Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.
The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.
Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.
Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.
“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”
Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”
Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.
“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”
With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”
The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”
And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”
The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.
“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”
In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”
Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.
“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”
Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.
“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”
Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.
“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”
In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”
This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”
And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”
For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”
From a pair of mystery dramas and the introduction of the ‘female Columbo’ to the story of a film director forced to make a new version of King Kong for a power-mad dictator, French drama is set to enjoy a breakout year. DQ casts its eye over some of the new series coming to the small screen.
Baron Noir season two The ‘French House of Cards’ returns. Produced by Kwai for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Why was Baron Noir season one so successful around the world?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: Politics is back – and even if Baron Noir is about French politicians, it deals with the same problems every politician has to face. That’s the reason the show reaches a global audience. The style of the series also had a great impact. Baron Noir is a thriller, a very tense drama with a cinematographic style, a dramaturgy you can’t escape, and editing that makes it as addictive as possible. The performance of the actors is also astonishing. It’s a universal story of revenge, which is one of the most powerful motivations in a drama.
How does season two move the story forward? We shot season two during the French presidential and legislative elections. No one is capable of predicting what is going to happen, so we have decided to follow our own story. What’s important is that the preoccupations and the big picture of the politicians’ lives are accurate and realistic, whoever is running the country in real life. So in season two, Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis) is elected president and Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad, pictured) is her special advisor. But democracy is threatened by two evil forces: jihadism and the far right. Our two lead characters become ever more divided and separate from each other and fight to save the republic.
What are the biggest challenges in producing the series? We started shooting with four scripts out of eight, because of the availability of the cast. It was a challenging race to have the final scripts ready to shoot and keep the quality.
Zone Blanche (Black Spot) A local sheriff seeks the truth about a mysterious town. Produced by Ego Productions and Be-Films for France 2 and distributed by AB International Distribution.
Where did the idea for Black Spot come from?
Series creator Mathieu Missoffe: Based on initial conversations with producer Vincent Mouluquet, I originally set out to build a strong mystery set in an isolated place that would feel familiar and strange at the same time. We knew this had to be a very visual show to stand out, so we moved away from traditional urban crime shows, instead focusing on a small, colourful community surrounded by hostile and untamed nature. This is how our fictitious town of Villefranche came to life, a place that has its own rules and atmosphere, with a blend of influences ranging from Twin Peaks to Nordic noir.
What is the style or tone of the series? The show borrows from different genres to create its own unique identity. It doesn’t shy away from gritty crime scenes, but we twisted familiar crime show elements by adding a western movie look and occasionally flirting with fantasy as far as the surrounding nature is concerned. A slight touch of comedy is also part of the mix – a necessary addition to create the kind of entertainment we feel is relevant for today’s general audience.
How is French drama evolving? The good news is that most of the old taboos that used to drag down French fiction have now collapsed. Politics and religion are back on the map, while darker and edgier stories are gaining traction. It’s definitely an exciting time, with our traditional realistic auteur shows now able to coexist with series that are trying to open new doors in entertainment with exotic locations, big-budget coproductions or new genres. At the same time, talents in front of and behind the camera are finally crossing over between film and television, resulting in even more opportunities.
Capitaine Marleau (Chief Inspector Marleau) A ‘female Columbo’ tackles crime with her own offbeat methods. Produced by Passion Films for France 3 and distributed by France TV Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer Gaspard de Chavagnac: Our lead actor Corinne Masiero (far left) first portrayed Capitaine Marleau in French miniseries Entre Vents et Marées (Between Winds and Tides), directed by Josée Dayan. She played the part with such wit and originality that we immediately decided to pitch France 3 the character as the heroine of a new cop series. The network did not hesitate long before ordering a 90-minute pilot.
How was the series developed with France 3? After the success of the pilot, written by Elsa Marpeau and again directed by Josée Dayan, France 3 agreed to develop two more episodes and then three others. We are currently producing the second season.
How did you cast the series? As Masiero was not very well known, we sought famous guest stars for each episode. Gérard Depardieu agreed to appear in the first episode, followed by other actors familiar to French viewers – including Victoria Abril, Muriel Robin, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pierre Arditi. The result was an average of 4.3 million viewers for our first four episodes.
La Forêt (The Forest) A small town is gripped by fear when people begin to disappear in a mysterious forest. Produced by Carma Films for France 3 and distributed by About Premium Content (APC).
Tell us about the show.
APC founder and joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart: The Forest is a modern crime series with a gripping story set against a mysterious background. An audience-friendly thriller at heart, it does not, however, shy away from social themes, setting out to provide a realistic portrayal of issues surrounding today’s youth.
How would you describe the writing process? Contrary to the current writers room trend, The Forest was written by a single screenwriter, Delinda Jacobs. She came to us with a very precise idea of what the show would look like and the commissioning channel, which wanted to modernise its line-up, was very supportive from the start.
What was the biggest challenge during production? The biggest challenge for us was finding the right actors. We wanted the story to feel real, with life-like characters and true emotions, so we spent a lot of time looking for people who were able to convey this feeling to the audience. We think we found the right team with Alexia Barlier (pictured left, 13 Hours), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Samuel Labarthe (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) for the main roles.
What new stories are being told in French drama? French drama has always had a social focus and a taste for realistic and intimate stories. What’s changing is that there is now a new appeal for modern narrative forms, new genres and writing techniques. The Forest is definitely part of that movement, keeping in line with parts of the French cinematic tradition but opening up to new and highly effective ways of telling stories.
Les Témoins (Witnesses) season two The return of the atmospheric crime thriller. Produced by Cinétévé for France 2 and distributed by Newen Distribution.
Why was Witnesses season one so successful around the world?
Director Hervé Hadmar: The plot, the atmosphere and detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier, below right). The audience just wants to know who this woman is.
How does season two move the story forward?Witnesses is, of course, the story of Sandra. In season one, she has learned that the ‘ideal family’ does not exist. Her husband is not Prince Charming – and Sandra herself is not so perfect. At the beginning of season two, she’s living alone with her two daughters. She still believes in love, of course, but has to ask herself, ‘Is love the greatest danger?’ As for the main plot, it centres on unravelling what happened to 15 men who are found dead, totally frozen, on a bus. It emerges that they all loved the same woman, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot, below left). Who is Catherine Keemer? Is she responsible for their deaths? Season two explores the relationship between Sandra and Catherine.
How would you describe your directing process? I do not fight against the ‘principe de réalité’ – pressures of time or accidental events. I’m trying to use those little incidents, bad weather, for example, to create something new. I have learned to be excited by asking myself, ‘What the hell is going to happen today?’
What is the style or tone of the show? A Nordic noir with a delicate, strange and almost hypnotic atmosphere.
How is French drama evolving? With more mature themes and artistic values. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience is very important. We have learned to take risks but there is still a lot of progress to make. For that, let’s hope success will continue to knock on our doors.
Transferts (Transfer) Five years after a man drowns, his mind is transferred into someone else’s body. But at a time when ‘transfers’ are outlawed, he must live undercover to avoid detection. Produced by Filmagine, Be-Films and Panama Productions for Arte, and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer/co-writer Patrick Benedek: The series grew out of my friendship with Claude Scasso. For a while we’d been wanting to make a thrilling sci-fi series, aware that in France, at the time, no network wanted to go down that road. It was very liberating for me – I could give free rein to all my beginner’s mistakes! I didn’t imagine for a minute that the project would see the light of day.
How would you describe the writing process? Claude and I worked on the conception and construction of episodes together, in meetings and with notes. We spent entire days projecting ourselves into our characters and our universe – with a creative purpose but also with a keen critical eye on each other’s proposals – until we got that exhilarating feeling that we had something. That’s the advantage of knowing each other well, of not having an oversized ego and of being a team. After that, Claude would write a first draft of the treatments, which I would then rework. Finally, he would go over what I wrote, and I would go over what he did, until we were both satisfied.
What were the biggest challenges during production? In France, it’s always the same problem – do as much as possible as well as possible with the little financial resources we have. This means always knowing how to get the most out of your resources; knowing how to distribute them while maintaining your artistic vision.
Kim Kong While filming in Asia, a director is kidnapped by a neighbouring dictatorship and ordered to make a new version of King Kong. Produced by Kwai and Armance for Arte and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
What are the origins of the series?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and told to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which was called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie. The other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel with a similar theme, being about an author who’s kidnapped by an deranged fan and forced rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. But our story is not about a specific regime or specific country; it’s really about creativity and constraints.
How do you balance the drama with elements of comedy?The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end, but in a similar style to movies like Gold Rush, M.A.S.H. or The Ladykillers. The subject is very serious and dramatic but we build in several contradictions that create comedy. It’s a question of life and death but the director has to deal with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the leader, so there are lots of elements where you can do nothing but laugh.
