All posts by Andy Fry

¡Viva España!

Without much noise or fanfare, Spain has been steadily building a reputation as one of the hottest producers of scripted drama, with homegrown series finding fans around the world. DQ takes an in-depth look at the wave of new series coming out of the country.

Spanish drama may not attract as much attention as Nordic noir or the ‘Korean wave,’ but there’s no question the country’s scripted series are now enjoying decent levels of profile around the world. And with significant increases in content investment from free-to-air (FTA) channels, pay TV and SVoD platforms, Spain’s storytellers are poised to deliver a new wave of diverse and ambitious shows to the international market.

One of the first firms to identify the potential of Spanish drama was German distributor Beta Film, which was responsible for the international roll-outs of Gran Hotel and Velvet, two exquisite period pieces produced by Bambú Producciones for FTA network Antena 3.

According to Beta Film executive VP for acquisitions and sales Christian Gockel, the success of the Bambú/Antena 3 partnership convinced his company to board two new productions from the same stable: Morocco – Love in Times of War and Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic. “They have raised the bar yet again by taking the unique blend of romance and drama we know so well from Velvet,” he says.

Morocco, says Gockel, is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops. Farinia, meanwhile, “centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.”

Farinia is a good indicator of how Antena 3 – the dominant force in FTA drama – has diversified its slate in recent times. The channel also launched Vis a Vis (pictured above), a female-prison drama produced by Mediapro drama label Globomedia. Distributed by Mediapro sales arm Imagina under the title Locked Up, that show broke into the English-speaking market, airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on foreign-language SVoD service Walter Presents.

Gran Hotel was produced by Bambú Producciones for Antena 3

Walter Presents also picked up fellow Antena 3/Globomedia drama Pulsaciones (Lifeline). The psychological thriller is about a surgeon who unravels a medical scandal after suffering a heart attack and having strange nightmares when he receives a donor heart. “Last year, Locked Up exploded onto the international scene, heralding a renaissance in Spanish scripted excellence,” says Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino. “This year they’ve done it again. Lifeline is a thriller with shock narrative twists and epic cliffhanger endings.”

The growing appeal of Antena 3-commissioned drama to the global market is further underlined by a deal that will see Netflix air miniseries The Cathedral of the Sea around the world. Based on Ildefonso Falcones’ bestselling novel and produced by leading Spanish prodco Diagonal, the story takes place in 14th century Barcelona during the Inquisition.

Explaining his remit, Antena 3 senior VP for drama Nacho Manubens says: “Although we produce sporadically for our other channels [laSexta, Neox], we mainly focus on Antena 3. We commission more than 600 hours of TV per year, with 120 primetime hours and 500 daytime hours. We have a range of genres, since our audiences demand variety and innovation. In thrillers we have had hits with Bajo Sospecha, Mar De Plastico and Vis a Vis. In period dramas we have had El Tiempo Entre Costuras and Velvet. These are both lines we will continue exploring.”

Antena 3 has developed a reputation for edgy shows – something Manubens wants to maintain. “We cannot take risks in every show we produce, but we try to keep making shows that push the envelope like we did with Casa De Papel [aka The Money Heist, the latest show from Via a Vis creator Alex Pina].”

Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are) was a hit for Mediaset España

Public broadcaster RTVE and Mediaset Espana, owner of commercial networks TeleCinco and Cuatro, have also upped their scripted game. For RTVE, key titles have been El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) and Isabel, produced by Onza Partners/Cliffhanger and Diagonal respectively. Isabel, one of several royal-themed shows on the market, ran for three seasons and travelled well internationally. Buoyed by its success, RTVE also made a foray into English-language drama with Reinas (Queens), about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.

Mediaset España, meanwhile, had a hit with Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are), a Filmax production about a charismatic university lecturer’s possible involvement in his niece’s murder. The show was bought by several networks, including the influential BBC4 – its first Spanish acquisition – with head of BBC programme acquisitions Sue Deeks calling it “the dramatic equivalent of a page-turning thriller.” Mediaset España’s increased investment in event series has also seen it back Forgive Me God, an eight-part miniseries about a nun battling delinquency and the drug trade.

Alongside the increased ambition among FTA channels, there are also new opportunities in the pay TV and SVoD arenas, according to Pilar Blasco, MD of Endemol Shine Iberia, a division that includes Diagonal. “Spain has always been a strong market for local original scripted programming and this has enabled us to build an industry of creative writers, showrunners and directors,” she says. “The big game-changer, however, has been increased commissioning of Spanish productions from the likes of Movistar+, Netflix, HBO and Amazon. As a result, the Spanish drama industry is flourishing with higher budgets that tell more daring stories from a broader range of genres.”

The most high-profile example of Blasco’s point is Telefónica’s decision to invest €70m (US$84m) a year in scripted series for its pay TV platform Movistar+. According to Domingo Corral, head of original programming at Movistar+, the plan is to launch 11 original series a year, initially for SVoD customers. The emphasis will be on “Spanish-language series dealing with Spanish stories created by Spanish talent,” he says.

Movistar+ drama La Zona is set four years after a nuclear accident

Titles include La Zona, a story set in northern Spain four years after a nuclear accident. Also coming soon is La Peste, set in 16th century Sevilla against the backdrop of a plague. Movistar+ has also done a deal with Bambú for a spin-off from Madrid fashion-store series Velvet, which ended on Antena 3 after four seasons. The new series, Velvet Collection, will take the story forward to the 1960s and relocate to Barcelona.

At first sight, Corral’s insistence on super-charged Spanish series seems like it will limit their international appeal. But he takes the view that “great storytelling and characters have universal appeal.” Besides, he adds, Movistar+ series will have 50-minute episodes, rather than the 70 minutes typical to Spain. This will make them a better fit for the global market. Also, Movistar+ has spared no expense on talent, pulling in writers and directors from the country’s admired cinema scene.

Beta Film is continuing its relationship with the Velvet franchise and is also distributing La Zona, says Gockel. “We believe La Zona is one of the most exciting shows coming from Spain this year. It’s an innovative eco-crime thriller with a high budget that will catch viewers around the globe.”

About Premium Content has picked up rights to eight-part mob thriller Gigantes, while Sky Vision has secured global rights to La Peste, which is budgeted at €10m for six episodes. Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip gives an upbeat assessment of Movistar+’s shows: “With La Peste, they have assembled an incredible team with a proven track record. The partnership of Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos has delivered a deeply engaging story that delivers a thriller of scale, a pungent sense of the past and a modernity that will satisfy audiences.”

Big-budget series La Peste is being distributed by Sky Vision

Movistar+’s investment in drama is especially timely given the growing competition. In April, Netflix launched Las Chicas del Cable, another sumptuous period piece from the Bambú stable that tells the story of four young women working for Spain’s national telephone company in the 1920s.

Also muscling in on the Spanish market is Fox Networks Group (FNG), which has just done a deal with Mediapro’s Globomedia that will see future series of Via a Vis air on its pay TV networks, rather than on broadcaster Antena 3. This is Fox’s first foray into original scripted series, with Vera Pereira, exec VP of FNG Iberia, saying it “will give us greater visibility and relevance in the market.”

Success in scripted formats is also contributing to Spain’s creative revival, with Star-Crossed (The CW), Red Band Society (Fox) and The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) all reimagined for the US market. Televisa USA is also teaming with Lantica Media to produce an English-language Gran Hotel, while Lionsgate has been linked to a US adaptation of Bambú’s Velvet.

The final dimension to the Spanish market’s new dynamism relates to the ambition of the producers. Bambú is part of StudioCanal and has coproduced time-travel drama Refugiados (Refugees) with BBC Worldwide. Diagonal, meanwhile, sees projects like The Cathedral of the Sea as a new phase. “It is a huge leap for the company as it moves into international coproductions,” observes Blasco. “It’s an ambitious project that would never have been commissioned without the support of Netflix.”

Velvet Collection follows on from Velvet

Another leading Spanish producer, DLO, recently became part of the Banijay network and has also picked up a commission from Movistar+ — a series based on Julia Navarro’s best-selling historical novel Dime Quien Soy. In a similar vein, Lagardère Active-owned producer Boomerang is well-known for El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time in Between), a 2013 hit for Antena 3 that went on to sell into 75 territories. Now the company has identified Latin America as a key expansion opportunity and is working on a brace of series for broadcasters in Chile. Bambú is also building its profile in Latin America, via a development deal with Televisa in Mexico.

