A few years ago, Israeli producers started to make serious inroads into the US market with local adaptations of their dramas. Exemplified by shows like In Treatment, Traffic Light and Homeland, we looked at this trend in a column in June 2015.
Subsequently, Israel has also started to have notable successes in other parts of the world. A good example is Keshet International (KI)’s The A Word, a comedy drama adapted by the BBC in the UK. Having secured strong ratings in BBC1 primetime, the show has now been recommissioned for a second season and is being adapted for the Greek market. It has also been licensed to broadcasters including Sundance in the US, CBC (Canada), BBC First (Australia) and, ironically perhaps, pay TV broadcaster YES in Israel.
It’s not just Israeli adaptations that are winning over buyers. Original Hebrew-language dramas have also started to generate interest. In October 2015, for example, Fox International Channels acquired KI drama False Flag – the first time it had bought a non-English-language scripted series for use on a global scale.
Federation Entertainment and Armoza Formats, meanwhile, have had a lot of joy selling Hebrew-language series Hostages internationally, and there is also an English-language version of the show. Additionally, Endemol Shine International recently sold Israeli thriller Mossad to Turner Latin America.
This week, there was another positive development for Hebrew-language drama, with the news that Channel 4 in the UK is to air Endemol’s Israel-produced comedy-drama The Baker and the Beauty – the first time C4 has ever aired an Israeli drama in its original form. The show, distributed by KI, was picked up earlier this year for use on the C4-backed foreign-language VOD service Walter Presents. But airing on C4’s main channel means it will get much greater exposure in the UK market.
The show, which has been adapted for Greece, The Netherlands and Russia, is a top performer in Israel and has been greenlit for a second season. It follows the love story between a female celebrity and a baker who still lives with his parents. A chance encounter results in their romance, but the big question is whether their relationship can survive her jet-setting lifestyle, her overbearing agent, his unworldly family, both their exes and media intrusion.
Elsewhere this week, there are reports that Sony PlayStation is cancelling superhero drama Powers after two seasons. The news was broken on Twitter by creator Brian Michael Bendis.
this is hard to tweet, but word is that @POWERStheSERIES is sadly, no more. season 2 was the last. at least for now. 1/2
The ‘at least for now’ may mean Bendis is planning to look for another network home for Powers. But the show has not been especially well received by critics, so a season three revival seems unlikely. At least Bendis can console himself with the fact that Powers will continue in comic book form with Marvel.
Powers was PlayStation’s first original drama commission, so the fact that it has been cancelled may signal that the Sony-owned gaming platform is pulling back from investment in television. That wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that Sony is now ploughing money into scripted productions for Crackle.
Another show in trouble this week is Houdini & Doyle, which we have discussed before in this column. The show’s first season aired on ITV Encore in the UK and Fox in the US earlier this year, drawing modest ratings. Fox has now said it won’t recommission it, so it remains to be seen if ITV will go searching for other partners to keep the franchise alive.
This week also saw the conclusion of The Secret Agent on BBC1. The three-part miniseries was an adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s finest novels. As far as I can tell, it’s the first Conrad TV adaptation since Nostromo in 1997. The Secret Agent itself was previously adapted as a film in 1996, with Bob Hoskins.
I was very much looking forward to the production – because Conrad is one of my favourite authors and lead actor Toby Jones (Verloc) is one of my favourite actors. But it seems to have missed its mark with the audience. The first episode came in below the slot average, which doesn’t bode well for the next two episodes (the ratings aren’t in yet). It also scored just 5.8 on IMDb, which is low. And entertainment critics weren’t exactly enthusiastic.
There appear to be two key problems with the show. The first is that the story is so bleak, a point well articulated by Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph. The second is that Conrad novels are not structured in a way that lends themselves to adaptation. So often in his works, key pieces of action happen early and then become the basis for extended psychological studies. This is very different, for example, from a Thomas Hardy novel – where there is usually a powerful setup, some unexpected twists and turns and a dramatic conclusion.
