HOLLYWOOD BritBox's Reema Sakaan Talks Transatlantic Content, Cary Grant Biopic

BritBox’s Reema Sakaan Talks Transatlantic Content, Cary Grant Biopic

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As the streaming landscape continues to readjust after a turbulent few years, some platforms are riding the wave more comfortably than others. A case in point is SVOD service BritBox International, which was founded in 2017 as a joint venture by U.K. broadcasters ITV and BBC.

Available in eight markets outside the U.K. including the U.S., Canada and Australia, BritBox offers a uniquely specific output: namely, British content for international audiences. (A sister service with the same name operated solely by ITV is available in the U.K.).

In terms of genre, there’s everything from drama to soaps plus crime, comedy and what BritBox CEO Reemah Sakaan calls “British pastimes,” meaning shows about things like antiques and gardening. The streamer also boasts its own original content, such as upcoming Cary Grant biopic “Archie,” which stars Jason Isaacs (“Harry Potter”) as the Hollywood legend.

“You look for real British specificity in the storytelling, but real universality in its access,” Sakaan says when she sits down with Variety at the star-studded “Archie” press day in central London, which involves appearances from not only the cast and creative team (including Isaacs and showrunner Jeff Pope) but also Grant’s ex-wife Dyan Cannon and daughter Jennifer, who both advised on and executive produced the project. (The show launches in the U.K. on Nov. 28 and internationally on BritBox on Dec. 7).

BritBox Intl CEO Reemah Sakaan
BritBox

From Sakaan’s perspective, Pope’s tale about a Bristol-born working-class boy who transformed himself into an American movie star was the ideal project for the streamer. “We’ve always had this ‘Born in Britain, made in Hollywood’ thought [process],” she explains.

It’s a narrow focus that has broad appeal, which is exactly what BritBox is about according to Sakaan. “You need to be really clear who you are and what you’re about,” she says. “I call it our ‘later-mover’ advantage, rather than ‘first-mover advantage.” It has meant that the streamer, which is available via stand-alone, ad-free subscriptions, hasn’t been as roiled by the turbulence of the past few years, which saw streaming services boom during the COVID-19 lockdowns before Wall Street’s insistence on profits over subscriber numbers meant shares in Netflix (and its ilk) plummeted in 2022.

“Our shareholders [BBC Studios and ITV] have always been profit-first,” she explains. “And so some of the seismic wake up around profitability — the pivot to profitability — is nothing new for the way we run the business.” Sakaan says BritBox’s subscriber churn is low, with many opting for annual subscriptions. There are no imminent plans to introduce a cheaper tier with adverts (AVOD is more profitable for streamers with critical mass, Sakaan points out). Nor is there a rush to roll-out the platform in more territories. “We’ve never had a global domination [strategy],” says the CEO, who is based in London (BritBox also has offices in New York and Sydney). Launching in new markets costs a lot of money and represents a long-term investment versus immediate return, she says. “So that probably wouldn’t be smart in the current climate.”

Instead, BritBox’s focus is on collaboration, particularly with other services. The streamer’s U.K. counterpart, BritBox U.K., offers something of a blueprint in that area. Originally co-owned by ITV and BBC, the former bought out the latter and incorporated the service into its own streaming platform, ITVX, where it is now available as part of ITVX’s paid-for premium tier. Although Sakaan doesn’t offer any clues as to who BritBox might collaborate with, she says “bundling [and] brand partnerships” are a new focus for the industry as a whole. “How do we really start to explore real estate and partnerships that have not existed before? I think it’s really high [priority] in everyone’s mind.”

“That said, the next phase of content is really important,” she adds, referring to the fact the content boom of the past few years is winding down. “It’s not the febrile auctioning of a script that only half the people have read,” she agrees, acknowledging that “content was over-invested in and there was potentially too much.” As a smaller service that mostly licenses existing content and co-produces original projects, that wasn’t as much of an issue for BritBox, Sakaan indicates.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wed at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in May 2018 (Jane Barlow – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

BritBox currently boasts 22 returning series, many of them “mainstays of the BBC and ITV schedules” while soaps are available for international viewers within hours of them being broadcast in the U.K. Among recent and upcoming shows the streamer has co-produced with ITV are Jed Mercurio’s “Payback,” Lenny Henry’s “Three Little Birds” (which launches on BritBox in February) and of course “Archie.” It has also co-produced “Murder is Easy” with the BBC, the second in their three-part deal with the Agatha Christie estate. The first, “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?,” starred Will Poulter and Emma Thompson and was released last year.

Unlike many of its competitors, live TV is also a key part of BritBox’s offering and its platform has always boasted live capabilities, having been modelled on the BBC’s proprietary streamer iPlayer. “I think quite a lot of services can feel a bit video jukebox-y and live is really important in making them feel more current,” Sakaan explains. Most recently the streamer simulcast U.K. broadcasts of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and, earlier this year, King Charles III’s coronation. It is also the international home of the BAFTA awards, which are broadcast as-live at the same time as in the U.K.

“Hopping on those really British popular culture moments that resonate internationally is the thing that as a service we can do,” Sakaan explains. “Because it’s not just a crime channel or whatever; it is genuinely multi-genre, British, popular culture.”

Fittingly, it was the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that set the tone as the first ever large-scale event broadcast live by BritBox. Sakaan says of the couple’s fairytale, transatlantic romance: “Like ‘Archie,’ what other British-American story do you need?”

(Pictured top, left to right: David Jonsson in “Murder is Easy,” Rochelle Neil in “Three Little Birds,” Jason Isaacs in “Archie”)

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