Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.
Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.
They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.
Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
Ola Rapace stars as a detective investigating a brutal murder in Swedish drama Hassel. The show’s lead director, Amir Chamdin, reveals the demands of taking charge of his first television series.
Coming from a background directing commercials and music videos, Amir Chamdin has an ear for a tune. So it’s no surprise that when he started work on his first television drama, the soundtrack played an integral part in shaping its mood, tone and style.
Hassel, based on the novels by Olov Svedelid, tells the story of Roland Hassel, a street-smart detective fighting increased levels of crime in Stockholm. When his mentor, Yngve Ruda, is brutally murdered, he leads a below-the-radar task force to investigate and avenge his death – with consequences for his family.
One of the first meetings Chamdin had with star Ola Rapace (Section Zéro, Farang) was in a music studio where they shared ideas about the soundtrack – provided by Nicke Andersson, the frontman of Swedish rock band The Hellacopters.
“We sat in the studio working out how does Hassel sound, how does the street sound and how does our Stockholm sound?” the director reveals. “To start in that corner, you lay a pretty good foundation for the TV show because you know how it sounds. Then you build your characters. We started in that way so when we were on set we knew who the characters were; we didn’t have to discuss that.
“Then when we were filming, I started with a close-up most of the time to get the acting pure and natural, because the first couple of takes are often magical. When that’s done, I go for the wider takes because then I know it’s more about the scenario than the acting. For many people, that way is upside down, but for our world it really worked.”
Svedelid first introduced Hassel in 1972 novel Anmäld Försvunnen (Reported Missing) and his most recent appearance was in 2004’s Död i Ruta Ett (Death in a Box). The author died in 2008.
The 10-part series, which debuted in September, places Hassel in a brand new story set in contemporary Stockholm. It was created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, who wrote the scripts with Björn Paqualin, Charlotte Lesche, Johanna Ginstmark and Oliver Dixon. Hassel is produced by Nice Drama for Nordic SVoD streamer Viaplay and distributed by Beta Film.
“I’ve never done a TV series before. Five or 10 years ago, people were laughing at TV and thought films were the big thing,” says Chamdin, who also has feature films God Willing and Cornelius to his name. “Then TV swept everybody away and now they want to be in TV. Feature films are either art house or really big – there’s nothing in between. But it’s the same as in the 80s, when nobody believed in cinema because TV and video players were taking up all the attention. It’s all cyclical.
“For me to get into TV was more an opportunity because I knew the showrunner [Jansson-Schweizer] and it felt like common ground. TV today is much more cinematic than it was 10 years ago – especially this show, because it’s only one case, it’s character-driven. As a director, you can pay more attention to detail or the characters, so for me it was a really good experience.”
This isn’t the first time Hassel has been dramatised for the screen, with the novels first adapted in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a series Chamdin remembers, recalling how the police officer and the look of the series stood out from other cop dramas on television at that time.
“He’s not a one-line detective, he’s not pretentious at all,” the director says. “In Sweden, we have a problem that many police officers leave because they think the salaries are really bad. I wanted to portray that. They do so much work but no one really gives them any thanks. Hassel will get the job done. If he crosses the line, who cares? Because the bad guys do all the time and nobody cares.
“He’s a working-class hero. That’s a cliché but we’re portraying it in that way. That led me to build the cop family more realistically. I grew up with [1970s US police series] Baretta and Kojack so it’s a dream to do a crime series, but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of clichés. I tried to treat it in a different way and not focus too much on the action scenes, even though there is action. It’s pretty hard-boiled.”
Chamdin describes an “organic” shooting practice on set in which he shoots the action with long lenses, with the aim of following the actors instead of leading them. “It’s a mix between shooting it very much 70s-style with long lenses or handheld and up close, so you get more of a spaghetti western feel to it. [It’s not] the Scandi noir thing where everything is very perfect and clean – this is more gritty and the look of it is not cold and blue. I went for a warmer colour scheme, so it’s more about the reds and the greens. Almost all the Scandinavian series are blue for some reason, I don’t know why. I’m more into the warm colours and I think that shows more of the truth of Stockholm.”
The director also found that his background in music videos and commercials meant he well suited to the faster nature of television shoots compared with feature films.
“If you need more than three takes, something is wrong with the script, the actor or I haven’t done my job preparing it as a director beforehand,” he asserts. “So everything is in the preparation and understanding how long a scene will take. You really learn that from music videos and commercials because you’re on the clock. I don’t get stressed if it’s late in the day because I know how much time I need. That’s why it’s so important you’re well prepared and know what you want. That has helped me.”
Chamdin directs six episodes – the first four plus episodes seven and eight – and says he had loved exploring television, which he describes as a new world. “I love this format and it’s so accessible for everybody,” he concludes. “I’m so glad I can do this – if it’s film on the big screen, lovely; if it’s TV, great. It doesn’t really matter as long as you can do the craftsmanship. It’s a magic world.”
One day Jannis Niewöhner was shooting an art-house film, the next he was giving a rallying speech to 150 extras on the set of a German historical miniseries. He tells DQ about period drama Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne.
By the time Jannis Niewöhner arrived on the set of German historical miniseries Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne, he had completed two films back-to-back before “crashing” into his latest role as the titular 15th century Austrian archduke.
“I had, like, one day off between projects and then Maximilian was four months of working,” he recalls. “It was crazy but good – it was an experience. The interesting thing about such a long shoot is you have to find your motivation and energy for the whole time. On other movies, we do it in one or two months and then you’re done. But after two months on Maximilian, we knew it was going to be two more. To have the same motivation was tough but we were able to do it because we had a great story and a great team.”
Set in 1477, the show retells the love story between Marie (Christa Theret), the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian (Niewöhner), the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The cast also includes Tobias Moretti, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Miriam Gussenegger and Alix Poisson. The show, which debuts in Austria on ORF next month and on ZDF in Germany in the fall, is coproduced by the two networks alongside MR Film and Beta Film.
“He’s an impulsive and hot-headed guy,” Niewöhner says of his character. “He’s the son of the emperor of Austria. He rebels against his father, who waits until the enemy gets tired, is out of money or out of men, and he hates that. He sees it as a sign of weakness and wants to make strong decisions; he wants to fight. That’s one side of him – the other is the sensitive, immature side. Then he meets Marie and he has to discover how to deal with a woman he has to marry. It’s interesting to have both sides of that character that are really far away from each other.”
Having previously starred in film and TV series, German actor Niewöhner describes the six-hour Maximilian as a “long movie.” And, as a fan of Maximilian director Andreas Prochaska’s 2014 movie The Dark Valley, he was keen to link up with the Austrian.
“It was such a great movie – it was cool and looked great. But he [Prochaska] never loses the story or the character,” Niewöhner explains. “And I was interested in doing a genre movie but I also wanted to tell a true story.
“Andreas was great. He’s what you wish a director to be like. I had a lot of freedom, I could try a lot of things and he trusted me. That’s the best feeling you can have as an actor. [There are moments when] he comes to you and says little things, but you never get the feeling you have to do something you can’t do. You can feel like that sometimes when you do a movie. He’s open and he has the right attitude. His perspective of doing movies is that while it’s something we love and have a lot of passion for, it’s only a movie.”
As you might expect from an actor taking on a factual role such as Maximilian, Niewöhner set out to research the true story of his character – but was wary of straying too far from the character laid out in Martin Ambrosch’s script.
“I read some books at the beginning but then I recognised that I should not spend too much time on the historical facts because you can distance yourself from the script and that’s not a good thing,” he notes. “The special thing about Maximilian is it’s a coming-of-age story. He’s a young guy like me who has many questions and is angry and doesn’t know why. He’s someone I can compare myself to. It was important to focus on that.”
The period costumes and sets also helped Niewöhner get into character – as did his French co-star Theret, despite the language barrier between the pair.
“Playing with Christa was so interesting because we spoke different languages, but it worked,” he admits. “I thought it wouldn’t work because she speaks French and I speak German. That’s a strange thing and not something you have in real life, but you just focus on the eyes and body language – maybe that’s where the most emotion is.
“If you look each other in the eyes and are both committed and want to tell the story, it’s really easy to be close and to feel something for each other. It was great shooting with her.”
Filming across Austria and the Czech Republic, as well as in Budapest, Hungary, the actor compares the travelling production to being on a school trip.
He adds: “This production was a boy’s dream, but the biggest challenge was on my first day. Before, I was shooting an art-house movie with just 20 people in the team, improvising, and then I was standing on the set of Maximilian with 150 extras in front of me and I had to give a speech as the new duke of Bourgogne. It was a challenge but it was good to do it in the first days of shooting.
“Maximilian was like nothing I’ve done before. It was all new. I’ve done genre movies before but something like this, where you pretend to be the guy who makes decisions for a whole country, that was something new.”
With TV series becoming more cinematic, Niewöhner expects to be back on the small screen, but cinema will always be his first love – “because there I have a lot of time to prepare. I feel you have more freedom, but in this case [on Maximilian], it was produced like cinema and it looks like cinema, and that’s a great thing.”
Writer Paula Milne and director Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss their upcoming Cold War drama Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), in which a ‘Romeo’ agent is sent on a seductive mission in 1970s Berlin.
When it was first released in cinemas, German feature Downfall was praised for its gripping portrayal of Hitler’s last stand and Bruno Ganz’s striking performance as the embattled Führer.
Twelve years on, however, Oliver Hirshbiegel’s film is largely remembered for one iconic scene inside Hitler’s bunker – in which he rants and raves at his officers – that has been parodied hundreds of times to comedic effect. A quick YouTube search can find the dictator angrily lashing out at news that he has been banned from Xbox Live or at the latest plot twist in Game of Thrones.
“That’s hard to top,” Hirschbiegel jokes. “I can be very proud of this phenomenon – it’s a first in film history where a scene has been used over and over again. The most recent one I’ve seen is about [British politician] Boris Johnson finding out the UK voted to leave the European Union – it’s brilliant and very funny.”
Whether the director’s latest project, six-part Cold War thriller Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) for German broadcaster ZDF, can earn similar cult status remains to be seen. But on the back of smash-hit spy dramas Deutschland 83 and The Night Manager, it’s certainly tapping into a genre riding a wave of popularity.
Set in 1970s Berlin, the story centres on East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) who is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin, pictured top).
Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’ cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic swimming team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.
A story of divided families and a divided city, The Same Sky is written by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and produced by UFA Fiction, distributor Beta Film and Mia Film, in association with Rainmark Films. Netflix has picked up the series for multiple countries worldwide, including English-speaking territories.
The show has its origins as a passion project for Beta CEO Jan Mojto, who had been involved in 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and was interested in commissioning a TV series focused on divided Berlin.
And Milne – who is no stranger to Germany, having penned 1990 drama Die Kinder (The Children) for BBC1 – was approached by Rainmark’s Tracey Scoffield to develop Mojto’s ambitions further. “It was very spy-orientated,” Milne recalls of the initial treatment, “but I felt it should have been more than that. So I re-pitched it and was commissioned to write the scripts. Originally it was going to be in English, but then ZDF got involved and it became German.
“Oliver did all the translations himself – during prep, he would take two hours off every afternoon and translate the whole lot. He would call me and say, ‘We don’t have a word for this, do you have another one?’
“He then printed the scripts with my English on one page and the German version next to it. We worked really well together and, because he was also directing, he was hugely loyal to the material as he was partly involved in delivering it.”
The Same Sky led the writer to immerse herself in research about the Stasi – the East German security force – and the use of Romeo spies. The discovery of a defunct NSA listening station on the outskirts of Berlin also gave Milne a location in which to plant Helin’s intelligence officer.
