Daniel Isaacs, chief operating officer at Kudos Film & Television, shares his six favourite drama series of all time with DQ; shows that have inspired and informed his creative vision down the years.
The Hat Trick produced series written by Jed Mercurio based on his book for BBC2, was blackly comic, and totally shocking at the same time. Almost entirely set in a hospital ward, it told the story of a junior doctor (Max Beesley) who decides to turn whistleblower on his incompetent consultant (Patrick Baladi). An antidote to the slickness and scale of ER, it managed to be both intimate and epic. One of the best dramas about doctoring and hospital life ever made.
Our Friends in The North (BBC2)
This series launched the careers of Daniel Craig, Mark Strong, Christopher Ecclestone and Gina McKee and so deserves to be on the list for its casting alone. Written by Peter Flannery, it expertly mixed fiction and true life events. This epic saga seen through the eyes of four friends from Newcastle covered four decades during the economic, social and political changes from the 1960s to the 1990s. Utterly compelling and unforgettable.
ITV drama at its best. Written by Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbot at the height of their powers, the series anchored by Robbie Coltrane’s central performance as the flawed anti-hero criminal psychologist ‘Fitz.’ Crime stories told with a real twist and emotional complexity that stays with you. Intelligent, popular and beautifully produced, acted and directed. The episodes around the Hillsborough disaster featuring Robert Carlyle were totally devastating.
Life On Mars (BBC1)
Slight obvious bias as this was made by Kudos, but you can’t beat it for originality, entertainment value and sheer bravado. Created and written by three amazing writers, Mathew Graham, Ashley Pharoah and Tony Jordan, it mashed up crime, nostalgia, sci fi and comedy to create true water-cooler TV. Great cast led by John Simm and Phil Glennister and with an amazing soundtrack too.
World Productions two time BAFTA-winning series was highly controversial in its depiction of policing. Shot hand held throughout, it was a raw and gritty portrait of the lives of local cops in a fictional northern town. It featured a totally unknown cast of local actors, giving it a true authenticity and poignancy, which combined with a fine tuned and expertly written script to create a highly memorable series. It broke so many rules with its storytelling, making a show in which the crimes were so mundane but the emotional impact was extraordinary.
The first series of the original Swedish/Danish series blew me away when I watched it. From the haunting opening credit music to the cliff-hanger ending of each episode, Bron took the hunt for a serial killer across national borders with amazing performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia as the two mismatched cops. The first authentic, creative and commercial high quality returnable series international coproduction.
Alister McDermott didn’t head to Hollywood to write a screenplay. He left the UK to find a different life by putting himself ‘out there.’ Lots of people dream of taking a chance, few do it. In the first of a four-part series for DQ, he begins the story of how he was, by degrees, seduced by the journey and dream of writing a television drama.
I had my life changing epiphany while eating dim sum in a rundown Chinese restaurant in my hometown of Northampton, England. Maybe it was the distinct lack of flavour in my scallop dumpling that set off a chain reaction of self-doubt, but something made me question my very existence. What exactly was I doing with my life and did I like where it was heading?
This moment of reckoning happened just as things in my life appeared to be finally heading in the right direction. Was I really having a meltdown at 39? My mid-life crisis was never going to see me squeezing my arse into a second hand Porsche dressed like Jeremy Clarkson. So why the sudden need to feel the winds of change rush through my hair?
My event management business was going well, I lived in a three-storey town house and I had even just bought my favourite car to satisfy my unnecessary consumer desires. I had everything I thought I wanted in life, yet there still seemed to be something missing.
Money had never been that important to me. The fact I never really had any helped to nurture that blasé attitude. As long as I had enough pennies for a pint, a paper and a pasty I was pretty content. I also knew what was missing wasn’t going to be found in the glove box of a new car or in a cupboard on the third floor of a town house.
If life’s material pleasures were not enough to keep me happy, then it must be something else. Some deep yearning from within the dark, empty chasm we call the human soul. Great. The last place any sane man wants to look for answers! So I decided to pack my bags and hit the road to try and locate this unknown calling, leaving behind everything I’d worked for in search of my mysterious redemption.
This type of ‘voyage of self-discovery’ may be a great idea straight from college, but at nearly 40 years old I realised I was taking a bit of a gamble to ‘find myself’. Having already travelled the world a few times, my hit list of places to discover was beginning to dwindle. That’s when a bolt of lightening struck. Of course, The Great American Road Trip, beckoned.
Driving across America has always held a sense of romanticism. We’ve all watched too many films and listened to too many songs about escaping humdrum towns to not be completely in love with the sense of adventure the American open road promises.
I wanted to be Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart, driving my convertible across the desert in a snakeskin jacket smoking Marlboro reds. I wanted to be the stranger with no name in a town that people had forgotten, dancing to jukeboxes with wanton women, slugging Wild Turkey from the bottle. I wanted to be the dog in The Littlest Hobo, helping save a child from a mineshaft before moving onto the next unknown destination. Did any of these romantic idealisms even still exist in modern day America? Well, there was only one way to find out.
I truly believed there was something missing from the jigsaw puzzle that was my existence; but I still wasn’t quite sure what it was. I was covering some serious mileage to discover my pot of gold, but with all my responsibilities in the UK now severed, a new sense of freedom washed over me. A new dawn, a new day, a new life. I was feeling good.
I won’t bore you with the details of my drive across America in a bright yellow convertible. It’s merely the catalyst to a series of events that would open up the window of opportunity to a new life. To be fair, the sense of freedom and stunning scenery really was something special. I strongly recommend it!
Here are a few road trip tips you can have for free though. When people in Texas talk to you about their plans to bear arms and overthrow the government, just nod, smile, pay your tab and leave the bar. If you insist on staying at the cheapest motel on Bookings.com you will generally be next door to Mexican gang members. When drunk, do not invite everyone you meet to Vegas the following morning. Don’t get caught doing 110mph on the highway; it’s a very expensive human error. Don’t invite crazy tattoo models ‘along for the ride’. Their incessant Adderrall induced conversation will drive you insane. There will be hidden charges for absolutely everything you purchase. People will ask you if you know their friend in England Or the Queen. Rocket is called Arugula.
After a month of driving I finally arrived in Los Angeles to stay with a friend just off Venice Beach. I instantly fell in love with the unique vibrancy of the place. This insane slice of beach life instantly felt like home. After a stroll along the boardwalk and the canals that many people don’t know exist (it’s called Venice for a reason), we returned to my friend’s apartment just as the previous tenant was vacating my new room.
I was left alone with the Australian who was packing his bags to move across town to Hollywood. It turned out that he had been living in Los Angeles for seven years in the hope of making it big as an actor.
As we sat and chatted about everything and nothing, the subject of US visas came up. My new acquaintance then began to tell me the most extraordinary story of how he managed to obtain a green card. This was too tall a tale to be untrue; with events so outlandish they were astounding.
After extracting every last detail from him about this truly remarkable revelation, I sat back and digested the information. Then a switch turned on in my head. This story needed to be told! Maybe we should write a film. Maybe we should write it NOW! My God, I was in Hollywood!
It felt like everything had suddenly fallen into place. My reason for being drawn to America, to be in Los Angeles at that precise moment. What was stopping us? Why not write a film? It was time to strike while the iron was hot. After all, if I had arrived five minutes later this guy would have been gone and I would have been none the wiser. Fate had taken me this far; it was now up to me to make this work. As my main man Seneca used to say…‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Seneca (ca. 4 BC – 65 AD; Roman philosopher, dramatist, and writer).
After our chance introduction, we quickly put the meat on the bones to the story. A week later, after seven nights of incessant writing and cheap wine, we finally shook hands at the airport. I had an expiring American visa in my passport and a pre-booked flight to Australia to catch.
As I watched the LA lights disappear below me from my economy bucket seat, I flipped open my laptop and started to work on what could be the one thing I was out there searching for. The aptly titled…The Grass is Always Greener.’
Where this journey was about to take me, I guess we were about to find out…
For the second part of Alister’s story, click here.
With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?
The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.
In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”
For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”
Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.
“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”
With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.
The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”
BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.
In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”
The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”
Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”
His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.
For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”
He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”
While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).
Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”
It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”
Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”
Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”
With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”
eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”
One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”
The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.