The strength of the acting and writing certainly make The Secret Agent worth watching – it’s only three hours long, after all. But the show should be a warning to anyone thinking of adapting other Conrad novels. Those tempted should probably focus on his sea stories – and should perhaps look for a contemporary setting (echoing the way Francis Ford Coppola created Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness). Anyone interested in following up on this subject should see this Guardian article.
Finally this week, Starz Digital, the on-demand licensing arm of US cable network Starz, has licensed comedy-horror series Ash vs Evil Dead to Amazon in Germany. The first season of the show was a big hit for Starz in the US, reaching 8.7 on IMDb. Season two will hit US screens on October 2, while Amazon’s deal will see it air season one next month.
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.
AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.
The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.
The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.
Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).
This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.
The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.
In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).
Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.
Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”
Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).
Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.
Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.
After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.
Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.
The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.
Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.
With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
It’s a regular cause for discussion that feature film studios and talent are moving into the scripted TV business. But there’s an equally significant trend involving archive movies being reinvented as TV series.
Already out in the market, and doing pretty well, are classic titles including Fargo, Sleepy Hollow, Transporter, Hannibal, 12 Monkeys, Teen Wolf and Parenthood. And this autumn will see the floodgates open still further, with TV spin-offs launching across a wide range of US channels.
Examples include Limitless, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Supergirl, Scream, Ash vs Evil Dead and Uncle Buck, all of which are just weeks away from launch. Coming down the line soon after will be a TV version of Shooter, the 2007 film starring Mark Wahlberg.
The main reason for this spate of remakes is the need to cut through the clutter of competition. With around 400 TV dramas a year vying for attention in the US market alone, any kind of in-built brand awareness is extremely valuable at launch. While a movie’s heritage can’t, in itself, make an audience like a TV show, it can at least encourage viewers to sample it – especially if some aspect of the originating film crosses over (thus adding authenticity).
MGM, for example, made much of the fact that the Coen brothers had a hand in the scripts for the Fargo reboot. And Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper is lined up to appear in some episodes of Limitless, having starred in the movie.
The future prospects for this film-to-TV business model may well depend on the hit rate of this year’s batch of remakes. But it’s worth noting that all of the existing film-to-TV productions mentioned in the opening paragraph made it to season two at least. Teen Wolf, for example, is at season five. This hit rate compares pretty favourably with shows based on foreign scripted formats, where successes are few and far between.
Ironically, one issue that may affect film-to-TV adaptations is the current shift in the TV industry’s favour. With the film industry polarising between blockbuster and low-budget independent productions, the mid-market where many of the above film titles lived is under pressure. In other words, films capable of adaptation may prove a precious resource that gets over-mined by the industry.
For now, though, there is no sign that the future pipeline is drying up, with confirmation coming this week that Denzel Washington movie Training Day is being lined up for a remake at CBS (initially as a pilot from Warners Bros TV and Jerry Bruckheimer).
CBS, it should be noted, is a fan of this approach, having already greenlit Supergirl, Limitless and Rush Hour – which has also been picked up by E4 in the UK.
Meanwhile, it was revealed last week that NBC is backing a TV adaptation of RED, a cult film series starring Bruce Willis that was itself based on a comic book franchise. There is also talk of a third movie in the RED franchise, so we may be seeing an era of parallel development emerge.
As a footnote, last week also saw the announcement that cult TV show Baywatch is being brought back as a movie with Zac Efron. That is sure to revive interest in the library rights of the TV show – NBC-owned Cozi TV and Telemundo’s TeleXitos both recently relaunched the series – and could even stimulate a TV reboot down the line.
Other TV-to-film stories this week centred on Downton Abbey. With the iconic period drama having just wrapped production on its final season, producer Carnival is now considering continuing the franchise on the big screen –possibly taking the show into the pre-Second World War financial crash.
All of the recent talk about there being too much scripted TV doesn’t seem to have unsettled Viacom-owned channel Spike. Having recently finished airing ancient Egyptian miniseries Tut, Spike has just ordered its first one-hour drama series in nine years – a 10-parter from Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Horizon Television called Harvest.
The show is being written by Ian Sobel and Matt Morgan (12 Monkeys) and tells the story of a cemetery caretaker who finds his quiet life in jeopardy when his estranged criminal father tracks him down. To protect his daughter, he works with his father in the illegal trade in body tissue.
