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Keep dreaming

The creative team behind Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams discuss the origins of the ambitious sci-fi anthology series and reveal how they brought together a host of A-list actors, writers and directors for the show.

To say Philip K Dick adaptations are a fixture on screen at the moment is akin to saying the sky is blue. The late sci-fi writer’s work is hot property.

The Hood Maker, the first episode in the series, featured Noma Dumezweni and Richard Madden

The trend was set two years ago with global giant Amazon launching original series The Man in the High Castle. Based on Dick’s novel of the same name, a third season of the show was greenlit earlier this year. Looming large on the horizon too is Blade Runner 2049, the much-anticipated follow-up to the revered 1982 movie Blade Runner, also based on a Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

And now Channel 4 has jumped on the bandwagon with Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series of 10 hour-long episodes, drawn from a selection from the 120-plus short stories the author penned during his life.

The genesis of the Sony Pictures Television coproduction came five years ago when Michael Dinner, writer and series executive producer, was approached by US prodco Anonymous Content and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett with the idea of doing a series based on one of the short stories. Two weeks later, at a screening of episodes The Hood Maker and Crazy Diamond, Dinner recalls: “I had the nerve to call and say, ‘How about all of them?’”

The Hood Maker, the season premiere, debuted on September 17 to broadly positive reviews. In the pantheon of stars on board the show, Holliday Grainger (who also stars in BBC1’s Strike, the adaptation of JK Rowling’s three crime novels written under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym) is not perhaps the biggest name; but her turn as telepath Honor is balanced and full of range for a character essentially supposed to be a dispassionate drone. Her rapport with co-star Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) is full of feeling and has depth, which is impressive since the episode unfolds at 100 miles per hour.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston (right) stars in Human Is

The acting line-ups for the nine other episodes are star-studded. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Timothy Spall (Mr Turner), Anna Paquin (True Blood), Terrence Howard (Empire), and Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) are but a few of the recognisable faces on screen.

Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), who stars alongside Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) in Crazy Diamond, says the adaptability of the sci-fi genre allowed the actors to bring individuality to their roles and not feel restricted by the character in the original script.

“It’s a strange read, the script; I couldn’t explain it, but I liked it,” she says. “The whole thing is very odd – we’re odd, and the style is odd, but it’s exceptionally playful.

“What this genre allows is that nobody can come and say, ‘That’s not really believable,’ because what is believable? You can always insist on things being the way they are – this is the way we choose to interact and have emotions.”

Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter & the Cursed Child), who features in The Hood Maker, says the stellar casts caught her eye, and that this unique quality, along with the individuality of each episode, is the series’ strength.

“Just watching these two episodes, I can’t wait to see the others because they’re so fucking individual,” she says. “For me, there is no meaning; Electric Dreams is the thing that’s holding this all together. I want to see what each director’s done with their vision.”

Steve Buscemi alongside Julia Davis in Crazy Diamond

It’s not just in front of the camera where there is variety. Electric Dreams is made up of five UK and five US productions, has 10 different writers, 10 different directors and multiple executive producers. It is unsurprising, then, that Dinner calls the episodes “little movies.”

“I had this crazy notion of doing an anthology show, but one that encompassed 10 different unique points of view, not done like traditional American television,” he says. “So, then I solicited friends [to help].”

Dinner turned to veteran sci-fi producer and screenwriter Ronald D Moore – the “resident sci-fi geek” at Sony’s studio lot – before bringing on board Cranston, who happened to be moving into an office below Dinner’s, and who too is an avid Dick fan.

“We went after writers whose work we really liked. Some of them brought with them the stories that were favourites of theirs, and we also curated stories and sent them to writers. We put this all-star team together,” says Dinner.

“[We had a vision that] each show would have a diversity of viewpoint and we’d really give artists who came and joined us the opportunity to bring their own vision and interpretation to it,” Moore adds.

Along with Moore and Dinner, Maril Davis (Tall Ship Productions) exec produces. Cranston, who stars in episode Human Is, is also exec producing on behalf of Moon Shot Entertainment, along with James Degus. Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions and Anonymous Content’s David Kanter and Matt DeRoss also have executive producer credits.

Impossible Planet deals with space tourism

So was having so many bodies on each show – literally thousands of miles apart from each other at any given stage – a challenge for the producers? Though he is satisfied with the outcomes of each individual project, Dinner says it was tricky at times.

“We were crazy because we were shooting on two continents, almost simultaneously,” he says. “We started shooting in Great Britain about five weeks earlier than the US. There were a lot of producers, so people would come and go to [and from] Great Britain.”

Moore jokes that they undertook such an extravagant project “because we’re insane,” but concedes the complexity of the series was tough.

“It’s a lot of ground to cover and I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it is to produce a show like this,” he says. “Every episode is a new cast, new locations, new costumes, new sets, everything. It’s hard to produce. It’s unique, I’ve never done anything like it. I suspect none of us have.”

It seems like a bit of a departure for C4 too. Electric Dreams was commissioned by outgoing chief creative officer Jay Hunt, Piers Wenger (who is now at the BBC) and Simon Maxwell, head of international drama. Earlier this year, Maxwell said the budget for Electric Dreams was “significant” and that the show would have been unaffordable without forming a coproduction. Amazon Prime has the US rights.

It is not solely monetary success C4 needs. There is perhaps some pride to salvage owing to the big hole in the channel’s scheduling left by fellow sci-fi show Black Mirror, which moved to streaming giant Netflix last year. However, there is confidence among Dinner and Moore their show can emulate the dramatic success of its predecessor. Indeed, the former believes they have brought a cinematic experience to linear television.

“With each one as we finish it up, it’s thrilling. I’m as excited about the other directors’, the other writers’ [episodes] as I am about the one I did,” he says. “It’s fun to work with the talent and work with people we really admire, [bringing together] directors with writers and writers with directors.

“We get to make 10 movies in a season. The ability to 10 stories and do 10 movies is awesome.”

Given the series is only a 12th of Dick’s short story output, do the producers have hopes they could be future Electric Dreams series?

“Five years ago, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to invite people to play in our sandbox?,’” Dinner adds. “We wondered if people would come and they did. If it’s a success, more people will come to the sandbox.”

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Star turn

Twists and turns abound in Tin Star, Sky Atlantic’s Rocky Mountains-set drama that sees Tim Roth play a small-town police chief attempting to escape his demons. DQ hears from the star and writer/director Rowan Joffé about pushing the limits in this 10-part series.

Tim Roth isn’t exactly known for playing the quiet type.

Perhaps most famous for appearing in several Quentin Tarantino movies – including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight – the actor has a knack for portraying menacing characters with a simmering intensity, with other memorable villainous turns in 2001’s Planet of the Apes and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

So when the early stages of Tin Star, his new series for Sky Atlantic, see Roth as a level-headed family man and police chief in the peaceful surroundings of rural Canada, it’s safe for viewers to assume that things are going to go south – and fast.

Rowan Joffé

The 10-part drama, which launches in the UK on September 7, stars Roth as former London copper Jim Worth, who has upped sticks along with his family to escape a troubled past by beginning a new life in the Rocky Mountains.

All seems to be going swimmingly at first, with the new police chief – a former alcoholic – spending more time catching fish than criminals in the sleepy fictional town of Little Big Bear. But things soon take a dark twist as the arrival of a shady oil company coincides with a past that refuses to fade away, and an attack on his family turns Jim into a one-man wrecking ball on a quest for revenge.

Coproduced by Endemol Shine-owned firm Kudos Film and Television alongside Amazon Prime Video in the US, Tin Star is distributed by Sky Vision.

The show marks Roth’s first lead TV role since his only other major venture into the medium, Lie to Me, came to an end in 2011 after three seasons on US network Fox.

However, the actor reveals the decision to return to the small screen was not premeditated. “I wasn’t looking for a TV show,” he explains. “I put my feet up in the kitchen and I read a couple of [Tin Star] scripts, and I thought they were bonkers.

Tin Star’s cast is led by Tim Roth as troubled police chief Jim Worth

“That immediately gets my attention, and then the next question is, ‘Where the fuck does this go?’ And then I found out, and it’s interesting. So I thought, ‘I fancy this.’ Then you call [the producers] and tell them that, and they pay you shit-loads of money!” he jokes.

Roth says he was captivated by the “very, very anarchic story,” adding: “The minute I thought I knew what was going on, it was something different – we always got it wrong.”

Filmed on location in and around Calgary, Alberta, Tin Star makes full use of the region’s natural beauty, with sweeping shots of mountain ranges and rivers providing stark contrast to the ugliness that unfolds between the characters on screen.

Yet while one might think filming in such a place sounds like an actor’s dream, Roth offers a different view. “Having worked in Calgary, I have to say I wasn’t keen to go back,” he admits. “It’s nothing against Canada, but you’re talking about ‘Trumpland’ in Canada. It’s all flourishing – the oil and the corporations, the invasions of the local culture. It’s just there.”

The show centres on Jim and his family’s attempt to start a new life in the Rocky Mountains

It’s a view echoed by Rowan Joffé, who wrote and directed every episode of the series. “Canada looks like this wonderful, impeccable, clean place – and it is, until you look at what they’re doing with the tar sands out there,” he says, referencing the controversial oil extraction that has been gathering pace in the country. “It’s pretty horrific in many ways.”

Best known for writing 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later and for penning and directing 2014 feature Before I Go to Sleep, Joffé became the latest in an growing band of contemporary movie directors to try their hand at TV drama when he signed up for Tin Star, his first major TV project.

The chance to take charge of what he describes as a “10-hour movie” proved irresistible to Joffé, who says: “Sky were always true to their word, which was, ‘You can author the show.’ And so we just ran with it.

