Ricky Whittle is enjoying his time leading the cast of fantasy drama American Gods. He talks to DQ about filming the series, working with Neil Gaiman and why he’s excited for the upcoming third season.
At a time when Amazon Prime Video is pushing for more Good Omens, another series based on a book by Neil Gaiman is gearing up for its third season. But while Omens, which Gaiman penned with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, can be boiled down to the story of an angel and demon who form an unlikely partnership to halt Armageddon, American Gods is harder to define.
“That’s why I like it,” says Ricky Whittle, who takes the lead in the Starz fantasy drama as Shadow Moon. “You know, it’s not one thing, it’s not the other. It’s a unique show and that’s why it’s out there, because it’s not sitting in the pack. There are still love stories, there are still struggles for power. We’re still telling recognisable stories, but in a very different way. So along with the huge budget we spend on the best ensemble on TV, it’s a unique show that has to stand out because it is so different and very hard to describe.”
Based on Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, the show revolves around Shadow Moon, who is released early from prison following the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). On his return home, he meets the enigmatic Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), who offers him a job as his bodyguard and assistant. Shadow then becomes exposed to a hidden world of magic and is embroiled in a war between the Old Gods, who fear they are becoming irrelevant, and the New Gods such as Technology and Media.
The series launched in 2017, with a third season due to enter production this autumn. Whittle, whose credits include British soap Hollyoaks, the US remake of British mystery drama Mistresses and sci-fi show The 100, says he has never worked on a show so meticulous, with as few as two scenes being shot on some days on set.
“This is just a monster and you’re very aware of that,” he says, speaking at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “Actors want to work on the show because they are given time to breathe; they’re allowed to just stay in the moment, which is great for an actor. Directors are told, ‘Whatever toys you want, have them. If you need cranes, camera lenses, whatever you want, it’s all yours, just finish by this time.’ So everyone wants to work on the show.”
That American Gods is broadcast around the world on Amazon Prime also adds to the appeal of working on it, as do the source material and its creator. “It’s already a product that everyone knows people are fans of, and a lot of our crew beg to be on the show because they were that passionate about the book,” the actor continues. “So it’s very weird, but you’ve got a whole crew and cast who are excited by what they’re doing because they were already fans.”
Gaiman, an executive producer on the series, is readily available to the cast when they want to discuss their characters, though his time became particularly precious while he was also showrunning Good Omens, a passion project that he wanted to make in Pratchett’s memory.
“He didn’t feel like he needed to answer to the fans. He didn’t need to answer to the studio or the network. He was like, ‘I don’t care if you like it. This is my gift for Terry.’ And that’s a beautiful place to be,” Whittle says of the author. “But it also meant he wasn’t able to be with us as much [on season two]. But we love him to death. He’s an incredibly humble guy. He’s very trusting, because he says, ‘They’re not really my characters anymore. They’re your characters; you know your character more than I do. I know where your characters going to go, but now the vehicle is yours. And if you choose to go a certain way, I trust you to do it.’ You can only be grateful for that kind of leadership.”
Making American Gods hasn’t been without its ups and downs, however, with four showrunners in three years. Michael Green and Bryan Fuller developed the novel for television alongside producer Fremantle, but they left the project after season one. They were replaced by Jesse Alexander, who stepped down from the position just seven months later, leaving director Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner to bring season two to its conclusion. Charles ‘Chic’ Eglee has now come on board to steer the series through season three.
Whittle dismisses reports of “turmoil” surrounding the show, pointing out that changes to the creative team “happen in every show.” He continues: “It’s what normally happens when the creators want to spend this much money and the business people are going, ‘Yeah, but we can probably do it for this,’ and then you have to try to meet in the middle. When you get people who don’t want to budge, something has to move, and unfortunately that’s why we lost Bryan and Michael.
“But it doesn’t affect us, because we’re responsible for our own characters. We know our characters. And if Bryan and Michael went through all three seasons, season three was going to be very different anyway. It’s a very different part of the book and it’s a very different experience [for me] now because Chic’s bringing me behind the camera working with him and then listening to the writing team. You really feel that intelligence, that experience, that creativity. It’s phenomenal and it’s gotten me crazy excited for season three.”