The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.
Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”
While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.
One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).
Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”
This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.
Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”
On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”
Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”
For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”
While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.
The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”
Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”
So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”
At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.
C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.
Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.
However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”
BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”
Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”
Spearheaded by Ottoman Empire-set shows such as Magnificent Century, Turkish drama is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Turkish drama wrapped 2014 with an estimated US$200m worth of global sales – its best figures ever, according to Izzet Pinto, founder and president of Global Agency, one of the country’s leading content distributors. Sales have risen from US$150m in 2013, while forecasts for next year are as high as $240-250m.
The country has been doubling its drama exports annually over the past five years, and 2014 saw Turkish drama take on Latin America, with sales to the region now rivalling stronger export markets such as the Middle East.
For Global Agency, at least, it all started with a drama called 1001 Nights (Binbir Gece). Made by Turkish prodco TMC Film for Turkish net Kanal D, the show kickstarted the company’s growth and has now racked up sales to 56 countries worldwide and counting.
The poster boy for Turkish drama globally, however, is historical Ottoman drama Magnificent Century, dubbed the ‘Turkish Tudors.’ The TIMS Productions series, originally scripted by Meral Okay, ran to a fourth season on Star TV in 2014. It has aired in almost 70 countries across the globe, turning international growth into a boom for Turkish drama, says Pinto.
TIMS, founded in 2006 by Timur Savci, was originally set up to plug a gap in the market for local youth-skewing series. Selin Arat, its director of international operations, says Savci is now taking a break “to step back and look at the market and see what he can do next that would hopefully surpass Magnificent Century.” The company is currently working on sequel Ottoman Empire drama Kösem Sultan, due in fall 2015.
Fredrik af Malmborg, MD and co-founder of Swedish distributor Eccho Rights, is another early champion of Turkish drama. With approximately one-and-a-half billion people watching dubbed drama in primetime around the world, and US Anglo-Saxon drama having lost some of its attractiveness, the field has opened up to others, and “the next hit could basically come from anywhere,” he argues.
Eccho Rights’ breakthrough hit was Ezel from Ay Yapim. “We mentally put it in the cupboard as something with a very strong local flavour that you couldn’t sell abroad. But then I watched it,” says Malmborg. The drama went on to sell to more than 80 countries, including format rights to four or five different local adaptations, now in production.
Malmborg believes Turkey’s largely family-themed drama with universal themes, quality scripts and high production values hit the right note with non-Anglo-Saxon markets: “I felt that compared with Anglo-Saxon drama – usually some type of crime – Turkish dramas take family and emotional issues seriously, without excusing them as something else, and I really like that. Only a few Western countries have dared to buy Turkish drama, but I think that will change.”
Ay Yapim suspense drama The End (Son) offered Western Europe its first taste of Turkish drama when it launched on SVT2 in 2013 as a daily drama in access primetime at 19.30, doubling its slot average.
And script rights are doing brisk business in the West, with Eccho Rights generating format sales worth US$3m in the last year alone. Nine different versions of The End have either been optioned or are in production, including a pilot remake for Fox in the US. In addition to options for France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Mexico and India, a Russian version made by Russian World Studios is now on air.
Now that Turkey is selling its dramas to Latin America, the country has come full circle from the days of importing telenovelas back in the 1980s. But the genre has left its mark. “A whole generation of new producers were inspired by them and started to do their own thing,” says Malmborg.
Culture and language aside, there is a big difference in production values. Telenovelas are traditionally made on budgets of around US$50,000 per hour, but in Turkey this can very from between US$200,000 and US$600,000 per hour, Malmborg reveals. “Culturally, perhaps Turkey is probably better suited to delivering to a worldwide audience because it is somehow a mix of Europe and Asia, and not too far from our own culture,” he adds.
Said to be the largest single producer of drama outside of North America, ahead of individual Latin American countries and most probably Bollywood, Turkey pumps out up to 90 dramas a year on seven free-to-air channels. Each channel airs two dramas back to back in primetime across the week, and nearly all of them are long-running series comprised of 90-minute episodes. This drama frenzy continues for up to 38 weeks a year between September and early summer, while summer months also include dramas – those being piloted for the following season.
This industrial-scale drama output takes place in a highly competitive, fragmented television landscape, so dramas that fail to impress viewers are dropped within weeks. There’s a very tight relationship between viewers and the dramas’ ratings, with scripts shaped week by week depending on how audiences react.
“With period drama you do need some pre-production, but with contemporary drama sometimes the directors get the scripts the day before shooting,” explains Arat.
“It’s very different from the US where they commission 10 episodes back to back and then shoot the series like a film and hand it over to the broadcasters. In Turkey you can’t do that. It’s a highly competitive market and if your ratings aren’t going up after four or five weeks you might get cancelled. So you need to be writing along live according to the viewers’ reactions every week, not months before.”
The rise in Turkish drama’s global popularity has inevitably boosted its bankability, for the productions themselves, the production companies and the sector as a whole as a target for potential takeovers by international players.
“We’ve been working on a number of Turkish series and revenues have grown every year, starting with US$120,000 per episode. The last series we sold was for US$400,000 per episode,” says Malmborg.
Arat adds: “It used to be that the broadcaster took ownership of the project before this drama boom started, but with these developments most of the big production companies like TIMS were able to negotiate better terms. Now we’re able to just to licence the rights to the broadcaster for a limited period, after which all the rights revert back to us.”
However, takeovers have yet to materialise in what is a largely non-vertically integrated market of broadcasters, producers and distributors. “Until now I’ve been surprised that not much has happened in terms of mergers,” says Pinto. “Some funds have approached producers and even some big companies looked to acquire, but it didn’t happen, so I think these big majors or big funds haven’t seen the potential yet. I believe they should look closer because I’m really surprised that, in such a booming market, mergers haven’t happened.”
Arat says her production company, one of the top three in Turkey, has had several approaches from international firms “but when you give them the breakdown of what the company is worth, it’s more than they expected and they take a step back. If they pay enough, production companies won’t say no.”
However, some are now questioning how sustainable Turkey’s largely self-sufficient drama model will be in the long term. While new markets like Latin America are joining the Turkish drama club, the cost of acquired Turkish drama is rising abroad, and local productions are becoming more attractive (and cost-effective) to regions such as Eastern Europe. Pinto himself says growth of drama exports is expected to level out in 2016.
Turkey’s national audience measurement system has also been revamped. It now incorporates more rural viewing tastes, and this has steered the overall profile of the panels towards an appetite for more conservative family-skewing content, rather than the edgier family series with greater global appeal, argues Pinto.
“For this reason, lower-quality and lower-budget productions are receiving good ratings, whereas million-dollar-budget dramas can fail,” he says, limiting the pipeline for potentially exportable dramas. “Our company is a strong brand and we pick up the best sellers, so as long as we can secure a couple of strong titles each year we’ll do just fine.”
Annually, it’s only a few high-end Turkish dramas that really sell well abroad. Of 40 dramas in Global Agency’s catalogue, 10 are selling well and five very well, says Pinto. Popular newcomers include a drama on surrogate motherhood, Broken Pieces (Paramparca). Launched on Star TV in Decemer, it’s Endemol Turkey’s first locally scripted project, serving up a new take on the Turkish family drama. Global Agency is also selling script rights to selected projects, such as its recent deal with Sony for remake rights to TIMS’ crime drama Game of Silence for NBC.
Public broadcaster TRT, which turned 50 this year, is underway with a revised strategy to broaden and renew its drama output, moving into areas that commercial broadcasters don’t do, says Mehmet Demirhan, deputy head of the television department. Demirhan is responsible for three divisions, including acquisitions for 15 TV channels, sales and international coproductions.
TRT launches around seven new dramas every season, all of which premiere on flagship entertainment channel TRT1, and Demirhan has high hopes for a pair of new period dramas that attracted interest from 80 buyers across 60 countries when they were unveiled last autumn.
Resurrection of Ertuğrul Gazi, which follows the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, launched on TRT1 in December, topping the television ratings among AB, educated high-income viewers. The show has been labelled the best breakthrough Turkish TV series of the 2014 season, with the local press comparing it to Game of Thrones.