“We thought there was absolutely no point in doing this unless we felt like we were taking risks. The opportunity to write what I wanted to write and to be able to collaborate with actors who I really admire, and for no one to tell me no at any point… It’s just been amazing.”

The show also features Mad Men star Christina Hendricks

Joffé’s affinity for his cast – which also includes Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as oil rep Elizabeth Bradshaw and Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela – is clear, with the director revealing that they played an important role in shaping the plot.

“The story began to change and morph around the actors,” he says. “Without doubt, many of the best moments on screen – particularly in Tim’s case – were ad-libbed. Tim brought a level of wit and comedy to it that was way beyond my ability as a screenwriter.”

Joffé was “free with us and let us be free at the same time,” adds Roth, who particularly relished the chance to really get under the skin of a character across 10 hours.

He describes the experience as “much more satisfying” than working on network television’s standalone episodes – such as in Lie to Me – which he calls a “much harder job.”

“Theatre is where actors really exist, as opposed to film, which is the director’s world. But [television now] is very similar to the stage experience, especially now that there are so many good writers and so much rich talent involved.

Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela

“For us as actors, it’s incredible. We get to play more with television now – to invent, change, metamorphose, have fun and be challenged.”

Playing Jim was made more difficult by the increasing presence throughout the series of his dangerous alter ego, Jack, who Jim has learnt to keep at bay – as long as he remains sober.

Indeed, as the show progresses, Jack increasingly comes to the fore, simultaneously ratcheting up the violence and taking the show to “dark, shocking places,” according to Joffé.

“We went far; I wouldn’t have wanted to do it if we didn’t. It was just anarchy on the page,” says Roth, who credits Joffé for creating a character that tests audience sympathies.

“We take you to a very dark place, but the audience is supposed to be my ‘mate’ – they’re part of the fun too. On the one hand you enjoy the journey with this guy, and on the other you hate him.”

As for the suggestion of a second season, it seems Roth would jump at the chance. “In a hypothetical world, if we got to do another 10-hour movie, I’d be happy with that. I’d like to chip back at and fuck with this character again.”

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Creative arms race

As Netflix and Amazon continue to flex their financial muscles, battle lines are being drawn between network, cable and digital channels in the fight for top writing talent.

Call it what you will – peak TV, the new golden age or even the first platinum era of television – there are few signs that the number of scripted dramas being produced around the world, and particularly in the US, is on the wane.

So as the transfer window for football leagues across Europe enters its final days, television is doing its best to keep up, with rival players fighting to sign up some of the small screen’s biggest talents in the hope of continuing to attract viewers.

If former Barcelona superstar Neymar is worth a world-record transfer fee of £200m (US$258m) to Paris Saint-Germain, how valuable is showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes (pictured above) to Netflix?

However much Rhimes will earn, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos would doubtless say she is worth every cent after the showrunner agreed to bring her Shondaland production company to the US streaming giant in a multi-year deal that will see her create new series for the platform. Indeed, Sarandos described Rhimes as “one of the greatest storytellers in the history of television” after securing her signature.

Shondaland’s ABC series include long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy

And who is in any doubt over the credibility of that statement? This is, after all, a writer and producer who has her own night on US network ABC, with Shondaland series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder bringing in primetime audiences every Thursday.

But while becoming synonymous with ABC, which also previously aired Shondaland dramas The Catch and Still Star-Crossed, among others, Rhimes has slowly built up a relationship with Netflix. The streamer has global rights outside of the US to How To Get Away With Murder and also airs Grey’s and Scandal in many other territories.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that despite a long and successful partnership with the network, she has jumped ship with the promise of untold production budgets and the opportunity to tell any story she likes without having to jump through the hoops laid out by a broadcast network’s standards and practices department.

Robert Kirkman

“Her work is gripping, inventive, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, taboo-breaking television at its best,” Sarandos continued, with all the hyperbole of a football club chairman announcing his club’s latest star signing, lacking only a Netflix T-shirt with Rhimes’ name across the back. “I’ve gotten the chance to know Shonda and she’s a true Netflixer at heart – she loves TV and films, she cares passionately about her work and she delivers for her audience.”

Rhimes hinted at the potential to break away from the more stringent rules at ABC when she said: “Ted provides a clear, fearless space for creators at Netflix. He understood what I was looking for – the opportunity to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach provided by Netflix’s singular sense of innovation. The future of Shondaland at Netflix has limitless possibilities.”

While Grey’s, now entering its 14th season, and its ABC stablemates will not be moving with Rhimes, one wonders what new projects Shondaland will be pitching to the streamer.

In the case of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the dark content that comprises his comic book back catalogue and the output of his Skybound Entertainment prodco provides a clue of what is likely to come now that he too has agreed an online deal, with Amazon being the beneficiary in this case.

The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows in the world, giving cable network AMC the kinds of ratings that broadcast networks would once have considered unremarkable. Kirkman is also behind Cinemax’s Outcast and is developing pre-apocalyptic drama Five Year, which is being prepared for multiple territories including Germany, India, Brazil and Italy.

“Robert is a gifted storyteller who shares our passion for elevated genre storytelling that pushes boundaries,” said Sharon Tal Yguado, head of event series at Amazon Studios, which is ramping up its focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror series. “Robert and the team at Skybound are some of the most innovative and fearless creatives in the business. Together, we plan to explore immersive worlds and bold ideas for Prime Video.”

Kirkman is best known as the creator of AMC’s The Walking Dead

The digital tractor beam has also managed to pull in major movie talent, with Netflix revealing it had tapped the sought-after Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) to produce western anthology series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a six-parter starring Tim Blake Nelson that will feature six different frontier tales featuring the eponymous character.

“We are streaming, motherfuckers,” said Joel and Ethan Coen, understatedly, in what was another coup for Netflix in the wake of Disney’s revelation that it would be pulling its movie titles from the SVoD player in 2019.

It’s a stark reality that the some of the biggest names in TV and film will head to Netflix and Amazon due to the promise of being given the freedom to let their creative juices flow. But what is left for the networks they leave behind? AMC will have to make do without the next series from Kirkman, while Matthew Weiner, who spent eight years at the channel with Mad Men, has also set up his next show – The Romanoffs – at Amazon. Cable rival FX, meanwhile, has been tying down its biggest creative assets, among them Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) and Donald Glover (Atlanta), for fear of them also moving on.

Noah Hawley

But it is broadcast networks that will face the biggest challenge. Already trailing in the wake of their subscription-based competitors and unable to place the same bets on niche dramas as their cable and streaming rivals, the onus is on them to unearth new gems each year to keep their advertisers happy.

ABC Studios has been doing some transfer business of its own, reuniting with veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse (Jack Ryan, Bates Motel) who oversaw six seasons of Lost for the Alphanet Network. The hope will be that he can steer some new shows in its direction.

But like smaller football clubs facing off against their bigger rivals, television now has a new ecosystem, and it’s likely networks will have to get used to seeing their best and brightest talents picked off.

The demanding nature of network dramas means they should continue to be the biggest training ground for up-and-coming writing talent as writers rooms grapple with the demands of 22-episode seasons. That’s where the next great storytellers will emerge to take the places of Rhimes et al.

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Great Scott

Showrunners Billy Ray and Christopher Keyser take DQ back to 1930s Hollywood as they discuss Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, their adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel.

With screenplays including The Hunger Games, Captain Philips and State of Play to his name, writer Billy Ray has worked on some of the biggest Hollywood movies of the last decade.

So it’s notable when he describes making Amazon Prime drama The Last Tycoon as the most fun he’s ever had. “I’ve never had a working experience that was better than this from the start,” he says of the streamer’s adaptation of celebrated American author F Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel.

“I so love the book, I so love its voice and tone and I had such a strong feeling that the conversations people have on movie studios today are the exact same conversations that were being had in Fitzgerald’s book, and it seemed like the perfect vehicle to talk about the dynamics in Hollywood. Then on a character level you have all these dynamics, and the idea just seemed inexhaustible because the people are so compelling. It’s literally been my favourite job I’ve ever had.”

The Last Tycoon stars Kelsey Grammer (right) and Matt Bomer

After writing a bible for the series but having no prior experience of working in TV, film veteran Ray partnered with seasoned TV exec Christopher Keyser (Party of Five, Sisters) to bring The Last Tycoon to the small screen together as co-showrunners. Three years later, in June 2016, Amazon launched a pilot, allowing viewers the chance to view and rate the show ahead of a possible series commission.

The streamer was suitably impressed with the feedback, greenlighting a full nine-episode first season a month after the pilot launch.

Recreating the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, the series follows rising star Monroe Stahr, played by Matt Bomer (White Collar), as he battles father figure and boss Pat Brady (Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer) for the soul of their movie studio. Lily Collins also stars as Celia Brady, Pat’s daughter.

It follows the lead of Fitzgerald’s novel, itself inspired by the life of legendary film mogul Irving Thalberg who helped create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and produced more than 400 films at the studio. The book was previously adapted in 1976 as a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum as Stahr and Brady respectively.

Lily Collins also stars as Celia Brady

“It’s about the dream of Hollywood and the reality of Hollywood,” Ray explains. “We’re writing about a period in which that dream became captured on film and became immortalised. That filmic fantasy of America really began to be sold in the 1930s and, in some way, the world still believes in that vision of America. That’s the power of the movies.”

Keyser continues: “The question of what we thought of ourselves [at that time] and whether we were telling ourselves a lie, or whether it was true or a necessary lie – that’s really interesting and it’s still really interesting, unfortunately, in 2017.”

Speaking about the cast, the showrunners claim Bomer is “the perfect Monroe,” while Grammer brings physicality, gruffness and humour to the role of studio boss Brady, adding that the pair were the only actors to whom the parts were offered.

