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Viral drama

As the television industry – and the world – continues to be gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, DQ speaks to the creatives behind The Hot Zone, Cordon and Between to find out how they dramatised viral outbreaks and how future series could reflect current events.

The past decade has seen no shortage of scripted series tackling real or imagined worlds and societies that have come under threat from plagues, viruses and disease.

The opening episode of The Walking Dead, which debuted in 2010, saw protagonist Rick Grimes awaken from a coma to discover the world had fallen to a zombie apocalypse, with no apparent cure for the plague that had taken hold. Characters in fellow US dramas Helix, 12 Monkeys, The Strain and The Last Ship face similar battles for survival when viruses and pandemics change their worlds forever.

With the real world now in the grips of the coronavirus, how do the writers and producers of series about viral outbreaks feel about the current climate?

“It’s an awkward feeling,” says Carl Joos, creator and writer of Belgian drama Cordon. “I started from scientific articles, but more and more of the things I added when I was thinking ‘what would happen if…’ are now becoming a reality. In some areas of the community, you see the thin varnish of civilisation starting to crack a little bit.”

Carl Joos

Cordon, which ran for two seasons between 2014 and 2016 on VTM, sees everyday life in Antwerp come to a standstill when the city centre is sealed off from the outside world after a contagious and deadly virus spreads rapidly.

The series was inspired by two scientific articles Joos had found and kept for several years, unsure of what to do with them. The first was about a lab in Rotterdam that studied viruses and discovered that one particular avian virus would require just three mutations to be capable of transferring to humans. The second article was about how labs, just like households, would sometimes clear out their freezers, which would often contain samples of deadly diseases. The two ideas were then combined to create a story in which central Antwerp, and the people inside, are cut off from the rest of the world.

“I was thinking, ‘What if this happened in my street?’ and I started thinking of the social ramifications,” the writer continues. “What would it do to that society of people I knew quite well? Who would step up or who would crawl away and hide? Who would show solidarity or be a hero and who would try to profit from it?”

A lot of the foundations for the story came from further scientific research, with support from Antwerp-based Instituut voor Tropische Geneeskunde (Institute of Tropical Medicine, ITG), which even allowed the production to film inside its buildings. But Joos also provided his own answers to hypothetical question such as, ‘Where do they keep dead bodies in a cordoned-off area without a cemetery?’

“I kept on doing research and I kept on going back to the wonderful people at the ITG and also talked to other virologists and nurses who work within the tropical disease field about how they approach their patients and what protection they wear,” he says. “There was a huge discussion about masks, but we opted for visors [for the characters], which protect you from drops, sneezes, coughs, snot, sperm, blood, whatever. And, of course, if you have masked actors, they can only act with their eyes. That wouldn’t be interesting.”

The series, produced by Eyeworks Film, went on to air around the world, most notably on BBC4 in the UK as part of its foreign-language drama strand, while it was also remade in the US as Containment, which aired on The CW.

Belgian drama Cordon was inspired by a pair of scientific articles

Similarly rooted in fact is The Hot Zone (pictured top), a six-part miniseries commissioned by National Geographic that recounts the true story of the origins of the Ebola virus and its arrival in the US.

In 1989, when this highly infectious disease suddenly appeared in chimpanzees in a scientific research lab in the suburbs of Washington DC, there was no known cure. But a heroic US Army scientist, Dr Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), put her life on the line to head off the outbreak before it spread to the human population.

Based on the book by Richard Preston, The Hot Zone was developed by co-showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, who spent countless hours reading, researching and talking with experts before filming the series. It aired in May last year.

“All we did for three years was hear about the next pandemic that’s literally going to go around the globe,” Souders says. “The one fortunate thing about Ebola is it didn’t cross continents too much. There’s been a couple infections here and there, but it’s mostly been contained. But all the experts have been warning for many, many years that something was going to really take off through the entire globe. We are probably watching the news a little bit differently than we would have years ago.”

With only a limited number of episodes, many of the people involved in the real events – each with their own compelling stories – were combined into single characters for the series, while working with Nat Geo ensured the show would always be grounded in reality.

Kelly Souders

“It has been very different for us because we can’t just send Clark [Kent, aka Superman] to the Phantom Zone, and we don’t have a big dome over the city,” Peterson says, noting the longtime writing partners’ previous collaborations on series such as Superman prequel Smallville and Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome. “So where you want to go dramatically as a writer is very different because you have to try to mine what’s there in the actual material, and that’s a different side of your brain to try to use, rather than just thinking the sky’s the limit.”

