All posts by Nico Franks

Stranger than fiction

DQ visits Stockholm to lift the lid on a conspiracy theory-themed comedy drama that delves into one of Western politics’ biggest mysteries.

For many people, the reason crime fiction is so popular in Scandinavia – and subsequently why our screens have been dominated by Nordic noir in the past decade – can be traced back to one tragic event that took place back in the 1980s in Sweden.

The unresolved death of Olof Palme, the controversial but popular Swedish prime minister who was shot in the back at close range late at night on a central Stockholm street on February 28, 1986, still haunts the nation.

His assassination, and the fact no one has been found guilty of the crime, has been called “an open wound in Swedish society” by the country’s current prime minister, Stefan Löfven, with Swedes said to have developed a collective fascination with the pursuit of justice as a result.

For that reason, it’s perhaps surprising that the case is now the subject of six-part comedy drama We Got This!, which effectively asks the question: what if The Dude from The Big Lebowski investigated JFK’s assassination, but in Sweden?

Backed by the country’s public service broadcaster, SVT, and Nordic Entertainment Group-owned streamer Viaplay, the show’s controversial premise may result in some backlash from Swedes when it airs later in 2020. But if you were expecting that to translate into any uneasiness on the We Got This! set, that certainly wasn’t the case when DQ headed to a chilly cemetery in Stockholm in November last year to attend filming.

We Got This! creator and star Schiaffino Musarra (right) in discussion with director Patrik Eklund

A large part of that comes down to the natural charm of the show’s creator and star, Schiaffino Musarra (aka Schiff), a US-born writer and actor who has lived in Sweden for more than a decade. Moreover, We Got This! is less a story about Palme and far more a skewering of the botched official attempts to find his killer and an examination of the legions of amateur detectives obsessed with solving the case themselves.

In a world where conspiracy theories, be they about the true shape of Earth or the latest terrorist attack on the West, are being given more oxygen than ever, We Got This! is a satire for the ages. “People don’t tell stories about Olof Palme here in Sweden. It’s taboo,” Musarra explains after a full morning’s filming at Skogskyrkogården, otherwise known as the Woodland Cemetery, where the team have just got through the 1,000th slate of the shoot. Cake will soon be delivered to celebrate.

Earlier that morning, main character George (Musarra) and his ragtag crew of unlikely investigators were huddled outside the cemetery’s Resurrection Chapel, asking the key question: who killed ‘cat lady’?

In between takes, Musarra returns the late cat lady’s incredibly furry feline, Rio (real name Zombie, a star of numerous Scandinavian commercials), to its handler, accruing more fur on his waistcoat and trousers with every take. This being Sweden, there are plenty of open sandwiches being nibbled behind the scenes by hungry crew members, many of whom are clad in the fashionable knitwear one would expect a Swede to wear to stave off the cold and look great while doing so.

The key creative team working with Musarra includes co-writer Santiago Gil (Veni Vidi Vici) and Oscar-nominated director Patrik Eklund (Instead of Abracadabra), who is adept at combining eccentric characters and dark comedy.

Musarra spent several years trying to get his project off the ground

While Musarra admits SVT may be a little nervous about the show’s reception (“That’s their job,” he says), the bushy-bearded star is satisfied his motives behind making We Got This! are nothing close to exploitative.

Much of the show is semi-autobiographical and based on Musarra’s own experiences, right down to the money troubles that inspired both him and George to delve into the Palme mystery. “I really did have a tax problem. I had a good year followed by a bad year and, when it came to pay up for the good year, I didn’t have the money. I was freaking out about how to pay when I discovered the reward for anyone who could solve the Olof Palme case,” Musarra says.

“But there is a line that separates me from the main character – the main thing being that I would not go so far in trying to solve the Palme case that I would put my family in danger. That’s where I stop and George continues.”

The death of the cat lady is a key plot point in the first season of We Got This!, providing George with a potential shortcut to finding out who was behind the Palme murder once and for all. George’s quest also relates to one of the show’s main themes: the culture clash between the US and Sweden. Musarra says George, like many Americans, loves to cut corners, which is at odds with Swedes’ propensity to follow the rules, many of which seem to be unwritten and learnt as a product of Swedish socialisation.

