As Amazon’s original crime drama Bosch heads into its third season, award-winning author Michael Connnelly tells DQ how his literary creation has been brought to life on the small screen – and why he thinks the series can run and run.
Since his first appearance some 25 years ago, LA homicide detective Harry Bosch has featured in more than 20 novels written by Michael Connelly.
But for the third season of Bosch, Amazon Prime Video’s flagship crime drama, which launches on April 21, the character is going back to the beginning.
Bosch’s literary debut came in 1992 thriller The Black Echo, and that book forms part of the main narrative of the forthcoming third instalment of the TV series, alongside Darkness More than Night and some remaining strands of The Last Coyote, which also featured in season two.
Adapting his stories for the screen with Amazon has been a fulfilling journey for Connelly, who splits his time between his home in Florida and Bosch’s LA set, where he admits he spends most of his time during production.
“You can’t ever imagine an adaptation happening, you just have to keep your head down and write the best book you can and hope for these kind of things,” he tells DQ during a break in production for the season three finale in November 2016. “It’s not like I never thought about it! In January it was 25 years since the first book came out about Harry Bosch, and that book is the subject of this season – so to have this happen all these years later, it’s really fulfilling beyond words.
“It’s hard to explain how cool that is. And I’m involved in the show – I’m on the set almost every day. It really is amazing. It’s a big city of people, almost 150 people all working on the show and they’re all there because 25 years ago I was in a room by myself and wrote about this guy named Harry Bosch. That kind of journey is amazing and very fulfilling.”
Developed by former showrunner Eric Overmyer (who stepped down in January to run Amazon stablemate The Man in the High Castle) and Fabrik Entertainment for Amazon Studios, Bosch was among the drama pilots launched in early 2014 by the then-nascent streamer, which allowed viewers to leave feedback that would be used to determine whether a full season would be ordered.
The show, distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, was an instant hit and season one – based on Connelly’s novels City of Bones, Echo Park and The Concrete Blonde – launched in February 2015. Season two, which drew storylines from Trunk Music, The Drop and The Last Coyote, launched in March 2016.
Season three was ordered shortly afterwards, in April 2016, before Amazon took the unusual step of picking up a fourth season in October that same year – before season three had aired.
It’s a rare but treasured position to be in for Bosch’s cast and crew, who can now plan to take the series towards its 40th episode.
“The main thing [about having season four] is all the writers on the show know that at the end of the third season, they don’t have to worry about where they’ll work next!” Connelly jokes. “That also entered into our discussions about what we tie up, don’t tie up or set up for season four. It’s been extremely helpful. Here we are wrapping up episode 10 and last year we didn’t know if we had any future, even though we left some things open. This year we know there’s a future so we’re planting bigger seeds, bigger stuff to carry forward. There is much more of an open-ended feeling to the finale this season.”
Which books will form the basis of season four, which is likely to air in spring 2018, comes down to Connelly and new showrunner Daniel Pyne, who will meet early in the pre-production phase of the new season to discuss the best way to develop Bosch’s character on screen.
“That’s why we didn’t start at the beginning [of the books], we started with City of Bones where it was a case we thought would provide an emotional connection for Bosch and things would come out of that,” the author explains, adding that, after two seasons, the creative duo are now preparing to take the detective into murky moral conundrums.
“Darkness More than Night has always been one of my favourite books and really examines ideas about justice, vengeance and the differences between them,” Connelly continues. “It’s not the greatest portrait of Harry as a hero, but we felt in the third season we could explore that. And now that we have a fourth season, we’re even happier about that because, no matter how low you go, if you know there’s another story, there is always redemption in the next season.
“That’s how I approached it in the books. Harry reaches a personal low point in Darkness More than Night but when I was writing that I knew there would be a book afterwards so that I could bring him out of the abyss. That’s what has happened now with the TV show – we know there’s a fourth season and it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel that’s going to draw Harry out.”