The same was true of Collins’ (The Blind Side) casting. “Lily was the only person we offered the part of Celia to,” says Ray. “You could see she was a rocket ship about to take off, which is now happening [with films such as Okja and To the Bone]. She was so utterly charming and beautiful. Then Rosemarie DeWitt [La La Land] had a tiny part as Rose Brady in the pilot; she was only in two scenes so Chris and I had to do some serious lobbying to get her to take the part – and with her we developed Rose into a fully fleshed out character, who it turns out is absolutely vital to the show and, for some, one of the most intriguing parts of the show. She was also our first choice – it was just one of those parties people wanted to be a part of.”

Billy Ray directs Nicole Kidman in Secrets in Their Eyes

Still, Keyser notes that unearthing new talent is part of the fun of television, and he believes The Last Tycoon, which rolls out in more than 200 territories and countries tomorrow, features several actors on the path to stardom.

“Take a look at Mark O’Brien, who plays Max Miner, Enzo Cilenti, who plays Aubrey Hackett, or Dominique McElligott (as Kathleen Moore), who’s been in a number of series but we didn’t know her until we did this. She’ll be well known to people because of House of Cards and Hell on Wheels. There are names you haven’t really heard of who I think are going to show something special, and that’s one of the great things about TV. You don’t have to have stars; it makes stars. Wait until you see [Flashdance star] Jennifer Beals as the reigning queen of the 1930s cinema, Margo Taft.”

Ray and Keyser hadn’t worked together before pairing up for The Last Tycoon, knowing each other only through their association with the Writers Guild of America. That meant they had figure out how they would partner on the show, though they reveal there are no boundaries between what they each do or don’t do.

But while Ray writes and also directs multiple episodes, he admits he leaves a lot of the behind-the-scenes work to his partner: “There’s another part of it that the public doesn’t see, which has to do with maintaining the relationship with the studio [TriStar TV] and the network, and making sure their voices are heard while ensuring the sensibility of the show doesn’t change in over-response to notes. Chris is very good at navigating all of that stuff.”

The showrunners are also quick to praise others who worked on The Last Tycoon, from director of photography Daniel Moder (The Normal Heart) and production designer Patricia von Brandenstein (Amadeus) to costume designer Janie Bryant (Mad Men), producer Pavlina Hatoupis and directing producer Scott Hornbacher.

“We did have some really amazing other people who were working with us,” Keyser says. “In the long run, being a showrunner is, in the large part, finding great people and more or less trusting them to do their jobs.”

After the pilot launched on Prime Video, Amazon shared some of the feedback with Ray and Keyser – something many producers say generally doesn’t happen at Amazon or similar platforms like Netflix, where key metrics such as viewing figures aren’t released, even to the programme makers.

But Keyser notes that the Amazon system of seeking feedback from a pilot isn’t that much different from other, more traditional networks – only in this scenario, it’s the viewers who get to give their opinions.

The series is based on the final novel by F Scott Fitzgerald

“One of the big differences in this world is not so much the way we make this stuff but the fact that the way we deliver it actually affects the stories we tell,” he explains, pointing to the way television dramas have evolved from strict episodic procedurals to a much more fluid, serialised format. The Last Tycoon, in fact, adopts a hybrid form, with individual episodes telling standalone stories but also tying into the themes of the whole season.

“Television storytelling has become more or less anything it wants for an audience that can watch it at its own pace – they can turn to the next chapter whenever they feel like it. That’s improved TV storytelling. We are the beneficiary and it allows us to take a novel and turn it into an even longer story.”

The drawback to this, Ray concedes, is that writers can be keener to finish each episode on a cliffhanger, encouraging viewers to watch the next one immediately.

“You definitely are conscious of wanting to put something at the very end of an episode that will be intriguing, titillating or terrifying enough that someone will click and stay with it,” he says. “On our show, that represents challenges and opportunities, but we were always mindful of it.”

The showrunners put together a writers room, led by Keyser, though they both agreed that Ray would write most of the first half of the season to lay down a clear and consistent voice that could then be carried through the remaining episodes.

“But they were all stories Chris and I had worked out together for over a year by that point,” Ray says. “Then you empower the people in the room to write their own episodes and, happily, we had hired really well and they did some beautiful work. Everybody was always steering in the same direction. That made the process run very smoothly.”

In fact, the production process on The Last Tycoon is one of the things Ray points to when asked about why he enjoyed making the show so much. “It’s magic. I don’t mean that in a flippant way – it’s absolute magic when I think about what our crew is able to construct and reconstruct and flat-out make up [when recreating 1930s Hollywood]. We had magicians working for us on our crew.

“That meant every prop, costume and hairstyle was completely thrilling for the actors,” Ray adds. “Every time they walked onto the set, they loved the way they looked. Everything helped ground those performances, which is why I think they’re as much fun to watch as they are.”

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Eclectic dreams

The work of renowned author Philip K Dick has inspired a new anthology series heading to Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon. Michael Pickard takes a look at the 10 imaginative stories that make up Electric Dreams.

Since Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams was first announced in May last year, it seems not a week has passed without a new A-list actor, star writer or acclaimed director joining the anthology series.

Comprising 10 single films, each inspired by one of author Dick’s renowned short stories, a roster of leading British and American writers and directors have taken up the challenge to adapt the works for television.

Each story is set in a different and unique world, with some at the far reaches of the universe and others much closer to home. But while on the surface they may seem poles apart, they all focus on the importance and significance of humanity.

From Sony Pictures Television, Electric Dreams is executive produced by Michael Dinner of Rooney McP Productions alongside Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions, David Kanter and Matt DeRoss of Anonymous Content, Ronald D. Moore and Maril Davis of Tall Ship Productions, Bryan Cranston and James Degus of Moonshot Entertainment, Lila Rawlings and Marigo Kehoe of Left Bank Pictures, plus Don Kurt and Kate DiMento. Sony is also handling international distribution.

Here, DQ takes a look at the details of all 10 episodes, which are due to air on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon in the US later this year.

Crazy Diamond
Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi plays Ed Morris in what is described as “the ultimate Philip K Dick comic film-noir nightmare.” Inspired by the story of the same name, the story follows average man Ed, who is approached by a gorgeous synthetic woman with an illegal plan that could change his life completely. He agrees to help – and then his world begins to crumble.
Starring alongside Buscemi are Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), Julia Davis (Gavin & Stacy) and Joanna Scanlan (No Offence). The episode (pictured top) is written by Tony Grisoni and directed by Marc Munden.

Timothy Spall, pictured in The Enfield Haunting, stars in The Commuter

The Commuter
The morning commute is turned on its head in this mysterious tale from Bafta-winning writer Jack Thorne (National Treasure, This is England). Timothy Spall (The Enfield Haunting) stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to discover that a number of daily commuters are taking the train to a town that shouldn’t exist. This one is directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace).

Impossible Planet
In an episode that promises two be out of this world, Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) play two disillusioned, disenchanted and indifferent space tourism employees who agree to an elderly woman’s (Geraldine Chaplin, A Monster Calls) request for a trip back to Earth – the existence of which is a long-debunked myth. She appears easily confused, plus she’s rich – so, for the right payment, what’s the harm in indulging her fantasies? As the journey unfolds, however, their scam begins to eat away at them and they ultimately find themselves dealt a bittersweet surprise. Impossible Planet is written and directed by David Farr (The Night Manager) and based on the short story of the same name.

Human Is
Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as a woman suffering in a loveless marriage who finds that her emotionally abusive husband (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston) appears to be a different man upon his return from battle – in more ways than one. With a cast that also includes Liam Cunningham and Ruth Bradley, this episode is written by Jessica Mecklenburg and directed by Francesca Gregorini.

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston (left) takes the lead in Human Is

Father Thing
The world is under attack in Father Thing as aliens quietly invade our homes. Charlie, played by Jack Gore (Billions), must make the most difficult decisions imaginable as he tries to protect his mother (Mireille Enos, The Catch) and the human race as he is among the first to realise that humans are being replaced by dangerous monsters. Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) also stars in this instalment by writer and director Michael Dinner (Sneaky Pete).

Real Life
This future-set episode sees Anna Paquin (True Bloood) play Sarah, a police officer who shares ‘headspace’ with George (Terrence Howard, Empire), a brilliant game designer, with each pursuing violent killers whose plans could have shattering consequences. In a race against time, and sharing a bond that no one else can see, they learn that the very thing that connects them could also destroy them. Additional cast members include Rachelle Lefevre (Under the Dome), Lara Pulver (Sherlock), Jacob Vargas (Luke Cage), Sam Witwer (Once Upon A Time) and Guy Burnet (Hand of God). The episode is written by Ronald D Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica) and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (The Affair).

The Hood Maker
Set in a world without advanced technology, mutant telepaths have become humanity’s only mechanism for long-distance communication. But their powers have unintended implications, and when the public begin to embrace mysterious, telepath-blocking hoods, two detectives with an entangled past are brought in to investigate. Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Holliday Grainger (The Finest Hours) and Anneika Rose (Line of Fire) star in The Hood Maker, which is written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) and directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane).

True Blood’s Anna Paquin plays a police officer in Real Life

Kill All Others
A man hangs dead from a lamppost, apparently murdered and inexplicably ignored by passers-by, after a politician (Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel) makes a shocking statement encouraging violence. But when one man, the extraordinarily average Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez, The Last Man on Earth), dares to question the situation, he becomes an instant target. Written and directed by Dee Rees (Bessie), this episode also stars Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Glenn Morshower (Aftermath) and Sarah Brown (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).