With scenes filmed in Toronto and South Africa, the pair give huge credit to the cast, which also included Noah Emmerich, Topher Grace and Liam Cunningham, who spent hours inside an array of protective suits, which made movement difficult and meant they struggled to hear each other or the crew around them.

But the biggest challenge was writing a series that an audience would believe in, with so many of the real events seeming stranger than fiction.

“In The Hot Zone, the only thing we took liberty in was trying to figure out how to focus it and contain it,” Souders says of the writing process. “But really crazy stuff happens on the frontlines of these fights against these viruses.

“It’s like what’s going on with the coronavirus today, and certainly what goes on with Ebola. It’s very hard for people to really get the gravity of what’s happening unless it’s happening to their neighbour, to themselves or to somebody in their family. Sadly, it’s only when it happens to somebody in their community that it starts to come home. That’s what’s really terrifying.

“This isn’t a big-city problem or an east coast or west coast problem. This is a global problem. We don’t see inside the hospital; we’re not seeing what’s really happening to people, and that makes it really difficult for people to envision. We didn’t delve into the graphic aspects of it too much because that wasn’t what we wanted to do. But that is one of the things that’s a bit of a stumbling block, because often people really can’t see what they’re battling until it’s too late.”

Souders and Peterson are getting regular emails and messages from people who say they are now catching up with the show, while they are planning a second season about another disease, turning The Hot Zone into an anthology series. Season one was produced by Lynda Obst Productions, Scott Free Productions and Fox 21 Television Studios.

Julianna Margulies as Dr Nancy Jaax inThe Hot Zone

Although the series is packed full of real science and is based on thorough research and expert support, the writing duo believe it serves a different audience compared with a documentary on the same topic.

“We are both documentary fans and think that all these subjects need documentaries on them. It’s important. What we’re trying to do is reach an audience that might not watch a documentary on Ebola, but would be interested in watching a drama based in that arena,” Souders says. “Our hope is we engage viewers but, at the same time, they maybe walk away with better knowledge about how these viruses work, how serious they are and what we need to be doing as a planet to face them.”

Peterson adds: “There’s some nights when you’re like, ‘I really want to learn something,’ and there are others when you’re like, ‘I just want to get thrilled,’ so what we tried to provide people with was a really compelling, gripping psychological thriller. If you’re not in the mood to be ‘educated’ that night, you get a crazy, wild ride but you’re also learning and getting some real facts along the way. That was kind of the niche that we and National Geographic saw this show in.”

Stepping away from reality, Canadian drama Between tells the story of a town under siege from a mysterious virus that has wiped out everybody except those 21 years old and younger, who are stuck in a 10-mile-wide quarantine and left by the government to fend for themselves. Created by Michael McGowan and produced by Don Carmody Television and Mulmur Feed Co in association with Elevation Pictures Corp, it ran for two seasons on CityTV and Netflix.

David Cormican

“What we focused on were the rules of this virus and how it impacts people,” explains exec producer David Cormican. “Mike and I both come from the school of thought that says you get one big buy with your audience, and ours was: could a virus come that would be very discriminatory in terms of who it affects?”

The heightened genre stylings of the series meant there were no virologists or immunologists providing expert advice on set. Instead, the producers just wanted to make sure the show felt believable and that it stuck to its own rules.

“The maths always had to make sense in terms of how people were dying,” Cormican explains. “We did get into a situation in season two where one of the teachers turned 21 on her birthday. They were celebrating and she lasted the entire day until the evening. We were like, ‘How does that work?’ We decided the disease knows the time of day you were born right down to the minute. That was the one time we had to test our own resolve around the rules. There was no discussion about what an inoculation might look like or how long it would take to make a vaccine.”

In fact, the virus merely served as a story via which the underlying theme of the series could be discussed – namely what would happen if children, teenagers and young adults were left to their own devices. “That was a really fun world to explore, to see how the new hierarchies pan out,” Cormican says. “It’s high school on a much more extreme scale because there are no teachers to police them, so what happens when the hall monitor is judge, jury and executioner?”

With production currently shut down in most corners of the world, television writers have lots of time to develop their next series. The unknown factor is how the world will have changed by the time filming starts up again, and how this might be reflected in TV dramas to come.