Connelly has written five episodes of the TV series so far, including the third season finale, and it’s clear he is relishing seeing the character he created being brought to life on television. Admitting he’s “very much involved” in the writing process, the author reveals that he works alongside Bosch’s six writers to produce scripts, sometimes rewriting episodes or individual scenes.
“That’s where I’m most involved and can give the most,” he continues. “Then eventually you get into production and I love that because all these people are endeavouring to make a show about a character I created a long time ago. It’s very cool. But I have to say, that’s where my skill set drops off tremendously! I don’t know much about camera angles and production co-ordination, so I’m really there almost as a cheerleader to encourage people, especially the actors and the director, and give the thumbs up when needed.”
It’s a big contrast to the solitary life of a novelist, but Connelly says being in a writers room reminds him of his early career as a crime journalist, first in Florida and then at the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s quite different writing,” he adds. “When I’m writing books, I’m constantly inside Harry Bosch’s head and I know what he’s thinking. You never have any of that in the scripts, so it’s a good challenge for me at this point in my life to think in terms of delineating Harry’s character by what he says and what he does and not on the much easier component of interior thought.
“He’s very much the same character [on TV as in the books], he’s just on a different timeline. The guy in the books, I’ve aged him in real time so he’s mid-60s. Titus [Welliver, who plays Bosch on screen] is 55 and that’s a big difference. I’m 60 years old and I feel quite old compared to the Harry Bosch in the TV show. So in a way, they’re different animals – Titus is fantastic as Harry Bosch, he’s perfect, but he’s not the same guy I’m writing about these days when I sit down to write books.”
Alongside Bosch, the other central character in the Amazon drama is LA itself, echoing the presence of the city in the works of Connelly’s literary hero, Raymond Chandler. It was his job at the LA Times that first brought the writer to the City of Angels, which he argues is as complex as the detective at the centre of his novels.
“It’s just a very difficult place to get your arms around, to understand, so it’s like an ongoing, ever-revolving mystery – the kind of place where you feel compelled to look over your shoulder – and that makes it a great place to build fiction around,” he explains. “We carry that over into the show. We have a certain realism and gritty tone to what we’re filming and it’s an attractive way to portray the city. We want to have a lot of scenes that show the vastness of it. There are millions and millions of dreams here and, somewhere, something really bad has happened.
“For whatever reason, LA has a fascination for people around the world. I know I’ve benefited from that as a book writer, and it’s the same when it comes to television. It always comes down to LA as a mystery. It’s a real hard place to understand. I first visited in 1987 and would be the first to say I don’t really know this place as well as I know the town I grew up in.”
As an early adopter of SVoD platforms, watching television on his laptop, Connelly says Amazon was a natural home for a show based on his books, which have a pace to them that also benefits from the opportunity to binge entire seasons in a short space of time.
And when the show first went into development, the author had ambitions to reach 60 episodes. With 40 now guaranteed with Bosch’s fourth season commission, Connelly now sees no reason why it should stop after season six.
“It would be fantastic if it ran and ran, but we’ll see,” he says, adding a note of caution. “There are plenty more plots, it’s just more about whether we have said all we need to say about Harry Bosch. That goes for the books as well, where there’s more of a finite constriction because he ages in real time – he’s a private eye in the latest book and that can last at least a few more years.
“If I do ever reach a ceiling of forward progression with him, I can always go back and write about him in the 80s, 70s or even the 60s, so it’s really about what inspires me,” Connelly adds. “But I don’t think there’s any limit on Bosch as a literary figure or a television figure.”
A large proportion of the international TV industry is attending the MipTV market in Cannes this week, buying and selling shows or doing scripted format deals. So it seems appropriate that the week’s top story should concern Fox US drama House, which has proved popular with broadcasters around the world over the years.
Usually sold in its completed form, this week has seen Fox license the Sherlock-esque medical drama to Non-Stop Production, which is remaking it for in Russia.
