All posts by Gary Smitherman

Journey towards Mars

Drama on National Geographic Channel will go out of this world with the launch of Mars later this year. As DQ’s Digital Drama Season concludes, National Geographic Channel’s Andy Baker discusses the show’s online drama spin-off Before Mars.

While television networks are embracing the internet as a place for viewers to catch up on single episodes or whole seasons of a particular show, there are few examples where they have launched a series entirely online.

Following its move online, former terrestrial channel BBC3 launched psychological drama Thirteen across the digital airwaves, while NBC dropped every episode of the first season of Aquarius online following its network debut.

Mars-3
Mars airs on National Geographic Channel later this year

Until now, broadcasters have largely used the digital space as a way to extend their programmes online, either through bonus footage or mini-episodes, otherwise known as webisodes.

One example is Flight 462, a 16-part miniseries that aired on AMC.com ahead of the second season of Fear The Walking Dead, focusing on a group of survivors onboard a plane in the earliest moments of the outbreak.

In 2013, the BBC also dropped a mini-episode of its hit drama Sherlock, while sci-fi favourites Doctor Who and Heroes have also extended their stories online. The latter launched five batches of webisodes between 2008 and 2009.

National Geographic Channel is now using the same tactics for its groundbreaking drama Mars. Set in both the future and the present day, the six-part series will use a blend of drama and documentary sequences to imagine the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033.

Andy Baker
Andy Baker

But ahead of its debut this November, when it will air in 171 countries and 45 languages, Nat Geo has also produced its first ever web series that will serve as an online prequel to the main event.

Set in the present day, Before Mars introduces twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung – central characters in Mars – as young girls struggling to fit into their new school in a small rural town. Joon discovers an old ham radio in the attic and eventually develops a long-distance radio friendship with a female astronaut who has grown homesick while serving on the International Space Station. While the friendship between Joon and the astronaut grows stronger, Hana begins to thrive at school and makes her own friends on Earth.

Before Mars is produced by Variable, with executive producer Tyler Ginter and director Lloyd Lee Choi. Mars comes from Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, with executive producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg, Jon Kamen and Robert Palumbo.

“The way content is consumed now, it’s not just linear TV,” says Andy Baker, senior VP and group creative director of National Geographic Channels. “Things are online, whether it’s YouTube, Amazon or Hulu. We wanted to create something to support that show that they can watch on different devices.

“Very early on, as we started to look at stories and plots for Before Mars, we found we had these two characters in Mars, which is set in 2033. But what motivated them to become these pioneers that would land on Mars [back in] 2016 when they are young teenagers? What inspired them and motivated them to take this giant leap for mankind?”

 Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars
Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars

Baker reveals the creative team read through dozens of potential scripts and storylines for Before Mars. “It was pretty wide open,” he says. “The characters are shown 15 to 20 years earlier than the main story. It starts with Hana on the launch pad. She’s looking back at this one moment in her life so we wanted to make something that lived up to that. There’s a lot of opportunity and options. We wanted to tell a story people enjoy and has a bit of nostalgia to it. We just wanted to write something that feels compelling, interesting, relatable and emotional for the audience.”

With Joon and Hana set as the focal point of Before Mars, the writers were tasked with coming up with a backstory for them that would become an origin story for their relationship in Mars.

“We wanted to create a fairly simple story,” Baker explains. “We’re making a shortform digital series, so we wanted to tell one moment in time from their youth. But you don’t need to watch Mars to appreciate Before Mars. It’s just a shorter piece of content around that same subject.

“In the series, Hana goes to Mars and Joon stays behind. That same theme is in the prequel when one sister goes on a big adventure while the other stays behind, so their personalities become clear.”

Like Mars, Before Mars also comprises six parts, though the running time for the web series is still to be determined ahead of its October launch.

“As we got into the story, the running time got a little bit longer,” Baker admits. “It will total 40 to 45 minutes and each episode will be six to nine minutes. One of the best things about creating a digital series is that running time takes a back seat. You don’t have to cut it a certain way. Longer or shorter is OK as long as it’s compelling storytelling.”

Baker says the look and tone of Before Mars will differ from the main series, simply because one is set on Earth in the present day and the other is in the future on another planet. However, scripts from Mars were used to inform the prequel and ensure the character’s featured remained consistent throughout.

