In the swirling chaos of the World War, Generation War crafts a tragic and intimate story of the lives of five friends who are impacted by the events of the German invasion of Russia.
For part three of our Generation War special feature, HeyUGuys had the privilege to speak with Jonathan Sadler from Arrow Films who discussed acquiring the series and the original plans for the series, as well as offering us an immersive conversation as we delved into foreign language drama’s past, present and future.
Arrow has been promoting foreign television drama for a number of years now. How did you come to acquire the rights to Generation War?
Ever since we first became involved in foreign language television when we acquired the Swedish Wallander series – which the BBC aired in 2010 – we have been scouring Europe and beyond for international TV series’. In that time, attending the different film and TV markets including the Göteborg International Film Festival, Berlin and Cannes, our acquisition department has built up relationships with various producers and sales agents. In this way we had built up a relationship with Beta Film who was selling Generation War.
What was interesting about Generation War was that it was one of the first times we didn’t just buy the home entertainment rights, which is the traditional approach. Instead we bought all the rights, and then of course we had to sell the series to the BBC. This is an unusual situation for an established distributor.
Do you see buying the rights outright becoming a common practice, or will it be a case of mix and match with the individual properties?
It’s an interesting one because it’s an approach we’ve taken on a couple of other series, although it remains difficult to know whether there is an advantage or a disadvantage of being the sales agent as well as the distributor. It’s certainly an interesting model, and in the case of Generation War it worked out brilliantly. Originally it was planned to be a BBC Four series, but when the BBC liked the look of it as much as they did they moved it to BBC2, which in terms of it being a traditional terrestrial channel – second on the dial usually has a larger audience.
But with The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge for example, the BBC have bought those independently, and then we have gone on to do very well with the home entertainment rights. It all depends, but I guess it is to our advantage to have all the rights, and to control it. But it’s difficult to know. Ultimately the most important thing is that the broadcast platform is the best possible one, because you want a series to have legs, and last a long time. If you end up airing on a small channel where not many people will see it, the show could easily find itself lost. So more important than having all the rights is to have the best possible broadcast platform, but to go with a broadcaster that doesn’t necessarily have the most viewers such as SKY Atlantic, who then get behind it in a marketing sense, you are aware of a series such as Boardwalk Empire airing on the channel in spite of what the viewing figures might suggest.
BBC Four has become identified as the foreign language television station, but Generation War was aired on BBC 2. Would you like to see them bump foreign drama up to second on the dial or would it be advantageous to continue to develop BBC Four’s heritage has the channel for foreign drama?
In retrospect I’m not sure that there was an advantage to moving it to BBC 2. If it had aired on BBC Four in the Saturday night slot, which is almost predominantly or exclusively foreign language now, it would have received just as many viewers, because it certainly didn’t break BBC Four’s peak viewing figures. Although I expected it would break those viewing figures, it did seem to disrupt the balance of BBC Four’s programming by moving it, although I don’t know if it’s a decision the BBC have subsequently regretted.
The original plan was that it was going to air pre-Christmas, but because they could not find what they thought would be a reasonable slot in the schedule they moved it back to the spring. But we were originally gearing up for it to be a Q4 release, followed by a Christmas DVD release.
This year being the centenary of the First World War it’s not an obvious choice to be airing a World War II series, and it’s almost as if it’s overshadowed from a general sort of editorial viewpoint of what’s going on across the market place. There’s a lot of discussion about World War I documentaries at the moment, and so it is interesting timing, but I do believe the BBC was aware of that.
Generation War shows the past in a truthful light, but the reaction speaks of how the past is still a sensitive subject that remains ingrained in the psyche. It is a testament to the fact that we cannot ignore history, and even if it wasn’t an obvious choice to broadcast during the centenary of the First World War, it is a fitting year for the BBC to have broadcast such a powerful story that looks back to a conflict born out of the First World War.
Absolutely, and in a way it is a shame it’s not on BBC 1 because it is the kind of drama that ten times the number of viewers who are actually watching it would appreciate if they just gave it a chance. Ultimately subtitles are still a big barrier for a lot of people, despite the good work BBC Four have put into converting people through the Nordic Noir, and the Italian series’.
I worked on the home entertainment release of Downfall and I expected that to do well, and it did. You just know that anyone who enjoyed that film will undoubtedly enjoy Generation War.
I don’t think it was very well or widely written about as a series, which I was quite surprised about, and I do believe that some people were afraid to have an opinion on it. Some of the reviews we did get you could see that the critics were reviewing it based on political content and accuracy rather than as a drama in itself. This was a pity because that often mars reviews when it is actually about what happened in real life, rather than what happens within the context of the drama as a separate world in itself. But again when any fiction is based on real life it always falls into that trap.
But I personally thought it was pretty well handled, although there was some criticism that they didn’t show the Holocaust or the concentration camp victims. But ultimately it was a story of five friends from the beginning until the end of the war. It was a fictional drama based on real events that at its heart told the story of those five people. It wasn’t just a docudrama about Germany during the war and all that during those years, which would have been an impossible task anyway. It was never supposed to be about the Holocaust or even about one particular aspect of the war.