Anton Zlatopolskiy, first deputy director of the channel’s parent, Russia TV and Radio, said: “We considered the pros and cons before obtaining the format of such a famous series. It is quite a challenge to create our own version. Neither well-known producers or actors nor a big budget can guarantee success when it comes to a local version. But there are a couple of secret ingredients that make a series outstanding and we know how to make them work.”
Sticking with scripted formats, the drama department of Italian public broadcaster Rai, Rai Fiction, has ordered a second season of its remake of NBCUniversal International’s Parenthood. The 26×60’ second run, produced by Cattleya, will air on Rai Uno later in 2016. The US original ran for six seasons on NBC between 2010 to 2015, so there is scope for Rai’s version to run and run.
Another high-profile scripted format deal this week involves Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV, which has greenlit an adaptation of acclaimed Turkish drama The End. The Dutch version of the show is being produced by Netherlands-based Column Film. Column producer Chantal van der Horst said: “The End has a solid base for adaptation. The cleverness of the scripts and the universal appeal of the storyline makes the series suitable for audiences across the world, including in Western Europe.”
The show was sold into the Netherlands by Scandinavia-based distributor Eccho Rights, which has previously licensed the format to several markets including the US, Russia and France. Commenting on the deal, Nicola Söderlund, managing partner at Eccho Rights, said: “Turkish drama continues to break boundaries and it’s great that a West European version will be hitting screens later on this year. (The show’s producer) Ay Yapim has created a gripping plot that translates well across cultures, which is reflected in the number and range of licences on The End.”
Other interesting greenlights this week include news that Amazon has ordered a third season of Red Arrow’s crime series Bosch. Based on the novels by Michael Connelly, Bosch stars Titus Welliver as streetwise LAPD detective Harry Bosch. Commenting on the renewal, Morgan Wandell, head of drama series at Amazon Studios, said: “Our customers can’t get enough of Harry Bosch. The entire cast and crew have done a fantastic job with season two and we can’t wait to see what they have in store for next season.”
Another big story out of the US is HBO’s decision to order a TV adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling debut novel Sharp Objects. The eight-episode series will star Amy Adams as a newspaper journalist trying to sort out her life following years of self-harm that landed her in a psychiatric hospital. However, her plan for a new life is derailed when she returns to her hometown and gets caught up in investigating the mysterious murder of two young girls.
The pilot for the TV adaptation is being written by Marti Noxon, who will also be showrunner. Noxon, the co-creator of Lifetime’s critically acclaimed drama UnREAL, will then share writing responsibilities on the series with Flynn, who previously adapted her own novel Gone Girl as a feature film. Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) will direct.
Meanwhile, the SVoD giants are continuing their aggressive expansion around the world, part of which involves commissioning original local-language series. This week, it’s Netflix’s turn to grab the headlines – with its first original series from Spain.
Set in the 1920s, the show will look at the lives of four women who work as switchboard operators for the state-owned phone company’s central headquarters in Madrid. The series comes from the same stable that created international Spanish-language hits Velvet and Gran Hotel. This includes Roman Campos and Teresa Fernandez-Valdes from Bambú Producciones, director Carlos Sedes and writer Gema Neira, who often works with Campos.
Commenting on the commission, Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, said: “We’re delighted to be working with Bambú Producciones, director Carlos Sedes and co-creator Gema Neira on our first original series filmed in Spain. We’re huge fans of their work on Gran Hotel and Velvet – epic romances that have been embraced by our members around the world. We’re certain our members will love this unique and engaging drama from some of the best storytellers in Spain.”
We’ve talked a lot in previous columns about the trend towards movie adaptations, book adaptations and reboots in US drama – all of which are about providing in-built awareness in new projects. But there’s another trend that is creeping into the business – namely the spin-off. We’ve seen examples in cable with Better Call Saul (from Breaking Bad) and Fear The Walking Dead (from The Walking Dead). And Disney-ABC has created numerous movies and TV series rooted in its Marvel universe. NBC is the latest to get in on the act. First came Chicago Justice, a spin-off from Chicago PD, and now NBC has announced plans for a spin-off from The Blacklist. There aren’t many details as yet but it’s an interesting new development that promises to further narrow the number of slots available to original ideas.