Ultimately, though, whether on terrestrial TV or online, he says the success of any project comes down to the story. “There’s such a proliferation of great content that the single most important focus is to tell a great story, whatever length that might be or wherever the show is consumed,” Baker notes.

National Geographic is pushing further into TV drama next year with Genius, an anthology series that will feature the story of Albert Einstein in season one. Before then, however, viewers will get to journey to Mars in what Baker describes as “the biggest series ever that we have launched.”

He adds: “We’re excited and hope everyone enjoys the story. We’re in the middle of the rough cuts but we’re really excited by where it’s going.”

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Rola Bauer

The StudioCanal executive’s contemporary selection includes her firm’s darkly compelling drama Spotless alongside global mega-hits like HBO’s Game of Thrones.

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-s2-ep13-1How to Get Away With Murder
Viola Davis’s Emmy win last year for her performance as Annalise Keating was well deserved. Davis is a consummate actress who maintains an authoritative presence and tranquil demeanour that keeps this series grounded with its many plot twists. The ever-moving, breathless pace of the storyline and time-jumping devices provide a captivating thrill ride. Steadily rising dramatic stakes that excite and surprise are sustained by excellent writing and stellar performances. The development and complex evolving relationships of the principal characters are riveting and dizzying and keep the viewer absorbed in the story.

game of thrones-s7Game of Thrones
The cinematic scope of this adult epic fantasy, with memorable characters and rich storytelling, has succeeded brilliantly in making Game of Thrones one of the top drama series worldwide. It is ruthlessly brutal in its dynastic battles and there is so much texture to the series with its supernatural elements. The themes are universal – Game of Thrones is rife with treachery, heroism, honour and loyalty, all woven through a vast geography. And, of course, I love our Crossing Lines star Tom Wlaschiha, who portrays Jaqen H’ghar.

Spotless2Spotless
I must be a little self-serving as an executive producer of Spotless. The overwhelming critical acclaim the show has received has been validating and rewarding. Writer Ed McCardie has created morally ambiguous, complex characters – who are a delicious mix of dark and repellent while also charming and sexy – and a storyline peppered with black humour. Ed manages to hold, tether and build a compelling story that is, at its heart, a family drama, centring on two very disparate, though lovable antihero brothers, while they become increasingly entangled with perverse gangsters in some of the most absurd situations. Series leads Marc-Andre Grondin, Denis Menochet, Miranda Raison and Brendan Coyle give remarkable performances.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

Fargo
Living up to the Coen Brothers’ iconic film version is no easy feat. To even attempt and risk the criticism of adapting a film that was not only nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but also features on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Movies is quite audacious. But the superlative writing and cinematography have captured the look and feel of the source material, with the addition of a refreshing storyline. It’s still a crime series and the juxtaposition of humour and horror is done brilliantly. In season one, Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful as the inscrutable bad guy Lorne Malvo.

empire-cast-thatgrapejuice-600x310Empire
Empire engages with its sizzling and delicious soapy drama themes that the writers and actors bring marvellously to life. It works well and raises the stakes with great storyline twists that keep it fresh. It’s got everything: feuding characters, romances gone sour and the brilliant Terrence Howard holding it all together. And there is lots of slick, wonderful music with catchy tunes from Timbaland. The series quite simply has balls and is not afraid to break new ground.

mr-robotMr Robot
This show features a very unusual hero and unique premise that draws in the viewer. Rami Malek’s breakout performance succeeds in making a delusional, morphine addict with social anxiety disorder sympathetic as the cleverly and creatively developed lead character Elliot. This prickly character, who also serves as narrator of the story, to someone who exists only in his head, is made vulnerable and human by Malek without glamorising him. The brisk pace, editing, plot twists and intrigue keep the story moving and the audience thoroughly engaged.

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Netflix channels 1980s style with Stranger Things

Netflix goes back to the ’80s with Stranger Things, a supernatural, small-screen homage to ET, Stand By Me and Halloween.

When it comes to the 1980s, there have been plenty of recent television dramas set during the iconic period best known for big hair, shoulder pads and power ballads.

From Cold War spy thriller The Americans and period tech piece Halt & Catch Fire to HBO drama Show Me A Hero and short-lived crime series Wicked City, the decade of Madonna and Michael Jackson has provided no end of inspiration to TV writers.

