Hollywood producer Joel Silver has been given the go-ahead to develop scripted pilots for both CBS and Fox in the US. These will be developed via a division called Silver Pictures Television, within the framework of Silver’s new first-look deal with Lionsgate TV.
The Lionsgate deal is described as a multi-year partnership, which means it will continue beyond the first two announced projects.
For CBS, Silver is developing Bathory. Set in 17th century Budapest, the show is a new take on vampire mythology following Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian aristocrat who was also one of history’s most notorious female serial killers. Meanwhile, the Fox project, Soar, centres on a former NBA prodigy turned criminal who becomes the basketball coach at an upmarket high school after his release from prison.
Silver is one of the best-known names in the Hollywood film business, responsible for franchises such as Lethal Weapon, The Matrix and Die Hard. But he also has a track record in TV, with credits including Veronica Mars, Moonlight and Tales From the Crypt.
Commenting on the partnership with Lionsgate TV, he said: “Lionsgate has established a reputation for creating some of the most ground-breaking and memorable television brands in the world, and I look forward to contributing a roster of big, audience-pleasing event properties to their incredible pipeline.”
Explaining the appeal of the partnership from Lionsgate TV’s perspective, chairman Kevin Beggs said: “Joel has created some of the biggest franchises of all time and established an incredible network of relationships with top writers and creative talent.”
The Silver deal isn’t the only big news coming out of Lionsgate at the moment. The TV division has also announced that it is developing a one-hour drama series called The Rook with Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.
According to Lionsgate, the series, which is being produced out of the UK, will centre on a female protagonist with extraordinary powers who is employed by a mysterious British government agency responsible for defending Britain from supernatural threats.
The series is being developed by Lionsgate for a major British broadcaster and Hulu in the US. It’s the latest in a line of shows that US content creators are producing in Europe, presumably to access tax breaks.
In addition, Liberty Global and Discovery Communications each intend to pay US$195m to acquire 3.4% stakes in Lionsgate. As a result, Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Liberty Global president and CEO Michael Fries will join the Lionsgate board. A key consequence of this is likely to be greater collaboration between the partners in content development and production.
Zaslav said: “As with all our creative partners, we look forward to telling world-class stories with the team at Lionsgate, and strengthening Discovery’s content pipeline across our platforms around the world.”
A big scripted TV distribution story this week saw BBC Worldwide strike a deal with NBC Universal International Networks that means sci-fi series Doctor Who will appear on the Syfy channel across Latin America next year.
Until now, the show has aired on the BBC-owned networks in the region. But from 2016, Syfy will show a re-run of season eight, followed by the exclusive regional premiere of season nine. Seasons five to seven have also been confirmed to be part of the offer of the network later in the year.
“More than 50 years and eight seasons on BBC’s own networks in Latin America helped Doctor Who develop a loyal following within the region, where the series has an exceptional number of fervent fans,” said Anna Gordon, executive VP and MD of BBC Worldwide Latin America/US Hispanic. “Our partnership with Syfy reintroduces one of our company’s most acclaimed shows to Latin America and brings it closer to dedicated science-fiction and fantasy fans.”
Klaudia Bermudez-Key, senior VP and general manager of NBCU Networks International for Latin America, added: “Syfy is known for pushing the limits of imagination, and it is undoubtedly the perfect home for the iconic Doctor Who. The series is a perfect addition to the content found on Syfy, which appeals to audiences across the region. Our viewers continuously expect a high-quality standard for all programming content, and we are delivering accordingly.”
Still in the world of distribution, European pay TV broadcaster Sky has extended its content deal with US premium cable channel HBO to cover all five of its European territories (UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy). Under the terms of the deal, which runs until 2020, Sky will have exclusive first-run rights to HBO shows such as Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s music industry drama Vinyl and JJ Abrams’ reboot of sci-fi classic Westworld.
Significantly, given the growing competition from subscription VoD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, the deal will also extend Sky’s VoD rights. More box sets of hit HBO shows such as Boardwalk Empire will be available on Sky’s digital platforms for longer periods, while episodes of current series will be available on catch-up as they air on linear TV.