Finally, Turkey was country of honour at Mipcom 2015, an event that focused heavily the country’s prolific drama output, and the country doesn’t seem to have lost any momentum coming into MipTV 2016.
Aside from The End deal referred to above, The Fox Turkey drama That Is My Life has also been selling well – with ANTV (Hong Kong), Kanal 5 (Bulgaria), Telemundo (Hispanic US), Moby Group (Middle East), Puls TV (Poland), Kanal D (Romania) and MTG (Russia) all acquiring the Pastel Film-produced show.
Another Fox show, The Intersection, also has a high profile at the market as part of the Endemol Shine International catalogue. Coinciding with ESI’s marketing activity in Cannes, Fox also announced a second season for the series.
With a reputed US$2bn annual content budget, Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell is enjoying his position as prime disruptor of traditional TV.
Having built a career in US network television with series like ABC’s Ugly Betty and CBS’s Criminal Minds, it must have felt strange to segue from Hollywood to heading drama development at the world’s largest online retailer.
Morgan Wandell admits he was apprehensive about joining Amazon Studios just over two years ago, having spent seven at ABC Studios, but says the reaction couldn’t have been more positive.
“The reality was people were dying to move away from broadcast television, they were desperate to get away from industrial-grade shows,” he says. “There were a lot of creators with passion projects that they hadn’t been able to find homes for or who wanted to do something different.”
Wandell joined a few weeks before Amazon confirmed its first two drama pilots. Bosch, an adaptation of Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch crime novels, went ahead and has since been renewed for a second season. The After, a sci-fi drama that marked The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s return to series, never made it off the starting blocks.
But it was Transparent that really put Amazon on the map. Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender became the first online-only show to win Golden Globes in 2015. It was also nominated for three gongs at this year’s ceremony, though it failed to take home any awards.
“Transparent was an unbelievable asset for the company to have out of the gate. It really helped define the brand and what people should expect from us,” says Wandell.
Next came Ron Perlman thriller Hand of God, about a corrupt judge who has a breakdown and starts hearing the voice of the Almighty. Bigger still was The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel imagining an alternative outcome to the Second World War. Exec produced by Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz, it was released in November.
The latter came about in much the same way as other Amazon dramas. “I started to call producers who I’d previously worked with,” says Wandell. “I knew Frank from a show called Night Stalker we did at ABC. My question to him was simple: ‘What do you have that you’re dying to make that keeps you up at night that you haven’t been able to get made at any other place?’ He said, ‘The answer’s simple – The Man in the High Castle.’”
This begs the question why no one else was prepared to make it. “It’s challenging material,” says Wandell. “It’s Nazis, fascism – a lot of uncomfortable moments.”
Amazon’s own High Castle advertising did create worries in the US, however, where Nazi and imperial Japanese flags plastered on the New York subway had to be removed.
Wandell is more comfortable discussing the liberation of TV from the shackles of tradition. When he began at Amazon, he was surprised to realise there was “a whole generation of creators who’ve spent their lives building up very specific narrative muscles” as a response to network requirements.
When he started out as a development exec, a four-act structure for TV shows was prevalent. During his time at ABC this evolved to five, then six. But at Amazon the rulebook is thrown out of the window.
“There were a lot of producers or writers who, once they moved into this environment and were liberated from that kind of structure, had a difficult time creating the sorts of scenes you really need in premium TV because we’d stripped away the narrative tropes they relied on,” he says.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘traditional TV’ and what Amazon is doing. “Broadcast networks have schedules, they need programming,” Wandell says. “They’re in the business of being a lot of people’s third-favourite show. We’re in the business of being somebody’s absolute favourite.”
