Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story stars Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones as Blanco, who was a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade.
From working with local drug runners in Queens, she quickly masterminded a way to smuggle cocaine from Colombia before moving to Miami to expand her empire, becoming known as The Black Widow. Blanco, who built a drug distribution network that spanned the US, was also suspected of ordering more than 200 murders in her lifetime.
In this DQTV interview, Zeta-Jones explains why she waited three years to play the character. She describes the film as “one of the best experiences ever,” revealing her excitement at stepping outside of her comfort zone to immerse herself in a character that “has no redeemable qualities.”
The Welsh actor also discusses the types of screen roles that appeal to her and why she chose to return to television, which first launched her screen career with The Darling Buds of May.
Cocaine Godmother is produced by Asylum Entertainment for Lifetime and is distributed by A+E Networks.
Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star attraction in Cannes when she attended Mipcom to promote her forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother. DQ was on hand to hear how she helped develop the series, how she transformed herself for the role and why she has now returned to the medium where her screen career began.
She won an Oscar for her dazzling turn in big-screen musical Chicago and has starred alongside Tom Hanks and George Clooney in films such as The Terminal, Ocean’s Twelve, The Mask of Zorro and Brit comedy Dad’s Army.
Now Catherine Zeta-Jones’s career has come full circle. After beginning in theatre, her big break came with British TV drama Darling Buds of May before she moved to films. But now she’s back on the small screen, first with FX drama Feud, which aired earlier this year, and now as the lead in Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.
Zeta-Jones plays real-life drug lord Griselda Blanco, a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade who built a drug distribution network spanning the US and was suspected of ordering more than 200 murders.
The Asylum Entertainment production is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights.
Zeta-Jones last week added some star power to Mipcom in Cannes, where she spoke about the project alongside Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks, and Tanya Lopez, senior VP of original movies and miniseries at A+E-owned Lifetime.
Griselda Blanco was a vicious, brutal character – and that’s why Zeta-Jones wanted to play her on screen… Catherine Zeta-Jones: What drew me to this role was a desire to get inside the skin of such a woman with all those qualities. Usually in drama school they say you have to find some thread of yourself that you can put into a character. Well, this is not that at all and that’s what made it so interesting. A woman came from nowhere, literally the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and became the most revered, powerful, feared woman in the drug business, dominated by ruthless men. How did that happen? Who was this woman? So to be able to get deep into that character, get under her skin, is something I personally had’t had the chance to do in a long time.
For me, this movie [reignited] my love of acting. This is what it’s about. It’s all very good to be playing ingenues; it’s all very good and flattering to have your character’s name preceded by ‘the beautiful, sexy woman walks in, her name is …’ – but I always go, ‘Aw, shit’ because I know that’s way too much time in hair and make-up. With Griselda, I was able to let all that go and find the woman, find out who this woman was. [I had to] humanise her in a way that was unfathomable but certainly not to homogenise her or find some sympathetic quality to her, because I don’t think she had one. That’s why I thank A+E and Lifetime, because it would be very easy to homogenise and rose-tint this character and story, and I was adamant about that. I said, “Please, Tanya, let me loose,” and she said, “Go girl.” [Griselda] was everything I thought she would be for me as an actor – deep, dark, emotional, dangerous. [She is] unsympathetic in a way but, for some weird reason, I think our audience will connect with her or at least understand her.
Cocaine Godmother embodies what a Lifetime movie should be… Tanya Lopez: The message I want everyone to hear is we’re telling stories about strong, smart and, in some ways – and I really feel this about Griselda – badass women, with high production values and exceptional talent. That’s where, as far as we’re concerned at Lifetime, the movies are evolving to and we’re reaching for. On this particular movie, part of it was shot in Colombia, in Medellín, and the idea of us spreading out and shooting these movies in other parts of the world is very important.
TV movies can bring an audience to stories that may be lost as low-budget features, and give actors the chance to bring stories they’re passionate about… Patrick Vien: We’re living in such an extraordinary period of television where the gates have been blown wide open for a group of artists who, if you go back 15 some years, might have been more about the motion picture business. If you’ve ever worked in a company that has a motion picture division and a television division, there is that absolute rivalry between the two. What’s brilliant about television is it started at a moment in time when Kevin Costner joined our company with Hatfield & McCoys and we saw many other projects – True Detective is another example – where suddenly [film talent] was coming into the marketplace.
The golden age of television is made that much more golden by talents such as Catherine who come to us to realise projects that we can bring to vast audiences through the medium of television. This film simply puts us in the league we want to be in. Everybody uses this phrase ‘premium content.’ Having Catherine at our side and this project in our stable means we are solidifying A+E Networks’ position on a global scale as a premium content provider.