What was the biggest challenge? Mostly the casting and the language (with the show being filmed in French and Chinese). But also working out where we were going to shoot. As our dictatorship doesn’t exist in real life, we looked for a location for months before deciding to film 90% of the series in a studio in Paris.
A new French drama is set to take Canal+ viewers on a thrilling ride deep into the Amazon jungle. Creator Fabien Nury and producer Bénédicte Lesage tell DQ about their own journey with Guyane (Ouro).
When Parisian geology student Vincent heads to French Guiana to complete an internship at a gold-mining company, he quickly falls under the wing of a local gold lord and into the lucrative world of trafficking the precious metal.
So begins a heart-stopping adventure ride in Guyane (aka Ouro), French pay TV broadcaster Canal+’s original drama from creator Fabien Nury and director Kim Chapiron. Led by a cast including Olivier Rabourdin and Mathieu Spinosi, the show will take viewers deep into the Amazon jungle for an experience distributor Newen Distribution vows they will never forget.
Guyane is produced by Mascaret Films and distributed by Newen Distribution, who have already sold it to RTL Crime in Germany.
Here, Nury and Mascaret producer Bénédicte Lesage tell DQ how the eight-part story – which debuts tonight – was pieced together, how they settled on a visual identity for the series and the challenges of filming entirely on location in a remote and isolated environment.
Where did the idea for the show come from? Fabien Nury: I have to say, even if it’s not romantic, that it was an order from Canal+. They wanted an adventure story set in modern-day French Guiana, and that was it. I asked them if it had to deal with illegal gold mining, which is ongoing in the region, and, of course, they said yes. My first idea, which stayed true to the end of the season, was that if we told the story of one illegal gold site, it would give us a great look at the reality of the entire process. It all comes down to this: nowadays, 5,000 miles away, men risk their lives in the wilderness, kill and get killed for a fistful of gold. It’s real and it’s happening today.
How was the story developed for the broadcaster, Canal+? Nury: We defined a genre – ‘crime and adventure’ – and a double point of view: a young newcomer, Vincent, and an ageing gold kingpin, Antoine Serra. We also defined the level of realism we needed – and with that, the pace of our storytelling. High realism means a slower pace but we needed our story to remain believable and to move fast. So we decided to aim for something closer to Breaking Bad than The Wire.
The rest of it was, mostly, a lot of work – a great deal of research, narrative construction, writing and rewriting. Once the pilot was constructed, written and dialogued, I decided to complete a full treatment of the entire season – around 100 pages – to have the storylines, character arcs and structures precisely mapped out for everybody working on the series. It took a long time but, in the end, it proved useful.
How would you describe the writing process on the show? Nury: Exhausting. The treatment helped a lot. I had collaborators, Sabine Dabadie and Frederik Folkenirnga, who did research, took notes and discussed the story with the producers and myself, but at some point it was decided that I should write every episode of the first season to maintain the consistency and the style of the show. Like always, the first part felt like a marathon and the last part like a sprint. I still had to complete four episodes once pre-production had started. I was lucky enough to find most of my work validated by people living in French Guiana, or familiar with the gold business. It gave me enough confidence to complete the second half of the season, while polishing the first half with the directors.
How did you work with the directors on the visual style and tone of the series? Nury: Kim Chapiron, the first director, always shoots in a documentary style: hand-held camera, lots of takes and heavy editing. In the end, a number of shots were way above average. I believe this style matches quite well with the first half of the season, while we’re still in discovery mode. It makes us feel there’s life around the story. Then Philippe Triboit efficiently took over, adjusted his own style to Kim’s and streamlined it a bit, to add intensity as the season went on. And I directed the last episode, focusing mostly on the characters, the violence and the hell they’ve created for themselves. It was only possible because the environment and characters had been brilliantly established by Kim and developed by Philippe.
I was very happy to direct the season finale; I can’t help it, I like endings more than beginnings. There’s always more emotion to saying goodbye than there is to saying hello. Directing was hard and stressful work too, but I saw it as a great reward. And I tried to bring a real feeling of closure to the finale, like the last chapter of a novel. Of course, there will be other seasons, other “novels” with these same characters and the ending has to remain open and promising. But it can’t be just one more episode with a cliffhanger. As a viewer, I always resent that kind of trick. I take pride in thinking we avoided it.
Who are the lead cast members and what do they bring to the series? Bénédicte Lesage: The cast – Olivier Rabourdin (who plays Antoine Serra), Mathieu Spinosi (Vincent), Issaka Sawadogo, Anne Suarez and Flora Bofanti – are highly talented actors from a wide variety of backgrounds, who shared a passionate interest in embodying a new type of character and in participating in this great jungle adventure. They worked on location as they might have in a theatre or on tour, some 5,000 miles from home. They drew inspiration from the fabulous natural settings of French Guiana, of [capital city] Cayenne and its hinterland, the natural beauty, the tropical heat, the harsh conditions, the mosquitoes and the exhaustion. They also found strength in their local partners, Guianan actors, many of them non-professionals but filled with a desire to act and a great sense of accuracy too, which re-energised everyone’s passionate fervour.
Where was the series filmed and how were locations used? Lesage: The series was shot entirely in French Guiana, apart from an opening scene in Paris. This was an enormous challenge because French Guiana is a South American country deep in the Amazon, practically hemmed in by northern Brazil. It is basically only known as the hinterland of Cayenne, infamous for the forced-labour camp seen in the 1973 Steve McQueen movie Papillon. Outside of its towns, there is not much infrastructure. Film or other audiovisual facilities are rudimentary. One effect of the series has been to help develop local acting talent and help institutions develop a cultural and economic sector. Our ideal would be that, from season to season, the series would become majority Guianese-made.
Most of the locations are within two hours’ travel from Cayenne. The village called St Elias in the series was shot at Kaw, a place only accessible by dug-out canoe! The gold-panning site, Camp Alpha, was entirely built in the middle of the jungle on public land at Roura. The various canoe trips were shot at Roura, in the Kaw Marshes or at Petit Saut.
Nury: A script will only show you how a story works. It’s when you’ve got the locations and casting that you discover how it lives. We had great locations and wonderful actors on this show; places and faces we’ve barely ever seen on screen. And some of them are wild!
What were the biggest challenges of the production? Lesage: Our greatest challenges were getting the infrastructure for a major production into place – portable toilets, water, food for cast and crew, getting gear into Kaw by helicopter and so on. We also wanted to avoid serious accidents or disease in our crew. We needed to work out ethical ways of working with the locals and to make sure each of the many communities based in French Guiana – Creole, Maroon, Hmong, Brazilians, French – got a share of the work. We felt they were very happy we were there but also that they were scared we might not be able to pull it off. In fact, to them, the shoot itself was the adventure story, the drama – a fantasy compared with the hardship of their everyday lives. Another problem we had was scheduling a shoot in the dry season. Fabien, who shot the last episode in December 2015, had to run against the first rains that would have made shooting just totally impossible. He completed it just in time.
Nury: The shooting schedule was tight. People didn’t sleep much and lost weight. But that pressure also kept everybody sharp, on edge, and I hope it shows in the finished cut. It takes an adventure to create an adventure. It’s always more difficult to shoot nights in the jungle than days in the office, but it’s also very stimulating. You can’t shoot that in your backyard and sometimes you think it’s too hard or demanding. But the good side is that it doesn’t look like your backyard.
What do you hope viewers take away from the series? Lesage: I hope viewers come away with a taste of adventure, a desire to visit Guiana and a love for this unusual cast. And, of course, a big sense of discovery.
Nury: I hope they see it as a proof that it’s still possible, in 2017, to find adventure in this world. It’s a journey, a great ride far away from home, but set in our modern reality. I think the main promise of any adventure story is this: dangerous men entering unknown territories. I was happy to create such a story on TV; they’ve become too rare.
What are you working on next? Lesage: Right now, we’re working on season two, and a few other unlikely projects, which is how I like it – different, varied, compelling. And I hope Fabien and I will come up with a new adventure to work on together soon.
Nury: When I don’t work for TV or film, I write graphic novels. There, I have unlimited budget. One I wrote called The Death of Stalin has just been adapted for the big screen by Armando Iannucci, with an incredible all-star cast.
On Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.
The Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).
Victoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.
The Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.
Versailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.
Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.
The Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.
Mary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.
The Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.
Charles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.
For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.
For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.
Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.
The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”
Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.
Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.
NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.
Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.
And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.
In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.
It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer. Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”
Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.
“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.
HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”
The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”
Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).
Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.
Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.
This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.
Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.
Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.
Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”
The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.
There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.
Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”
Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.
Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”
Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.
There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”
The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.
For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.
Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.
The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.
Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.
Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.
Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.
Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).
Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”
FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.
One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.
It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.
More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.
The TV industry’s annual calendar is packed with great events – though not all of them have a high profile outside their domestic market.