Upon seeing a poster advertising a reward for the safe return of the missing Rio, George tracks down the cat and sets off to pocket some cash by returning it to its owner. But George is too late, and the cat lady is no more.

We Got This! won the €50,000 development funding prize at Séries Mania 2018

However, her flat turns out to be a haven of clues into Palme’s death. Without revealing too many details, the deceased woman’s flat contains all manner of intel about the case. George’s interest piqued, he suspects her demise could have come from her knowing too much. Could there be groups out there who would prefer the identity of Palme’s killer remains a mystery?

You’ll have to watch the show to find out. But given that Palme’s murder remains an ongoing case, Jarowskij, the prodco making the drama, is understandably keen to avoid defaming anyone. As a result, experts on the case have been consulted, the legal team has been kept closely in the loop and the show has been meticulously researched, producer Anna-Sofia Mörck tells DQ.

Mörck first met Musarra when they were neighbours in the bohemian but still somewhat sketchy LA area of Venice Beach. Musarra was living there with his Swedish wife, whom he had met in New York, and his very young children, whose arrival soon led to a move to Sweden in 2006. “We started thinking about where we wanted to raise a family. Venice Beach was fun, but I had people selling crack outside my front door. It made us think, ‘Hmm, Sweden sounds nice,’” says Musarra.

Having first developed an interest in the Palme case when he got married in Sweden in 1999, Musarra’s fascination was reignited upon his return, and turned into an obsession once he found out there was a SEK50m (US$5.3m) cash reward for solving the mystery. Musarra discovered the case to be a hotbed of fascinating theories and unbelievable characters, which he initially considered developing as a mockumentary before eventually evolving it into a TV series.

However, due to the subject matter, no broadcaster would touch it. Musarra spent more than seven years pitching the show, to no avail. “It just wasn’t something people were willing to take a risk on,” he says.

Musarra was born in the US but has lived in Sweden for over a decade

But then, around the time culture-clash comedy Welcome to Sweden came out in 2014, Musarra noticed a sudden and important shift in the Swedish TV industry. “I don’t know if it was because of the streaming wars, but there were more and more coproductions. Sweden started to reach for an audience beyond Scandinavia,” he says.

Nevertheless, Scandi commissioners still weren’t exactly queuing up to order a comedy drama about such a sensitive topic. “Whenever I would pitch it, I’d say I wanted to do this comedy about the murder of Olof Palme. They would say, ‘How is that going to be funny?’ Of course, the murder is not the funny part – it’s Sweden’s national tragedy. But all the private detectives who think they can solve it, the fact the case was so poorly managed and is still going on and there’s still a SEK50m reward – it’s got comedy of the absurd written all over it.”

A key turning point came when Musarra heard how Justin Simien, creator of Netflix original series Dear White People – a comedy/drama hybrid with a similarly hard-to-pitch topic of racial tension that doesn’t necessarily sound funny on paper – bankrolled his own concept trailer for the show to get the tone across to risk-averse commissioners.

Musarra teamed up with Mörck to put the trailer together, with the duo relying on favours from friends to borrow equipment and hire actors, many of whom have been kept on for the series. The trailer does an impressive job of making the show feel fully formed, getting across its mix of offbeat humour, tension and intrigue.

It’s so accomplished that a casual observer would likely watch it and ask, ‘Cool, so when’s the show on?’ But Musarra and Mörck still had plenty to do to make that a reality.

Eklund takes a breather during filming

Helped by the existence of the trailer, Banijay Group-owned Jarowskij came on board as part of its strategy to grow its slate of scripted projects with international potential. Soon, Musarra found himself pitching the show to a jury that included top execs at Sky and Netflix at Séries Mania in Lille in 2018.

Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at distribution arm Banijay Rights, remembers being concerned about Musarra’s prospects, with the creator being the 16th entry at the end of a gruelling pitching session. “We were worried about it being the last pitch at Séries Mania, but really we had nothing to worry about,” she says. The jury clearly picked up on Musarra’s infectious enthusiasm for a project so close to his heart, and the team bagged the €50,000 (US$54,210) development funding prize.

Fast-forward to late 2019 and the team is preparing to shoot for three days in Atlanta, Georgia, close to where Musarra grew up before he moved to Boston, New York and then LA, prior to settling in Europe with his young family. Returning to the States will be bittersweet for Musarra, whose father died around the time We Got This! was finally getting off the ground in 2017. “The biggest success of my career and one of the most disappointing moments of my personal life were slammed together,” he notes.