But rather than music or fashion, it is the big screen and the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter that new Netflix series Stranger Things, which debuts today, uses as its inspiration.

Described as a love letter to 1980s classics, the eight-part series opens with the disappearance of a young boy. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret government experiments, supernatural forces and one strange little girl.

Star Winona Ryder is praised as 'completely fearless' in her approach
Star Winona Ryder is praised as ‘completely fearless’ in her approach

“We have so much nostalgia and love for this era,” explains Matt Duffer, who wrote and directed the series with his brother Ross. “We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up, the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King. And what makes all of these stories so great to us, and so resonant, is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

“When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly our lives had the potential for adventure – maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films, and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.”

To sell the show to Netflix, the Duffers created a mock ‘trailer’ using clips from more than 25 feature films, including ET, Nightmare on Elm Street, Super 8 and Halloween. They also created a ‘look book,’ which was designed in the style of a vintage Stephen King novel.

Then, before starting the show, the writers all watched films including ET, Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Television is becoming more and more cinematic, and we became excited by the potential of making a ‘longform movie,’” Matt explains. “And what better place to do that than Netflix? It was our dream home.”

Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies
Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies

Ross continues: “Working with Netflix has been an amazing experiencing. They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

Beyond the storyline, the influence of Spielberg and his ’80s contemporaries is ever-present, particularly in the setting that was chosen for the series: the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

“There’s something Spielbergian Americana about Indiana,” executive producer Shawn Levy states. “Hawkins is a town with history, not only in its buildings and its land but, most importantly, among its characters.”

The show was filmed both on sound stages and on location in Atlanta and its suburbs, with the city providing the producers with the perfect setting to recreate the small-town look of Hawkins.

“Hawkins is an ordinary, idyllic little town filled with relatable, ordinary people and that makes it the perfect place for something supernatural to happen,” adds Ross.

As episode one plays out, what will also strike viewers beyond the setting is the attention to 1980s detail, from the costumes and synthesiser-heavy soundtrack to cultural references such as walkie talkies and playing Dungeons and Dragons.

“We never wanted it to be ‘in-your-face’ ’80s and obvious,” says production designer Chris Trujillo. “The lived-in look was important to us so that it would feel familiar to audiences and not distract them.”

Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?
Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?

Levy continues: “It is enjoyably nostalgic for those of us who remember the ’80s, but for a kid or a teenager for whom that is another era, it’s just a great story.”

The music, in particular, adds another layer of nostalgia to the series. The composers, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, were members of a synth band called Survive which the Duffers discovered after their work featured on the soundtrack of feature film The Guest.

In total, they wrote more than 13 hours of music for the series. Viewers will also hear tracks from artists such as Toto and Joy Division.

Heading the cast is Winona Ryder, best known for big-screen roles in Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands and whose television credits include the aforementioned Show Me A Hero and BBC TV movie Turks & Caicos. In Stranger Things, she plays Joyce, a struggling single mother raising two boys.

“It’s a genre that I hadn’t explored before and was interesting to me,” she reveals. “I’m really lucky in my life that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and so it was exciting to try something new. I took a lot from performances like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Marsha Mason in Max Dugan Returns and Audrey Rose.”

Matt says of Ryder: “Winona is completely fearless. She jumps in all the way, 100% and that’s what we needed for the Joyce character. She’s on her own for so much of the show, losing her grip on what is real as she goes through an emotional rollercoaster.”

As for the Duffers, Levy admits they “came out of nowhere” with the idea for a show and he believes they will become a new force in filmmaking.

“Stranger Things marks the arrival of a new vision, and a new filmmaking partnership and brotherhood that is really noteworthy,” he adds. “We’re going to be talking about the Duffer brothers the way we talked early on about the Coen brothers.”

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Adi Hasak: An arresting new take on cop shows

Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak tells Michael Pickard how he merged star power with bold storytelling to bring a fresh angle to the tried-and-tested cop drama

While crime dramas remain one of the most popular genres on television, the question for any new show is always the same: how can it stand out from the competition?

With Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta heading the cast and a storyline focusing on a New York cop who is forced to turn informant, it’s clear NBC felt Shades of Blue had a concept and the star power to help it compete in the schedules.