“We were able to put the characters in there and it opened up a whole new area of research into listening signals,” she says. “It transpired that domes found in the middle of this forest were used to disguise the direction in which the radars were facing, and they often faced West as much as East. That gave it a contemporary conduit [referencing whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA surveillance practices]. It’s always important to look at what resonates with a contemporary audience because otherwise you’re just doing a curiosity piece about the past.”
Milne also stresses the importance of authenticity: “It’s crucial when you do a piece like this, set in the past, that you don’t have what I call ‘precognition with hindsight.’ You don’t write it knowing what happened. You have to write it in the moment and that really helps with the authenticity.”
Hirschbiegel says he was fascinated by the story and immediately hit it off with Milne. “She has a very good way of writing and describing the world and the characters,” the director reveals. “She hardly ever gave me notes and for me, it was irritating – she was totally happy with the results. She said I was brilliant and wonderful, but I kept telling her, ‘You wrote it. It’s a good script!’”
Behind the camera, Hirschbiegel says he tries not to over-stylise the look of a show, instead admitting that he’s a “slave to the story” and keeps his focus on how each scene progresses the plot. But for The Same Sky, strong visual consideration was certainly employed to capture the look and feel of the period and the disparity between East and West Berlin.
Contrasting colour palettes were used to represent the two sides of the city, with hand-held cameras used more often when filming scenes set in the East. Shots in the West, Hirschbiegel explains, were “more stately, more static.”
The director continues: “The idea was for the audience to immediately recognise whether a scene is set in the East or the West. But the challenge was not being able to use any real locations, as we shot in Prague. So you just look at lots of images and try to find matches where you’re shooting. I created my own Kurfurstendamm [a grand boulevard in Berlin], though it is actually smaller than the original.
“The East was easier. They had these eastern bloc pre-fab housing areas everywhere in the East and also in Prague, so we used those. But back in the day, West Berlin was not in good shape. There were lots of ruins and run-down houses, while in the East, all these pre-fab buildings were new because they were built in the 1960s and 70s. Going to Berlin or Prague now, all these old facades have been renovated, while the pre-fab buildings are all fucked up and run-down. So it’s a bit of a challenge to find the proper locations to match what it looked like then.”
Describing The Same Sky as a “serial, not a closed series,” Milne is now preparing a story treatment for a potential second season – though the show’s future depends on how season one is received when it airs in early 2017.
“Ultimately,” she adds, “this is a story about ordinary people who are living in extraordinary times and are forced to make decisions perhaps none of us are confronted with today. It has a morality under it without, I hope, ever being preachy – but I don’t answer the questions, I just pose them!”
As for Hirschbiegel, the director admits he’s now turning down movie projects because he wants to work in television, and has already signed on to direct an episode in the second season of Showtime drama Billions. “It’s more cool right now and it happens so much faster,” he says of the small screen, “and often the scripts are way more relevant and daring. It’s much more of an adventure now to do television than it is to do a movie.”
Štěpán Hulík is hoping to repeat the international success of Burning Bush with his next project, Czech drama Pustina. He tells DQ what drew him to the story of a mining village on the verge of extinction.
In 2013, HBO Europe’s compelling miniseries Burning Bush received critical acclaim for the way it dramatised the true story of Prague history student Jan Palace, who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Helmed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and scripted by Czech writer Štěpán Hulík, the three-part miniseries was the centrepiece of the pay TV network’s push into original series.
Three years on, HBO Europe has reteamed with Hulík for Pustina (aka Wasteland), an eight-part drama set in the Czech Republic that focuses on a mining village on the verge of extinction.
With the village sitting on huge reserves of coal, foreign mining interests plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a soulless mining complex. The villagers are divided: some see it as an opportunity for a new life elsewhere, while others want to preserve their homes – and traditional life and the community start to fall apart.
Directed by Ivan Zacharias and Alice Nellis, the series, which launched last month, is produced by Nutprodukce and Etamp, which also made Burning Bush for HBO Europe. Beta Film is distributing the series, which was screened in its entirety at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.
The story, which opens with the search for a missing girl, first emerged with the help of producer Tomas Hruby, who conceived the plot of a community under threat.
“This idea was very appealing to me,” Hulík admits, “so I started to think about it and develop it further. That was the beginning of the process. We were just figuring out what the story was, making up ideas. I was trying to write a script. This process lasted for two years – it was very complicated.
“With Burning Bush, we had set the bar for ourselves quite high and we didn’t want to make anything smaller than that show. We wanted to achieve something as appealing to the audience and as powerful and strong as Burning Bush. So it was difficult but it was also great motivation.”
The writer admits his latest series has a complex opening, with viewers quickly introduced to different elements of the story and a large ensemble cast. “The most difficult thing when writing TV series is to keep in mind all the sub-plots, all the characters. We have 100 speaking parts in the series so it’s very difficult to keep a map of the story in mind. To know where the key points are and to follow them is quite difficult.
“It’s much easier when writing a feature, where you have just a couple of main characters and your basic storyline is much more simple than with a TV series. But, on the other hand, with TV you have great space and time. In some ways, TV series are like a novel.”
Hulík hopes viewers will be surprised as the story reaches its thrilling conclusion. “I hope it will make perfect sense – this is the only possible ending,” he says. “It will be a shot in the dark but a very natural conclusion. I’ve known the ending since the beginning but it was difficult to get to.”
From the opening scenes of Pustina, it’s clear the northern Bohemia location that serves as the visual backdrop to the series will play as important a role as any character in the show, with the English translation of the title – Wasteland – conjuring images of a desolate and foreboding landscape.
Hulík describes the environment as a “living organism” and one of the main protagonists: “You should get the feeling that the mine is ‘breathing.’ It should feel like it expands literally day by day and that, in the end, it will swallow up all the people and the whole nearby village.
“We were using the woods that surround the village in a similar way. We did our best to create the feeling that nature is a silent witness to everything. At least one of our characters – Karel – can feel this. At the end of episode two, he is looking at the trees in the woods and seems to be mesmerised by them. He knows that those trees are saying something to him but he can´t understand what they are trying to tell him – and the viewer can understand this as well.”
Hulík says that while he writes his scripts with visuals in mind, his notes are merely suggestions for how the drama should play out on the screen, rather than instructions to the director. “Each small gesture or small pause in the dialogue I try to write down in the script. But it’s just my suggestion. It’s a way of how to do it but maybe the director will find another option.”
But would he ever consider sitting behind the camera himself? “Absolutely not! I have no ambition to direct,” he insists. “I’m happy as a scriptwriter. My collaboration with Agnieszka Holland on Burning Bush was such a wonderful experience, we became such good friends. Scriptwriters quite often want to be directors when they see some directors spoiling their script, but nothing like that has happened to me. I don’t want to be a director. I’m quite happy!”
Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, recalls that Hulík proposed Pustina just a month after the premiere of Burning Bush. “It’s what the British would call a ‘State of the Nation’ piece,” he explains. “We were very intrigued at the mystery of the missing daughter juxtaposed with the piece about what a community does when someone wants to knock down their village. It seemed to be a very potent dilemma.”
The drama, says Root, works on three levels: the mystery, the socio-political backdrop of the community’s peril and the family drama. “It’s a signature HBO piece with authorship and point of view,” he adds. “It’s not like anything else around in its country of origin and it will have some international reach. It’s a very original piece, certainly something with a voice. HBO looks for atmosphere and point of view and it gives us both.”
It was also a natural decision for the writer to return to HBO after the success of his first project with the network. “They are very open-minded,” Hulík notes, “and they are very smart. I hope to work with them again because it’s been a pleasure.”
He is currently adapting Simon Mawer’s novel Mendel’s Dwarf for the big screen but says he is already turning his attention to his next TV project.
“I hope Pustina will connect with audiences,” Hulík concludes. “I wanted to make something that would be appealing both for our audience in the Czech Republic and also abroard – like True Detective, Top of the Lake or The Missing. This was my hope and our dream. I don’t know whether we will fulfil it, but we did our best.”
Echoing a growing trend in the TV business, US cable channel TNT has ordered a fifth season of its hit series The Last Ship before the fourth run has even begun.
Based on the William Brinkley novel, the summer series follows the aftermath of a global catastrophe that ravages the world’s population. Because of its location, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. Now, however, Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and his crew must confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they may be among the few survivors.
According to TNT, the show is currently averaging around 7.1 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms and ranks as one of basic cable’s top 10 summer dramas among adults aged 18 to 49. Seasons four and five (2017/2018) will both have 10 episodes.
TNT executive VP of original programming Sarah Aubrey said: “The Last Ship has taken viewers on an exciting ride through three truly thrilling seasons. We look forward to watching the cast and production team ratchet up the drama, action and suspense even more over the next two seasons through summer 2018.”
The series is produced by Turner’s Studio T in association with Platinum Dunes, whose partners – blockbuster filmmaker Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form – serve as executive producers. Co-creators Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane are also executive producers, along with director Paul Holahan.
Less fortunate this week is ABC’s summer series Mistresses. The show, which has just completed its fourth season, will not be back for a fifth. Based on the British series of the same name from Ecosse, Mistresses revolves around the lives and loves of a group of sexy female friends.
Although the show was never a huge ratings performer for ABC, it has been a decent franchise, selling to broadcasters like TLC in the UK, RTÉ in Ireland and TVNZ in New Zealand. It was also subject of a Chilean remake called Infieles.
Still in the US, HBO is only three weeks away from the launch of its much-anticipated sci-fi reboot series Westworld (October 2). There has been a lot of industry speculation that the show might bomb after filming was temporarily shut down at the start of the year. The rumours at the time were that something must have gone wrong with the series to result in such an interruption.
Now, though, those close to the production are saying that the hold up was to ensure that Westworld has a strong enough foundation to become a long-running returnable franchise.
Actor James Marsden told Entertainment Weekly: “It wasn’t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next five or six years are going to be. We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season. [The production team] could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”
HBO will certainly be hoping that Westworld can run and run – because it will soon be faced with the end of mega hit Game of Thrones.
Also in the US this week, there has been a sudden burst of development news. SVoD platform Hulu is developing a fantasy-adventure series based on the Throne of Glass book series by Sarah J Maas. Kira Snyder will write the adaptation, which comes from The Mark Gordon Company.
USA Network has ordered a pilot for a crime drama that stars Jessica Biel as a woman who commits an out-of-character act of horrific violence. Called The Sinner, this is based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr.
ABC, meanwhile, has commissioned a pilot called American Heritage – about two families forced to work together to run LA’s premiere real estate firm.
Elsewhere in the world of scripted TV, Nordic-based streaming service Viaplay and Swedish TV channel TV3, both part of Modern Times Group (MTG), have linked up with German distributor Beta Film on a new Nordic noir series called Hassel. The 10-part show is based on books by popular Swedish author Olov Svedelid, who died in 2008. It will be produced by Nice, another arm of the MTG empire.
The central character of the series is Roland Hassel (played by Ola Rapace), a police detective who is the protagonist of 29 books by Svedelid. So if the show is successful there is plenty of scope for it to come back.
Hassel will be the third Viaplay original series following Swedish Dicks and Occupied. It has been created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, with scripts by Bjorn Paqualin and Charlotte Lesche. Shooting starts this year.
Over in Australia, Network Ten has commissioned an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s classic 1961 novel Wake in Fright. The two-part show will tell the story of a young schoolteacher who becomes stranded in the small outback mining town of Bundanyabba.
It will be produced by Lingo Pictures in association with Endemol Shine Australia, with backing from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. It has previously been remade as a movie, released in 1971.
Network Ten head of drama Rick Maier said: “There are few Australian stories as original or compelling as Wake in Fright. Kenneth Cook’s novel, now re-imagined for a new generation, deals with the biggest themes. Provocative, morally complex and brilliantly realised, this story is guaranteed to stay with you long into the night and – possibly – for years to come.”
