Earlier this week I had a chat with Ryan Chanatry, the General Manager of Topic, and he gave me some exclusive info about Euro TV series headed to the SVOD streaming service.
Ordinarily, when I send in a support ticket, a support team member gets back to me, which is what happened a month ago. The out-of-the-ordinary part was the follow-up email from Topic GM Ryan Chanatry. Needless to say, I was surprised, as it isn’t every day that a senior exec of a streaming service (heck, of any company, really) reaches out to help. Later I followed up with Ryan about having a chat about Topic, to which he agreed and we had a couple of days ago.
Topic is the subscription video-on-demand service from First Look Media, the media organization created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Since Topic launched in November 2019, it has brought some critically-acclaimed and award-winning international TV series to viewers in the US and Canada, including German-Austrian crime drama Pagan Peak, historical dramas Invisible Heroes (Finland) and State of Happiness (Norway), British drama The Virtues, and Australian drama Lambs of God.
With First Look already owning other media properties, I asked Ryan if Topic was an outgrowth or an extension of them — in a nutshell, how Topic came about as an SVOD streaming service. (Note that text has been edited for clarity and length.)
“The overall mission of First Look since the founding has been a model of a non-profit part of the organization, which is where we have [news organization] The Intercept and the documentary film-making unit Field of Vision, and also Press Freedom Defense Fund, which is our support of press and sources around the world that are being sued or persecuted for their work.
“And then we have the for-profit side, which is Topic and has Topic Studios, which is our full TV, film, podcast studio business, where we’re developing and selling [programming] out into the world. And then we’ve had the consumer side, which is where the streaming service now sits. We initially had launched a more video-focused magazine that was kind of cross-medium through articles and photography and a lot of the short-form that we did in the beginning. And always the intention had been for that to grow into what would be a more full-fledged subscription video offering.
“Last year we took some time to identify what we thought the offer could be and really narrowed down on this concept of ‘borderless entertainment’ and being a place where we can bring stories and voices and creators from all across the world that might not get as much representation or discovery on other platforms, and bring that to a home, at least for now, in the US and Canada. So that’s what led to the programming filter and the launch catalogue, and really is driving where we want to see the service push forward. It’s been a multi-year journey and I think we’re now in a really good place, as we’ve launched, to see how the next phase of it goes.”
So how have things been for Topic for the first half of its launch year?
“It’s been really good. We’re exceeding our plan, which is a great first step. And it’s also been, obviously, a fascinating and challenging and really difficult time, and streaming services have been at the center of that. They’ve really been something that a lot of people turned to over March and April. We have been lucky and fortunate that we’ve been growing, but I think even more than what’s happening around us, I feel like we are hitting on a demand for a lot of these programs and titles and for a service that does this — that brings other worlds and cultures and languages and points of view to you — and that’s the common denominator across all of what is programmed and represented there. So, we’re really thrilled and happy with where we’re at.
“We have a fantastic slate coming over the rest of this year, and we’re already well into programming next year. So it’s exciting. And it’s been really great to see the feedback that subscribers have been echoing what we hoped…
“We felt like there was demand for this cos we’re not a genre, we’re not a format. We work across thriller and comedy and fiction and unscripted and docs and doc series and shorts. We’re all different lengths. We’re not Shudder or Acorn, where you can say, ‘Hey, we’re this [horror or British streaming service] thing.’ Topic’s more of a frame of mind, of a sensibility, of a feeling. So it’s been really good to see people feel like they’re resonating themselves personally with that feeling, and they’re getting it, and they’re reciting it back.”
Ryan had me at “fantastic slate,” so I felt compelled to ask him about the titles that are coming down the pike on Topic.
“This week [today, actually], we’re really excited, we have ‘De Dag’ or ‘The Day’ from Belgium, which is a fascinating look at a robbery at a bank, but told in alternating perspectives through the authorities and through who is involved in the act, in the crime. Really gripping. We feel strongly about this one because it’s not the typical crime/robbery drama; it very much plays with the tropes and what you think is happening at every turn… I think people will enjoy it.
