Tag Archives: Beth Willis

On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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A cautionary tale

Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.

When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.

While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”

Peter Kosminsky

From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.

But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.

Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.

“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.

“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”

The State follows four characters who head for Syria for different reasons

Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.

Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.

Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.

Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”

“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.

Peter Kosminsky hopes the series will serve as a cautionary tale

“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”

As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.

“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.

Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.

“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”

Extensive research was involved in developing the characters and their motivations

The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.

Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.

“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”

The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).

Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”

Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.

“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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