Tag Archives: AMC

There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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Top execs line up for Drama Summit West

Visit Drama Summit West online by CLICKING HERE.

Content chiefs at AMC, Netflix, Showtime, Starz and Bad Robot will speak at C21 Media’s Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on Friday May 19, bringing together the global scripted business to facilitate new productions and partnerships.

The one-day summit, which occurs between the Upfronts and LA Screenings at The Ebell Theatre in Hollywood, will focus on ‘new drama, new models,’ bringing partners together around a creative conference, festival and networking agenda with a view to helping facilitate next-generation relationships.

AMC and Showtime president of original programming and development Joel Stillerman, Showtime president of programming Gary Levine and Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik are among a raft of top-tier US programming execs speaking at the event.

They will discuss the state of the US market and their respective 2017 slates, which include Loaded and The Son (AMC); Twin Peaks, Billions and Homeland (Showtime); and American Gods, The Girlfriend Experience and The Missing (Starz).

Netflix VP of content Elizabeth Bradley and VP of international originals Erik Barmack will host a joint session at the event, outlining their global coproduction and international originals strategies respectively. This in-depth session will provide unique insight into how the international business can work with the platform.

Entertainment One Television CEO John Morayniss joins a panel of industry leaders discussing the big questions ahead in US scripted television and creating premium scripted series, which include the forthcoming Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams for HBO; Ransom, from executive producer Frank Spotnitz for CBS/Corus/TF1/RTL; Foreign Bodies for E4; and Havana, starring Antonio Banderas for Starz, among many others.

Bad Robot head of television Ben Stephenson and HBO Latin America VP of original production Roberto Rios will also join panels at the event.

Marti Noxon, showrunner of Sharp Objects, and execs from from Lionsgate, The Ink Factory, Color Force and TV Globo will also speak at the event.

Noxon, whose other credits include UnREAL, Glee, Mad Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will join a panel of writer-producers discussing the evolving entrepreneurial role of showrunner in the changing TV landscape. Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name, is being directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies) and produced by eOne.

Stephen Cornwell, co-CEO of The Night Manager producer Ink Factory, and Nellie Reed, senior VP of Television at American Crime Story producer Color Force, also join a panel looking at how the industry’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama.

DSW17 Speakers

Further speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.

This year will see the addition of a Drama Summit West Networking Lounge where delegates can reserve meeting tables to use throughout the day.

The 2016 event sold out, attracting more than 500 top-level executives.

Visit Drama Summit West online by CLICKING HERE.

Register today by CLICKING HERE.

Drama Summit West is the sister event to the International Drama Summit, part of C21’s Content London, which takes place in London in December. Recent speakers and contributors have included actor Tom Hardy, director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Knight (Taboo); showrunners Bryan Fuller (American Gods), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Tony Grisoni (Southcliffe, Red Riding) Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Simon Mirren (Versailles); executives Joel Stillerman (AMC), Channing Dungey (ABC), Eric Schrier (FX), Sharon Tal Yuguado (Fox) and Morgan Wandell (Amazon); and leading global producers Jane Tranter, Jane Featherstone, Liza Marshall, Greg Brenman, Richard Brown, Gub Neal and Andrew Marcus.

DSW Partners

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Rising Son

James Bond movie star Pierce Brosnan discusses his much-anticipated return to television in AMC oil drama The Son.

Thirty years after calling it quits on NBC detective drama Remington Steele, Pierce Brosnan is making his return to television.

The James Bond star headlines AMC’s 10-part oil drama The Son, which premiered at SXSW in Texas and will launch on the US cablenet on April 8.

“I’d been looking at TV,” Brosnan says. “There are a lot of great actors working there and I wanted to be part of that.”

Brosnan took over the lead role from Jurassic Park star Sam Neill, who left the project due to personal reasons last summer. The move marks a return to television for Brosnan, who starred in the aforementioned NBC series from 1982 to 1987.

“I came in at the 11th hour so it really was a baptism by fire,” Brosnan explains, adding that the timing was fortuitous: he was set to shoot a movie in Russia that fell apart. “I read the script on a particular weekend and I just connected to the work, it was a great read.”

The series – based on Philipp Meyer’s book of the same name — is a multigenerational epic told over many decades. Brosnan plays Eli McCullough, a ruthless Texas oil man raised by the Comanche.

The Son is based on Philipp Meyer’s book of the same name

“All the ingredients, the whole tapestry, just felt good to me,” Brosnan says. “I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, I know about the loss of life, I know about being an immigrant and moving to a new land.

“It was the writing, the lyricism of it, the humanity of it, the brutality of it. That, and desiring some need to come back to TV. It’s just all sensing and intuition at the end of the day.”

Showrunner Kevin Murphy says the series will be “a very evenhanded exploration of cultural collisions.”

Being a divided nation, he adds, “is not a new thing. If we can get people talking about, historically, the Comanche versus whites, about Mexicans versus Texans, if you understand that the gulf is there, then you can start the conversation about how you build bridges to get over it.”

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David Alpert

David Alpert, president of Skybound Entertainment and the executive producer of The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Outcast, reveals the storytelling traditions from his childhood that inspired his career in television.

I grew up with stories in the blood. My family would love to gather round for the holidays and tell stories at the dinner table, so thinking about storytelling not just as pure entertainment but as something I wanted to do happened to me at a pretty early age.

I remember watching miniseries such as Shogun, Shaka Zulu and Robotech that really blew me away with their scope of storytelling and exotic locations. It was sophisticated storytelling for children; it wasn’t episodic, so if I didn’t watch the previous episode, I would be really lost.