Finally, Endemol Shine-owned production company Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude, The A Word) is adapting Lisa McInerney’s debut novel The Glorious Heresies, with Entourage’s Julian Farino attached to direct and exec produce. McInerney will adapt the novel, which was first published in 2015 and looks at the lives of a collection of misfits living in modern-day Cork in Ireland. It won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Norwegian public broadcaster NRK is making strides reaching young audiences with a host of online dramas. As part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Julie Andem tells Michael Pickard how Shame (aka Skam) is reaching out to teenage viewers.
The Edinburgh International Television Festival this week witnessed a no-holds-barred attack on mainstream media’s failure to grasp youth culture as viewers increasingly move online.
Vice Media CEO Shane Smith warned that broadcasters face extinction as they have failed to connect with young audiences or focus on the content they want to watch, opening the door to digital competitors.
It won’t have been news to executives gathered in the Scottish capital that traditional broadcasters face an uphill battle to win back viewers (of any age) lost to the world of anytime, anywhere viewing.
But some networks are fighting to reclaim this lost audience. One in particular, Norway’s NRK, has taken steps to target teenagers with a number of shows that appeal directly to them and the issues they face.
Among them is Shame (aka Skam), which returns for its third season this autumn. Described as a mix between a traditional drama and a blog, it follows a cast of teenage characters as they navigate life at home and at school. Drawing parallels to British teen drama Skins, each season of Shame centres on a different main character, telling their story from their perspective.
Individual scenes from the web series, lasting up to three minutes, are broadcast daily at different times on p3.no, before they are compiled into longer 15- to 25-minute episodes every Friday. It also airs on linear TV on NRK3 and is distributed internationally by Beta Film.
In season one, Shame centres on 16-year-old Eva and her friends Chris, Sana, Vilde and Noora, who are all first-year students at Hartvig Nissen High School. The series follows the girls through their Russ celebration planning, heartbreak, parties and all the challenges young people face as they begin high school.
Creator Julie Andem had previously made shows for NRK, including Girls, which was aimed at girls aged seven to 12. It was such a big success that the broadcaster asked her if she could write a show for a slightly older audience, specifically 16-year-old girls.
“That audience wasn’t watching NRK at the time, they were only watching Netflix and HBO and big international drama series,” she explains. “We did five or six months of research, conducting interviews and reading articles and trying to understand who they were. Also, because we knew this production would be low budget, we couldn’t really compete with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, which we knew they were already following. But [the research gave us] an advantage – now we know who they are, the culture they grew up in, what they watched on television when they were children, where they go on holiday and what they eat for dinner. We know all about Norwegian culture.”
Norwegian teenagers watch a lot of video online, and almost never tune into terrestrial TV, Andem’s research found. They also watch a lot of different shows and happily turn over if something doesn’t grab their attention within the first few minutes.
“So we knew we had to make something that would catch their attention quickly and something that they thought of as true,” she says. “It had to have truth and honesty about their own culture, something they hadn’t seen anywhere before and couldn’t get anywhere else. They had to relate to it and identify with it more than any other series. So that’s what we tried to do.”
The writing process began with the creation of nine characters, each with their own story that speaks to contemporary teens. Andem also leant on the personalities of the actors to bring the characters to life.
“Every character has a specific task,” she explains. “They have something they are supposed to learn. So when I found in the research what sort of topics the target group needed or wanted to know more about, I created characters that would [reflect them] on screen.”
Andem says the best part about writing online drama is the lack of time limits, allowing for episodes to be 14 minutes or 40 minutes long and everything in between. And because the show is set in real-time, storylines set on the first day of school or on Christmas Day are released on those exact days.
“That’s both a challenge and a lot of fun because you have to be up to date on what’s happening in the beginning of the season,” the writer/director admits. “You have to know when schools have holidays and you have to write that in the storyline at that exact time.”
To make matters more complicated, the characters can also be followed across social media, extending the character relationships across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and via text messages.
“Nothing will ever happen on Instagram that has consequences for the storyline, so you don’t have to follow them,” Andem adds, “but it’s a good way to give them more of the characters without necessarily putting it in the story. Viewers can get closer to the characters because they follow them and can comment on their pictures.
“It’s a lot of work, but the audience love it and it’s very good promotion – on social media it spreads on its own. We have 10 or 11 different Instagram accounts for the different characters, and most of them have thousands of followers.”
The use of social media and the real-time setting gives Shame the authenticity and realism it set out to achieve, but Andem is also quick to point out that the show is still a drama at its heart – and striking a balance between realism and drama is one of her trickiest tasks.
“Since Girls, we’ve always had one rule – there is no rule. We do the best for the scene and we do it as simply as possible. We don’t try to overdo it. Shame has a lot of social realism but we also have a lot of humour. Some scenes we shoot more in a sitcom way to get the humour out. Then other scenes we just follow the characters closely like in a documentary.”
With nine lead characters to follow, it might seem like it would make sense for Shame’s current ninth season to be its last. But Andem says that, with characters coming and going all the time, it would be easy to take the series further.
The show’s creator is convinced that heading online is the best way to serve teenage audiences, though the viewing figures suggest it’s not 16-year-old girls tuning into the daily scenes and weekly episodes as they drop.
“The target group is girls aged 16 and in Norway there’s around 60,000 of those. We had 1.3 million viewers at one point in season two, so more and more people were watching it,” she reveals. “It’s almost like a blog combined with a drama series. We reveal it scene by scene, not episode by episode. It’s a different way of following and a different way of watching television. But I have to create a lot of cliffhangers!”
Hard-hitting Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been hailed as one of the best TV shows of the decade. Michael Pickard speaks to the series’ writer and co-creator Stefano Bises.
If you believe Ricky Gervais, there’s an Italian drama that stands side by side with critical and popular hits such as The Wire, The Bridge and The Sopranos and could even be the “TV show of the decade.”
Gomorrah (or Gomorra as it’s known in its native Italy) debuted to huge success when it launched in spring 2014, drawing 700,000 viewers to Sky Atlantic and Sky Cinema – twice the number achieved by established crime drama Romanzo Criminale.
The ratings justified the hype surrounding the series, which had already been sold around the world – Sky in the UK and Germany, Canal+ in France and HBO in Scandinavia and Latin America were among the buyers – before an episode had aired.
And it continued to grow through its first season, with 900,000 viewers tuning in for the 12th and final episode in season one, according to overnight ratings. That figure grew to 1.2 million after replays were included. Season two then kicked off in May this year with 1.3 million watching the season premiere, the highest ratings ever for a Sky Italia series and above and beyond the number of Italian viewers watching US shows such as Game of Thrones.
While series such as Romanzo Criminale and Inspector Montalbano have established themselves as international hits, it is Gomorrah that has now become the calling card for Italian drama worldwide, with distributor Beta Film selling the fast-paced and explosive series into 130 territories.
The show is now set for its US debut on SundanceTV on August 24 – but what it is about this Mafia story that has proven so popular at home and abroad?
Based on the book by Roberto Saviano (which also inspired a 2008 film directed by Matteo Garrone), the series follows the members of the Savastano clan, one of the most powerful and influential Neapolitan crime families. When the head of the family, Don Pietro, is jailed, second-in-command Ciro Di Marzio is forced to adopt his mentor’s violent methods while grooming Pietro’s son Genny to take control of the empire. Along the way, he must deal with Genny’s impulsiveness, Don Pietro’s wife Lady Imma, the family’s growing unrest without its godfather and rival organisations set on claiming Savastano territory.
Produced by Sky Atlantic, Cattleya and Fandango in association with La7 and Beta Film, Gomorrah is written by Stefano Bises and directed by Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini.
The series was developed for television by Saviano, Bises, Giovanni Bianconi, Leonardo Fasoli and Ludovica Rampoldi – and Bises says he never expected the acclaim Gommorah has received since its debut two years ago.
“The book by Roberto is surrounded by different feelings,” he explains. “Part of the country is for him and supports him and his job, but there’s another part that is against it because they say he’s always writing and telling stories that show the worst part of our country. It’s not good publicity. So we didn’t know how people would receive it. We had a lot of problems from politicians and people who were saying, ‘You’re speculating on our problems, you’re picturing Naples like Hell,’ but there were many other people who said the standard of the series was, for the first time in Italy, an international standard.
“We had a huge success with the second season, much better than the first – and the second season is always more difficult because you lose the freshness and viewers have already seen that world. But Sky doubled the audience from the first to the second season, which was huge for us. We were trending on Twitter the evening Gomorrah was broadcast – that’s unbelievable for an Italian series.”
One of the initial challenges of the project was separating the series from not just Saviano’s bestselling book but also the movie of the same name, which meant Bises and director Sollima had to find a new story to tell in the same Neapolitan setting.
“We had to give a new picture of that world so we said, ‘Let’s choose a family, let’s tell a basic story with an old boss who’s feeling he’s getting too old to maintain power,’” Bises explains. “He has a son who’s not ready to take his place and we introduced an illegitimate son who is brave and capable of driving the kingdom. There were very classical elements used to build the story and then we dropped it in Scampia Secondigliano [a northern district of Naples] and it works. It was very simple; it was a very basic plot. The characters were very classical to watch – it was like Shakespeare in Naples.”
During development, Bises and Sollima visited Scampia Secondigliano together before building the characters and the story. But the writer admits it wasn’t until they began watching the daily shooting footage that they began to fully understand the characters they had created.
“Often in the night I went to Naples when Stefano was shooting,” he recalls. “We saw the dailies and then we understood a lot of things – for example, the friendship between Genny and Ciro is born not in the script but from viewing the first footage. We decided to do it like they were two brothers because they work so well together. It was day by day, building brick by brick, and on the second season we were much more aware of what we were doing.”
One of the show’s strengths is its Neapolitan setting, grounding the characters and their actions against a real location – though filming in Mafia-run districts of Naples was not without its problems.
“It’s one of the main characters of the series,” Bises says of the show’s location. “The director of photography, Paolo Carnera, did a great job photographing those neighbourhoods because they are an unbelievable set – and they’re real. The first season was very difficult to realise because while we were shooting there was a war on the streets. We would have a plan [for the next day’s filming] and during the night someone would call us and change the plan because two people had just been shot and killed on the street, so it would not be a good idea to shoot there tomorrow.
“There were 10 or 12 deaths during shooting for the first season but for the second season, the major problem was we were always surrounded by kids with smartphones who wanted to film our actors.”
The shocking real-life events that took place in this northern hub of Naples often informed the series, however, with Bises explaining that true stories were always the starting point for the show.
In fact, writers from the show would regularly venture into the city to collect and research stories. But this meant they often had to find two or three sources to collaborate the same information, such was the possibility that sources would present a version of events that could help them in a fight with another Mafia family.
“There are so many unbelievable stories right there,” he continues. “Our problem was working out how to make things authentic for viewers. People would never believe they were true! Another problem was the real people who inspired the characters. [We had to make sure] they wouldn’t recognise themselves in those characters because that might put [people involved in the show] in danger, but we always took inspiration from reality. It’s much more powerful than any imagination.”
Looking ahead to season three, Bises, who has written the plot outline, admits that while the show’s success has meant production is now a much smoother process, new challenges often emerge.
“The only problem we have now is keeping people away from the set,” he reveals. “We had a problem on the last season finale when there was a big plot secret that we kept for months. On the day of broadcasting the last episode, we discovered someone was on a roof where we were shooting and he was able to catch some pictures of two guys in a duel. So on the internet they were saying, ‘Who’s killing who? Who’s dying?’