“We have [Israeli drama] ‘Commandments’ Season 2 coming out the next week, on June 11. That’s been a very well-received title for us, so we’re excited to bring the second season.
“We have ‘Year of the Rabbit,’ which is an IFC comedy with Matt Berry — one of our first post-launch big comedic shows — that’s about Victorian England. A really ridiculous show on its face but very smart commentary on gender and race and equality…
“We have a couple of Originals coming. ‘House on Fire’ is a short-form series we did, which looks at if you only have two minutes to rescue something from your house that is not a person or an animal, what would you take and why. It’s enthralling; I’ll be excited for you to check it out and hear what you think. But it’s a really interesting experiment when you really only have a little bit of time — what do you do and what do you value — and to see the difference. Each episode is in a different community in Oregon in this first season. So that’s one we’re really proud of.
“We have so much, I could go on, but I’ll give you a couple more. On July 2nd we have [British drama series] ‘Chimerica,’ which you might have come across. That is Lucy Kirkwood’s play that has F. Murray Abraham and Cherry Jones, about Tiananmen Square, [and] the photographer who took the [iconic] image. It’s sort of a blended fiction loosely based on actual events, stories.
“We have many other things week to week aside from what I mentioned, but we’ll have ‘Made in Italy,’ which was a big hit in Italy, about the rise of the luxury fashion brands. It’s sort of a blended, fictionalized tale but told through actual fashion houses and the clothes — a lot of the clothes they obtained from the major labels that were around or emerging at that time. So that one we’re also really excited about.
“And then ‘When the Dust Settles,’ which is from Denmark — again, another fascinating twist on an act of terrorism. You sort of see the moment, as you go along the season, through the different people that were affected by the one act, and you get to know them and their lives and trajectories.
“That’s just the next six to eight weeks, and it goes on from there. So we’re really excited that every two to three weeks we have what we think are really fascinating and enthralling series. And we have film and shorts and all sorts of stuff that we bring in around each of those.”
So with Acorn TV, MHz Choice, and Walter Presents, not to mention Netflix and others, having established a foothold in the North American streaming space with international TV fans and seen gains in attracting new ones, how does Ryan compare Topic to them?
“We want to surprise you in a sense… We have a set of filters and criteria we looked at, and we think that if we consistently deliver programming that checks all of those boxes, over time we hope that our audience will explore all of that. This shouldn’t be an exercise in you trying to find something to watch on Topic. You should be able to open us up and always see something you feel is interesting, and in time maybe even give something a chance that you might not normally have. Maybe you’ve never watched an Italian drama or something like ‘The Virtues.’ And I think that surprise and that curatorial thread is really what we feel makes us different than some of the great services like BritBox and Acorn and Shudder and Sundance Now and MHz. We admire all of those, and they’re all bringing shows that we were fans of in different forms.
“But I think we’re looking too for everything we bring — a different view, a different angle, a different spin. If you want crime, if you want procedural crime drama, that’s not Topic. There’s lots of places you can go to fulfill that sort of style. We want to bring you really fascinating thrillers, and many of those thrillers will have elements of crime. We want to bring you really intense stories of human relationships, both drama and comedic, like ‘Lambs of God’ and ‘The Virtues’ and ‘Monogamish,’ which is a comedy, and ‘Down from London.’
“I think that’s the key for us. We want to earn your trust in time. We can’t earn it through a genre message, so we have to earn it through what we pick every week and bring to you. We think that, as our audience understands that, the range of series and film, the titles you’ll try, will expand. And hopefully then you’ll start to see the themes. You’ll see why we’re bringing you this documentary, even if on its face that and ‘Pagan Peak’ don’t really make sense. It’s very easy to look at our catalogue and… think that maybe not all of it fits together. But really it does. There’s an intention behind everything that’s there and what it’s building to and bringing you.”
I shared with Ryan that I noticed I was more willing to experiment with certain shows on Topic, and how I might not have given thought to watching a series like ‘Callboys’ (which is fabulous) if it had been on, say, Netflix or Hulu (assuming I found it amongst their offerings).
