency is of interest to us.

What is the budget of a premium crime drama commissioned by an international streamer compared to the HBO Europe series that you have worked on? Has the market changed significantly in this respect?

It’s not really our position to discuss budgets. There has been inflation in CE but there has been inflation everywhere and maybe less in CE than elsewhere. CE is as attractive as ever for filming - if not more so.

Where do you see the role of co-productions in the region? Have local broadcasters become more flexible when it comes to sharing the IP rights for projects and can we say the commissioning model is changing?

We think co-productions are very much part of the DNA of shooting in the region. We are always looking to partner with energetic producers who have complementary skills.

The commissioning model might be evolving but there is so much in transition right now that it’s probably too soon to say where we might end up.

On the creative side, what are the necessary ingredients for a CEE-produced series to cross borders successfully?

The right mix of local authenticity with internationally accessible themes. For us this means great local writers with something to say AND an appreciation of genre, high stakes, pace and charm.

Do you have plans to expand your portfolio with non-scripted productions in the future?

It’s not a priority. We are just the two of us and our skillset is drama. Having said that - we loved One True Singer. We hadn’t expected to do that show but we learned so much and it was a lot of fun. So you never know.

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