Mediapro is also involved in an eclectic mix of domestic and international series. It coproduced English-language drama The Young Pope and is working on Paradise, a Finnish-Spanish copro that takes place in a Spanish village on the Costa del Sol with a large Finnish community. Other projects include The Head, a copro with Sweden’s Dramacorp in which 10 scientists, trapped in a laboratory at the South Pole, realise one is a killer. “We are also working with DirecTV Latin America on El Fútbol no es Así, a crime series set in the world of Spanish football,” says Mediapro head of content Javier Mendez.

While Mendez welcomes the influx of pay TV drama funding, he says a key opportunity for Mediapro is the international market – especially in light of the fact it has a distribution arm, Imagina. “Series like Narcos show it is possible to find great stories that have the ability to travel all over the world,” he explains. “Increasingly, our strategy is to back good stories regardless of where they come from, because there is a huge appetite for drama around the world.”

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Down with the kids

While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.

Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.

Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.

From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.

George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.

Ackley Bridge targeted a ‘broad, multigenerational audience’

“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”

Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”

Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”

Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.

You Me Her has a strong social media following

Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”

You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”

While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.

Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”

Clique was made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment

The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”

In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”

Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”

Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”

Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”

NRK Norway’s Skam (Shame)

While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.

Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.

All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”

This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”

Freeform teen success Pretty Little Liars

This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”

The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”

While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).

Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”

Stranger Things’ second season landed on Netflix last week

Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”

Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”

On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”


Riverdale Rundown
The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.

Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”

Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”

Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”

The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.

In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”

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Converging on Cannes

The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.

Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.

The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.

Beta Film’s Morocco – Love in Times of War

Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.

Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.

Russian drama Road to Calvary

Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.

Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.

Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.

Nippont TV format My Son

From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.

While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.

All3Media International drama The Miniaturist

From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.

Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.

If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.

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From Russia with love

The Cold War has proven to be a popular subject for TV drama in the past couple of years. Russian series Optimisty (The Optimists), created by Michael Idov, continues that trend.

Over the past few years, there has been a steady stream of TV dramas set during the Cold War. High-profile examples include Deutschland 83, The Same Sky and The Americans. Also in the works is The Ink Factory’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s classic espionage novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

To this list can now be added Optimisty (The Optimists), a 13-part drama that stands out because it hails from Russia. Set in the early 1960s, the first episode aired on state channel Russia 1 on April 24 and out-performed all other shows in its slot. The show is available internationally from distributor SovtelExport.

The fact that The Optimists comes out of Russia is a sign of the country’s new-found confidence on the international TV drama stage. But what makes the show especially interesting is that it was created and written by Michael Idov, a Latvian-born American who now lives and works in Berlin.

Director Alexei Popogrebsky on set

Summarising his journey into the Russian TV business, Idov says: “I was born in Latvia and moved to the US as a child with my family. I studied screenwriting at Michigan University but then got sucked into journalism. I worked in the US until I was invited to edit the Russian edition of GQ [Idov is fluent in Russian]. So I went out to live in Moscow with my family. I became pretty disillusioned with the GQ job but while I was out there I got the impetus to write some spec pilots in Russian and, amazingly, the Russians started buying them. A couple have now been turned into TV series, which I guess makes me a Russian screenwriter.”

The Optimists is set in the early 1960s, a time when the Soviet Union was led by Nikita Khrushchev – a political liberal compared to his predecessors. “The show addresses something that Russian TV has not done before,” says Idov. “Usually, when Russian TV looks back at this era it does so in wistful manner – focusing on it as a time of innocence, hope and really cool sundresses. But this show explores the fraught relationship between the Soviets and West. What will appeal to the international audience is that it explores the Cold War from a vantage point that most of them haven’t seen – that of the Soviets. This doesn’t mean the Russians are good guys and the US are bad guys; that would be reductive and silly. But it does mean the Russians are the main characters. So we get to see how their personal lives are affected by the geopolitical picture. We get to see their intrigues, hopes, dreams and tragedies.”

The Optimists ‘explores the fraught relationship between the Soviets and West’ in the 1960s

According to Idov, the plot follows a fictional department within the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “They’re like a strategic think tank before think tanks were invented. The team is made up of young people with experience living abroad. The idea is that they explain Western society and its mindset to older Soviet diplomats whose world views are shaped by Bolshevism and the Second World War – so they are not the smoothest people!”

Initially, the team is led by a female character called Ruta Blaumane (played by Lithuanian actor Severija Janusauskaite), “an American communist who fled the US in the wake of McCarthyism and married a decorated war pilot,” says Idov. “We had a lot of fun putting together historically accurate characters that would have had this kind of international understanding. So on Ruta’s team we also have a character called Andrey Muratov [Egor Koreshkov, picture top]. He’s the child of a White Russian aristocrat, born in Paris but whose family moves back to the Soviet Union after the Second World War when Stalin reached out to them. It’s historically accurate that Stalin encouraged the aristocrats to come back and then threw them in camps. Our character survives by denouncing his parents and becoming a good communist – even though in his heart he is a Frenchman.”

Blaumane’s department muddles along as a backwater until a character called Grigory Biryukov (played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov) turns up. “Western audiences should know Vdovichenkov from the movie Leviathan,” says Idov. “In our series, he plays a hardcore Stalinist functionary demoted to heading up this department. It pits him against Ruta and leads to a love/hate chemistry. The plot then is about Grigory’s slow awakening to different values, while at the same time his ambition leads him to turn the department into a world-changing force. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump scenario, where we don’t change the surface of historical events, but we allow our characters to infiltrate the background and take credit for some decisions taken by anonymous diplomats or Khrushchev.”

Severija Janusauskaite plays Ruta Blaumane

Season one of The Optimists is initially set in May 1960 and runs through until October of the same year (with a brief flashback to 1959). Assuming it continues to rate well, the second season will cover the period running up to the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 1962. Idov isn’t planning too far ahead but if there is a third season it would probably run until Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964 by hardliner Leonid Brezhnev.

Explaining the appeal of the Khrushchev era from a storytelling perspective, Idov says: “Russians have a wildly ambivalent attitude to the Soviet past. It was a time of incredible oppression but it’s hard to dismiss Soviet achievements like space exploration and industrialisation. Within this era, Khrushchev was probably the most palatable leader – despite bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. My research of primary materials suggests he was driven by a desire to see people have more choice and freedom and live better lives. If he hadn’t been removed in 1964, it is possible Russian would have experimented with open borders and a model of socialism more like Sweden’s. He wasn’t innocent but he was liberal enough that, in our show, we could relegate the Stalinists to being the bad guys and have Khrushchev as the good guy.”

The Optimists was produced by Valery Todorovsky Production Company and involved a mix of studio and location work. The show took up two large sound stages at Mosfilm, with one almost entirely filled by a replica of a floor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. As for locations: “We shot some ‘Berlin’ scenes in Kaliningrad, a former German-Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea – famous as the birthplace of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. We also went to Minsk in Belarus to shoot some old-time Moscow scenes, because you get this unspoilt Soviet ambience there. The only time we went out of Russia was to shoot in Paris, for scenes around the 1960 Paris Conference. There’s no place in Russia where you could double Paris. If there was I’d be living there!”

The Optimists airs on Russia 1

The pilot for The Optimists was written in 2010, so it has taken seven years to get to screen (which, incidentally, shows that Idov hasn’t jumped on the spy bandwagon). Along the way, Idov has also written series including Londongrad [a comedy about Russians living in London]. So how has he found the process of writing in Russia?

“Honestly, as a US citizen writing in Russian for a Russian audience, I went in expecting to encounter censorship. But I didn’t. Maybe my material didn’t warrant it, but my empirical experience has been good. My previous show, Londongrad for CTC, was about Russian integration in the West and came out at the height of anti-Western sentiment. But I didn’t get any ideological pushback.”

In terms of process, he says: “One of my main ambitions in working in Russian TV was to accustom them to idea of the screenwriter as a showrunner. Up to this point Russian TV has been a producer or director medium, while writers have been like hired help. For me, it was of paramount importance to work with the director and be involved in casting, editing etc.”

That said, his approach has varied on different projects to date: “With Londongrad, it made more sense to wrestle for control because there were multiple directors – so it was logical to have a head writer who knew the answers. But with The Optimists, we were working with one of Russia’s best directors, Alexei Popogrebsky. So I knew better than to get in his way. In fact, I was keen for him to be involved in the writing process, so he’d often be at the table with me in the early stages.”

One other interesting point about The Optimists is that Idov also composed a lot of the music, including the main title track. “The music is in the style of the early 1960s and is being released as a soundtrack album, which I’m excited about.”

In terms of the show’s international potential, Idov stresses that it is first and foremost designed with a Russian audience in mind – though it was being promoted prominently by SovtelExport at MipTV in April. “I hope it proves appealing to the international audience. I don’t think it’s like the usual kind of drama you see on Russian broadcast TV. The pacing and intricacies of the plot have more in common with a BBC or AMC drama. And the camerawork and direction are tremendous.”