“So that’s the biggest danger right now on the production side. On the writing side, when you come from big success, you always fear being unable to reach the same level. You have to not think about that and think of doing something surprising, like we did in season two when we killed off many main characters. People were so upset, they called us crazy for killing their favourite character. But it’s always the reality that drives you – we were telling a period of that struggle where all the bosses were killing each other.”
Bises is now dividing his time between other film and TV projects, including an adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel Anna. He is also involved in planning for a potential second season of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and will air on HBO, Sky and Canal+ later this year.
There are also plans for a fourth season of Gomorrah, with the writer adamant that there are plenty of as-yet-untold stories capable of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.
“I don’t feel comfortable comparing it to masterpieces like The Wire or The Sopranos,” Bises adds. “It’s just an Italian gangster movie, but it shows we can do something good when we tell our own stories. This is a country that is full of stories. The Mafia is strong everywhere in the country. We would be missing our duty if we were not telling these stories.”
There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.
FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.
Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”
The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.
FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.
Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.
Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”
Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”
Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.
In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.
“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”
Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.
“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”
Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.
Martin Ambrosch, the writer behind German crime drama Anatomy of Evil and the forthcoming historical series Maximilian, tells DQ about the challenge of meeting his own ambitions on screen.
As one half of a prolific writer-director partnership, Martin Ambrosch describes himself as a specialist in thrillers.
During his career he has penned episodes of German police procedural Tatort and Austrian crime dramas SOKO Kitzbühel and SOKO Donau.
But it is together with director Andreas Prochaska that Ambrosch brought to life the hit TV movie franchise Anatomy, which airs on ZDF in Germany and ORF in Austria.
The series, which debuted in 2010 with Anatomy of Evil, follows psychologist Richard Brock (played by Heino Ferch) as he is called in by the Vienna police to investigate the murder of a man who was about to stand trial for embezzlement.
Four more films featuring Brock followed – Anatomy of Revenge, Anatomy of Fear, Anatomy of Shame and Anatomy of Surrender, which aired in February – while the sixth in the series, Anatomy of Desire, began filming in February. A seventh instalment is already in development, with production due to begin in November this year.
Anatomy of Evil was subsequently sold to 34 countries by distributor Beta Film, with buyers including Netflix, Rai Cinema in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain. Ambrosch himself won an Austrian TV Romy award for the film, having previously earned a German Grimme award for one of his Tatort episodes.
“It’s a series I came up with. I just proposed it to the producer and the director and we developed a unique story,” Ambrosch says of Anatomy. “It’s a very character-driven story, which I like very much. It’s my child.”
Ambrosch’s partnership with Prochaska also includes the 2014 TV movie Sarajevo, about the events that led to the First World War; mystery western feature film The Dark Valley, which starred Sam Riley (SS-GB); and the forthcoming historical drama Maximilian.
Set in the 15th century in the Austrian Middle Ages, the latter retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The three-part miniseries is coproduced by MR Film and Beta Film for ZDF and ORF. It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“Maximilian was very intense,” Ambrosch says. “It was very different from pure fiction because the life of Maximilian is known to many. I had to create my own Maximilian out of his historic personality. It was a challenge but I think we managed it.
“Andreas and I have been colleagues and friends for a long time. We’re both very ambitious, so we knew we could create something really important. It was my first chance to do three 90-minute episodes in a historic setting, so it was a big opportunity for me and I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I love the historic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
Ambrosch says he spent a year researching the true story behind Maximilian – but admits there’s a strong element of fiction to the tale viewers will see on screen. “That’s the creativity we wanted to give to the series,” he says. “You can’t just make a documentary. You have to create something that’s close to reality, but it’s bigger than reality and hopefully interesting for viewers.”
Ambrosch’s scripts are also quite detailed, ensuring the cast and director can play out his vision in front of the cameras. “I write it as I see it, and not just dialogue,” he says. “We did readings of the script quite a few times and I was on the set for many days, just watching and getting a feel for every actor.”
The German-language production was complicated by filming several scenes in French, but Ambrosch believes it important that European drama use organic languages to help tell the story. “I speak French but not well enough, so we had a translator,” he says. “I wrote it in German but I have a feeling for the French language because I lived in France for a year, so I know a little bit about it.
“It wasn’t clear at the start in which language we were going to shoot. There was a discussion at the very beginning to maybe shoot everything in English, but then we thought about it some more. I had to write the scripts nonetheless, so I wrote them in German and it was then we decided to shoot in two languages, which is of course a challenge.
“We have regional specialities in Europe. France is quite different from Austria, Germany and England, so it’s interesting to see the differences and get the feeling that Maximilian has to overcome the obstacles when he goes from poor and laid-back Austria to modern Burgundy and the French king with his own politics and lifestyle. It’s much more diverse than just shooting it all in English and saying there’s only one world. Back then it was very different and this is a good opportunity to show that.”
As partnerships go, Ambrosch and Prochaska’s is evidently successful, and Ambrosch credits this to a deep understanding between the pair. “The most important thing is we don’t have to use many words to connect,” he explains.
“We are each other’s biggest critics, so there’s a very open-minded atmosphere. I can tell him what he is doing is bullshit and he tells me what I wrote is bullshit and nobody is pissed off afterwards. That’s very important.
“But it’s also important for me to work with other directors because I don’t want to work only with Andreas. I’m doing a film with Stefan Ruzowitzky right now, the Oscar-winning director of Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008). It’s called In Hell (working title).”
Describing his writing style, Ambrosch says he first outlines a treatment before starting his research and writing a few pages “to get my thoughts on paper. After that, I let my mind flow free. You have a huge amount of input when you do a year of research, like I did for Maximilian, and then you start to feel the characters and put it on paper. But when the research is done, you have to throw away a lot of ideas and focus on telling the most important stories. That’s the hardest part. The rest is just fun writing.”
And the biggest challenge facing a writer today? “The challenge is to live up to my own ambitions,” he says.
As television drama continues to draw talent from the feature film industry and proves increasingly capable of rivalling the quality and production values offered by movies, Ambrosch readily admits the standards of the small screen have improved significantly – particularly in Germany, where series such as Cold War saga Deutschland 83 are breaking out as global hits.
“It’s difficult to say but, more often than not, the stories in really good TV movies are much better than the films in the cinema,” he says. “It’s a good time for German drama because there’s some money in the market and there’s a need for these kinds of TV series. There’s no other way than to be as ambitious as the UK and the US. You can’t just go on the way you have for the last 20 or 30 years; you have to adapt, and that’s an opportunity for writers and filmmakers in Germany and Austria.
“There are more opportunities in TV but it’s not so easy because you have to appeal to the viewers of public broadcasters. The young viewers are streaming US and British series and the older ones are used to the existing patterns. You need really good stories that producers will risk money on. The market is changing quickly and I’m very interested in where it’s all going to end.”
The themes of US feature film American History X meet true crime in miniseries NSU – German History X. The drama’s producer and directors discuss how they worked together to tell this real story from three different perspectives.
In 1998, American History X told the story of a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path he did.
Almost 20 years later, the same right-wing themes are studied in a German miniseries that takes its inspiration from a series of brutal murders and the resultant trial that is still progressing through the courts system.
NSU – German History X opens as a clandestine far-right terrorist group called National Socialist Underground (NSU) begins operating in Germany by gunning down immigrants in cold-blooded acts that became known as the Bosphorus Serial Murders.
Police initially believed the deaths to be the result of infighting between immigrant communities, until links were drawn to three suspects and their right-wing influences.
The fictional series is based on the ongoing trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of the trio accused over the deaths of 10 immigrants between 2000 and 2007 murders. The other two both suspected of involvement killed themselves before they could be brought to trial.
Producer Gabriela Sperl explains: “It was the biggest series of unsolved murders in Germany, which was unprecedented because you have 10 murders and you make the victims look like they are to blame. Then, all of a sudden, you find two guys dead and it’s right-wing terrorism.
“So we started thinking what we could do about this and why it took so long for a country where everything is very well organised like Germany to find the people who did it, to find the murderers. And they still haven’t found them. They still haven’t resolved it.
“Then we asked what do we do with something that’s unresolved – so we tell the story from different angles to get as near to the truth as possible. This is what we did and this is why we did a lot of research and digging and looking under stones. Now we’re further from the truth than we were in 2012!”
Distributed by Beta Film, NSU – German History X aired on ARD-Das Erste in March this year. The show’s cast includes Albrecht Abraham Schuch, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Anna Maria Mühe, Almila Bagriacik and Tom Schilling.
Each installment of the series, known locally as Mitten in Deutschland: NSU, focuses on a different aspect of the story, with episodes titled The Offenders, The Victims and The Investigators. Three directors – Christian Schwochow, Züli Aladag and Florian Cossen – then took charge of each film.
They attribute the idea of focusing each episode on a different perspective to Sperl, with the directors brought on board the project before any words had been committed to the scripts.
“We met with Gabriela quite a few times before the writers were involved and that was a great approach,” says Aladag. “From the beginning we were thinking about three strong perspectives. That’s why we liked Gabriela’s idea – we knew we couldn’t bring the whole truth to the story because it is still going on.”
Schwochow continues: “If you see filmmaking as a quest for truth, perspective is one of the strongest tools you have. In this case, that was the brilliant idea. Gabriela said that if we told the story as if a coin had three sides – one from the side of the neo-Nazis, one from the victims and one from the state – you come to something in between those three parts that is maybe not the whole truth but is very truthful.
“The idea is not having one aesthetic concept or one author, but that every perspective stands on its own. You see three films that look very different but they cross over. When you look at all three of them, you get a brilliant idea of what 3D storytelling looks like.”
The directors also discussed the extent to which continuity should play between each episode, but the idea of one style or tone was quickly dismissed.
“Of course, we discussed whether the films should look the same and if we should have a miniseries where you can’t tell the difference – but if you want that, you shouldn’t ask three directors!” says Schwochow. “Each of us found our own way to tell our story. Sometimes just the three of us would meet so there was always a connection and an exchange of research.”
Cossen describes the events retold in NSU – German History X as “one of the biggest post-war political and criminal scandals,” adding to his desire to honour the victims through his work.
“They have been very quickly forgotten,” he says. “Just facts, numbers and dates – no human beings, no families, no biographies. So this is also to remember the victims who have been horribly treated by the German authorities, which can never be amended.”
The miniseries marks the latest show coming out of Germany that analyses the country’s past, following dramas such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.
“We have a very special history so we have special stories to tell and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Sperl explains. “The fact that Nazi ideology is resurging is really frightening.”
As a result, the production, led by Wiedemann & Berg Television, was kept under wraps to avoid unwanted attention while the real trial continued its passage through the courts.
Sperl continues: “We kept it very quiet – we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t do any press and kept it very low key. We didn’t want to provoke any legal problems or for Nazis to disrupt the shooting. You never know.”
The subject matter led to several additional hurdles for the crew, however – the most notable of which was finding extras willing to play Nazis on camera.
“We had a challenge to find extras who would shave their heads and scream all that Nazi bullshit, to give their face for very little money,” Schwochow says. “We didn’t want to employ real Nazis. We had a person who did all the extras casting and one day she came up with an idea to ask all the left-wing supporters to take part and they helped us. All the people you see in the film are from the political left. That was a hard thing to solve because we had a lot of extras.”
Another challenge was the script itself, which the producers and directors determined must be authentic without turning the production into a documentary.
Aladag notes: “The challenge for all of us was to be precise, to be authentic, to have a great script. We worked on the script together until we were really happy with it. We didn’t want to shoot before it was finished. So each of us started really early. Shooting took six months to prepare.”
The directors also sought to make their own films stand out in their own way, creating new obstacles. Schwochow’s installment, for example, had no scored soundtrack, instead using Nazi rock music in the background.