One simple solution is to set a story before the coronavirus, or in an alternative world, as viewers currently in lockdown are increasingly drawn to fantasy series. Or perhaps elements of life under lockdown will appear on screen, such as working from home or taking school classes over the internet.

The virus in Canadian drama Between only affected those older than 21

Ultimately, Joos admits: “We don’t know how this is going to evolve, so how are we going to take this up? We don’t know how it will be in four or five months. And then, by the time a series airs, it’s one-and-a-half or two years later.”

“We’re still continuing to develop the shows we’re developing. It’s not changing any of that for us,” Cormican says of Don Carmody Television (Tokyo Trial, Shadowhunters, Northern Rescue). “But I don’t know when we’re going to get permits back, in terms of when will we actually be able to start shooting again.

“Plus we can’t have people more than six feet apart. How do you do an intimacy scene, handshakes, a family hugging? How does a wardrobe person dress someone, or how is a microphone fitted? These are going to be some crazy problems we’re facing. How do you get insurance for your production when I can’t guarantee my entire crew is vaccinated or immune?

“These are all crazy questions that aren’t quite keeping me up at night because we’re not there yet, but they will, eventually, for sure. The questions are far and wide, and no one has answers yet.”

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Netflix makes solid start with ‘world drama’

Netflix is best known for its US-originated scripted series. But new funding will allow it to ramp up its investment in dramas from other parts of the world. Here we look at its efforts so far.

On Monday, Netflix announced plans to raise US$800m of debt to help finance original content. Its rationale for this is to reach a point where it has 50% original content on the platform, thus reducing its reliance on increasingly expensive rights acquisitions.

So far the streamer has made its name with US scripted originals like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things. But as it builds up its subscriber base around the world, it is also investing in non-US scripted content. It’s not clear how well Netflix’s international investments have done so far – because the company doesn’t release any ratings data. But what we do know is that its international subscriber base is growing rapidly, with an additional 3.2 million non-US customers added in the third quarter of this year. So presumably some of this tranche of funding will be earmarked for more international projects.

While it’s not possible to get an accurate picture of how individual Netflix shows perform, there are a few ways of getting a rough idea of a show’s appeal – such as IMDb scores, awards, critical notices and whether it gets recommissioned. So this week we’re taking a look at Netflix’s non-US scripted commissions and trying to formulate a view on whether the company is spending wisely.

the-crown-netflixThe Crown: Produced by Left Bank Pictures for Netflix, this epic 10-part account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is reckoned to have cost US$100m to make. The UK-originated show doesn’t launch until November 4 so there is no IMDb score to refer to as yet – but the quality of the creative team suggests it will start strongly. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the story commences when the monarch is just 25, so there is scope for it to run and run if it proves popular. The success of Victoria on ITV UK, coupled with extensive sales at Mipcom last week, suggests there is an appetite for royal drama globally.

marseillesMarseille: For the French, Netflix decided to back a gritty crime drama set in the evocative south coast city. Created by Dan Franck, its appeal to the international market is bolstered by the presence of actor Gerard Depardieu. However, the first season of eight episodes, which premiered in May 2016, received a negative reaction from critics. Le Monde called it an “industrial accident,” while Canada’s Globe and Mail and the USA’s New York Times were also pretty disparaging, the latter writing it off as a clichéd copy of US cable drama. An IMDb score of 6.9 is also pretty poor – though it didn’t stop Netflix from commissioning a second season.

Between: Netflix’s first Canadian original is a six-hour survival thriller starring Jennette McCurdy (iCarly). Created by writer-director Michael McGowan, it focuses on a town afflicted by a deadly disease that kills anyone over the age of 21, leaving local teens to fend for themselves. When the government quarantines the town, a deadly power struggle ensues. The show got mixed reviews and an IMDb score of 5.9 – but was still strong enough to secure a second season, which launched in July 2016.

suburra-movieSuburra: Netflix greenlit this 10-episode organised crime series, set on the Roman coast, for Italy. The streamer describes Suburra as “a captivating story that involves politics, the Vatican, the Mafia, corruption, money laundering, drugs and prostitution.” The show, which will premiere in 2017, is from Cattleya, the producer behind hit series such as Gomorrah (IMDb score: 8.7) and Romanzo Criminale (8.6). Cattleya’s track record suggests Suburra will attract a decent Italian audience at launch. Also in the show’s favour is that it is a spin-off from a critically acclaimed movie of the same name (pictured), released last year. While Netflix’s international drama investments are primarily designed to attract subscribers in their respective domestic markets, the popularity of Gomorrah outside of Italy suggests Suburra could also generate a good audience globally.

