Walter Iuzzolino is a fool in love.
“I feel completely privileged” he says, “I do something I love and my job is to talk about my passion, and to galvanise as many people around me as possible.”
Walter Iuzzolino is the man behind Walter Presents, the digital, foreign language drama platform that has been a runaway success for Channel 4.
Despite only launching in January 2016, the platform has racked up 17 million streams across its shows. Dizzy with the success of his project, Iuzzolino laughs “sometimes I lie in bed and try to imagine all of these hours. 17 million hours? If you line them up, that’s a lot of hours!”
The launch on Channel 4 was the product of three years of intense research by Iuzzolino and his business partners Jo McGrath and Jason Thorpe. They amassed thousands of hours of content and began pitching to broadcasters.
“Jay [Hunt, Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer] leapt on it from the start. She said it "makes sense. It’s clear. I want to do it.’ It was practically bought in the room” Iuzzolino recalls.
To launch a mainstream foreign language drama platform in the UK was a big risk, and for Iuzzolino, that was what made Channel 4 the perfect fit. “I think what was bold about Channel 4 was the idea of saying ‘we will dedicate a digital channel to this. This is not a strand or the odd acquisition, it’s a statement.’”
Walter Presents has never been about arthouse cinema, however. Iuzzolino’s colleague Jo McGrath offered him guidance before the project began: “we have to be mindful of dripping taps.”
Iuzzolino explains: “There are too many black and white French movies where there is a dripping tap in shot for 5, 10, 20, 30 seconds, and it’s meant to be really philosophical and make you feel really clever. I hated all that.”
Every show on the platform must meet at least two of Iuzzolino's three criteria: it must have enjoyed mainstream success in its country of origin; it must have outstanding writing, acting and directing; and it must have received critical acclaim.
“I do not like works that are self-important and snobbish and are designed to make the user feel clever” he scorns. “I think there is a cynicism about that. It’s absolutely fine to be incredibly sophisticated and beautiful and to deliver high class and value, but the wrapping has to be accessibility.”
He later returns to this theme, in a moment or rare seriousness. “We live and die by like-minded souls that like and understand what we are doing” he says, explaining the platform’s success.
“For us it was… about shattering that prejudice that subtitled means elite, cinema club, cluster of friends that go ‘oh yaaaahhhh’. It’s the opposite!”
— Walter Presents (@WalterPresents) August 26, 2016
When I ask about the name, Iuzzolino laughs. “It was never Walter Presents. I’m not an egomaniac. I promise you!” The suggestion came from Channel 4, he says. Jay Hunt called him and suggested Walter Presents, saying “You’ve persuaded me to watch this, now I am asking for you to do that with viewers.”
Iuzzolino’s distinctive video introductions were another Channel 4 addition, and one that has paid dividends. He reports that over 90% of people who watch one of the introductions then go on to watch at least the first episode of the series.
I suspect that putting Iuzzolino in front of a camera has been a Channel 4 aim for a long time. The man vibrates with a passionate energy. I can easily understand how he has managed to pull so many people along in the wake of his enthusiasm.
Being the face of the platform has had unforeseen consequences for the Italian producer and commissioner. He recalls a recent Twitter encounter with two fans who refused to believe he was a real person. “I have been called many things in my life, but never a social voice. I am a person” he protests indignantly. “I went into my kitchen and wrote ‘I am real’ [on a piece of paper] and posted it online.” He laughs. The exchange plainly still tickles him.
Building that community of viewers has been important element of the Walter Presents brand. “The deli is run by an individual that literally sources the olives, and when he tells you ‘eat these olives’, his reputation is at stake. That makes it more human and more meaningful in many ways” he explains. Fans contact him directly to recommend shows, which, he reports, he occasionally buys for the platform.
I did not realise that there was such a number of big budget, blockbuster TV shows in other countries, I admit embarrassed. “Me neither!” he exclaims, delighted. “We have been spoiled and somehow conditioned by the fact that for a very long time, the UK and the US have been dominating the drama and cinema scene within our countries.”
“Every country [has] produced something of excellence. It’s kind of like being exposed to food. There’s a joy in broadening your palette” he laughs. “There’s a night when you want a pizza and there’s a night where you want some sauerkraut and sausages!”
The Walter Presents slate for 2017 is packed with Scandinavian dramas, including some shows from Norway, which until recently did not have the same creative output as more established Scandinavian territories.
Iceland too is having something of a renaissance, with upcoming Walter Presents crime drama Case (to air in 2017) being named in the New York Times as one of the must-see international dramas of 2017. As he reports these successes, carefully attributing each one to the relevant production team, Iuzzolino grins, proud as a dad on sport’s day.
Spain and Latin America are ones to watch too, Iuzzolino says. “It’s interesting because while [Spanish territories] sit along Scandi in terms of quality, their emotional starting point is different. They’re slightly more visceral. They’re more about family, more about bigger feelings of betrayal, morality, religion.”
He mentions Locked Up, the Spanish language prison drama that sat alongside Deutschand ’83 as one of the platform’s runaway successes of 2016. “It’s really Hispanic” he says. “It’s very technicolour, it’s very sweaty. It doesn’t have any of the Scandi repressed elegance.”
The first episode launched on Channel 4 in a 10pm slot, by the time he arrived in the office the following morning, Iuzzolino reports that 11,000 people had already burned through the entire 16 episodes of the series.
The future is bright for Walter Presents. The successes of the past year were just phases one and two of his masterplan, he tells me excitedly. They have been focusing on early acquisitions, buying series based on the scripts that they see. “Producers very often come to us and say ‘Look, we know you haven’t got big bucks to spend on this, but we’d still like you to buy it because you help brand it. You position it with the UK, with Channel 4 and make it more interesting internationally.”
The next step? “The natural progression of this is that we come in earlier” he says. Iuzzolino leaps on my suggestion that he might begin making original content for the platform. “I suppose co-producer is a strong word, but definitely as deficit financing and having that kind of conversation. Yes, for sure.”
It is next stop: the world, for Walter Presents. “Our ambition is to take the brand to as many countries as possible, in its integrity and entirely” says Iuzzolino, for the first time slightly cagey. He is currently deep in discussions about expanding the Walter Presents brand outside of the UK. I ask what we could expect to see. In some territories, he says “it may manifest itself in the same way it has with Channel 4 as a local partnership with a local player. In other territories – in the more mature markets – as a complete SVOD where you just subscribe and get it.”
“It’s all quite exciting” he adds, as he sits quivering in his chair, beaming from ear to ear.