Since mid-January, Pelin Distas, Netflix’s director of original content for Turkey, has happily started going back to work in a physical office in Istanbul. It’s still just a temporary base for the streaming giant, which has plans to launch a proper Turkish outpost in the second half of 2021.
The new Netflix office “will be our commitment to the local creative industry,” Distas says, noting that it’s been “really hard” for her team to manage the 10 Turkish originals that Netflix currently has in different stages of production remotely. Opening the Netflix hub “will be really healthy [for both Netflix and Turkish producers]” as the streamer ramps up plans to “more than double down” on its Turkish output that so far has averaged four or five local shows per year, Distas notes.
But the key aspect of Netflix’s boots-on-the-ground presence in Turkey won’t just be an uptick in content.
“It’s about how we are shaping the slate around different genres, different scopes and the range of creative talent,” she points out.
As examples Distas cites two shows currently shooting. One is “Hot Skull,” a drama based on a prize-winning book set in a post-apocalyptic Istanbul shaken by a madness epidemic that spreads through language. The other is “The Club,” about a revolutionary 1950s Istanbul night club where “very diverse characters come together and just become family,” having been rejected by their respective real families for various reasons. It’s inspired by a true story.
Shooting will soon begin on “Midnight at the Pera Palace,” created and produced for Netflix by Red Arrow’s Karga Seven Pictures. It’s “a time-travel adventure grounded in Turkish culture and history,” Distas says, set in a historic Istanbul hotel where an intrepid female journalist discovers that one of the rooms is a portal to 1919 that lands her in the middle of a conspiracy against the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Strong women feature prominently among Netflix’s new Turkish originals. The most notable is the title character of upcoming original “Fatma,” which is about an ordinary cleaning lady who becomes a serial killer, but not because she is the murdering type. After committing an unintentional homicide, the protagonist is forced to keep killing people in order to survive. “Murder becomes a release for the years of struggle and grief that she had repressed,” according to press notes. The show, created by hot young writer-director Ozgur Onurme, is “a punch in your stomach” as Distas puts is, and also an allegory of sorts about “how you deal with life as a woman in Turkey.”
Distas is also particularly proud of a still untitled action-adventure series set on a submarine directed by Tolga Karacelik whose 2018 drama “Butterflies” won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. Currently shooting, this fast-paced show sees a marine biologist named Arman and his crew embark on a survival and existential quest aboard a military submarine amid a natural catastrophe.
Then, there is “sophisticated, character-driven drama” “The Uysals,” about a family in which everyone leads a double life, and the comedy sitcom series “Ersan Kuneri” created and directed by Turkish hit-making funnyman Cem Yilmaz, who also stars. It’s set amid Turkey’s erotic film industry of the 1970s.
“Turkish series have been popular over the years, but we are telling our stories in a different way,” says Distas. The difference is both in terms of format — episodes for Netflix are much shorter than the 2-hour-long episodes, 35 per season, made for Turkish generalist TV — and in terms of themes and narratives.
“When you give talents the freedom and the measure that they need, then you get really authentic Turkish visions and great elevated storytelling,” notes the executive.
You also get Turkish content that travels widely around the world on the Netflix platform.
And due to the global penetration of Turkish shows on the streamer, Netflix now plans to open a new path for Turkish talent internationally.
“We will have Turkish actors performing in international projects and also offscreen talent — show creators — working on international projects,” says Distas, who adds: “There will be exciting news about this unprecedented development in Turkish television soon.”