For all her bad traits, Zeta-Jones found something strangely likeable about Griselda Blanco… Zeta-Jones: There are so many qualities about her that are normally just bad, just not right but, as a woman, there’s something sadistically fantastic and admirable about where she came from and how she was literally the boss in a very dangerous man’s world. You’ve got to give it to her. I know in some of our early conversations, it was like, ‘How do we humanise Griselda? How do we make people relate to Griselda?’ I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, as bad as she is, I’m going to make people kinda like her.’ Whatever she did, the violence and the murders she’s associated with and eventually charged with, and eventually assented for, I kind of like her. It’s a very sick, dark sense of humour I’ve been hiding all my life and now it’s come out in Griselda.
The stigma of actors moving between television, film and theatre that once existed has now been broken… Zeta-Jones: I was stuck in the theatre actor box – it wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV. That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television]; they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.
The star underwent a huge physical transformation to play Griselda Blanco and relished immersing herself in the character… Zeta-Jones: Griselda had a very specific face. It was a very interesting face. I didn’t want to do a caricature so that people who never even knew who Griselda Blanco was would see a picture of her and say, ‘She’s not very good, she looks nothing like her.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get under the skin of this woman. But I wanted to have a transformation – I gained weight, I put my back out the week after I finished shooting. I’m an ex-dancer so I always have a straight back, but my pelvis was forward, I was hunched, I was a bit like a man – if I had balls, I’d grab them from time to time. So that whole transformation was something I lived through every day.
I love my husband and my kids but I was so glad to be on my own on location, to immerse myself in this woman. So I pretty much was walking around feeling like Griselda for the whole length of the shoot, and then I put my back out. But I don’t care – it was worth it. I wanted to let it all hang out. Griselda didn’t care; she thought she was beautiful. She was a movie star, starring in her own movie, and she didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I wanted to have that attitude, that mentality, not to do a caricature of the mugshot people only ever see of her. She was glamorous, she was a bit of a recluse, she was a shopaholic, she was an addict. Everything in excess. She had rooms of clothes, bags, shoes and she never went out – only to kill people. It was a fascinating character to immerse myself in, very liberating. I didn’t care that my eyes were puffy, I was really hoping I was having a puffy day on the shoot.
Her career has now gone full circle – “a wonderful circle” – as she returns to the medium that made her name… Zeta-Jones: I’d only done theatre before and then I was cast in [ITV drama] The Darling Buds of May. We did six hours for two years with our legend of a television actor, Sir David Jason. That was the first thing I did on screen. I was a complete unknown and, within an hour of television, my life changed completely. Then I was in France doing films with Philippe de Broca and Édouard Molinaro. Then I went to the States and auditioned for a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing was really coming to fruition. But I was cast in the TV version of Titanic. All I wanted was to be Kate Winslet opposite Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] – I wasn’t, but I took the TV version of Titanic. Cut to Steven Spielberg watching it on Sunday night and he casts me in The Legend of Zorro.
Next time I come back onto TV, it’s the biggest stroke of luck because I got to work with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my career, and it’s Griselda, it’s Cocaine Godmother. I feel very happy, lucky and blessed to be back in a medium which I felt very comfortable in, at home in, and what was really the start of my career. Even though I did theatre since I was nine years old in Britain and played leads in West End shows, I was completely anonymous, so it was The Darling Buds of May that opened up my world to TV and film. I’m very happy to be in a medium I feel very comfortable in.
The global nature of the television business was on show at Mipcom in Cannes this week as stars from around the world presented their latest projects. DQ editor Michael Pickard offers his thoughts on a busy week in the South of France.
When you first walk into the Palais des Festivals, it can be quite overwhelming to see the sheer number of posters, billboards and signs promoting hundreds of new drama series from around the world. The experience, of course, begins long before you have navigated through the security checkpoints, seeing as La Croisette is transformed into a mile-long red carpet of promotions for dozens more shows.
To be a drama buyer in the current market must be both a daunting and thrilling experience, with the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours searching for the next big hit and watching the contenders, whether they are produced in your broadcaster’s local tongue or a language from further afield.
What, then, can producers and distributors do to make their projects stand out from the crowd? Well, the quickest shortcut to making some noise is to add a sprinkling of star power.
TV movies are much maligned, but could Catherine Zeta-Jones bring the format back into fashion? She was here in Cannes to promote forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, a project she helped develop and bring to the screen. The Oscar-winning actor also plays the lead role of real-life Miami drug lord Griselda Blanco, who was involved in the Cocaine Cowboy Wars that plagued the city in the late 1970s.
“Years ago there used to be such a stigma between television actors, film actors and theatre actors,” Zeta-Jones said this week. “I was stuck in the theatre actor box. It wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film – and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV.
“That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television], they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.”
Adding an A-lister to a TV movie is a well-worn path for Lifetime parent A+E Networks, which has also previously cast James Franco (High School Lover), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late & a Dollar Short), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Heather Graham (Flowers in the Attic), Harvey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Susan Sarandon (The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) in such projects.