Alpert is an exec producer on AMC mega-hit The Walking Dead and companion series Fear The Walking Dead

The producers understood that children are capable of hearing and watching sophisticated storylines unfold over multiple episodes. I always loved everything from The Cosby Show and Family Ties to Saturday morning cartoons and after-school stuff like Transformers and GI Joe, but it was the above shows that really gave me a window into the type of storytelling that was possible.

I was always told to find my niche, find an area I know better than anybody else and to make myself valuable to people who make decisions and not to seek reward right away. That was the way in which I built my career. I knew comics – I’d sold them in high school – and I knew comic book creators, so with the emergence of movies like Men in Black, The Crow and even things like Ghost World, I started going to people looking to make those movies and TV shows and offering advice or consulting. Most people would hang up on me but some would take the call and, over time, they started calling me.

As I built up a management business, I started putting some other projects together that involved physical production. One such project, Bubblebots, never got made but it was based on a multi-platform approach to storytelling. It was designed for film, television, video games, comic books – and that process of working with different writers and artists in different mediums led to what we’re doing at Skybound today.

Horror drama Outcast airs on Cinemax

I’d met [The Walking Dead creator] Robert Kirkman at a convention in 2000 and we started working together. As we put together The Walking Dead, Robert said we should launch a company. That became Skybound and I laid out the Bubblebots gameplan as what we would do inside our business.

The Walking Dead was certainly my first real success. There was nothing like it on television; nobody had been doing serialised horror. And the show also had a very distinctive look and feel – it’s shot on film and has a grainy 16mm quality to it. Creatively, the thing that hooked me was the very concept: what happens when zombie movies end? We’re taking the 28 Days Later approach to say, ‘Hey, what happens after 29 days, 30 days, six months, six years?’ The interesting thing for me is if you build a compelling group of characters, you don’t want their story to end, so the story can take a long time to tell.

We’re really looking to tell stories in any medium we can, and have recently moved into VR. Gone, a thriller about two parents searching for their missing child, was a really interesting step in figuring out what an immersive narrative looks like. We’re so used to pointing the camera in one direction, but what happens when they turn around? I think we did a pretty good job of it and I can’t wait to do more VR.

If I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self what I’m doing now, I think my head would explode!

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Brits conquer the Globes

Matt Smith and Claire Foy in The Crown

A quartet of British stars have another trophy for the cabinet this morning after triumphing at the 74th Golden Globes in Hollywood last night.

Claire Foy, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie each came out victorious on a night when UK dramas The Crown and The Night Manager went head-to-head with some of the best US dramas of recent years.

With a reputation as the wild and eccentric sibling of the more straight-laced Emmys, the Globes has a reputation for bucking the trend with its winners – look no further than recent prizes for Lady Gaga (for American Horror Story: Hotel), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.

Nevertheless, all eyes this year were on Game of Thrones – arguably coming off the back of its strongest ever season – and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story scooping prizes across the board, as they had done at the Emmys last September.

FX’s The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

But perhaps it should come as no surprise that a ceremony presided over by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) once again took a different path and instead showered awards on international series and their stars.

Netflix’s royal epic The Crown – the SVoD firm’s first UK original – took home the biggest prize of the evening, winning Best Drama against competition from Netflix stablemate Stranger Things, HBO duo Game of Thrones and Westworld and the fall’s standout network series, This Is Us (NBC).

Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the Peter Morgan-penned drama, was also named Best Actress ahead of Winona Ryder (Stranger Things), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Catriona Balfe (Outlander) and Keri Russell (The Americans).

In the Limited Series/TV Movie category, The People v OJ Simpson came in ahead of The Night Of, The Night Manager, American Crime and The Dresser.

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Sarah Paulson was also named Best Actress in a Limited Series for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the same show, beating competition from Felicity Huffman (American Crime), Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience), Charlotte Rampling (London Spy) and Kerry Washington (Confirmation).

But there was to be no repeat of The People v OJ’s dominance at the Emmys, when it also picked up trophies for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series.

Instead it was UK drama The Night Manager – coproduced by the BBC and US cable channel AMC – that picked up the highest number of prizes of any TV show at the Globes. Tom Hiddleston was named Best Actor in a Limited Series/TV movie, ahead of Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Bryan Cranston (All the Way), John Turturro (The Night Of) and Emmy winner Courtney B Vance (The People vs OJ Simpson).

Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie completed an acting treble for The Night Manager, picking up best supporting actress and actor awards respectively for a limited series/TV movie.

The Night Of picked up several nominations but did not win any awards at the event

Goliath star Billy Bob Thornton won the other acting prize for a drama, picking up Best Actor in a Drama TV Series ahead of Mr Robot’s Rami Malek, Matthew Rhys for The Americans, Better Call Saul leading man Bob Odenkirk and Liv Schrieber (Ray Donovan).

It’s not unusual for the Golden Globes to step out of the shadow of the Emmys with some different winners. In fact, The Crown wasn’t even in contention in 2016, only debuting in November several months after the Emmys were handed out, so it could be the series to watch when those statuettes are handed out again later this year.

Yet the Globes could also be a precursor for another awards ceremony, the Bafta TV Awards, which will take place in London in May. Back on home soil, The Crown and The Night Manager are dead certs to be in the running for every major category, both on screen and behind the camera, and their success stateside is unlikely to go unnoticed.

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China opens up to outside influences

The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou
The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou

About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.

This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.

Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide
Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide

There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.

Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”

Left Bank Pictures' reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast
Left Bank Pictures’ reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast

Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.

Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.

The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”

Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”

Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.

Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case
Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case

In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.

Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.

Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.

Pitch could perform better on a new network
Pitch could perform better on a new network

With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.

If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.

Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am
Aussie comedy Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am resulted from a Fresh Blood pitch

The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.

Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”

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Warner’s DC Comics enjoys boom

Arrow
Arrow is now in its fifth season

A couple of months ago, we looked at the success Disney has had with its Marvel acquisition. So it seems only fair that we also shine a spotlight on DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros that has spawned dozens of films, scripted shows and animation series.

Characters from DC, formed in 1932, have formed the basis of hit TV series since the 1950s. After early outings for Superman and Batman, DC properties gave us iconic shows like Wonder Woman, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville.

The latter ran for 10 seasons (2001-2011) and 218 episodes, first on The WB and then on its replacement network The CW (which is 50/50 owned by CBS and DC Comics owner Warner Bros).

While DC properties remain an important part of the feature-film landscape, it’s The CW that continues to provide the major platform for DC Comics’ success on the small screen.

A key landmark was the launch of Arrow in 2012. Adapted for the screen by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, the show is one of The CW’s top performers and is currently in its fifth season, attracting just under two million viewers per episode.

The importance of Arrow goes beyond its ratings, however. On the one hand, it has encouraged The CW to back a number of DC-based franchises, with Berlanti and co in charge of the creative. On the other, it has persuaded some of the larger US networks to tap into the company’s pool of comic book IP.

Supergirl
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, moved to The CW after starting life on CBS

Looking first at The CW, 2014 saw the launch of The Flash, which is part of the same mythological universe as Arrow (known to aficionados as the ‘Arrowverse’). Now in season three, The Flash is currently The CW’s top-rated show with around 2.8 million viewers per episode. And earlier this year, the network launched another spin-off based on the ‘Arrowverse’ pool of characters. Called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it is currently attracting a steady 1.8 million and has been renewed for a 17-episode second season.

In addition to the above shows, The CW is also home to Supergirl, a DC-based series that was originally aired on CBS but then shifted to The CW for season two when its ratings started to decline. In the less exposed world of The CW, the show has thrived and is now its second most popular series, averaging 2.6 million viewers.

The relationship with DC has also allowed The CW to segue into the ‘Zombieverse’ with iZombie. Loosely based on a comic book series that came out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, the show has a third season on the way and averages around 1.2 million viewers.

The rise of DC’s stock has also encouraged some of the Big Four US networks to sample the company’s wares. The stand out example of this is Fox’s Gotham, which delves into the backstory of the young Batman, focusing its energy primarily on Commissioner James Gordon and the origin stories of some of Batman’s most famous enemies. Now in its third season, the show is currently attracting an OK-but-not-amazing 3.4 million (down from four million in season two and six million in season one).

iZombie
iZombie averages 1.2 million viewers

Echoing its growing relationship with Disney’s Marvel, Fox has adapted a second DC property, Lucifer, based on a character that appeared in comic book series The Sandman (created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg).

The show debuted last year and did well enough to get a second season. Currently averaging around 3.5 million viewers, the second run was extended to 22 episodes last month – though the jury is still out on whether it is doing well enough to secure a third outing.

Without being overly critical, there is a pattern with DC properties – they perform strongly on The CW but modestly on the Big Four. Gotham and Lucifer have done OK but not fantastically well, while Supergirl’s strong start dissipated quickly, hence its move to The CW. To this list should be added Constantine, which aired for a single season on NBC before being axed.

The main reason for this is The CW is a narrowly focused youth channel while the Big Four are mainstream, so are probably trying to reach an audience that is more ambivalent about superheroes and fantasy adventure series. Nevertheless, there are more planned DC shows in the pipeline for the Big Four.

NBC, for example, is developing a sitcom rooted in the DC universe. Called Powerless, the shows is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in the US – with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”

Gotham
Batman prequel series Gotham airs on Fox

Fox, meanwhile, is reported to be piloting a show based on Black Lightning, one of the first African American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. This is a welcome trend, echoing the recent Marvel/Netflix tie-in on the new Luke Cage series.

Of course, the fact that The CW does so well has not been lost on cable channels, which have a similar kind of niche profile. So we’re also starting to see more DC properties populate this part of the TV business. AMC, for example, is doing pretty well with Preacher, another idea from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The first season attracted around 1.68 million per episode and a recommission followed.

Other pilot orders include Scalped for WGN America and Krypton for Syfy (the latter set in the Superman universe). There are also reported to be several other titles in development including DMZ and Ronin for Syfy and Amped for USA Network. FX is also believed to be developing a series based on Y: The Last Man.

For those unfamiliar with the world of comic books, the DC/Vertigo dichotomy is interesting. While the former is home to mainstream franchises like Superman and Batman, the latter was specifically set up to publish more hard-hitting, adult-themed franchises. This is significant, because it opened up the range of opportunities for DC.

Supergirl, for example, might fit on CBS or The CW but would look tame on AMC. Preacher, by contrast, would not go down well with a more mainstream audience. That said, Constantine and Lucifer were both born into the Vertigo family, which shows that the Big Four networks have been exploring the potential to soften Vertigo shows for their demos.

Preacher has been given a second season on AMC
Preacher has been given a second season on AMC

It’s also worth noting that there have been other DC subsidiaries down the years that are still providing IP for film and TV. For example, DC acquired an imprint called WildStorm in 1999 and shut it down in 2010. During that time, WildStorm created Red, a franchise that was subsequently turned into two successful films. Recent reports suggest NBC is now planning a TV version.

One obvious final question, of course, is how DC-based shows fare internationally. Well, not too badly actually.

Gotham has been licensed to platforms including Globo Brazil, Pro7 Germany and Netflix in Poland, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have both been acquired by Italia 1 among others.

Lucifer has also travelled well, to platforms such as Amazon UK and Viasat 3 in Hungary. On UK pay TV channel Sky1, latest ratings figures put The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl as the top three shows, underlining the global appeal of the dynamic DC business.