Lopez plays Harlee Santos, a single mother and an NYPD detective who is forced to work with the FBI’s anti-corruption task force to take down her boss, Lieutenant Matt Wozniak (Liotta), all while dealing with her own family and financial problems.

NBC’s faith ultimately paid off, as the series launched to more than eight million viewers in January and the US network quickly renewed the show for a second season after only five of the 13 episodes had aired.

But while Shades of Blue, which debuted on Wednesday in the UK on Sky Living, did enough to differentiate itself within a crowded genre, series creator Adi Hasak had to put aside some of his bolder story ideas and pen a show that played to popular tastes to get on the air.

Adi Hasak
Hasak: ‘It was time for me to get a show on the air’

With brutal honesty, Hasak admits: “It was time for me to get a show on the air. I was known as a guy who wrote very eclectic television shows. They were extremely well received to the extent that I was always working but unfortunately they were so eclectic that they were never put on the air. I like to say I was a writer that they loved in June when they bought my ideas but they never called me back in January when they picked up the shows.

“In the past, executives and heads of studios have always said to me, ‘Why can’t you write a lawyer show, a cop show or a doctor show?’ and I said it was because I just have zero interest. There’s nothing new to say about it.”

Determined to get a show on air, Hasak began to explore what new crime stories could be told and explored ideas of corruption – institutional corruption, personal corruption and how people fall into corruption.

“I don’t think anyone is born corrupt, it happens slowly and gradually,” he explains. “I was very much a student of the movies of the ’70s, of Serpico and so forth, and I decided to study corruption through the cop genre.

“What was interesting to me about the cop genre was that, overall, policemen are decent people and if they can fall into corruption, then any of us can.”

Hasak wrote the pilot script on spec and soon teamed up with Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street) to pitch the show to the networks, who had ideas of their own.

“I was asked at some point, ‘Why can’t we just make the corrupt cop an undercover FBI agent?’” he recalls. “And I said we couldn’t, that would undermine the entire show. That would mean she wouldn’t be corrupt. So I decided to stand firm and not change it.

“We had offers of getting it made if we made it like Donnie Brasco and if we made her an FBI agent from the beginning, but we stood fast.”

But once Lopez came onboard, the project took off. NBC went straight-to-series by placing a 13-episode order, and soon afterwards Liotta signed on.

Shades of Blue
NBC took Shades of Blue straight to series once Jennifer Lopez had signed up

The cast also includes Warren Kole as Santos’ FBI handler Special Agent Stahl, Drea de Matteo, Dayo Okeniyi, Hampton Fluker, Vincent Laresca and Sarah Jeffery.

Straight-to-series orders are becoming increasingly common, despite bypassing the traditional pilot system US networks continue to favour, and they come with many benefits for series creators.

“It’s a wonderful model in the sense that you know the show is being embraced and you have the opportunity to completely plot it out,” Hasak says. “It gives you a lot of time to prep. The only problem, which luckily I have not encountered, is if you go straight-to-series, there is no ability to tweak a show.

“Whether it’s creatively or with casting, there’s no hiatus between doing the pilot and testing it, which puts a lot of pressure on the executive producers and the showrunner to get everything right because there is no redo. There’s no shooting a character out and recasting a character once you’re locked into your cast. That’s who you’re going with. But it’s been really rewarding and wonderful, so this is a model we’re embracing and we welcome the opportunity.”

No tweaking was needed, however, as Lopez (who is also an executive producer) and Liotta both embraced the series and their characters.

Ray Liotta Shades of Blue
Hasak believes Ray Liotta gives an award-winning performance in the show

Hasak believes Liotta deserves Emmy recognition when the award nominations are announced today. And he says of actress-singer Lopez: “Jennifer was very hands-on in such a classy way because she’s a huge international star and she could have very easily come in and started throwing her weight around. But it was so nuanced, so beautiful. Her hand was in everything, from the music to the clothes they wore to the scripts. It could have been intimidating but she made us her partners and was involved in all aspects of the role.”

Another character ever-present in the series is New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, where the action is centred. Shades of Blue was always going to be set in a big city, which at first was Chicago, but the Big Apple won out.