Filinta, a detective drama set during the Ottoman period, is “an unusual genre for Turkey,” says Demirhan. “We can call it an Ottoman Sherlock Holmes.” It premiered in late December on TRT1.
“Our difference as a public TV service means we can go in different directions,” Demirhan asserts. “We have a huge archive, which has not yet been fully discovered by the international market. But I’m sure we’ll be able to do this as we change our strategy. We’re now collaborating with Global Agency and ITV Intermedya, for instance, both successful sales agencies, and we will explore the potential in full, also investing in different genres.”
For a number of reasons, coproductions have played no part in developing Turkey’s drama sector thus far. Global Agency’s Pinto doesn’t believe in them because “not a single one has happened, and that shows it’s very difficult.”
There are language barriers too. “In our series we don’t want to hear foreigners dubbed or subtitled, our people want pure Turkish products,” Pinto adds. “Production companies have grown strongly in Turkey so they don’t need to coproduce for financial reasons.”
However, TRT has other ambitions. Demirhan says it now has a couple of (as yet undisclosed) coproduction projects it is hoping to move ahead with in 2015, and is currently in discussions with a UK broadcaster, which could pave the way for a copro between Turkey, the UK and Dubai.
“The initial idea is to produce the next big global show like Game of Thrones or Vikings,” says Demirhan. “I think coproduction will be one of the solutions to the sustainability of Turkish drama and acceptance of Turkish drama in the global marketplace. We believe in that and are moving in that direction.”
Peaky Blinders, the Steven Knight-scripted period crime drama, has had one of the best critical receptions of UK drama in recent years, also winning the Editor’s Choice award at the inaugural C21 International Drama Awards in November 2014. But what exactly does it take to create, and sustain, such a beautifully crafted drama? DQ talks to some of the key players behind the production.
Viewers of last November’s climactic season two finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 were treated – and boy was it a treat – to an hour-long illustration of just why the UK period crime drama has become one of the best-received UK series of recent years, and what The Guardian has called “Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire.”
The sixth and final episode of the drama’s second season saw its protagonist, 1920s Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), faced with near-impossible decisions across his business, family and love life. A finale played out at the Epsom racecourse brought the show’s dramatic tension – love and hate, law and crime, loyalty and honour, right and wrong and, of course, life and death – to a brutal climax.
The derby day denouement of Peaky’s many tense arcs was, above all, the handiwork of its writer, Steven Knight. With screenplays Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises to his name, Knight was already a drama giant. But he’s perhaps less known for being the UK creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – an experience that no doubt honed his faculties for high drama.
For Peaky Blinders, Knight turned his attention to post-WWI Birmingham and the historical ‘Peaky Blinders’ street gang, so named for sewing razorblades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons.
Peaky Blinders was created by Knight and coproduced by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect. Jamie Glazebrook, an executive producer working for Mandabach, says the show’s genesis was almost incidental.
“Five or six years ago we had a great meeting with Steve about a different project. He called a few weeks later to say he had an idea for something else – and told us about Peaky Blinders. We loved it straight away.”
Mandabach had built an enviable reputation in the US for groundbreaking comedy hits including The Cosby Show, Roseanne and latterly Nurse Jackie. The move to a dark UK drama like Peaky took Mandabach Productions outside of its sweet spot, and it needed a partner.
“Our background is in family comedies, but we wanted to cut our teeth on a big period drama with horses and guns and a cast of thousands,” Glazebrook recalls. “Very early on it seemed the best thing for the show was to hook up with Tiger Aspect. We have been proved right: they have been geniuses at taking a relatively small budget and making it look like something that could absolutely compete with US cable.
Frith Tiplady, executive producer and head of production at Tiger Aspect, explains: “Caryn Mandabach had the relationship with Steve Knight and got the commission. The BBC asked them to partner up with a UK production house. I like to think that Mandabach came to us because of our production expertise in delivering quality on screen – interpreting the writing to deliver the best show.
“We are definitely clear on our roles and really respect what the other brings to the party. I am sure Caryn agrees. Together we have made something really special. I think it’s been a brilliant partnership.”
Knight’s scripts define Peaky. “We are here because of Steve’s words,” says Glazebrook. Tiplady concurs: “We really see our job as being like the LAPD – to protect and serve. The strength is in working with Steve, realising his vision and protecting him as the writer.”
The show’s gothic texture is grounded by a deliberately cinematic look and feel rooted in the grime of 1920s post-war industrial Birmingham, which also has more than a nod towards Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. That production design is led by TV period veteran Grant Montgomery.
“When I first read the first script I wanted to be part of it,” says Montgomery. “Giving it a very cinematic look from the get-go helps give it integrity,” he adds. “It goes for very much a cinematic quality of storytelling. That comes really from Steven’s scripts. When you read those, you think you have got to bring everything – cinematography, prod – so of course it becomes even more high end.
“It is also then moving from Birmingham to London – from industrial second city to first city – and you have to bring all of that to the table. So the journey has to become very clear visually.”
History and a rooting in actual events is one of the things that grounds the show. So how important was this in Montgomery’s work? “Initially the industrial world was dark black and the houses were black, so it was very important for me to get that right,” he says. “And the minute detail – if you notice in season one they are all using oil lamps, and then when they go to season two they have electricity and wealth – all those details that show the changing of the period and of their status.”
Of similar importance, says Montgomery, was the use of exteriors to take viewers out of the present and give a sense of reality in the past. The challenge of creating that experience was “huge, because you don’t have an art department budget. There isn’t a Hollywood budget to build a street,” he explains. “It takes a lot of money to do that and we don’t have it, so to try to convert locations and make them as big as possible was the ambition of the show right from the start.
“Every exterior was really hard fought for, with us thinking about how we were going to do it. Maybe we would only shoot half of a street. For example, in season one you had the whole street, while this year we only had half of it – but being sneaky with our angles made it seem like more than it was.”
Peaky is reported to have cost £1m an episode to make, but in fact that figure is an underestimate. “It was about £1.3m, £1.4m and probably season two was more like £1.4m, £1.5m,” Tiplady reveals. “But that’s not surprising. It’s exactly what a big period drama costs.”
So how did the funding come together for the show? “For series one we needed more money than is traditional in UK television,” she says. “The BBC supported it through the licence fee, and we had huge help from Endemol Worldwide Distribution, which placed a very good advance. EWD and Screen Yorkshire brought in match-funding, which together was almost a third of the budget.
“What’s interesting is that series one was done before the government’s tax break and series two was done after the tax break, so they have different funding models. The change went hand in hand with the creative ambition for series two, which was so much bigger that we needed more money.
“The difference between season one and season two is probably about £250,000 an episode. So it’s a huge amount of money, and the tax break went into a huge hole. It enabled us to deliver our vision. Without it we would have had to curtail Steve’s ambition, which is something we don’t want to do.
Tiplady says the real investment was that “we were in there for the long haul. It wasn’t about series one – for us it was always about getting series two, getting series three. Steve wanted to write a saga, and if you get into bed with that kind of extraordinary writing, they you need to have faith that you can deliver quality and potential for going forwards.”
Of course, the success of Peaky Blinders lies not just in its script, nor its look. The stellar performances of lead actors Murphy and Sam Neill, joined by Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor in season two, are also a big part of the show’s success.
For Tiplady, the production has been dependent on the goodwill of the lead performers. “We operate with no options for them so there is a definite love for the project,” she says. “We are punching above our weight.”
A haunting goth-punk soundtrack, curated by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and Paul Hartnoll of electronic dance duo Orbital, lends a dark and unsettling texture to the show from the off. Not least with their choice of Nick Cave’s vengeful anthem Red Right Hand as Peaky’s theme tune. The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash add to the dark-days soundtrack.
Tiplady says the show’s strong emphasis on pre-recorded artists presented its own challenges, not least because of the way the music industry itself is funded: “Music is extraordinarily expensive, very confusing and very complicated. I do think royalty-wise it needs a massive overhaul. The costs are such an important part of the process, but economics often force you down the composer route.
“When you are trying to do something creatively different like we are doing in Peaky, the only way we can do it is to get those artists involved at the production stage, which is fantastic and has worked extremely well – but that is very unusual and very hard.