Brought up a Catholic and raised by nuns for a period of his childhood in Manchester, Whittle says that these days he simply believes in good people and bad people, destiny and that what is meant to be will be. “So I don’t worry about projects and auditions that don’t go well. I’m like, I was meant for something else,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason and now we’re here living the good life.”
With the story of American Gods only now nearing the mid-section of Gaiman’s book, it seems Whittle can look forward to enjoying that good life a little longer.
Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, American Gods follows the story of a war brewing between old and new gods, with the traditional deities of mythological roots from around the world steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting modern society’s love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
Its protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman but in reality one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather the latter’s forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
Bryan Fuller, who is the co-showrunner alongside Michael Green, tells DQ why the novel was “ripe” for a television adaptation and how Gaiman’s story portrays the immigrant experience, as well as describing the writing process behind the series and discussing working with stars Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane.
American Gods is produced by FremantleMedia North America for Starz, and is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
For more about American Gods, read DQ’s feature here.
At the world premiere of Starz drama American Gods, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green spoke of the challenges of telling ‘immigrant stories’ in the current political climate. Adam Benzine reports.
US network Starz previewed its forthcoming fantasy drama American Gods to a rapturous audience at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival on Saturday, followed by a forthright Q&A with the show’s creators.
The series, based on author Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name, focuses on a conflict across America between a variety of ‘old gods’ – including Odin, Loki and Bilquis – and new deities, such as the personifications of media, technology and celebrity.
Mixing the violence of past Starz series such as Spartacus with a broad palette of surreal and dreamlike imagery, as well as an often-humorous script, the pilot also features a bizarre sex scene that is sure to be one of the water-cooler moments of the year. The first episode focuses on recently released convict Shadow Moon (The 100 star Ricky Whittle), who crosses paths with the mysterious Mr Wednesday (Deadwood star Ian McShane).
Speaking after the premiere, showrunner Bryan Fuller said the tone of the show changed notably following November’s election of Donald Trump as US president.
“It’s definitely a different show than we set out to make, because the political climate in America, well, shat its pants,” Fuller told the crowd at SXSW in Austin, Texas. “We are now telling immigrant stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants.
“As Americans, we are under a radical political climate that tends to lean cruel as opposed to compassionate. So we are excited to tell compassionate immigration stories, not only as a statement but as part of the ongoing narrative of our series.”
He added that when the team approached Gaiman’s book, as showrunners, “our first task was to make the show we wanted to see as an audience member – we needed to put on screen what was in our heads when we read the book.
“One of the things that was exciting for us in casting the show was that so much of the book is based in other cultures and other ethnicities,” he explained. “It gave us the opportunity to not be colour-blind but to be very colour-focused.”
Fellow showrunner Michael Green, meanwhile, added that Gaiman’s book “is very joyful, it celebrates a lot of things that we really love about America.”
However, the team worked to significantly expand several of the female roles featured in the book, since the novel “can be a bit of a sausage party.”
“We knew going in we needed to have many more female characters,” he explained, noting that Emily Browning (Laura Moon) and Yetide Badaki (Bilquis) were among the actors whose storylines had been significantly expanded.
At the preview ahead of the drama’s April 30 debut on Starz, the showrunners were joined by a large portion of the pilot’s cast, including Whittle, McShane, Browning, Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Betty Gilpin, Crispin Glover and Bruce Langley (top image).
Offering his take on the pilot, the typically outspoken McShane told the crowd: “I thought it was fucking amazing,” to laughter. “That’s the first frame I’ve ever seen of it; I’d never seen any of the show before… I was riveted, I’ve seen nothing like it.
“I just had a fucking good time. It’s not a bad opening episode, y’know?”
Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?
Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.
You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.
It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.
“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”
For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”
Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.
This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.
As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”
For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”
One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”
Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”
Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.
“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”
A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”
While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.
This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.
“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”
Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”
Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.
In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.
That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.
Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”
Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”
However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”
While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.
These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”
Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.
“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”
This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.
At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”
While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.
If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.
However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.
This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”
Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.
Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”
This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”
Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and executive producer Craig Cegielski tell Toni Sekinah about the “alchemy” of adapting Neil Gaiman’s seminal novel American Gods and the amazing on-screen chemistry between its lead actors.