“I think ‘Callboys’ is a great example where, on its face, that show might seem like, ‘Why would I watch this’ or ‘This is totally ridiculous’ — but it’s not. It’s flipping many stereotypes and doing it in a comically enjoyable and very funny way.”
Given that there is so much content out there, I was curious about Ryan’s role in the program selection and decision-making process. Does Ryan act as a curator, get involved in the process in other ways, leave everything to his programming person/team, or…?
“My direct team is our programming team. We have an acquisitions team, we have an Originals and development team, so we’re sourcing and deliberating and deciding what we bring out, and making sure that we’re building the title mix to the mission. It’s important, it’s critical to me, especially at this stage, to really understand everything we’re putting up and why, and working with the team to build the themes.
“One thing we’ll be doing more of is thematic collections… For instance, bringing a specific set of films from a country you may not instinctively think has great films or is known necessarily for films. So programming to that, programming to societal themes. We have a long history of that on the Topic side anyway, especially in short form.
“We’re not saying it’s groundbreaking or anything different, but we do want to tie what we have together and bring in new titles that help supplement that and lets you go a little deep. If you really like ‘Pagan Peak,’ we want to make sure that there’s a strong lane for you to go down there but also find the thing that bridges you over. ‘Made in Italy’ is an interesting example. It’s our third or fourth Italian series, but very, very different from ‘The Miracle’ in genre and tone. But it’s one method of bringing someone across. I think [Finnish drama] ‘Invisible Heroes’ has a very similar feel to ‘Made in Italy’ in terms of its historical ‘Madmen’-like [sensibility] … and ‘State of Happiness.’ So there’s a very clear genre track there. But ‘Invisible Heroes’ will be supplementing some of the docs that were made… around the uprising. So we’ll have those, and we’ll be surfacing those, if you’ve watched ‘Invisible Heroes’ and want to go a little deeper on the historical underpinnings of the series.”
What is Topic’s audience? How does the streaming service skew demographically?
“In some of my initial analysis, I think we’re pretty well represented across the kind of 30+ age groups, which is where I think we want to be. We want to equally serve and bring in the 30-to-70-year-old-plus crowd. We don’t really program to a demographic. We think that what we’re bringing should be appealing across age and gender, but of course there’s always some shows that are going to lean particular ways. Even a show like ‘Made in Italy,’ which stereotypically might be seen as a ‘female show,’ is very much a cute, co-viewing opportunity. And same for something like ‘The Miracle’; it can be seen as a very ‘male show’ if you haven’t watched it, but there’s a lot of really compelling threads to that that transcend gender and age.
“So we really are trying not to — we don’t actually discuss or program to demographics. It’s really back to what’s our mission, what’s the frame of mind, how do we think this is net positive to a conversation, and is it entertaining? It needs to be entertaining to achieve our goals. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it, whether it’s a documentary or a drama.
“We want to override this ‘foreign television is watched by older etcetera, etcetera.’ Netflix has obviously blazed a path here with shows like ‘Dark’ and ‘Rain,’ so luckily there’s been an amazing acceptance of subtitled programming over the last four to five years that we just want to help push forward more, and show that most of what’s being made in the world isn’t in English. And if you don’t open your eyes to that, you’re missing some great stories. These are super compelling, interesting reflections of the world that are happening, and just cos it’s in Sweden and you didn’t have access to it before… It’s amazing how far we’ve come in six years. The ability that a show like ‘State of Happiness’ can now premiere within months of when it was in Norway. That’s exciting!
Also exciting is the list of international TV series that will be premiering in the US and Canada on Topic and its digital channels. Here’s the schedule for June and July 2020:
- June 4 — The Day (De Dag) (Belgium, in Flemish)
- June 11 — Commandments: Season 2 (Kipat Barzel) (Israel)
- June 18 — Year of the Rabbit (UK)
- June 25 — Enterprice: Season 2 (UK)
- July 2 — Chimerica (UK)
- July 9 — Salamander: Season 2 (Belgium, in Flemish and French)
- July 16 — When the Dust Settles (Når støvet har lagt sig) (Denmark)
- July 23 — Callboys: Season 2 (Belgium, in Flemish)
- July 30 — Made in Italy (Italy)
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