The experience has bled into We Got This!. With filming outside the Resurrection Chapel complete, the production moves indoors to the location’s calm interior, where a solemn scene set around the cat lady’s funeral triggers George’s memory of the recent funeral for his father.

The crew make sure a fire extinguisher is on hand in case one of the many candles on set falls over, while anyone bringing an open sandwich onto set is quickly admonished. The camera will follow a priest walking towards an open casket, which viewers are meant to presume will contain the cat lady but in fact contains an old man with a bushy beard, eyes closed and deathly pale. Suddenly, his eyes open. “Hi, George,” the dead man says.

It encapsulates the dark humour that runs through We Got This!, each episode of which comes with what Musarra calls an “Oh shit!” moment that raises the stakes, including a chase scene through the tunnels of the Stockholm metro.

It may be dark in tone, but it’s certainly a shift away from many of the dramas those from outside Sweden would associate with the country and from which Musarra is keen to distance himself. “Sweden has got the whole Scandi noir thing on lock, to the point where it’s more like a formula. I don’t particularly need to see another dead white girl in the forest, but people keep watching that for some reason. As long as it sells, people are going to make it,” he says.

Banijay Rights’ Torrance, whose job it will be to shop We Got This! around the world, agrees that crime dramas from the region are still popular among audiences and so remain in demand from buyers, but adds that there’s also a degree of craving in the market for scripted content that does things differently. As a result, she expects We Got This! to stand out.

“The comedy works in the way the comedy worked in Killing Eve, with haphazard agents running around and some very dark comedic moments,” Torrance says. “That’s often what people are looking for now, because quite a lot of Nordic noir plays it quite straight. But things like Killing Eve have proved audiences react really well to something darkly funny.”

With filming completed around the cemetery, and the celebratory cake quickly devoured by cast and crew, everybody packs up and heads to a nearby dive bar adorned with football scarves for iconic teams such as Juventus and Leeds United. Not that the team will be toasting the day’s work, however. There’s still another scene to be filmed and, as per Sweden’s notoriously dark winter days, the sun is already setting at 15.15. Luckily, it doesn’t require daylight.

Palme’s assassination may be credited in some quarters with providing the grisly inspiration for a wealth of crime fiction that led to the boom in Nordic noir. But We Got This! highlights how this stranger-than-fiction case could lead to a new wave of darkly comic series originating from Scandinavia.

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Hunting down Al Pacino

Al Pacino’s first role in a serialised drama sees him play the leader of a gang of Nazi hunters and underlines just how far TV series have come in a relatively short space of time.

With more and more Hollywood heavyweights migrating from cinema to high-end television in the past few years, it’s no longer such a surprise to see a legend of the silver screen pop up in a new show.

But there are Hollywood stars and then there’s Al Pacino, whose IMDb list contains arguably the highest number of stone-cold-classic films of living actor (we’ll forget about duds like Righteous Kill or 88 Minutes).

The Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, The Godfather, Heat and Glengarry Glen Ross star’s latest performance is in Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters, which launches worldwide this Friday and marks the Academy Award winner’s first role in a serialised drama.

It demonstrates just how far TV – once seen as cinema’s inferior relation – has come in recent years, thanks in huge part to the millions of dollars invested by companies such as Amazon that have allowed the scale and ambition of high-end TV to go stratospheric.

Executive produced by another Academy Award winner in Jordon Peele (Get Out, Us), the 10-part series is set in New York follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters living in 1977 New York City.

Al Pacino in Amazon Prime Video drama Hunters

Pacino compares doing his first high-end TV series to experimental theatre and working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, and says it’s a refreshing departure from shooting movies.

Discussing the differences between working on a series and a feature, Pacino says he enjoyed the room to experiment and rehearse in the five months it took to film Hunters.

“In today’s world, we don’t have the opportunity to rehearse for film as much as we used to. Rehearsals are gone, whereas in the old days, working with Coppola, we rehearsed for weeks. You had a chance to understand the role in another way, to go further and take more chances. And on Hunters, we’d sit around talking about a scene for hours,” Pacino says.

