Swedish agency deluged with bids for Ukrainian president’s hit TV series

First one, then two, then 20: a small Stockholm agency has in recent days been received bid after bid for the rights to air the hit comedy series starring Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor turned wartime hero.

Fredrik af Malmborg (R), Managing Director and Nicola Soderlund Managing Partner at Eccho Rights, a global rights management company.
Fredrik af Malmborg (R), Managing Director and Nicola Soderlund Managing Partner at Eccho Rights, a global rights management company. Photo: Jonatan Nackstrand/AFP

“It’s been very, very busy. All around the world, people have asked for the rights because they want to broadcast it,” explains Eccho Rights co-founder Nicola Söderlund in the agency’s elegant offices in the Swedish capital.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, broadcasters such as Britain’s Channel 4, Greece’s ANT1 and Romania’s PRO TV have rushed to join those who have already snapped up the rights to “Servant of the People”, which first aired in Ukraine in 2015.

“I think last week we made maybe 15 deals and we are in negotiations with another 20 countries,” says Söderlund, a poster advertising the series hanging above his desk. “The latest we heard of is Latin America, we’re discussing with the US, Netflix, we’re discussing with many.”

In Italy alone, three or four broadcasters are currently vying for the rights, while in Greece, the show is airing nightly on primetime.

“In a way, it’s an act of solidarity with the Ukrainians, and at the same time, of curiosity — you want to see who he is,” Söderlund says of Zelensky.

The president’s stature has soared on the international stage since the start of the invasion, impressing the world with his fearless determination in the face of the Russian onslaught. Söderlund first met Zelensky 10 years ago, when the Ukrainian was
developing a game show called “Crack Them Up” in which ordinary people try to make comedians laugh, a concept later sold to Vietnam, China and Finland.

“I went to lunch with him in Kyiv,” recalls Söderlund. “He had all these crazy and funny ideas”.

Pulling out his phone, he shows selfies of himself posing with Zelensky at the Cannes film market in 2016 — held alongside the famed film festival — where producers, distributors and buyers do business.

‘Needed a hero like him’

At the time, it was unimaginable that this “very funny comedian, very popular and loved by audiences” would go on to become Vladimir Putin’s main target and “this world leader who embodies and speaks for the whole nation”.

“We needed a hero like him, after Trump and all that,” Eccho Rights managing director Fredrik af Malmborg interjects.

With “Servant of the People”, life imitated art.  In the series, which ran for three seasons, Zelensky played a high school
teacher propelled to the presidency after a student’s video of him ranting about corruption in Ukraine went viral.

The show’s success propelled Zelensky to the presidency in real life. “He always said, ‘In the US they’ve had actors becoming president for a long time'”, af Malmborg recalls.

While the company hasn’t had any contact with Zelensky himself recently, Eccho has been in contact with some of his representatives.

“One has fled to Turkey and the other is in Rotterdam, but they are in contact with ‘Vova’, as they still call him”, af Malmborg says.

The details of the rights contracts being negotiated are confidential, but the rights cost “around a million euros”.

Eccho Rights also has another series produced by Zelensky in its catalogue, “Svaty” (“In-Laws”).

The company, which employs around 40 people in Stockholm, London and Istanbul, has donated 50,000 euros to the Ukrainian Red Cross and plans to donate more as more contracts are signed.

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Russia expels Swedish diplomats in retaliation for ‘hostile actions’

Moscow on Tuesday said it was expelling three Swedish diplomats after Stockholm expelled three Russian diplomats over the conflict in Ukraine, despite Sweden saying four were dismissed.

Russia expels Swedish diplomats in retaliation for 'hostile actions'

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it summoned the Swedish ambassador to Russia and “strongly protested” the expulsion of Russian diplomats and Sweden’s “military support to the Kyiv regime”.

It also accused Sweden of “covering up the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists against the civilian population of Donbas and Ukraine,” referring to a region in eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by pro-Russia separatists.

“In response to this, the Russian side decided to declare persona non grata three diplomats of the Swedish embassy in Russia,” the ministry said.

In early April, Sweden said it was expelling three Russian diplomats who conducted “illegal operations”, following similar moves by other EU allies.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde said the action was “very regrettable,” but said that a total of four diplomats had been expelled — three from the embassy in Moscow and another at the Swedish consulate in Saint Petersburg.

In a written response to AFP, Linde stressed that Sweden expelled the Russians because they had conducted operations that “violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” but claimed the Swedish diplomats had conducted “traditional diplomatic activities.”

“Sweden will respond in an appropriate manner to Russia’s unwarranted and disproportionate actions,” Linde said.