“The music industry is finding other ways to explore things creatively. If the rights could actually shake up and release us then potentially we could see more shows like Peaky just being really rewarding for everybody. But I think the setup is so antiquated and I am not quite sure who it is looking after at the moment.”
With season three now confirmed (the producers announced it via Twitter in November), what are the challenges ahead? Glazebrook says: “I think we have a little bit more time. We were very tight in series two and, to an extent, Colm McCarthy was already directing when the final episode came in. So we were flying blind. Everyone who has seen that final episode will see it was pretty much all in new locations. That was hard, so we don’t want to put our director through it again.”
“We are going to have slightly longer to actually produce the show, so in essence that makes things 100 times more easy,” says Tiplady. “The driving force with Peaky is to keep pushing quality high and deliver an extraordinary viewing experience to the audience. Maintaining that is crucial to all of us, so that will be the challenge.”
When Greg Berlanti was a kid, he would often have his head in a comic book, reading the latest adventures of Green Arrow or The Flash.
Today, he is part of the team that has brought both characters to life as the stars of their own live action dramas on US network The CW. Arrow begins its third season this fall, while The Flash makes its debut.
“I thought Arrow would make for a great show, in part because it was realistic and in my mind had a gritty tone and a Jason Bourne-type feel,” says Berlanti. “A lot of times TV shows fail, but this one worked.”
The success of Arrow and other adaptations is now a factor behind the charge to acquire rights to comic books and graphic novels, which are being snapped up by television executives hungry to bring new characters and the fantastical worlds they inhabit to the small screen.
Network television in the US will air five series based on graphic novels and comics this fall – three making their debuts – while zombie drama The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season on cable network AMC. Further adaptations are lined up for midseason, with dozens more in development.
Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not a new source of television inspiration. Batman and The Incredible Hulk appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, while Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman presented Clark Kent to a new generation in the 1990s. They also provide a near constant source of material for animated series, largely aimed at younger viewers.
But is this resurgence of superheroes on the small screen a lasting attempt by television studios’ attempts to grab a share of the huge profits being made by their big screen siblings, or is it just a Flash-in-the-pan?
When NBC passed on the pilot script for The Walking Dead, the show spent four years in the wilderness looking for a new home. It was only in 2010 when AMC committed to the series, rather than sending it into development limbo, that it was given a platform to become one of the highest rated US dramas.
David Alpert, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, says: “There was a degree of scepticism as to the merit of the artform of comic books and over time, as the success of the Marvel and DC Comics movies has increased alongside independent comic book movies like Men in Black and Road to Perdition, it started to make an impression on people that comic books are as vital an art form as any other.”
He agrees that comic book adaptations are hot properties in television. The New Zealand-based firm is developing an animated version of Image Comics’ Rat Queens but has live action series in development.
“They’re high concept, they’re world-building, they’re noisy,” he explains. “That’s what everybody wants. And graphic novels and comic books tend to be a good source of that kind of material.”
Universal Cable Productions (UCP), the production company behind Syfy’s Defiance and Suits on USA Network, currently has four comic book and graphic novel adaptations in development, alongside an untitled project from Iron Man writer Warren Ellis and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment.
And Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive VP of development, admits she has been shopping for IP since she joined the NBC Universal-owned studio earlier this year.
“I’ve only been there for five months and have been on a graphic novel and comic buying spree,” she says. “If you look at what’s happening in television right now, big distinctive ideas and worlds are really interesting, not only for network presidents but for audiences.
“In today’s market where there are a million shows coming at people, a world that’s distinctive and has a fresh imagination brings with it the opportunity to stand out. People have been doing it for a long time in comics and graphic novels, and we’re just finding that they’re really translatable, not just into movies but also into TV.”
UCP’s slate includes IDW Publishing’s Night Mary, a horror story about a 17-year-old girl who is trained to enter the dreams of patients at her father’s sleep disorder clinic, and Image Comics’ Pax Romana, in which the Vatican discovers the secret of time travel and hopes to change the future by sending soldiers and modern weaponry back to Rome in 312AD.
Olmstead says: “Which projects we choose comes down to gut reaction. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it comes across our desks, or we hear it in a room.
“Everybody now has control over what they put on their television and they can search for what they want. We use a gut litmus test – can you imagine searching for that show?
“Then the character has to be great. You’re really going to get to know Walter White in Breaking Bad because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, and we really look for characters that can hold up to that test.”
One of the biggest winners from this surge in live action adaptations is DC Comics, through its DC Entertainment division, which will have four series on US network television this fall. Freshman series Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, lands on NBC, Batman prequel Gotham is heading to Fox, and The Flash is joining Arrow on The CW.
Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, says: “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are great, but audiences don’t want to dress up like those characters. People don’t have action figures of those characters. The comic book genre hits you and becomes part of your lifestyle.
“When you go to Comic-Con and see 7,000 people cramming in to watch the premiere of Gotham, The Flash, or Constantine, you realise how much people love this stuff. They just want to see it done with care and love, by people who are as fanatical about it as they are.That’s the key.”
Writer and executive producer Berlanti had been reading the adventures of Green Arrow since he was a kid, so when he signed a production deal with DC’s parent Warner Bros Entertainment, he knew the story of a vigilante facing up against the villains running his home city was perfect for television.
A pilot was ordered in the 2011/12 development season by The CW, which later commissioned a full season.
For Berlanti, however, there was one comic book character he had always wanted to bring to life – the light to Arrow’s darkness – and after introducing the character in season two of Arrow, The Flash now has its own spin-off series.
“I wouldn’t have done The Flash two or three years ago,” says Berlanti, who executive produces both shows through his Berlanti Productions label. “The visual effects departments in TV didn’t have the capacity at the time to deliver the visual effects that would accompany a character like this,” he says of Barry Allen, who gains the ability of super-speed when a lightning bolt causes chemicals to spill over him.
Recreating The Flash’s super-speed also posed problems for Johns, who describes the finished effects as “pretty phenomenal”.
“That was something that was really important,” he says. “If you don’t believe he can move fast, it’s not going to work.”
But why does Johns think comic books and graphic novels are suddenly hot property?
Blockbuster movies, he says, are a big factor, but he goes further when he says television “is probably the closest to comic books in terms of storytelling that I know”.
He adds: “The Flash is built like a comic book, complete with cliff-hangers and subplots. Gotham is more of an urban saga you’re following, a police procedural that feels more like a comic book. When I was a kid, comics were not cool, but they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.”
“Network television in particular is going to have to do more of this kind of stuff, to create both good stories but big, juicy landscapes for people to enjoy because we live in a world where there are 400 channels, you’ve got access to every film and TV show of all time, and they have to compete.”
One network still dipping its toes into the waters of original scripted series is Netflix, the digital platform that has quickly become one of the biggest players in the industry with hits including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its burgeoning reputation was further enhanced when it partnered with Marvel Television to commission four new series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and a miniseries called The Defenders. The first series, Daredevil, will be released in 2015.
And they will join ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and midseason entry Agent Carter in Marvel’s expanding line-up.
Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, says the Netflix projects are “separate stories but one large tapestry”, akin to Marvel’s film strategy that saw Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor later team up as The Avengers.
“This wasn’t something we forced together,” he explains. “It wasn’t like we picked four random characters and just put them together. They already had their own kind of world; they’re what we refer to as street level heroes. You get to really explore the world that doesn’t quite have the lustre or sparkle that you get from the Marvel movies, or for that matter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. Our ABC shows do not feel like our Netflix shows because they’re from a different part of the Marvel universe.”
Loeb won’t be drawn on whether the Netflix series represent ‘phase one’ of Marvel’s assault on television, in a similar vein to the decade-long blueprint it has mapped out for its cinematic adventures. “But it seems to work well for the movies, doesn’t it,” he adds.
Another comics publisher getting into the TV business is IDW, which launched IDW Entertainment under the control of president David Ozer in October 2013.
Former Starz and Sonar Entertainment executive Ozer and IDW CEO Ted Adams have identified 10 properties to package as television adaptations, including Night Mary with UCP; Pantheon, a story set in the near future where the only gods worshipped are money and power, developed with The Shield actor Michael Chiklis; and V Wars, a vampire drama adapted by Dexter’s Tim Schlattmann. Circle of Confusion, which executive produces The Walking Dead, is overseeing development.