In the series, Pacino stars as Meyer Offerman, the leader of a group that has discovered that hundreds of high-ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the US.

The series also stars Logan Lerman as Nazi-hunting protégé Jonah Heidelbaum, who is taken under Offerman’s wing after a family tragedy.

Pacino and Lerman are joined by an ensemble cast that includes Jerrika Hinton, Josh Radnor, Kate Mulvany, Tiffany Boone, Greg Austin, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Carol Kane, Saul Rubinek, Dylan Baker and Lena Olin.

How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor also features in the cast

The series is incredibly cinematic and looked very at home on the big screen of London cinema Curzon, where the feature-length first episode was shown at an exclusive screening and Q&A in London earlier this month.

Alongside Pacino, the event was also attended by Lerman, Hinton, Boone and Austin as well as creators and co-showrunners David Weil and Nikki Toscano. The series comes from Amazon Studios, Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Sonar Entertainment.

Weil, whose grandmother Sarah’s experience as a Holocaust survivor informed much of the series’ origins, says the show came from his desire to write the equivalent to a comic book with a Jewish superhero as the main character.

“With so many survivors no longer with us, the onus falls on the next generation to tell this story in certain ways,” says Weil. The story itself draws inspiration from a variety of different Nazi hunters to have emerged since the end of the Second World War.

As a result, Hunters deals with incredibly serious subject matter and the showrunners were careful to be as respectful as possible.

The series focuses on a group of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York City

For example, during the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Weil points out the tattoos of the survivors shown in the series were all above the last recorded number given to a real victim.

“We wanted to treat all the victims of the Holocaust with great respect and not represent the tattoo of a person who actually existed and suffered in the Holocaust,” says Weil.

However, the opening episode is also huge fun, with characters such as Jerrika Hinton’s
brilliant FBI agent and devout Catholic Millie Malone, as well as Greg Austin’s neo-Nazi Travis Leich, providing plenty of memorable moments.

“I love trailblazing women and people who have a very clear point of view, who know what their background is and don’t waver from it. That’s Millie Malone to a T,” says Hinton

Austin, meanwhile, admits to having mixed feelings about his casting as Leich: “I never know if it’s a compliment or not to be cast as a neo-Nazi. But he was frankly the most fun I’ve ever had on set playing a character. He’s insane and psychotic and I love it,” says the British actor.

Hunters debuts on Amazon this Friday

Pacino, who was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix feature The Irishman at the recent Oscars, describes Hunters as a “12-hour film.”

Toscano emphasises the desire to create something that felt cinematic and says Amazon was a supportive creative partner as the team sought to work with directors who would “would embrace their individuality.”

Pacino welcomed working with different directors on the series, in what represented another departure from shooting movies, which tend to be helmed by a single director.

“I’m very pleased with it, every episode clicks. I love the freedom of it and the fact it is so eccentric and eclectic and unpredictable. It reminds me of the old days – although everything reminds me of the old days – when you had the Living Theatre in New York City and you were seeing things for the first time and trying different things. I’m partial to it for that reason.”

If Hunters is good enough for Pacino, it’s probably good enough for us too.

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Royal rumble: Left Bank puts on The Crown for Netflix

Andy Harries, CEO of UK prodco Left Bank Pictures, reveals how Netflix’s forthcoming UK original The Crown has shaken up the industry.

In order to secure Left Bank Pictures’ ambitious royal family period piece The Crown, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos appears to have channelled his inner Don Corleone.

“Netflix made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” says the production company’s CEO Andy Harries, recalling the moment he pitched the show to Sarandos in the streaming giant’s US offices.

Harries: ' The BBC and ITV shouldn't look at The Crown as part of an overall trend that will destroy their business. I don't think that's the case – it's a bit of a one-off.'
Harries: ‘ The BBC and ITV shouldn’t look at The Crown as part of an overall trend that will destroy their business. I don’t think that’s the case – it’s a bit of a one-off.’

The enormity of the offer blew the likes of the BBC and ITV out of the water, ensuring that Harries wouldn’t, as he was expecting, have to set up a US-UK coproduction to make the show, which has a budget of around £5m (US$7m) per hour.

Whether any of the UK broadcasters’ drama buyers woke up with a horse’s head on their pillow, we’ll never know. But the fact is that the money Netflix put down ensured it will be the exclusive home to The Crown in the 190-plus territories in which the service is now available.