Cossen explains: “The musician and the author recreated Nazi rock because we didn’t want to pay any royalties to real Nazi bands. But you hardly notice. You have to think how they think in order to not only make it good but to compose that kind of evil music so that it gets to you and works emotionally.”
Beyond the storyline and its direct resonance in Germany, Schwochow ultimately sees NSU – Germany History X as a warning against political and social issues affecting much of Europe as right-wing politics find new footholds in many countries.
“You don’t have to explain what’s going on in Europe at the moment but we’re facing so much racism everywhere and we’re building a fence around the continent,” the director says. “People should be very careful who they vote for and who they follow.”
Cossen says he wants the audience to feel “true empathy” with the victims, not just pity, “and understand what it means to be in their situation; to be more sensitive against foreigners and immigrants and to be more sensitive against our own inner racism.”
He adds: “There are many things we want people to think about. There’s not just one focus. We’re also curious about what lies between the films – what’s not told is as important as what is.”
On the eve of MipTV 2016, German producer/distributor Beta Film sold a slate of German dramas to leading broadcasters in Scandinavia.
Among the titles picked up by DR Denmark, NRK Norway, SVT Sweden and YLE Finland were the right-wing terror trilogy NSU German History X and Tom Tykwer’s 1920s crime series Babylon Berlin.
The four networks also acquired Oliver Hirschbiegel’s spy drama The Same Sky and 15th century period drama Maximilian.
Historically, drama has travelled in the other direction – from Scandinavia to Germany. But the new deals are further evidence of the way German scripted content has started to appeal to international buyers.
Expressing the German industry’s newfound confidence, Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto – talking about Babylon Berlin – said: “Made in Germany is also a hallmark of quality in television. Due to the subject (of Babylon Berlin), the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
That view was endorsed by Stephen Mowbray, head of acquisitions SVT, who said: “German producers are now delivering world-class fiction, and partnering with Beta secures a raft of exciting titles for the Swedish public.”
Also upbeat is Tarmo Kivikallio, head of acquisition at YLE: “New German drama is strong at the moment in Finland. The way it deals with German history is unique and thrilling. I am sure Finnish audiences will enjoy these series and I am very happy about the co-operation with Beta.”
German drama was preivously known for being quite conservative in tone and style, targeted primarily at the mainstream free-to-air domestic market. But a shift in the market came with Generation War, produced by UFA and distributed by Beta Film. A hard-hitting, high-quality exploration of the Second World War from the perspective of five young German friends, it has sold widely around the world.
The success of this show was then repeated by Deutschland 83, another UFA, which that took a quirky, offbeat look at the end of the Cold War era. The story of a young East German spy who is sent to the West on a mission, it was picked up in English-speaking markets such as the US (by SundanceTV) and the UK (Channel 4) – a significant breakthrough for German drama.
All of which brings us to Cannes’ MipTV market, where Germany will be making a lot of noise as Country of Honour. The event will be hosting numerous networking and screening events throughout the week, as well as a series of conference sessions.
In terms of drama titles, the Beta Film titles mentioned at the outset will all be on show or up for discussion. There will, for example, be a screening of NSU German History X. Produced by Gabriela Sperl (Line of Separation) and Academy Award-winning Wiedemann & Berg (The Lives of Others), this drama explores the true story of a series of murders that, despite serious hints, were only exposed as right-wing terrorism 10 years after the first killing took place.
“In the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a clandestine far-right German terrorist group called National Socialist Underground, or NSU, began operating in Germany by killing immigrants in cold blood, termed the Bosporus Serial Murders,” explains Beta Film. “It took the police and intelligence services over 10 years to hunt down the perpetrators. Beate Zschäpe, suspected to be a member of the NSU, is still on trial today.”
The 20th century has proved a strong source of inspiration for German scripted TV producers. Another project coming through from Beta Film, for example, is Hitler – a 10–hour event series based on the biography Hitler’s First War by historian Thomas Weber. The show, which promises to shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history, has been pre-sold to French broadcaster TF1 and is likely to be the subject of numerous conversations with buyers next week in Cannes.
As is evident from the above scripted shows, Beta Film has played a key role in the new wave of German drama exports. But there will also be plenty of activity at MipTV involving the country’s other leading content owners. ZDF Enterprises, for example, has already had success with its crime drama The Team. And at MipTV it will launch Ku’damm 56 – Rebel With a Cause. A three-part drama produced by UFA Fiction for ZDF/ZDF Enterprises and written by Dorothee Schon, it is set in the 1950s and tells the story of young women of the era and their struggle for equality.
Also coming through is Blender, a six-part series that Tele München Gruppe is developing together with Friedrich Ani, Ina Jung and Dominik Graf. Based on a true story, the series centres on the head of a police drug squad accused of being involved in the drug world himself.
Global Screen, meanwhile, will continue selling its acclaimed TV movie Naked Among Wolves. Based on a novel about a three-year-old Jewish boy who is smuggled into the Buchenwald concentration camp in a suitcase, it has already sold to markets including the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, France, Benelux, Poland and Lithuania.
The company will also present Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the story of the battling brothers behind Adidas and Puma, set against the backdrop of the rising Nazi regime. The show has already been sold to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
One of the main sponsors of the Germany In Focus event is Red Arrow Entertainment, the content creation and distribution arm of ProSiebenSat.1 Media. For the most part, Red Arrow’s international strategy has been driven by participation in non-German scripted content (Bosch, Cleverman, Peter & Wendy, The 100 Code). But it does have a story to tell in terms of German scripted formats. Classic series The Last Cop has been adapted for France, Japan, Estonia and Russia, while Danni Lowinski was recently reversioned for the Netherlands Market.
In terms of future prospects for German drama, there is another development that points to a bright future – namely the emergence of SVoD platforms as content commissioners. Amazon, for example, has recently greenlit its first German-language series in The Wanted. Starring Matthias Schweighöfer as a Berlin convention centre project manager whose life is turned upside down following a mysterious hacking attack, the series will debut on Amazon Prime in Germany and Austria in 2017.
Netflix, meanwhile, has just unveiled plans for its first German original, a supernatural family saga called Dark. Commenting on that one, Erik Barmack, VP of International Originals at Netflix said: “Dark is an incredible German story that will appeal to a global audience.”
All in all then, it looks like we are only at the start of a boom time for German-language drama exports.
For more about Rivals Forever and an interview with Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch, be sure to pick up the latest copy of Drama Quarterly in Cannes.
In September 2014, Fox in the US introduced a new scripted series set against the backdrop of DC Comics’ Batman mythology. Gotham takes the death of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman)’s parents as its starting point and effectively positions the show as a Batman prequel, with detective James Gordon (later Commissioner Gordon) as its central character and introducing Bruce/Batman as a teenage boy (looked after by a youthful version of manservant Alfred).
The show had a strong start, with the very first episode generating 8.21 million viewers at launch, rising to 14.15 million once the time-shifted audience was factored in. Season one stayed solid until around episode 18, whereupon the live audience dropped to around the 4.5 million mark. This might have been low enough to justify cancellation, but with time-shifted viewing taking the show up to around 7-7.5 million, Fox decided there was enough in the show to give it a second run.
The second season started in September 2015 and drew roughly the same numbers as the end of the first. There has been some further slippage, but the show has settled into a relatively stable pattern. After 14 episodes of a 22-episode run, it is attracting a loyal audience of 4-4.5 million (6.5-7 million after adding in time-shifted viewing).
At this point, Fox has decided to greenlight a third season of the show. Commenting on the decision, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “It takes a very special team to tell the tales of Gotham. For the past two seasons, Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon and John Stephens (the chief creatives) have masterfully honoured the mythology of Gotham and brought it to life with depth, emotion and memorable high drama.”
The headline ratings don’t especially justify Fox’s confidence in the show. Airing on Monday nights at 20.00, it is outgunned by The Voice, The Bachelor and Supergirl. However, it does perform strongly among men aged 18 to 49. And it has sold pretty well internationally, with clients including Channel 5 UK, CTV Canada, TVNZ New Zealand and TF1 France (though this is of more significance to Warner Bros, owner of DC Comics, which distributes the show).
Possibly, Fox is hoping that young Bruce’s gradual transformation into the formidable Batman will energise future seasons. Or maybe it is hoping all the current background Batman noise provided by the forthcoming Batman vs Superman movie will help boost Gotham’s performance. Either way, Fox is clearly still committed to the show for the foreseeable future.
An easier call in terms of renewal is AMC’s Better Call Saul, which has just been greenlit for a third season. The Breaking Bad prequel is currently five episodes into its 10-part second season and averaging 2.2 million (same-day ratings). That’s a solid performance for AMC, supported by the fact it is also getting good reviews from critics and audiences. The current IMDb rating of 8.8 puts it at the upper end of new drama.
An enthusiastic AMC president Charlie Collier said: “What (the team) has accomplished with Better Call Saul is truly rare and remarkable. They have taken one of the most iconic, immersive and fan-obsessive (in the best possible way) shows in television history and created a prequel that stands on its own. Watching Jimmy McGill’s thoughtful, melodic and morally flexible transformation into Saul Goodman is entertaining and delighting millions of fans, whether their starting point was Breaking Bad or not. This series has its own feel, pace and sensibility and we can’t wait to see what this incredibly talented group comes up with in season three.”
In another of the week’s standout stories, Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been picked up by AMC’s sister channel SundanceTV for broadcast in the US. Sundance previously acquired the German drama Deutschland 83 – making it a pioneer in bringing foreign-language drama to the US.
The first season of Gomorrah was a surprise hit around the world and the second is due to be launched at MipTV by German distributor Beta Film. Commenting on the pickup, Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said his channel “prides itself on presenting distinctive stories from unique points of view, and Gomorrah’s gritty exploration of the Comorra mob families in Naples is no exception.” Other channels to pick up Gomorrah include Sky Germany, HBO Nordic and HBO Latin America.
Last week, much of this column was dedicated to the excellent performance of the BBC’s 2016 drama output. Since then, Happy Valley season two has come to a conclusion with super-strong ratings of 7.5 million (a figure that will rise once time-shifted viewing has been factored in).
On the whole, season two was very good, though not quite as explosive or gripping as season one. The key story arc, which centres on Catherine Cawood, Tommy Lee Royce and Ryan Cawood, seemed to be put on hold for another day, while the resolution of the main criminal case (involving the murders of four women) was relatively understated. There was also a sense that some strands didn’t fully develop (Ann Gallagher’s alcoholism and the trafficking of Eastern European women by a gang, involving another murder).
Nevertheless, Happy Valley is still superior to most things on TV and the audience is now clamouring for a third season. Writer Sally Wainwright has said she would like to pen a third instalment, though didn’t put a timeframe on it.
Elsewhere, Turkish drama continues to be in strong demand around the world. This week Eccho Rights picked up the Aka Film drama Black Heart (Oyunbozan) for global distribution. The series, which will debut in Turkey at the start of April on Show TV, tells the story of a brother seeking justice for the murder of his journalist sister who exposed a powerful media tycoon as a gangster. To get his revenge, the brother enlists an orphaned girl who needs his help in order to save her dying sister.
And those successes are spreading confidence across the industry.
One of the most ambitious new series coming out of Germany is Babylon Berlin, which starts filming next month.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, it centres on police inspector Gereon Rath in 1920s Berlin – a hotbed of drugs and politics, murder and art, emancipation and extremism.
It was created by showrunner Tom Tykwer (Sense 8) and his writer/director team Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, and stars Volker Bruch (Generation War) and Liv Lisa Fries.
Babylon Berlin is particularly groundbreaking as it’s a collaboration between pay TV platform Sky, X-Filme, public broadcast group ARD and Beta Film, which is distributing the series worldwide. Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018.