A good example is the ATX Television Festival, which has taken place in Austin, Texas, over the last few days. For those not familiar with ATX, the organisers say: “We have the functionality of a traditional film festival with screenings followed by Q&As from cast and creators; panels focused on industry related topics; and an array of events that includes parties, live music, meet-ups and social media events. Unlike traditional festivals, however, we celebrate the history of the medium as well as the future. We spotlight classic shows, never-aired pilots, cancelled-too-soon series, cult favorites, current hits, and premieres of new series.”
Significantly, ATX gets plenty of support from big hitters in the US TV industry. At this year’s event, there were panels with the likes of Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets), David Simon (The Wire) and Howard Gordon (Homeland).
There were also sessions exploring the depiction of the LGBT community in scripted TV, comic book adaptations, the way faith and religion are tackled, the role of the director in TV drama and the secret to making a successful fantasy series for TV.
One of the most interesting sessions saw writers from FX’s iconic series The Shield (2002-2008) meet up to discuss how the show shaped their respective careers.
Scott Rosenbaum, who has gone on to executive produce series like V, Conquistadors and Gang Related, said: “There was an immense amount of pressure. It was very, very competitive because we all wanted our ideas to get on screen and when we didn’t, we could be angry or petulant – but I think that’s what made it so great, this sense of competition.”
Aside from Rosenbaum, other Shield writers on the panel included Glen Mazzara and Kurt Sutter, who have gone on to work on both megahits and short-lived failures. In Mazzara’s case, credits include The Walking Dead and Damien, while Sutter’s post-Shield work includes Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner.
Also on the panel was Shawn Ryan, showrunner of The Shield. Ryan has gone on to create and produce a number of new series since The Shield including Last Resort, Lie To Me and Mad Dogs — with NBC’s new time-travel drama Timeless his next adventure.
However, he clearly still has a residual affection for The Shield and its central character, Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Quizzed on the show, he gave the impression that he could be persuaded to go back to the franchise if the conditions were right and he could call on some of the original writing team: “I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is, but I don’t know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers room with a group of these people (on the panel) and some people who aren’t here and gives us a week to sort it out. Usually my first idea or instinct isn’t the right one, so I have some thoughts. I’d love to hear their thoughts and I’d love someone to pay us to sit in a room.”
Rosenbaum also gave some insight into the psychology of working in the writers room of such a high-octane show. Recalling the addition of established showrunner Charles Eglee (NYPD Blue, Moonlighting) to the team, he said: “There was a proprietary feeling of, ‘This is our show. We’re the ones who did this. Why do we have to have a new person come along? We’re capable of doing this.’”
However, that initial resistance disappeared when “we realised we had someone really special. My first impression of him was that I thought he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.”
Another ATX panel of interest was “Westerns: Then and Now,” which saw HBO give a sneak peak of Westworld. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said: “It was Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off. The 30-second pitch for Westworld was that we were sort of making Days of Heaven and Alien simultaneously and then putting them together, which is kind of my dream project – exploring two genres and playing with the juxtaposition of both. It’s fantastic.
“HBO felt like the only place we could make this. And Game of Thrones was the inspiration for us. Game of Thrones has this commitment to practical production value, which is not necessarily what’s in play (elsewhere) these days.”
Meanwhile, still in the US, the creator of CBS hit series Elementary, Rob Doherty, has just signed a three-year deal with CBS Television Studios.
CBS has already renewed the show for a fifth season, but the new deal suggests Elementary will get a least a couple more runs yet – which is no surprise when you learn how much money it generates for the network. In May, CBS boss Leslie Moonves said Elementary made CBS an estimated US$80m in profit last year (the result of being a wholly-owned CBS property).
Elementary is Doherty’s biggest hit to date, though he has written and produced for a number of series, including Ringer, Medium, Point Pleasant, Tru Calling and Dark Angel.
Outside the US, the big story of the week is that Canal+ in France has renewed its spy drama The Bureau for a third season. Federation Entertainment and TOP will start filming the third run in September. This is the second piece of good news for the show, after its existing seasons were picked up by Amazon Prime UK.
The Bureau was created by Eric Rochant, who is also known for writing and directing movies such as Autobus, Mobius, Love Without Pity and The Patriots. In terms of TV projects, he also wrote and directed a number of episodes of Canal+’s Mafiosa, le Clan. Created by Hugues Pagan, this show also ran on Canal+ for five seasons (40 episodes in total) from 2006 to 2014.
Finally, coming full circle to the subject of interesting industry events, screenwriter and director Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) has joined the line-up for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London (November 29-December 1). Gallagher will discuss new work such as Sky1’s forthcoming eight-parter Jamestown at the event, as well as his approach to the craft and his role as a creator and writer.
Jamestown, about the first British settlers in America, is being produced by Downton Abbey and Lucky Man producer Carnival Films and is slated to air later this year on the UK satcaster.
Last week it was announced that writer/director Tony Grisoni had also joined the line-up for the International Drama Summit.
Braquo creator Olivier Marchal is back on TV with Section Zéro, a new thriller that puts a sci-fi spin on his trademark brand of gritty crime drama. Michael Pickard finds out more from the show’s producer Edouard de Vésinne.
Around the world, Olivier Marchal’s name is synonymous with hard-hitting, gritty cop drama Braquo.
But in France, he’s currently enhancing his reputation with his latest series Section Zéro, which takes his penchant for police-focused stories into the realm of sci-fi thriller.
Described as a dark, edgy and violent political drama, Section Zéro is set in a near future when multinational corporations are Europe’s new leaders. One of the most powerful, Prométhée, wants to further secure its growing dominance by replacing the police force with a private militia, the Black Squad, led by Henry Munro (Pascal Greggory).
But following the shooting of his daughter, idealistic law enforcement officer Sirius Becker (Ola Rapace) – with his life in shambles, his darkest secrets exposed and with nowhere to turn – aligns himself with old cop Franck Varnove (Tchéky Karyo).
Sirius takes charge of Franck’s elite squad, known as Section Zéro, to battle the militias and bring about a return to traditional law enforcement.
Yet despite the genre trappings, producer Edouard de Vésinne says the Canal+ drama – which debuted on April 4 – is first and foremost an Olivier Marchal series. The auteur directed every episode and wrote the scripts alongside Laurent Guillaume.
“Olivier has a very important and specific place in the map of French talent and television,” de Vésinne explains. “He’s an ex-cop; he was a cop for about 10 years. Then he became an actor and, from there, he became a writer/director. Today, he is the master of cop movies and series in France. He only does police shows – and Braquo has been a worldwide hit.
“All this stems from his tough look on the world, which is very dark, violent, sexy and nervous, but with a soft heart for the characters and the actors. He’s an actor’s director and he has a childlike sensitivity that goes straight to the heart of the French public. They know he’s sincere.”
Braquo, which also airs on Canal+ and has run for four seasons, follows four Parisian detectives who blur the lines of the law to get the job done.
“After Braquo, Olivier wanted to try a new series,” de Vésinne says. “This is his first work that isn’t specifically a police show – but there are still cops! Governments are bankrupt and corrupt and being taken over by corporations. The elite are hiding behind closed walls and, in the middle of this pandemonium, there is a group of ex-cops trying to create some resistance. That’s where we find the values Olivier is always looking for: group spirit, fraternity and a kind of political view that resonates with the audience.”
Produced by EuropaCorp Television, Bad Company and Umedia, Section Zéro was already in development at Canal+ when de Vésinne and his production partner Thomas Anargyros came on board. In fact, Marchal had already written the first three scripts when he approached the pair about bringing the series to life.
“He came to me, we didn’t go to him,” de Vésinne says. “We would never have gone to him with the expectation of a genre show. I’m not even sure how I would have reacted if he had come to me with the pitch. But he came to me with a full script and it was so full of emotion and incredible characters that, of course, we said yes. It was very ambitious. We didn’t know how the hell we were going to finance it but the credit really goes to Canal+, which has followed and developed Olivier’s ideas from the beginning on this series.”
Canal+’s commitment to this urban western is the latest evidence of French broadcasters’ new openness to creative ideas that may not have found traction several years ago. The pay TV giant has previous form with zombie drama Les Revenants, but is now being followed into genre series by its free-to-air rivals. Subsequently, these shows are now finding new audiences outside France, as evidenced by Les Revenants’ worldwide success.
“When people say French broadcasters are shy and don’t want to take risks, I say take a look at Section Zéro,” de Vésinne says. “But it’s not only Canal+. Even TF1 is doing genre. If you look at Le secret d’Élise (based on the UK series Marchlands, a ghost story set across three time periods), that has a supernatural twist you would never have seen in the last few years on TF1. France 2 is also taking risks with a show like Dix pour cent (about the agents of four actors hunting for the best roles for their clients). In the last couple of years a small revolution has been happening in French drama.”