The drama was inspired by Peter Morgan’s hit play The Audience, which Harries produced, and has been directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), so comes with some of the biggest names in UK drama attached.

Season one begins with a 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy) in 1952 as she builds a relationship with the UK’s wartime leader Winston Churchill (Third Rock from the Sun’s John Lithgow), with each subsequent season looking at the politics, events and personal stories across a different decade of Elizabeth’s reign.

Clearly, Netflix has high hopes that the series will become the jewel that cements its position as the number-one SVoD service, spearheaded by exclusive series with huge international appeal.

“The Crown is storytelling that lives somewhere between television and cinema from Britain’s foremost chroniclers of modern politics, class and society,” says Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix.

Given the global interest in the British royal family, Netflix’s interest in a series written by Morgan – the scribe behind the smash hit The Queen – was perhaps understandable.

“We were lucky because our ambitions tied in with their global ambitions. Little did we know, but they were looking for a global show to roll out around the world,” says Harries of the serendipitous nature of his company’s meeting with Netflix.

Harries describes The Crown as “the right project at the right time” and praises Netflix’s “no notes” philosophy: “They don’t directly interfere, so working with them has been a huge pleasure.”

The Crown
The Crown is Netflix’s first UK original

With the show set to become Netflix’s first UK original, the deal marked a watershed moment for the country’s TV business. But Harries can’t say it came completely out of the blue, given that he has seen a gradual shift in Left Bank’s main broadcasters since the company was founded in 2007.

Netflix, Amazon and HBO have usurped the BBC, ITV and Sky as Left Bank’s biggest customers, something that Harries says “reflects the huge growth in scripted programming and the differing systems by which scripted programming is being bought and distributed.”

The company has always produced with one eye on the States and Harries is a big advocate of having the power of a major US distributor (Sony Pictures Television took a majority stake in Left Bank in 2012) behind it during deal making.

The firm has produced Strike Back for HBO sibling network Cinemax and Sky, alongside shows such as Wallander for the BBC and feature films including The Damned United.

Deals will increasingly be done with broadcasters on the basis of windowing, believes Harries, suggesting that buying and selling in the scripted marketplace is going to become a whole lot more complicated down the line.

“You’ll do three months here, another six months there and nine months there. Although that hasn’t really started happening in the UK yet, it will,” says the former controller of drama/comedy at Granada Television.

When The Crown is finally unveiled on November 4, it’s very likely there’ll be an outcry in the UK that the series is not available on the public broadcaster, or at least a terrestrial channel, given the subject matter.

So how threatened should the BBC and ITV feel by Netflix so dramatically moving in on their patch? A bit, but not massively, answers Harries.

Left Bank was also behind Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh
Left Bank has also been behind Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh

“In the UK, the culture of broadcast television still has meaning. It might not in 10 years’ time, but it still does at the moment. There’s no doubt that both the BBC and ITV were extremely disappointed [not to land The Crown]. Ultimately the BBC and ITV shouldn’t look at The Crown as part of an overall trend that will destroy their business. I don’t think that’s the case – it’s a bit of a one-off.”

Nevertheless, it certainly “challenges” the two most famous British networks, who Harries admits are “still making great shows and I’ll still take great shows to them.”

ITV, at least, doesn’t appear to have held a grudge for too long, commissioning eight-part drama The Halcyon, set in a London hotel in wartime 1940, from Left Bank towards the end of last year.

Described as “Downton-esque,” The Halcyon follows the scandalous goings-on in the “most glamorous air-raid shelter in the world,” a home from home for politicians, overthrown monarchs and shady dealmakers.

“1940 was one of the most dramatic years in our island’s history. Who could have imagined that London would survive the Blitz? What was it like to be in a five-star hotel in the West End through this extraordinary period?” asks Harries.

“It’s such a compelling idea for a drama. The world of the Halcyon hotel has to carry on, through thick and thin and against all odds. The bedrooms have to be made safe, the bars have to stay open and the band has to play on. People have to sleep, eat and survive.”

The Halcyon began filming in London and surrounding areas in April this year. It is being sold internationally by Sony, and foreign buyers such as PBS in the US will likely be crossing their fingers that it could fill the Downton Abbey-shaped hole in their schedules.