This week also saw Australian subscription VoD platform Presto pick up rights to USA Network thriller Mr Robot, which has Christian Slater among its cast. Presto, which acquired the show from NBCUniversal, will show the first seven episodes of Mr Robot immediately before adding the last three after they air stateside on USA.
The show follows a young programmer who suffers from a debilitating anti-social disorder. He finds himself caught between working for a cybersecurity firm and the murky world of mysterious anarchist Mr Robot, played by Slater. In the US, the show is averaging an audience of around 1.42 million viewers, though recent episodes are nearer the 1.2 million mark. The show was recommissioned for a second season very early on the basis of a digital preview.
Finally, a week after Showtime Networks president David Nevins criticised some of the current risky investments in scripted TV, Showtime announced it is producing I’m Dying Up Here, a new one-hour pilot being executive produced by Jim Carrey.
Based on the non-fiction novel by William Knoedelseder, the pilot will be directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies) and produced by Endemol Shine Studios and Assembly Entertainment. Written and executive produced by former stand-up comedian Dave Flebotte (Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, The Bernie Mac Show) and set among the famous Hollywood comedy clubs of the 1970s, the dark comedy pilot “will delve into the inspired and damaged psyches that inhabit the hilarious but complex business of making an audience laugh”.
Nevins said: “The 1970s LA comedy scene gave rise to some of the biggest and most influential performers of the last half-century. Who better than Jim Carrey and Dave Flebotte, who were both there, to tell the story of that special era?”
When asked last week about the current situation with scripted programming, Nevins said Showtime is in expansion mode, but he questioned networks that were rushing into new shows – giving two-season commitments on the basis on pitches, for example. He said brands like Showtime that “stand for something” will survive.
There’s a lot of excitement in the world of telenovela right now following the news that Brazilian TV giant Globo has started production on A Regar do Jogo (The Rule of the Game).
Due to air in August, the show is from Joao Emanuel Carneiro, the creator of global hit Avenida Brasil (Brazil Avenue). It tells the story of a much-loved politician whose life is more complex than it appears on the surface. The cast is led by Alexandre Nero (Empire) and also features Giovanna Antonelli (The Clone) and Caua Reymond (Brazil Avenue), among others.
Expectations for The Rule of the Game are high after the success of Avenida Brasil. Not only did Carneiro’s previous show secure massive ratings in its domestic market (the final episode secured an 84% share), it was sold into 130 territories worldwide. Business magazine Forbes called the show the most successful telenovela ever, estimating that it generated more than US$1bn in ad revenue (against a US$45m production budget). Let’s hope Carneiro has secured himself a favourable contract for the new project.
As discussed in a recent column, San Diego’s Comic-Con has become a key event in the calendar for US broadcasters. At this year’s edition, for example, there were numerous trailers, sneak previews and exclusive premieres on show for upcoming series. There was even some renewal news, notably MTV’s announcement that it has greenlit a sixth season of Teen Wolf and WGN America’s revelation that Salem will have a third run.
One other major topic was the upcoming array of zombie shows set to hit the market. AMC, for example, announced that The Walking Dead season six will premiere on Sunday October 11 at 21.00 with an extended 90-minute episode (preceded by a Zombie Apocalypse week, running from October 5-11). As in previous seasons, the show’s sixth run of 16 episodes will air in two parts, with the second eight hitting screens in February 2016.
AMC also revealed that its brand new companion series Fear The Walking Dead will premiere on Sunday August 23 at 21.00. Significantly, the show will also debut on AMC Global channels around the world simultaneously with the US premiere. “Anticipation for Fear the Walking Dead is reaching a crescendo and we are ecstatic about delivering the series to worldwide fans at the exact same time as the US,” says Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “Whether you’re in Hong Kong, Madrid or São Paulo, AMC viewers will be able to experience the start of the zombie apocalypse together.”
If all of that doesn’t satiate your thirst for dead flesh, then this autumn also sees the launch of Ash vs Evil Dead, a series from Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Greenlit by Starz, this particular zombiefest will launch on Saturday, October 31 at 21.00, wisely avoiding a confrontation with AMC’s megahit.