“Everyone felt New York would be a wonderful setting for it, especially Brooklyn,” Hasak notes. “The other thing that was very important was diversity and setting it in a diverse precinct, and I’m really proud that, if you look at our cast, the cast majority is diverse. There have been network shows set in a cop station in New York and everyone’s white, so I think diversity was extremely important to Jennifer, as it was for the rest of us, and what was important was that it was authentic.

“If you look at cop shows that work, they all have to be authentic. Look at NYPD Blue, Homicide, The Wire – there just has to be a level of authenticity to the genre. You have to be able to smell the streets, so that became part of the conversation in New York, where Jennifer’s from. It immediately became clear we should make it in New York and everyone embraced it.”

Shades of Blue is produced by Universal Television, Nuyorican Productions, EGTV, Ryan Seacrest Productions and Jack Orman Productions. It is distributed worldwide by NBCUniversal.

Hasak was a co-showrunner on season one with Jack Orman but has stepped back from the forthcoming second season as he oversees post-production on USA Network’s Eyewitness, an adaptation of Norwegian drama Øyevitne. And he admits that showrunning is “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.”

“The job of showrunner is a job five people should have. It’s extremely stressful. It’s being involved in production, post-production, prep and writing the scripts. It’s extremely challenging and at the same time extremely rewarding.

“Shades of Blue began with me in a room by myself. Barry Levinson came onboard, Jennifer Lopez came onboard, Ray Liotta came onboard and all of a sudden, this machine came together. It was amazing. It’s almost like an army coming together and going to battle – and the machine needs to be fed constantly by the scripts. So it was almost jaw-dropping for me to see it come together, and it was one of the highlights of what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. It taught me what to do and what not to do and set me on course to be a showrunner on Eyewitness.

Shooting on season two began in June, with Breaking Bad and Gracepoint lead Anna Gunn joining the returning Lopez and Liotta in Brooklyn – another star name that adds weight to Hasak’s claim that Shades of Blue “is a huge network show.”

Viewers in the US will have to wait until early 2017 to find out how this story continues.

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Practising what you preach: Sam Catlin talks AMC comic book adaptation

Comic book adaptations take a dark turn with AMC’s forthcoming Preacher. DQ speaks to showrunner Sam Catlin.

While the current trend for comic book adaptations has largely focused on Marvel and DC’s stable of superheroes, things are about to take a decidedly darker turn.

This Sunday, US cable network AMC launches Preacher, a 10-part series based on Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon’s books about a conflicted reverend in a small Texas town.

Sam Catlin
Sam Catlin admits he wasn’t a graphic novel reader before taking on Preacher

It tells the story of Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper, who is inhabited by a mysterious entity that allows him to develop a highly unconventional power. He sets off with his ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and an Irish vampire called Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) on a journey to find God. Literally.

From the start, the series lays down its intentions with a blood-splattered sequence that alludes to what is to come, while those familiar with the original comics will know to expect plenty of action, violence, sex and some colourful language.

So when series showrunner Sam Catlin first picked up a copy of Preacher, his initial reaction is not unsurprising.

“When I first read the comic I thought, ‘We can’t do any of this,’” he admits to DQ while writing the final episode of the first season. “It was too profane and the scale of it was too huge and violent. I couldn’t get my head around it.

“But once we figured out how it could start, now there’s nothing in there I don’t think we can do with a little creativity. There’s sex detectives, angels, demons, cowboys and crazy violence and our plan is to do all of it, whether it means explicitly what’s in the comic or not, but in terms of Garth and his world, we have no plans to pull any of our punches, that’s for sure.”

The series, which is produced by Sony Pictures Television and AMC Studios, was developed and championed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – both longtime fans of the comics. Before he joined the project, Catlin didn’t know either personally and had never heard of Preacher.

“It was a crude commercial marriage at the beginning,” he says, frankly. “We had the same agent and they were looking to do the comic book that they love, which turned out to be great because we came at it from very different perspectives.

Preacher
Preacher is set in a West Texas town “corrupt and soaked in sin”

“They were huge fanboys and I wasn’t a big graphic novel reader at the time so it was a great marriage of fanboy and someone coming to it with fresh eyes. It’s been a great collaboration. I’ve loved working with them and they’re super-involved in the show. For huge celebrities, they’re super-down-to-earth and approachable, responsible guys.