However, as Harries says, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed hit when it comes to television production, particularly in such a crowded market.

“There’s a been huge boom in scripted and in people pouring money into these companies producing drama, so the expectations are high. But I’m not sure all the expectations are going to be met,” he warns. “I worry slightly that we might be on the edge of a boom-and-bust situation. I hope not. The appetite for drama is very large – but you still have to make it great.

“If you look at the figures at the moment for some of the dramas on TV, some of them aren’t doing terribly well. ITV might have Downton one week, but it could be followed by another show that simply doesn’t perform.”

Talent is key when it comes to improving your chances of survival, adds the exec, who believes the strength of the UK’s drama production industry – which consists of well over 100 different producers – shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Despite the tax breaks that have kept the industry so buoyant over the past few years, there are a number of recent developments that are restricting the ability of producers to “wheel and deal,” as Harries puts it.

“There are problems. The BBC is contracting, ITV is moving towards its own production base, which is understandable, and Sky now has its own distribution company,” Harries says.

Supporting the BBC and Channel 4 while not messing with the terms of trade is among the steps Harries says are necessary to protect the industry, which he describes as “strong and successful, but quite fragile.”

Harries says the money currently “flooding in” to the UK from the States is helping to support local producers and, historically, the UK-US coproduction model has ensured local broadcasters get bigger and sometimes better shows.

But should Netflix’s land grab for global rights become the norm then the dollars coming in could ultimately undermine the local broadcasters that have helped to establish producers such as Left Bank.

Indeed, The Crown was most likely the project the BBC’s former director of television Danny Cohen was referencing when he warned in December 2014 that the pubcaster was increasingly struggling to compete with Netflix for programme rights.

Harries may assure the likes of the BBC and ITV that the deal for The Crown was a “one-off.” But one would suspect that, deep down, they know that’s unlikely to be the case.

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Trade secrets

There’s no exact science to creating a hit drama, but there are certainly plenty of things you can do to improve your odds. DQ hears from some of the best in the business.

As the old world of TV transitions to the new, the rules around what constitutes a hit have clearly changed.

Take Fox’s Empire as an example. The series, which made its debut only last year and has already been renewed for a third season, is an undeniable ‘hit’ in the traditional sense. However, for all that Fox may trumpet the show’s record-breaking viewing figures, overnight ratings are increasingly looking like a dying barometer of success in the age of video-on-demand.

“Everybody is holding on to the Bronze Age of television in America, so everybody wants to claim their show is a hit. But there isn’t a monitoring system yet that can say whether something is a hit,” says Simon Mirren, one of the UK’s most successful executive producers and writers.

“Amazon or Netflix can say one of their shows is a hit, but you don’t know if it really is because you don’t know how many people are watching it,” says Mirren, who recently oversaw the glossy period drama Versailles for Canal+ in France.

Of course, Netflix and Amazon’s tight lips have ensured their dramas aren’t burdened by talk of ratings. But with that has come perhaps an even bigger pressure for them to push their series into public conversation, lest they wallow unwatched in the streamers’ libraries.

The increasing irrelevance of overnights has meant producers, creators and showrunners are having to rely on other evidence to conclude whether they’ve created a hit, both in the real world and online.

Simon Mirren has creator, writer and executive producer credits on Canal+ drama Versailles

“When I’m walking around and people tap on my shoulder and say that the show is great, then I can feel it,” says veteran television producer Peter Nadermann, a former exec at German public broadcaster ZDF who is famous for bringing Scandinavian coproductions The Killing and The Bridge to wider audiences.

Of course, every time a producer picks up a new script, it’s in the hope they might be about to read the next Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad. But the reality is that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they won’t. “As a producer, we’re shepherding 15 projects that could all be hits. So you live in this slightly naive world where they might all be successful but really you know they won’t, as a hit is so rare,” says Justin Thomson-Glover, founding director of UK coproduction specialist Far Moor Media.

But, in exceptional circumstances, the script might be so good that producers can afford to feel pretty confident. In the case of BBC detective series The Fall (pictured top), which Thomson-Glover executive produced and subsequently saw get picked up around the world the signs were there from the beginning.

“When the script for The Fall came in and the female script editors reading it were too scared to walk home and had to get cabs, you knew there was something special about it,” he says.

