All posts by Jonathan Webdale

Appetite for disruption: Amazon Studios’ Morgan Wandell

With a reputed US$2bn annual content budget, Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell is enjoying his position as prime disruptor of traditional TV.

Having built a career in US network television with series like ABC’s Ugly Betty and CBS’s Criminal Minds, it must have felt strange to segue from Hollywood to heading drama development at the world’s largest online retailer.

Morgan Wandell admits he was apprehensive about joining Amazon Studios just over two years ago, having spent seven at ABC Studios, but says the reaction couldn’t have been more positive.

Bosch
Bosch was one of Amazon’s first drama pilots

“The reality was people were dying to move away from broadcast television, they were desperate to get away from industrial-grade shows,” he says. “There were a lot of creators with passion projects that they hadn’t been able to find homes for or who wanted to do something different.”

Wandell joined a few weeks before Amazon confirmed its first two drama pilots. Bosch, an adaptation of Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch crime novels, went ahead and has since been renewed for a second season. The After, a sci-fi drama that marked The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s return to series, never made it off the starting blocks.

But it was Transparent that really put Amazon on the map. Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender became the first online-only show to win Golden Globes in 2015. It was also nominated for three gongs at this year’s ceremony, though it failed to take home any awards.

“Transparent was an unbelievable asset for the company to have out of the gate. It really helped define the brand and what people should expect from us,” says Wandell.

Transparent
2015 saw Transparent become the first online-only show to win a Golden Globe

Next came Ron Perlman thriller Hand of God, about a corrupt judge who has a breakdown and starts hearing the voice of the Almighty. Bigger still was The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel imagining an alternative outcome to the Second World War. Exec produced by Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz, it was released in November.

The latter came about in much the same way as other Amazon dramas. “I started to call producers who I’d previously worked with,” says Wandell. “I knew Frank from a show called Night Stalker we did at ABC. My question to him was simple: ‘What do you have that you’re dying to make that keeps you up at night that you haven’t been able to get made at any other place?’ He said, ‘The answer’s simple – The Man in the High Castle.’”

This begs the question why no one else was prepared to make it. “It’s challenging material,” says Wandell. “It’s Nazis, fascism – a lot of uncomfortable moments.”

Amazon’s own High Castle advertising did create worries in the US, however, where Nazi and imperial Japanese flags plastered on the New York subway had to be removed.

The Man in the High Castle
Alternate future drama The Man in the High Castle has received critical acclaim

Wandell is more comfortable discussing the liberation of TV from the shackles of tradition. When he began at Amazon, he was surprised to realise there was “a whole generation of creators who’ve spent their lives building up very specific narrative muscles” as a response to network requirements.

When he started out as a development exec, a four-act structure for TV shows was prevalent. During his time at ABC this evolved to five, then six. But at Amazon the rulebook is thrown out of the window.

“There were a lot of producers or writers who, once they moved into this environment and were liberated from that kind of structure, had a difficult time creating the sorts of scenes you really need in premium TV because we’d stripped away the narrative tropes they relied on,” he says.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘traditional TV’ and what Amazon is doing. “Broadcast networks have schedules, they need programming,” Wandell says. “They’re in the business of being a lot of people’s third-favourite show. We’re in the business of being somebody’s absolute favourite.”

He admits the company might not achieve this every time but believes its open online pilot process offers improved chances of success. “Hopefully you make better decisions when you have hundreds of thousands of people watching versus testing centres in north Hollywood where 50 people who have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon will, for cold pizza and 40 bucks, come in and tell you why your pilot stinks.”

Wandell may owe his present position to a career in broadcast, but he doesn’t hold high hopes for the future of the networks he came from. “It’s very challenging for them,” he says. “I have no crystal ball but it’s a lot more fun to be the disruptor than the disrupted.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

Shining bright

SundanceTV has been steadily building its homegrown drama credentials over the past few years. Christian Vesper, senior VP of scripted development and current, tells DQ why he believes the network has turned a corner.