It took just a few days of shooting for executive producer Craig Cegielski and co-showrunner Michael Green to realise they were working on something phenomenal in American Gods.
The confirmation came courtesy of the first scene between the two lead characters, with Ricky Whittle’s protagonist Shadow Moon (pictured left above) meeting his soon-to-be mentor-guru Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) on a plane. The set was fizzing with chemistry.
It made Cegielski want to be a part of the characters’ crew, while for Green it confirmed his inkling that the two actors would work very well together. “I felt like we not only had a show with a core relationship in it, but a show that would be honoured, and one that I as a fan would continue watching for many, many years to come,”
This TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s legendary fantasy novel, coming to US premium cablenet Starz next year, has been a long time in the making, with the book first being published in 2001.
The plot sets up a war brewing between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs. Thrust into the centre is ex-con Shadow Moon, who becomes a bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is secretly one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
The book has won awards and become a cultural phenomenon, leading HBO to first express an interest in an adaptation in 2011. But script issues meant this didn’t work out and the network dropped the idea in late 2013.
Then when former Playtone exec Stephanie Berk, who had been developing the project for HBO, moved to producer FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), she reached out again
to Gaiman, inviting him to discuss resurrecting the project.
“Neil sat with us and we talked through everything. He believed in Fremantle and our promise to make the show,” says FMNA’s Cegielski. “We found a good network partner. We found good showrunners to participate. We were true to our word.”
That network partner was Starz, which began dabbling in the horror genre with the launch of Ash vs Evil Dead last year. “Starz has been an incredible partner. They view American Gods as one of their tentpoles for the network and they have done everything to support that,” says Cegielski.
Key to the success of the process thus far has been the fact that everyone working on the series is an aficionado of the novel. “We all know the book, we all love Neil’s writing, we love the poetry of what he does and we’re sitting back as fans saying, ‘We’d like to see this’ or, ‘We’d like to do that,’” Cegielski adds.
Part of that group is Green’s co-showrunner Bryan Fuller. The pair have been on the lookout for another project on which to partner ever since working together on NBC’s Heroes. “We bonded very quickly on Heroes. We were talking for years about working together somehow again and American Gods came up,” says Fuller.
Green recalls not being able to agree to the idea loudly or quickly enough, with both creatives being “incredibly passionate” fans of the book who were excited about the “incredible toy box” Gaiman had provided them with.
“It gives us a fresh opportunity to tell different kinds of stories in a television landscape and talk about things that are really relevant to and will resonate with large members of the audience,” Fuller says. “These things are the subjects of faith, belief and where you put your energies in the world.”
And with Gaiman as an executive producer – as well as writing some scripts – the showrunners are able to make sure every decision they make is in keeping with the author’s vision. “Neil has been incredibly supportive and collaborative throughout this process and the thing Michael and I want to be very careful of is that we are making an American Gods that Neil can be proud of,” says Fuller, conceding: “It’s a tricky alchemy, an adaptation.”
Green adds: “We talk to Neil about an intention for an extended role or for a new character before we put pen to paper and get the benefit of his additions to our additions. It is an incredibly joyful experience.”
One of those extended roles has been given to Bilquis, the goddess of love, who only appears in one chapter of the book but is in all 10 episodes of the first season. Green continues: “Neil will read the scripts when they come in and talk to us about them and every time he’s been appreciative, helpful and additive.”
Gaiman himself has also expanded characters for the visual narrative. According to Green, the author introduced a character called Vulcan, “a god he’s always had an imagination for,” who’ll be found travelling in the southern states of the US.
Beyond the script, recent advances in technology have played a huge part in allowing Fuller and Green to tell the story the way they wanted and realise their vision for Gaiman’s words on screen. “A show like this could not have been made 15 years ago because the technology wasn’t really available,” says Cegielski.
Green adds: “We were fortunate that technology has caught up with Neil’s imagination in terms of presenting it visually. When the book first came out, there were a lot of things suggested that could not have been accomplished on screen.”
Examples include a visual effect called ‘god flesh.’ Fuller explains: “The instances where we meet gods or are exposed to them for the first time, we have a camera rig that we shoot the actors with and are able to re-skin them in a wide variety of ways that is tantamount to motion capture.”