Marchal also sought to add international appeal to his latest drama – though it was never likely to be filmed in English.
De Vésinnes notes: “Olivier wanted a series that didn’t look French at all – but he wanted it to be in French because that’s how we can carry the emotion and the subtleties of his dialogue. It also means he can talk to the actors, which is very important to him. But apart from the language, he wanted nothing to be French. That’s why we also have an international cast and why we shot outside France (in Sofia, Bulgaria).”
He adds that the production – which was completed in 90 days – faced both creative and financial challenges: “It’s not what we usually do in France but we trusted Olivier with the creative aspects. And on the production side, though it is set in the future, there’s a regression factor. This future is more about desolation than spaceships and expensive gadgets. So that made it more possible to do.
“Olivier shoots television like cinema, with the same DOP, the same level of creative demand. He doesn’t do compromises; he’s not that kind of director. You don’t coach him, you accompany him.”
De Vésinnes pays tribute to Canal+, which he says has been incredibly supportive of the eight-part project – “creatively, personally, financially” – and is already developing a second season with Marchal. StudioCanal was also heavily involved as the international distributor.
But it’s the visionary writer-director who he singles out for the most praise, adding that audience support for Section Zéro will encourage Marchal to take more creative risks in the future. Just don’t expect him to create a series without police officers at its heart.
“Olivier will always have a special thing for cops,” he adds. “There has to be cops – that’s what he is and he always goes back to that. So far the audience has always followed him in spite of or thanks to his boldness, and we’ll see if the audience stays with him on this series.
“That will give him more confidence for the future to go in new directions. Maybe he will think about something else. He’s such an inspired man and a creative character that God knows where it could lead us next time.”
The UK’s Royal Television Society (RTS) held its annual Programme Awards last week. Winning scripted shows included The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (which took Best Drama Serial), No Offence (drama series), Catastrophe (scripted comedy), Coalition (single drama) and Emmerdale (soap/continuing drama).
There were also writer awards for Peter Morgan (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) and Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who write and star in Catastrophe.
Morgan overcame competition from Russell T Davies (Cucumber) and Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne (This is England ’90), with judges describing his writing as “skilful and poignant… absolutely first rate.” They called the drama “compelling and tender… it took the viewer on a deeply moving emotional journey.”
Morgan, 53 next month, is not new to TV. But until now he has been best known for a series of idiosyncratic feature films.
Having written the romcom Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence in 1998 and TV series The Jury in 2002, his career took a decisive step forward in 2003 with a TV movie called The Deal, which told the story of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s power-sharing deal. In 2006, he wrote a superb film-length follow-up called The Queen, which explored the reaction of the political and royal establishment to the death of Princess Diana. This earned him an Academy Award nomination and a deserved Golden Globe.
More acclaim followed with productions including The Last King of Scotland (adapted for the screen with Jeremy Brock); Frost/Nixon (play and screenplay); The Other Boleyn Girl, The Damned United, Rush and The Aftermath (the third in Morgan’s so-called Blair trilogy). And then came the RTS Award-winning Christopher Jefferies miniseries, written for UK broadcaster ITV.
Morgan, who has a brilliant knack of making the political seem personal, isn’t finished with TV. He’s currently working with Left Bank Pictures on The Crown, an epic US$100m drama for Netflix.
Based on a play by Morgan called The Audience, it tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s previous writing on the themes of power, establishment and intrigue will appreciate that he is perfectly suited to such a project – though it will be interesting to see how he copes with the much larger creative canvas offered by a 10-part TV series.
When the project was announced, he said: “The Crown is not only about the royal family but about an empire in decline, a world in disarray and the dawn of a new era. I am beyond thrilled to be reunited with partners from film, theatre and TV (director Stephen Daldry and producer Andy Harries) for this epic project and delighted to be working for the first time with Netflix.”
To date, Netflix has only ordered a first season. But it’s highly likely there will be future series of the show covering more recent stages in the Queen’s reign. So it might be a while before we see another movie or miniseries from Morgan.
As an interesting side note, Bafta has just announced its own TV awards nominations and there is no place there for Morgan’s Jefferies drama. Titles shortlisted for this event include Humans, The Last Panthers, No Offence and Wolf Hall (for Best Drama Series); Doctor Foster, The Enfield Haunting, London Spy, This Is England ’90 (miniseries); The Good Wife, Narcos, Spiral and Transparent (International Series); and The C-Word, Cyberbully, Don’t Take My Baby and The Go-Between (single drama).
In the context of the Baftas, the big winner is Thorne, who is attached to The Last Panthers, This Is England ’90 and Don’t Take My Baby.
In other news this week, Sky1 has commissioned a second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which is produced by Carnival Films in collaboration with Lee’s POW! Entertainment. As the name suggests, Lucky Man is based on an idea by superhero icon Stan Lee. But it’s another example of the trend towards greenlighting dramas with high-profile names and then getting other people to do the actual writing job.
In this case, for example, the show was written by Neil Biswas, Ben Schiffer, Rachel Anthony, James Allen, Stephen Gallagher and Alan Westaway. Biswas, who is credited on all 10 episodes of Lucky Man season one, was already known to Sky, having written an episode of Sinbad a few years ago. His other credits include The Take, Bradford Riots and In a Land of Plenty.
Elsewhere, there was further evidence this week of the superstar status now afforded to leading TV writers, with Channel 4 losing out to Netflix on the UK first-window rights to season three of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
Channel 4 was the first company to back Brooker’s project but a huge financial deal saw Netflix take control of an expanded version of the project for season three. Channel 4 thought it would still be given the opportunity to premiere the show in the UK, but Black Mirror producer Endemol Shine has licensed first-run rights to Netflix. This isn’t hugely surprising but C4 is not happy.
In a statement, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: “Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show. We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally. Of course, it’s disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it.”
Other projects in the news this week include Hulu series 11.22.63. Based on a book of the same name by Stephen King, the series centres on Jake Epping, a recently divorced teacher from Maine (played by James Franco) who travels back in time and has an opportunity to prevent the assassination of US president John F Kennedy (though things don’t quite go as planned). The show is executive produced by JJ Abrams, Stephen King and Bridget Carpenter, who has also taken a lead role in its writing.
This week, 11.22.63 was picked up by Canal+ in France, having previously been licensed for use by Fox Networks Europe. The show currently has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which marks it out as a strong performer.
US cable channel FX has renewed its stylish anthology thriller Fargo for a third season. Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo’s second run will finish stateside on December 14 and is currently receiving rave reviews. The first season was nominated for a total of 18 Primetime Emmys, winning three.
The show was written by the multi-talented Noah Hawley, who was a singer-songwriter and a published novelist before he turned to TV screenwriting. He wrote for Fox drama Bones for three seasons before being handed the Fargo gig, as well as a couple of projects for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation).
Some writers might have been intimidated by the Coen brothers’ shadow lurking in the background of the Fargo project, but Hawley managed to stay true to the original concept while taking the show’s mythology in an exciting new direction.
For this, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries – and it would be a surprise if he weren’t on the list again for Fargo season two.
Commenting on the renewal, Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Year two of Fargo is an extraordinary achievement and, given Noah Hawley’s masterful storytelling, we can’t wait to see where the third version of Fargo takes us. Our thanks to Noah, Warren Littlefield, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Cameron and our partners at MGM TV for making Fargo a memorable and rewarding journey.”
Despite getting his break in network TV, Hawley did an interview with Hollywood Reporter in 2014 in which he made it clear that he was more comfortable in cable drama: “The leap from network to cable was huge for me because at the networks there’s a real desire for original content but also a fear of original content. To arrive at FX and have them say, ‘Can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous?’ is incredible. (FX Networks CEO) John Landgraf would rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody.”
FX seems equally enthusiastic about Hawley. Aside from greenlighting Fargo season three, it has gone into partnership with him on Cat’s Cradle, a series based on Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel.
Another writer in the news this week is Billy Ray, who will be adapting F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon for Amazon. Ray is primarily known as a movie writer, having written around a dozen titles including The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips.
The Last Tycoon, which was made into a film in the 1970s with a Harold Pinter script, looks at Hollywood in the 1930s and is being produced by Sony Pictures Television. There were rumours in 2013 that the project was heading for HBO – but there has clearly been a rethink since then.
The project comes after the recent movie version of The Great Gatsby and another Amazon project about Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. So keep you eyes peeled for TV adaptations of This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night.
Congratulations are also due this week to the team behind French series Spiral, season five of which has won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series. A Canal+ show, Spiral (Engrenages in French) follows the lives and work of Paris police officers and lawyers working in the Palais de Justice.