Autofac
Set in a world where society has collapsed, a massive, automatic product-manufacturing factory continues to operate according to the principles of consumerism – humans consume products to be happy and, in order to consume continuously, they must be denied freedom of choice and free will. When a small band of rebels decide to shut down the factory, they discover they may actually be the perfect consumers after all. Juno Temple (Vinyl) stars as Emily, one of the rebels, alongside Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) as Alexis, an Autofac representative. Jay Paulson and David Lyons also appear in the episode, which is written by Travis Beacham and directed by Peter Horton.

Safe and Sound
Annalise Basso (Captain Fantastic) stars as a small-town girl, already gripped with social anxiety, who moves to a big futuristic city with her mother, played by Maura Tierney (The Affair). Exposed for the first time to urban society’s emphasis on security and terrorist prevention, it isn’t long before her schooldays are consumed by fear and paranoia. However, soon finds guidance and companionship in the most unexpected of places. Safe and Sound is written by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell and directed by Alan Taylor.

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Bringing Bosch to life

As Amazon’s original crime drama Bosch heads into its third season, award-winning author Michael Connnelly tells DQ how his literary creation has been brought to life on the small screen – and why he thinks the series can run and run.

Since his first appearance some 25 years ago, LA homicide detective Harry Bosch has featured in more than 20 novels written by Michael Connelly.

But for the third season of Bosch, Amazon Prime Video’s flagship crime drama, which launches on April 21, the character is going back to the beginning.

Bosch’s literary debut came in 1992 thriller The Black Echo, and that book forms part of the main narrative of the forthcoming third instalment of the TV series, alongside Darkness More than Night and some remaining strands of The Last Coyote, which also featured in season two.

Adapting his stories for the screen with Amazon has been a fulfilling journey for Connelly, who splits his time between his home in Florida and Bosch’s LA set, where he admits he spends most of his time during production.

“You can’t ever imagine an adaptation happening, you just have to keep your head down and write the best book you can and hope for these kind of things,” he tells DQ during a break in production for the season three finale in November 2016. “It’s not like I never thought about it! In January it was 25 years since the first book came out about Harry Bosch, and that book is the subject of this season – so to have this happen all these years later, it’s really fulfilling beyond words.

“It’s hard to explain how cool that is. And I’m involved in the show – I’m on the set almost every day. It really is amazing. It’s a big city of people, almost 150 people all working on the show and they’re all there because 25 years ago I was in a room by myself and wrote about this guy named Harry Bosch. That kind of journey is amazing and very fulfilling.”

Developed by former showrunner Eric Overmyer (who stepped down in January to run Amazon stablemate The Man in the High Castle) and Fabrik Entertainment for Amazon Studios, Bosch was among the drama pilots launched in early 2014 by the then-nascent streamer, which allowed viewers to leave feedback that would be used to determine whether a full season would be ordered.

The show, distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, was an instant hit and season one – based on Connelly’s novels City of Bones, Echo Park and The Concrete Blonde – launched in February 2015. Season two, which drew storylines from Trunk Music, The Drop and The Last Coyote, launched in March 2016.

Season three was ordered shortly afterwards, in April 2016, before Amazon took the unusual step of picking up a fourth season in October that same year – before season three had aired.

It’s a rare but treasured position to be in for Bosch’s cast and crew, who can now plan to take the series towards its 40th episode.

Michael Connelly alongside actor Amy Aquino during filming

“The main thing [about having season four] is all the writers on the show know that at the end of the third season, they don’t have to worry about where they’ll work next!” Connelly jokes. “That also entered into our discussions about what we tie up, don’t tie up or set up for season four. It’s been extremely helpful. Here we are wrapping up episode 10 and last year we didn’t know if we had any future, even though we left some things open. This year we know there’s a future so we’re planting bigger seeds, bigger stuff to carry forward. There is much more of an open-ended feeling to the finale this season.”

Which books will form the basis of season four, which is likely to air in spring 2018, comes down to Connelly and new showrunner Daniel Pyne, who will meet early in the pre-production phase of the new season to discuss the best way to develop Bosch’s character on screen.

“That’s why we didn’t start at the beginning [of the books], we started with City of Bones where it was a case we thought would provide an emotional connection for Bosch and things would come out of that,” the author explains, adding that, after two seasons, the creative duo are now preparing to take the detective into murky moral conundrums.

“Darkness More than Night has always been one of my favourite books and really examines ideas about justice, vengeance and the differences between them,” Connelly continues. “It’s not the greatest portrait of Harry as a hero, but we felt in the third season we could explore that. And now that we have a fourth season, we’re even happier about that because, no matter how low you go, if you know there’s another story, there is always redemption in the next season.

“That’s how I approached it in the books. Harry reaches a personal low point in Darkness More than Night but when I was writing that I knew there would be a book afterwards so that I could bring him out of the abyss. That’s what has happened now with the TV show – we know there’s a fourth season and it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel that’s going to draw Harry out.”

Titus Welliver gets ready to shoot a scene Harry Bosch

Connelly has written five episodes of the TV series so far, including the third season finale, and it’s clear he is relishing seeing the character he created being brought to life on television. Admitting he’s “very much involved” in the writing process, the author reveals that he works alongside Bosch’s six writers to produce scripts, sometimes rewriting episodes or individual scenes.

“That’s where I’m most involved and can give the most,” he continues. “Then eventually you get into production and I love that because all these people are endeavouring to make a show about a character I created a long time ago. It’s very cool. But I have to say, that’s where my skill set drops off tremendously! I don’t know much about camera angles and production co-ordination, so I’m really there almost as a cheerleader to encourage people, especially the actors and the director, and give the thumbs up when needed.”

It’s a big contrast to the solitary life of a novelist, but Connelly says being in a writers room reminds him of his early career as a crime journalist, first in Florida and then at the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s quite different writing,” he adds. “When I’m writing books, I’m constantly inside Harry Bosch’s head and I know what he’s thinking. You never have any of that in the scripts, so it’s a good challenge for me at this point in my life to think in terms of delineating Harry’s character by what he says and what he does and not on the much easier component of interior thought.

“He’s very much the same character [on TV as in the books], he’s just on a different timeline. The guy in the books, I’ve aged him in real time so he’s mid-60s. Titus [Welliver, who plays Bosch on screen] is 55 and that’s a big difference. I’m 60 years old and I feel quite old compared to the Harry Bosch in the TV show. So in a way, they’re different animals – Titus is fantastic as Harry Bosch, he’s perfect, but he’s not the same guy I’m writing about these days when I sit down to write books.”

Alongside Bosch, the other central character in the Amazon drama is LA itself, echoing the presence of the city in the works of Connelly’s literary hero, Raymond Chandler. It was his job at the LA Times that first brought the writer to the City of Angels, which he argues is as complex as the detective at the centre of his novels.

“It’s just a very difficult place to get your arms around, to understand, so it’s like an ongoing, ever-revolving mystery – the kind of place where you feel compelled to look over your shoulder – and that makes it a great place to build fiction around,” he explains. “We carry that over into the show. We have a certain realism and gritty tone to what we’re filming and it’s an attractive way to portray the city. We want to have a lot of scenes that show the vastness of it. There are millions and millions of dreams here and, somewhere, something really bad has happened.

“For whatever reason, LA has a fascination for people around the world. I know I’ve benefited from that as a book writer, and it’s the same when it comes to television. It always comes down to LA as a mystery. It’s a real hard place to understand. I first visited in 1987 and would be the first to say I don’t really know this place as well as I know the town I grew up in.”

As an early adopter of SVoD platforms, watching television on his laptop, Connelly says Amazon was a natural home for a show based on his books, which have a pace to them that also benefits from the opportunity to binge entire seasons in a short space of time.

And when the show first went into development, the author had ambitions to reach 60 episodes. With 40 now guaranteed with Bosch’s fourth season commission, Connelly now sees no reason why it should stop after season six.

“It would be fantastic if it ran and ran, but we’ll see,” he says, adding a note of caution. “There are plenty more plots, it’s just more about whether we have said all we need to say about Harry Bosch. That goes for the books as well, where there’s more of a finite constriction because he ages in real time – he’s a private eye in the latest book and that can last at least a few more years.

“If I do ever reach a ceiling of forward progression with him, I can always go back and write about him in the 80s, 70s or even the 60s, so it’s really about what inspires me,” Connelly adds. “But I don’t think there’s any limit on Bosch as a literary figure or a television figure.”

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Patriot games

Michael Dorman and Terry O’Quinn lead the line in Patriot, Amazon’s latest original drama, which centres on the complicated life of a US intelligence officer. They tell DQ about their father-son relationship on screen and the unique style of showrunner Steve Conrad.

Since November 2015, visitors to Amazon Video have been able to tune into the pilot episode of a spy thriller called Patriot. That enough of them watched it and, more importantly, liked it means that 15 months later, nine more episodes are now available to subscribers to complete the 10-part first season.

The opening episode introduces viewers to the complicated life of intelligence officer John Tavner, whose latest mission is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. To do so, he must go deep undercover as an employee at a Midwestern industrial piping firm.

However, a bout of PTSD, the federal government’s incompetence and the challenge of keeping his day job lead to an ever-increasing number of fiascos that threaten the entire operation.

Patriot stars Michael Dorman as John Tavner

Focusing on the less glamorous aspects of spying, Patriot sees Tavner struggle with situations that force him to choose between bad alternatives and his efforts to conceal his plan, often leading to matters unravelling further.

Australian newcomer Michael Dorman stars as Tavner, with Terry O’Quinn (Lost) as his father and State Department director of intelligence Tom Tavner and Michael Chernus (Orange is the New Black) as his brother, Texas congressman Edward Tavner.

Kathleen Munroe plays John’s wife, Alice; Aliette Opheim is Agathe, a brilliant young homicide detective from Luxembourg hot on John’s trail; and Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show) is Mr Claret, John’s ‘boss’ at the piping firm.