Currently in production in New Zealand, the 10-part Starz series is a follow-up to classic horror film franchise The Evil Dead. The cast is led by Bruce Campbell, who reprises his role as Ash, and Lucy Lawless (Salem, Spartacus). The first episode was directed by Raimi, creator of the original Evil Dead series as well as director of Darkman, Drag Me To Hell and the Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi’s involvement should ensure that this is more than just an attempt to cash in on the current fascination with the undead genre.
In Europe, pay TV broadcaster Sky has been flexing its muscles in recent years by investing in original programming. This week, its UK-based entertainment channel Sky 1 announced an autumn schedule that it says is underpinned by “a 20% increase in spend on new programmes.” In addition, it said that, for the first time, there will be brand new UK drama and comedy all year round, with drama on Wednesdays.
“I’m so excited we can offer absolutely top-quality drama all year round and I love how brilliantly unique our comedies feel,” said Adam MacDonald, director of Sky 1. “The range of original programming we have reflects what Sky 1 stands for: the very best of modern Britain and Ireland, and all the eclecticism, diversity and joy that implies. We know that some of the best family moments come from sitting around the TV and enjoying that time together, and we hope with this new line-up to create more of those moments.”
From September, Sky 1 will ramp up its commitment to drama with You, Me & The Apocalypse, starring Rob Lowe, Pauline Quirke, Mathew Baynton, Paterson Joseph and Joel Fry in an “adrenaline-fuelled, continent-spanning tale about the final days before a comet collides with the earth.” For the festive season there will be four-part drama Fungus the Bogeyman, based on the book by Raymond Briggs. This stars Victoria Wood, Keeley Hawes, Joanna Scanlan and, as Fungus, Timothy Spall.
Following a 2014 one-off, Ashley Jensen will return as Agatha Raisin, with eight mysteries based on the bestselling novels of MC Beaton. Acclaimed thriller writer Harlan Coben has also created his first original story for TV with The Five. A taut mystery about the consequences of a terrible childhood incident for a group of friends, the cast includes Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
Separately, comic-book legend Stan Lee has co-created his first UK TV drama, alongside writer Neil Biswas. Called Lucky Man, it stars James Nesbitt as a down-on-his-luck police officer whose fortunes mysteriously change.
Back in the US, HBO has renewed its series Ballers for a second season. From creator Stephen Levinson (Entourage, Boardwalk Empire), the show looks at the lives of former and current football players, focusing on former superstar Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson), who is trying to reinvent himself as a financial manager for current players in Miami. “We are thrilled with the overwhelming response the series has received,” says Michael Lombardo, president of HBO Programming. “The charismatic and hugely talented Dwayne Johnson, along with the rest of the Ballers cast, has struck a chord with the HBO audience.”
The first episode of Ballers season one aired on June 21 and has so far gathered 8.9 million viewers across HBO’s branded platforms, making it HBO’s most watched first episode of a half-hour series since 2009. Furthermore, the episode has also tallied a staggering 5.6 million views on Dwayne Johnson’s Facebook page. Aside from all the fan love, the show has also received critical acclaim, with Entertainment Weekly describing it as “funny” and “fast-moving,” and the Hollywood Reporter calling Dwayne Johnson “magnetic,” hailing his “star performance.”
Elsewhere, Broadcast reports that discussions are underway between Channel 4 and Kudos over a second season of Humans, which is currently in the middle of its first run. Broadcast quotes C4’s head of international drama Simon Maxwell as saying a second run is “very much under consideration. We’ve got a story that is told over a great many episodes and is designed to return.”
Finally, this week also sees the launch of the Heroes Reborn App, described by NBC as “a portal to the past, present and future of the Heroes universe.” According to NBC, the app provides fans with a simple, intuitive way to quickly catch up on the saga, with curated clips from all four seasons of the original Heroes series. The Heroes Reborn App also offers access to a six-episode prequel Dark Matters and special content from Heroes Reborn, which will be rolled out ahead of the series launch on September 24.
