Zeljko Mitrovic, who grew his Belgrade, Serbia-based Pink Media Group… (Pink Media Group )
BELGRADE, SERBIA — During the darkest, most stifling years of the Balkan wars, one Serbian television broadcaster was able to shine through, if only by dint of its mindless programming.
Pink TV blithely ignored the wars of the day, the politics and anything else smacking of news.
It was hugely popular and grew into one of the region's largest and most lucrative media empires.
In today's more democratic Serbia, Pink Media Group and its energetic, youthful owner, Zeljko Mitrovic have reinvented themselves, gained a patina of respectability and started looking to expand into international movie production and other ventures.
The latest project is a 452,000-square-foot film studio complex boasting state-of-the-art sound stages and production facilities. Mitrovic hopes that the complex, 15 miles outside of Belgrade, will capture a share of the growing movie production taking place in Eastern Europe by offering top-quality venues and crews at lower-than-average prices.
"It will be one of the biggest in Europe, and I am sure people will come," Mitrovic said of the new complex.
He believes that Serbia could be the next great destination for film production, just as companies have flocked for years to the Czech Republic, Hungary and, more recently, Romania. But now that those countries are members of the European Union, Mitrovic said, their labor and other costs are going up. Serbia is still a great deal, he says.
Mitrovic, 40, spoke in a recent interview in the glass-and-chrome offices of Pink TV in downtown Belgrade. Dressed in a black suit and black shirt, with longish hair carefully disheveled, he appears part nouveau-riche gadabout, part hard-knuckle businessman.
Like Serbia itself, Mitrovic has some difficult baggage to shed as he becomes a global entrepreneur welcome, he hopes, in the salons of Hollywood and other filmmaking capitals.
A former rock guitarist who played gigs all over the former Yugoslavia, Mitrovic in the 1990s joined a leftist political party run by Mirjana Markovic, wife of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic. His affiliation gave him favored status to acquire and build Pink TV, and he obligingly permitted the broadcaster to serve as a tool of the regime, primarily by eschewing serious programming.
An oft-repeated criticism of Pink TV during those years was that by focusing on tawdry music, telenovelas and other escapist material, it cynically allowed Serb viewers to ignore the horrors their government was committing.
"I thought it would be the most secure model to protect my television from political interference," he now says by way of apology.
"If I had had political programming, I would have not been able to withstand the political pressure."
Once Milosevic was ousted in 2000 and the regime toppled, Mitrovic's transformation, and that of Pink TV, began.
With his commercial interests in mind, Mitrovic these days is an enthusiastic supporter of Serbia's emergence from isolation and its tentative rapprochement with the West. Serbia's commitment to that path will be tested this weekend, when national elections might return Milosevic's ultra-nationalist allies to power.
Mitrovic does not comment directly on national politics anymore, but it is clear he believes that radical, anti-Western nationalism is not good for business: "We have to have politicians who are looking to a better future. Nobody can survive a long time in a scenario of dragging the country backwards."
The Pink Media empire includes television and radio broadcasting and production, satellite TV production, music recording, advertising and even a small corporate airline. The TV programming, in marked contrast to the past, includes a smattering of serious newscasts, along with the staple fare of reality shows, soaps and American sitcoms.
Mitrovic traverses the countries that were spawned from Yugoslavia's dissolution, ignoring the lingering ethnic tensions and looking for a deal. He has created Pink networks in those former enemy states and even included programming with studio hook-ups in their capitals.
"Entertainment, music and business are the three strongest weapons for bringing the ethnic groups together," he said.
In recent weeks, Mitrovic, after several unsuccessful bids over the years, also acquired a Croatian channel, Net, that will serve as the basis for a countrywide network, Pink Hrvatska, or Croatian Pink.
The movie-studio project will test Mitrovic's business acumen and his salesmanship skills. He knows it's an uphill battle every time he travels to the U.S. He says he has to convince wary producers that Serbia is now a safe country with an up-to-date infrastructure, with electricity and streets that are not full of gunslingers.
"We are sending the message that we are a normal country open for business and investment . . . and that we don't have horns and are not the Tasmanian devil," Mitrovic said.
"Without removing the negative perceptions, it will be difficult to sell the project," he said. And in reshaping negative perceptions, Mitrovic has experience.