Green adds that this allowed them to create several different layers of reality. “We can meet a character who is actually a god, having a very mundane terrestrial experience and then we can pick and choose our moments to show what they truly are underneath it all,” he says.
Cegielski goes further: “It gives us an opportunity to provide a view behind the curtain of what gods look like in their godly state.”
While Fuller says technology has been a “friend” to production, he also notes that around 60% of the filming took place on location. Green says making the magic in the show feel like it could exist in the real world was key, “so the more you can be in the actual world, the better.”
This led them to such locations as Oklahoma. “We spent a lot of time driving on the open road in a Cadillac and those are some of the most fun and beautiful times,” Green says. With the book depicting numerous road trips, the creative crew were constantly seeking new spaces and locations, something Green adds was akin to filming an hour-long movie for each episode.
But what of the show’s leading man? Whittle, best known to UK viewers for his five-year portrayal of Calvin Valentine in teen soap Hollyoaks, will be familiar stateside thanks to his role in post-apocalyptic drama The 100. And now he’s proving his chops among the Hollywood heavyweights that pepper the rest of the American Gods cast.
Noting that the actor brings joy and gratitude to the process, Fuller describes Whittle as a “whirling ball of hugs and smiles – exactly what you want in a lead on a show.”
Green also praises Whittle’s efforts in beefing up for the part of Shadow: “He has undergone a really difficult physical transformation for this. Shadow is much physically larger and more menacing so he had to put on 36lbs, eating meat stew and rice for breakfast for the last six months.
With a stellar cast – including The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, who previously worked with director David Slade and Fuller on Hannibal – location filming and technological wizardry, Fremantle is pulling out all the stops with this big-budget production.
Cegielski says: “You can’t under-deliver this. Every person who comes on board to work on the show is trying to elevate the material in every aspect because the fans deserve that kind of treatment.”
The executive producer adds that he has been working closely with Fuller and Green on set, as Fremantle has always been a “boots on the ground studio. We want to make sure the people we work with feel like we’re partners, as opposed to suits.”
While season one of American Gods covers approximately one-third of the book, the creative team believe the show could last for seven seasons – surely music to the ears of international distributor FremantleMedia International, which has sold the show to Amazon Prime in Germany, Austria, the UK and Japan. “The novel offers us somewhat of an unlimited opportunity to tell the story,” says Cegielski. “American Gods is best served as a television series and Michael and Bryan are doing an incredible job navigating that.”
An integral part of the team is director Slade, who Green and Fuller brought in because of his strong visual style, narrative sense and his ability to bring the best out of actors. Together, they thought carefully about how to represent the old and supernatural worlds.
Fuller describes the visual style as “grounded magic and sometimes untethered magic,” while Cegielski says there is a balance between “a very grounded, visually aggressive palate and whimsical, funny and irreverent elements.”
It is also a case of two showrunners being better than one with Fuller and Green, with the latter believing the collaboration means the show has become more ambitious than it would have been under a single showrunner.
Fuller says: “The fun challenge of this show is to make people believe the world has more in it than they could ever have imagined and is full of wonderful, supernatural elements.”
Perhaps by the time American Gods launches in early 2017, this creative trio will leave viewers feeling like they’re walking on hallowed ground.
As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.
From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.
Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:
Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017
BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist
Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)
But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two
If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast
Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock
Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17
ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time
But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last
Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.
Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder
Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow
The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer
Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season
It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.
The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe
Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30
Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage
The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser
But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are
Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.
With MipTV imminent, miniseries and serials continue to be a major focal point for many international buyers. This week we preview a dozen of the limited-run dramas that will attract attention at the Cannes market.
American Gods is an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s iconic fantasy adventure novel by FremantleMedia North America (FMNA) for US pay TV channel Starz. It is distributed by FremantleMedia International. On the eve of Mip, FMNA began to provide details on the key cast, something that will be of interest to buyers in Cannes. They key addition is Emily Browning (Legend), who has been cast as Laura Moon. Other announced cast members include Ian McShane, Ricky Whittle, Sean Harris, Yetide Badaki and Bruce Langley. The series begins shooting next month.