As for what comes next, Idov is keen to come full circle and write TV in the English language. “I’m developing a show for HBO and Sky that capitalises on my in-between status. It takes place in Russia and is a thriller with a futuristic edge. We set it in 2021, which means we have the leeway to be a bit sci-fi. As shorthand, I’m pitching it as House of Cards meets Mr Robot.”

Although the production is being framed as a Western show, Idov is keen not to turn his back on his Russian collaborators: “I have good connections in Russia now and would love the show to have a Russian partner. But they would need to be fearless. The new show will be a no-punches-pulled political thriller.”

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Under the influence

As Twin Peaks returns to television after a 26-year absence, DQ explores the wide-reaching impact the series had on the shows and creatives that came after it.

This Sunday, US premium pay TV channel Showtime will launch the return of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch and Mark Frost drama that first saw the light of day on ABC in 1990. No one knows what to expect, but if the new series is half as ingenious as the original, it will be worth adding to your watch list.

At a time when there is so much great drama on TV, it’s easy to lose sight of the show’s creative significance. The crime drama gripped millions of viewers as Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper investigated the shocking murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee).

But most writers, producers and critics acknowledge that Twin Peaks paved the way for some of the industry’s most iconic scripted series.

Twin Peaks unravels a murder mystery in the titular small town

Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which launched on Fox in 1993, is often cited as an early beneficiary of the Twin Peaks revolution. While the show had more procedural rigour than its predecessor, David Duchovny’s portrayal of FBI agent Fox Mulder owes much to MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. In tone, pacing, geography, humour and supernatural suspense, the creative connection is clear.

Frank Spotnitz, founder of indie producer Big Light Productions, worked on The X-Files for a number of seasons as a writer and showrunner. He recalls that “a lot of us in the writers room were fans of Twin Peaks and the way it took television drama to a new place. It was one of those shows that just seemed impossible at the time. This was an era when the only things on network TV were shows about cops and doctors and lawyers. But then along came this clever, compelling, original series.

“It really was the show that changed what TV meant. It was so cinematic at a time when television drama was rigid. It was mysterious, sexy, chilling and atmospheric. The message it passed on to the rest of us was to have a sense of ambition. If you’re going to make TV, make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.”

Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in the original series

Less immediately obvious is the impact Twin Peaks had on HBO’s landmark gangster series The Sopranos. But the creator of the latter, David Chase, has never been slow to acknowledge his creative debt to the rule-bending nature of Twin Peaks.

The impact of Twin Peaks is also evident in shows such as Lost, Bates Motel, Veronica Mars, Northern Exposure and Wayward Pines. But its impact didn’t stop at the US border. Both the pace of the show and its visual grammar were forerunners of Nordic noir – 10 years before the Scandinavians made their mark. For many, Danish hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing), with its meticulous attention to a single case, is a direct DNA descendant of Twin Peaks. So too is atmospheric French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned).

Twin Peaks’ use of language has also had a defining impact on high-end drama. How many times do we now see shows digress from the central narrative arc or wrong-foot audience with non sequiturs – just as Lynch and Frost did repeatedly with Twin Peaks?

And while there is always a danger of ‘over-attributing’ a work of art’s impact, there are many who see Twin Peaks’ focus on the horrors that exist beneath the surface of small-town life as the prototype for subsequent scripted series.

Broadchurch, Haven, Fortitude, Les Revenants, The Valley, The Kettering Incident and Trapped are just a few examples of recent scripted shows located in similar locked-in communities.

Showrunner Carlton Cuse admits the drama had a huge influence on his career: “It shaped the way Damon Lindelof and I approached Lost, and also my approach to Bates Motel.”

In terms of specifics, he says: “It was intensely visual at a time when most drama relied on dialogue. There was this visually arresting use of negative space – you’d find yourself watching traffic signals as they turned red to green. It was moody and lyrical, like something you’d get from European cinema. And at the same time there was an intentional ambiguity that forced the audience to puzzle out what was going on – not just watch. You had to pay close attention to make sense of things.”

Kyle MacLachlan (left) as Special Agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S Truman

As a seasoned TV professional, Cuse also has the utmost admiration for the fact the show even got made: “There are so many gatekeepers in TV that it was a profound achievement to convince network executives to let it get through in the way it did. It broke so many rules, and in doing so, emboldened Damon and I to break the rules with Lost. It challenged conventions and made a future in TV an attractive option.”

While it’s possible to see overt evidence of Twin Peaks’ impact in a show like Bates Motel, part of the point made by Cuse is that Lynch and Frost encouraged showrunners to interrogate process. So even where a show doesn’t immediately look the same as Twin Peaks, there can be a connection.

Rob Thomas, showrunner on critically acclaimed Veronica Mars and The CW’s ratings hit iZombie, is another who recalls the show-stopping impact of Twin Peaks: “It was the first show I remember going out of my way for. I used to drive to my buddy’s house 40 miles away across Texas to watch with a group of eight friends. We were just obsessed with the show and would record it on VHS so we could spend the next week picking over the clues. For me it was a bit like The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. In a world of prog rock, someone let this crazy album happen. And it was like that with Twin Peaks.”

Interestingly Thomas says the show taught him lessons in both how to make TV and how not to make it. “I wouldn’t take anything away from the show. It had an amazing sense of style and inventiveness that I hadn’t seen in TV before. The offbeat dialogue contributed to a really singular voice. But I remember really thinking about it a lot when I was making Veronica Mars, because it seemed to me that parts of Twin Peaks weren’t mapped out in advance. There’s always a certain amount that you make up as you go along in a 22-episode show, but I was determined to have a clear idea of where I was going.”

Jane Campion’s mesmerising Top of the Lake is another critically acclaimed show that has been compared to Twin Peaks – in part because of its lyrical, atmospheric qualities but also because it is an example of a cinema auteur embracing TV.

Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Birggs and Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings

Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind Top of the Lake, recalls watching Twin Peaks avidly when it first aired: “I was about 20 and couldn’t believe what I was watching. I loved the amazing characterisation, slow-burn narrative, ethereal music [composed by Angelo Badalamenti] and the mystical, moody atmosphere. It played with every assumption about what a television drama series should be.”

For Kousetta, the importance of the show is not just the list of genetic traits that have been handed down to today’s generation of drama producers, but the central role it gave to auteurs: “With Top of the Lake, we were at the forefront of the recent wave of feature film talent coming over to TV,” he says. “But, of course, David Lynch and Twin Peaks were way ahead of anybody. I think its real importance is that it bridged the gap between film and television – because that is one of the factors that is making today’s TV drama so interesting.”

As UK-based Kousetta’s comments illustrate, Twin Peaks’ popularity spread worldwide. In New Zealand, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at prodco Pukeko Pictures, recalls seeing the show when she was a college student.

“I think all of us bought into its filmic qualities,” she explains. “It was a dark, visually arresting piece of television that was unlike anything we’d seen before. Looking back, the thing that probably stands out most for me is the extraordinary casting. The show wasn’t filled with beautiful or gorgeous people. It prioritised quirky, interesting and weird talent, and that is something I see in drama casting today.”

Chatfield, whose company is a coproducer on Australian fantasy series Cleverman, also makes the point that Twin Peaks was an early example of world-building in TV, something that now informs so many series from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.

That this emphasis on a coherent mythology was intentional is evident from a 2014 Variety interview in which Mark Frost said: “I felt in Twin Peaks we were more or less filming a novel – drilling down to a level of detail you weren’t used to seeing in network storytelling. Over the years, many people have credited us with inspiring them to think differently in how to tell stories.”

Hopefully, a new generation of talent will feel equally inspired after the return of Twin Peaks.


David Lynch (third from left) is joined by returning cast members Kyle MacLachlan (far left), Kimmy Robertson (third from right) and Mädchen Amick (second from right), plus newcomers Laura Dern (second from left) and Robert Forster (far right)

The return of Twin Peaks: What do we know?

So what do we know about the new Twin Peaks? Well, not much, since those involved are sworn to secrecy.

The new project is 18 hours long, the cast is broadly the same – Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper – and the action takes place 25 years after the occurrences of the original two seasons. This time lag is, reportedly, significant to the plot.

But just days ahead of the premiere, on Sunday May 21, little remains known about the story, although episode descriptions could provide some clues.