With the pilot shot in Montreal and most of the series set in Chicago, in addition to visits to Prague to film the European-based exterior scenes, joining Patriot was a chance for Dorman to venture outside Australia for the first time. The actor began his career in the theatre before moving into TV and film down under.

“This one was a whole new playground for me,” he tells DQ at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Patriot received its world premiere. “I’d never worked in the new way of delivering content and, even though it’s a TV show, the way the creative team approached it was that it is more like a film. I guess we look at it like it’s a 10-hour film we’ve shot in a really small amount of time.”

The actor admits he enjoyed the pilot script so much, he knew immediately that he wanted to be a part of it.

Kathleen Munroe as Alice alongside Michael Chernus as Edward

“[Writer/director] Steve Conrad’s writing is unique compared with any other writing,” the actor continues. “He’s got his own style and it’s got a real rhythm to me, and that’s what excited me. Also, it was the fact I was laughing out loud. You read so many scripts and, with some of them, you’re pushing yourself through it. This one I couldn’t put down.

“I remember reading it in bed, which is something I don’t normally do, and emailing my team as soon as I finished, saying I had to be part of it. I was just reading it and for me it was more about the process of how we could make it happen.”

Dorman describes his character as having an “amazing ability to remain composed when the world around him is falling apart; he’ll make whatever decision he has to take at the very last moment, whether he likes it or not.”

The show goes on to explore the consequences of those decisions, which usually lead Tavner into increasingly sticky situations, while also analysing his job affects his character. Music subsequently becomes an outlet for Tavner to reveal his inner-most thoughts, and scenes in the opening episodes show him playing some of his own songs to a crowded bar, much to the exasperation of his brother Edward, who is cajoled by their father to keep an eye on him.

“He’s the perfect intelligence officer in the sense that, no matter how he falls, he’ll get back up,” Dorman says. “And he’s someone who can think on his feet and decide the best way forward when every way is a bad way. So he goes with the least bad way, but he’ll still do it. The conventional style is someone who can fight off every threat.”

The series delves into the difficult decisions faced by a spy deep undercover

The series can be shocking, not least in the opening sequence when Tavner goes to great lengths to win a job at the piping firm by pushing a rival jobseeker under a truck. But it’s also laced with black humour that goes hand in hand with the sense of doom enveloping the spy’s mission. This is evident in one fight scene when Tavner must escape from the grasp of five Brazilian brothers who suffocate him with jiu-jitsu holds.

“We worked a lot and we worked hard,” Dorman says. “I was completely invested, my heart was in it the whole way. It never felt like a burden, it always felt like a gift. And to be working alongside people who have been telling stories a lot longer than me, to grow from them and learn from Steve about the craft in storytelling, it was pretty inspiring for me.”

It was music that helped Dorman connect with his on-screen father, actor Terry O’Quinn, a hugely experienced character actor best known for starring in Lost.

“When I first met Terry in the pilot, we had to do a duet of an old song by Townes Van Zandt called If I Needed You,” Dorman reveals. “That was a great way to meet him and enjoy spending time with him – and then it became something that we just always did. We always had our guitars on set or if we were off set we would just play music together and you see it on the show. It was the best of both worlds.

For O’Quinn, writing is the crucial factor whenever he’s looking for a new project. “It’s the script, then it’s who we’re doing it with and where we’re doing it, then what we’re going to eat and what hotel I’m staying at,” he jokes. So what was it about Patriot that encouraged him to sign on for 10 episodes?

“I just loved the story,” he explains. “Steve Conrad’s dialogue was very particular. He’s one of those guys who, when he writes a period after a word, he obviously wants you to pause in all those places. He’s somebody who’s very meticulous. I’d also seen his work before [The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty], so that recommended him to me.”

O’Quinn also believes Patriot goes beyond just being a spy thriller, also fulfilling the role of a family drama in which the central characters are always helping each other out of trouble.

Terry O’Quinn (right) as John Locke in Lost

“When I describe it to people, I say there’s some international intrigue, some politics; it’s sort of spy thing, sort of dark comedy,” he admits. “It’s hard to describe!”

O’Quinn adds that working with Amazon has been “terrific,” not only because of the democratic way the streamer uses viewer feedback as part of its commissioning strategy.

“I don’t know why the networks don’t do that now,” he says. “All the networks should show a pilot one night and say, ‘Call us up if you like it and we’ll make some more.’ It makes perfectly good sense.

“Amazon gave Steve a lot of freedom to do what he wanted to do and shoot what he wanted to shoot. Steve and Jimmy [Whitaker], our cinematographer, were so prepared and so precise in what they wanted to shoot. They didn’t waste a lot of time, they didn’t shoot a lot of stuff they didn’t need. It was very clean and that sets the actors free. But Steve is so precise and particular. He could say things like, ‘Could you not blink in that line?’ and you’re like, ‘OK.’ I love it. I like working with someone who knows what they want.”

As a viewer, O’Quinn reveals he’s a fan of Game of Thrones – “My girlfriend got me hooked” – and British period drama Peaky Blinders. But there’s one show from his own CV that is still a talking point almost seven years since it finished.

“Lost was one of those ultimate experiences,” he says of the ABC drama that has proven to be one of the most talked-about series of the last decade. “It’s a one-off. There was nothing like it and I’ve never had an experience like it. I’m forever grateful for having been in it and I enjoyed it immensely.

“We were shooting in Hawaii, we all got along great and the set was a happy place. So after that, for a while, I’ve compared everything to it and it’s a pretty hard thing to come up to. But this [Patriot] comes pretty close. If we’re able to do this for a while longer, it would be akin to that.”

With hints of a cliffhanger ending at the conclusion of season one, it seems Conrad’s intention is to return for a second season – something Dorman would also be keen to see.

“I wouldn’t turn away from this one [for a second season],” he adds. “The character was great but it was more about the project as a whole and the people working on it that I found were rare gems. Steve Conrad, Jimmy Whitaker, [camera operator)] Jody Miller and all the producers who were onboard were all like-minded. I didn’t feel like there were too many chefs in the kitchen. Everyone was on the same page. That’s the element I would love to be a part of again.”

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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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Japanese and Polish dramas make headlines

Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent
Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent

Declining ad revenues mean Japanese broadcasters are increasingly looking to the international market to make money. And one of the areas they are keen to build on is drama exports.

One example of this is NHK’s fantasy adventure Moribito, created with the international market in mind, while Nippon TV’s recent sale of format Mother to Turkey – a first for Japanese drama – is another. Also significant is Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group (SMG).

Under the terms of the latter partnership, SMG is adapting a total of five Fuji dramas for the Chinese market. The second of these, Operation Love, began filming in Guangzhou this month with a view to airing on online platform Tencent from Spring 2017.

A light-hearted love story, Operation Love first aired in Japan in 2007 and has also been remade in South Korea as Operation Proposal. It follows an earlier remake of Dating: What’s it Like to be in Love?, which will air on SMG’s channels in 2017.

Another interesting drama story this week is the news that HBO Europe has commissioned a six-part Warsaw-set drama about a cocaine dealer planning a holiday in Argentina. Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, said of the show: “We believe Blinded by the Lights, a story set in Warsaw’s demi-monde and showing off the city in a wholly new way, will not only appeal to Polish audiences but also to our subscribers all around the HBO Europe region. We are confident it will equally excite audiences internationally.”

Wataha (The Pack)
Wataha (The Pack) has been given a second series on HBO Europe

The show is part of a growing slate of original HBO Europe series that kicked off a few years ago with Burning Bush and was followed by Pustina. In addition to Blinded by the Lights, HBO Europe also announced a second series of Wataha (The Pack). This show tells the story of a border guard unit based in the remote Bieszczady Mountains on Poland’s border with Ukraine. “The Pack/Wataha proved its appeal to viewers having achieved huge ratings in Poland for its first season,” Root said. “It also played extremely successfully in the other HBO Europe territories and has sold in foreign markets. We are very excited by this new chapter and the way the writers explore the challenges now faced on Europe’s longest border.”

Also this week, Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG announced it had renewed its first-look deal with indie producer Three River Fiction for a further two years. Three River has 15 to 20 projects in active development, including several adaptations. Its largest acquisition to date is a 15-book estate of Golden Age crime fiction, written in the 1930s by John Bude. Colin Bateman (Murphy’s Law, The Journey) is attached and has written a pilot script based on the crime franchise.

Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

According to DRG, there are two further projects in development, including a dark re-imagining of the Robin Hood story. With Mark Skeet and Matthew Faulk (Titanic: Blood and Steel, Vanity Fair) attached to write, the series will be “a vibrant, venal and complex post-watershed saga set in a bloodstained 12th century England,” said the distributor. The other is a sci-fi series, created and written by Richard Smith (Trauma,) exploring how an isolated community is torn apart by secrets and lies following the crash landing of a UFO.

On the distribution front, Netflix has acquired rights to Renaissance period drama Medici: Masters of Florence for a select number of territories. The Rai-backed drama, which is distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will air on Netflix in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India from December 9. It has already been picked up by broadcasters and streamers in France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The fact Netflix has done a deal for a limited number of territories is interesting, because it suggests the international drama market may be moving away from a model where Netflix attempts to secure the rights to series on a worldwide basis.

Also this week, Deadline is reporting that Amazon has struck an exclusive SVoD deal for USA Network’s new supernatural thriller Falling Water. The show, which tells the story of three unrelated people who discover they are dreaming separate parts of a single common dream, hasn’t rated that well on USA. But Amazon’s involvement will make it easier for the network to back a second series – an increasingly common scenario in the US TV business.

Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon
Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon

This week has also seen some interesting strategic insights from Eurodata TV Worldwide as part of its Scripted Series Report 2016. Based on feedback from 103 channels, Eurodata found that networks, on average, devoted 32% of primetime to series.