Bordertown is a coproduction between Federation Entertainment and Fisher King Productions for Finnish public broadcaster YLE. The 11-part show follows a police investigator who moves to a Finland-Russia border town with his family for a quiet life but instead gets caught up in a serial killer case. The show is one of 12 titles to feature in the new MipDrama Screenings.
Intersection is a 13-part drama distributed by Endemol Shine International that aired on free-to-air channel Fox in Turkey and has just been renewed for a second season. Set in Istanbul, the thriller follows a love triangle involving a playboy businessman, a car designer and a beautiful woman. The three main stars – Ibrahim Çelikkol, Belçim Bilgin and Alican Yücesoy – will be in Cannes.
Ku’damm 56 – Rebel With A Cause is a three-part family drama produced by UFA Fiction for ZDF/ZDF Enterprises and written by Dorothee Schon. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of young women of the era and their struggle for equality. (Read more about Ku’damm 56 here.)
Marcella is a new drama from Cineflix Rights. Produced by Buccaneer Media for ITV and written by Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge), it stars Anna Friel (Limitless) as a UK detective investigating a serial murder case where the modus operandi of the killer bears a striking resemblance to an unsolved spate of killings from a decade before. The series also stars Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey), Sinead Cusack (Jekyll & Hyde) and Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones), among others.
Medici: Masters of Florence is an eight-part English-language Italian series about the rise of the Medici family and the Italian Renaissance, with a €24m (US$26.91m) budget. Produced by Lux Vide SPA and Big Light Productions, it features Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. The show will be broadcast in Italy by Rai and distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV
Public Enemy is a 10-hour drama from Belgium, aired domestically by RTBF and distributed by Zodiak Rights. It centres on Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer whose eventual release leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and the rest of the country. When a young girl subsequently disappears, the entire village is in uproar. Chloé Muller, a young inspector based in Brussels, is assigned to the investigation to protect the despised Béranger, bringing her face-to-face with the fears and secrets of the seemingly peaceful community.
Roots is a reboot of the classic 1970s series and is again based on the acclaimed book by Alex Haley. Distributed by A+E International, it’s a detailed portrait of American slavery, recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite great hardship. Roots boasts a stellar cast and will debut on May 30 across History, A&E and Lifetime channels in the US. The series starts with the capture of Kunta Kinte in his homeland of The Gambia and follows his transportation to America where he is enslaved.
Section Zéro is an eight-part French drama that was first introduced to the international market last year. Attending MipTV as part of the new MipDrama Screenings, it is produced by EuropaCorp Television, Bad Company and Umedia for Canal+ France with StudioCanal as distributor. The show is set in 2024 and sees an elite police squad battle it out with powerful corporations and their robots. StudioCanal has called the series a mix of Fargo, The Returned and Mad Max.
The Secret is a four-hour crime drama from Hat Trick Productions in association with Northern Ireland Screen. Starring James Nesbitt (The Missing) and based on a book by Deric Henderson, it focuses on a real-life double murder. Nesbitt plays Colin Howell, a respectable dentist and pillar of the community, while Genevieve O’Reilly (The Honourable Woman) is Sunday school teacher Hazel Buchanan. Howell and Buchanan met at their local Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland and embarked upon a passionate and destructive affair, which climaxed in an elaborate plot to kill both their partners. The show is being distributed by Hat Trick International.
Victoria is an eight-part historical drama from ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Produced by Mammoth Screen, it follows the early life of the celebrated UK monarch, who ascended the throne aged just 18. The series has already been picked up by PBS in the US and will be screened to an audience of 350 at the first-ever MipDrama Screenings on Sunday April 3.
Wolf Creek is a new psychological thriller based on the international feature film of the same name. Produced by Screentime for Stan in Australia, it focuses on a 19-year-old girl seeking revenge against the murdering psychopath who killed her parents and little brother. The six-hour series is being distributed by Zodiak Rights.
If you’re in Cannes for MipTV and want to read more about Marcella, Victoria and much, much more, pick up the spring 2016 issue of Drama Quarterly.
There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.
Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.
There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.
But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.
The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.
An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.
Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.
Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.
Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.
The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.
There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.
Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.
There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.
Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.
US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.
When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.
In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.
He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”
Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.
But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.
Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.
WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.
Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.
Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.
“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”
Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.
“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.
“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”
Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.
“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.
Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.
“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”
While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.