“It always helps when you have Seth and Evan passionate about a project; it definitely helps any process. It’s a very ambitious show in terms of the resources AMC and Sony are putting into it and the creative lam we are walking out on here. Everyone’s really excited about it and we can’t wait to see what people think of it.”

In the beginning, that collaborative effort focused on how the show would start and what would remain from the source material, and which scenes, stories and characters would be held back.

“I wrote the script based on all those conversations we had and then I was on set while they were directing, so it was very much a hive-mind experience,” Catlin explains. “You hear so many stories about these types of things where people and personalities clash or the big, arrogant movie stars take over and throw their weight around. It’s just not been like that at all. I’ve become friends with these guys, they’re super-smart and it’s our show. I feel like it’s been a blissfully smooth collaboration every step of the way.”

To this end, the big change fans of the comics will notice is that it doesn’t open with Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy drinking coffee in a diner, learning how the preacher got his power. Instead, Catlin describes the early stages of the series as a prequel in terms of Jesse’s backstory. “But in no way are we not going to get to the other great Preacher stuff,” he adds. “Some stuff we actually bring earlier into the show than the comic does, and then some stuff we hold off until later.

Preacher Ruth Negga
Ruth Negga plays Jesse Custer’s ex-girlfriend Tulip

“I’ve said before if people don’t see what they’re hoping to see from the start it doesn’t mean they’re not going to see it. It just means they’re not going to see it yet. That was the big challenge – how do we start Jesse. What’s he doing? Is he on the run, is he still a preacher? What’s his relationship with God? Once we figured that out, it was a lot easier.

“In a way, this first season is a lot more of an ensemble. A lot of the action takes place in this one little West Texas town – corrupt and soaked in sin. So we’ll meet other people in the town, some of Jesse’s parishioners. So it’s Jesse and all these people and then you have Tulip and Cassidy on either shoulder. But eventually Garth’s comic is very much a three-hander. And we’ll get to that. It’s just a question of when.”

Unlike a traditional novel, Preacher offers Catlin, Rogen and Goldberg a visual template from which to draw, and the showrunner admits Steve Dillon’s artwork has influenced them during production.

“We want it to feel like a TV show but we also want it to feel like a comic book,” he says. “So striking that balance is one of the big challenges of the show. It’s not like Dick Tracy, where it’s so stylised it feels like the panel [in the comic book]. To me, it’s more of a tonal thing. You want it to feel heightened. It’s not Breaking Bad – it’s not hyper-naturalistic in every single moment. It does have that playful, absurd comic book atmosphere to it. To us, it’s that Gonzo tone we’re really trying to honour.”

Preacher frontman Dominic Cooper’s previous TV credits include Marvel’s Agent Carter and miniseries Fleming. But it was his dual turn in 2011 movie The Devil’s Double, in which he played two characters, that meant the actor was on Catlin’s radar as they searched for their titular preacher.

On casting the star, he says: “He was presented to us during pilot season in LA and he’s very much a known quantity, which means – as the agents will tell you – he’s not going to audition. You have to offer him the part. It’s always very scary. But it’s all very professional now where they have actor reels, this slickly produced thing where you get to see highlights of Dominic’s stuff.

Preacher-stainglass
Catlin praises lead actor Dominic Cooper’s “natural screen presence”

“There was so much good stuff on it but it was his work in Devil’s Double, where he plays Uday Hussein and his lookalike who is hired to be an impersonator for security reasons, that stood out. But we just didn’t know how good he was until we started shooting the pilot and we realised how lucky we’d gotten with his natural screen presence. We couldn’t be more thrilled about Dominic and the cast in general.”

Working with AMC, a network not known to shy away from graphic material (think The Walking Dead), has also ensured Catlin and his creative team haven’t had to tone down any element of the series, which will also air on Amazon Video in the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan.

“We keep waiting for them to act like network executives and say, ‘Can we make the character more likeable?’ and all those horrific notes you get. But AMC wants to do Preacher. They don’t want to do any sort of watered down version of the show. They’ve been great partners and they have a track record of success in pushing the limits of what you can broadcast on TV. They’ve been nothing but encouraging.”

Preacher marks the first time Catlin – best known for his work as a writer on another AMC hit series, Breaking Bad – has been a showrunner, a position he describes as the “ultimate job in Hollywood.”