It’s a tactic others are clearly employing too. Zeta-Jones wasn’t the only star to light up the red carpet this week as a plethora of other famous faces travelled to the South of France. David Morrissey joined fellow cast members Nikolaj Lie Caas and Eleanor Worthington-Cox for the world premiere of Roman-era drama Britannia, the first series coproduced by Sky Atlantic and Amazon US.
James Norton and Juliet Rylance were talking McMafia, Kristin Kreuk chatted about making Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth, Mark Strong marked his return to television in Fox espionage thriller Deep State and Philip Glenister was Living the Dream with his new Florida-set comedy drama.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Sisto (Ice season two), JK Simmons (Counterpart), Daniel Sharman (Medici), Jessica Brown Findlay (Harlots season two) and Jon Beavers, Michael Kelly and Darius Homayoun (The Long Road Home) were also enjoying the sunshine in Cannes.
What was particularly notable about this year’s Mipcom, however, was the truly global nature of the market. Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (Kurara), Belgian actor Veerle Baetens (Tabula Rasa), Australian stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda (Pulse), Turkey’s Erkan Petekkaya, Songül Öden and Dolunay Soysert (City of Secrets), Swedish actors Charlie Gustafson and Hedda Rehnberg (The Restaurant), and Zion Baruch, creator, writer and star of Israeli vampire thriller Juda, were also in town.
Mipcom’s Russian Content Revolution was also celebrated with appearances by The Road to Calvary’s Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir plus Gogol’s Yulia Franz and Taisiia Vilkova.
For several years now, the globalisation of television has also been represented by the types of coproductions being brought to screen. Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) is probably the best example of two countries coming together in the last few years, in that case France and Sweden joining forces. But more ambitious pairings are now in evidence.
In particular, producers and broadcasters from China, France, Germany and Australia have teamed up for Farewell Shanghai, a period drama set at the start of the Second World War that recounts the shared destinies of a group of European Jewish refugees and Chinese characters in Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.
It will be shot in China in the English language and has been written by Radu Mihaileanu, based on Angel Wagenstein’s novel. K’ien Productions, Banijay Studios France, Breakout Films, France Televisions, Shanghai Media Group Pictures, China’s Holy Mountain Films, AMPCO Studios in Australia and Germany’s NDF are all involved.
Another global project announced at the market was Straight Forward, an eight-part series produced by Screentime New Zealand and Mastiff in Denmark. It is coproduced by broadcasters Viaplay and TVNZ, with Acorn TV also on board in North America and the UK.
Created by writer John Banas and set in Queenstown and Copenhagen, Straight Forward sees a Danish woman attempt to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small New Zealand town to start a new life. It will premiere on Viaplay in 2018.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that producer and distributor Banijay Group is central to both Farewell Shanghai and Straight Forward, utilising its production companies and distribution partnerships to bring these series to air.
The future of television was also on display, from Japanese broadcaster NHK’s stunning 8K presentations to the keynotes from executives at Snapchat and Facebook.
Sean Mills, senior director of content programming at Snapchat parent Snap Inc, talked about the firm’s desire for the messaging app to move into original content following the announcement it had teamed up with NBCUniversal to create a studio that will focus on producing scripted series.
The fruits of that partnership may still be some time away. More immediate are Facebook’s plans to bring original content to its Watch platform, launched six weeks ago and currently only available in the US, though an international roll-out is planned in the future.
There were audible gasps in the Palais’ Grand Auditorium when Facebook head of global creative strategy, Ricky Van Veen, revealed that the social media giant would be the home of the English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam (Shame), with original creator Julie Andem showrunning the remake.
The buzz around the NRK series has steadily increased over the past year and it’s a huge statement of intent that Facebook has picked it up – though, in many ways, it is the perfect home for a show that is made up of short video segments that are posted at the times of the day that match when the action plays out.
At the end of the four-day market, it’s clear the drama boom shows no sign of slowing – yet. It seems unlikely that every series is making its money back, meaning it is inevitable there will be a downturn at some point in the future. Until then, the debate surrounds the new players picking up scripted series and the challenge of luring star names to help a show to break through to audiences. Facebook original series? I’ll be Watching.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?
The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.
But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.
Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.
This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”
Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”
A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.
Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”
Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”
This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”
This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.
Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”
One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.
The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.
So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”
There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.
Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.
Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.
It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.
Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”
A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.
Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”
None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.
While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.
The Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, taking place this year between January 5 and 19, is a star-studded event during which broadcasters, producers, writers and actors talk about new programme launches, imminent cancellations, casting announcements and ideas for turning around underperforming shows. As such, it is one of the key dates in the scripted TV industry’s annual calendar.