There is perhaps no other name more closely identified with independent movies than the Sundance Film Festival. And there is no other television network more closely associated with the festival than the Sundance Channel, which is why, when the station decided on a rebrand last year, it stayed well within the halo of the Robert Redford brand.

Christian-Vesper
Christian Vesper, SundanceTV senior VP of scripted development and current

SundanceTV arrived in time for the February 2014 premiere of the channel’s second wholly owned homegrown drama series, The Red Road – signifying another step towards its ambition of becoming better known for scripted television.

The journey began in 2010 with Carlos, a miniseries about the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed The Jackal, originally commissioned by France’s Canal+ and directed by Olivier Assayas – marking the auteur’s first foray into TV. Sundance got involved in the French/German production at the rough-cut stage and took a coproduction credit, though these days such collaborations see it much more heavily engaged in the creative process.

SundanceTV’s senior VP of scripted development and current, Christian Vesper, has been with the network for the past 12 years, playing a central role in its evolution – and Carlos, he says, was a pivotal moment.

“It made a lot of noise. We won best miniseries at the Golden Globes with a US$15m project against the US$150m project that was The Pacific. It led to a realisation in the higher levels of our organisation that the network could distinguish itself in the scripted space.”

At the time, that organisation was in the midst of major change. Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media was being spun out of Cablevision as a separate entity to be named AMC Networks, housing fellow cable outlets AMC, IFC and WE tv.

Carlos-1
Carlos, ‘a genuine differentiator for Sundance’

Carlos stood out as a genuine differentiator for Sundance, which until then had predominantly been seen as an elite, art-house movie destination. For Vesper, the show was a clear statement of intent – aiming to establish the channel as a home to directors, producers, writers and talent with a theatrical vision that could be transposed to the small screen. “We want our shows to look and feel cinematic. We are still part of the Sundance family, and that’s important,” he says.

Restless (2012) came next – another mini – this time an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name about a young woman who discovers that her mother was recruited as a spy during World War Two. Hilary Bevan Jones’s Endor Productions made the two-parter, which garnered accolades including a Best Actress Emmy nomination for Charlotte Rampling.

“We’re big fans of William Boyd and the idea again is to work with artists and writers who are exceptional,” says Vesper. This was Sundance’s “first proper copro,” he adds, and its first alliance with the BBC – a relationship that was to deepen with Top of the Lake (2013), director Jane Campion’s first TV project in more than 20 years. The seven-part series, shot in New Zealand, starred big names including Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and centred on the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival and aired at around the same time as Rectify, the channel’s first wholly owned homegrown series. Vesper describes the dual release as “an inflection point for the network – when we really meant to make a statement that we were in the scripted space for real.” He calls Rectify, heading into its third season next month, “a beautifully rendered piece of art television.” Top of the Lake, meanwhile, which has also been renewed, was “a fantastic opportunity” that BBC Worldwide and producer See-Saw brought to the network.

The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)
The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)

“We got involved very early in the script stage. It turned out to be a terrific brand signifier and audience generator, and we received a ton of award nominations – which we need to make some noise in such a crowded marketplace,” Vesper says, again emphasising the desire for projects with genuine artistic merit but also critical and commercial resonance.

After all, the competition is only getting stronger. SundanceTV is a sibling of AMC, which has been responsible for some of the greatest drama successes of the past decade – notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in October 2014 it gained a new sister, after the AMC Networks mother ship paid US$200m for a 49.9% stake in BBC America – home to originals including Copper and, more recently, Intruders.

Outside of the family the world has been moving fast, with Starz (another regular BBC partner) stepping up efforts to displace HBO and Showtime, while History Channel, A&E and others have been moving into scripted against the backdrop of Netflix and Amazon redrawing the landscape completely.

SundanceTV last year aired the original version of French supernatural drama The Returned (Les Revenants), and together with Canal+ has become a coproduction partner on the upcoming second season – but in the meantime an English-language version penned by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse is in the works at A&E.