Meanwhile, the returning cast are continuing to remain steadfastly tightlipped about what is in store for viewers, with little being revealed ahead of its launch.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, David Lynch gave little away during a surprise appearance. But when quizzed on what viewers should expect, he said: “I see it as a film. And a film in parts is what people will experience. This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are hopefully met when they see the thing.”

As to whether the show might go beyond its initial 18-episode run, Lynch said: “Before I said I wasn’t going to revisit it, and I did. You never say no. But right now there’s no plan for more.”

There is a possible hint of a warning in comments made by Showtime president David Nevins, who told Deadline Hollywood the new season “rewards close watching” and is “the pure-heroin version of David Lynch.” That sounds like it will appeal to Lynch junkies, but it may prove a little too challenging for most viewers.

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There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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The Cannes selection

Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.

In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.

Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.

There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.

This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.

Expectations are high for forthcoming German series Babylon Berlin

The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.

So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.

All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.

There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.

The Ride Upon the Storm main cast (L-R): Lars Mikkelsen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen

There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.

The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).

Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.

Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”

Russia’s The Territory follows the investigation into a set of ritualistic murders

Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.

The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”

A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.

“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”

Missions is about a voyage to the red planet gone awry

The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.

All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”

In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.

Fearless stars Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory

Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.

Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.

Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.

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Novela titans at Natpe

From romance and comedy to politics and crime, the Latin drama line-up at Natpe 2017 looks as entertaining as ever. DQ examines some of the new titles being showcased at the Miami event.

In recent years, Miami programme market Natpe has firmly established itself as a global distribution hub. However, its location means it is also an exceptionally strong platform for telenovelas and other forms of Latino drama. As in previous years, the 2017 edition will see a broad array of launches from leading players like Globo, Televisa, Telemundo and Telefe.

Parts of Me follows a lonely man who finds out he’s the father of seven kids

Brazilian giant Globo is in Miami with a large slate of titles including Lady Revolution, a telenovela about a woman striving to achieve her dream of freedom in the 18th century, and Parts of Me, a telenovela about a lonely man who finds out he’s the father of seven kids.

The broadcaster also has a telenovela that fits neatly into the recent trend towards time travel stories. Entitled Time After Time, the show is a love story centring on a young couple called Livia and Felipe. Prevented from living a love story in the 19th century, they are given a second chance 150 years later when their souls return in a different context but with a love just as intense and true as before. In Brazil, the show reached 173 million viewers (according to Ibope) and generated around 654,000 comments on social networks.

Above Justice follows four different people arrested over a single night

Globo, more than most Latin American companies, has made an effort to internationalise its offering. While telenovelas are still the cornerstone of its output, the company is also at Natpe with a number of shorter shows. One is the 16-episode series Above Justice, headed by Avenida Brasil co-director Jose Luiz Villamarim. With its high-profile cast, the show follows four different people arrested over a single night in Brazil’s Atlantic coast city of Recife. Slowly, their storylines intertwine in a narrative turning on crime, justice and revenge. At home, the show was a big hit, securing 41 million viewers a day.

Also on Globo’s slate are 10-episode limited series Nothing Remains the Same, a love story set in the 1950s; and Supermax, a psychological thriller, also 10-episodes. The latter show will be especially interesting to international buyers because it has been produced in Spanish – as opposed to Globo’s native Portuguese. The goal is for the show to be sold to Hispanic US and Spanish-speaking South American markets, though the length means it should attract attention outside the Americas.

The Candidate follows a woman who challenges her corrupt politician husband

Vying for attention with Globo will be Mexican heavyweight Televisa, arguably the leading force in telenovela exports. Titles at Natpe include A Beloved Man, My Sweet Curse, In Love With Ramon, No Trace Of You, Love Divina and The Candidate. Between them, these titles cover the romance, comedy, melodrama and teen genres. Probably the most high profile is The Candidate, which follows a woman’s decision to challenge her corrupt politician husband for the role of president. There is, of course, also a love triangle involving an old flame.

Most of Televisa’s Natpe titles come in batches of 60 or 120 episodes. The exception is No Trace of You, a 10-part drama. In this one, Julia, a young paediatrician with a promising future, vanishes the night before her wedding. Five years later, a college student discovers a woman in a wedding gown, beaten, and covered in blood. It’s Julia – sans memory.

Iron Lady centres on a prosecutor tracking the drug lord who killed her father

One big theme in telenovelas has always been empowered women (The Candidate, La Patrona, La Duena etc). Mexico’s other major telenovela player TV Azteca Internacional (TVAI) has an example on its slate in the shape of Iron Lady, about a strong-willed prosecutor on the trail of the drug lord who killed her father. Also on the TVAI slate are titles such as Nothing Personal, Missing Bride, What Women Keep in Silence and Living To Race. The latter is a high-octane action drama that uses the legend of Mexican racing drivers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez as the backdrop to a contemporary racing series.

Telemundo Internacional is the distribution arm of Hispanic US network Telemundo. Its Natpe slate includes hot new title El Chema, which started airing in December. A spin-off of the extremely popular and long-running drug baron series El Señor de los Cielos (The Lord of the Skies), the show follows Chema Venegas’ first years working in Mexico’s world of organised crime and his ascent to become the renowned cartel leader seen in the parent show. The decision to spin off a show is no real surprise given that El Señor de los Cielos has now racked up in the region of 340 episodes on Telemundo.

El Chema was spun off from popular and long-running series El Señor de los Cielos

Other titles on Telemundo’s slate include La Doña, Ambar and La Fan, which tells the story of a passionate fan of a famous telenovela actor. One day, fate brings the two together. At first, he hardly notices her, but before long he can’t imagine his life without her. La Doña, meanwhile, is based on Doña Barbara, a novel by Romulo Gallegos. Typically telenovela, it is the story of a strong-willed, ruthless woman who brings bad men to justice (another example of the fascination with strong women).

One big news story on the eve of Natpe was that Mexico-based distributor Comarex has taken control of the rights to Cisneros Media Distribution (CMD)’s catalogue outside the US and Spain. The deal is reckoned to involve around 30,000 hours of programming. Comarex will be at Natpe with CMD’s content as well as shows from Canal 13 in Chile and Canal 11 in Mexico.

A Thread of Blue Blood looks at the death of a financial expert and a journalist’s bid to solve the case

Key titles from Venezuela-based CMD include Entre Tu Amor Y Mi Amor (Separated by Love), which follows the story of a young woman, Sol, who leaves her country home for the city in search of a better life. Here she falls in love with Alejandro, not knowing he is the son of the evil woman who swindled her parents and had them killed when she was a baby. The show has already been licensed to US streaming platform Glosi.

From Canal 13 Chile, Comarex will have Preciosas (Runaways), the story of four women who meet while serving time in jail. They include Lorena, a 30-year-old who has been wrongly convicted of the murder of Juan Pablo, a co-worker. Lorena seeks to clear her name with the help of Alex, her defence lawyer and with whom she will (surprise!) have a romance.

The regional variety of shows at Natpe is enhanced by the presence of Telefe Internacional (Argentina), RCN (Colombia) and Caracol Internacional (Colombia). The former is in Miami with titles such as Dear Daddies, Love After Love, Educating Nina, The Return of Lucas and ratings hit Story of a Clan (35% share on Telefe in a weekday 23.00 slot). The latter continues the fascination with Latino crime families, telling the story of the real-life Puccio crime family. Strong Latino women is again the subject in telenovela Lioness, about a female textile factory worker who rallies her fellow worker to gain rights (while falling in love with the new factory owner along the way).

Caracol’s contribution to the fun is A Carnival Affair, Pursuit of a Dream and Surviving Pablo Escobar Alias JJ, the latter based on the book by John Jairo Velasquez, who was a lieutenant in the drugs lord’s gang. RCN, meanwhile, is promoting Ruled By Love, Azucar and A Thread of Blue Blood. The latter revolves around the death of a financial expert and the attempt by a journalist to discover the cause. All RCN titles are 70 episodes or more.

All of the above players are local producer-broadcasters, which tends to be the norm in the Latin American telenovela business. But there are a few notable exceptions. Sony Pictures Television, for example, has some celebrity-themed telenovelas nestling in amongst its slate of international dramas. These include Paquita La Del Barrio, about the life and career of Mexican singer Francicsa Viveros; and Blue Demon, the fictionalised life story of the famed Mexican wrestler.

Séries Mania 2016 Grand Prix winning crime drama El Marginal

Israel’s Dori Media is another company that long ago identified the global appeal of Latino-produced telenovelas. At Natpe, its key titles include Por Amarte Asi (Loving You), which follows the twists and turns in the life of a father and daughter who get a chance to fall in love with partners despite the difficult circumstances that brought them together. Echoing the trend identified above, Dori has also been exploring non-telenovela options. For example, at Natpe it will present the Séries Mania 2016 Grand Prix winning crime drama El Marginal, a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica. Created by Sebastian Ortega. El Marginal premiered on TV Publica in Argentina in June last year, where it has gone on to more than triple its timeslot ratings on the channel.