He admits the company might not achieve this every time but believes its open online pilot process offers improved chances of success. “Hopefully you make better decisions when you have hundreds of thousands of people watching versus testing centres in north Hollywood where 50 people who have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon will, for cold pizza and 40 bucks, come in and tell you why your pilot stinks.”
Wandell may owe his present position to a career in broadcast, but he doesn’t hold high hopes for the future of the networks he came from. “It’s very challenging for them,” he says. “I have no crystal ball but it’s a lot more fun to be the disruptor than the disrupted.”
Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.
Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.
House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.
Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.
The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).
The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).
In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.
All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.
Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.
Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.
“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.
Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.
In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.
While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.
In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.
A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.
One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.
The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.
In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.
Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.
There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.
Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.
There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.
But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.
The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.
An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.
Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.
Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.
Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.
The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.
There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.
Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.
There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.
Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.
Subscription VoD platforms Netflix and Amazon have emerged as two of the most important players in the scripted TV business. But they are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest. While they are happy to make carefully choreographed appearances at TV industry events and provide subscriber information during their quarterly results presentations, they are not easy to interview and refuse to provide data about the audiences their shows attract.
This, of course, is their prerogative – but it does make it difficult to judge how original commissions are doing. How do we know, for example, that Netflix flagship House of Cards is the hit show that we all seem to assume it is? And what evidence is there that Amazon’s critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent is anything other than a global media village talking point?
In the absence of ratings data, the most obvious measurement of success on SVoD is whether a show gets recommissioned. Viewed from this perspective, House of Cards is clearly doing a good job, because Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season for 2014. We also have to assume that Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove are algorithmically acceptable because they both have third seasons coming up. (Orange’s debuts on June 12, and it actually also has a fourth lined up.) By a similar token, Amazon’s decision to recommission both Bosch and Transparent suggests it is also happy with the impact these shows are having on its business.
Using recommissions as a benchmark for ratings success has its limitations however. For a start, it’s possible that the decision to renew these shows is more about creating a positive PR bubble than rewarding strong ratings. If the SVoD platforms can secure positive notices among critics and reviewers for their shows – plus the occasional Emmy or Golden Globe – they can drive new subscriptions without necessarily winning big audiences.
In other words, raw audience size isn’t an issue for the SVoD platforms as long as they feel like they are achieving ROI with their dramas. But it’s more of a concern for traditional broadcasters thinking of acquiring the rights to a show, because they need metrics to work out a show’s appeal to advertisers.
Furthermore, international channel buyers often have to make decisions about whether to acquire a show before the decision to recommission has taken place. So they may find themselves having to acquire a show without any ratings or audience demographic data. In this scenario, they won’t know whether the decision to recommission was for PR purposes or due to a commercial commitment to the producer or distributor of the show, which may only have signed up with the SVoD platforms on the understanding that it would get at least a second/third run.
The TV industry has tried to get round the ratings issues in various away. Variety magazine, for example, recently published some insights from Luth Research, a San Diego-based company that surveyed 2,500 Netflix subscribers to analyse their viewing habits. Although there were some methodological limitations to the research, it showed that Marvel show Daredevil has been the platform’s most popular series of the year so far, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in the first 11 days. With Netflix’s US subscriber base currently at around 41 million, this means the show drew around 4.5 million viewers. The same research showed a more modest audience for House of Cards season three (6.5% over the first 30 days) and a pretty lacklustre performance for Bloodline (2.4% over 30 days – around one million).
Aside from this kind of bespoke research study, the industry is forced to fall back on audience feedback as a gauge for how a show is performing. So if we stick with Daredevil for a moment, Goscoop.tv was quick to spot the fact that the show secured 4.6 out of five stars on Netflix’s audience review chart, higher than House of Cards. Daredevil also scores well on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb is particularly useful because you get to see a rating (9.1/10) and the number of users who have voted (79,169 at last count). This is important, because high volume hints at high ratings – and also allows us to build a picture of how the mainstream audience has responded to a show. A low volume of reviews will inevitably skew more towards fanboys or haters.