Furthermore, the parties have all signed on for two seasons of the series. X-Filme producer Stefan Arndt says: “We’re particularly happy that we’ll be able to complete two seasons of eight episodes each during the first shooting. This shows how enthusiastic and confident all of the partners are in our joint project.”
That Sky and ARD have come together on the project is particularly unique, signalling both Sky’s ambitions to break into original German drama and the unique financing strategy in place to bring the series to life.
Volker Herres, programme director at ARD-owned Das Erste, which will air the series, says: “We would like to build on the incredible success of Volker Kutscher’s novels. These are exciting stories with a historical background, and we want to present them to German television audiences in a serial production that holds up to international standards. With this goal, we benefit from a collaboration between three strong partners so X Filme and Tom Tykwer can implement the detective series in grand style.”
Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto continues: “Due to the subject, the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, the first international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
For Sky, Babylon Berlin is just the start of its original drama strategy, which is being built on top of exclusive acquisition deals for content from US premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime.
Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Deutschland, says the series “is an exceptional project and a perfect match for Sky – bold storytelling, an outstanding cast and Tom Tykwer’s incredibly creative team.
“The co-operation between X Filme, ARD Degeto and Beta Film is an impressive example of a fruitful and fair collaboration where all the partners are striking a unique path for Germany and Austria. With Babylon Berlin, we are adding an in-house German production segment to our exclusive international agreements with such major partners as HBO and Showtime – a direction we will be moving in even more in the future.”
Christine Strobl, MD of producer ARD Degeto, adds: “Babylon Berlin is a special project and very important for ARD. With this series, ARD Degeto will be offering Das Erste audiences a real treat that can stand up to international comparison from both narrative and visual points of view. With regard to co-operation and financing, such an exceptional project deserves an exceptional approach. I am looking forward to the upcoming start of filming – judging from the screenplays, we can expect some outstanding television.”
For Tykwer and his colleagues von Borries and Handloegten, the project marks the end of a search for a unique story to tell on Germany television.
“For a long time, we were searching for subject matter that could tell the story of this era in all its facets,” he explains. “We finally found it in Kutscher’s novels. And after Achim, Hendrik and I spent three years working intensively on the screenplay, I can hardly wait to get started.”
Von Borries picks up: “The final years of the Weimar Republic were a time of continual crisis and constant attacks from political extremists. A rapidly growing city with immigrants from all over the world was in the middle of it all – Berlin, the international melting pot, with the pressure constantly mounting. This was a source of inexhaustible material for us as authors. And to finally have the opportunity to portray the atmosphere of the late 1920s is a challenge to us as directors – absolutely huge and incredibly exciting.”
Of course, one of the central characters in the series is the city itself, which Handloegten says was characterised at the time by its fast pace, freedom and diversity.
“But soon it was too much speed, too much freedom, too much diversity,” he adds. “It was a city that was always becoming but never was. In Babylon Berlin, the city is the protagonist. And Berlin in 1929 is a bestial, monstrous, famished and satiated, exalted and down-to-earth, elegant and degenerate, perverse and chaste… and mysterious protagonist. It is the best thing that could happen to an author and director.”
German drama is also set to receive a boost from Netflix and Amazon, which have both ordered their first original German-language series.
Matthias Schweighofer will star in, direct and produce Amazon series Wanted, about a man who becomes the target of a mysterious hacking attack that puts him and his family in danger.
Dark, described as a family saga with a supernatural twist, comes to Netflix from producers Widermann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and is directed by Baran bo Odar. It is due to air in 2017.
The story is set in a German town in the present day where the disappearance of two young children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. It goes on to take a supernatural twist that ties back to the same town in 1986.
“Dark is a milestone for the German market and for us as a company,” says producer Quirin Berg. “Baran bo Odar and (writer) Jantje Friese are outstanding talents and we are glad they shared this amazing idea with us. We feel privileged to continue our collaboration with both of them and we are all thrilled to join forces with a great team at Netflix to create something truly unique.”
By pushing the boundaries of its homegrown series, both in terms of story and where they can be found, German drama is going from strength to strength at a time when there is a growing demand to see its stories played out on the international stage.
Led by gritty series like the Mafia-focused hit Gomorrah, Italian drama is enjoying new levels of global interest. DQ finds out why.
The world has been watching great Italian movies for more than half a century. Following The Bicycle Thieves in 1948, films like La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, Life Is Beautiful, Gomorrah, The Great Beauty and Human Capital are past and present proof that superlative screen craft is a cherished component of Italian culture.
But until recently Italy’s TV business hadn’t achieved anything like the same profile beyond its borders. “The main free-to-air broadcasters, Rai and Mediaset, have a history of participating in continental European coproductions,” says Beta Film senior VP for international sales and acquisitions Oliver Bachert, “and there was the stand-out success of La Piovra (The Octopus), which sold around the world, but historically Italy has mostly focused on local productions that don’t attract much attention internationally.”
The roots of this insularity probably lie in a backlash against imported content that occurred in the 1980s. It took Italian TV producers until the 1990s to perfect their response, but when they did, they began to achieve real success with domestically produced soaps (such as A Place in the Sun and A Doctor in the Family) and police thrillers. Locally know as ‘giallo,’ the police titles included popular shows such as Marshal Rocca, Inspector de Luca and Inspector Montelbano. While they achieved some sales internationally, they didn’t spark the interest associated with, for example, the recent wave of Nordic Noir exports.
The catalyst for change has been the arrival in the market of pay TV platform Sky Italia, says Bachert, “which started commissioning dramas that are more in line with international trends. First came Romanzo Criminale from 2008 to 2010, and then Gomorrah, which we distribute.”
According to Bachert, Gomorrah, which was produced by Italian indie Cattleya, “took Italian drama to a new level.” The story of organised crime in Naples, told across 12 episodes, “won numerous awards and sold to 113 countries. It now has a second season coming up and has encouraged the international market to look more closely at Italian drama.”
Proof that Gomorrah was not a one-hit wonder came with the launch of 1992 in March of this year. Another Sky-backed project, the 10-episode series revolves around six people whose lives become intertwined with the political and social earthquake that swept away Italy’s post-war establishment.
Echoing its approach with English-language drama Fortitude, Sky was sufficiently excited by 1992 that it aired it across the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria, in addition to Italy – a total market of 20 million homes. That, says Bachert, came in addition to sales in France (Orange), Spain (Canal+), Scandinavia (HBO Nordic) and Benelux (HBO Europe). Now there is talk of a follow-up series entitled 1993.
1992 was produced by one of Italy’s leading indie producers, Wildside. Explaining how the company came about, co-founder Lorenzo Mieli says: “It was founded in Rome in 2009 as a merger between Mario Gianani and Saverio Costanzo’s Offside and Wilder, plus Fausto Brizzi and Marco Martani who joined the team at the moment of the company’s creation. Wilder was a company founded by me and some partners in 2001. Basically that was the place where everything started – we used to produce scripted and unscripted for Italian pay broadcasters.”
From Wilder’s perspective, the big step-change actually predated Sky Italia’s investments, though it was the same corporate family that was behind its expansion: “Wilder experienced dramatic growth with Boris, which was the first scripted show ever made by Fox International Channels in Italy. It was a huge success that was crucial to boosting the business.”
Boris was a comedy series that ran for three seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2010 (totalling 42 episodes). Towards the end of the show’s run, FIC commissioned Wilder to make another series, a six-hour serial killer thriller called The Monster of Florence. Both series were broadcast by FIC on the Sky Italia platform, effectively priming Wilder for the next phase of its development following the merger with Offside.
Today, says Mieli, “Wildside’s pipeline is a combination of Offside’s traditional expertise in feature films and Wilder’s TV background. At the moment, our catalogue spans from art-house movies and commercial/blockbuster comedies to scripted shows for both pay and free TV channels. Our main job is to deliver high-quality products, with a focus on talent-driven projects that have a strong international appeal. To do this, we work to build solid relationships with top Italian directors and writers, which is also a way to attract international talent.”
Like Bachart, Mieli gives a nod in the direction of Gomorrah, which he says “did a priceless job for the Italian production community. It demonstrated that an Italian way to make quality shows exists. Maybe a component of exoticism is helping Italian shows travel so much. But we do believe now that the global audience is ready for something different from US storytelling.”
According to Mieli, coproduction is currently Wildside’s key modus operandi: “Considering the work we’ve been doing in the last two years and what we’re currently developing now, it’s pretty clear that our product is closer to the anthological and talent-driven model.”
The best current example of this is The Young Pope, an ambitious English-language production that Wildside is making for Sky, HBO and Canal+. “The Young Pope is the most representative example of our strategy… a high-profile coproduction with a pure Italian creative core. And we are developing three scripted projects for the international market with a similar model. But we haven’t forgotten the Italian scenario – two shows for Rai and one for Sky are in production and couple of features are in pre-production.”
Starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton in her most high-profile TV production to date, The Young Pope was one of the year’s surprise scripted announcements. Mieli explains its appeal: “The story sounded amazing from the very first moment. The idea of a controversial pope born in the US and surrounded by daily life in Vatican City had evident ground-breaking potential. Plus Paolo Sorrentino’s writing was a stunning piece of literature from the very early stages of development.”
Mieli is convinced The Young Pope can have the kind of impact already made by shows like Gomorrah and 1992, and not just because it has HBO, Sky and Canal+ behind it. “The Young Pope’s distribution will be managed by FremantleMedia International and we’ve no doubt it will travel a lot. We have a great story, an award-winning creator, an all-star cast and a very fascinating, highly recognisable arena in the Vatican.”
As it happens, the Wildside story became even more interesting during production – when FremantleMedia decided to acquire a 62.5% stake in the firm. Commenting on the deal at the time, FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz said: “This is a key strategic acquisition as we continue to strengthen our primetime scripted presence. Wildside is fast becoming one of Europe’s most sought-after drama producers and will complement our existing businesses in the US, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK. The team has an impressive track record of attracting world-class creative talent and delivering award-winning drama, so I’m really excited that they are joining our family of production companies.”
Being in the Fremantle family may also give Wildside an opportunity to take scripted formats into Italy. There have been signs in recent times that this side of the business, traditionally underdeveloped, is starting to pick up.
Wildside, for example, made Israeli format In Treatment for the Italian market, while Spanish period drama Velvet and French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned) have also been adapted. Utilising FM’s international expertise should allow Wildside to push this door open further.
Wildside, of course, is not the only Italian indie providing a bridge to and from the international market. Cattleya, which counts DeAgostini and United Pictures International among its shareholders, recently announced plans for season two of Gomorrah. It also has a deal with Canal+ to create an English-language series called ZeroZeroZero.
ZeroZeroZero is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, who also wrote the book on which both the film and TV versions of Gomorrah are based. The director is Stefano Sollima, whose credits include Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah – all of which guarantees a solid international showing for ZeroZeroZero.
Fabrice de La Patellière, director of French drama and coproductions for Canal+, says: “We are delighted to be involved in initiating this international project driven by Roberto Saviano’s talent and commitment. This story, with the work of the scriptwriters Stefano Bises and Leonardo Fasoli and director Stefano Sollima, offers an uncompromising, in-depth look into the world of cocaine trafficking and the complexities of the system. This invaluable partnership with Cattleya offers the opportunity of a unique series for our subscribers.”
Cattelya is also exploring the scripted format business. It is remaking NBC’s Parenthood for Rai Uno, the first ever US scripted format to be picked up by the channel. At the same time, it has signed a deal with Atlantique Productions to turn two Italian properties into English-language TV series. The first will be a re-imagining of the cult western Django, which has its roots in the spaghetti Western tradition. The second is Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror film Suspiria, which will be reinvented as period horror series set in London and Rome between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Cattleya president Riccardo Tozzi says: “Cattleya’s role on these series marks a further step in our plan to produce high-end English-language series. And, of course, we are extremely proud to be working with Dario Argento, a leading figure for an entire generation of filmmakers.”