Within this total, local series are the biggest hits. “They represent no less than 84% of the primetime top 15,” said Eurodata. “Imports, and consequently international hits, appear less often in rankings of the top programmes. Despite this, broadcasting these imports remains a winning strategy for smaller channels. As an example, The X-Files succeeded in placing among the top shows for M6 (France), Pro7 (Germany), TV3 (Sweden) and Channel 5 (the UK). US imports are challenged by series imported from countries geographically closer to the channel. The latter occupy a minor place in schedules: 15% of the channels studied broadcast a significant amount of these imports in primetime. Most of all, they are an alternative for small markets and smaller channels.”

There is also a trend towards greater exposure, Eurodata added. “In addition to longer availability thanks to catch-up opportunities, a series is now more available over various platforms in a single country. Traditional players and OTT platforms play with the various windows possible for their content. The multiplatform strategy is often a winning one. For example, Zwarte Tulp (NL Film), a new show in the 2015-16 season for RTL4, is a hit in the Netherlands. Five months before its launch on the RTL Group’s first channel, the series had been streamed on Videoland, the group’s SVoD platform. The series Black Widows (DRG) was broadcast simultaneously on the TV3 channels of the MTG group in Sweden and Denmark, and also on the group’s SVoD platform. It is among the channel’s top three shows in both countries.”

Black Widows
Black Widows, distributed by DRG, is a top show in both Sweden and Denmark

According to Eurodata, examples of collaboration between TV and SVoD services are on the rise. “Whether to reduce production costs, grow a viewer base or [increase] international visibility for their content, or fill their schedules and catalogues, players from the various groups are working together in production and distribution. One example, the series Narcos, was recently broadcast on Univision in the US after its distribution on Netflix. In the future, El Chapo will be coproduced by Netflix and Univision and Britannia (Sky Vision) will be a Sky/Amazon coproduction.”

Other trends include a shift towards short formats and adaptations. Eurodata explained: “Short formats have proven popular. They are often conducive to quality series, as they encourage participation by well-known actors, screenwriters and directors. The Night Manager (WME/IMG, The Ink Factory), adapted from John Le Carré’s eponymous novel, immediately earned fourth among series in the UK and fifth in Denmark. Adaptations, meanwhile, allow inspiring characters and stories to reverberate further. Many of the season’s hits are adaptations of series that exist in other countries. Among the European countries covered in the report, the proportion of local adaptations launched has doubled with respect to those in the 2014-15 season. Some channels particularly count on these to appeal to their viewers. This is the case with the Dutch channel SBS6, whose top three series are exclusively local adaptations of foreign formats.”

Avril Blondelot, international research manager at Eurodata TV Worldwide, said: “True international hits are appearing less and less in the national top rankings.”

However, the international stage is playing a growing role in the development of local series. “More and more new series have been adapted from foreign formats,” commented Eurodata media consultant Léa Besson.

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Classic sci-fi novels – TV’s new frontier

Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.

As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.

This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.

To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle’s second season launches on Amazon next month

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.

The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.

11.22.63
11.22.63 is based on a story by Stephen King

11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.

The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End aired on Syfy last year

Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).

The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.

The Expanse
The Expanse centres on Earth’s response to overpopulation

The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.

With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.

Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.

In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.

Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.

Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.

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Scripted series battle to get noticed

Humans' season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing
Humans’ season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing

The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.

The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…

The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.

The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic
The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic

This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.

This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of

Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.

The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.

Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic
Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.

Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.

Goliath looks likely to secure a second season
Goliath looks likely to secure a second season

Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.

offspring
Offspring will get a seventh season next year

One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.

Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.

In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.

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Amazon, BBC, HBO spend big on scripted

JK Rowling (photo by Daniel Ogren)
JK Rowling (photo by Daniel Ogren)

In September 2016, the BBC announced that it had commissioned three event dramas based on JK Rowling’s crime novels, which she publishes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. This week, HBO announced it had also come on board for the US and Canada.

The three dramas are being produced by Rowling’s UK-based company Brontë Film & TV, which previously adapted her novel The Casual Vacancy for the BBC and HBO. They will star Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, a battle-scarred war veteran who is now a private detective. All told, nine hours of television will be extracted from the three books: The Cuckoo’s Calling (3×60’), The Silkworm (2×60’) and Career of Evil (2×60’).

Commenting on his casting, Burke said: “I’m overjoyed to be immersing myself in the role of Cormoran Strike, who is as complex as he is larger than life. I know I’m joining an extraordinary team of people on a series that, for me, is peppered with moments of real emotional depth and meticulously grounded in the page-turning momentum of these novels. Cormoran Strike’s world is rich and raw.”

JK Rowling added: “I’m thrilled about the casting of Tom Burke, a massively talented actor who’ll bring the character to perfect life. Strike is pure joy to write and I can’t wait to see Tom play him.”

Also this week, US cable channel Spike TV acquired a six-part drama about the Waco siege that left 76 people dead in 1993. Waco is a Weinstein television production and is based on the events surrounding the two-month siege of a cult headquarters in Texas, which ended in tragedy when the FBI stormed the complex. The show will start production early next year and is being written by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.

Waco
The Waco siege ended with 76 people dead

This is not the only project Spike and The Weinstein Company are working on. Also coming up are Time: The Kalief Bowder Story and The Mist, slated for 2017. The latter is based on a Stephen King story.

Cults are becoming something of a theme in the US scripted business. Recently, we reported that Vince Gilligan and HBO had joined forces on a scripted series about the Jonestown massacre, while Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) has been attracting critical acclaim for his role in Hulu’s cult-based drama The Path.

There are also reports this week that Amazon has handed a straight-to-series order to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and The Weinstein Company. The show will be Weiner’s first project since Mad Men finished its seven-season run on AMC last year, and is reported by Deadline to have a budget of around US$70m.

Details on the new eight-part show are sparse, but it is believed to be a contemporary anthology series set in multiple locations around the world. Weiner is reported as saying: “In a time when there are so many options for entertainment, it’s been tremendous to see how [Amazon Studios boss] Roy Price and Amazon have taken centre stage by distinguishing themselves through bold choices.”

Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner

Elsewhere, indie producer Eleventh Hour Films has signed a coproduction deal with Luti Media to develop a slate of distinctive, exciting and original television dramas. Jill Green, MD of EHF and producer of hit dramas including Safe House, Foyle’s War, New Blood and Vexed, has teamed up with Luti Fagbenle, the founder of Luti Media, an award-winning production company known for music videos for artists such as Zayn Malik, Rita Ora, One Direction and Kanye West.

The intention is to pool their expertise to develop a slate of projects – both fiction and non-fiction – and work with some of the most exciting up-and-coming talent in the entertainment industry.

The partnership has already secured its first script commission with Channel 4, in the form of Laylah and the Universe, a comedy drama penned by actor/writer/director O-T Fagbenle (who recently played one of the leads in Sky1 drama The Five). They are also working with Director X on a music-driven project.

Green said: “Luti and I are very excited to produce content that will push boundaries, resonate with different broadcasters and attract a large, diverse audience. Our skill sets are very different and I know we’ll make a formidable team.”

O-T Fagbenle in The Five
O-T Fagbenle in The Five

Luti Fagbenle added: “We are blown away by the prospect of working with Jill Green and EHF. I know that this partnership – with our background in producing high-end visuals and understanding of youth and music culture combined with their enormous wealth of experience in television – will produce some distinctive work.”

While there haven’t been many new commissions this week, there have been a few interesting stories on the finance and development front. One doing the rounds is that BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) is close to doing a £50m (US$60.9m) deal with Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment to create a portfolio of high-end dramas.

If the deal comes off, it won’t be the first time BBCWW and Access have come together. In August, they backed the launch of Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell’s new production company House Productions, which plans to build a slate of television and feature films. BBCWW took a 25% stake in House and will act as the company’s global distributor. Should the Access deal go through, the plan would be for BBCWW to act as distributor for any shows Greenlit by Access.

Also notable this week is the news that the Paris-based Series Mania Coproduction Forum has created a €50,000 prize for the best TV series project in development – available from 2017. The Coproduction Forum, which will take place from April 18 to 21 next year, chooses around 15 projects seeking additional financing, which are then presented to more than 400 decision-makers from some of the world’s leading production companies and broadcasters.

Shooter stars Ryan Phillippe
Shooter stars Ryan Phillippe

“Since its beginnings, the Series Mania Coproduction Forum has set out to identify ambitious projects with international distribution potential. Through this prize, we want to make this aid more concrete by putting a spotlight on and giving a significant financial boost to the writing of the winning project,” said Laurence Herszberg, MD of Series Mania.

On the acquisition front this week, Canadian broadcaster Quebecor has acquired the thriller series Shooter from Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing. The show, which is based on a 2007 movie of the same name, stars Ryan Phillippe as a US Army-trained sniper who is coaxed back into action after learning of a plot to kill the president.

“This gripping series has everything our audiences look for: great acting, superb production values and a compelling, binge-worthy story,” commented Yann Paquet, VP of acquisitions and partnerships at Quebecor Content.

The show is due to launch on USA Network in the US on November 15.

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Amazon boards D83 sequel

Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)
Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)

There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.

The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.

Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).

The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.

And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.

UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann
UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann

Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.

For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.

As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.

Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.

Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision

Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”

Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights
Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights

Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”

In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).

The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.

Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”

Martin Clunes in Doc Martin
Martin Clunes in Doc Martin

Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.

Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.

Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”

Mike Bartlett
Mike Bartlett

Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.

“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”

White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.

Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.

Van Helsing has been given a second season
Van Helsing has been given a second season

There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.

Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.

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West spies Korea opportunities

The Idolm@ster is based on a game franchise
The Idolm@ster is based on a game franchise

Netflix has made Korea a priority in its quest for global SVoD domination – and now arch-rival Amazon Prime Video is following suit.