Adams revealed a “frustrating” experience seeing another of its comics, Locke & Key, fail to land a series order with Fox was the catalyst for IDW to build its own television division and, significantly, retain control of the adaptation process.
Another key marker was networks’ increasing openness to straight-to-series orders, which appeal to Adams.
He says: “There’s definitely something in the air. When we launched this, we didn’t know there was the huge number of shows based on comics that are going to be on air this year.
“Everybody’s looking for great ideas. Although our stories come from comic books initially, they’re not stereotypical superhero comic books. It’s just great genre storytelling. The networks want the same things for their shows as I want for my books, which is to be able to tell a great story, find interesting characters and create a world that gets people interested.”
So once they’ve won a commission, how do producers and writers begin adapting comic books and graphic novels for television? “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard,” says Olmstead. “Sometimes they’ve written something that’s adaptable in both scale and episodic journey. But sometimes they tend to put out really big ideas about society that’s hard to translate in dialogue and in scenes.”
“There’s always pressure to get it right, but it’s a good kind of pressure,” says Johns, who has written comic stories for characters including Green Lantern, Superman and The Flash. “If you were doing a biographical movie of Abraham Lincoln, you’re going to research the guy’s life, the world around him, what he did, what he accomplished, and the people around him.
“There are visual cues you want to keep because that’s the iconic feel of the characters. But the key point is the emotional content of the character – John Constantine’s emotional centre, his virility, his anti-hero status, or The Flash’s optimistic outlook and the joy of being a superhero. Every one of these characters has an emotional core you want to stay true to because that’s what is going to resonate the most.”
Comic books and graphic novels also come with an extra feature – ready made artwork. Characters and costumes are brought to life without the need for conceptual artists to present a vision of the show to network executives. But is this a blessing or a curse?
Alpert says: “It’s the greatest blessing we have. I can only imagine what it’s like to go into The Killing or Homeland thinking ‘we just had an amazing season one, how do we do something different in season two?’ The fact we have 130 issues to draw from gives us a real leg-up on other shows out there.
In the pilot for The Walking Dead, Alpert says there are scenes shot frame-for-frame from the comic, which was created by Robert Kirkman.
“I remember being in downtown Atlanta as hundreds of people in zombie make-up were chewing blood-filled condoms from a fake horse’s stomach and squeezing them, exploding them, and Robert looking at them and thinking this was exactly the way he had envisioned it,” he recalls.
But it’s not just the artwork that offers an instant benefit to executives bringing their projects to market. An existing fan base that has followed and fallen in love with the paperback adventures provides an instant audience, though that in itself can pose as many risks as rewards.
Adam Fratto, executive VP at animation studio Pukeko Pictures, explains: “Comic books can become quite popular so if you have a built-in fan base, that can really help. But there’s always the fact that with any underlying material, you run the risk of alienating the fans.
“Comic book fans are smart and want to be entertained. They don’t expect it to be a slavish repetition of the books. It’s important not to get too hung up on being 100 per cent faithful. My approach is usually to use the existing material as a jumping off point, not as a blueprint.”
Despite the success of the Marvel films, Loeb says the Netflix series and those on ABC still face the same challenges as any other series. “You want to make sure you’re telling something entertaining and compelling, that the viewers are caught up in a storyline they can’t get enough of – and in particular on Netflix, when you have the opportunity to download all 13 shows at once. In so many ways, Netflix lends itself much more to the same experience that you get when you buy a stack of comics where as soon as you put the first one down you want to get the second one, third, and fourth.
“Our goal is hopefully, on that first weekend, people will download all 13 episodes of Daredevil and make a weekend out of it, and have Daredevil parties and get completely caught up in it.
“We have seven series moving forward. That’s a lot of production. We are going to be producing 56 hours of television in the next 52 weeks. Hardcore fans and brand new people are not going to be disappointed.”
With a number of US broadcasters commissioning comic book adaptations, what does this mean for international buyers?
Channel 5 in the UK is the free-to-air home of The Walking Dead, picking up season four for its sibling 5* after fan power saw it overturn its earlier decision to drop it, and it has now added Gotham for the new season.
“There’s always been a lot of TV series around comic book heroes but it’s been a bit more family friendly,” says Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions. “Certainly the take on it now is a lot darker and edgier.
“What you have with The Walking Dead and Gotham is an innate fan base and when there are people who have grown up with those comics and then get to see them realised on screen, you know you’re going to draw an audience. People love to see their heroes on screen and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Alpert is now reteaming with Kirkman for exorcism drama Outcast, which has been developed with Cinemax and Fox International Channels. They are also plotting a Walking Dead spin-off for AMC set in the same world but featuring new characters.
“There’s always a sense that if something works, try to replicate it. So I definitely see more stuff being picked up from comics,” says Alpert. “It will be cyclical, so there will be a wave of original programming that comes along. But given the high degree of investment and the huger and desire to cut through the noise out there, it’s useful to tap into something that has a pre-awareness and a fan base.”
At UCP, Olmstead’s IP buying spree will continue “until they tell me I’m out of money”. She adds: “Comic book and graphic novelists are some of the best creators out there. They’re incredibly smart and are translating society’s problems in a really creative way, and as long as they’re doing it, I think we’ll be buying them.”
After bringing Arrow and The Flash to life, Berlanti says there’s “definitely more I would like to see” on television. “What people are starting to say about The Flash is we didn’t know one of these shows could be funny or light-hearted too,” he explains. “Our hope was to zig when other people are zagging and I think there are more opportunities like that in terms of tone or types of characters not represented in TV.”
While The Flash and Gotham have ready-made fans, The Walking Dead is proof that lesser known properties can also become television hits. The endless supply of comic book and graphic novel material is matched only by the appetite of television executives for these properties in the hope of finding the next success story.
Having presided over eight seasons of 24, Howard Gordon moved to Homeland and then Tyrant as war blazed across the Middle East. As the second season of the latter is prepped, Gordon talks to DQ about the pressure of creating ‘real world’ drama.
When Jack Bauer disappeared at the end of 24’s eighth series back in 2010, it was as limp an anti-climax as TV history has delivered. Barely a handful of viewers watched him go, which would have seemed staggering a couple of years before.
After debuting in 2001 as an aesthetically daring, beautifully constructed and genre redefining instant classic, the show gradually shifted from mere TV series to an avatar for an entire political belief system. There are few TV characters as profoundly controversial as Jack Bauer – perhaps Alf Garnet, although Bauer was better dressed… maybe Ali G or Borat… but even these would struggle to have their resurrection greeted with headlines as furious as: “Why We Don’t Need More 24 – The Torture Happy Jack Bauer Should Stay Retired.”
Howard Gordon – although not the show’s creator – was effectively showrunner for most of Jack’s life. Once the CTU closed down, his colleague Joel Surnow stepped back a little, pushing out The Kennedys and working on the 24 movie. Gordon – not so much. His next project was Homeland, if possible a little more timely, a little more controversial and a little more unsettling than 24. Based on Israeli series Hatufim – by Gideon Raft – the first two series toyed with extreme versions of Stockholm
Syndrome as former US hostage Nicholas Brody – played by Damian Lewis – came home from captivity.
These days, of course, US hostage executions fill primetime news as the forces of the Islamic State sweep back and forth across Iraq and Syria. With an eye that’s becoming literally uncanny, Howard Gordon is there again – his new show Tyrant deals with the death of a middle eastern dictator so closely modeled on Saddam or Assad that his national flag in the pilot looks a lot like the Iraqi flag.
“Well it’s not literally the Iraqi flag, it’s a variation,” Howard explains carefully. “In fact you’ll see between the pilot and the subsequent episodes that we revised the flag, to underscore the difference. People were trying to second guess, is this Syria? Is this Iraq? Setting a show in the real Middle East but in a fictional country is a unique challenge because now, for better or worse, we’re all fairly familiar with the map. So doing that without making it something like Moon over Parador or something limply satirical is difficult. A fictional country is almost by definition a comic creation.”