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The Walking Dead reopens violence debate

the-walking-dead-64
The Walking Dead’s latest episode has sparked a social media furore

Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”

He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.

To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.

More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.

Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.

The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.

Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.

“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”

The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?

gameofthronesGame of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.

hannibal1_2553735bHannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.

sons-of-anarchy-seasoSons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”

american-horror-story-hotelAmerican Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.

the-cast-of-vikingsVikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.

the-strainThe Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.

daredevil-the-punisherDaredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”

boardwalk-empire-buscemiBoardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”

followingThe Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.

ozOz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”

The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…

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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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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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Nielsen peels away Orange audience mystery

Orange is the New Black
Nielsen research suggests Orange is the New Black is a massive hit in terms of viewing figures

SVoD giant Netflix has always been good at sharing its international subscriber data, but it has never bothered to provide much detail about the audiences that tune in to individual shows.

As an ad-free service, it doesn’t really need to; instead, it sees competitive value in keeping its rivals guessing.

This, of course, doesn’t stop third parties speculating – and this week research firm Nielsen is in the news for trying to unlock the secret of Orange is the New Black (OITNB)’s audience numbers.

The key finding, revealed at the Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, is that OITNB is the big hit that everyone always suspected it to be. According to audience 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 June 17 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 US cable system.

It’s not as big as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but it would trump pretty much everything else. For the record, Nielsen also looked at streaming data for Seinfeld on Hulu, which drew 706,000 viewers within five days of launch.

Preacher's second season will comprise 13 episodes
Preacher’s second season will comprise 13 episodes

Other shows in the news this week include AMC’s Preacher, which is halfway through its first 10-episode season. After starting strongly, with 2.38 million for episode one, the show slipped to 1.14 million by episode four.

However, there was an encouraging bounce back for episode five, which recorded 1.43 million (all figures are Nielsen overnights). Perhaps that’s why AMC chose this week to announce that the show, which stars Dominic Cooper, will have an enlarged second season of 13 episodes.

“Preacher is a special TV programme and we’re eager to share with fans the rest of this wild first season and, now, an expanded second season,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. “What (the team) has achieved in bringing Garth Ennis’s graphic novel to the screen is extraordinary. We look forward to more time with these unforgettable characters, be it in Heaven, Hell, Texas or beyond.”

Preacher is currently AMC’s fifth best-performing show behind The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands and Better Call Saul. The writer and showrunner is Sam Catlin.

A more surprising renewal is that for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, a futuristic sci-fi time-travel drama set in the 2040s after a virus has wiped out much of Earth’s population. Based on the 1995 feature film of the same name, the show has been given a third season.

12 Monkeys
12 Monkeys is heading for a third run on Syfy despite modest viewing figures

“In two short seasons, 12 Monkeys has become a cult favourite series,” said Chris McCumber, president of entertainment networks at Syfy parent NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “The team has brought to life a rich world not confined by boundaries of time, with multi-dimensional characters whose motivations for saving the world are deeply personal and intensely relatable. It’s exactly the type of smart, on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment we want.”

That eulogy comes despite the fact the show’s ratings have been pretty modest for season two. After averaging 795,000 for season one, the follow-up batch of 10 episodes evened out at 393,000. Although season two seems to have had a pretty stable audience across its run, that figure places 12 Monkeys at the low end of Syfy’s scripted dramas in terms of its audience.

While the impassioned nature of the show’s fanbase may be a reason for 12 Monkeys’ renewal, another explanation could be that Syfy is undergoing heavy schedule maintenance.

A lot of shows have ended or been cancelled recently, so it may be that the channel is looking for a few stopgaps while newer shows such as The Magicians, Killjoys and Dark Matter have a chance to build. No current Syfy show has got past season two.

Elsewhere, we have reported in the past on the ratings success of The Durrells in the UK, and now the show is proving to be popular with international broadcasters.

BBC Worldwide has sold The Durrells across the globe
BBC Worldwide has sold family drama The Durrells across the globe

Distributor BBC Worldwide says it has sold the show to such channels as Iceland’s UTV, Australia’s Seven Network, New Zealand’s Sky, Estonia’s ETV, Finland’s YLE, Latvian Television, Denmark’s TV2 and BBC First in the Middle East and Benelux. This follows previous deals with SVT in Sweden and OTE in Greece.

Written by Simon Nye and produced by Sid Gentle Films, The Durrells is based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical books about his family’s life on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.

Still in the world of distribution, Amazon Prime Video has picked up the rights to Steven Soderbergh drama The Girlfriend Experience for the UK, Germany, Austria and Japan. The 13-part series, which stars Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough, airs on Starz in the US and is based on Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name.

The show hasn’t scored especially well on IMDb, which is probably down to its level of sexual content, which polarises audiences (it’s about a female law student who becomes an escort – another polarising factor for audiences). But it has its fans, who tend to focus on the excellence of the acting and craft.

The bottom line on this show is that it has undoubtedly found the perfect home in the rarified world of SVoD streaming.

The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers
Starz series The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers

Finally, an update on how BBC2 in the UK is doing it terms of drama – according to BARB ratings. Peaky Blinders signed off in mid-June with an audience of 2.27 million, meaning that it was pretty stable throughout the back end of its third season.

The show overlapped slightly with the launch of acquired drama Versailles, which is still running. The Louis XIV period piece debuted with 2.73 million but had slipped to around the two million mark at the time of writing. This, however, is still stronger than The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which finished its run in April on around 1.85 million.