IMDb gets pretty interesting when you start exploring how other dramas stack up against these scores. We can see, for example, that House of Cards has a 9.1 rating from 212,263 users, Orange is the New Black has 8.4 from 129,964 users, Bloodline has 8.4 from 8,833 users, Bosch has 8.4 from 8,745 users, Marco Polo has 8.2 from 21,666 users, Transparent has 8.1 from 7,256 users and Hemlock Grove is trailing the pack with 7.3 from 24,091 users.
This isn’t an ideal way to analyse shows but it does throw up some interesting points. Firstly, it underlines how strong Daredevil is. Not only are its rating high, but it has stimulated high levels of audience engagement in a very short time. With season two already commissioned this is a hit for Netflix and will undoubtedly prove a popular pick up when it moves into distribution.
Hemlock Grove’s performance also suggests that the audience’s assessment of a show is broadly in line with the critics, who have not liked the show. Variety’s comment coming into series two was: “While a loyal contingent was inclined to give Hemlock Grove the benefit of the doubt in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way, watching the opening of the second go-round still tips the scales toward so bad — and boring — that it’s just plain bad. Efforts to improve the show, or just make sense out of it, have largely foundered.”
Continuing with this deeply unscientific but mildly entertaining analysis, what happens when we compare the above IMDb ratings with high-profile shows on cable TV (I’ve limited it to cable because these shows are most similar to what is on offer from Netflix and Amazon)? Well, Game of Thrones has a 9.5 rating from 772, 837 users, Breaking Bad has 9.5 from 680,964, The Sopranos has 9.3 from 153,972, Better Call Saul has 9.1 from 69,893, The Walking Dead has 8.7 from 511,536, Mad Men has 8.7 from 121,003, Vikings has 8.6 from 126,260, Wayward Pines has 8.4 from 3,497 and The Returned has 7.3 from 3,473.
If you look at these results through squinty eyes, this isn’t actually a bad reflection of the quality and popularity of these shows (Game of Thrones – notwithstanding recent controversy – and Breaking Bad spectacular, The Returned a disappointment). There’s even a kind of correlation to US platform penetration figures. With cable in 100 million-plus homes and Netflix in 41 million, there’s a proportionality in Breaking Bad and House of Cards user totals.
There are all kinds of health warnings you could apply to these numbers, connected to the time they’ve been on air, who their core audience is, whether they are the kind of shows that polarise people and whether the shows’ creators have tried to artificially hype positive reviews. But the overall scorecard seems to suggest that Netflix has had two slam dunk hits (Daredevil and House of Cards) and one that is dividing audiences a bit (Orange Is The New Black). If Daredevil keeps up its momentum, then you’d have to say that Netflix’s four-series deal with Marvel is a masterstroke.
Amazon has had a reasonable start with detective series Bosch, though its numbers are probably skewed upwards by pent-up demand from fans of the book series. This ‘jury’s out’ feel would align with The Guardian’s assessment that Bosch is a paint-by-numbers cop show that leaves “no cop-show cliché unturned.” Arguably, Transparent’s 8.1 rating is one of the most interesting scores. In an era obsessed with transgender TV, Transparent is of its time. And it did win a Golden Globe for best comedy. But if we take 8.7 as a benchmark of high quality (see above), a rating of 8.1 suggests the show is polarising audiences to some extent.
The overall assessment has to be that Amazon is yet to get its scripted strategy quite right. So a lot will be riding on upcoming projects like The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs and Hand of God. Amazon, of course, is still playing catch-up to Netflix – but at some point it will probably need its own Marvel moment.
With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?
The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.
In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”
For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”
Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.
“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”
With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.
The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”
BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.
In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”
The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”
Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”
His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.
For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”
He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”
While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).
Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”
It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”
Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”
Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”
With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”
eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”
One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”
The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.
The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.
Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”
While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.
One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).
Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”
This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.
Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”
On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”
Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”
For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”
While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.
The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”
Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”
So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”
At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.
C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.
Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.
However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”
BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”
Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”