Another company that sits outside the norm is Argentine producer POL-KA, which will be at Natpe under its own banner. Titles on its slate include Quiero Vivir A Tu Lado, Los Ricos No Piden Permiso and Guapas. The latter, Cunning Girls in English, is a 174-episode drama about five women who lose all their savings after their bank closes down. They pull together to get back on track both financially and emotionally. POL-KA, it’s worth noting, is also a partner in Televisa’s Love Divina.

Finally, a word on Brazil’s number two channel Record TV, which is at Natpe with a slate of epic religious dramas including The Promised Land, Moses and the Ten Commandments, The Miracles of Jesus and Joseph from Egypt. An explanation for this emphasis is that Record TV is owned by colourful Brazilian billionaire businessman Edir Macedo, who is also founder and leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

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Happy endings

Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?

The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.

But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.

Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.

This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.

“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”

Did the early announcement that Mad Men’s seventh season would be its last help Jon Hamm (second from right) finally win an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper?

Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”

A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.

Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”

Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”

This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”

Networks would undoubtedly be keen to extend the The Night Manager, but the people behind the show decided against continuing the series

This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.

Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”

One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.

The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.

Creator John Logan was behind the decision to end Penny Dreadful after three seasons

So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”

There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.

Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.

Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.

It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.

Bates Motel is among shows to have been granted a ‘soft landing’ as opposed to immediate cancellation

Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”

A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.

Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”

None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.

While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.

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Fan power

Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?

Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.

You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.

It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.

“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”

Starz series Outlander was developed from novels by Diana Gabaldon

For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”

Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.

This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.

As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”

For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”

One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”

Like Outlander, Preacher is based on source material with a legion of loyal fans, whose reaction to the adaptation is crucial

Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”

Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.

“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”

A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”

While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.

This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.

Darren Prew and Kerry Ford (second and third from right) dressed as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targayen after they won a Blinkbox Movies competition to hold a Game of Thrones-style wedding at Eastnor Castle

“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”

Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”

Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.

In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.

That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.

A costumed fan meets The Flash himself, Grant Gustin

Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”

Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”

However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”

While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.

These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”

Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.

“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”

Supergirl’s David Harewood poses with a fan of the show

This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.

At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”

While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.

If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.

However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.

This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”

Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.

Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”

This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

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A global tour of 2016’s best new dramas

It would be easy to fill a 2016 review with the huge volume of excellent US scripted shows that have been pumped out this year. But for the final column of the year, we’re looking back on some of the new shows from around the world that have made their mark, be it in terms of audience, sales or critical acclaim.

Baron Noir: There were some heavyweight French TV productions this year, including Section Zero, Marseille and France/Sweden copro Midnight Sun. But the one that has secured the highest rating on IMDb is StudioCanal’s Baron Noir. A Canal+ Création Originale, Baron Noir follows French politician Philippe Rickwaert’s thirst for revenge against his political enemies. Launched to critical acclaim in France, with a second season now in development, this “French House of Cards” has been picked up internationally by SBS Australia, Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland and Sony Channel in Germany. “Baron Noir is a gripping political thriller and a masterpiece of French storytelling,” said Carsten Fink, VP of German-speaking Europe at Sony Pictures Television Networks.

Cleverman: This New Zealand/Australia/US coproduction was a clever fusion of aboriginal mythology and dystopian sci-fi. Backed by funding from Screen NSW, the six-part show debuted in June 2016 on ABC Australia, achieving an audience average of around 300,000. It also aired on Sundance in the US, which joined the production during development. While Cleverman wasn’t a huge ratings hit, it did get a positive response from critics. The Boston Herald said it was “unlike any other TV miniseries you’ve seen before. The gritty Australian production uses a sci-fi backdrop to test notions of racial identity and integration with a twist of supernatural terror.” Red Arrow International has sold the show to broadcasters including BBC3 in the UK. It has also been greenlit for a second season, with Sundance again on board.

The Crown: Some would argue that Netflix’s best new series this year was Stranger Things. But the show that has undoubtedly attracted the most attention is The Crown, a US$100m dramatic exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9. The success of The Crown has even encouraged some analysts to raise their share price targets for the SVoD platform. A second season has already been commissioned and the ambition is that the series will run for five or six seasons. For more about The Crown, see this DQ feature.

Descendants of the Sun: The most-hyped Korean drama of the year was Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. But the series that seems to have really done the business is this love story between a special forces soldier and a female doctor. Descendants of the Sun was a major hit for KBS in Korea and then sold to more than 30 countries around the world. It was especially popular across Asia. In China, it aired simultaneously with the South Korean broadcast, achieving 2.3 billion streams on iQiyi. Its popularity in China caused concern with the country’s Ministry of Public Security, which warned viewers that “watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and even lead to legal troubles.”

Insider (Icerde): It’s been another prolific year for Turkish drama. One of the standout shows of the year was Ay Yapim’s Insider, about two estranged brothers who end up on opposite sides of the law. The show debuted on Show TV on September 19 and proved a big ratings hit. Gaining an audience share of almost 12%, Insider beat everything except for Orphan Flowers (Kirgin Cicekler), a popular ATV series that was launched in 2015 to great acclaim. The show is distributed by Eccho Rights. For more on Turkey, read this DQ piece.

Ku’Damm 56: This UFA drama centres on a group of young women seeking to break free from stuffy social conventions in 1950s Germany. The show, which aired on ZDF, was a major hit, attracting 6.3 million viewers for its season finale (an impressive 19.6% share of the audience). The show was developed and written by Annette Hess, whose previous successes include Weissensee. It was one of the 12 new dramas featured at the Mipdrama Screenings.

Medici: Masters of Florence: This show provided an illustration of how Italian broadcasters are now flexing their muscles on the international stage. Although produced in English and distributed by a French company (Wild Bunch TV), Medici was originally commissioned by Italian public broadcaster Rai. The show, which features Dustin Hoffman, debuted well on Rai Uno, securing an audience of 7.6 million. It has now been renewed for a second season and licensed to the likes of Sky Deutschland and Netflix (US, UK, India).

The Night Manager: A huge hit for the BBC in the UK, this was a six-part adaptation of John le Carre’s novel of the same name. The limited series also aired on AMC in the US and has been sold to around 180 countries worldwide by IMG. With a cast headed by Tom Hiddlestone, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, the show was indicative of a couple of key trends – first, a shift towards Anglo-American drama coproductions; and, second, a realisation that some stories are better told through the medium of TV than film. At time of writing the show is in the running for a Golden Globe, having previously picked up a couple of Primetime Emmy Awards. One of these went to talent Danish director Susanne Bier. For more on The Night Manager, see this DQ feature.

Pasión y Poder (Passion & Power): This Mexican telenovela comes from the Televisa stable. A remake of a successful 1988 telenovela, it centres on the rivalry between two families. The show aired on Televisa from Autumn 2015 through to Spring 2016, comprising 80 episodes. It also aired on Univision in the US and became the channel’s number one telenovela of 2016. The finale was especially strong, attracting 5.2 million viewers – more than rival shows on CBS, NBC and Fox. Also airing on Hulu, Passion & Power was a big winner at the 2016 TVyNovelas Awards.

Public Enemy: Nobody knew much about Belgian drama Public Enemy until this year’s MipTV. All that changed after the Zodiak Rights-distributed show won the market’s first-ever Coup De Coeur. Sarah Wright, director of acquisitions at Sky and one of the executives that selected the show, said: “We chose Public Enemy because we felt it was brave, it was strong, it was fresh, it had twists and turns. It feels like something that will travel.” After its MipTV boost, that’s exactly what happened, with the show being picked up by Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany and TF1 in France among others. Producer François Touwaide, Entre Chien et Loup, said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched jointly by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium we are very happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by Zodiak Rights.”

This Is Us: On the US network front, Dan Fogelman’s family drama for NBC has been one of the most talked-about new shows of 2016. The show, which is currently on a winter break, averaged 9-10 million viewers per showing across its first 10 episodes and is expected to keep up that momentum when it returns for eight more instalments on January 10. Another Golden Globe nominee, it would be a major surprise if This Is Us doesn’t get a second season. Indeed, Fogelman recently said he has four seasons’ worth of stories sketched out. A marathon of the first 10 episodes will air on USA Network on January 7 ahead of NBC’s next episode. The show has been licensed overseas to broadcasters including Channel 4 UK. Click here for the Guardian’s assessment of the first season.