“It’s definitely as much pressure as I had been told, as much terror,” he says. “It’s all that is advertised but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s very exciting building something from the ground up. As a writer, it’s the ultimate job in Hollywood, which is to be a showrunner on a great network like AMC. The amount of creativity, responsibility and authorship you have – there’s nothing like it. As hard as the job is, you don’t want to do any other job after this, that’s for sure.”

And with his experience on Breaking Bad, it’s only natural that Catlin looks to creator Vince Gilligan for inspiration now he’s in the top job.

“I’ve always had tremendous admiration and respect for Vince but ever since I became a showrunner I have that much more,” he admits. “Vince taught me everything about how to run a show and how to empower your writers and be diligent. Preacher’s very different from Breaking Bad and there are certain things that we do on this show that if Vince were dead, he’d be screaming in his grave. The rules are very different from Breaking Bad but his attention to detail, artistic integrity and the gentleman-like way he ran that whole operation is something I try to emulate as hard as I can.”

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Binge viewing standard-bearer’s next move

It was the service that changed the rules. But with subscriber numbers continuing to soar and questions being asked about higher prices, what comes next for Netflix?

Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as Sense8
Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as sci-fi series Sense8

You might not remember what you were doing on Sunday Feburary 5, 2012, but Netflix’s early adopters might remember sitting back and watching the first episode of a Norwegian comedy-drama called Lilyhammer.

Starring Steven Van Zandt, it follows a New York mobster who, after testifying in court against a mob boss, is placed in a witness protection programme and relocated to Lillehammer in Norway.

The fish-out-of-water premise might not sound particularly revolutionary in terms of TV storylines, but looking back at the words used by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, to announce the launch of the series, it’s amazing to consider how far the industry has come in little more than three years.

“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favourite shows on Netflix?” he asked. “Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV? Well, starting today, you can enjoy as many episodes as you please of the brand new Netflix original series Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt.”

The phrase ‘binge-viewing’ had not yet become synonymous with Netflix and the way its viewers would use the service, but the foundations were being laid for a major shift in viewing habits.

After describing the series further, Sarandos ended: “Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time, today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want: choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.

Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing
Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing just three years ago

“This will be the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix. We will have more news on those shows as they get ready to premiere. Enjoy the show and tell your friends – but no spoilers! They may not be on the same episode as you are on.”

With these few sentences, Sarandos outlined not only Netflix’s own strategy but one that the rest of the industry would soon follow, with an increasing number of online services commissioning original content and traditional broadcasters widening the opportunity to catch up online. NBC has already gone one step further than other US broadcasters to “push new boundaries” by releasing all 13 episodes of its David Duchovny-starring 1960s drama Aquarius at once. ZDF in Germany also blurred the lines of linear and digital TV with its pan-European crime drama The Team.

Fast forward from that Lilyhammer announcement to this week, when Netflix unveiled its results for the second quarter of 2015.

The service added 3.3 million new subscribers worldwide during that period, bringing the total to 65.6 million. It has 42 million members in the US alone.

Global numbers were boosted by the platform’s international expansion, with moves into Australia and New Zealand in March. It will land in Spain, Italy and Portugal in October this year, and aims to open in Japan in the fall. There are also plans to roll into India, China and South Korea.

These new international outlets will only help to swell subscriber numbers further, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings under no illusion about what is drawing viewers both in the US and around the world to the service.

He told shareholders that subscriber growth was “fuelled by the growing strength of our original programming slate,” which in Q2 included the first seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and season three of Orange is the New Black.

Daredevil is already in production for its second season, he notes, adding: “Our global expansion extends to our content strategy as well. Sense8, the mind-bending cinematic thriller from the Wachowski siblings and J Michael Straczynski that debuted June 5, is an ambitious, truly international show with talent behind and in front of the camera from multiple countries.”

Another international drama, Narcos – “a gripping account of the roots of the cocaine trade, shot in Colombia and starring the great Brazilian star Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar” – launches on August 28.

“They are the perfect example of what we strive for in our original programming: an elevated version of popular genres that reach a large audience globally,” Hastings says.

“We closed the quarter with season three of Orange is the New Black, which went live on June 11 and set off a social media shockwave around the world. On the following Sunday, Netflix members globally watched a record number of hours in a single day, led by Orange, despite the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones and game five of the NBA finals also falling on that Sunday.