Last week, it was revealed that Amazon had boarded The Idolm@ster, a Korean TV series for 2017 that is based on a popular Japanese game franchise from Bandai Namco.

First mooted in spring 2016, the live-action series is about a group of aspiring female singers trying to establish their music careers. As such, it sits at the crossroads of two Asian obsessions – K-Pop and television drama. The TV drama is a no-brainer given the success of the franchise across various platforms. Since launching in 2005 as an arcade game, The Idolm@ster has inspired animation and manga versions, as well as live concerts and hit singles. It has also been adapted for digital platforms including smartphones.

The series will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from early 2017 and will be localised into several languages, including Japanese and English.

James Farrell, head of content at Amazon’s Asia Pacific Prime Video, called Idolm@aster “the perfect combination of Japanese idol culture and Korean drama power. The idols include K-Pop sirens, as well as Japanese and other international singers, and we’re confident fans and viewers alike all over the world will become addicted to watching their careers bloom.”

The news continues a growing trend for global companies to exploit the Korean drama phenomenon. Recently we reported on the fact that NBC Universal participated in the financing of Moon Lovers. And this week South Korean media group CJ E&M has formed a partnership with Warner Bros-owned streamer DramaFever to coproduce local dramas for the international market. Under the terms of the alliance, called Studio Dragon, the partners will produce two original series over next three years.

“Studio Dragon is determined to become Asia’s number-one drama studio. To achieve that goal, we plan to work with industry leaders to provide unrivalled content for audiences,” said Jinnie Choi, president of Studio Dragon.

Killjoys focuses on a trio of bounty hunters
Killjoys focuses on a trio of bounty hunters

Away from Korea, US channel Syfy has announced that sci-fi series Killjoys and Dark Matter will both be returning for third seasons. Killjoys, which follows a trio of interplanetary bounty hunters, is produced by Temple Street Productions, the Toronto-based firm behind Orphan Black. The show also airs on the Space channel in Canada. In line with the Syfy announcement, Space revealed that it too would be on board the third season of the show.

In terms of audience ratings on Syfy, Killjoys attracts around 650,000 viewers per episode, which makes it a mid-ranking performer on the network. It’s a similar story for Dark Matter, which comes in at around 690,000 per episode. Interestingly, this positioning and ratings differential is broadly reflected by IMDb rankings, which come in at 7.1 and 7.4 respectively for the two shows.

Syfy has struggled to secure a bona fide hit series in recent times and is shifting towards series with built-in brand recognition. This week, it debuted Van Helsing, a reimaging of vampire mythology in which the central character has been switched from male to female (similar to Wynnona Earp).

There was also news this week about Syfy’s planned Superman prequel. Called Krypton, it is set two generations before the destruction of Superman’s home planet. The show is based on a pilot by David S Goyer and will feature British actress Georgina Campbell.

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things
Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

Last week, we discussed the success of 1980s-set thriller Stranger Things on Netflix and suggested it would only be a matter of time before a second series was greenlit.

In fact, a second season was announced the next day. Created by Matt and Ross Duffer and starring Winona Ryder, season two will debut in 2017 and will consist of nine episodes, one more than season one’s eight episodes.

We’ve also looked at Marvel’s expansion recently. The latest news on this front is that Marvel and ABC Studios are plotting a new series called New Warriors. Although a cable/SVoD home is yet to be found for the show, the plan is for it to be a comedy about a superhero squad made up of teenagers. This will follow a recent trend in the superhero genre towards irreverent franchises including Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Suicide Squad.

In terms of shows that won’t see a greenlight, the big news of the week is that AMC won’t be bringing back its restaurant drama Feed the Beast. Despite having a cast headed by David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess, the show attracted pretty modest ratings.

In a statement, AMC said: “We have great respect and admiration for the entire team associated with Feed the Beast and our studio partner, Lionsgate. Unfortunately, the show simply didn’t achieve the results needed to move forward with a second season.”

Jim Sturgess (left) and David Schwimmer in Feed the Beast
Jim Sturgess (left) and David Schwimmer in Feed the Beast

In number terms, season one of the show averaged around 447,000, making it the second lowest-rating scripted show on the network. Interestingly, the show it beat, Halt and Catch Fire, has been renewed through to season three.

However, AMC clearly decided it couldn’t carry two scripted series on such low ratings. This presents a slight conundrum for AMC, which is that it is heavily reliant on dystopian fantasy/horror series (The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands, Preacher) and could do with establishing a different editorial beachhead to appeal to a new audience subset.

Finally, DQ’s sister publication C21 is reporting that Spanish producer Boomerang TV has opened a new scripted production division in Chile. The arm will produce dramas for Chilean broadcasters and follows the arrival of Boomerang in the country in 2014. Veteran Latino producer and former Chilevisión drama chief Vicente David Sabatini becomes fiction director, while Cecilia Stoltze, formerly at TVN, has been named general producer.

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A busy August in Edinburgh

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.

One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.

The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.

Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”

The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”

The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.

Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.

There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries is being adapted for BBC2

Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.

Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”

Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.

Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”

Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.

Anna Friel in Marcella
Anna Friel in Marcella

While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.

Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”

Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.

The Kettering Incident
The Kettering Incident has been picked up by Amazon

In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.

The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.

In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.

“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”

The End has sold across the world
The End has sold across the world

In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.

The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.

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How to be an SVoD audience sleuth

Netflix's Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit

Some producers and distributors like to sell their shows to SVoD giants Netflix and Amazon because no one gets to see the audience figures aside from the platforms themselves. While this might seem to run counter to standard industry practice when selecting a platform partner, there is a certain logic to it.

Such is the range of entertainment options these days that drama launches on free and pay TV often disappoint when judged purely on the basis on same-day or live+3-day ratings.

A producer might have made the best show in the history of the small screen, but there is still a strong likelihood that the target audience won’t discover it for weeks, months or even a couple of years. In my case, I’m about to watch Penny Dreadful, which debuted in May 2014 and came to an end this June. But I’m still excited.

This delayed reaction would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that influential media outlets will be tempted to report that a show’s launch was ‘modest,’ ‘lukewarm’ or ‘below station average.’ Three or four episodes in, this media scrutiny may actually start to damage the show’s prospects.

Potential audiences might pick up on the show’s modest numbers and decide to give it a miss – reasoning that it isn’t going to survive to season two. And that might have an impact on the channel executives who have the ultimate say over the programme’s future. Sure, they’ll have their own strong opinions about it, but they’re only human.

House of Cards' popularity is evidenced by its renewals
House of Cards’ popularity is evidenced by its renewals on Netflix

In the world of Netflix and Amazon, however, it’s harder to judge whether a show is successful – because neither platform is willing to share its audience data. Without data, there is a lack of certainty over criticising a show. Instead, the industry has to watch and wait for news of a recommission – the SVoD industry’s equivalent of the Papal Conclave’s fabled white smoke.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this lack of SVoD data. Aside from the fact television is a very nosy industry, data from Netflix and Amazon would be a big help to the studios that license their shows to the platforms. It would also provide some guidance to producers about whether their creative instincts are right. As a result, a lot of time and effort goes into finding other ways of assessing the performance of a Netflix or Amazon show.

The first useful measure of whether an SVoD show is any good is the ratings it receives on services like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This may sound a bit like sticking a finger in the air to test the strength of the wind, but it’s proven to be a pretty effective tool.

IMDb, for example, places House of Cards, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Daredevil, Narcos and Making a Murderer as the top five shows on Netflix. Most TV observers wouldn’t disagree too much with this list, which is, frankly, excellent. And the fact Netflix has recommissioned all of these shows (some more than once) suggests there is a correlation between IMDb scores and the secret ratings data these SVoD shows are generating.

It’s a similar story with Amazon. While its shows don’t tend to get as high scores as Netflix’s on IMDb, there is again a link between high IMDb ratings and recommissions.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Cases in point include Bosch (8.3), Mozart In The Jungle (8.2) and The Man in the High Castle (8.1) – all of which were renewed. By this logic, I’d guess there will be a second season for Sneaky Pete (rated 8.4).

IMDb is perhaps less accurate in the very early stages of a show’s launch, since its ratings can be skewed by early adopters. But it’s interesting to note that the website’s ratings for Baz Lurhmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down seem to echo the view of critics.

The New Yorker, for example, was disparaging in its assessment of the first four episodes but said the show burst into life around episode five. IMDb’s ratings for the first six episodes were 8.5, 8.6, 8.8, 8.8, 9.2, 9.6 respectively – directly correlating with The New Yorker.

Another limitation with tracking IMDb scores is that a low rating doesn’t always means a show will be cancelled. Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, for example, managed only 7.3 on IMDb, which implies modest viewing. However, it survived for three seasons.

Amazon’s Hand of God was a 7.5 – but it still got a new season. The best explanation for this is that the platforms are picking up some kind of algorithmic support for these shows. Maybe they have super-loyal fanbases, which makes them valuable in winning new subscribers or preventing churn. Hand of God stars Ron Perlman, who was previously a key figure in FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy. That creative connection may be enough to win new customers.

Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb
Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb

Of course, I’m just a TV hack working on a shoestring budget. But if I had a TV studio/network’s resources and I wanted to know about an SVoD show, I’d also use social media monitoring to check out the audience. There are plenty of agencies out there that can provide insights into real-time demographic and sentiment data, levels of engagement, brand affiliation and trends and the performance of shared social content.

Alongside all of the above, a good real-world indicator of an SVoD show’s performance is how it does at high-profile awards. At the Emmys, for example, Netflix has had a total of 75 nominations and 14 wins. Its top performers are House of Cards and OITNB, with some acknowledgement for Bloodline, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (all of which have been recommissioned). At Amazon, it’s a similar story, with the platform’s most nominated shows (Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle) all getting renewed.