And Tyrant is definitely not a comedy. The show follows Bassam Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of a brutal dictator. Bassam has been living in the US and working as a doctor for almost 20 years – an echo of colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Safi who studied at the LSE in London. Bassam heads home for a family wedding and stumbles into a terrifying political crisis when his father is killed in the middle of an Arab Spring revolution. Bassam is tempted to flee – but fears his brutal and unstable older brother Jamal will unleash a bloody conflict so stays to help soothe him into a peaceful transition of power. Which, needless to say, goes badly.
“It’s really the hubris of American Colonialism,” Gordon explains. “And Barry is the personification of that world. Let’s just say The Godfather is probably the most obvious influence here. Barry stays behind to help his brother run the family business and then comes to realise that his brother’s not capable of doing that. Betraying his brother is the only possible next step, so that becomes the trajectory of the show.”
It’s the second collaboration between Howard and Homeland creator Raff. Gordon was filming the second series of Homeland in Israel when Raff approached him with the idea. “It was intriguing because I’m obviously fascinated by this part of the world,” he explains. “History is being made in the Middle East, and its changing by the day. So it felt like a way to open a door on that side of the world that wasn’t a terrorist based thriller but more of a family saga and a political drama.”
Given that point – that history is being written – it seems surprising so few scriptwriters are following him in to the region. “I guess it’s for the same reason the US government wants so desperately to stay away,” he gives a short laugh. “Ask President Obama right now – it’s a hornets nest. The ground is completely unstable. It is a thicket of competing tribal and religious and cultural rules standing between modernity and antiquity so it’s very challenging narratively to take such a complicated landscape. People certainly wouldn’t put a Muslim in the lead unless they were fighting terrorists.”
There may, of course, be other reasons. During one interview, Damian Lewis recalled how hair raising it could be shooting Homeland on the ground in Palestinian towns. Gordon laughs when that’s mentioned. “Take the challenges of shooting what’s halfway around the world with the time differences, language differences and the cultural differences then add things you can’t prepare for,” he grins. “We were in a Palestinian town called Bartar filming on this very long street that we hadn’t locked down. We thought the shops and street vendors had been paid to make up for whatever lost income the shooting had caused, but apparently they weren’t. So fights broke out in the street and then it swelled and turned toward the crew and we did a quick retreat, with Clare Danes jumping into a van as we left. I think somebody may have started the rumour that we were with the CIA…”
And yet he’s back – shooting Tyrant initially in Israel before the current conflict forced them over to Istanbul. “It’s hard to get the colours and the architecture and the faces anywhere else, and that’s what makes it feel real,” he explains. “We don’t want to make it feel like a back lot. But yes just when you think it couldn’t get any more difficult it finds a way to get more difficult.”
This interest in current affairs linked drama hasn’t always defined him. His CV shows a career swerve so sharp there are practically tyre marks on the paper – born in Queens, New York, he moved to LA to write for television and cut his teeth on private eye drama Spenser: For Hire.
From there, he focused on fantasy – Beauty and the Beast, The X Files and the Buffy spin-off Angel. So why did he switch from the surreal to the very real? “Sometimes the turns aren’t necessarily by design, but by circumstance,” he says wryly. “I had written a pilot for Fox called Ball and Chain, a husband-and-wife superhero show based on a comic book. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran created 24 and that wound up getting on the air instead of my comic book. I was asked to go on the show with Joe and Bob… and this was all before 9/11 so we were shooting a show which, I suspect, would have been a good show but which suddenly became so culturally resonant because of 9/11. Certainly 9/11 influenced what we did creatively with the show from that moment.”
For the next decade, effectively, he channelled the evolving story of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan into touchstones for the series – and they also became the lens through which the series was viewed. Gordon is more or less a liberal and his co-writer Joel Surnow is a noted Republican. As 24 became a cultural totem it was fought over as fiercely as the notion of what America should be. Storylines that seemed to condone torture came in for heavy criticism and Gordon’s liberal shoulders had to carry much of that weight.
“People presumed things that weren’t necessarily true,” he insists. “Joel’s politics and my politics really seldom became narrative markers. There might be a scene or two Joel wrote where someone from the American Civil Liberators Union might have felt they were treated unkindly. Yes, we’d argue behind the scenes. On the writing staff there were people to the right of Joel and people to the left of me and we’d spend hours arguing politics but I can’t say the show ever descended to some kind of propaganda.”
All the same, the accusations almost sent him packing. Jack Bauer came to represent something unsavoury and he found it exhausting to keep pouring creative love into the show. After Homeland he thought he was at the end of his rope on that sort of material and briefly returned to fantasy with Awake, a brutally short-lived, high-concept cop show for NBC about an LAPD officer existing in two parallel realities after a car crash. In one, his wife survives; in the other, his son lives, and he uses details from each to solve crimes in both. The show was cancelled in May 2012 after 11 episodes.
“Awake was my own personal hubris,” he admits. “I knew that it was a very challenging concept. In hindsight it may have been better served as a cable show. I think it was a gimmick that rendered both worlds inert rather than made both worlds feel more engaged.”
You also get the sense that he’s passed through the looking glass and would struggle to immerse himself as thoroughly in an entirely unreal fictional world. Right now he’s considering season two of Tyrant – which hasn’t been picked up yet, after a mixed reception in the US over the summer – but he’s doodling some ideas and how can he not look at ISIS?
“It’s an incredible sequence of events and if we do go back we can’t ignore them,” he explains. “The trick is of course to find a way to take these real world events and weave them into your story and in a way it’s not reckless I would say. That’s the challenge.”
That it’s tricky doesn’t need underlining. At the height of 24’s popularity, Joel Surnow tried to capitalise on his reputation for current events TV by launching a right-wing version of the Daily Show, the ½ Hour News Hour, for Fox News. When it failed – and failed quickly – there was talk of Hollywood’s liberal bias.
“I think Hollywood is a more liberally inclined culture,” Gordon says carefully. “Which isn’t hard when you look at where people come from. But I think artists everywhere – in all countries – tend to be liberal. They’re the ones who question authority, are probably temperamentally slightly outcast themselves and attach themselves to the underdogs and the underclass. You could say the same thing about people on Wall Street being conservative and wanting to conserve all the money that they’ve made.”
All the same, he’s still friends with Joel. He executive produced Jack Bauer’s recent resurrection in 24: Live Another Day although he wasn’t in the writers room. “Now that the dust has settled on 24 both of us recognise how much we learned from each other. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my career,” he gives a quiet smile. Which begs the question – if liberals and republicans can work together in the steam cooker of serial TV drama is there anything we can learn that would help the embattled US Congress collaborate somehow?
He pauses, thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says in the end. “Things are getting so nasty in Washington. But I guess the stakes are real. At the end of the day we’re still just running a television show…”
With the popularity of TV drama showing no sign of waning, the role of the television drama director is rapidly evolving. Three of the industry’s finest give their perspective on the changing nature of their work.
Film directors? You could name a few: Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola just for starters. The motion picture has long been a medium that belongs to the director, with audiences finding it more difficult to reel off the names of their television counterparts. Viewers may be drawn to their favourite actor or broadcaster, but small-screen directors rarely get the same credit.
But now the lines are blurring. TV dramas worldwide – not just from the UK or US – increasingly have production values comparable to motion pictures, while talent is now regularly hopping from film to TV. And TV directors are feeling the change.
“The world is changing under our feet,” says Anand Tucker (Red Riding), the director behind Channel 4 (C4) epic period saga Indian Summers.
“The movies I’ve made for the most part, the ones I enjoyed, have been in the indie sector. It feels like these stories are now migrating from the cinema and into TV. I would say television is now the new indie movie.”
Tom Shankland, director of the BBC’s 2014 thriller The Missing (pictured top), starring Cold Feet actor James Nesbitt, echoes this view. Shankland, who also directed Ripper Street, maintains the TV director now has more influence over the shape of a programme than ever before.
“The director’s role is becoming increasingly important as the challenge to be more creative increases,” he says. “There’s so much good TV out there at the moment. Audiences still like to tune in to the actors they love, but if directors add their own style to a show, particularly in the world of drama, they are going to break new ground.”
But television dramas’ flavour-of-the-month status doesn’t guarantee a smash hit. The craft has moved on, and it’s credit to TV directors experimenting with new forms, narrative arcs, fresh editing styles, small-screen cinematography and much more that scripted series are now a more exciting prospect for global audiences.
