SPI/FilmBox Profile on C21Media

SCHEDULE WATCH PROFILE: While the latest talk has focused on the consolidation and roll-out of global OTT giants, players like SPI International are proving there’s still plenty of growth for independents. Gün Akyuz reports.

Berk Uziyel
Berk Uziyel

Since launching in 1991, US-registered SPI International has amassed a worldwide footprint of 36 thematic channels, led by flagship movie brand FilmBox. The company is now approaching 60 million subscribers on the back of its latest addition, Timeless Drama Channel (TDC), and is aiming to hit 100 million over the next three years.

With offices and subsidiaries in 20-plus countries, SPI spreads its activities end-to-end, from a portfolio of pay and free-to-air (FTA) channels and digital services to related content acquisitions and third-party content distribution. It has also moved into content production for the first time via a new partnership with French movie producer and director Philippe Martinez, covering movies and TV series.

Key to SPI’s business is its library of more than 6,000 movies and series, while it also claims to be one of the world’s biggest aggregators of native ultra-HD content.

Movie brand Filmbox, which itself spans a range of sub-brands (Premium, Plus, Extra, Family, Action, Russia, Africa, Arthouse), is available on demand as FilmBox Live and is also carried on global streamer Amazon Prime and local OTT services.

SPI’s link-up with Philippe Martinez has led to shows such as Salvage Marines
SPI’s link-up with Philippe Martinez has led
to shows such as Salvage Marines

Alongside FilmBox and movies, SPI covers a growing range of entertainment categories, from drama series, comedy, documentaries and lifestyle to live sports and music, across channel brands FunBox UHD, GameToon, Docubox, FightBox, FashionBox, Fast&FunBox and now TDC.

SPI’s strongest market is Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), which accounts for around half of all its subscribers. However, the company has identified significant further growth potential in the Adriatic/Balkan region, as well as Western and Northern Europe, and has experienced rapid growth in Turkey and the Middle East and North Africa. SPI channels are also present in North and South America, Asia and Africa via a network of partnerships with more than 1,400 operators.

State-of-the-art technology is embedded into SPI’s strategy. “Our company is an early adopter of digital transformation,” says CEO Berk Uziyel. “We provide a VoD service that offers a huge library of HD content, featuring more than 1,000 movies and series.

“We also provide a multi-screen on-demand service for all devices and platforms so that our viewers can access premium content on their preferred devices,” he says, noting the “undeniable and essential” added value VoD and OTT brings to the business.

While the majority of SPI’s channels’ business is still linear, digital now represents approximately 20% of its activity, with apps for linear and VoD growing fast through its partner operators, according to the company.

“The last 12 months have been very exciting for us in our efforts to expand our digital business,” says Uziyel, highlighting new partnerships and expanded existing agreements with Iflix in Asia, SMG in China, The Times of India and Sony in the same country, Ipla in Poland, Ooredoo in Oman, UPC in CEE, Magyar Telekom in Hungary and Skylink in the Czech Republic.

Crime action-adventure trilogy Mr Mayfair
Crime action-adventure trilogy Mr Mayfair

Uziyel says further vertical and horizontal growth is on the cards at SPI, with a couple of as-yet-undisclosed acquisitions and integrations in new territories expected very soon.

“We are always looking for opportunities to expand our footprint across the globe through the distribution of our channels in new territories. Although one of our biggest challenges is the increasing number of competitors, we strive to produce and acquire fresh, cutting-edge programming, which continuously keeps us one step ahead,” the exec explains.

The company sees its move into production via the Martinez link-up, which was unveiled at MipTV in April, as a natural next step in its growth plans. The partnership includes four TV series, the first of which, Salvage Marines, is currently in production. Adapted from the book by Sean-Michael Argo, the action sci-fi show is being produced with Jamie Thompson and Jake Seal from Village Studios.

The deal also includes movies such as crime action-adventure trilogy Mr Mayfair, about a former New York gangster now living the good life in London’s wealthy Mayfair area. The films are being directed by Martinez and produced in partnership with British producer Alan Latham and Kirsty Bell’s Goldfinch Studios.

SPI International president Loni Farhi says the partnership is currently reaching out to other potential collaborators around the world with experience in international coproduction and talent already in place. “This is a new challenge for us, but our well-seasoned partner Philippe Martinez is leading the way for us,” says Farhi. “Mr Mayfair is already an international coproduction, while we are looking for partners in France, Poland, Romania, Hungary or Bulgaria for Miss Willoughby & Bentley, a project we would like to talk about once further information is set.”