It’s no real surprise that Sky’s international axis has provided the platform for Italian producers to reposition themselves on the global stage. But it’s notable that Mediaset and Rai are also exploring what might be possible beyond their borders.
Mediaset started to show some interest in the English-language drama market when it came in as a coproducer on , a Left Bank Pictures adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s detective novels that also had BBC, WGBH Boston and ZDF as coproducers.
That was very much an ad-hoc experiment. But last year Mediaset started to talk up the possibility of making international drama in a more systematic and strategic way. The first fruit of this came earlier this year when it joined forces with France-based Federation Entertainment to coproduce Lucky Luciano, a 12-hour miniseries about mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
With Alessandro Camon on board as writer, Lucky Luciano will follow the life of the man considered to be the father of modern organised crime in the United States. “This is an extraordinary project based on the life of one of the most compelling figures in crime,” says Federation Entertainment’s Pascal Breton, who is producing the series alongside Stephane Sperry. “Lucky Luciano remains a mystery in many key facets of his life, especially in his relationship with the FBI. We intend to explore these mysteries and offer the most definitive work on his life that’s ever been produced.”
Mediaset’s perspective on the project comes from content MD Alessandro Salem, who says: “We’ve been looking for a long time for the right coproducer that shares our fascination towards the human complexity of such a criminal icon as Lucky Luciano. We’re thrilled to have found an outstanding partner for this miniseries event in Federation.”
Mediaset doesn’t intend Lucky Luciano to be a one-off. While it has yet to formally flesh out its strategy, the company says it is “devoted to pursuing international production as a new vector of development for high-profile, ambitious original scripted content together with world-renowned partners.”
For public broadcaster Rai, the challenge is how to engage with the international market while staying focused on the needs of the domestic market. Mattia Oddone, head of cinema and TV international sales at commercial arm Rai Com, says his parent company’s domestic channels are currently doing very well: “Drama works wonderfully on Rai, making Rai 1 and Rai 2 the leading channels in Italy. The key slots are on Sunday and Monday nights, primetime for miniseries and longer series.”
Rai produces around 400 hours of original drama per year with a budget of around €200m (US$223m). In terms of Rai dramas that cross over into the international markets, Oddone says: “Genre series account for most of our sales. One of our most marketable products this year has been new seasons of Il Giovane Montalbano (The Young Montalbano – a spin-off of the original Montalbano series), based on the popular protagonist of Andrea Camilleri’s acclaimed Sicilian crime novels.”
The Young Montalbano is one series that has ridden the wave of interest in non-English language drama, says Oddone, “selling to the US, the UK, France and Benelux.” More generally, “Latin America and Spanish-language rights for the US market are very important to us, as is Central and Eastern Europe. Crime series like the second season of Sfida Al Cielo – La Narcotici 2 (Anti Drug Squad 2) and La Catturandi (Palermo Police Squad, pictured top) have been in high demand there. Biopics on internationally recognisable figures such as Oriana, a dramatisation of the life of storied Italian journalist and campaigner Oriana Fallaci, have also performed very well.”
Oddone acknowledges there has been a change in the way TV drama is produced in Italy. But he also stresses that Italian success has so far been rooted in subject matter that is closely associated with the market. “Rather than making Italian content more international, we have seen Italian themes become more accessible for international audiences. Topics like the family and the Mafia are very much connected with Italy and the possibility to develop such stories has allowed Italian producers to tell them with more intelligence and subtlety.”
Given Rai’s role at the heart of the Italian cultural landscape, Oddone says there is no reason why Rai Com cannot also play its part in the growing international market for Italian drama. And there have been separate reports that the broadcaster is looking at a project about the Medicis and one based on Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. But Oddone also reiterates the point about not losing sight of the needs of the domestic audience. Rai is less likely, for example, to follow some of its Italian peers into English-language drama. “We are about to enter drama coproduction and we are seeking new projects. But it is a delicate matter and it also has to engage the interest of our channels, with which we are now working very closely.”
It’s worth noting that Italian scripted content has also started making ground in markets like China and Turkey, primarily as formats. But if there is one other big story worth following, it’s the arrival of Netflix in Italy this October. The subscription VoD platform’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos was in the country recently trying to win over the Italian industry with promises of investment in Italian-originated content that can travel.
Speaking at the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival, he said: “We think we can bring a large global audience to a local Italian show and that we will be able to invest at a higher level than an Italian producer would invest in a series or a film from Italy.”
Echoing the company’s approach in France, where it greenlit a major local series called Marseilles, Sarandos said Netflix is planning a major commission that will “represent probably 15% to 20% of our spending on Italian programming.”
With Netflix spending an estimated US$5bn a year globally on content, the company’s entry into the Italian market should provide a welcome boost to the country’s producers at this pivotal moment.
Mediaset feeling lucky
Mediaset’s Alessandro Salem and Federation Entertainment founder Pascal Breton discuss their new coproduction Lucky Luciano and outline how Italian drama is taking on the international market.
Alessandro Salem: “What is happening right now is the spotlight is again on the power of Italian stories and the success they are achieving worldwide. In Italy and abroad the national frame isn’t always appropriate to nourish the creative process and to grant the financing of ambitious projects, so international development is more and more crucial.
“Rather than cinema or television, today we should speak of talents who explore storytelling and, depending on the specific nature of the project, later take on a TV or cinema direction.
Pascal Breton: “We’ve witnessed a ‘Scandinavian wave’ these past few years, and I think we’re now seeing a French wave with series like The Returned and The Bureau, as well as Versailles and Marseille within the next year, along with a wave of highly talented directors, writers and producers. The meeting of TV producers with top talent from French and Italian cinema is bringing a new creative force into a field that’s been dominated by Anglo-Saxon series.”
Salem: “Lucky Luciano is a TV series with international DNA: Italian roots, American trunk and international branches. It is about one of the most famous, and yet less known, criminal icons of the 20th Century, Charles Salvatore Lucania, also known as ‘Lucky.’ The series discloses what’s behind the story of the kid from Sicilian sulfur mines who will organise the American mob as an actual corporation, and will leave a lasting mark on the story of our countries through the controversial collaboration with the American and Italian authorities.
“The locations, the renowned character, the popularity of the Italian organised crime stories in the TV and movie iconography, have made it natural for us to launch the project on an international scale, and have led us to look for partners who share our ambitious and transnational vision.”
Breton: “Lucky Luciano is a perfect example of a story originating in Europe that has had a deep impact on the history of the US, and the story’s potential is endless. We were looking for an opportunity to coproduce with Mediaset, and we couldn’t have found a better subject.
Salem: “Mediaset has ambitions to become a major player in the international drama market. Within the next three years the goal is to have a constant pipeline of international dramas. To this aim, on one side, Taodue – our in-house production company – is focusing its talent towards international production with several projects greenlit. On the other side, we are confident we can count on our distribution strength through our presence in Italy and Spain.
“We are aware that English is nowadays a sort of precondition for international drama – indeed, Lucky Luciano will be shot in English. An exception can be Spanish, when the story justifies it, because of the extent of Spanish-speaking markets. That’s the case of Taodue’s upcoming movie Call Me Francesco.”
Andreas Prochaska, director of Austrian period drama Maximilian, reveals the challenges of realising an epic, action-packed script while sticking to a strict budget.
Andreas Prochaska is under no illusions: he is facing the biggest challenge of his career. The Austrian director is a multiple award winner in his home country and in Germany for his work behind the camera, most notably claiming an International Emmy in 2013 for TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) and several best director gongs for 2014 feature film Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley).
His focus is now on Maximilian, a €15.5m (US$17.5m) television drama in production for MR Film, Beta Film, Austrian broadcaster ORF and German network ZDF. Set in 1477 in the Austrian Middle Ages, the three-part miniseries retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, set against a backdrop of politics and power struggles.
It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“I got a phone call three or four years ago about a project about Hapsburg and the founding of the empire,” Prochaska (pictured second from left in the main image) recalls. “I was immediately interested in being part of it because I think it’s a great European story and a great love story, and you have all the ingredients for a big TV production – love, politics, elements of a thriller and a bit of action. There’s also something very timeless about the whole thing.”
Prochaska is no stranger to costume dramas. The Dark Valley is a western set in the Austrian Alps, while he also directed TV movie Sarajevo, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – considered to be the incident that sparked the build-up to the First World War. Yet it is Maximilian he describes as the biggest challenge of his career.
“It’s a challenge because I was watching a lot of historical pictures in preparation and there’s a style and a goal you want to reach but we don’t have that kind of money,” he explains. “But you still have images in the back of your head that you want to achieve, so I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to capture those scenes with our budget. I don’t want to just copy and paste other styles, I want to generate a style of my own with my own director of photography (DOP), art department, costumes and make-up.
“We’re not doing a documentary about guys in the 15th century, so we have done research to figure out how to make this interesting for a younger, contemporary audience. That’s a fine line you have to find. But we’re also not doing Game of Thrones. We’re based in reality and we did a lot of research with historians. But they’re like doctors – ask three of them and you get four opinions.”
The story is set within three different courts of Europe – France, Austria and Burgundy – and they are all being filmed in Austria. “If we could take our budget and go where we wanted, it would be easier. But we’re in a situation where we have to spend most of the money in Austria,” the director explains. “It’s a puzzle we have to put together to achieve the things the script requires.”
The logistics of the four-month shoot, which began in August, include 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3,000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour. Real-life settings include the castles of Rosenburg, Rapportenstein and Franzensburg, plus the Votive Church in Vienna.
Prochaska adds: “We’re shooting continuously and we have some travel days in between because the crew moves to the Czech Republic to shoot some battle scenes and in late November we move to Hungary to do some studio scenes there. It’s like a road movie – most of our locations are all around lower Austria so every two days we’re moving. It’s expansive and thrilling for everybody.”
Using real locations will help the miniseries add a layer of authenticity for viewers – but only if the lighting is right, Prochaska says. “We watched a lot of films (in preparation) and what I realised is that the light, to my taste, is often wrong. You get the feeling those places couldn’t have looked like they do in a lot of movies. When I’m talking to my DOP, I always try to find something that still feels real.
“The greatest challenge is ensuring things don’t look artificial with the actors in these weird costumes – the 15th century is not as cool as the 12th in terms of costume. I want to drag the audience into the middle of the scenes and not have the sense of looking at it from a distance that those costumes and locations could create.”
Maximilian also marks the first time Prochaska has worked with French actors, and the director says he enjoyed the opportunity to meet a new group of performers and to find a way to work with them across language barriers.
“We started with a scene in a French court and, thanks to the brilliance of the script by Martin Ambrosch (Sarajevo), we attracted an exciting French cast,” he says. “I don’t speak French, but even if you don’t understand every word, you very quickly get a sense if it’s right or wrong and that’s one of the first great experiences I had with this project. What we’ve seen in the dailies is amazing. Anlgade is a god in terms of acting.”
If television is considered to be a writer’s medium, nobody told Prochaska. With his background in film, where the director is king, he has brought the same level of involvement to Maximilian, including bringing Ambrosch on board to write the script.
“It doesn’t make a difference if I’m in television or film. When I’m doing something, I try to do it as well as possible,” he says. “I’m not just some hired gun to shoot the stuff that’s scheduled. I brought Martin onto this project because I knew he would deliver the material I need to get access to good actors and to get a story that people want to see.
“I was very involved in the whole development of the script. I didn’t get a call saying, ‘Here’s a screenplay, do you want to do it?’ I’m still a hired gun in a sense because it’s not something I was pushing forward, but it costs me two years of my life so I’m very keen that it’s good.”