The producer’s suspicions were confirmed after the first episode aired on BBC2 in May 2013, when the series’ male lead Jamie Dornan, then a relatively unknown Northern Irish actor, became an overnight star. “There was such a huge amount of tweeting and such momentum that you knew it would carry on in the UK and go international,” Thomson-Glover recalls.

Justin Thomson-Glover
Justin Thomson-Glover

But Dornan was only cast at the insistence of show creator Allan Cubitt, who had to go out on a limb to make sure he got his man. This highlights the importance of putting trust in your creators, Thomson-Glover says.

Mirren says there are other reasons producers can feel quietly assured in the early stages that all the hard work will result in something bigger than the sum of its parts. “I don’t want say this with arrogance, but I’ve worked with some good people and on a number of hit shows. When I was on Criminal Minds, there was a feeling that it might be a hit,” reveals the showrunner, who worked on the crime drama for six years.

Although Mirren dismisses the notion that you can reverse-engineer a hit in any way, he insists your chances will greatly improve if you have the right people around you.

As a showrunner on Criminal Minds, writing a decent episode was only the start of the battle, remembers the former plasterer, who compares overseeing a series to being part of a highly dysfunctional family.

“You’re dealing with the outline, treatment, a first draft, a second draft, a problem with the network, an actor who doesn’t like his trailer, someone’s punched somebody, someone’s lost their thumb…” he says. “I’ve got a hundred horror stories. That’s the point when you find out if you’ve got the mettle to bring this train into the right station, because it is a train.

“The best you can be is determined by the people you have around you. So you have to find a great first director and people around you who can help you get through everything, because there’s so much to deal with.”

Having arrived on the CBS series after the departure of creator Jeff Davis and with a stint producing the Eye Network’s Without a Trace under his belt, Mirren applied his experience of using a formula to the fledgling crime drama.

Criminal Minds
Simon Mirren says coming up with a ‘show bible’ was important for Criminal Minds

“We were sitting there without a bible, no anything. So I said we’ve just got to come up with a formula that the other writers can stick their jacket onto,” Mirren remembers.

Out of that came Criminal Minds’ episode structure, which begins with someone meeting a grisly end, followed by the investigation unit coming in, someone else being targeted, red herrings being added here and there, and so on.

As someone who has an overall deal with a US studio (Universal), Mirren is well aware he might have to join a show that he doesn’t actually like, although he stresses this hasn’t yet been the case.

For Nadermann, who spent 13 years at ZDF before setting up NADCON with Constantin Film, one of Germany’s best-known production companies, being able to pick his projects is paramount: “I have this weakness that means I strictly only do what I personally like.”

Trusting his gut is key, so Nadermann takes a very simple approach to what he thinks will get a response from viewers: “I’m not atypical. The things I like, such as football and Netflix, other people like too. So if I like it, other people probably will as well. I have a very close relationship with certain TV executives who believe in my work and give me a certain freedom. I’ve chosen to work very internationally, because it gives me much more freedom.”

Nadermann isn’t joking when he says he has a taste for the international. His latest copro, The Team, was made with the participation of eight different public broadcasters across Europe.

Some would immediately label a project with that many different partners on board, all likely pitching in with different ideas, as a sure-fire ‘Europudding,’ which unfortunately is not as tasty as it sounds. But Nadermann used his experience to try to ensure the project was as uncomplicated editorially as possible, despite the number of different partners. The executive producer told each party it would not be possible to do a show with eight channels interfering and emphasised that he needed their trust to make the series a success.

The Team
The way The Team was released played an important part in its success, according to Peter Nadermann

The Team portrays a group of European police officers fighting international crime throughout Europe, and thus naturally features multiple languages, including French, Danish, German and English. Nadermann believes that, rather than act as a deterrent to the audience, this helped attract attention to the series in Germany.

“Programmes have to have an aura about them so that the audience gets a sense of a special energy. The industry is constantly underestimating viewers and I try not to do that. With The Team, there were a lot of things that were new, and people like that,” he says.

Another important factor in The Team’s local success, says the exec, was the way it was distributed, with every episode arriving on ZDF’s on-demand service prior to its linear broadcast, à la Netflix: “We added a lot of younger viewers who would not have seen it on ZDF. It was the first time the audience realised ZDF is like a Netflix for free. It will be crucial for all TV stations to develop their online platforms because in the future you will have a modern viewer who wants both.”