Trapped: This Icelandic drama actually aired on RÚV on 27 December 2015, but it seems churlish to exclude it from the class of 2016 on that basis. Created and directed by Baltasar Kormakur, the show has subsequently aired across Scandinavia and on BBC4, France 2 and ZDF in Western Europe. Other markets to acquire the show included Australia, Poland and the US, where The Weinstein Company purchased the rights. The tense thriller is part of a second wave of Nordic noir series that has seen Iceland, Norway and Finland all become significant international players. In September 2016, RÚV Iceland announced that a second 10-episode season had been commissioned for release in late 2018.

Westworld: There’s such a lot of great US drama in the market that it’s difficult to single out just one or two shows. But HBO’s movie reboot Westworld certainly deserves a mention. With a budget of around US$100m, the show is shaping up as a potential successor to the channel’s monster hit Game of Thrones. Nominated for a Golden Globe, Westworld recently finished its first season with an average audience of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date at 2.2 million. All of which bodes well for the second season, which is likely to air in 2018.

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Sister’s doing it for itself

Naomi Alderman

UK indie producer Sister Pictures has picked up the rights to Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel The Power with a view to turning it into a long-running global series.

The rights were acquired from Georgina Ruffhead at David Higham Associates after what was described as an 11-way auction – all of which shows the continued importance of books as the basis of TV drama.

The Power imagines a world where women gain the physical ability to electrocute at will. This results in an overhaul of the existing world order with women using their new-found power to wrest control of society from men.

The series will be written by Alderman, who said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Sister Pictures and [CEO] Jane Featherstone. Jane’s track record and her commitment to excellence in writing speak for themselves, and Sister Pictures’ deep understanding of the book impressed me.”

Explaining how a single book will be turned into a long-running global series, Alderman added: “Readers of The Power are already asking me if there’ll be a sequel. There won’t be another novel, probably, but there are definitely so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book. I can’t wait to expand this story and bring electric women to TV screens around the world.”

Desiree Akhavan

Featherstone added: “Naomi is one of the boldest and most interesting authors of our time and we are beyond thrilled to be working with her as she adapts her own brilliant and compelling book for TV. The Power is a story of our times; clever, funny, important and original, it asks us to consider a world where the shifting balances of power create a new and dangerous dynamic.”

The Power is the latest in a line of projects from Sister Pictures focusing on strong female characters created by women writers. The company is already working on a show for Channel 4 called The Bisexual. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behaviour), it focuses on a New York woman navigating the world of gay and straight dating in London. Sister calls it “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality, and what it means to refuse to compromise on what you want.”

Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American who was brought up in New York, echoed Alderman’s enthusiasm: “Getting to play in the sandbox with such intelligent collaborators at Sister Pictures and Channel 4 is an absolute dream come true. They’re the perfect partners in crime for a taboo sex comedy.”

Sister has also teamed up with Abi Morgan (River, Suffragette, The Hour) on The Split, a new BBC1 drama that examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose. Hannah and Nina are leading divorce and family law lawyers, while Rose is still searching for her place in life.

Julia Roberts

Morgan said: “As Robin Williams once said, ‘Divorce is expensive – like ripping your heart out through your wallet.’ The Split exposes the complex realities of high-end divorce and broken marriage through female divorce lawyers and sisters bound by their own troubled past.”

Sticking with the subject of talented and empowered women, it was revealed this week that movie icon Julia Roberts is to star in a new limited TV series. Based on Maria Semple’s novel Today Will Be Different, the show tells the story of a woman named Eleanor Flood who makes plans to have the best day of her life, but wakes up to find a strange new future unfolding.

Semple, who has worked as a TV writer and producer (she was nominated twice for WGA Awards for comedy Arrested Development), will pen the screen adaptation. She said: “I’m giddy that Eleanor will be brought to life by Julia Roberts. This will be a fun ride!” No network has been confirmed for the show as yet.

In Spain, meanwhile, media giant Mediapro has picked up the rights to Lo Que Esconde Tu Nombre (What Your Name Conceals), a bestselling novel by Clara Sánchez that has shifted 1.5 million copies in 25 countries.

Clara Sánchez

A psychological thriller, the book centres on a young pregnant girl called Sandra, who goes to live by the sea to decide what to do with her life. There she meets an old couple, who take her in as part of their family. However, Sandra’s path crosses that of a Second World War concentration camp survivor, who reveals things from the past that cause her to distrust the couple. What Sandra doesn’t realise is that the end of her innocence will put her in danger.

Sánchez was born in Guadalajara in 1955 and grew up in Valencia before moving to Madrid. In 1989 she published Precious Stones and has gone on to publish a total of 11 novels to date (the latest in 2013). What Your Name Conceals was written in 2010. There are no details yet as to who will handle the TV adaptation.

Also in the news is 1980s teen star Molly Ringwald, who has been lined up to star in The CW’s new TV series Riverdale, a dark and subversive take on a classic Archie Comics franchise. This project is being developed/written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater. Aguirre-Sacasa, who has worked on series like Glee, wrote the pilot episode of Riverdale. He is also chief creative officer of Archie Comics and wrote the 2013 screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.

Molly Ringwald

Finally, on the novel-adaptation front, French producer Authentic and Federation Entertainment, the firm behind Netflix drama Marseille, have secured the TV rights to Le Temps Est Assassin (Time is a Killer), a thriller by best-selling French author Michel Bussi.

The deal, with French publishing house Presses de la Cité, will see an eight-part series created from the book, which tells the story of a woman who suffers a tragic accident resulting in the loss of her family. Federation will distribute the show abroad.

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Sky Deutschland bets big on original drama

Stefan Ruzowitzky

European pay TV broadcaster Sky has been investing in original scripted content for a few years now, but the last 12 months have undoubtedly seen the company increase its ambition in German-speaking territories. This week, for example, it announced an order for eight-episode drama Eight Days.

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters), the limited series focuses on the reaction to the news that an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth and is predicted to crash somewhere in Europe in eight days’ time. It follows a German family as they live through what they expect will be the last eight days of humanity.

Asteroids are a well-worn theme in the movies but Frank Jastfelder, director of drama production at Sky Deutschland, said this project was different: “We were excited about Eight Days because everyone asked themselves the same question: How would I react in such a situation? In response to this question, Eight Days delivers emotional, always surprising and highly dramatic answers – and steers clear of all the Hollywood clichés.”

Eight Days will begin production midway through next year, by which time Sky Deutschland will have aired another of its big drama investments, Babylon Berlin. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries, this US$45m show is a coproduction between Sky Deutschland, ARD Degeto, X Filme and Beta Film. It follows Gereon Rath, a police inspector in 1929 Berlin, a hotbed of politics, art, extremism and drugs.

Babylon Berlin stars Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Frise

Two seasons (16 episodes in total) of Babylon Berlin have been set up so far, though there is potential for the franchise to run and run because it is based on a popular book series by Volker Kutscher. So far, Kutscher has written six Gereon Rath books but only the first forms the basis of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin.

Another ambitious project in the works is Das Boot, a €25m (US$26m) coproduction between Sky Deutschland and German producer Bavaria Film adapted from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s classic 1973 novel of the same name. Based on the wartime experiences of a German U-boat crew, this series will air in 2018 across all the Sky territories: Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy.

Sky Deutschland’s investment in new drama is also being backed by the acquisition of international titles. Earlier in December, the company acquired all five seasons of FremantleMedia International’s hit prison drama Wentworth. The deal marks the first time Wentworth will be available to German-speaking viewers. Season one premiered on Sky Deutschland’s recently launched flagship channel Sky1 on December 7.

Trapped represented a breakthrough in terms of French backing for Nordic drama

Elsewhere in the world of European TV drama, YLE Finland and Mediapro of Spain are joining forces to make a Nordic noir drama called The Paradise. The project is the first time that a Spanish production company has collaborated with a Finnish channel.

The Paradise is a thriller set among the Finnish community living on the Costa del Sol. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by a series of crimes that can only be solved by a joint collaboration between the Finnish and Spanish police forces.

The show is being developed by YLE head of drama Jarmo Lampela and Bordertown writer Matti Laine alongside Mediapro’s Ran Tellem and David Troncoso. Although it is the first Finnish/Spanish collaboration, it is part of a much broader trend towards Nordic partnerships with other European countries. The trend was really kicked off by German broadcasters, the first to spot the international appeal of Nordic drama. The Brits then got interested, first in Wallander and more recently Marcella.

