In a TV career spanning almost 20 years, Walter Iuzzolino has worked on some of the UK’s most talked-about reality shows, from Eurotrash and Big Brother to Embarrassing Bodies. He was a commissioner at Channel 5 and Channel 4 before joining production company Betty as creative director.
In 2014, however, Iuzzolino gave up factual programming to pursue his dream of launching a foreign-language drama channel. Over the next 18 months, he watched 3,000 series before, in January, launching Walter Presents with Channel 4.
The channel is an online service, with most shows available exclusively on All 4. Titles released so far range from Heartless, a Danish thriller about a pair of teenage vampires to Kaboul Kitchen, an award-winning comedy from Canal+ about a French expatriate who becomes involved in shady dealings after setting up a restaurant in Kabul. Within three weeks of its launch, Walter Presents had had over a million views online.
Iuzzolino’s picks have also proved successful on TV. Deutschland 83, a stylish and funny thriller about a soldier working undercover as a spy in West Germany in the 1980s, is now the highest-rated foreign-language drama ever broadcast on British TV, with 2.5 million viewers watching the first episode earler this year. It’s an incredible success for Iuzzolino – and a professional risk that has paid off.
Born in Italy, Iuzzolino remembers being fascinated with TV and film from a young age. He would watch Italian Mafia dramas with his parents, dubbed German cop shows with his grandmother and films from Fellini, Bergman and Woody Allen at the cinema. His parents convinced him to get a degree before trying to work in the industry (a decision he maintains was a wise one) and, after graduating with a PhD in Anglo-American literature, he moved to London to enrol in film school.
While studying, Iuzzolino read scripts for British Screen and Pathé to pay the rent – an entry level job with a low salary, but one that gave him a good understanding of great storytelling. “They gave me something like £10 a script, so I had to read a lot to support myself – I was doing about three scripts a day for four or five months,” he says. “When you’re devouring so much material, you know when something grips you. You’re analysing the notion of the three act structure (beginning, middle and end), the dramatic architecture of the story … it was almost better than film school.”
Iuzzolino got a job on Eurotrash, the bonkers 90s show presented by Antoine de Caunes and Jean Paul Gaultier, after answering an ad for Italian-speaking researchers. After that, he worked as a producer and director before becoming a commissioner. “I loved factual, because I loved British telly – I’ve always been a real Anglophile – and it felt like a vicarious way into drama, because ultimately, it was all about telling stories,” he adds.
At Betty, he worked on more shows for 4, including The Undateables and Heston’s Great British Food with Heston Blumenthal. “[Channel 4] always felt like a place where you could really experiment and be quite bold,” he adds. But after four years at Betty, which was acquired by Discovery in 2011, he decided the time was right to leave reality shows behind.
Until the mid 2000s, subtitled drama was considered a fairly niche genre in the UK. In Italy, Iuzzolino grew up watching shows from across Europe and the US, which were often dubbed in Italian – “but when I moved to London, foreign TV felt like a niche, arthouse experience,” he says. “It was never mainstream, and I didn’t like that, because for me, great storytelling is universal, it’s not elitist.”
In 2006, however, BBC Four aired Spiral – not an arthouse show but a mainstream French detective drama, which was a hit with viewers (it’s now in its sixth series). Five years later, it broadcast The Killing, the murder mystery which sparked a wave of Scandi noir shows and a fascination with everything from the region’s knitwear to its food.
“I remember watching Spiral and thinking if this gets ratings, now will be the time to do my dream… and it did really well, with something like 600,000 viewers,” says Iuzzolino. “Then Scandi noir came along and entirely changed our perception of foreign drama. Subtitles used to be a dirty word, now they are cool,” he continues.
With some savings behind him, Iuzzolino decided to take a risk and invest his money in trying to make his dream happen. He told his friend and former colleague Jo McGrath (a commissioner and producer who was working at Fox) about his plans, and she introduced him to Jason Thorp, who oversaw content strategy for Fox and National Geographic in Europe. The three decided to go into business together and set up a company, Global Series Network, with McGrath handling marketing and PR, Thorp, the business plan and Iuzzolino, the content.
“Jason had built a reputation for investing in big serial dramas – The Wire, Dexter, Breaking Bad – … so he understood how to create a channel out of drama, which I didn’t – I was just the creative curator,” says Iuzzolino. “We were all lucky enough to have some savings behind us, and Jo and Jason were getting tired of the corporate world, so we thought, ‘let’s just try and do this, and if it fails, we’ll have to look for jobs’,” he adds.
“We gave ourselves a year, and then it became a year and a half, because we loved it too much to let it go… It’s so exposing, because you’re turning down quite big jobs and saying to people in the industry, ‘I don’t want to do that because it doesn’t interest me any more’, and each time you say that you feel sick, because if the plan doesn’t work out, you can’t just call them back in six months time and say ‘it interests me again now’.”
Between January 2014 and September 2015, Iuzzolino watched eight to ten hours of TV a day. “I’d be up at seven, start viewing at eight, and finish around seven in the evening. You’re working even harder because you’re thinking, ‘I’m not employed, and I’ve invested in this so I better deliver.”
The process was a methodical one: he worked through a list of countries from A–Z, researching popular and award-winning series that might be of interest. He would then call producers and ask them to send over box sets. “There was no architecture or infrastructure, we just wanted to find great quality content,” he adds.