Describing his TV work in terms that would be unthinkable a few decades ago, Scandinavian director Simon Kaijser, currently working on forthcoming BBC period drama Life in Squares, says he “likes to be subjective.”
“I hate the camera having what I call a ‘sixth sense,’” he adds. “If the camera arrives at a specific position at the perfect time, I feel like the camera knows it’s going to happen and that’s wrong.
“When doing a scene, I try to focus on something that’s going on somewhere else. You don’t always remember the person talking, so why not focus on the person on the other side of the street getting dressed?
“I always like to do a lot of pans to give a sense of stuff that’s played out in front of you – it gives an unrehearsed feel. But it’s funny how rehearsed it can actually be to give it this look.”
Tucker’s period drama Indian Summers, set in the final years of British colonial rule in India, was commissioned by C4 in 2013. Produced by New Pictures – the company’s first pick-up from C4 – it is a coproduction with US pubcaster PBS, and will air in 2015 as part of its Masterpiece strand. Paul Rutman (Vera) is the writer, with Rebecca Eaton executive producing for PBS-owned WGBH in the US, along with Charlie Pattinson and Simon Curtis.
The project is not typical for C4, with period pieces in the UK usually featuring on the BBC or ITV. And with this in mind, Tucker was determined not to make another version of iconic 1980s ITV drama The Jewel in the Crown (1984), which also chronicled the final days of the British Raj in India. If that wasn’t pressure enough, The Jewel in the Crown is often regarded as one of the greatest TV series to grace the UK’s small screen.
“Indian Summers is political and personal, and frankly the idea of doing something of this scale on television was really exciting,” Tucker says. “I remember watching Jewel In The Crown and thinking it was one of the best things ever. It felt that if we could get this right it could be something on that scale; something that’s fun to watch on a really wet and miserable night in February.
“But you can’t just go and do The Jewel in the Crown II. It’s 2014 and everything’s changed, so the challenge is how you reinvent a period drama while still being true to all the things that make period drama great; like beautiful young people in gorgeous flowing dresses, and tea at four o’clock.”
Tucker achieves his vision by bringing a modernity to his shooting style. For several scenes, he used a MoviCAM, the steadicam that allows filmmakers to move around with dignity. “It allows you to achieve those lyrical, elegant flowing shots you’d expect to see in a costume drama,” he explains.
Indian Summers was shot in Malaysia, a burgeoning production territory that recently saw the opening of the Pinewood Iskander Malaysia Studios. The studio is where Netflix shot its epic period drama Marco Polo – touted as one of the most expensive TV shows ever made – and Tucker, who himself was brought up in South East Asia, now believes the country has a lot to offer TV drama producers.
“Malaysia is trying to become the South Africa of the Far East, as it’s instigated a very aggressive tax credit,” he says. “We had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. It was challenging, but in Penang we had the essence of English colonial rule.
“My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160 or 170-day shoot. The tricky thing was how to balance bringing a British crew over while also empowering the Asian operation.”
Only time will tell whether Indian Summers will receive the same critical acclaim as The Jewel in the Crown, but the extraordinary amount of work poured in to the project is not being understated.
Another drama pushing the genre forward is BBC1’s The Missing, which ended its eight-episode run in December to rave reviews in the UK. Unsurprisingly, writers Jack and Harry Williams are already in talks for a second season.
One of director Tom Shankland’s biggest challenges was to direct the entire thriller, after producers opted not to follow the norm of choosing different directors to work on individual episodes. “Initially, it started as this practical challenge because the scripts were split 50/50 between 2006 and 2014,” he says. “One half of the drama was set in winter, while the other was in summer during the Football World Cup. We were lucky to have a great schedule where we could film summer in summer and winter in winter and then go to the cutting room.
“So it was suggested that I’d do all of the episodes. As we were quite ahead of the game with strong scripts, and readings had been done ahead of the initial preparations, it was great for a director to get in early on all of that. I was a bit wary doing a 101-day shoot, although because it was one long linear story broken into different time zones, it was a fantastic opportunity to do what was essentially an incredibly long film.”
Shankland’s vision for The Missing was always a naturalistic one, exemplified by the fact he didn’t want to make the cuts between 2006 and 2014 too obvious.
“I wanted to make the audience pay a little bit of attention to when these transitions were happening on-screen. So we tried to make the switches as authentic as possible,” he explains. “We played a tiny little game with the camera where we used slightly older lenses for the past to give a little bit more warmth and softness, but nothing too extreme. Then it was just a case of waiting for good weather in June and shit weather in January while Jimmy Nesbitt got soaked, and hoping that he could stand a lot of rain and water, which he did.”
For Simon Kaijser, who filmed three-part BBC drama Life in Squares on location in London and east Sussex, the role of the global TV director has now changed as audiences start to embrace dramas from other territories.
“The success of Scandinavian drama has given Scandi producers, directors and writers more confidence to do bolder stuff,” he says. Kaiser previously directed Swedish broadcaster SVT’s three-part drama Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. “The Scandinavian industry has more confidence than it did 10 years ago; it started with the Danes, but now Sweden is catching up on longer runs.”
Wherever a drama is made, the challenges remain the same, whether this is dealing with a tight shooting schedule, small budgets or bad weather to put them behind schedule. But isn’t that all part of the fun?
Shankland thinks so, and highlights a particular car chase scene (normally a big-budget proposition even in a feature film) as an example of how to literally cut corners in TV drama direction. “I felt very happy that we took a classic genre and did something a bit special without having to do a low-budget-level Hollywood car chase, which is always doomed to failure,” he says.
“When you have the challenge of creating a compelling action scene in TV, as I know from Ripper Street, you can think ‘oh God, how am I going to fit this in a 101-day schedule for the whole series?’ We decided we just couldn’t do the Fast and the Furious version. And we could barely do the first 10 seconds of the French Connection version.”
Instead, Shankland’s team had a eureka moment when they decided “not to take the chase outside of the car.”
“Because we were more of a character-based thriller, we decided to be subjective and just stay in the car, seeking a tiny bit of help from our friends in post production,” he explains.
“We managed to get this very expensive bit of kit – a giant pod you put the actor in. We took over a tiny village in Belgium and divided it up into sections. On the rest of the set we filmed the crash, and then we put the scenes together.
“We ended up with something we were happy with. It put a lot of pressure on the sound guys. The mixer, for instance, wasn’t quite happy with the we track laid so he went off and filmed himself thrashing around in a car – it was fantastic. We then built up the layers of sound.”
Overcoming these kinds of challenges is part and parcel of a TV director’s daily job. Pieced together, they can make an extremely convincing bit of work. As Tucker says, the “world is changing” and it now seems there’s far more flexibility both in method and style.
The small-screen director is no longer working in the shadow of his silver-screen counterpart. Soon it might be the other way around. It’s definitely the case that many directors now see the opportunity to make a film in eight one-hour episodes as very appealing.
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik has played a key role in a creative transformation that has boosted the pay TV broadcaster’s viewing figures, but he’s not stopping there. He tells DQ how he plans to increase original programming to keep the growth going.
In recent years, HBO, Showtime, Netflix and AMC have generated most of the headlines regarding the renaissance in scripted television. But any serious discussion of the genre also needs to factor in the creative transformation at Starz, the US premium pay TV broadcaster that has backed shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Black Sails, Outlander and Power.
One of the architects of the Starz revolution is MD Carmi Zlotnik, who joined the company in April 2010 at the behest of CEO Chris Albrecht. Zlotnik, who had previously worked with Albrecht at HBO and IMG, says Starz at that time was “a stable business but had no future. We started with significant challenges in terms of remodelling the company so it was clear who we were and how we liked to work.”
According to Zlotnik, the big problem with Starz was that its schedule was almost entirely dependent on acquired movies, with just a smattering of original shows: “We saw a clear need to make the business viable by converting from movies to originals. Movies are a commodity that doesn’t translate any real value to the channel brand. Viewers don’t know what network they are on. So to grow our subscriber base in a very competitive marketplace we needed to invest in originals.”