Created by Son et Lumiere, it debuted in 2005 and has been produced at the rate of one season every two years. The first two runs comprised eight episodes each, rising to 12 after that. With season five having aired in late 2014, a sixth season is due towards the end of next year. In the meantime, it has proved popular abroad, selling to 70 countries including the UK, Australia, Japan, Mexico and the US (via Netflix).
In terms of story and script duties, the show was created Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, with the latter writing the first season. Season two was overseen by Virginie Brac, while season three was handled by Anne Landois, Eric de Barahir and Simon Jablonka. Landois and de Barahir also led season four, while Landois and Jablonka oversaw the Emmy-winning fifth outing.
For anyone wanting to learn more about the structure and intention of the show, Spiral showrunner Landois did an interesting video interview with Vivendi. She also spoke to her UK fans via a BBC blog platform.
This year’s International Emmys provided another strong indication of French drama’s increasing impact on the global scripted market. Alongside recognition for Spiral, TV movie White Soldier (Soldat Blanc) won the award for best TV movie/miniseries. Set in Saigon in 1945, the production looks at France’s conflict with Vietnam’s Viet Minh through the eyes of a pair of friends. The idea for White Soldier was from Georges Campana and the screenplay was by Olivier Lorelle. Director Erick Zonca was also credited as a writer.
Winner of the telenovela category was Imperio (Empire), which first aired on Rede Globo in Brazil. Created by Aguinaldo Silva, Imperio aired from July 2014 to March 2015 and was a substantial hit for the network. Seventy-two-year-old Silva himself is one of the most feted telenovela writers in Brazil, having been at the forefront of the industry since the 1980s. His numerous credits include a 1989 adaptation of Jorge Amado’s classic novel Tieta, which scored huge ratings, and 2004’s Senhora de Destino, another huge hit.
The International Emmys also gave a deserved nod to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, in the shape of the 2015 Founders Award.
US cable channel AMC is in phenomenally good shape. Its flagship scripted series, The Walking Dead (TWD), continues to deliver massive ratings and has spawned a successful spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. And now TWD has provided the launchpad for another strong performer – the martial arts fantasy series Into the Badlands.
Into the Badlands debuted on Sunday at 22.00, after the latest episode of TWD. Despite some reviews suggesting the opening episode spent too long on its setup, the show attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers and a 3.15 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds. That makes it one of the biggest new series of the autumn so far across both cable and broadcast TV, comparable to shows like Supergirl and Blindspot. Once time-shifted viewing is factored in, the series can expect to see another surge in its numbers.
Even if Into the Badlands experiences a drop-off in episode two, its premiere performance suggests it will still even out as one of the top-performing cable shows of the year. And the good news doesn’t end there for AMC. Still to look forward to is season two of Better Call Saul, which is due in February. The Breaking Bad prequel was a strong performer for the channel last year and there is no reason to suppose this will change as the show starts to tie in to the mythology of its critically acclaimed parent.
Having four massive hits in its schedule gives AMC the freedom to support other programmes that don’t rate so highly, which bodes well for the likes of Humans and Halt & Catch Fire.
Returning to TWD for a moment, it’s interesting that the latest episode saw a 5% jump in 18-49s week on week. That rise can probably be explained by the fact that the episode focused heavily on Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus). If the character is ever killed off, expect to see a huge spike in time-shifted viewing followed by a decline in the youth audience.
In today’s fragmented TV landscape, the numbers achieved by Into the Badlands are genuinely impressive – but pay TV channels don’t need to be getting ratings of this magnitude to be classified as a success. Just as important is what a show says about a channel’s brand. If it sends out the right message, it can help with the pickup or retention of subscribers. If you look at European pay TV platform Sky, for example, a lot of money has been spent on demonstrating that it is the home of quality content. Its relationship with HBO, recently extended, is a classic example of that – as is the company’s heavy investment in original drama.
Having said all this, drama is an expensive genre. So Sky has been looking for ways to deliver quality without breaking the bank in terms of its scripted content investments. One way it is doing this is by acquiring or making dramas that can play across all 21 million homes in its five core European markets: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, it is seeking to coproduce with PayTV providers in other markets – so the commercial risk is spread even more broadly.
Let’s say, for example, that Canal+ in France comes on board a drama – then suddenly your production is hitting an addressable market of around 28 million. If Sky’s distribution arm Sky Vision is then able to sell the show into other markets, the cost is further defrayed. Fortitude was a high-profile example of this. Although it only attracted around 700,000 viewers in the UK, the fact it was played out in numerous other markets made it a relatively easy decision for Sky to back a second series.
Slightly less certain is Sky’s new series The Last Panthers, a coproduction with Canal+ and US network SundanceTV. The show debuted in the UK last week and attracted just 228,000 viewers, 38% of which were 35- to 44-year-olds. That figure is ahead of the slot average – but it’s still quite low for an original. Sky will be hoping it picks up some momentum in the coming weeks.
There are probably a couple of explanations for The Last Panthers’ debut falling so short compared with Fortitude. The first is that it didn’t have the same kind of cast clout as Fortitude, which made it less promotable. True, it features Samantha Morton and there was a fleeting glimpse of John Hurt. But this is nothing compared with Fortitude, which boasted Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston (briefly). Second, the opening episode was not easy to get to grips with, switching language and location frequently and not making it obvious who the audience should root for. While UK audiences are more comfortable these days with subtitles, The Last Panthers probably makes them work a bit too hard.
The UK critics are split on the show. For The Guardian, The Last Panthers is “bold, smart and seductive,” but for the Telegraph it’s “turgid” and “lacks tension.” The Independent gets it about right when it says: “If you can cope with the violence, the underlit filming, the dialogue in French with subtitles and the unremittingly depressing scenes then The Last Panthers is a fine thriller, with a touch of The French Connection about it.” SBS Australia seems happy enough, acquiring the show this week.
While an important element of the current ‘golden age’ of drama is the freedom to pursue interesting creative ideas like Badlands and Panthers, it’s also worth noting that NBC’s big success at the moment is a trilogy of procedurals that are all based in Chicago. If you look at the channel’s top five dramas at the moment, three of them are Chicago PD, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med, which launched this week with a same day audience of 8.6 million.
Fire was the first to appear and has recently been renewed for season five. PD came next and has just been renewed for a fourth run. Med is only one episode old but already looks like it will get a renewal. Apart from the procedural formula, the common denominator among the three is that they come from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. Aged 68, Wolf continues to be one of the masters of mainstream drama and has an awards cabinet to prove it.
Finally, we can’t sign off without observing that Downton Abbey is over, except for the upcoming Christmas Special. The final episode of the final season scored a consolidated audience of 11 million viewers for ITV. There’s no question that Carnival Films’ drama, superbly scripted by Julian Fellowes, has been one of the most memorable British TV dramas ever made. While the show was perhaps starting to become a little repetitive, it continued to make hugely entertaining Sunday night viewing.
The fact Downton Abbey is now ending is a clear loss for ITV, particularly when the show has so many unresolved storylines. In fact, the broadcaster would be mad to let all of that stored up audience affection just fizzle out. No US network would allow the show to die at this stage in its life cycle. And in any other business you’d be castigated for giving up on such a strong brand.
While it’s possible that Julian Fellowes and some of the cast are keen to move on, ITV should at the very least explore whether there is spin-off potential – maybe a series focusing on the London lives of some of the younger cast. Lady Edith, Thomas the footman and a handful of others could provide the spine of a new show.
In the meantime, take a look at this video if you want to see the cast of Downton behaving badly.
Led by gritty series like the Mafia-focused hit Gomorrah, Italian drama is enjoying new levels of global interest. DQ finds out why.
The world has been watching great Italian movies for more than half a century. Following The Bicycle Thieves in 1948, films like La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, Life Is Beautiful, Gomorrah, The Great Beauty and Human Capital are past and present proof that superlative screen craft is a cherished component of Italian culture.
But until recently Italy’s TV business hadn’t achieved anything like the same profile beyond its borders. “The main free-to-air broadcasters, Rai and Mediaset, have a history of participating in continental European coproductions,” says Beta Film senior VP for international sales and acquisitions Oliver Bachert, “and there was the stand-out success of La Piovra (The Octopus), which sold around the world, but historically Italy has mostly focused on local productions that don’t attract much attention internationally.”
The roots of this insularity probably lie in a backlash against imported content that occurred in the 1980s. It took Italian TV producers until the 1990s to perfect their response, but when they did, they began to achieve real success with domestically produced soaps (such as A Place in the Sun and A Doctor in the Family) and police thrillers. Locally know as ‘giallo,’ the police titles included popular shows such as Marshal Rocca, Inspector de Luca and Inspector Montelbano. While they achieved some sales internationally, they didn’t spark the interest associated with, for example, the recent wave of Nordic Noir exports.
The catalyst for change has been the arrival in the market of pay TV platform Sky Italia, says Bachert, “which started commissioning dramas that are more in line with international trends. First came Romanzo Criminale from 2008 to 2010, and then Gomorrah, which we distribute.”