A key breakthrough came last year when France TV came on board Icelandic thriller Trapped. Further French backing for Nordic drama has been evident in the cases of Midnight Sun and Bordertown, a YLE crime series coproduced with Federation Entertainment. That show was a hit on YLE1, with a record 1.1 million viewers and a renewal. That bodes well for The Paradise.

Turkey’s Elif has now been sold into 16 territories

Also this week, The Mark Gordon Company and its parent company Entertainment One (eOne) have joined forces with Xavier Marchand’s newly established UK-based production outfit Moonriver Content.

Under the Moonriver banner, Marchand will acquire, develop and produce film and TV projects with a focus on UK and European stories and talent. The move is expected to increase the volume of UK and European projects coming to Mark Gordon and eOne for financing, coproducing and distributing.

Marchand said: “In partnership with Mark Gordon and his superb team, and with the backing of eOne, I look forward to building on existing relationships and fostering new ones in film and TV.”

On the distribution front, Eccho Rights has revealed that two new broadcasters have picked up hit Turkish drama Elif, which airs on Kanal 7 in its home market. Bangladeshi network Deepto TV and Georgian broadcaster Imedi TV take total sales for the show 16 territories including Chile, where it recently debuted on TVN. Produced by Green Yapim, the show’s third season aired in September – with a total run of 250 45-minute episodes.

A spin-off from How I Met Your Mother is likely

Also this week, SVoD service Hulu picked up the US rights to UK drama National Treasure from All3Media International. Written by Jack Thorne, National Treasure follows a popular comedian, played by Robbie Coltrane, whose life is turned upside down when he is charged with sexual assaults alleged to have taken place 20 years ago. The four-parter first aired on Channel 4 in the UK and will debut as a Hulu original series on March 1 next year.

Finally, there are exciting reports for fans of cult CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. According to Deadline, a spin-off entitled How I Met Your Father is now in the works with This Is Us co-executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in charge. HIMYM ran for nine seasons between 2005 and 2014 racking up 208 episodes. The final episode included a controversial twist ending that didn’t go down well with a lot of fans. But it still attracted an audience of more than 13 million.

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Daniels’ Star risks implosion

Star has not been received well by TV critics

Lee Daniels has made a strong impression with Empire, the music industry show that has been rating so well on Fox in the US. But it looks like he is going to have a tougher time with his follow-up drama Star, which debuted on the same network on Wednesday.

The series follows three young women trying to break into the music scene. Star (played by Jude Demorest) has spent most of her life in foster care following her mother’s death from a drug overdose. She forms a girl group with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), an aspiring singer who (unknown to Star) is the daughter of a wealthy rock musician; and her 16-year-old sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), who she has not seen in five years.

At time of writing, the audience figures aren’t in but an IMDb score of 6.8 doesn’t augur well. Nor do the reviews, with critics quick to pan the series. The Chicago Tribune, for example, complained about the show’s “stilted dialogue” and “sloppy narrative,” while the New York Times said Star was “all over the place.” According to the NYT, “Empire’s first season set a standard for narrative drive and engaging storytelling that Star doesn’t approach in its initial three episodes. What Star doesn’t have is a Cookie – a Taraji P. Henson to light a fire that would draw your attention away from the tackiness of the show. It needs a star.”

Baron Noir – ‘the French House of Cards’

It’s early days, of course, but it looks like Daniels will need a rapid turnaround in fortunes to keep the network bosses happy. If not, the show could go the same way as HBO’s musical miss Vinyl.

Turning to French-language/French-produced drama, the last few years have seen a steady stream of acclaimed shows coming on to the international market – examples including Braquo, Spiral, The Returned and Witnesses. 2016 has also been a pretty positive year, with series like Netflix’s Marseilles, the France-Sweden copro Midnight Sun and English-language epic Versailles attracting a lot of interest. Not to be overlooked either is The Bureau, a political thriller that has picked up a strong following on iTunes in the US and Amazon in the UK; or the two Belgian series, Truce and Public Enemy, which have attracted critical acclaim.

There are signs that this momentum will be maintained into 2017 following the news that StudioCanal has sold the German-speaking rights for eight-part series Baron Noir to Sony Channel.

A Canal+ Création Originale, Baron Noir follows French politician Philippe Rickwaert’s thirst for revenge against his political enemies. Launched to critical acclaim in France, with a second season now in development, this “French House of Cards” has also been acquired by SBS Australia and Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland. “Baron Noir is a gripping political thriller and a masterpiece of French storytelling. We are proud to premiere this series on Sony Channel,” said Carsten Fink, VP of German-speaking Europe at Sony Pictures Television Networks.

Skam’s audience figures have skyrocketed this year

Another show in the news this week is the cult Norwegian youth series Skam (Shame), which is to be adapted for the US market by XIX Entertainment’s Simon Fuller. “Shame is an important show,” Fuller said. “There is precious little content created primarily for a teen audience and Shame provides this with great honesty and integrity. This show packs a punch and is leading the way in exploring multi-platform storytelling. It has become an enormous hit in Norway and has the potential to become an influential show in America, where there is simply nothing like it. Scandinavia and Norway in particular is at the forefront of innovation and creativity in the shaping of the world’s digital and creative industries right now. I’m proud to be in partnership with NRK to take Shame to a worldwide audience.”

Created by Julie Andem for NRK Super, Skam tackles topics such as school, depression, sex, homosexuality, alcohol and religion. With a fourth series now commissioned, the show has seen its weekly audience grow from 24,000 to 1.26 million in 2016. It is also popular in Denmark and Sweden and has picked up a strong teen audience via social media platforms. Addressing the deal with Fuller, Håkon Moslet, head of youth TV for NRK added: “A lot of people in the TV industry have got their eyes on Skam this fall, but no one has got a vision like Simon Fuller. He wants to be true to the original idea and make Shame a series that can change the rules in the American TV market. We’re honoured he wants to take our baby to the next international level.”

Shameless’s Emmy Rossum has agreed a new deal with Showtime

Also this week, there’s good news for Showtime following reports that the premium pay TV channel has signed a new salary deal with Shameless star Emmy Rossum. A holdup over Rossum’s pay demands had threatened the future of the show, but now that this has been resolved it leaves the door open for an eighth season of Shameless, which also stars William H Macy.

Although Showtime has not yet officially ordered an eighth run, it is very likely to do so. Shameless is currently Showtime’s second strongest performer behind Homeland and ahead of Ray Donovan and Billions. With The Affair experiencing a substantial drop in ratings for season three, having the stability that Shameless provides must surely be a priority for Showtime. Shameless is based on a UK show of the same name. Created by Paul Abbott, the original version ran for 11 seasons on Channel 4.

Finally this week, Tribune Broadcasting-owned cable network WGN has cancelled its witch-themed drama Salem after three seasons. The show, which is centred on the 17th century witch trials, is currently averaging around 260,000 viewers – well down on its performance in seasons one and two. To date, WGN has had a hit-and-miss record on drama origination. Manhattan was also a poor performer but Underground and Outsiders have both done well for the network and have been renewed for second seasons.

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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China opens up to outside influences

The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou
The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou

About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.

This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.

Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide
Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide

There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.

Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”

Left Bank Pictures' reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast
Left Bank Pictures’ reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast

Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.

Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.

The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”

Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”

Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.

Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case
Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case

In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.

Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.

Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.

Pitch could perform better on a new network
Pitch could perform better on a new network

With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.

If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.

Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am
Aussie comedy Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am resulted from a Fresh Blood pitch

The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.

Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”

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Reign ends but royalty remains

Reign dramatises the life of Mary, Queen of ScotsOn Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.

thecrownThe Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).

victoriaVictoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.

tudorsThe Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.

versaillesVersailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.

magnificent-century-kosem-10Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.

theroyalsThe Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.

mary-princessMary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.

the-queens-sisterThe Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.

powerandpassionCharles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.

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Discovery draws up its Manifesto

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber
Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber

Series like The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story have proved there is a healthy market for well-told dramas based on real events. So it’s interesting to see that Discovery Channel is coming to market soon with Manifesto, a highly anticipated series that looks at the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.

This week, Discovery announced that actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) will star in the show as FBI Agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, whose innovative new approach to intelligence gathering ultimately led to the capture of the Unabomber. Kaczynski himself will be played by British actor Paul Bettany.

The show, which is produced by Lionsgate and Trigger Street Productions, is being written by Andrew Sodroski, a former Harvard graduate. It has taken Sodroski a while to get a break in the TV business, but finally things look like they’re coming good. Aside from Manifesto, he is also working on a project for Amazon Studios entitled Holland, Michigan. This comedy-thriller centres on a schoolteacher who, suspecting that her husband is cheating on her, enlists the help of a fellow teacher she fancies.