With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.
Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.
“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.
“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”
Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”
It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”
Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.
“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”
That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.
“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”
Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).
“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.
“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”
Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.
This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?
“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”
The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.
“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”
At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.
“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”
One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?
“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).
“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”
Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”
Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.
“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”
From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.
“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”
Following the PBS path
US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.
For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.
The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.
“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”
Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.
More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.
Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”
Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.
“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”
PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.
It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.
“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.
“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”
PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.
Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.
Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”
Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”
That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”
When adapting a much-loved book for television, what’s the best way to keep the source material’s army of loyal fans onside? Get them involved.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel, is finally heading to television 14 years after it was first published.
US premium cable network Starz announced last month that it had ordered a series based on the contemporary fantasy novel. The show has been in development at FremantleMedia North America since February 2014.
Translated into more than 30 languages, the book is set amid a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart group of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is in reality one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
The deal to finally bring Gaiman’s book to the small screen will end years of anticipation for its fans, who were left disappointed when plans for Tom Hanks to develop American Gods for HBO failed to materialise.
Now, however, the series looks set to hit production, with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on board as writers and showrunners. Gaiman himself will also write some of the episodes, much to the delight of his supporters.
When the series was announced, the author said: “I am thrilled, scared, delighted, nervous and a ball of glorious anticipation. The team that is going to bring the world of American Gods to the screen has been assembled like the master criminals in a caper movie: I’m relieved and confident that my baby is in good hands.
“Now we finally move to the exciting business that fans have been doing for the last dozen years: casting our Shadow, our Wednesday, our Laura…”
Fears over Starz’ plans for the series were also dispelled when the network CEO Chris Albrecht said it was “committed to bring American Gods to its legions of fans.”
He added: “With our partners at FremantleMedia and with Bryan, Michael and Neil guiding the project, we hope to create a series that honours the book and does right by the fans, who have been casting it in their minds for years. The search for Shadow begins today!”
With that final statement, Albrecht sent fans’ heads spinning into overdrive after it emerged that the start of production rested on finding the actor who would play the show’s lead character.
But in an attempt to utilise the novel’s huge online fanbase, Starz invited fans to suggest who they think should play Shadow Moon using the Twitter hashtag #CastingShadow.
The response has been huge, with hundreds of tweets posted with the names of actors not only to play Shadow Moon, but countless other characters as well.
Among the frontrunners for the fans’ choice for the lead role is Jason Momoa (top left), best known for his role in Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones and now appearing in SundanceTV’s The Red Road.
Other suggestions include Luther star Idris Elba (top right), Criminal Minds actor Shemar Moore, The 100’s Ricky Whittle and Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams.
The suggestions are endless and the debate will rage on, both on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, until a name has finally been cast – and then the debate will reignite once more.
That’s the fine line networks and producers tread when adapting a popular book for television (or the movies). They know they will have a lot of buzz around the show from an existing fanbase, which becomes a ready-made audience, with many more looking forward to catching up.
Yet from the casting process to the series’ identity and the treatment of characters and storylines on screen, that same audience will enjoy constantly comparing the book and the show.
By engaging with fans and leading the debate on Twitter, Starz and Fremantle have shown respect for American Gods’ existing popularity and that they care about how fans respond to the project. What that loyal army of readers will make of the finished series, however, is truly in the hands of the gods.
This is one of those weeks that makes you realise the current boom in scripted series is far from over. In Europe and the US, across pay TV and free TV, the latest greenlights must easily represent in excess of US$50m of new productions.
Not only that, they all look like projects that will actually make it to screen, rather than ending up in the dustbin of failed developments.
One of the most high-profile announcements came from US premium cable channel Starz, whose aggressive pursuit of its two main rivals HBO and Showtime has seen it back ambitious series such as Power, Outlander, Black Sails and Flesh and Bone. Now it has announced plans for a series based on Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.
Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Hannibal) and Michael Green (Gotham, Heroes) will write the screen version and act as showrunners, with Gaiman on board as executive producer. The show is being produced by FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), with international sales handled by FremantleMedia International.
Commenting on the project, Gaiman said: “I am thrilled, scared, delighted, nervous and a ball of glorious anticipation. The team that is going to bring the world of American Gods to the screen has been assembled like the master criminals in a caper movie: I’m relieved and confident that my baby is in good hands.”