The App is an interesting insight into the way digital can be used to build a supporting mythology for scripted franchises. “We want fans to have a place where they can speed binge – either by season or by character – and experience all the excitement of Heroes and, at the same time, look into the future to see how Heroes Reborn continues this compelling franchise,” says Robert Hayes, executive VP for digital at NBC Entertainment. “This one-of-a-kind app is a one-stop shop for any Heroes aficionado.”
According to NBC and Tim Kring (creator of Heroes/Heroes Reborn), digital prequel Dark Matters will bridge the gap between the original series and Heroes Reborn, reintroducing viewers to the Heroes universe and unveiling a new generation of characters. “Anyone who watches Dark Matters will find the ton of clues, backstory and Easter eggs that we’ve layered in,” says Kring, who is executive producing Heroes Reborn. “Watching it before seeing Heroes Reborn completes the entire saga, and guarantees a deeper, more rewarding experience for the fans.”
The streets of San Diego will soon be filled with superheroes and comic book characters as the 45th Comic-Con International descends on the city. Once regarded as a niche event for comic geeks and sci-fi nerds, the event, which takes place from July 9-12, now attracts a staggering 130,000 visitors.
Aimed primarily at fans of graphic novels, superhero and sci-fi franchises, video games and animation series, Comic-Con is viewed as an important opportunity to engage with the kind of key influencers that drive more mainstream audience tastes. For this reason, it’s an event content owners dare not miss.
This year, every TV studio worth its salt will be in San Diego with projects that they believe match the Comic-Con profile. MTV, for example, is in town with long-running drama Teen Wolf and two upcoming series – Scream and The Shannara Chronicles. Like Teen Wolf, Scream is a movie spin-off, while Shannara is a fantasy series based on the best-selling books by Terry Brooks.
Underlining the seriousness with which broadcasters now take the event, MTV’s presence at Comic-Con will consist of a branded booth, sessions and visits by show-related talent including Tyler Posey, Dylan O’Brien, Bella Thorne, John Rhys Davies and Austin Butler. In the case of Shannara, for example, Brooks will join the cast and production team in a Q&A session where a first-look trailer will be shown.
Separately, MTV will also host the second annual MTV Fandom Awards, which honour diehard fans whose excitement has pushed movies, TV shows, books and comics from subculture to mainstream worldwide success in the past year.
Jostling with MTV for attention will be TNT, which is showcasing The Last Ship and Falling Skies. In addition to sessions with cast and production teams, TNT’s offering will include an Oculus Rift virtual-reality experience that will transport fans into The Last Ship’s fictional universe, where they must board a cargo ship taken over by ‘Immunes’ (immune survivors of a deadly plague that has nearly destroyed the entire population of the planet).
Not surprisingly, fellow cable channel Syfy will also have a high-profile presence at the event, with shows such as The Expanse, Childhood’s End, 12 Monkeys, Dominion and Z Nation, and movie Sharknado 3, in attendance. A good indicator of the emphasis placed on Comic-Con is that Syfy will use it to air a screening of the first two episodes of Dominion season two, with episode two airing one week before it premieres on Syfy.
In the case of Childhood’s End, based on the Arthur C Clarke novel, the cast will join screenwriter Matthew Graham (Doctor Who) as he discusses the transition to screen.
Also seeking the spotlight alongside MTV, TNT and Syfy will be FX, which is bringing a broad slate including Archer, American Horror Story: Hotel, Scream Queens, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, The Strain, and Kurt Sutter’s new project The Bastard Executioner. In a session entitled the FX TV Block, the channel will present a sneak preview of Sutter’s new series, due to debut this autumn.
BBC America’s contribution to the event is a Doctor Who session featuring lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat and the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, who is making his first Comic-Con appearance. Capaldi said: “Tales of San Diego Comic-Con are told in awe on every set around the known fantasy/sci-fi production world. It’s become a fabled kingdom. (Appearing there) is a further twist to the cosplay and comic madness I may never recover from.”