A+E Networks-owned History is one of numerous networks to have unveiled new shows during the tour. The pick of the bunch is a 10-part series about the Knights Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. Knightfall is being produced by The Combine – the prodco from Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) and Don Handfield – alongside Midnight Radio and A+E Studios. It is expected that Renner will guest star in the show, with additional cast and production details to be announced.
The show was unveiled by Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, who said: “We are thrilled to partner with Jeremy Renner, The Combine, Midnight Radio and A+E Studios to tell the intriguing story of the Knights Templar, which has been shrouded in mystery until now. Premium scripted content continues to be a growing part of the History portfolio, with an eye towards quality historical fact-based storytelling, and Knightfall is the perfect fit for our brand.”
The channel also announced an eight-episode order for military action-drama Six, from A+E Studios and The Weinstein Company. Written by William Broyles (Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead) and David Broyles, a military special operations veteran, Six follows Navy SEAL Team Six, whose 2014 mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan goes awry when they uncover a US citizen working with the terrorists.
“The backdrop surrounding this elite team of American soldiers – from their lives at home to the bravery they display serving our country – provides an amazing canvas for stories that deserve to be told,” said Buccieri.
The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein added: “The idea originally came to me when I read about Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. It brought on the idea of creating a series about the world of SEAL Team Six because the story felt as poignant and timely as ever. We brought in Bill (Broyles), whom I have long admired, along with David to write the pilot. They took my idea and developed a brilliant script for the project and added authenticity to the world in a way that only first-hand experience could possibly bring.”
Interestingly, Weinstein said the show will be set up as a kind of anthology drama – echoing a recent trend. “Each year will feature a different theatre of war – the first starting in Africa,” he explained.
There was also news of a greenlight at AMC, the US cablenet behind The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands. Reports coming out of the tour suggest AMC has ordered a 10-part series from Sonar Entertainment called The Son, based on the acclaimed oil industry-focused book of the same name by Philipp Meyer.
The series, which will involve Meyer as a co-writer, is about America’s birth as a superpower, told through the rise and fall of one Texan oil empire. It will be interesting to see how the show fares after ABC’s lack of success with Blood & Oil, another drama set within the US oil industry.
Elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about Turner’s plans to refresh its cable networks TBS and TNT by shaking up their scripted content. At TCA, it was revealed that TNT is teaming up with M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines) to reboot HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. In the new TNT version, Shyamalan will curate a two-hour block made up of both long and short stories of suspense and horror.
“This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT.
Shyamalan added: “To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into.”
Meanwhile, with the massive success of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before one of US networks hit upon the idea of a TV drama based around cars. This week, it was revealed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who stars in the Fast franchise) is working with Fox on a new show called Boost Unit.
Described as “Fast and the Furious meets Rescue Me,” it will be written by Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt.
Over at ABC, there was official confirmation of another Marvel-based show in the shape of Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
On the streaming front, there was news from Hulu, which has ordered two 10-episode seasons of Chance, a psychological thriller in which Hugh Laurie will play a medical expert.
Set in San Francisco, the show follows forensic neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance (Laurie) as he gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. For Laurie, it’s another opportunity to play a medical expert following the global success of Fox series House (2004-2012).
Hulu’s upcoming slate of originals also includes 11.22.63, a time-travel drama about the Kennedy assassination from Stephen King and JJ Abrams; The Path, starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul; and Shut Eye, which will explore “the underground world of LA storefront psychics and the crime syndicate that runs them.”
In terms of renewals, E! has ordered a third season of original scripted series The Royals, which stars Elizabeth Hurley as a fictional queen. A coproduction between Lionsgate and Universal Cable Productions, the show is now getting up to the volume of episodes that appeals to international and SVoD buyers.
In terms of shows that are coming to an end, SundanceTV has revealed that Rectify will finish after its upcoming fourth season. TNT, meanwhile, will call time on Rizzoli & Isles after its 13-episode seventh season, which will air this summer.
JJ Abrams also used the TCA tour to speculate that the fifth season of CBS crime/sci-fi series Person of Interest (which he executive produces) will be the last, though he would “love it to continue.”
The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.
On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.
Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.
Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.
Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”
There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.
Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”
Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.
“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”
Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.
And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.
Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.
He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.
“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”
Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.
BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.
Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.
Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.
The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.
ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.
And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.
“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”
Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).
Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”
Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.
As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.
There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
It’s been one of the surprise hit series of the year – but what is the secret of UnREAL’s success? Michael Pickard reports.
From Breaking Bad to Mad Men, True Detective to House of Cards, there is a seemingly endless conveyer belt of complex – and often flawed – male characters headlining TV dramas. But one new show has turned this trend on its head and placed the concept of imperfect female heroes, and antiheroes, firmly into the public consciousness.
UnREAL, which launched on US cable network Lifetime in June and has been picked up for a second season, is set against the backdrop of a reality dating TV show called Everlasting, where young producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, pictured above left) is pushed to manipulate the contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by the programme’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer, pictured above right).
Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL was inspired by Sequin Raze, the short film made by Shapiro who worked for nine years as a producer of real-life dating series The Bachelor.
Noxon executive produces with Sally DeSipio and Robert M Sertner, while Shapiro serves as supervising producer and Stacy Rukeyser co-executive produces. The series is produced by A+E Studios and distributed by A+E Networks.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Appleby (Roswell, Girls) when asked about her attraction to the project. “The character of Rachel was a woman I’d never met – someone who had so much conflict and a really deep story. I was excited about the challenge of playing a woman who wasn’t going to be likeable and whose purpose on the show is not to serve a man. She’s on her own journey trying to find herself and find where she fits in this world. Each episode continued to interest me and engage me personally and professionally.”
The actress met with some reality show producers as part of her research for the role, and says it was “refreshing” to have the chance to play an unlikeable character.
“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of female showrunners, including Lena Dunham (Girls), so working for Sarah and Marti was comfortable for me. What was awesome was that they were writing a show about women and allowing them to be ugly and complicated, and they weren’t concerned with making these characters likeable. That’s what was so refreshing. The response has been really gratifying.”
Zimmer (Entourage, House of Cards), who boarded the series after the pilot had already been shot, said she was initially concerned about appearing on a Lifetime drama but, after a two-hour meeting, she became convinced UnREAL would change the face of the network.
“It was a stretch for Lifetime but if any show was going to break it out, it was this one,” she says. “If this show were anywhere else, it might not have been as well received because it was so unexpected. People were hesitant – and are still hesitant – to watch a show on Lifetime, but now we’ve broken the mould. People were talking about UnREAL, and once you saw it, you couldn’t stop yourself. That was a huge compliment.”
Zimmer also admits to being a “little terrified” of playing Quinn, a no-nonsense TV producer who demands results from her team. But the challenge of the role also excited her: “With this kind of show, you have to go big or go home. You can’t do this inside reality show where no person is bad – everybody’s flawed and you have female antiheroes.
“We were embarking on a huge journey and to do it we all had to be scared to do certain things – and that’s what was so fun. Because we were all so committed to making it as dark as we could, it was challenging but lots of fun.”
Appleby and Zimmer say they were lucky to land on UnREAL together, but it wasn’t until the show was described by some critics as “the female Breaking Bad” that they realised what they were involved in.
“It just shows you there’s a lack of flawed female characters and that you don’t have to be perfect as women,” Zimmer says. “You can still have a voice if you’re not perfect. Nobody on this show was afraid to be ugly or sinister to have a voice.
“We just tapped into so many different emotions across the board. People were fascinated with the reality side of it, whether they had ever seen a reality show or not, and they were fascinated by these evil characters. That doesn’t happen very often. And because it has two women, it has this Breaking Bad quality, where Walter White was doing horrible things but you still liked him.
“Maybe if it were two men, it might not have been so impactful but because it was two women running this world and abusing other women and themselves at the same time, it spoke to a lot of people about what we all do in our daily life to women.”
With the clamour among television networks around the world for an increasing amount of original drama and the dearth of a new breakout reality or entertainment format – the last big hit arguably being The Voice in 2011 – it is perhaps a sign of the times that reality TV is the subject of a drama.
But according to co-creator Noxon, a series that not just parodies reality television but also explores how it is made was long overdue.
“I wanted to show how these reality shows are really made and the damage they do, not just to those involved but to the people who watch it,” she explains. “This culture of bully television, where you watch to make fun of people or feel superior to them – it’s really corrosive; it’s ugly. I knew it was the perfect setting for a big soapy, juicy drama but also there was a real opportunity to comment on something that has been making me really angry for a long time.”
But has Noxon been on the receiving end of any criticism for the way UnREAL portrays reality television? “The only person who’s commented in any negative way is someone who’s on the show. Everybody else I know involved in reality has secretly said to me, ‘You nailed it, that’s what it’s like,’ and that is shocking to me,” she says. “We pushed the boundaries as far as we could and to have people say, ‘Yeah, that feels like my job,’ is pretty chilling actually.
“One of the things I learned through this experience is that I was like a lot of people watching reality television – I was judgemental, because I felt people on reality TV knew what they were signing up for. Now I know, from getting into how these shows are constructed, that nobody can know what they’re signing up for. They have no idea. Unless you’ve worked on a reality show, you think you can beat the system but you can’t.”
Zimmer agrees UnREAL has “touched a nerve” with some viewers who work in the industry portrayed on the show: “They’ve been unbelievably vocal about saying how much our show is what they deal with, and that was terrifying,” she says. “I was so scared when someone came up to me and said, ‘I know exactly who you’re playing.’”