There were, however, some strict criteria which defined the channel’s content from the start. “The kind of brand I wanted to launch was clear: it was a sort of Netflix, HBO, AMC type channel, so the filter was premium quality, beautiful pieces of TV, with the best writing and directing and acting – and it had to be mainstream,” he explains. “All of the shows had to be big hits in their country of origin, and award-winning or critically acclaimed. The sense for us, was that it needed to have the drama of Breaking Bad or Mad Men … but it could be about anything,” he adds.
By late last year, the group had bought around 700 shows and been in talks with Sky, BT and Virgin Media, before signing a contract with Channel 4. “I remember seeing Jay [Hunt, chief creative officer at C4] and talking to her about it, and she said, ‘Why don’t you partner with us’? That had always been my dream, because the brand alignment was superb – all of our shows felt like pieces that could have been commissioned by 4. A week later, we had a meeting with stakeholders and a month later we had a contract,” says Iuzzolino.
Iuzzolino credits Hunt and Channel 4’s chief executive David Abraham with the decision to broadcast most of Walter Presents’ shows online, making them available free and on demand to UK viewers.
“I think it’s genius, because at a time where terrestrial viewing is declining, and younger generations are watching more on demand –
there’s no going back from that shift – Jay and David have understood that a channel like 4, which is funded through advertising, needs to progress. And at a time where everyone from Netflix to Amazon Prime wants you to pay a subscription, they’re offering a premium drama service that’s exclusive, but free of charge, which I think is quite a bold move,” he adds.
The plan now is to launch a handful of shows on TV each year and release around 1,500 hours of content online within three. “It’s a living and breathing channel so it will be refreshed all the time, it’s not just a dead library,” says Iuzzolino. The company is also in talks to broadcast shows in Canada, Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan.
It was also Hunt and Abraham’s idea to call the channel Walter Presents. As someone who’s used to being behind the camera, Iuzzolino was reluctant to do so at first, but admits that it gives the brand a personal touch – something that other streaming services, with their overwhelming selection of content and automated algorithms, often lack. It also offers an element of surprise – viewers aren’t offered a selection of shows which are similar to those they’ve already seen, but a broad range of content, from a Belgian black comedy about sisters who try to murder their brother-in-law (Clan) to a story about an aspiring filmmaker who joins the police as a crime photographer after his father is killed in a hit and run.
With international drama now available on every major network, some viewers might question the need for a new channel devoted exclusively to the genre. But as Iuzzolino discovered in his research, there is a wealth of great shows which remain undiscovered by UK audiences, despite achieving critical acclaim in their home countries. And as a new brand with no set remit, Walter Presents has more freedom to take creative risks and invest in unusual content.
“As a commissioner I remember that building on something that works is what keeps you in your job – you have a job, and a budget and a limited finite number of slots,” says Iuzzolino. “If I worked for, say, Sky Arts, I can’t just say, ‘I’m going to put whatever I fancy on’ because it has to be something that resonates with your viewers and your existing brand…. I’m sure there are things on Walter Presents that would be hated on other TV channels – you’re not going to see Heartless on BBC4 – but that’s why I think we can all co-exist. It’s just about finding your niche, and for us that’s quality drama, whether it’s thrillers and corpses or comedy,” he adds.
By searching for quality programming from around the world, Walter Presents aims to give voice to a rich collection of stories told from a local perspective, rather than a US or UK one, encouraging a diversity that is often lacking on English and American TV. One drama, Magnifica 70 (described by Iuzzolino as Mad Men meets Boogie Nights) tells the story of censorship under Brazilian military rule in the 1970s (a film censor falls in love with an erotic actress, and attempts to help her get films approved by the government), while The Prey (De Prooi) tells the true story of Dutch banker Rijkman Groenink and his role in the downfall of ABN AMRO.
“The stories are universal – every country tells stories about life and death, betrayal, sexual or professional, political thrillers, death and homicide – but every country will tell it in a different way,” he says. “There’s also a real aesthetic joy in seeing dramas that aren’t set in London or Washington…. With a show like Deutschland, for example, part of its appeal comes from being immersed in this very stylish, retro, 80s Berlin. We have a lot of young people and students watching the show – we even have people tweeting saying, ‘is it wrong that I want to lick that piece of furniture?’”
This growing appetite for international drama, and shows which offer a window into other parts of the world, is opening up new possibilities for film-makers, scriptwriters and producers. Iuzzolino cites Latin America, the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as particular production hotspots – and says broadcasters around the world are increasing their spend on quality drama.
“Telly is like the wonderful serial novels of the past, and cinema is also migrating to TV. Only a few years ago, big actors and directors would never have been seen dead near TV shows. Now you have directors like Scorsese and big ticket actors making TV shows, because a lot of cinema has either gone totally arthouse – the kind of films that you watch and think, ‘it’s beautiful but it’s so abstract, it was made for the director or producer’ – or you have the Godzilla, Marvel, CGI type films.”
“If you’re a writer or director now, it’s so much more exciting to express yourself in six, eight, ten hours,” continues Iuzzolino. “You can flesh out characters, you can be poetic and interesting and unusual, and so the medium of serial television has become much more authored and sophisticated. But it’s still very mainstream, and that is exciting,” he adds. “I think globally, producers have realised if you make a drama well, it will travel internationally, and so everyone has raised their game.”
This article was published in the March 2016 issue of Creative Review, along with an interview with Jay Hunt, chief creative officer at Channel 4.