While the above channels inhabit the basic cable market, all of the key competitive sets are in attendance. Premium cable channel Showtime is in San Diego with Penny Dreadful (recently recommissioned for a third season), while its putative rival Starz is bringing Outlander and its hotly anticipated Evil Dead reboot Ash vs Evil Dead. The latter is currently in production in New Zealand and will premiere in the autumn as a 10-part series. It is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, who were all involved in the original franchise and will be at Comic-Con along with series co-star Lucy Lawless.
As for Showtime and Starz’ key rival HBO, the cablenet will bring a swathe of Games of Thrones stars to Comic-Con. There will also be an outing for Outcasts, a new series debuting on HBO sister service Cinemax. A Comic-Con panel focused on the show – which is based on the Skybound/Image comic and produced by Fox International Studios – will include executive producers Robert Kirkman and Chris Black, as well as various cast members.
Among the big four US networks, CBS is bringing its biggest panel line-up ever – featuring talent behind the likes of Limitless, Zoo, Extant, Scorpion, and Under the Dome. Illustrating the emphasis placed on in-event marketing, CBS has organised a Limitless café where attendees can get complimentary coffee, ‘Limitless’ refills, phone-charging services and free wifi. There will also be a screening of the first episode of the new show, which is based on the Bradley Cooper-starring movie.
ABC, meanwhile, is bringing hit series Once Upon a Time and newcomer The Muppets, while sister division Marvel will have its own dedicated conference activities to discuss Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, Marvel’s Agent Carter and other upcoming projects.
NBC’s line-up includes Heroes Reborn, Blindspot, The Player, Hannibal, and Grimm. In the case of the Heroes reboot, there will be a panel featuring creator Tim Kring plus various production and cast members. Alongside a trailer, NBC is promising a Heroes Reborn “4D interactive experience where fans will have the opportunity to access their own pyro-kinetic ability. Through a multi-sensory experience of interactive visuals and kinetic effects, fans will enter the world of Heroes Reborn and use their power with fire to escape a dangerous scenario.” Ooh err.
20th Century Fox’s focus will be on Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse, while Warner Bros will headline with Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, Gotham and animation series Teen Titans Go!
Reiterating the effort put into in-event marketing, Warner Bros is featuring these characters on 40,000 limited-edition hotel keycards at top hotels in the San Diego area. In terms of the event itself, a big focal point is Warner Bros Television Presents a Night of DC Entertainment, a three-hour session that will feature a pilot screening of new action series Supergirl, followed by a Q&A with stars and producers.
So what does it all amount to? Well, the truth is that there is no concrete evidence that a strong showing at Comic-Con influences the performance of a show once it hits the screen. But ignoring the impact of pre-launch social media commentary from fanboys and journalists is just too big a risk to take. So the best advice is – pull on your Supergirl cape and go enjoy the party.
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik has played a key role in a creative transformation that has boosted the pay TV broadcaster’s viewing figures, but he’s not stopping there. He tells DQ how he plans to increase original programming to keep the growth going.
In recent years, HBO, Showtime, Netflix and AMC have generated most of the headlines regarding the renaissance in scripted television. But any serious discussion of the genre also needs to factor in the creative transformation at Starz, the US premium pay TV broadcaster that has backed shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Black Sails, Outlander and Power.
One of the architects of the Starz revolution is MD Carmi Zlotnik, who joined the company in April 2010 at the behest of CEO Chris Albrecht. Zlotnik, who had previously worked with Albrecht at HBO and IMG, says Starz at that time was “a stable business but had no future. We started with significant challenges in terms of remodelling the company so it was clear who we were and how we liked to work.”
According to Zlotnik, the big problem with Starz was that its schedule was almost entirely dependent on acquired movies, with just a smattering of original shows: “We saw a clear need to make the business viable by converting from movies to originals. Movies are a commodity that doesn’t translate any real value to the channel brand. Viewers don’t know what network they are on. So to grow our subscriber base in a very competitive marketplace we needed to invest in originals.”
This thesis was complicated by the fact that the old Starz still made decent money. “We knew every dollar we spent on programming would be a dollar out of the profit margin. But Starz owner Liberty Media wanted its profits to increase, so we had to ramp up our original programming very gradually. It was an ‘eat what you kill’ mentality where programming innovation had to go hand in hand with financial discipline. The idea was that as profits grew we could invest more in original shows.”