This thesis was complicated by the fact that the old Starz still made decent money. “We knew every dollar we spent on programming would be a dollar out of the profit margin. But Starz owner Liberty Media wanted its profits to increase, so we had to ramp up our original programming very gradually. It was an ‘eat what you kill’ mentality where programming innovation had to go hand in hand with financial discipline. The idea was that as profits grew we could invest more in original shows.”
The emphasis on financial rigour wasn’t, however, an excuse to play it safe, Zlotnik continues. “There’s a trite phrase going round about this being the golden age of television – but it’s also the golden age of competition in television. It’s not just networks competing with you for share of time and wallet but also theme parks, movies, video games and so on. It means you really need to dig to come up with new, refreshing thinking.”
At first sight, a reboot of Spartacus doesn’t look like it fits that definition, but for Zlotnik it’s a classic example of the way Starz has sought to “‘superserve’ the ‘underserved.’ We looked at the media landscape and asked: who is not being programmed for? In Spartacus we found a property that appealed to the ComicCon crowd. Women were also being underserved in terms of women driving the story, so we got behind The White Queen, which was a phenomenal performer for us. And the African American audience had almost been abandoned by the pay TV universe in the US, which is what brought us to Power, the Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson/Courtney Kemp Agboh project that was renewed for a second series by Starz in summer 2014.”
Having identified these areas as opportunities, Starz has sought to build on them. “Viewership of the channel is one of the most important marketing assets we have, so we have used it to launch other premium franchises.” Targeting the Spartacus fan base, for example, have been shows like pirate drama Black Sails and historical fantasy Da Vinci’s Demons. For women, The White Queen has been followed by Outlander, and for the US black community there is Survivor’s Remorse, a half-hour comedy series produced by basketball superstar LeBron James.
But doesn’t Zlotnik worry that the channel is creating a series of unrelated viewing ghettoes rather than a unified channel brand? “We reject the proposition that you can’t bring different audiences to the same programme. Outlander has a passionate female fan base as a book but we’ve been careful to make sure the male audience would appreciate the TV series. People want to watch stuff with their significant other.”
The fact that so many Starz properties have recognisable elements is a deliberate part of the strategy. In-built awareness of the Spartacus story, the success of the Outlander book series, the popularity of pirates at celebrations like Halloween and the fame of 50 Cent and LeBron James have all been key, Zlotnik says. “Curtis Jackson is a cultural entrepreneur so we were happy to get him; LeBron James is an icon who gets our brand into new places. It’s about leveraging IP and personalities in a way that allows us to cut through the cacophony of marketing messages. We’re trying to turn fans of existing brands into subscribers.”
This thesis extends to one of the latest properties to be added to the Starz portfolio, The Evil Dead. Based on the cult film franchise, a new TV series (to be called Ash Vs. Evil Dead) will debut as 10 half-hours in 2015. Should it prove successful, the goal will be to build a long-running franchise – and the omens look good. “Evil Dead has developed a huge fan base during its 30 years of life,” says Zlotnik. “Social media platforms like Twitter blew up when we announced we were doing it.”
The Evil Dead TV project has a strong US feel to it, with horror veteran Sam Raimi (who directed the original film trilogy) lined up to co-write series one and direct the first episode.
Zlotnik says Starz is keen to work with the best talent around the world. His most expansive international relationship to date has been with the BBC and BBC Worldwide – which have partnered Starz on projects including Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons – and Zlotnik is on the hunt for more. Speaking in London at the C21 Drama Summit at the end of 2014, he stressed that “the creative community is not just in Los Angeles but is a worldwide phenomenon. We want to source and finance programmes with an international purview.”
Further proof of his interest in non-US shows was the decision to come on board The Missing, an eight-part thriller about an English family whose son is kidnapped while on holiday in France. Shot in Belgium with a European cast, the series is not one that you’d immediately associate with US channels. So what appealed to Zlotnik? “The Missing was interesting to us because we were able to read all eight scripts at the start,” he says. “There was a freshness to the writing as well as a complicated, well-executed plot. We could see with clarity what journey the audience would go on. It was beguiling to see what happened to characters because the child went missing.”
The Missing is also notable because of the way Starz is utilising its content rights. The first episode was made available for free across a wide range of platforms, a week ahead of the series premiere on Starz, as a way to encourage sampling. All told, around 82 million households were able to view this episode, with a week then to decide if they wanted to subscribe to Starz to continue watching the series. Starz is also making each episode of the show available to subscribers via its on-demand services one week ahead of its linear transmission.
Zlotnik has made it clear that he sees on-demand as a critical component of the Starz business in future. The company’s SVOD service Starz Play recently launched on Xbox One in the US and is now being rolled out internationally. As a result, the need for on-demand rights affects content strategy: “We don’t do deals with three of the majors, Disney, Warner Bros, and Fox, because they don’t recognise our need for SVOD rights. We’re positioned as linear and on demand.”
In terms of the nuts and bolts of Starz’ approach, Zlotnik looks for “complexity, conflict and consequences” when investing in drama. He is fond of saying the channel looks for “truth and spectacle.” By truth, he means stories on Starz have to “relate to the human condition, to be about something,” while spectacle means they “must stand out, be larger than life.”
As series like Black Sails have shown, Starz is not scared of using visual effects or big set constructions to achieve spectacle, but this cannot be at the expense of accuracy in the details, says Zlotnik. “With green screen we can do pretty much anything to create compelling worlds. But the human eye picks up falsity very easily, so we take meticulous care to make sure everything passes the test. Every detail of wardrobe, set dressing, props and extras is important when we are schooling people.”
Similarly, Zlotnik says it is important not to confuse spectacle with scale: “It doesn’t always have to be about visual effects, it can be very intimate, such as an actor delivering a soliloquy. You really affect people when you hit them at an emotional level.”
Under Albrecht and Zlotnik, Starz has taken a flexible approach to deal making. In the case of copros, Zlotnik says the key is to pick the right partner at the outset: “If you are philosophically aligned you don’t have to micro-manage people. I’ve always found that if you pick copro partners with expertise and credibility, it turns long conversations into short conversations. As a company, we don’t demand more than our proportional say in the way the creative is developed.”
The obvious question, of course, is has this worked? Zlotnik has encouraging numbers to suggest it has. When Albrecht and Zlotnik began their transformation program, rivals HBO and Showtime had 28.8 million and 17.7 million subscribers respectively, while Starz had 16.9 million. The most recent comparative figures give HBO 30.4 million, Showtime 22.5 million and Starz 22 million – and Starz’ most recent financial report shows further growth to 22.5 million (Q3, 2014). “We’ve done that as a standalone company, without protection from a conglomerate and sister companies,” Zlotnik adds.
As subs grow, so does investment in programming, says Zlotnik. “Looking down 2015 and beyond, our ambition is to continue to grow originals. In 2013, we had 36 episodes; in 2014 it was 58, and this year it will be more than 60. Looking ahead to 2017, we have given up the Disney library, which means there will be additional resources to plug into original programming.”
Some financial caution continues to be required, however. Speaking about projects that haven’t quite worked out (yet), Zlotnik says: “We had developed a big sci-fi project (Steven DeKnight’s Incursion) which was like Band of Brothers meets Halo (the video game franchise). It’s on the backburner because we decided we could do two or three other projects for the price of that one. But it’s still out there.”
With growth, there has been inevitable speculation about where Starz might go next as a business. As referenced above, the company has announced plans to create an on-demand platform, and this is part of a wider attack on the global market. “We want to grow business internationally,” says Zlotnik. “We will grow through distribution then channel creation and on-demand. We developed the attributes of business in anticipation OTT would be a new phenomenon.”
On the face of it, it’s hard to see how Starz could compete with the much more established brands that are already fighting it out for elbow room in the international arena. But Zlotnik’s comments become more interesting when one factors in the recent takeover talk that has been swirling around Starz.
Starz’ job is clear. It needs to maintain a virtuous circle whereby investment in content grows subscribers, thus allowing further investment. It also needs to win the hearts and minds of the creative community, something it appears to be on the road to doing. Zlotnik says Starz has worked hard to build a reputation as a business that is “sustainable but creative, that will care for and nurture properties, especially those with existing fan bases. It excites me when someone with a clear idea and a lot of passion comes in with a pitch. We want to be a great creative partner, so that – at the end of it all – they say ‘that’s the show I had in mind.’”