Vesper acknowledges the difference in reach between the two channels (A&E is in close to 100 million households, whereas SundanceTV is available in around 60 million) but believes his own network has several advantages over newer entrants. “It’s not as if we’ve shifted from comedy to drama or anything like that. Drama has always been our focus and it is our brand,” he says.

Top of the Lake, SundanceTV's 'first proper copro'
Top of the Lake, SundanceTV’s ‘first proper copro’

“We have a pre-existing relationship with Sundance, and the niche we seek to fill is somewhere between our big brothers at AMC and the kind of content associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute.

“We’re looking to work with and highlight the auteurs. We want heavily character-based storytelling that is distinct, perhaps because of the unique tales we tell or progressive kind of storytelling we’re willing to engage in.”

The Honourable Woman (main image), Hugo Blick’s political spy thriller, fell squarely into this category. It follows an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business and with it all the trappings of his Middle Eastern dealings.

Maggie Gyllenhaal took the lead role, again underscoring the importance to SundanceTV of having big-name draws. “She’s a movie star, which guaranteed the series would be written about. And once people knew to pay attention, they realised the show had enormous quality. It’s an essential element to making things work,” says Vesper. The eight-part series was made by UK indie Drama Republic and Blick’s own business, Eight Rooks, again via the BBC’s commercial arm. It premiered on BBC2 in the UK on July 3, 2014 and on SundanceTV stateside on July 31, winning Gyllenhaal Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.

In an age of simulcasts and collapsing release windows, a four-week transatlantic gap seems like a long time for a series around which so much anticipation was built. But Vesper argues this only helped build interest in the US, as UK buzz about the show began to travel.

The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled
The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled

The tables were turned with One Child, Guy Hibbert’s miniseries about an adopted woman who is suddenly called back to China by her birth mother to save the brother she never knew she had from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It was coproduced with the BBC’s in-house production team, and although BBC2 was the lead broadcaster, SundanceTV aired the show on December 5 and 6 ahead of the BBC. “It’s a discussion on a per-show basis,” Vesper says.

Straight acquisitions are still on the agenda, with SundanceTV recently becoming the first major US network to pick up a German-language drama in the form of Deutschland 83, a Cold War thriller made by FremantleMedia’s UFA Fiction for RTL.

In wholly owned originals, The Red Road came from Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the hit 2013 movie Prisoners. Martin Henderson and Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa led the cast in another character-driven study, this time focusing on conflict between Native Americans in a deprived neighbourhood on the outskirts of white middle-class Manhattan. However, the show was cancelled after the end of its second season last month.

Meanwhile, in the pipeline is Hap and Leonard – SundanceTV’s third wholly owned original show and its first solo book adaptation, based on a series of novels by Joe Lansdale. The script is being penned by Sundance Film Festival alumni Jim Mickle and Nick Damici – again underscoring the ongoing importance of that association – with the show due to air next year.

Sundance Channel may have become SundanceTV and gone a significant way down the road to being recognised as a serious scripted TV player, but it will always owe a 10-gallon hat tip to Butch Cassidy’s notorious sidekick.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leader of the pack

BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.

Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”

Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII
Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII

For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.

Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.

“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”

Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.

“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”

Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”

Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity  to 'create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience'
Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity to ‘create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience’

“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”

The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”

Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.

Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.

“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.

Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.

Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.

Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.

They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”

Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen 'mini films'
Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen ‘mini films’

“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”

If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”

Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”

Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.

“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.

“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”

Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance's performance
Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance’s performance

Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”

Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.

“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

The main event

ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.

To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.

This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.

Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.

“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.

“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.

“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”

The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.

Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.

“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.

“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”

The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”

How To Get Away With Murder
How To Get Away With Murder

HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.

The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.

These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.

Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.

“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”

Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”

#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.

“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.

The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”

Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.

As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”

“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies

ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.

It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.

“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.

Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.

Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.

While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”

Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.

tagged in: , , , , , ,