The emphasis on financial rigour wasn’t, however, an excuse to play it safe, Zlotnik continues. “There’s a trite phrase going round about this being the golden age of television – but it’s also the golden age of competition in television. It’s not just networks competing with you for share of time and wallet but also theme parks, movies, video games and so on. It means you really need to dig to come up with new, refreshing thinking.”
At first sight, a reboot of Spartacus doesn’t look like it fits that definition, but for Zlotnik it’s a classic example of the way Starz has sought to “‘superserve’ the ‘underserved.’ We looked at the media landscape and asked: who is not being programmed for? In Spartacus we found a property that appealed to the ComicCon crowd. Women were also being underserved in terms of women driving the story, so we got behind The White Queen, which was a phenomenal performer for us. And the African American audience had almost been abandoned by the pay TV universe in the US, which is what brought us to Power, the Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson/Courtney Kemp Agboh project that was renewed for a second series by Starz in summer 2014.”
Having identified these areas as opportunities, Starz has sought to build on them. “Viewership of the channel is one of the most important marketing assets we have, so we have used it to launch other premium franchises.” Targeting the Spartacus fan base, for example, have been shows like pirate drama Black Sails and historical fantasy Da Vinci’s Demons. For women, The White Queen has been followed by Outlander, and for the US black community there is Survivor’s Remorse, a half-hour comedy series produced by basketball superstar LeBron James.
But doesn’t Zlotnik worry that the channel is creating a series of unrelated viewing ghettoes rather than a unified channel brand? “We reject the proposition that you can’t bring different audiences to the same programme. Outlander has a passionate female fan base as a book but we’ve been careful to make sure the male audience would appreciate the TV series. People want to watch stuff with their significant other.”
The fact that so many Starz properties have recognisable elements is a deliberate part of the strategy. In-built awareness of the Spartacus story, the success of the Outlander book series, the popularity of pirates at celebrations like Halloween and the fame of 50 Cent and LeBron James have all been key, Zlotnik says. “Curtis Jackson is a cultural entrepreneur so we were happy to get him; LeBron James is an icon who gets our brand into new places. It’s about leveraging IP and personalities in a way that allows us to cut through the cacophony of marketing messages. We’re trying to turn fans of existing brands into subscribers.”
This thesis extends to one of the latest properties to be added to the Starz portfolio, The Evil Dead. Based on the cult film franchise, a new TV series (to be called Ash Vs. Evil Dead) will debut as 10 half-hours in 2015. Should it prove successful, the goal will be to build a long-running franchise – and the omens look good. “Evil Dead has developed a huge fan base during its 30 years of life,” says Zlotnik. “Social media platforms like Twitter blew up when we announced we were doing it.”
The Evil Dead TV project has a strong US feel to it, with horror veteran Sam Raimi (who directed the original film trilogy) lined up to co-write series one and direct the first episode.
Zlotnik says Starz is keen to work with the best talent around the world. His most expansive international relationship to date has been with the BBC and BBC Worldwide – which have partnered Starz on projects including Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons – and Zlotnik is on the hunt for more. Speaking in London at the C21 Drama Summit at the end of 2014, he stressed that “the creative community is not just in Los Angeles but is a worldwide phenomenon. We want to source and finance programmes with an international purview.”
Further proof of his interest in non-US shows was the decision to come on board The Missing, an eight-part thriller about an English family whose son is kidnapped while on holiday in France. Shot in Belgium with a European cast, the series is not one that you’d immediately associate with US channels. So what appealed to Zlotnik? “The Missing was interesting to us because we were able to read all eight scripts at the start,” he says. “There was a freshness to the writing as well as a complicated, well-executed plot. We could see with clarity what journey the audience would go on. It was beguiling to see what happened to characters because the child went missing.”
The Missing is also notable because of the way Starz is utilising its content rights. The first episode was made available for free across a wide range of platforms, a week ahead of the series premiere on Starz, as a way to encourage sampling. All told, around 82 million households were able to view this episode, with a week then to decide if they wanted to subscribe to Starz to continue watching the series. Starz is also making each episode of the show available to subscribers via its on-demand services one week ahead of its linear transmission.