With a second season of the show due to air on Lifetime in 2016, A+E Networks has already sold UnREAL into more than 100 territories, including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
Joel Denton, the distributor’s MD of international content sales and partnerships, recognises the show’s departure from Lifetime’s regular programming, admitting it’s not the type of series you’d normally see on the female-targeted channel.
“It’s younger, edgier, dark and comedic,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you’d traditionally expect to see there. It’s really pushing boundaries and it’s great to see it was such a huge critical success.
“It’s poking fun at a lot of things that go on in television and that’s fairly universal. Ultimately, it’s a workplace drama and it’s the drama and characters that drive its success. There are a lot of hooks in terms of themes and ideas that are universal.”
With viewers around the world falling in love with UnREAL, many more networks can now be expected to make a date with this hit series.
Television executives from around the world are heading to Cannes for the annual Mipcom market – but what will be the major talking points? A+E Networks’ Joel Denton offers Michael Pickard his insight.
The debate that raged this summer concerned whether there is too much television, or just not enough great television. That conversation is likely to be amplified over the next week as TV executives from around the world head to the south of France for the annual Mipcom market and conference in Cannes.
How much business is actually done at the event, beginning on Monday, is questionable but, more importantly, it is a place for relationships to be forged, partnerships to be cemented and, in today’s global drama business, new stories and plot lines to be conceived.
Highlights from the four-day event will include the world premieres of The Last Panthers, a French/UK thriller set across three countries, and The X-Files reboot. Keynote speakers include Showtime president David Nevins, producer Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds) and Dana Walden and Gary Newman, co-chairmen and CEOs of Fox Television Group.
The drama output from Turkey will also be put into sharp focus after it was named the Country of Honour for this year’s event, with conference sessions covering subjects including the adaptation potential of Turkish scripted formats.
Moreover, while coproduction opportunities have been one of the major talking points for the market over the last few years, 2015 could herald a new wave of partnerships. As competition for the best series grows, producers, broadcasters and distributors are looking to board projects as early as possible with co-development deals. The Last Panthers is one case in point, with producers Haut et Court in France and the UK’s Warp Films building a story that not only crosses borders but also satisfies the needs of both commissioning broadcasters, Sky and Canal+.
US cable broadcaster A+E Networks heads to Cannes with a drama slate including Lifetime series UnREAL, forthcoming Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None (pictured top), which will air on Lifetime and BBC1, and the remake of 1970s slavery drama Roots, which will air across A+E’s Lifetime, History and A&E channels in 2016.
Joel Denton, A+E Networks’ MD of international content sales and partnerships, says: “The thing with drama is there’s so much great stuff. Two or three years ago we’d have been speaking about factual and formats but it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of new stuff getting done in that space, whereas in scripted there’s a huge amount.
“The question is how much the marketplace can take and how much audiences can take. The change of viewing patterns is driving that with binge-viewing. It’s changing the nature of what works. Every bus I get on now, people seem to be watching drama on their phone or iPad. They’re consuming it everywhere.”
This means broadcasters have to be smarter, Denton argues, as they look at what works for their audience, how they launch and promote shows and how they work with over-the-top providers such as Netflix and Amazon – or fight them to keep exclusivity.
“There’s a lot of experimentation going on and it will be very interesting over the next 24 months to see where it all washes out,” he continues. “There’s so much great drama being made at the moment. Is there too much? Possibly. Are we building up to a bubble? Maybe. But the quality of everything is just fantastic and coming from different countries, not just the UK, the US or Scandinavia. There’s stuff coming from all over and it’s really exciting.”
Financing these series, however, continues to be challenging as producers seek bigger and bigger budgets to meet viewers’ increasing expectations of quality. A+E Networks coproduced BBC series War and Peace, and Denton says the distributor is happy to put up deficit financing for both its own shows and those of others.
“We’re getting involved in different ways,” he says. “We’re happy to put up distribution advances, or look for pre-sales and coproductions. It’s a moveable feast these days trying to get big shows funded. We’ve got Roots coming up for History. The second season of UnREAL (due to air in 2016) will help drive sales of season one. The market is still looking for miniseries for event programmes, so you look at pre-selling or coproducing those.
“It’s a much more complicated market than it used to be and there are a lot of partners. Writers seem to travel all over the place. It’s a big, complex picture with lots of people working in different ways. There isn’t a single model that’s successful in terms of financing and people are relatively open to talking about shows they wouldn’t have been interested in a few years ago. The way classic broadcasters would acquire drama was by having output deals with the studios. The studios have fewer of those deals now, and that’s freeing up budgets to be used in different ways.”
But it’s the greater co-development of projects – a process best led by a writer’s individual vision – that Denton picks out as a trend to keep an eye on.
“People are still talking about coproduction and financing but it feels like it’s moving a little bit from there,” he says. “What’s interesting at the moment is there’s a lot more co-development going on and there’s going to be more of that. Our networks will look at that as it enables people to have ownership of ideas and work together in a way that perhaps they haven’t done before. The key to that is always the unified vision and working with a strong writer who leads that. You’ll see more of it.