According to Bachert, Gomorrah, which was produced by Italian indie Cattleya, “took Italian drama to a new level.” The story of organised crime in Naples, told across 12 episodes, “won numerous awards and sold to 113 countries. It now has a second season coming up and has encouraged the international market to look more closely at Italian drama.”
Proof that Gomorrah was not a one-hit wonder came with the launch of 1992 in March of this year. Another Sky-backed project, the 10-episode series revolves around six people whose lives become intertwined with the political and social earthquake that swept away Italy’s post-war establishment.
Echoing its approach with English-language drama Fortitude, Sky was sufficiently excited by 1992 that it aired it across the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria, in addition to Italy – a total market of 20 million homes. That, says Bachert, came in addition to sales in France (Orange), Spain (Canal+), Scandinavia (HBO Nordic) and Benelux (HBO Europe). Now there is talk of a follow-up series entitled 1993.
1992 was produced by one of Italy’s leading indie producers, Wildside. Explaining how the company came about, co-founder Lorenzo Mieli says: “It was founded in Rome in 2009 as a merger between Mario Gianani and Saverio Costanzo’s Offside and Wilder, plus Fausto Brizzi and Marco Martani who joined the team at the moment of the company’s creation. Wilder was a company founded by me and some partners in 2001. Basically that was the place where everything started – we used to produce scripted and unscripted for Italian pay broadcasters.”
From Wilder’s perspective, the big step-change actually predated Sky Italia’s investments, though it was the same corporate family that was behind its expansion: “Wilder experienced dramatic growth with Boris, which was the first scripted show ever made by Fox International Channels in Italy. It was a huge success that was crucial to boosting the business.”
Boris was a comedy series that ran for three seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2010 (totalling 42 episodes). Towards the end of the show’s run, FIC commissioned Wilder to make another series, a six-hour serial killer thriller called The Monster of Florence. Both series were broadcast by FIC on the Sky Italia platform, effectively priming Wilder for the next phase of its development following the merger with Offside.
Today, says Mieli, “Wildside’s pipeline is a combination of Offside’s traditional expertise in feature films and Wilder’s TV background. At the moment, our catalogue spans from art-house movies and commercial/blockbuster comedies to scripted shows for both pay and free TV channels. Our main job is to deliver high-quality products, with a focus on talent-driven projects that have a strong international appeal. To do this, we work to build solid relationships with top Italian directors and writers, which is also a way to attract international talent.”
Like Bachart, Mieli gives a nod in the direction of Gomorrah, which he says “did a priceless job for the Italian production community. It demonstrated that an Italian way to make quality shows exists. Maybe a component of exoticism is helping Italian shows travel so much. But we do believe now that the global audience is ready for something different from US storytelling.”
According to Mieli, coproduction is currently Wildside’s key modus operandi: “Considering the work we’ve been doing in the last two years and what we’re currently developing now, it’s pretty clear that our product is closer to the anthological and talent-driven model.”
The best current example of this is The Young Pope, an ambitious English-language production that Wildside is making for Sky, HBO and Canal+. “The Young Pope is the most representative example of our strategy… a high-profile coproduction with a pure Italian creative core. And we are developing three scripted projects for the international market with a similar model. But we haven’t forgotten the Italian scenario – two shows for Rai and one for Sky are in production and couple of features are in pre-production.”
Starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton in her most high-profile TV production to date, The Young Pope was one of the year’s surprise scripted announcements. Mieli explains its appeal: “The story sounded amazing from the very first moment. The idea of a controversial pope born in the US and surrounded by daily life in Vatican City had evident ground-breaking potential. Plus Paolo Sorrentino’s writing was a stunning piece of literature from the very early stages of development.”
Mieli is convinced The Young Pope can have the kind of impact already made by shows like Gomorrah and 1992, and not just because it has HBO, Sky and Canal+ behind it. “The Young Pope’s distribution will be managed by FremantleMedia International and we’ve no doubt it will travel a lot. We have a great story, an award-winning creator, an all-star cast and a very fascinating, highly recognisable arena in the Vatican.”
As it happens, the Wildside story became even more interesting during production – when FremantleMedia decided to acquire a 62.5% stake in the firm. Commenting on the deal at the time, FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz said: “This is a key strategic acquisition as we continue to strengthen our primetime scripted presence. Wildside is fast becoming one of Europe’s most sought-after drama producers and will complement our existing businesses in the US, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK. The team has an impressive track record of attracting world-class creative talent and delivering award-winning drama, so I’m really excited that they are joining our family of production companies.”
Being in the Fremantle family may also give Wildside an opportunity to take scripted formats into Italy. There have been signs in recent times that this side of the business, traditionally underdeveloped, is starting to pick up.
Wildside, for example, made Israeli format In Treatment for the Italian market, while Spanish period drama Velvet and French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned) have also been adapted. Utilising FM’s international expertise should allow Wildside to push this door open further.
Wildside, of course, is not the only Italian indie providing a bridge to and from the international market. Cattleya, which counts DeAgostini and United Pictures International among its shareholders, recently announced plans for season two of Gomorrah. It also has a deal with Canal+ to create an English-language series called ZeroZeroZero.
ZeroZeroZero is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, who also wrote the book on which both the film and TV versions of Gomorrah are based. The director is Stefano Sollima, whose credits include Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah – all of which guarantees a solid international showing for ZeroZeroZero.
Fabrice de La Patellière, director of French drama and coproductions for Canal+, says: “We are delighted to be involved in initiating this international project driven by Roberto Saviano’s talent and commitment. This story, with the work of the scriptwriters Stefano Bises and Leonardo Fasoli and director Stefano Sollima, offers an uncompromising, in-depth look into the world of cocaine trafficking and the complexities of the system. This invaluable partnership with Cattleya offers the opportunity of a unique series for our subscribers.”
Cattelya is also exploring the scripted format business. It is remaking NBC’s Parenthood for Rai Uno, the first ever US scripted format to be picked up by the channel. At the same time, it has signed a deal with Atlantique Productions to turn two Italian properties into English-language TV series. The first will be a re-imagining of the cult western Django, which has its roots in the spaghetti Western tradition. The second is Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror film Suspiria, which will be reinvented as period horror series set in London and Rome between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Cattleya president Riccardo Tozzi says: “Cattleya’s role on these series marks a further step in our plan to produce high-end English-language series. And, of course, we are extremely proud to be working with Dario Argento, a leading figure for an entire generation of filmmakers.”
It’s no real surprise that Sky’s international axis has provided the platform for Italian producers to reposition themselves on the global stage. But it’s notable that Mediaset and Rai are also exploring what might be possible beyond their borders.
Mediaset started to show some interest in the English-language drama market when it came in as a coproducer on , a Left Bank Pictures adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s detective novels that also had BBC, WGBH Boston and ZDF as coproducers.
That was very much an ad-hoc experiment. But last year Mediaset started to talk up the possibility of making international drama in a more systematic and strategic way. The first fruit of this came earlier this year when it joined forces with France-based Federation Entertainment to coproduce Lucky Luciano, a 12-hour miniseries about mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
With Alessandro Camon on board as writer, Lucky Luciano will follow the life of the man considered to be the father of modern organised crime in the United States. “This is an extraordinary project based on the life of one of the most compelling figures in crime,” says Federation Entertainment’s Pascal Breton, who is producing the series alongside Stephane Sperry. “Lucky Luciano remains a mystery in many key facets of his life, especially in his relationship with the FBI. We intend to explore these mysteries and offer the most definitive work on his life that’s ever been produced.”
Mediaset’s perspective on the project comes from content MD Alessandro Salem, who says: “We’ve been looking for a long time for the right coproducer that shares our fascination towards the human complexity of such a criminal icon as Lucky Luciano. We’re thrilled to have found an outstanding partner for this miniseries event in Federation.”
Mediaset doesn’t intend Lucky Luciano to be a one-off. While it has yet to formally flesh out its strategy, the company says it is “devoted to pursuing international production as a new vector of development for high-profile, ambitious original scripted content together with world-renowned partners.”
For public broadcaster Rai, the challenge is how to engage with the international market while staying focused on the needs of the domestic market. Mattia Oddone, head of cinema and TV international sales at commercial arm Rai Com, says his parent company’s domestic channels are currently doing very well: “Drama works wonderfully on Rai, making Rai 1 and Rai 2 the leading channels in Italy. The key slots are on Sunday and Monday nights, primetime for miniseries and longer series.”
Rai produces around 400 hours of original drama per year with a budget of around €200m (US$223m). In terms of Rai dramas that cross over into the international markets, Oddone says: “Genre series account for most of our sales. One of our most marketable products this year has been new seasons of Il Giovane Montalbano (The Young Montalbano – a spin-off of the original Montalbano series), based on the popular protagonist of Andrea Camilleri’s acclaimed Sicilian crime novels.”