Commenting on the deal, HBO president of programming sales Charles Schreger said Sky has “shined a spotlight on our original programming and treated the shows as preciously as if they were their own. This ongoing relationship has been rewarding and successful to both of us and this expansion is representative of the trust and admiration we have for them as well as a belief that we can elevate each other even further.”
Seen in totality, the above stories all demonstrate how the world’s leading pay TV providers (Liberty Global, Discovery, NBCU and Sky) are seeking tighter control over premium content.
In the UK, meanwhile, commercial broadcaster ITV (which also, incidentally, is 9.9% owned by Liberty Global) has ordered a second season of critically acclaimed crime drama Unforgotten.
Produced by Mainstreet Pictures, the six-parter focuses on a cold-case murder enquiry after the bones of a man are discovered beneath a demolished house. Recently finished, the show attracted a respectable audience of around four to five million.
The series was created and written by Chris Lang, who said: “I am immensely excited to be writing a second season of Unforgotten and relish the challenge of introducing a brand new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”
ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea commissioned the new series. The executive producers are Sally Haynes, Chris Lang and Laura Mackie.
Finally, Deadline is reporting another score for Scandinavian drama. According to a report last week, Anonymous Content and Paramount are developing an English-language version of TV4 Sweden’s hit series Torpederna, to be adapted by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
With his new ITV show Unforgotten focusing on the investigation into a 39-year-old murder case, writer Chris Lang tells Michael Pickard how police documentaries have changed the way he looks at crime dramas.
Could you live with yourself for 40 years after committing a heinous crime? That’s the question at the heart of Unforgotten, a new six-part drama now airing on ITV.
Created and written by Chris Lang (Undeniable, A Mother’s Son), it opens as the bones of a young man are found beneath the foundations of a demolished house, launching an investigation into a 39-year-old murder that will unravel the lives of four people who discover the past won’t stay buried forever.
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar pair up as DCI Cassie Stuart and DS Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan, who gradually unravel the secrets hidden by four potential suspects – played by Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Ruth Sheen and Tom Courtenay.
“It’s been an incredibly enjoyable experience,” says Lang of the show’s production. “I would relish the opportunity to do it all again. It’s such a difficult process making shows and you never quite know if the alchemy is going to come together to make something good and if it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. It is just a kind of magic when it works, and I believe it has on this occasion.”
Lang’s initial inspiration for the story came from a news report concerning a historical police investigation that led to the conviction of an 80-year-old man: “I was struck by how that person’s life, in a space of a few hours, had collapsed. I just thought that was a really interesting starting point – what’s it like to live with a crime for 30 or 40 years and have a family and career, only to see them dismantled in an instant? What’s that like for the person and all those people around you? That crystallised a few ideas and then other ideas were added to that to create a story.”
The series, which is distributed internationally by BBC Worldwide, is the first commission for Mainstreet Pictures, the fledgling production company formed by former ITV drama heads and Unforgotten executive producers Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes.
“It was quite an easy commission,” Lang recalls. “I took it to Laura and Sally who I knew very well and who had just left ITV (in June 2013). We met and had a chat; I wasn’t expecting to pitch to them but they seemed very excited by the idea.
“I was working on something else and they did what good producers do – they kept hassling me to give it to them. So they did their job well and I’m glad they did. Then we pitched it to ITV and they got it immediately. It seemed a natural fit and they’ve been extremely supportive all the way through.”
In less than two years, Unforgotten has grown from an idea to a fully realised drama, which is partly attributed to Lang penning the script in just six months.
“People often say I’m a fast writer. I don’t think I’m particularly fast but I work long days,” he explains. “I start at 08.30 and often don’t finish until 19.00, and I don’t really take a lunch break. I put the hours in. People often ask me how one becomes a writer – well, you sit down at a desk and write. Quite often what you write is rubbish, but you go back the next day and rewrite it. I probably wrote the whole series in six months. Each episode probably took four or five weeks to write.”
