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Creatives who worked on Netflix’s Zero on the future of multicultural streaming in Europe

Hands piecing together a circular puzzle to form a play button image.

Illustration by Holly Warfield / Getty / The Current

Following a few years of conscious efforts to increase diversity on screen and in advertising, companies now appear to be retrenching, even as research finds that consumers see firms encouraging diversity as being innovative.

But the global picture is more nuanced. Diversity’s relevance in content might actually be on the rise in Europe, with its entertainment industry having been host to several productions featuring non-traditional storylines and casts in recent years. These include Channel 4’s Feel Good, Netflix’s Bridgerton, and Netflix’s Italian show Zero, which zoomed into the lives of second-generation African Italians.

“It’s about precisely narrating Italy in 2021, something that media don’t do,” writer Antonio Dikele Distefano, whose book inspired Zero, told WWD.

In fact, marketing experts and film industry insiders who spoke to The Current believe Europe might be on the cusp of ever more diversity on-screen, driven by younger generations maturing into fully-fledged consumers and clamoring for more representation.

And with streaming platforms turning to ad-funded content, advertisers intent on reaching Europe’s consumers of tomorrow on CTV would do well to tune in to the content that resonates with them today.

“Streaming services have the pulse on young consumers in a way that linear TV just doesn't,” says Antonin Ficatier, editorial director for Western Europe at research firm YPulse. He points to YPulse research showing that young Europeans (aged 13 to 39) see streaming services as the most inclusive form of entertainment, ahead of social media.

Europe, however, is not a monolithic bloc when it comes to diversity. Only 34 percent of young Europeans say their race or ethnicity is important to them when describing their identity, while it’s 54 percent in North America, says Ficatier, citing YPulse research. When excluding the U.K., that figure drops to 30.5 percent, and 27 percent in France, he adds.

In this complex diversity landscape, recent productions like Netflix’s Zero represent “a paradigm shift” for on-screen representation, says Zero creator and screenwriter Roberto Marchionni (who goes by the pen name Menotti).

The Current spoke with Menotti and producer Stefano Voltaggio, who also worked on Zero, to understand how the film creatives see the evolution of diversity in streaming in Europe, whether there is still appetite for diverse content, and the challenges of creating diverse content in today’s streaming age.

Responses were edited for brevity and clarity and translated from Italian.

How much of the growth in multicultural streaming has been driven by creatives looking to tell unique stories, and how much by streaming platforms sensing a consumer desire for these stories?

Menotti: Netflix wanted to work on the characters created by Antonio Dikele Distefano, who is the author of the book from which many of these characters are inspired. However, they had done some initial work on this but were not satisfied, so they brought me in, and I pitched this idea of the superhero [protagonist], which they took on board.

So, the idea of representing the community of second-generation black kids in Italy was already there. But if you read the books, they are a bit more “badass”. The kids do things that maybe shouldn’t be done, but that’s because they are human beings. However, the problem is that when you censor that in the series hoping to avoid racist stereotypes, you can become more biased than the viewers you're hoping to educate.

Stefano: It’s not stuff that necessarily comes from a business idea, but from a look at the Italian reality right now. Whoever takes a walk in Rome, Milan or Naples realizes that there are many different ethnic groups, and so there is a curiosity towards these cultures, both from the creatives and the platforms.

How has the trend of multicultural streaming evolved in Europe in the last few years, and how do you see it evolve in the future?

Stefano: The arrival of platforms in Italy has facilitated this trend, even if it hasn't really become mainstream yet. There are several projects, even on traditional broadcasters like RAI, with actors of other ethnicities, but usually they are secondary parts and are parts that are a little bit cliché, maybe. Like the boy who has social difficulties, or guys who do petty crime. But the door is open and Zero was definitely a milestone.

Menotti: There has been a paradigm shift in the last ten years in how characters are represented in entertainment and advertising. […] This has brought some positive things but also some negative things. […] The very reason for the existence of Zero comes from an ideological decision, which in this case is a positive thing, because we’ve had an audio-visual tradition where there are only white Italians, of Italian origin, so it's important to show other things as well, and I find that an extremely positive thing.

But sometimes these kinds of opportunities are used in an ideological or political way where it doesn’t really matter if you answer to a “woke” Californian board of directors or to [RAI’s] board of directors who are friends with the cardinals in the Vatican. Because then you have two different cults, but the preachers are the same.

Do you see the recent trend towards nationalism and away from globalization affect streamers’ appetite for producing diverse content?

Stefano: It is natural that there has been a little bit of resistance to this more open attitude towards the relatively “unknown”. […] However, I'm convinced that social and cultural progress is made in small steps, so if one tries to take a big step, it can be perceived as too large, and then there is a little bit of going back. But you will never go back to how it was before. […]

At least here in Italy, there is demand for very “local” products, in the sense that especially the platforms, but also the traditional broadcasters, try to represent what is specific to the Italian culture and what is closer to the viewers.

However, what is closer to the viewers right now also includes other cultures and ethnicities. […] For example, if you do a series in Rome in the Esquilino neighborhood, you could never do it without showing the Chinese living there, because it is a neighborhood that is very much at the center of the Chinese community. You can't disregard that.