Zlotnik has made it clear that he sees on-demand as a critical component of the Starz business in future. The company’s SVOD service Starz Play recently launched on Xbox One in the US and is now being rolled out internationally. As a result, the need for on-demand rights affects content strategy: “We don’t do deals with three of the majors, Disney, Warner Bros, and Fox, because they don’t recognise our need for SVOD rights. We’re positioned as linear and on demand.”
In terms of the nuts and bolts of Starz’ approach, Zlotnik looks for “complexity, conflict and consequences” when investing in drama. He is fond of saying the channel looks for “truth and spectacle.” By truth, he means stories on Starz have to “relate to the human condition, to be about something,” while spectacle means they “must stand out, be larger than life.”
As series like Black Sails have shown, Starz is not scared of using visual effects or big set constructions to achieve spectacle, but this cannot be at the expense of accuracy in the details, says Zlotnik. “With green screen we can do pretty much anything to create compelling worlds. But the human eye picks up falsity very easily, so we take meticulous care to make sure everything passes the test. Every detail of wardrobe, set dressing, props and extras is important when we are schooling people.”
Similarly, Zlotnik says it is important not to confuse spectacle with scale: “It doesn’t always have to be about visual effects, it can be very intimate, such as an actor delivering a soliloquy. You really affect people when you hit them at an emotional level.”
Under Albrecht and Zlotnik, Starz has taken a flexible approach to deal making. In the case of copros, Zlotnik says the key is to pick the right partner at the outset: “If you are philosophically aligned you don’t have to micro-manage people. I’ve always found that if you pick copro partners with expertise and credibility, it turns long conversations into short conversations. As a company, we don’t demand more than our proportional say in the way the creative is developed.”
The obvious question, of course, is has this worked? Zlotnik has encouraging numbers to suggest it has. When Albrecht and Zlotnik began their transformation program, rivals HBO and Showtime had 28.8 million and 17.7 million subscribers respectively, while Starz had 16.9 million. The most recent comparative figures give HBO 30.4 million, Showtime 22.5 million and Starz 22 million – and Starz’ most recent financial report shows further growth to 22.5 million (Q3, 2014). “We’ve done that as a standalone company, without protection from a conglomerate and sister companies,” Zlotnik adds.
As subs grow, so does investment in programming, says Zlotnik. “Looking down 2015 and beyond, our ambition is to continue to grow originals. In 2013, we had 36 episodes; in 2014 it was 58, and this year it will be more than 60. Looking ahead to 2017, we have given up the Disney library, which means there will be additional resources to plug into original programming.”
Some financial caution continues to be required, however. Speaking about projects that haven’t quite worked out (yet), Zlotnik says: “We had developed a big sci-fi project (Steven DeKnight’s Incursion) which was like Band of Brothers meets Halo (the video game franchise). It’s on the backburner because we decided we could do two or three other projects for the price of that one. But it’s still out there.”
With growth, there has been inevitable speculation about where Starz might go next as a business. As referenced above, the company has announced plans to create an on-demand platform, and this is part of a wider attack on the global market. “We want to grow business internationally,” says Zlotnik. “We will grow through distribution then channel creation and on-demand. We developed the attributes of business in anticipation OTT would be a new phenomenon.”
On the face of it, it’s hard to see how Starz could compete with the much more established brands that are already fighting it out for elbow room in the international arena. But Zlotnik’s comments become more interesting when one factors in the recent takeover talk that has been swirling around Starz.
Starz’ job is clear. It needs to maintain a virtuous circle whereby investment in content grows subscribers, thus allowing further investment. It also needs to win the hearts and minds of the creative community, something it appears to be on the road to doing. Zlotnik says Starz has worked hard to build a reputation as a business that is “sustainable but creative, that will care for and nurture properties, especially those with existing fan bases. It excites me when someone with a clear idea and a lot of passion comes in with a pitch. We want to be a great creative partner, so that – at the end of it all – they say ‘that’s the show I had in mind.’”