The Young Montalbano is one series that has ridden the wave of interest in non-English language drama, says Oddone, “selling to the US, the UK, France and Benelux.” More generally, “Latin America and Spanish-language rights for the US market are very important to us, as is Central and Eastern Europe. Crime series like the second season of Sfida Al Cielo – La Narcotici 2 (Anti Drug Squad 2) and La Catturandi (Palermo Police Squad, pictured top) have been in high demand there. Biopics on internationally recognisable figures such as Oriana, a dramatisation of the life of storied Italian journalist and campaigner Oriana Fallaci, have also performed very well.”
Oddone acknowledges there has been a change in the way TV drama is produced in Italy. But he also stresses that Italian success has so far been rooted in subject matter that is closely associated with the market. “Rather than making Italian content more international, we have seen Italian themes become more accessible for international audiences. Topics like the family and the Mafia are very much connected with Italy and the possibility to develop such stories has allowed Italian producers to tell them with more intelligence and subtlety.”
Given Rai’s role at the heart of the Italian cultural landscape, Oddone says there is no reason why Rai Com cannot also play its part in the growing international market for Italian drama. And there have been separate reports that the broadcaster is looking at a project about the Medicis and one based on Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. But Oddone also reiterates the point about not losing sight of the needs of the domestic audience. Rai is less likely, for example, to follow some of its Italian peers into English-language drama. “We are about to enter drama coproduction and we are seeking new projects. But it is a delicate matter and it also has to engage the interest of our channels, with which we are now working very closely.”
It’s worth noting that Italian scripted content has also started making ground in markets like China and Turkey, primarily as formats. But if there is one other big story worth following, it’s the arrival of Netflix in Italy this October. The subscription VoD platform’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos was in the country recently trying to win over the Italian industry with promises of investment in Italian-originated content that can travel.
Speaking at the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival, he said: “We think we can bring a large global audience to a local Italian show and that we will be able to invest at a higher level than an Italian producer would invest in a series or a film from Italy.”
Echoing the company’s approach in France, where it greenlit a major local series called Marseilles, Sarandos said Netflix is planning a major commission that will “represent probably 15% to 20% of our spending on Italian programming.”
With Netflix spending an estimated US$5bn a year globally on content, the company’s entry into the Italian market should provide a welcome boost to the country’s producers at this pivotal moment.
Mediaset feeling lucky
Mediaset’s Alessandro Salem and Federation Entertainment founder Pascal Breton discuss their new coproduction Lucky Luciano and outline how Italian drama is taking on the international market.
Alessandro Salem: “What is happening right now is the spotlight is again on the power of Italian stories and the success they are achieving worldwide. In Italy and abroad the national frame isn’t always appropriate to nourish the creative process and to grant the financing of ambitious projects, so international development is more and more crucial.
“Rather than cinema or television, today we should speak of talents who explore storytelling and, depending on the specific nature of the project, later take on a TV or cinema direction.
Pascal Breton: “We’ve witnessed a ‘Scandinavian wave’ these past few years, and I think we’re now seeing a French wave with series like The Returned and The Bureau, as well as Versailles and Marseille within the next year, along with a wave of highly talented directors, writers and producers. The meeting of TV producers with top talent from French and Italian cinema is bringing a new creative force into a field that’s been dominated by Anglo-Saxon series.”
Salem: “Lucky Luciano is a TV series with international DNA: Italian roots, American trunk and international branches. It is about one of the most famous, and yet less known, criminal icons of the 20th Century, Charles Salvatore Lucania, also known as ‘Lucky.’ The series discloses what’s behind the story of the kid from Sicilian sulfur mines who will organise the American mob as an actual corporation, and will leave a lasting mark on the story of our countries through the controversial collaboration with the American and Italian authorities.
“The locations, the renowned character, the popularity of the Italian organised crime stories in the TV and movie iconography, have made it natural for us to launch the project on an international scale, and have led us to look for partners who share our ambitious and transnational vision.”
Breton: “Lucky Luciano is a perfect example of a story originating in Europe that has had a deep impact on the history of the US, and the story’s potential is endless. We were looking for an opportunity to coproduce with Mediaset, and we couldn’t have found a better subject.
Salem: “Mediaset has ambitions to become a major player in the international drama market. Within the next three years the goal is to have a constant pipeline of international dramas. To this aim, on one side, Taodue – our in-house production company – is focusing its talent towards international production with several projects greenlit. On the other side, we are confident we can count on our distribution strength through our presence in Italy and Spain.
“We are aware that English is nowadays a sort of precondition for international drama – indeed, Lucky Luciano will be shot in English. An exception can be Spanish, when the story justifies it, because of the extent of Spanish-speaking markets. That’s the case of Taodue’s upcoming movie Call Me Francesco.”
AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.
The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.
The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.
Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).
This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.
The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.
In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).
Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.
Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”
Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).
Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.
Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.
After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.
Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.
The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.
Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.
With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.
Ahead of The Last Panthers’ world premiere at Mipcom in Cannes this week, Michael Pickard discovers there’s much more to the drama than its classic jewellery-heist plotline suggests.
From the opening scenes featuring a daring diamond heist, The Last Panthers appears to carry all the hallmarks of a classic crime caper.
But that’s where the pretence ends, as viewers are plunged into a pan-European thriller set across three countries and portrayed in three languages.
Based on real events, the story begins with a robbery that looks to be the work of the notorious Pink Panthers gang, but the inadvertent death of a little girl sets off a chain of events across Europe that places British insurance loss adjuster (Samantha Morton), her nefarious boss (John Hurt), a French-Algerian cop (Tahar Rahim) and a Serbian gang member (Goran Bogdan) on a dangerous collision course.
Commissioned by Sky in the UK and France’s Canal+, The Last Panthers is written by Jack Thorne, based on an idea by Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme Pierrat. It is produced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films, and distributed by Sky Vision and StudioCanal.
If the plot seems misleading from the start, that was entirely the intention of the producers, who wanted to create a layered and far-reaching drama in which the action spans countries and decades.
Warp Films executive producer Peter Carlton says: “Our deliberate idea was to start with a classic crime story – a heist – and look at the ripples that go outwards and backwards. Through these three characters it takes you into a crime thriller with action and tense drama sequences in each episode but it also becomes more and more a personal drama and a tragedy around those three characters.
“The big attraction for us was not a crime series but using the crime to take us into another place. But if you do lure people in with a crime, you can’t forget that completely. You have to keep the audience with you and if you put a diamond heist at the front of something that turns into a very worthy, dull, wordy political drama, you’re not going to get thanked and no one’s going to follow you. You have to deliver on that promise of excitement and the thriller element while also bringing the audience with you through every twist and turn.”
Haut et Court’s Caroline Benjo, who also exec produces the six-hour series, adds: “We want to tease the viewer because there’s something very smart and sophisticated about TV audiences and this is where we want to go.
“The frustration and teasing is very important. Audiences want to be brought to something they don’t get all at once. Our world is extremely complex and this is what’s interesting. Our characters are going through a complex world and they intimate an inner world that’s even more complicated. You have to have a certain level of entertainment – it’s very action driven. There’s one quite spectacular action sequence in each episode but it was very important to link these to the story and the characters’ emotional trajectory.”
Benjo was approached by Pierrat and Laban with an idea for a film about the Pink Panthers, but she quickly identified that their story could go much deeper as a television miniseries. She brought Carlton on board with Warp as a coproduction partner, before Canal+ and Sky both committed to the series. Thorne was then brought in to write the script.
Carlton, who has worked with Thorne before on series such as Channel 4’s This is England, says the writer’s distinctive voice, coupled with his knowledge of European politics, made him a standout candidate for the job.
“Knowing we were making a big European tragedy, we needed a writer who could handle big emotion on a big canvas,” he says. “A lot of British writers sare a bit shy and embarrassed by big emotion and I knew from working with Jack on This is England that this wasn’t the case with him. Although this is a very different show, it’s a melodrama in the best sense of the word.
“He’s a fearless writer, he masters genre and has a distinctive voice, can write sophisticated politics and isn’t scared of big emotions. So when we proposed it to Jack, he bit our hands off.”
Bringing Thorne on board meant The Last Panthers had a writer who would put together a tightly scripted, extremely focused story across six episodes. There will be no vague closing scene that leaves things open for a second season.
“It’s not designed to be a returning series,” says Carlton. “We felt six episodes was the right length for the story. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t get put into it but I don’t think we’d go back to the Panthers again. However, we did become fascinated by this way of storytelling: that one event brings together two or three different destinies, allowing you to explore backwards and forwards at the same time.