In doing any kind of drama like this you are going to widely separate people’s opinions, if only because there are people out there who expect it to be some kind of historical drama based on pure fact. But the other side of it is that it is an engrossing and compelling drama series that attempts to marry those two things together. In the end that is a very difficult thing to accomplish and it is almost impossible not to divide opinion.
The criticism of British audiences is often their dismissal of subtitled drama. In your opinion where does this dismissal or general disinterest stem from?
I always say that it combines two of my favourite things – watching TV and reading. It’s like a lot of things, you have to sample it to realise that it is not really an obstacle. After a short period of time the brain adapts, and you just take in the subtitles and action simultaneously.
Most of us spend the time watching TV with the iPad in our hands these days, and not watching with our full attention. I fall into that trap sometimes and end up having to rewind live TV because I missed something important or I’ve been distracted by a tweet. What is good about subtitled TV is you can’t allow yourself to have any other distractions, because it draws you in by placing you firmly in the drama. But it is difficult to force people to try it if they are not sure of what they want.
When I have released films in the past, and other distributors have used this same trick, you don’t mention the fact that it’s subtitled. Amélie is a good case in point. When first released there wasn’t a single mention that it was in French, and at the time I don’t think many people picked up on it. It went on to take five million at the box office, and there would have been a lot of people watching a subtitled film for the first time. I don’ remember anyone complaining about it, but I do wonder if people have a bit of a prejudice about it, and see subtitled drama as a bit of a chore. Overcoming this is difficult, and it’s not something that can be solved quickly and easily. Even when people occasionally catch a subtitled film such The Raid, Amélie or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they then creep back to their preferred habits. But it must be getting better because of the films and TV series’ I have previously mentioned for which more people are tuning in for. The Bridge when it aired on BBC Four for example had over a million viewers, and now a lot of people are caching up on the TV box set because strong word of mouth the series generated. It’s almost up there in the Breaking Bad territory of being on people’s lists of must see box sets, and so there are a lot of people out there who are prepared to watch subtitled drama.
How has the landscape foreign language broadcasting changed since 2010, when the BBC first aired Wallander?
There have been some great shows recently. The Channel 4 French piece Les revenants (The Returned) was outstanding, and we have an Italian series upcoming on SKY Atlantic which we will be putting out called Gomorrah. This is the first subtitled series they will have shown I believe, and More 4 have just aired the Norwegian political, conspiracy thriller Mammon. Even ITV 3 showed a series called Those Who Kill a couple of years ago, and we have a series upcoming called The Legacy, which is a follow-up to Borgen and The Killing. Now The Legacy is interesting because that was DR Fiktion’s flagship show. It had higher viewing figures in Denmark than either Borgen or The Killing, and that will air on SKY Arts. So the proliferation of subtitled drama is now spreading out beyond BBC Four, which will broaden the market for subtitled films.
Whilst you are known for your cult releases, Arrow’s foreign arm forms an integral part of your identity as a distributor.
It’s eighty per cent of what we do, and even a lot of our cult stuff is Italian, German or French. Obviously there is some American indie stuff in there as well, but historically Arrow Films is a world cinema distributor. You go back four or five years and everything we were doing was either classic or cult foreign language cinema. So we have broadened out a lot of late, and we are starting to do more English language features for front end theatrical. Even though we are throwing in English language feature films, of which we have had our first few releases come out this year, our Nordic Noir and Arrow Video cult labels are the heart of the company. The Stag is an Irish comedy, and A Thousand Times Goodnight with Juliette Binoche is an English language feature, albeit from a Norwegian director. Our theatrical hit Love Is All You Need was directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, and it was predominantly in Danish. So there is always a connection with foreign language film and television for us – it is at the heart of who we are.
Looking ahead are you optimistic for the future of foreign language drama?
I believe it’s in a good place, though for a period of time the foreign language television was Scandinavian crime drama. Of course it was great that it gave it a boost, but now it has moved on. Borgen moved it forward into politics, and now we are moving into Italian crime drama, as well as family drama with The Legacy, whilst other series like Les revenants have journeyed into zombie and horror territory.
Foreign language television is much more widely accepted now, evidenced by The Bridge which is becoming a DVD box set phenomenon. A lot of people are still catching The Killing for the first time, and what we are seeing happen is foreign television drama become a part of this box set binge world. When people dip into something like The Bridge it will wet that appetite for more foreign language television, because no matter how great shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, 24 and The Sopranos are, there is something about European series that have a subtlety, and are almost suited to the refined taste of the connoisseur. They are a little less predictable, and they might spend more time on exposition of character and plot development than American shows, which are hugely entertaining and are very well written. But sometimes the foreign language dramas feel a little more sophisticated, and people enjoy that in the way that they enjoy other sophisticated areas of their life in terms of food and drink. Occasionally you want to have something a bit more rarefied.
The Generation War box set is available on Blu-ray & DVD now from Arrow Films.