The project is an important one for FMNA, which has just experienced the disappointment of a cancellation for supernatural series The Returned. FMNA co-CEO Craig Cegielski said: “Neil’s novel is a brilliant work of art and together with the talented Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, we are committed to delivering a series that is nothing short of extraordinary.”
Showtime has also been in the news this week, having renewed Penny Dreadful, its horror drama copro with Sky Atlantic, for a third season of nine episodes. The series, which has built up a lot of momentum since season two, will shoot in Dublin with TX due in 2016.
Showtime president David Nevins said: “(Creator) John Logan’s brilliant writing and the show’s amazingly talented ensemble continue to draw a passionate, global fanbase into the meticulously crafted world of Penny Dreadful.”
Sky Atlantic director Zai Bennett added: “Penny Dreadful is the perfect fit for Sky Atlantic; truly international in scale and ambition but with a raft of British talent at its core, and filmed in the Republic of Ireland. I’m thrilled to have the series returning to the channel, and to once again be partnering with John Logan and continuing to work with our good friends at Showtime.”
HBO has cropped up in the headlines this week too, following the revelation in the Hollywood Reporter that David Simon, creator of The Wire, is working on a series for the channel called The Deuce, about the rise of the porn industry in the 1970s. While there has been no official confirmation on this from HBO, Simon is currently working with the channel on a series called Show Me a Hero, so the prospect of a second greenlight seems close to the mark.
In Europe, one of the biggest announcements of the week came during the Monte Carlo TV Festival, where Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, announced that Gaumont Television Europe plans to produce a new 13×60’ English language series entitled Crosshair. A Europe-based thriller that follows a former CIA assassin turned gunman for hire, Crosshair is written by Ken Sanzel, whose credits include CBS series Numb3rs.
Crosshair is the third project under the Gaumont Television Europe banner, after Spy City and 1001, an English-language thriller created by Real Humans’ Lars Lundström.
“We are seeing a huge trend into drama production making Europe a new frontier for TV,” said Riandee, “and a project like Crosshair is the perfect fit. It’s a new idea and a new world for a procedural series.”
Other activities that back Riandee’s upbeat assessment of the scene in Europe include the news that Israeli producer and distributor Keshet International wants to be more active in the European drama space, with plans to fund three or four productions a year. This would build on previously announced plans to work with France’s Atlantique Productions on an eight-part series called Crater Lake (written by Ron Lesham).
There was also a triple greenlight announcement from UK-based broadcaster ITV this week. The most interesting news is that it has commissioned Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of Scandinavian drama The Bridge, to make his first series in the UK. Called Marcella, the 8×60’ show (produced by Buccaneer Media) follows a female detective working on a murder case.
ITV also announced plans for a series called Tennison, a prequel to its long-running hit crime series Prime Suspect, which featured Helen Mirren as detective Jane Tennison. The new series, from Noho Film and Television and La Plante Global, is a six-parter. The decision to go down the prequel route follows ITV’s success with Endeavour, a prequel to fellow long-running crime series Morse.
The third part of ITV’s production news is the commission of six-part drama series The Durrells, based on author Gerald Durrell’s Corfu memoirs, including My Family and Other Animals. The series is being written by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly) and produced by Sally Woodward Gentle.
Durrell’s works are a perennial favourite for film and TV producers, with My Family and Other Animals adapted for the big screen in 2005. So it will be interesting to see how the TV series takes the franchise on. Woodward Gentle said: “Gerald Durrell’s novels are some of the warmest, wittiest, books of the last century. It is no wonder they are so well loved. It is a real treat to be working on them with the brilliant Simon Nye. I hope that his obvious love of the characters and the material will be hugely infectious.”
Finally, there was interesting news from Hulu regarding The Way, a 10-part series it ordered in March from Jason Katims (Parenthood). On Wednesday, Aaron Paul – aka Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman – was revealed as the male lead in the drama, which centres on a controversial faith movement.
Hulu’s origination programme hasn’t received as much attention as that of Netflix or Amazon, but it does have some standout projects. Aside from The Way, it has greenlit a series called 11/22/63 from Stephen King and JJ Abrams that will star James Franco.