TDC offers new content including Kurt Seyit & Shura

Current programming, acquisitions, drama, factual
This spring’s arrival of TDC marked a significant addition to SPI’s portfolio. Billed as the first global channel for Turkish drama and launched in partnership with leading Turkish prodco Ay Yapim, it offers around 500 hours of fresh content. Titles on offer include Karadayi, Black Money Love and Kurt Seyit & Shura.

TDC has so far rolled out in more than 10 countries, including those in the Adriatic and Balkan region, attracting in excess of one million subscribers. A launch in Western Europe is being prepared, although details were under wraps at the time of writing.

Farhi describes the channel as the “ultimate platform for connecting drama genre lovers,” adding that it will offer an “expanding catalogue of award-winning Turkish TV dramas with stories of passion, love and ambition.”

He continues: “In the last couple of years, Turkish drama series have taken the world by storm. Every year, we see dozens of new Turkish drama series being produced and exported to over 140 countries. These programmes are being watched by more than 400 million people around the world, and this incredible demand from viewers has made Turkey the second largest TV series exporter in the world after the US.”

Beyond Turkish drama and movies, SPI’s channels require thousands of hours of content annually.

FunBox UHD offers event programmes such as a 4K production of La Bohème
FunBox UHD offers event programmes such as a 4K production of La Bohème

Thematic factual channel DocuBox alone offers more than 1,100 hours of programming, with 250-plus hours of new content each year across wildlife, people and culture, travel and current affairs shows. Key suppliers include Zed, France Télévisions, ORF, Canamedia and Storyteller. Its line-up includes library titles such as feature docs Alaska: Spirit of the Wild and Africa: The Serengeti, both of which previously played in IMAX cinemas; plus Zed’s 52-minute doc Urgan: Child of the Himalaya.

General entertainment channel FunBox UHD, meanwhile, spans genres from travel and nature to lifestyle, arts and culture, as well as featuring TV series and movies. Titles range from lifestyle programme The Boat Show to Flamenco Passion, showcasing flamenco culture, festivals and events. It also hosts event programming like cinematic opera La Bohème, a 4K production from DBW Communication in coproduction with Rai Com. The show was directed by Ettore Scola for the 60th edition of the Puccini Festival in Italy.

“As you can imagine, the diverse nature of our branches of operation and our extensive footprint across CEMEA markets require a distinct approach to content development and targeted acquisition tactics,” says Farhi.

“We operate 80 different feeds across the globe, localised in 19 languages. In the case of pay channels and branded FilmBox channels with feeds across CEE and CIS, our strategy is centred on acquiring current blockbusters that have hit the theatres in recent months. Our library of content also thrives on ‘evergreens’ – movies that are timeless and can accommodate multiple viewings from audiences of all ages.”

Zed’s documentary Urgan: Child of the Himalaya
Zed’s documentary Urgan: Child of the Himalaya

Recent driver content includes premium box-office hits like La La Land and The Upside, as well as newly released movies like General Commander, starring Steven Seagal; Russian Chinese fantasy adventure Journey to China, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger; and action-thriller Killerman, starring Liam Hemsworth.

Farhi also highlights SPI’s broader content strategy across scripted and factual genres with its two FTA channels in Poland. The country is key market for SPI, which is the fifth largest media company in Poland through its majority ownership of Kino Polska TV, which runs two FTA digital terrestrial channels: film net Stopklatka TV and Zoom TV, which offer a mix of documentaries, movies and series. Its pay TV channels in Poland are Kino Polska, Kino Polska Muzyka and FilmBox.

Elsewhere on the scripted front, recent acquisitions for SPI’s thematic channels in CEE countries range from series like History Channel’s Knights Templar drama Knightfall, filmed in the Czech Republic and Croatia, to The Young Pope and Picnic at Hanging Rock. On the factual front, SPI closed a deal with Franco-German cultural channel Arte just ahead of MipTV for a collection of docs under Arte’s 360 Geo brand.

History Channel’s Knights Templar drama Knightfall
History Channel’s Knights Templar drama Knightfall

“One of the many ways we cater to individual countries is by making our programmes available in a particular country’s native tongue,” says Farhi, listing 19 languages, including English, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Brazilian, Arabic and Russian.

SPI is currently further localising channels in its various markets with the addition of more local content and hosts, along the lines of GameToon in Poland, says Uziyel.

The company is on the lookout for new content partnerships across its portfolio at markets such as Natpe Budapest and beyond. “Natpe Budapest is one of the most important markets in the world to buy and sell our content and channels, while the Mip markets are vital to our global growth strategy,” says Farhi.

Advising on SPI’s acquisition needs, he says the firm partners with global content companies and local independent producers alike. “We strive to provide our viewers with the premium content they demand. Therefore, we are constantly on the lookout for fresh, cutting-edge programming to add to our vast library of content.”

Gün Akyuz
Research editor, C21Media

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