“It’s obviously down to money and spreading budgets, but it’s also down to competition. Competition has gone up, there’s more good stuff being made and usually it’s expensive so people are coming together to try to compete in that space. And they’re coming together in a smarter way. They’re uniting behind writers who are an important piece in the whole jigsaw because, more than anything else, they’re the ones responsible for the sheer quality of what’s coming through.”
What transpires in Cannes over the next seven days remains to be seen, but with so much drama being produced locally and now internationally, it will be intriguing to see which direction the genre heads in next.
Once upon a time, US cable channel A&E was a lovely place where gentle folk went to watch costume dramas and murder mysteries. But in recent years the channel has turned to the dark side. After offering its viewers psychos (Bates Motel) and zombies (The Returned), the channel has now announced plans for a series based around iconic 1970s antichrist movie The Omen.
Called Damien, the series was originally lined up for A&E’s sister channel Lifetime. But last week parent company A+E Networks decided A&E’s asylum would be a better home. At the same time, it revealed that the size of the series order was being bumped up to 10 episodes, having originally been planned as six.
The series is being written by Glen Mazzara, who is best known for being showrunner on series three of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Prior to that, he worked on Nash Bridges and The Shield.
Mazzara’s time on The Walking Dead didn’t end well. Despite the show achieving huge ratings during his watch, a difference of opinion about the programme’s direction saw Mazzara depart after just one series. So Damien is a big opportunity for him to really make his mark, building an ongoing scripted franchise from scratch. He is doing so via his own production company, 44 Strong Productions, which he launched after leaving The Walking Dead. Also involved is Ross Fineman, who developed the series concept with Mazzara.
The fact A&E has entrusted Mazzara with a 10-part series shows just how highly prized the alumni of hit series are. Reinforcing this point, US cable channel E! has just greenlit a project from Jonathan Abrahams, a writer who won a Primetime Emmy for his work on series four of Mad Men. Called The Arrangement, the new project tells the story of a young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead.
Mad Men, of course, comes to an end on May 17 after seven critically acclaimed seasons on AMC. Presumably, this means a wave of top script-writing talent will now be unleashed on the market. All told, eight people have been credited as writers on the final season, including the show’s creator Matthew Weiner.
Weiner has not given any indication what he plans to do after Mad Men. But he is undoubtedly going to be one of the most in-demand writers/showrunners in the US. If there is a career challenge for him, perhaps, it is to see if he can couple his creative talent to a higher-rating project. While other AMC shows such as The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul have delivered impressive ratings, Mad Men bumps along at around the two million mark.
Two other names closely associated with Mad Men are Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who wrote numerous episodes before leaving at the end of season six. The husband/wife team was briefly attached to Zodiak Media’s lavish period drama Versailles, but ultimately their version was passed over in favour of a treatment by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren. As yet, there is no news of what the Jacquemettons are planning next.
An ongoing theme in the scripted TV world is the number of actors and directors coming over from film – and it seems writers are also tempted to make a similar move. A good example of this is Jeb Stuart, whose movie credits include late-night kebab and lager companion flicks Die Hard and The Fugitive.
Stuart has recently finished writing The Liberator for A+E’s History Channel, a miniseries based on the Second World War heroics of Colonel Felix ‘Shotgun’ Sparks, who fought his way up through Europe before liberating the Dachau concentration camp. History is obviously happy with Stuart’s work – he’s now writing a Vietnam drama for the channel. Called The Boys of ’67, the show is based on a book by historian Andrew Wiest and will tell its story from the point of view of an infantry division. It’s tempting to think Stuart might go on to round out a trilogy with an Iraq epic next.
While the US continues to be the world’s most dynamic drama market, Canada has built an excellent business on the back of demand for North American-style scripted shows. Canuck writers have benefited from this, with numerous shows created north of the border travelling into the US and other international markets. One Canadian writer in the news this week is Aaron Martin, whose credits include teen drama DeGrassi: The Next Generation. Martin is now writing a series called Slasher for NBCUniversal’s US horror channel Chiller and for Super Channel in Canada.
The show, which is being produced in Canada by Shaftesbury, is about a young woman who returns to the town where she was born, only to find herself embroiled in a series of horrifying copycat murders based on the gruesome killings of her parents. Sounds like a show that would also work on the new-look A&E…
Over the coming months, this column will provide updates on new scripted productions from around the world. But this week the focus is firmly on the US, which is moving into one of the most important periods of the year from a commissioning perspective.
Known as the ‘upfronts’ season, this is when US TV networks reveal their upcoming programming plans to major advertisers. As part of the process, they announce which drama pilots they will be taking forward to series. Although this is predominantly an American affair, the significance of upfronts to the international market is that successful US shows often also go on to be ratings successes in other territories.