Last year, Wolf Hall brought the channel 3.8-4 million viewers per episode, while Banished wrapped up with 2.8 million for its final episode. All of which suggests the channel’s upmarket audience has a penchant for offbeat period drama, rather than the kind of contemporary show represented by American Crime Story. Outlander would be a good fit were it not streaming on Amazon in the UK.

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Spirited display from pay TV

Outcast
Outcast was given a cross-platform launch

The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.

The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.

Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.

The Enfield Haunting
The Enfield Haunting could come back to Sky in the form of a franchise

Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.

On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.

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

The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.

Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.

Orphan Black
Orphan Black has been given a fifth and final season

“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”

Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”

Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.

Day and Night Berlin
Day and Night Berlin

The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).

Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”

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Nashville gets encore on CMT

Nashville stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton
Nashville, which stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton, is moving to CMT

These days, when a network cancels a scripted show, there is often a call from the creators, the acting talent and the hardcore fanbase for someone else to step in and save it.

Usually, this plea falls on deaf ears, but there have been a few instances of shows saved from extinction by third-party channels and platforms. Among the best examples are Ripper Street, The Mindy Project and Longmire, all of which were saved by the intervention of SVoD platforms (Amazon, Hulu and Netflix respectively).

To this list of last-minute rescues we must now add country-and-western scripted series Nashville, produced by Lionsgate TV, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment. The show aired for four seasons on ABC before being cancelled last month.

However, weeks of frenetic wheeler-dealing by Lionsgate TV group president Sandra Stern has resulted in the greenlight for a fifth season, which will air on Viacom-owned country-and-western channel CMT and Hulu (which will stream episodes of Nashville the day after they appear on CMT).

“CMT heard the fans,” said CMT president Brian Philips. “The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. Nashville is a perfect addition to our line-up. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. Nashville belongs on CMT.”

The Last Kingdom
Netflix is coproducing the second season of The Last Kingdom, replacing BBC America

Equally effusive was Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu. “Nashville has long been a fan favourite show on Hulu and we are so proud to continue to make new episodes available for fans to stream the day after they air. We look forward to bringing more episodes of this series to its passionate and devoted audience.”

“CMT and Hulu are the perfect combination for Nashville and we want to thank the incredible fans for their unwavering support – #Nashies, you helped make this possible,” added Kevin Beggs, chairman of the Lionsgate Television Group. “We also want to extend our appreciation to the state of Tennessee, city of Nashville, and Ryman Hospitality for their unending support.”

While the resurrection of the show has very much been presented as a victory for fan power, there’s also a strong business case for all involved.

CMT, for example, will be drooling at the show’s audience. In a press statement, the partners on season five said: “The recently wrapped fourth season of Nashville attracted more than eight million weekly viewers across all platforms and ranks as one of television’s most DVR’d series. The series is particularly strong with women 18-34. Out of more than 180 broadcast dramas since fall 2012, Nashville ranks in the top 20.”

While it’s highly unlikely that all of the ABC fanbase will follow the show to CMT, Nashville is almost certain to deliver CMT an audience that is at the upper end of its usual anticipated viewing range.

The Bureau
The Bureau is heading to Amazon

For Hulu, the risk of getting involved is minimal because it already shows Nashville and will have a good idea of the kind of audience it can expect to attract. As for Lionsgate, the deal is about much more than just the US TV market. The series airs in 82 international territories, making it a significant asset in the distribution arena.

There is also the small matter of music spin-offs. Since its launch, the show has inspired 10 soundtracks, which have collectively sold more than one million album units and more than five million single-track downloads. As an added bonus, it has been nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards.

The question is, will we see more deals like this? Well, it seems pretty likely. With more and more cable and SVoD channels in the market for scripted content, it stands to reason that they will be attracted to franchises that have built up brand awareness.

Another story that kind of underlines this point is the news that Netflix has replaced BBC America as the US coproducer of season two of The Last Kingdom, a historical drama that also involves BBC2. For Netflix, the beauty of this deal is that it has some tangible evidence of the show’s appeal in the US (the first season aired on BBC America). Armed with that knowledge, it has secured rights to the show in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain and Portugal. It will also add season one of the Carnival Films-produced show to its US portfolio later this year.

Aside from these deals, this week has more of an acquisition than a production feel to it. In the UK, for example, Amazon Prime Video has acquired two French dramas – spy thriller The Bureau and political drama Baron Noir from StudioCanal. The Bureau follows agents who assume false identities as they seek out and identify targets and sources, while Baron Noir centres on a French politician seeking revenge against his political enemies.

Rosewood
Alibi has picked up Rosewood

StudioCanal has also sold a package of shows to SBS Australia, including The Five, Section Zéro and Baron Noir. Previously, SBS acquired Spotless and The Last Panthers from StudioCanal. Commenting, Marshall Heald, director of TV and online content at SBS Australia, said: “Gritty crime thrillers like The Five, political dramas like Baron Noir and dark sci-fi series like Section Zéro bring something fresh and exciting to our world drama slate.”

Back in the UK, UKTV-owned channel Alibi has acquired crime series Crossing Lines from StudioCanal. It has also picked up US medical crime drama Rosewood from 20th Century Fox Television.

In Canada, meanwhile, Bell Media streaming service CraveTV has acquired exclusive SVoD rights to a slate of new US broadcast dramas. Among these are the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Notorious, film adaptation Training Day and romantic drama Time After Time. Also in Canada, specialty channel Vision TV has acquired the first season of comedy drama Agatha Raisin, which just aired on Sky1 UK.

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Netflix plays Chandra’s Games in India

Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra is adapting his novel Sacred Games for Netflix

Hot on the heels of Amazon’s announcement of its content origination plans in Japan, Netflix has revealed a new scripted project in India.

Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The author, who will also write the adaptation, said: “Over the last few years, I’ve watched with great excitement and pleasure as Netflix has transformed narrative television with its ground-breaking, genre-bending shows. I’m confident all the colour, vitality and music of the fictional world I’ve lived with for so long will come fully alive on the large-scale canvas provided by Netflix. I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix and Phantom Films (the show’s production company).”

The show is set in Mumbai against a backdrop of crime, political corruption, and espionage. Seven years in the making, it centres on Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force. The story pits Singh against Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. Shot on location in India, the series will be a hybrid Hindi-English production. It will be available to Netflix members globally upon completion.

Now 55 years old, Chandra was born in New Delhi and has a number of novels to his name, including the award-winning Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which has been published in territories such as the UK and US.

Commenting on the opportunity to work with Chandra, Madhu Mantena of Phantom Films said: “We are very happy to start this journey with Netflix by producing Vikram’s outstanding story. And we are confident we will create some exciting and groundbreaking television content from here on.”

Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, added: “We are delighted to partner with creative powerhouse Phantom Films to bring Vikram Chandra’s epic novel to life with the best Indian and global film talent available today. Sacred Games reinforces our commitment to bring the authenticity of local stories to Netflix members across 190 countries worldwide.”

David Carr
The late New York Times columnist David Carr, whose memoir is being made into a series by AMC and Sony Pictures Television

Other high-profile stories this week include AMC and Sony Pictures Television’s decision to develop a six-part miniseries based on The Night of the Gun, the memoir by late New York Times columnist David Carr.

Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) will play Carr while Eileen Myers is attached as an executive producer and writer. Myers has several high-profile credits, including Mad Dogs, Masters of Sex, Last Resort, Hung, Big Love and Dark Blue.

For those unfamiliar with Carr’s memoir, it is an acclaimed depiction of his battle with cocaine and alcohol addiction. As an active figure in the US media business, he is credited with having kick-started the career of Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls.

Elsewhere, CBS has given a straight-to-series order to Ransom, a new hostage negotiator series created by David Vainola and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle). The show has been set up as an international coproduction, with France’s TF1 and Canada’s Global also signed up for the 13-parter. Also on board is global content distributor Entertainment One (eOne).

The series will star Luke Roberts as Eric Beaumont, an expert crisis and hostage negotiator who resolves difficult kidnap and ransom cases. The show is inspired by the experiences of crisis negotiator Laurent Combalbert, one of the top negotiators in the world.

Spotnitz said: “The world of crisis negotiation is incredibly compelling, as demonstrated by the fascinating real-life cases Laurent Combalbert has negotiated. Laurent has inspired a brilliant and complex character, and you can’t help but be moved seeing all the lives he’s saved around the world.”

James Wood
Evelyn Waugh novel Decline and Fall is being adapted by James Wood

Amazon continues to be busy – picking up a number of new scripted pilots. Among them is Carnival Row, a supernatural series from Guillermo Del Toro, Travis Beacham and Rene Echeverria. A coproduction between Amazon Studios and Legendary TV, the show is based on a feature-film script created by Beacham 11 years ago. Since then, he has established himself as a leading action-adventure movie screenwriter with titles like Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim (on which he worked with Del Toro).

Another Amazon pilot continues the current fascination with Cuba now that the country is opening up to the international market. Called Tropicana, it is set in the world of the Tropicana nightclub against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Written/executive produced by Josh Goldin and Rachel Abramowitz and executive produced by Andrea Simon, the series will feature all the usual suspects including the mafia, the CIA, Batista loyalists and Castro revolutionaries. Goldin and Abramowitz previously worked together on Klondike, while Goldin’s solo credits include Darkman.

Interesting projects bubbling up in the UK include a BBC2 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s superb novel Decline and Fall. With comedian Jack Whitehall already installed as the lead of the three-part miniseries, there are reports that Eva Longoria is in negotiations to co-star.

The adaptation is being handled by James Wood, who came to fame with BBC comedy Rev. Set in the 1920s, Decline and Fall follows student Paul Pennyfeather, who is unfairly expelled from Oxford University and ends up teaching at a boys school in Wales.

Still in the UK, FremantleMedia has announced that it is backing a new scripted indie to be headed by feted producer Laurence Bowen. Called Dancing Ledge, the company is setting up new offices in Notting Hill with projects from some of the UK’s most talented writers and a development deal with The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.

Laurence Bowen
Laurence Bowen has set up Dancing Ledge

According to Fremantle, the new Dancing Ledge slate includes a dozen projects for UK and US broadcasters including dramas by Mark Gatiss, Guy Hibbert, Chris Lunt, Dan Sefton, and John Donnelly, as well as a new limited event-series development commission for History written by Simon Block (Home Fires). Bowen is also developing several scripted ideas with Martin Freeman.

Commenting on the new company’s excellent writer relationships, Bowen said: “Dancing Ledge is only ever going to be as good as the writers it works with and we are lucky enough to already be working with some of the very best in the UK.”

Finally, Canadian broadcaster CityTV has greenlit some dramas. Bad Blood: The Vito Rizzuto Story, will debut on City and FX in the US in 2017 and is inspired by the life and death of mobster Rizzuto. New Metric Media, Sphere Media and DHX Media will produce the series, based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War – co-authored by Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso.

Another commission is Second Jen, a coming-of-age comedy about two second-generation Chinese and Filipino-Canadian millennials and best friends. Created by and starring Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy, the show will be produced by Don Ferguson Productions and premiere on Citytv.com in the autumn.

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Roots revival starts strongly

Roots' first episode drew more than five million viewers
Roots’ debut drew more than five million viewers

When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.

A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.

Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.

UnREAL
UnREAL has been given a third season before its second has begun

The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”

The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”

A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.