Part of Prochaska’s involvement in the script process was to make sure the story didn’t go in a direction he felt would be too difficult to achieve on screen. “With our budget it’s not possible to do a battle scene like at the beginning of Gladiator. That’s what people expect when they see battle scenes,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into places where I couldn’t win.”
This meant that set pieces beyond the show’s budgetary limit had to be worked around with some creative thinking, but also meant Prochaska could build up the emotional aspects of the story while fighting takes place in the background. “At the beginning of the whole story, someone is found dead in a swamp in the aftermath of a battle. Then we have a dream sequence for the second battle and another sequence where the tension builds up to the start of a battle before cutting away to the people waiting at home,” he explains. “It’s more emotional to stay with Mary, who is waiting for Maximilian to come back, not knowing if he’s going to survive. For me, it’s more interesting to explore the emotional side of those situations than to do a battle scene we can’t afford.”
Like many film directors of late, Prochaska found the opportunity to move into television too good to turn down, and hopes he will be back for more. “This was something very attractive to me; this kind of miniseries or bigger series are the future of television,” he says. “Single TV movies will still be made but the focus is more on serialised content and Maximilian is a great opportunity for me to go in this direction.”
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.
Jan Kromschröder, the producer of mystery drama The Valley – In the Mist of Silence, tells Michael Pickard why the series marks a watershed moment in German television.
As original drama production continues to ramp up in Germany, one new series is aiming to be the flagship for a modern way of storytelling.
The Valley – In the Mist of Silence (aka Weinberg) opens on a misty autumn day in a vineyard as a man wakes up near the body of a young woman, unable to remember his own name. He then stumbles into a nearby town and meets its inhabitants, who appear to harbour a dark secret.
It stars Friedrich Muecke, Antie Traue and Gudrun Landgrebe and is written by Jan Martin Scharf and Arne Nolting. Scharf directs with Till Franzen. Filmed in the vine valleys of southwestern Germany, it is produced by Bantry Bay Productions and Twenty Four 9 Films. Beta Film is distributing the series, which premieres this evening, internationally.
But beyond its intriguing storyline, what makes The Valley stand out is that it is only the second original drama commissioned by German pay TV network TNT Serie, following the success of comedy-drama Add a Friend, created by Sebastian Wehlings and Christian Lyra.
It also comes following Sky Deutschland’s own move into original productions, with period drama Babylon Berlin from director Tom Tykwer.
“Here in Germany, all drama producers produce a lot for the two state stations, which still offer a lot of timeslots and desperately need homegrown products, as they aren’t airing many US shows,” says Bantry Bay founder Jan Kromschröder. “TNT Serie started original production two years ago and now Fox is also producing a first series in 2016. Netflix hasn’t announced anything but is discussing projects with German producers. Our lives are changing with those new networks.
“We are also producing one show for ZDF, where the focus is on the ratings at the end of the day. But for TNT Serie, the shows are more of a marketing tool – so working for them was a totally new experience. We always have to compare our programmes with the UK and US, and here we were allowed to do something with a large cast and a story comprising six episodes, which for German shows is quite big.”
As is the case for most television markets outside the US, Germany has had an up-and-down relationship with American drama imports. The 1980s saw the arrival of series including Dynasty and Dallas; the 90s returned a homegrown focus; and the post-millennium era saw worldwide hits such as CSI, NCIS and House being picked up.
“All of those shows were really popular and private networks reduced their German drama production because bringing in a US show cost 10% to 15% of the cost of a German original, so in the beginning it was a cheap replacement,” Kromschröder recalls. “This is changing at the moment. There are not really popular shows coming in from the US. ProSiebenSat.1 aired House of Cards but it wasn’t a big success. Even Downton Abbey has been shown on ZDF, but either in the afternoon or after 23.00. The mood at the moment is very positive towards German production.”
Enter The Valley. Filming for the six-hour series began at the end of 2014 and continued in January and February this year – a period that provided the dark, foggy and icy conditions the production team wanted for the series, which was filmed entirely on location.
“For a six-part miniseries we don’t have enough money to build something in a studio so everything is produced on location,” Kromschröder explains. “It was important that we produced in winter. Normally I’m one of those typical German producers who flies to South Africa, where a lot of shows are being produced, because if you want to produce here from November to March, it’s simply too dark, rainy, snowy and icy. But those conditions fit the whole atmosphere and look we wanted to create for this show.”
Speaking about the story, former ITV Studios Germany bosss Kromschröder says The Valley plays with old German fairytales that are often dark in nature and feature woods, rivers and “bizarre mystic figures.”
He continues: “In Germany we do a lot of classical procedural crime and detective stories. There is crime involved in this, but it’s a very rural town, a place where you have the feeling that the residents are very bourgeois and normal, they go to school and to work. But they are very suppressed inside.
“Years ago, David Lynch produced the fantastic Twin Peaks. At that time I was still a journalist but I loved that series. Those characters could only live and survive in US shows, but now we are trying to invent those types of characters ourselves in a German style. That’s something that really intrigued us with The Valley.”
Though TV movies still make up a large part of the German television market – about 250 are produced every year – Kromschröder set up Bantry Bay to focus specifically on series. The Valley is the company’s first commission. It has also been commissioned by RTL-owned Vox to produce a 10-part adaptation of Spanish drama Polseres Vermelles, which was previously remade in the US as Red Band Society for Fox. It is due to launch in November.
“This was Vox’s first drama production ever,” the producer says. “US shows aren’t performing that well any more and there’s the feeling from networks that they can’t rely on those shows anymore. They have to be careful and develop homegrown content. The range is now bigger. We have public broadcasters that target a huge overall audience, free TV commercial stations that target a large audience of 14-49s and pay TV channels that are producing drama as a marketing tool.
“My focus at the moment is series but the focus of the industry is primetime series, long-neglected soaps and telenovelas.”
Kromschröder promises a conclusion to the end of The Valley’s first season, with talks already underway with TNT Serie about a follow-up within the same genre. And with the large number of other broadcasters now commissioning original content in Germany, Bantry Bay’s production slate could be about to boom.
One of the most important jobs a drama producer can do is read the news. Everyday there are so many bizarre and unusual stories taking place around the world that news can be a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
There are challenges, of course. Some stories are so shocking it seems indecent to write them up too quickly. But the risk of moral hesitation is that someone else will beat you to market. There’s also the possibility of wandering into a legal or PR minefield.
The best stories require producers/writers to make tough judgement calls about how to portray living or recently deceased characters. Even the most subtle manipulations of the truth can blow up into career-wrecking controversies.
One solution, of course, is to create shows that are similar to high-profile news stories but not exactly the same. This way you can capture the zeitgeist of the real-world events but create enough distance that it doesn’t look like a commentary on real figures. This, for example, is what ABC Family is doing with Guilt, a one-hour drama series about an American abroad in London who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her roommate. No prizes for guessing the inspiration for this production.
In the UK this week, Channel 4 (C4) announced plans for a similarly conceived series called National Treasure. Produced by George Faber’s new indie The Forge, National Treasure is about a fictional high-profile comedian who is accused of committing a historical sexual crime – a subject that has been front-page news in the UK for the last couple of years. Over the course of four episodes, the show will explore how the central character, his family, manager and partner are affected by the resulting police investigation.
The show will be written by Jack Thorne, whose credits include the This is England franchise, Glue and The Last Panthers. It was commissioned by C4 head of drama Piers Wenger, who said: “It’s a powerful drama that goes beyond recent headlines, exploring the human and emotional impact when a whole life is called into question. In Jack’s hands it’s an insightful and thought-provoking exploration of memory, truth, age, doubt and how well we really know ourselves and those closest to us.”
There’s no question this is an interesting subject – and in Thorne’s hands it is likely to be a powerful piece of drama. But it does enter complicated territory, with so many sex allegations against British celebrities still subject to judicial proceedings. No wonder Faber is keen to reiterate it is a “fictional drama” that “tackles the complex relationship between celebrity, sex and power.”
As for Thorne, he’s pleased C4 is willing to keep up its reputation for tackling such subjects: “What I’ve always loved about Channel 4 is that it’s a place to discuss big ideas. National Treasure is a piece about doubt, about the smell of abuse, about how we as a society live in Yewtree times (Yewtree is the name of the UK police operation handling such allegations). Paul (the central character in the show) is a man who could be innocent or guilty. We’re going to examine him from all sides and ask that big question – how well do we know the people closest to us?”
Of course, one way of ensuring there is no possibility of any kind of legal challenge is if the central character is found to be innocent.
Over the in US, meanwhile, it is notable that there has been a bit of a swing in favour of legal dramas recently. This isn’t new territory, of course, as fans of Petrocelli, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Law & Order and Damages will attest. But the success of How to Get Away With Murder and Suits seems to have inspired US networks to go back to the pool.
ABC, for example, is now developing The Jury, a project being executive produced by Carol Mendelsohn. The series will follow a murder trial from the perspective of individual jurors over the course of a single season. On paper it sounds like the latest in the current trend towards anthologies.
CBS is working up a legal series called Doubt. In this case, the centre of attention is a defence lawyer who gets romantically involved with one of her clients, who stands accused of killing a teenage girl. Katherine Heigl stars in this one.
Over the last week, all eyes have been on the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. Historically a conflab for UK-based executives, the event is now as likely to present a few visiting dignitaries from the US TV business. So for the last few days there’s been a steady drip feed of trade press stories about what US execs are doing about diversity, how they feel about the differences of the UK TV writing model andwhy they think the BBC should be protected.
One of this year’s star turns was Michael Ellenberg, HBO’s executive VP of programming, who gave some insight into what is coming up on the premium cabler in the near future. He showed the first promotional reel of Westworld, a remake of the 1973 movie that will star Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright. He also said the channel is getting close to finalising Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated drama about the A&R scene in the 1970s.
Sticking with the subject of movie remakes, Amazon Studios has signed up to develop a TV series based on the 1999 sci-fi movie Galaxy Quest. For those who haven’t seen it, Galaxy Quest is an amusing film about a group of TV sci-fi actors who are abducted by aliens who think they are genuine space adventurers. In some ways it is a precursor to films like Land of the Lost and Guardians of the Galaxy. With Guardians proving to be such a huge film franchise, Amazon probably reasons that a TV version of Galaxy Quest can ride the coattails of this kind of retro-comedy sci-fi concept.
Other interesting greenlights this week include the news that ABC is backing a ballet-themed comedy drama to be written and executive produced by Liz Heldens (Mercy), with Sue Naegle also on board as an exec producer. The origin of this one is a C4 reality series that focused on 18 amateur, plus-sized dancers, many of whom were told they were too fat to dance when they were young. The scripted show is expected to have the feel of Billy Elliott, but has presumably also been made possible by the love directed towards Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in the recent Pitch Perfect film franchise.
News out of Germany this week is that leading producer Christian Becker and Beta Film are joining forces to revive Western series Winnetou. Based on the best-selling books by Karl May, Winnetou became a series of cult movies in the 1960s. The new 3×90’ version will air on RTL in Germany while Beta will launch the production to the global market at Mipcom next month.
Finally, proof that TV is a cruel world came this week with VH1’s decision to cancel its scripted show Hindsight, despite previously having greenlit it to season two. The channel said: “Scripted series have been a successful part of VH1’s primetime line-up since 2010 and will continue to be in the future. We love Hindsight and couldn’t be more proud of the series. But in this overcrowded and rapidly changing climate, we need to carve out VH1’s distinct place in the scripted marketplace and deliver the biggest audiences possible for our series.
“As a result, we’re no longer moving forward with a second season of the show. We’re so appreciative of show creator Emily Fox, the cast and the teams and look forward to working with them again.” Reports suggest that the production team is looking for a new home for the show.