Of course, the timeframe around awards is slower so this is less useful as a way of predicting early renewal patterns. But it is a good indicator of whether a show is likely to build into a powerful franchise over an extended period of time.

Award nominations and wins tend to get good media coverage, which then drives advocacy. This, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle of increased SVoD subscriber numbers and audiences. Again, it’s no accident that shows winning several awards in season one are still alive and kicking after three or more runs (OITNB is now confirmed for a minimum of seven seasons, having received 12 Emmy nominations for season one).

Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos
Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos

None of the above is especially scientific, so there have also been attempts by audience analysis experts to decipher the mystery of SVoD viewing. At this year’s Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, for example, research firm Nielsen revealed some findings about OITNB’s audience numbers.

Its key learning was that OITNB is the big hit that everyone suspected it to be. According to data reported on by The Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers. To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV if it lived within the traditional system. Nielsen can presumably replicate this analysis for any show.

Others to have explored the SVoD universe include San Diego-based Luth Research, which created a panel of Netflix subscribers to monitor their viewing habits. This showed strong engagement with Marvel-produced Daredevil, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in its first 11 days on the streaming service. By comparison, House of Cards attracted 6.5% of subs over its first 30 days and Bloodline 2.4%.

Linking back to the earlier part of this column, Daredevil also scores strongly on IMDb – suggesting again a correlation between that scoring system and actual audience data. But think also about Bloodline, which comes without Marvel heritage attached. Luth’s figures show that it had a slower start. Were it a cable show, that might have been cause for some criticism. However, shielded from that kind of exposure, it has been able to grow its IMDb rating from 8 at launch to 9.4 by the end of season two. No real surprise then that the show has been given a third season.

Bloodline
Bloodline has been given a third season

Netflix doesn’t really get involved with all of the debate about its viewing figures. But it does occasionally drop some interesting data about its subscribers’ behaviour. Earlier this year, for example, there was its binge scale blog, which identified the dramas that are consumed most voraciously on the platform.

And before that there was its insight regarding the point in a show when viewers become hooked. This was interesting because it demonstrated that shows often don’t really grab the audience’s attention until episodes four to eight – the equivalent of that point in a novel when you really know it’s good (around page 70?).

Finally, it’s also possible to get a few insights when Netflix’s Ted Sarandos or Amazon’s Roy Price pitch up on the conference circuit. Speaking at this week’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Price described a winner-takes-all scenario in the TV industry: “In today’s environment, having a show that 90% of people think is pretty fair is not that useful because in an on-demand environment people are probably not going to demand that show.

“The key to standing out in such a busy environment is that the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

That’s not as precise as ratings data, of course, but it’s worth thinking about.

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Butterworth rules Britannia

Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth

Anyone familiar with the work of UK writer Jez Butterworth will know that he has established his reputation primarily through theatre and film.

Although he co-wrote a couple of short films for ITV and Channel 4 in the early 1990s (both with his brother Tom), his breakthrough moments were the 1995 play Mojo and the 2001 movie Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman. Subsequently, career landmarks include the play Jerusalem (2008) and movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass and Spectre.

Now, however, he is set to make a major impact on the small screen as writer of Britannia, the first coproduction between Sky and Amazon. The lavish 10-part drama will star Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, The Hollow Crown), Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Stanley Weber (Outlander).

Butterworth will again team up with his brother (who has already established his reputation as a TV writer with Fortitude and Tin Star), as well as Richard McBrien (Spooks, Merlin), on the writing.

According to Sky, Britannia is “set in 43AD as the Roman Imperial Army – determined and terrified in equal measure – returns to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.”

The series is shooting on location in Prague and Wales and will appear on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video in the US in 2017. International distribution rights (excluding the US) for Britannia will be handled by Sky distribution arm Sky Vision.

Patrick Harbinson
Patrick Harbinson

Commenting on the show, Butterworth said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic. Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned round and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back. I’m fascinated in what happens when gods die. When an entire, ancient faith stalls, topples, collapses – and a whole new one grows in its place. New names, new faces, to suit the new times. Here we have a war between two pantheons – the Roman gods v the Celtic gods. It’s the heavyweight clash of all time, the one which most shapes who we are today. And we see it all from a human perspective, of individual survival, ambition, courage, lust, loss, revenge. All the stuff the gods have always loved us humans for the most!”

Another high-profile writer in the news this week is Patrick Harbinson. Although Harbinson’s most recent credit is as a writer-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, he is actually a Brit who broke into the business writing episodes of UK dramas Soldier Soldier and Heartbeat. Since then, he has managed to carve out an impressive career working on both US and UK series such as Person of Interest, Lewis, 24, The Day of the Triffids, Wire in the Blood, Dark Angel and Hornblower.

Now he is working with producer Mammoth Screen on a six-part series for ITV entitled Fearless. The show, starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), centres on Emma Blunt, a solicitor known for defending lost causes. She is investigating the killing of a schoolgirl in East Anglia and trying to free the man she thinks was wrongly convicted of the girl’s murder. But as she digs deeper, she begins to sense powerful forces, in the police and the intelligence services at home and abroad, who want to stop her uncovering the truth. Harbinson calls Fearless “a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide.”

Harbinson said he was first approached by Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer three years ago: “[He] asked me if I was interested in writing a legal series inspired by the work of lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Helena Kennedy. I immediately said yes. Much of the work I’ve done in America in the last 10 years has been about life in the post-9/11 world. The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the ordinary workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach – and the great majority of us are prepared to accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions, who fights for those outside the normal run of society, and who is uncompromising, difficult and indifferent to unpopularity and danger. The result was Emma Blunt and Fearless.

“I’m delighted Helen McCrory has agreed to play Emma. She is a complex and contradictory character, and I am lucky to have someone of Helen’s wit, warmth and intelligence bringing her to life.”

Fearless will be produced by Adrian Sturges (Houdini and Doyle, The Enfield Haunting, The Disappearance of Alice Creed). Filming will begin in London and East Anglia in September 2016.

Veena Sud
Veena Sud

Butterworth and Harbinson are currently two of the film and TV industry’s most in-demand writers. However, breaking into the industry in the first place continues to be a struggle for most. One company that has a good track record for unearthing diverse new talent, however, is Disney-ABC though its writing programme.

Organised on an annual basis, the Disney-ABC writing programme accepts submissions from May and selects writers in around December. These writers then participate in a one-year programme that starts in February. If they turn out well, then they are given jobs on Disney-ABC series, examples being Veena Sud (The Killing, Cold Case) and George Mastras (Breaking Bad).

This week, Disney-ABC announced today that all eight of the writers selected for the 2016 programme have been given jobs on TV series. These include Dayo Adesokan (Downward Dog), Amanda Idoko (Imaginary Mary), Andrew Mathieson (Dr Ken), Ron McCants (Speechless), Miguel Ian Raya (Famous In Love), Janine Salinas Schoenberg (American Crime), Christina Walker (Still Star-Crossed) and Jeffery Wang (Notorious).

Commenting on this year’s bumper crop, Tim McNeal, VP of creative talent development and inclusion at Disney-ABC Television Group, said: “We’re proud that our selection of writers proved appealing to not only creative executives but also showrunners.”

One particularly impressive aspect of the programme is the number of writers who continue to build their career after that initial lift-off. For the coming year, 50 alumni will be employed at various levels in the industry, from staff writers to executive producers. Zahir McGhee, for example, is co-exec producer on ABC’s Scandal.

“Just as we pride ourselves by introducing new diverse voices to the creative process at the lower level, we find it equally rewarding to champion the staffing of programme alumni as a means to career longevity,” said McNeal.

Sarah Watson
Sarah Watson

In another piece of Disney news, its Freeform channel (formerly known as ABC Family) has greenlit a new scripted pilot called Issues. Inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, it follows three young women who set out to conquer New York City together.

Issues is the brainchild of Sarah Watson, who worked for more than 100 episodes on NBC’s Parenthood, rising from mid-level staff writer to executive producer during that time. Having broken into the business on That’s So Raven (2004), she then worked on shows like Monarch Cove, The Unusuals and About a Boy before her career-transforming six-season stint on Parenthood.

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Acorn TV is US growth opportunity

And Then There Were None
And Then There Were None is among the overseas shows that have been added to Acorn

Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.

However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).

This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.

Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.

Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.

Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt
Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt

Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.

Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.

Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”

Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in HBO's Ballers
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in HBO’s Ballers

Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.

Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.

HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.

HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.

The Last Ship
The Last Ship has been given a fourth run on TNT

Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.

Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.

In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”

Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”

The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name
The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name

Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”

In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.

News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.

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Starz Powers ahead but drops its Sails

Power is going from strength to strength
Power is going from strength to strength

As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.

The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.

The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.

As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.

Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”

Black Sails' end is on the horizon
Black Sails’ end is on the horizon

There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.

Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”

Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.

So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.

San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.

Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix's Marvel titles
Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix’s Marvel titles, launching on September 30

Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.

At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.

In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.

Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.

Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”

Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon
Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon

Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.

Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”

There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.

Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser (photo: Ian West/PA Wire)
Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser
(photo: Ian West/PA Wire)

A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.

Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.

One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).

Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”

Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”

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Federation backs belgian content

Unit 42
Belgian drama Unit 42 will be distributed by Federation Entertainment

The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).

Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.

Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.

Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.

Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.

Salamander
Salamander sold internationally

In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.

Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.

And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.

Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.

The original Lost in Space
The original Lost in Space

Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.

Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.

Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”

Roadies
Roadies hasn’t opened particularly strongly

Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.

Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”

Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).

Could House of Cards get a spin-off?
Could House of Cards get a spin-off?

Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”

The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.

In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”

Starz's Ash vs Evil Dead
Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead

The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”

Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”

The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.

Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.

The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.

The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.

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