“Global enthusiasm for the third season of Orange underlines our ability to create franchise properties that bring new members to Netflix as well as delighting current ones. Nearly 90% of Netflix members have engaged with Netflix original content, another indicator that we are on the right path.”

To that end, Netflix said it would continue to invest in original series (and now movies) as its original content spending is predicted to hit US$5bn in 2016.

The downside, however, is that this spending, coupled with a marketing bill nearing US$1bn in 2016, has led to a 63% fall in net income, according to the results.

If viewers want great content, ultimately they will have to pay for it, and on a subscriber-funded service like Netflix, that means subscriptions will rise.

Hastings alluded to as much when he said subscribers should brace themselves for higher-priced plans in the future, though no details have yet been released.

At a time when the television drama space is becoming increasingly congested, particularly in the US, where cable networks continue to move into original scripted programming to build their brands alongside VoD platforms, viewers will be asked to pay more and more for the high-cost shows they love so much or see them book-ended by advertisements.

But as cord-cutting has shown, viewers’ loyalty to their favourite service provider can, and often does, have a limit. Will Netflix test that loyalty when it unveils its new pricing plan?

The service broke the mould in 2012 when it launched its first original series, Lilyhammer, for viewers to watch in one go. Its attempts to balance spending and subscriber numbers could also be another watershed moment for the industry.

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Comic cuts: A round-up of the hottest trailers unveiled in San Diego

As the dust settles on another Comic-Con, Michael Pickard rounds up all the news and casts his eye over the hottest trailers that were unveiled to thousands of fans in San Diego.

Comic-Con-fans. Credit-@DCComics
Costumed Comic-Con fans get into the spirit of the event

And so Comic-Con ends for another year. As more than 130,000 people make their way home from the San Diego Convention Centre, the latest round of this annual four-day event has only served to establish it further as the new must-go place for television series, and their producers, directors, writers and cast members, to build up the noise surrounding their launch or return to our screens.

Alongside announcements about series renewals and surprise star appearances, it’s always intriguing to see where television drama – and genre fare in particular – is heading over the coming year.

Panels were hosted by shows including Limitless, Orphan Black, iZombie, Scorpion and Sherlock. Game of Thrones, The 100 and Marvel’s broadcast series – Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – also drew fans to hear gossip from the set and more about what fate might lie in store for their favourite characters.

Elsewhere, MTV announced Teen Wolf had been renewed for a sixth season, while cable network WGN America ordered a third run of its spellbinding period drama Salem.

Comic book drama Arrow released an image of the Green Arrow’s costume ahead of season four launching on The CW this fall, while the casts of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash, both also on The CW, joined in the fun.

Universal Cable Productions announced it is teaming with Warren Ellis and Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) to adapt 1970s Mexican network Televisa’s format El Pantera, as well as adapting UK film The Machine with writer Caradog James for Syfy. It has also optioned IDW Publishing comic Kill Shakespeare.

The producer of NBC reboot Heroes Reborn, Imperative Entertainment, said it had optioned rights to adapt Hugh Howey novel Sand, which tells of a family of sand divers who use wetsuit-type technology to dive beneath the desert that covers a lawless dystopian world to retrieve valuable relics that help them survive.

The cast of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow gather at the San Diego event
The cast of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow gather at the San Diego event

Minority Report producer Darryl Frank also revealed that Steven Spielberg had been working with executives on the Fox reboot of the celebrated director’s 2002 feature film.

At Syfy, the network revealed new details about its six-hour adaptation of Arthur C Clark’s novel Childhood’s End, and former Lost star Josh Holloway was reunited with the show’s executive producer Carlton Cuse as they discussed their latest collaboration: USA Network’s forthcoming Colony.

Showrunner Bryan Fuller also gave hope to fans of Hannibal that the now-cancelled NBC drama could be resurrected as a feature film, though there were celebrations at the Grimm panel, where the show’s stars and executive producers discussed plans for the NBC series’ landmark 100th episode.

But for all the talk at Comic-Con, its the exclusive clips and trailers that got fans off their seats and on their feet inside the convention centre.

Here DQ showcases trailers for some of the most anticipated shows heading to television over the next year:

See you next year in San Diego!

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