The show was greenlit by ITV in March 2014 and went into pre-production last December with the unusual advantage of having all six scripts completed.
“For production purposes that’s a godsend because you can tie down so much,” Lang adds. “You know where everything’s set and what characters you have to cast. When I’ve worked on other people’s shows and written for existing series, you’re frequently working in a state of total chaos. The scripts might not come in until three or four days before shooting – it’s terrible for everyone. I hate doing that, so I always endeavour to have all the scripts ready before we go into pre-production.”
Explaining Unforgotten’s tone, Lang says there’s no blood or gore – “It’s not that sort of show.” Instead, he has firmly rooted it in reality in order to demonstrate changes in society over the past 50 years.
“I wanted to reflect something of the movement in society and our various attitudes,” he says. “I never wanted the storyline to feel forced or fantastical in any way. I’ve written many thrillers over the years and I hope the more I do it, the more I learn that telling stories that are completely rooted in believability are much more appealing to an audience. I hope I’ve achieved that. That was the ambition.”
The premise of the story does bring with it one particular test for any writer: how do you introduce so many characters at the beginning of a series and ensure viewers stick with it until they learn how they might all be connected? Lang says it was a “real structural challenge” but that it was a deliberate strategy, aided by a strong cast.
“A lot of dramas employ a structural device that’s quite linear, that presents one suspect and discounts them and moves on to the next again and again over the course of six or 10 parts,” he says. “I began to find that quite unsatisfying because you would invest your time and emotion in one character and then they’d be gone, so I really wanted to present a cast of characters that viewers stay with for the whole show.
“It helps when you’ve managed to attract the cast we did. Within the first 14 minutes of the show, we have introduced to the audience not just Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Baskar but Tom Courtney, Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill and Ruth Sheen and all their families, featuring Hannah Gordon, Gemma Jones and Claire Goose. If we can’t hold them with that cast, we’re sunk, but I think we can.”
With additional credits including ITV’s The Bill and Sky Atlantic/Canal+ coproduction The Tunnel, based on Scandinavian mega-hit The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Lang has plenty of experience writing police dramas.
But he credits documentary series such as 24 Hours in Police Custody, The Met and The Detectives with influencing the realistic tone and style of Unforgotten.
“The genre has evolved massively in my time as a writer,” he says. “The Bill was incredibly procedural and all about the minutiae of on-the-job coppers, but shows like 24 Hours in Police Custody are rewriting the rules about how we see the police. Our design team and director Andy Wilson used them as really helpful templates for how policing looks and feels.
“There’s a definite and deliberate move away from the highly stylised police shows where you’ve got beautiful offices and moodily lit basements where it’s arty and gorgeous. Ours are just incredibly ordinary but I hope incredibly real. Hopefully it reflects the reality more than the stylised shows do.”
For now, Lang is thankful he is working in “the best time to be a writer that there’s ever been.” In particular, he points to the “paradigm shift” demonstrated by the movement of creative talent from film to television, rather than the other way.
“Drama is riding high everywhere,” he says. “I’m constantly going to meet producers who are moving from film to television because it’s where a lot of the real creativity is now taking place in a way it wasn’t 10 or 20 years ago. In television, writers have always had more respect than in film – even more so now. So it’s a great time. Television just feels incredibly creative and it’s the place where talent wants to be. Making a film was always the holy grail of being a writer or director but I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.
His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.
A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.
But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.
“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”
Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”
Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”
But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.
Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.
Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”
The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.
But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”
Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.
In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.
“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”
Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”
This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.
While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.
In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.
Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”
While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.
“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”
Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”
One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.
Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.
The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”
This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).
Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”
This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.
“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”
Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”
BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”
For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).
US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.
Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.
Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.
“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).
With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?
The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.
In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”
For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”
Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.
“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”
With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.
The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”
BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.
In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”
The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”
Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”
His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.
For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”
He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”
While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).
Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”
It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”
Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”
Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”
With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”
eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”
One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”
The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.
The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.
Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”
While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.
One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).
Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”
This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.
Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”
On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”
Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”
For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”
While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.
The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”
Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”
So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”
At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.
C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.
Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.
However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”
BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”
Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”