The Rain: This week, Netflix ordered its first original series from Scandinavia, an apocalyptic thriller from FremantleMedia-owned Miso Film. Set 10 years after a virus has wiped out most of the Scandinavian population, The Rain follows two young siblings as they embark on a search for safety guided by their father’s notebook about the hazards of the new world. It will premiere in 2018. “Miso Film is extremely proud to produce the first Netflix original series in Scandinavia. We have been focusing on high-end drama series since we established the company in 2004 and collaborating with Netflix on The Rain will be a new milestone for our company,” said Peter Bose, producer and CEO at Denmark-based Miso Film. It’s obviously too early to say how well the show will do, but Miso has a good track record with shows like Acquitted, and Nordic drama invariably does well internationally.

hibanaHibana: Launched in June on Netflix Japan, Hibana is a 10-part drama that tells the story of two male stand-up comedians. Based on a best-selling novel by Naoki Matayoshi, it sees an aspiring comedian and an established talent who agrees to mentor the younger man. The show has generated a lot of acclaim outside Japan from critics who think it represents a new way forward for the country’s scripted sector. Typically, Japanese dramas don’t sell very widely overseas but the new style and tone represented by Hibana could change that, and an 8.2 rating on IMDb is encouraging. “The mentor-apprentice relationship, as well as a passion in pursuing something, is very Japanese,” Netflix Japan president Greg Peters told The Japan Times. “So it’s a great opportunity to present a story that is authentically Japanese, but relatable to a broader audience.”

Dark: Ordered earlier this year, Dark is Netflix’s first German original series. The 10-part show, to be directed by Baran bo Odar and written by Jantje Friese, is described as a family saga with a supernatural twist. It’s set in a German town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. “Dark is an incredible German story that will appeal to a global audience,” said Erik Barmack, VP of original series at Netflix. “Bo and Jantje are creative talents that have developed great projects in both Berlin and Hollywood, and we are thrilled to be working with them on our first original series entirely authored, shot and produced in Germany.” There are no details yet on Dark’s launch, but the success of Odar/Friese’s 2014 hacker film Who Am I – No System Is Safe is likely to create a lot of buzz around the series at launch.

As yet, Netflix hasn’t announced any Korean dramas, but it won’t be long before it does. At a recent press conference in Seoul, CEO Reed Hastings said: “Korea is an optimal market for Netflix as the nation has a high level of consumption, high-speed internet and a well-established mobile infrastructure. Netflix will produce various original content with Korean creative partners.”

In Australia, Netflix faces competition from Stan, which has already had an origination hit with Wolf Creek. As yet, Netflix hasn’t greenlit an original Australian show, presumably because it can rely on US dramas to build its business there. Asked about originations by The Sydney Morning Herald in June, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he would like to commission an Australian show but didn’t make any specific commitments. “Australia has such a rich production infrastructure and great talent, both in front of and behind the camera. There’s no reason we would not [commission] original shows for Australia,” he said.

Over the summer, Netflix announced that it was fully localising in Turkey. As yet there have been no Turkish commissions, but the company did do a major deal with Eccho Rights for the global distribution of 450 hours of mostly Turkish drama content – including titles such as The End and Kurt Seyit & Sura. This suggests it sees Turkish drama as a growth opportunity.

Around the same time, Netflix also expanded its Poland service to include more content subtitled or dubbed in Polish. Quizzed on his plans for Poland-based production, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said there were definitely plans to back local shows. In terms of time frame, he said it is usually three years before Netflix gets to a point of producing local shows – which would mean the first Polish commission is probably due in around 2019 or 2020. Subjects would need to appeal to the global audience, with Hastings suggesting Polish history might be a good starting point.

One country that isn’t on the Netflix radar at the moment is mainland China. Hastings recently said the chance of the SVoD service entering the country “doesn’t look good,” adding: “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down.”

Note: One factor that may speed up Netflix’s local production plans in Europe is a proposed change in European Union law that would require on-demand players like Netflix and Amazon to invest more in local original production. If approved, the rules would require them to spend around 20% of revenues on Europe-produced original content, compared to the current 1-2%.

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