Good Witch
Good Witch is Hallmark’s top-performing drama

Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.

Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.

Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.

Versailles
Versailles’ UK debut, on BBC2, did well

Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.

Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.

Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…

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The opium of the TV drama business

TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.

Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.

There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.

The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.

And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.

Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.

Preacher-smallPreacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.

greenleafsmallGreenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”

hand-of-god-amazon-smallHand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.

midwinterMidwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.

Seth-Gilliam-the-walking-dead-lgsmallThe Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.

Adam-PricesmallRides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”

the-path-aaron-paul-image_1531.0.0The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.

exorcist-tv-seriesThe Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.

leftoverssmallThe Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.

vikings-ragnar-rollosmallVikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.

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BBC’s blind faith in Knight

Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons
Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons

The BBC has ordered two more series of Steven Knight’s gangster series Peaky Blinders, which is set in 1920s Birmingham in the UK. The show is currently four episodes into season three, which means it will now run for at least five seasons – though Knight has expressed a desire to keep going long after that.

Like the first three seasons, the new commissions will both consist of six hour-long episodes, which means a total of 30 hours of TV.

Caryn Mandabach, executive producer of the show for Caryn Mandabach Productions, said: “It’s a fantastic vote of confidence in the show and Steven Knight’s writing that the BBC has ordered two more series following the first episode’s overnight figures. We’re proud of, and grateful for, the BBC’s support of the show.”

Will Gould, who also works on the show as an exec producer for Tiger Aspect, added: “Peaky has become a global hit. Steve’s vision resonates with audiences the world over, and what a privilege it is that we get to make more.”

Knight, who will continue to write all episodes, said: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me, and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”

To be completely frank, the audience for season three of Peaky Blinders hasn’t been massive. It opened with 2.95 million (BARB) for episode one and then dropped to 2.43 million for episode two. So it’s not in the same league as BBC2’s Line of Duty (circa five million) or Channel 4’s Humans, which hit six million last June.

The Americans will conclude with season six
The Americans will conclude with season six

A possible reason for the modest audience is the show’s graphic violence, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Another is the esoteric nature of the season three plot, which revolves around the fallout from the Russian Revolution (angry White Russian exiles and so on).

But judging Peaky Blinders solely on the basis of its ratings would be a bit like castigating a Man Booker Prize winner for not muscling JK Rowling off the fiction best-seller list. The fact is that Peaky Blinders is superb – comparable to the best scripted series coming out of the UK, US, Nordics, Spain, Israel and elsewhere.

IMDb ratings back this up. The first episode of season three, which was slightly meandering, only managed 8.8. But the show really kicked into gear after that, with its IMDb rating jumping to a very impressive 9.5 by episode four. Critics are also pretty unanimous in their approval, with the Daily Express going so far as to call Knight’s show “this generation’s Godfather.”

The beauty of Knight’s formula is the way he plays different interest groups off against each other, blurring the line between criminality and legality, gangsters and establishment. The result of his complex plotting is that central character Tom Shelby is constantly saved from what looks like certain death by individuals or organisations that suddenly find they have a use for him.

Alongside the sophistication of Knight’s writing, the show is beautifully directed (by Tim Mielants in season three) and, of course, superbly acted. Cillian Murphy, as Tommy Shelby, is delivering a performance that, by this week’s episode four, is similar to the standards set by Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. And Paul Anderson, as his brother Arthur, grows in stature with every season.

AMC's Preacher has opened strongly
AMC’s Preacher has opened strongly

Murphy’s comment on the new commission is that: “Tommy Shelby is one of the most intense, challenging characters I’ve had the opportunity to play. I’m particularly grateful that Steven’s original, dynamic writing and the longform series allow me to explore Tommy in depth. I look forward to Tommy’s evolution over the next two chapters.”

Peaky Blinders’ graphic violence (Tarantino-like in its intensity at times) inevitably limits the kind of channels/slots where it can air. But as Gould says, the show has established a solid fanbase around the world. Netflix in the US, for example, will offer season three from May 31. And Arte in France has also aired the show. Peaky is distributed by Endemol Shine International, which will be pleased that it can now go to the global market with 30 episodes.

Another quality show in the news this week is FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans, which has also been given a new two-season order. The difference with this one, however, is that these two seasons will be the last, with The Americans ending in 2018 after six seasons. Season five will have 13 episodes and season six will have 10, bringing the total volume to a very respectable 75.

“Through its first four seasons, critics have lauded The Americans as one of the best shows on television and, remarkably, a series that keeps getting better every year,” said FX original programming president Eric Schrier.

“All credit for that achievement goes to everyone who has worked on the show, and especially co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, (executive producer) Graham Yost, our brilliant stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Allison Wright, Holly Taylor and Annet Mahendru, and the ensemble cast for their incomparable performances. We have no doubt that this two-season order will allow Joe and Joel to tell this story to its perfect conclusion.”

Rush Hour has been canned
Rush Hour has been canned

Again, the show isn’t what you’d call a ratings hit. Season four is currently averaging around 930,000, which is down a little on season three. And it rates lower than a number of other FX shows, including The Bastard Executioner, which was cancelled after one season despite having a higher audience and better 18-49 demo.

Nevertheless, The Americans is a good show for FX because it attracts critical acclaim and gets a fair share of award wins and nominations – all useful for a cable subscription service. It has also had a decent life internationally, airing on Network Ten Australia, FX Canada, RTE Ireland and ITV/ITV Encore in the UK.

For Weisberg and Fields, there is no particular downside to the show ending, because they have also signed a new overall deal with FX Productions to develop their next scripted series.

Meanwhile, AMC’s latest new show, Preacher, has got off to a good start, with episode one securing an audience of 2.38 million. This puts it at number four on the channel behind The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands.