Arguably, this year’s upfronts have an added significance, because international buyers are crying out for new long-running procedural dramas that can do a similar job in their schedules to the likes of CSI or Grey’s Anatomy.
One of the first networks to have unveiled any series commissions this year is NBC, which has ordered three shows for the 2015-16 season. These are conspiracy thriller Blindspot, medical drama Heartbreaker and Chicago Med, the second spin-off from Chicago Fire following the 2014 launch of Chicago PD. Between them, the three Chicago series now cover procedural stories based around firefighters, paramedics and a police department. There is scope to create crossover stories between the three, with high-profile cast moving from show to show on occasion.
The Chicago series may not get the kind of critical attention that is generated by shows like Breaking Bad, House Of Cards and Mad Men, but they are of interest to international channel buyers, which see them as solid schedule performers. It’s also worth noting that they are all from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of NBC’s hugely successful Law & Order SVU franchise (and spin-offs).
The other three of the big four US networks, Fox, CBS and ABC, have not – at the time of writing – officially confirmed which pilots they will take to series. But there are usually rumours that point in the direction of one series over another. These rumours are often the result of strong screen tests, but they can also come from the producers of pilots being given the go-ahead to start staffing up.
One show that seems certain to get the greenlight is Fox’s Minority Report. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, it is set in the same world as the Tom Cruise movie of the same name (which itself is based on a story by Philip K Dick). Another Fox show being tipped for a series order is Frankenstein, about a corrupt ex-cop who is brought back from the dead and has the chance to live his new life in a more morally upstanding way.
Minority Report isn’t the only pilot with a movie background. Two of CBS’s pilots that stand a good chance of going to series are Limitless and Rush Hour, both of which are spin-offs from movies. Among ABC pilots that still stand a good chance of going to series is Runner, based on the format of a Turkish series called The End.
As outlined above, the big four networks generally make pilots and use these as the basis to select series. By contrast, cable networks don’t usually bother with pilots, preferring to go straight to series with ideas they like. However, as cable networks have invested more in scripted content, their upfront announcements have also taken on extra significance for the drama community.
This year, for example, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc has revealed that History Channel is developing a Vietnam War drama called Boys of ’67 (an A+E Studios production in association with Head First Productions and Muse Entertainment).
A+E Networks has also taken the interesting decision to simulcast BBC series War & Peace and a revamp of Roots across its three main channels, A+E, History and Lifetime. This is a significant development for the drama business because, if it works, it may signal one of two things –a reduction in the amount of shows needed by the big cable channel owners, or the ability to pool budgets to make even more epic drama series. Either way, it’s a model that centralises power with the channels.
Also revealed this week is that cable channel E! is following up its first drama, The Royals, with a new project called The Arrangement. Written by Jonathan Abrahams, The Arrangement tells the story of a beautiful young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead. Kevin Plunkett, senior VP of scripted programming at E!, said the script “juxtaposes a very public Hollywood romance with darker, more nefarious elements.”
The pilot-to-series approach outlined earlier in this column is still typical of the way the big four US networks build dramas. But it’s no longer the only business model on the table. NBCUniversal International Television Production, part of the same company as NBC, recently announced a deal with TF1 in France and RTL in Germany (two leading free-to-air broadcasters) to develop, finance and produce procedurals directly for the international market.
The significance of this model is that TF1 and RTL, which are big buyers of US procedural dramas, will no longer need to wait for a show to get the US seal of approval before it goes to series. The model is a potential risk for NBCUITV, which will have a significant budget deficit to cover. But it will be banking on its ability to sell any resultant series back into the US or around the world (possibly to its own thematic channels). It is an approach that is similar to what Sony Pictures Television did with Hannibal and The Firm.
The aim of the alliance is to produce three series over the next two years. One key difference from the traditional model is that these projects will go straight to series, instead of passing through a pilot phase. Again, this will help take some uncertainty out of the process for TF1 and RTL (though it does mean greater final exposure to a drama that might not ultimately work). Another advantage of this model for TF1 and RTL is that they will have control of all rights in their own territories. This avoids situations where they are forced to share transmission windows with increasingly influential SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
Away from the upfronts frenzy for a moment, one of the week’s most interesting projects from outside the US is Cleverman. A six-part drama for ABC TV in Australia, the show has just entered production in Sydney. It sees a group of non-humans battling for survival in a near future where humans feel inferior to them and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Cleverman, which stars Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), is an official Australian/New Zealand co-production between Goalpost Pictures Australia and Pukeko Pictures. At time of writing, Red Arrow International has just come on board as global distributor.
“Cleverman is a bold and ambitious project, and must be one of the most original drama series to be currently in production anywhere in the world,” said Amelie Kienlin, executive producer and VP of scripted acquisitions at Red Arrow.