There’s also an element of serendipity in whether a show goes on to become a hit. Nadermann points to the forthcoming Havana Quartet (working title) series he has in development with US cable channel Starz based on Leonardo Padura’s Havana detective novels, a project that may have been aided by President Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the States and Cuba.

“I bought the rights to books by a Cuban crime writer as I was convinced that a crime series in Havana would be very interesting,” says Nadermann, describing it as “Wallander in the sun.”

He continues: “Then you have to sell it and find people who believe in your vision. It’s not all in the writing. It’s everything together, the talent, directors and cast. Then you need a little luck, which in this case was the Americans being interested in Cuba.”

Indian Summers
Anand Tucker directed the opening episodes of Channel 4’s Indian Summers, pictured

For a director, there really is no other option but to trust gut instinct. “You never know,” says Anand Tucker, who launched London-based drama company Seven Stories alongside Jo McClellan, Sharon Maguire and Colleen Woodcock last year.

Tucker and Maguire’s credits include Hilary & Jackie, Shopgirl, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Red Riding 1983, while Tucker directed the opening episodes of last year’s first season of Channel 4 series Indian Summers.

“It begins the moment you read the script – you have to trust your voice,” Tucker says. “This has been my lesson. It doesn’t matter what you’re making, whether it’s a five-minute short or a commercial. If there’s one thing that doesn’t feel right and you ignore that voice, it’ll come back and it’ll fuck you so badly. You have to trust that.”

Indeed, it’s easier to list the don’ts than the do’s when it comes to trying to create a successful scripted series. “It’s a bit like marriage. If you marry the wrong wife, you can work hard on it, but it will never be a great relationship. It’s the same if you pick the wrong writer,” says Nadermann.

But although writer and producer may come first, the director should not be forgotten, says Tucker, who has fallen foul of over-zealous producers in the past. “At some point, you have to have the confidence and courage to trust the director. In my experience, the problems have always come when producers try to hold on to the bar of soap too hard.”

Peter Nadermann
Peter Nadermann

But imagine everything goes swimmingly, with the right talent both on and off screen and a first season that ticks all the boxes. How do you sustain that kind of success? That could be the hardest nut to crack of all.

Take HBO’s True Detective, which saw a substantial decline in both critical and audience response for its second season compared with its universally acclaimed first. Various reasons have been offered for its underwhelming sophomore run, from the change in cast to it being rushed to screen. But both Mirren and Nadermann agree the series suffered as a result of the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, being given too much freedom.

“There have been times where I’ve watched shows and thought the writer has too much power, that he’s fallen in love with his own ego and everybody is too frightened to stop him,” says Mirren.

Nadermann, meanwhile, believes the importance of director Cary Fukunaga, who oversaw all eight episodes of True Detective’s first season but played no part in the second, was “underestimated.”

“Every project is different. You can have extraordinary writing, but then you change director,” he adds. “Then you have other shows where you have miscast and it doesn’t work. There are always different doors you have to watch.”

Clearly, there’s an intricate dance that must be performed by all players involved in getting a scripted series to screen. And only when they are dancing in time can they properly avoid those trap doors.

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New-age models: How the dramatic landscape is shifting

With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?

It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.

As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.

Simon Winstone: Bidding for a 'big sci-fi show'
Simon Winstone: Bidding for a ‘big sci-fi show’

It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.

As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.

Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.

“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.

Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.

Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.

AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men
AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men

“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”

Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.

“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”

Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.

Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.

“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”

The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.

 Adam Fratto: Focusing on 'epic, world-beating fantasy'
Adam Fratto: Focusing on ‘epic, world-beating fantasy’

Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.

“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”

Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.

“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”

Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.

Sean Bean in HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones
Sean Bean in HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones

“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.

“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.

“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”

For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.

It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.

In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.

“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”

New Media Vision's Todd Lituchy: 'We’re an execution company'
New Media Vision’s Todd Lituchy: ‘We’re an execution company’

Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.

“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”

And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.

Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.

“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.

Debra Messing in The Mysteries of Laura
Debra Messing in The Mysteries of Laura

“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”

A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.

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