Preacher was helped by being scheduled after FTWD – so episode two will be an important benchmark for the show. But it could shed a significant amount of viewers and still be regarded as a hit by AMC.

By contrast, six-part espionage drama The Night Manager has just ended its run on AMC with a modest 790,000 average audience. It picked up slightly for the last episode but made nowhere near the impact it had on British television. This is a bit of a surprise considering that lead actor Hugh Laurie has a good profile in the US with his long-running lead role in House. However, it may indicate that the show wasn’t right for AMC.

One programme that has had an abject first season is CBS’s movie adaptation Rush Hour. Just eight episodes in, the show is delivering around four million viewers and has already been cancelled.

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Nordic drama in good company

Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh
Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh

London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.

The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”

Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.

ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season
ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season

Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”

Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”

Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.

Cleverman is BBC3's first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network
Cleverman is BBC3’s first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network

Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.

A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”

DRTV's Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada
DRTV’s financial crime drama Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.

Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.

US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla
US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla

The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.

As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.

The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.

Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC's Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan
Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC’s Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan

“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”

As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.

Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season
Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season on A&E

Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.

Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”

Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.

Don Cheadle in Showtime's now-axed comedy House of Lies
Don Cheadle in Showtime’s now-axed comedy House of Lies

Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”

In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Screenwriters lay down the law

Perry Mason, Petrocelli, JAG, LA Law, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice, Damages – no one does legal drama quite like the US. Here are 10 current and upcoming law-based series.

Suits focuses on slick New York City lawyers
Suits focuses on slick New York City lawyers

Suits Season six of Suits will launch in July. Created by Aaron Korsh, it focuses on slick city lawyer Harvey Specter and his talented protégé Mike Ross. Now up to 76 episodes, it’s a big hit for USA Network and gets an impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb. Part of the appeal of this New York-set show is its fast-paced humour, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Korsh’s background on successful comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond.

The Good Wife This show, created by Robert and Michelle King, has just come to an end after seven seasons on CBS. It tells the story of Alicia Florrick, who returns to work as a Chicago-based litigator after 13 years as a stay-at-home mother. There is still a lot of affection for the show, which explains why CBS is planning a spin-off that will only be available via subscription. The Kings are expected to co-write the first episode but will not run it.

Law & Order: SVU, is still going after 17 seasons
Law & Order: SVU, is still going after 17 seasons

Law & Order Created by Dick Wolf, this procedural juggernaut ran for 20 seasons until 2010 on NBC. The first half of every show focused on the investigation of a crime and the second half was the prosecution of the defendant in the New York courts. The show spawned four spin-offs including one set in LA. Another of these, Law & Order: SVU, is still running after 17 seasons. With more than 1,000 episodes in the archive, it’s no surprise that the franchise has also been a big seller in distribution and has been the basis of several adaptations in markets like the UK, France and Russia.

Chicago Justice Also from NBC and Dick Wolf, this show is the latest in a run of Chicago-based procedurals. It was soft launched during Chicago PD this month and is now being prepared for next season’s schedule. It’s early days but the basic line is that it will focus on lawyers in the Chicago area. The story for the Chicago PD launch of the show was created by Wolf but the teleplay was written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Matt Olmstead, all of whom are exec producing the new show.

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-s2-ep13-1
How To Get Away With Murder is unusual in that it’s set in a university

How To Get Away With Murder An interesting take on the genre, this ABC show focuses on a law professor at Philadelphia University (played by Viola Davis) who gets caught up in a murder plot along with five of her students. Davis has received a lot of plaudits, as has series creator Peter Nowalk, part of the team at Shondaland. Nowalk learned his trade on other Shondaland series (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) before taking the lead. The show has just completed season two and will be back next year.

Doubt Starring Katherine Heigl, this new CBS show will tell the story of a successful defence lawyer who starts to fall for her charismatic client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal crime. The idea was actually developed for the season just gone but wasn’t picked up as a series. However, it has now been reworked and will feature in the network’s 2016/17 season. Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman and Adam Bernstein will serve as executive producers with the husband-and-wife team of Phelan and Rater sharing writing duties. Their credits include Madam Secretary, Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order: Trial By Jury.

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul offers insights into the US legal system

Better Call Saul It’s easy to forget this AMC series is a legal drama because of its quirky characterisation and links to Breaking Bad. It may not be a procedural in the Law & Order vein but it is a great insight into the machinations of US lawyers. Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the New Mexico-set show is a strong performer and was recently renewed for a third season.

Conviction This new drama for ABC from the Mark Gordon Company (Quantico) will debut in 2016/17. The pilot was written by Liz Friedman, who has made a name for herself with Jessica Jones and Elementary. The show tells the story of Carter Morrison, the brilliant but rebellious daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job as the head of Los Angeles’ newly created Conviction Integrity Unit. She examines cases where there’s suspicion that the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.

The Grinder was cancelled just a week ago
The Grinder was cancelled just a week ago

The Grinder This Fox show makes our list though it was actually cancelled last week after one season. Created by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, it’s a comedy drama about an actor (played by Rob Lowe) who returns to his home town in Idaho after his TV series (The Grinder) ends. Having played a lawyer on TV he thinks he is equipped to work with his family law firm – cue comedy. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show were low.

Shots Fired Fox hasn’t given up on the law after the failure of The Grinder, but it has gone for something more serious. For next season it has lined up Shots Fired, an event series that follows the aftermath of a racially charged shooting in a fictional town in North Carolina. Sanaa Lathan, Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss star. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood are the series creators on this one. Their writing credits, respectively, include Before I Fall and Gun Hill. There are echoes in this project of the recent FX hit The People vs OJ Simpson, written by a team of six headed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

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