Fact-based drama is a good fit for Discovery and is an area where it has already enjoyed significant success in. In September, it aired Harley & the Davidsons, which delivered 4.4 million viewers and became the most-watched single-network cable miniseries in three-and-a-half years. Echoing the OJ Simpson series, which aired on FX, Discovery wants Manifesto to be the first in an anthology series of dramas that focus on infamous criminal masterminds.

Tom Hardy at Content London
Tom Hardy at Content London

Another upcoming dramas attracting attention right now is actor Tom Hardy’s Taboo, which will air on BBC1 in the UK and FX in the US. A historical period drama, it follows an adventurer who returns to the UK from Africa to avenge the death of his father. Hardy created the idea with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight.

Knight, of course, has built up a loyal fanbase through his acclaimed gangster series Peaky Blinders. The new show, which focuses on the activities of the East India Company, will provide him with the same kind of complex political web that has made Peaky Blinders such an enjoyable romp.

Commenting on the show, he said that the East India Company will be depicted as a mix of “the CIA, NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on Earth.”

Knight and Hardy Snr are credited as writers on the series – as is Emily Ballou, an Australian-American poet, novelist and screenwriter. Among Ballou’s high-profile TV credits are Channel 4’s Humans, ITV’s Scott & Bailey and The Slap from ABC in Australia.

Emily Ballou
Emily Ballou

Over the past couple of days, the Australian screen industry has gathered to announce the winners in the sixth Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. On the scripted TV front, recipients in a range of categories have included Rake, No Activity, The Beautiful Lie, Cleverman, Secret City, Down Under, Molly, Mary: The Making of a Princess, The Kettering Incident, Wentworth and Wolf Creek.

There’s a lot of great drama in that list but it’s interesting to note that the award for Best Screenplay in Television went to Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell for ABC’s Comedy Showroom – The Letdown. To win the award they had to beat competition from The Beautiful Lie, The Kettering Incident and Upper Middle Bogan.

The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit
The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit

The Letdown tells the story of a struggling new mum (played by Bell) and the mother’s group she thinks she doesn’t need. Originally shot as a one-off as part of the Comedy Showroom strand of pilots, the show’s strong performance means it is set to reappear next year as a full series. The Letdown is Bell’s first writing credit, although she is well established as an actress. Scheller also has a bit of an acting track record and was a writer on the comedy No Activity.

Good news for Marvel fans this week following the news that Netflix has ordered a second season of its series Luke Cage. This follows previous second-season orders for other Netflix/Marvel collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Luke Cage was created for TV by Cheo Hodari Coker, who also leads a 12-strong writing room. A former music journalist with an intimate knowledge of the rap scene, Coker’s other TV credits include Southland, NCIS, Ray Donovan and Almost Human. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious.

Cheo Hodari Coker
Cheo Hodari Coker

With Luke Cage one of the few black male characters in the superhero comic book business, Coker’s track record has made him the perfect choice to bring Cage to life.

In a recent interview, he said: “The show is what I call ‘inclusively black.’ It’s an unadulterated hip-hop show. But it’s done in such a way that anyone from outside the culture – not just hip-hop culture, outside of geek culture – it can play against anything on television.” For more on Coker, click here.

C21’s Content London event last week included a wide array of top screenwriters in its line-up. One of the speakers was Tony Grisoni, whose numerous TV credits include acclaimed series Red Riding, The Unloved and Southcliffe.

Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London
Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London

During the event, Grisoni discussed a new drama he is working on with producer Andrea Calderwood. Called In the Wolf’s Mouth, it is set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development. The story is based on a novel by Adam Foulds published a couple of years ago.

Although C4 is paying for script development, Grisoni and Calderwood were also at Series Mania in Paris this year pitching the project in the hope of attracting international coproduction partners.

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US studios extend int’l footprint

Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick
Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick

About two years ago, the international scripted TV business started to express its concern that there was a shortage of US procedural dramas coming on to the market. With the trend towards limited series and increased emphasis on superhero/sci-fi, buyers in markets like France and Germany feared a gap.

A number of companies said they would address the shortfall, including NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS), which formed a partnership with RTL (Germany) and TF1 (France) with the intention of creating US-style procedural dramas. This week, they delivered on their promise by greenlighting Gone, a 12-part series based on Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick.

Gone, which will be broadcast in late 2017/early 2018, tells the story of Kit Lannigan, survivor of a child abduction case and Frank Booth, the FBI agent who rescued her. Determined never to fall victim again, Kick trains in martial arts and the use of firearms.

She finds her calling when Booth persuades her to join a task force dedicated to solving abductions and missing persons cases. Paired with former army intelligence officer John Bishop, Kick brings her unique understanding of the mind of a predator to the team.

Gone will be executive produced by Matt Lopez, JoAnn Alfano and Sara Colleton. All episodes will be written, cast and produced in the US.

Hilary Bevan Jones
Hilary Bevan Jones

RTL and TF1 will broadcast and distribute the series in their territories (German and French respectively) and NBCUniversal International Distribution will license rights for the US and the rest of the world on behalf of the partnership.

Michael Edelstein, president of NBCUIS, said: “We are all delighted to be moving forward so quickly on our first series. In Gone, Matt Lopez has created a fascinating character who we believe will connect with procedural audiences around the world. We are assembling a first-rate production team and look forward to future series with our partners.”

Fabrice Bailly, head of programmes and acquisition TF1 Group, said: “The collaborative relationship represents a new way of working, for both studios and European broadcasters, to achieve high-quality procedural dramas.”

Joerg Graf, exec VP of production and acquisition at RTL Deutschland, added: “TF1 and NBCUniversal International Studios share our view that tailor-made formats will meet the need of our viewers for high-quality crime dramas.”

While the project is a welcome development, one point of interest is that Gone’s 12-episode run is still shorter than a standard US procedural. The first season of Fox’s Lethal Weapon, for example, is 18 episodes, while ABC’s Quantico has received 22-episode orders in seasons one and two. So a 12-episode order still leaves open a questions over the volume of new procedural episodes such cross-border alliances can bring to market.

Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons
Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons

Another interesting story this week is the announcement that Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Africa has commissioned its first original drama in the region. While it isn’t a procedural like Gone, it does illustrate the increasing level of US studio engagement in the international market (in our last column, we also reported how HBO Europe is increasing its slate of original dramas).

Called The Nine, the new FNG show is created by Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell (American Odyssey) and produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (Close To The Enemy, State of Play). An eight-hour drama, it tells the story of an ex-spy “who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from spreading chaos throughout the Middle East.”

Maxwell and Parkhill said: “We wanted to tell a story set against the backdrop of our dangerous and uncertain times. The Nine unfolds through the eyes of a man caught between two versions of himself, the past and the present. The genre of an espionage thriller gives us the perfect opportunity to mix his personal story with the turbulence of an ever-changing geo-political landscape.”

UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel
UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel

The project was commissioned by Jeff Ford, senior VP of content development, and Sara Johnson, VP scripted drama for FNG, Europe and Africa, and will go into pre-production in the new year.

“Following the success we’ve had with our Fox global content, we made a commitment to develop drama for this region that has the potential to be a success worldwide,” said Ford.

Another story that showcases the increasing international clout of the US studios’ production operations is the news that Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with Chinese streaming service iQIYI on a three-part Mandarin-language drama. The partners will create a new version of Chosen, a Crackle original that has aired for four seasons.

SPT’s Playmaker Media is producing with support from Screen NSW and the show will be shot entirely in Australia. Production begins in the spring with a launch due at the end of 2017.

The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series
The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series

The past week has also seen a number of production and development announcements flowing out of C21’s Content London event. For example, ITV Studios-owned indie Big Talk Productions confirmed that it is remaking sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, with Luther creator Neil Cross attached to the project.

Also, screenwriter/director Tony Grisoni revealed that he is developing a drama set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development.

In the US, meanwhile, Thunderbird Entertainment has teamed up with David Salzman (Dallas) to develop a TV series based on Faye Kellerman’s Decker-Lazarus series of mystery novels.

The initial development process will focus on The Ritual Bath, the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series. The story follows a tough LAPD detective and a widowed mother of two who witnesses a brutal crime and becomes embroiled in solving it.

Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie
Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie

Also in the US, Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, a tween/teen series based on the 2003 cult movie of the same name. Originally ordered straight-to-series, the show was given a rapid second season order of 13 episodes and has been attracting an average of around 1.4 million viewers.

The third season, which will go into production in 2017, will have 20 episodes, suggesting Nickelodeon is very happy with the show. School of Rock was the first series order for Paramount TV and is the first to go to a third season. The studio has also enjoyed success with Epix show Berlin Station and USA Network’s Shooter.

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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