“So Jack, Johan (Renck, the director) and us are sitting down and talking about new stories. Whether what comes out of that process feels like The Return of the Last Panthers, The Last something else or something completely different, it’s always tempting to follow your success – but we haven’t had any success yet. There’s rich creative ground but it’s quite hard to see what exactly what that is at the moment or what it might turn into.”
As European coproductions become more commonplace, Benjo says they are still “one of the trickiest things” to do, adding that it was integral to the project that everyone shared the same vision for the series.
“Not only was there a shared ambition and approach between us and Haut et Court but we also have, in Canal+ and Sky, an aspiration, an ambition and a desire for a certain type of programme that was very similar,” Carlton explains. “In detail there were differences but we never had either us as producers or them as broadcasters pulling in different directions.
“They wanted something ambitious, something with layers, that on the one hand has excitement and is a thriller but underneath it is finely driven more by character and emotion. We all agreed it was going to be pan-European, and it needed some big names and great actors to carry it and keep it as authentic as possible. We agreed on day one that we would shoot in certain countries and in original languages and we never varied from it. That isn’t always the case.”
The series takes place in London, Marseille and Belgrade and, as such, the action is filmed in English, French and Serbian. Above any other challenge facing the €20m (US$22.4m) production, Benjo says the multi-lingual approach to The Last Panthers was the biggest obstacle.
“The Last Panthers is spoken in the language of the protagonist,” she says. “But when they’re together, the common language is English. So we had to do enormous work on the adaptation because Jack writes in English so we had to do very precise work to turn it into French and Serbian. We also had two broadcasters with their own sensitivities. It was interesting because we tried to meet our broadcasters’ needs as much as possible without going against the project and it’s almost like working for the UN. You are constantly peacekeeping, trying to keep everything as smooth as possible.”
The size of the production budget, coming in at more than €3m per episode, also led to conversations about how best to use it. Benjo adds: “We always put all our money on screen because if we don’t, there’s no more money coming back.
“Everyone’s talking about feature film versus TV production. What’s happening in TV production now is that it’s not ‘how can we make as much money as possible?,’ it’s ‘how can we put all the money on screen?’ And ‘how can we have production values that will be mind-blowing for the people who watch?’ Here I think we have found that level. Everything is filmed in real countries, the action scenes are quite spectacular and it’s very well crafted. It’s definitely a beautiful-looking series.”
French drama is evolving at an increasing pace, but while broadcasters and producers are widening their international horizons, the most dramatic changes are taking place at home.
Change is afoot in France, but while landmark international coproductions might be grabbing the headlines, traditional ciné movies and crime procedurals are being replaced by serialised dramas and a gamut of new genres on screen.
Tetra Media Fiction producer Emmanuel Daucé says French drama is in the middle of a revolution that dates back 10 years to when broadcasters shifted their focus from TV movies to series, inspired by the work of US premium cable network HBO.
Gritty crime dramas such as Braquo and Spiral subsequently broke through to the international market, and more producers are now trying to follow their lead as France seeks to capitalise on the increasing demand for global drama series.
One example is The Young Pope, which sees pay TV network Canal+ join forces with HBO and Sky to tell the controversial story of the beginning of Pope Pius XIII’s pontificate. The cast is headed by Jude Law and Diane Keaton, while all eight episodes will be directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.
“It was HBO series, which not many people watched in France, that changed everything,” Daucé explains. “Telling stories through images is so important in France that we needed a cultural validation that TV could be interesting, and HBO helped a lot.”
Stéphane Drouet, producer and co-founder of MakingProd, says he is developing series for “almost every broadcaster,” as well as producing season three of cop show Cherif for France 2.
“Networks are still looking for self-contained episodes, but more and more they’re looking for serialised drama,” he adds. “Broadchurch did really well on France 2 and it may have accelerated the need for this kind of programme. They realised it would really work in primetime in France.
“Of course, there are still cop dramas. It’s a format that still works so well. But for a lot of years it was mainly procedural – now it’s more serialised, which is a good thing, and it also opens the door to more serialised dramas that aren’t about cops.”
Paris-based Ego Productions is behind TF1 series Alice Nevers, which will begin production on its 13th season this autumn, while new drama Zone Blanche, commissioned by France Télévisions, will begin shooting in April 2016. Ego is also responsible for the French adaptation of UK drama Doc Martin, which ran for four seasons on TF1.
Executive producer Pascal Wyn says French drama is playing catch-up to other territories by trying to broaden the international appeal of its stories, in the face of traditional series that still prove popular among domestic viewers.
“At the moment, the TV drama business is trying to create a revolution,” he explains. “French TV producers all want to make French television better and more international, as in Sweden, Germany and, of course, the USA. French producers want to make programmes with international appeal.
“Broadcasters say they are looking for new stories, but in fact they are very suspicious of new programmes because traditional French drama always works.”
Another factor behind the changing face of the country’s TV drama, according to Endemol France MD Nicholas Coppermann, is the decreasing reliance on US series. As long-term output deals for series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, House and NCIS come to an end or the shows are cancelled, primetime slots are opening up for domestic series.
“The channels used US dramas as primetime shows and it was very difficult to compete using French scripted drama,” Coppermann says. “Although there are some very good US series now, they aren’t as mainstream or coherent with French tastes.
“The channels that previously thought it was expensive and risky to pay for local drama compared with US series now feel they need some strong local pieces. They are also ready to buy more series. All this combines to create a much more favourable environment for French writers, producers, actors and directors.”
Endemol label Leonis Productions was responsible for telemovie L’Emprise, which told the true story of a woman who was acquitted of killing her abusive husband. Coppermann says the project represented a leap of faith for TF1, which he says was rewarded with the highest-rating French drama since 2007, attracting 8.6 million viewers (and 9.8 million after seven days).
The film, which debuted in January, has since been sold to Antenna 3 in Spain.
“Our drama business is up and running and we recently signed a deal for a procedural with TF1, as well as a thriller miniseries called Le Domaine for M6,” Coppermann adds. “It is penned by writer/director Hervé Hadmar, who was behind the huge French hit Les Témoins (aka Witnesses), a drama that made quite some noise because it was sold to Channel 4 in the UK before its debut in France, which is quite rare.
“TF1 used to be sceptical about miniseries, but it’s more open to them now. There’s a movement towards more serialised miniseries in France because it’s easier to grip the audience’s attention with those. However, the main free-to-air channels still need some self-contained shows. So both those genres are required at the moment.
“Canal+ wants more miniseries because it wants to create an event with every show. I think it has come to realise that its returning series, no matter how good, are not making so much noise, so it needs to bring back miniseries. TF1 has a slot for procedurals on Thursday and it wants that to be strong, but it’s also open to miniseries. The time of ‘no serialised shows,’ which was making things complicated for the French creative community, is now behind us, so there’s room for all kinds of dramas.”
Canal+ is currently preparing for the fall launch of Versailles, a 10-part historical drama created by Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft and produced by Capa Drama, Incendo and Zodiak Fiction.
But what is the cause of France’s late arrival to serialised series? Daucé says television in France has struggled to escape the shadow of cinema but, as in other territories, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the small screen. In particular, he credits another Canal+ series – breakout supernatural drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned) – for helping to improve the reputation of television series in France.
“Viewers weren’t very familiar with the format,” he says. “This is because of the importance of cinema in France. The biggest recent hit in France was Les Revenants. This is a brilliant TV series but its strength lies in its cinematic qualities. The filmmaking is brilliant. It was produced by Haut et Court, a production company that makes feature films, and was created by filmmaker Fabrice Gobert, not by someone from TV.
“Now, slowly, TV series in France are receiving hype. It’s only very recently that viewers and people in the industry have started to take more of an interest in television. There are two worlds in France — cinema and TV, and there’s still some friction between the two.”
Tetra Media Fiction’s slate includes period drama Un Village Français (pictured top), which will air its sixth season this autumn on France 3, with a seventh and final season due to begin production by the end of the year. It is also producing Les Hommes de l’Ombre, a political drama now in its third season on France 2.
Daucé adds that broadcasters are also now more open-minded about the type of series they broadcast. “Canal+ helped a lot, again with Les Revenants,” he explains. “This is a genre we never have usually. When I started Un Village Français, I was told period dramas were too difficult to produce and cost too much. But there have been a lot of period dramas since.
“Now we are, in a way, in a revolution of the way we think about TV series. Our problem is that for a long time we didn’t make TV series. We now have producers and writers who specialise in making them but this is still pretty new for us.”
With this shift in focus to television drama, the industry will only become more experienced, and this expertise will be boosted further by the surge of international coproductions being built in France.
In June, Canal+ and Swedish public broadcaster SVT unveiled Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), the first ever French-Swedish drama copro. It follows a French detective who is sent to the far north of Sweden to investigate the murder of a French citizen.
Created by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and based on an idea by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, it is produced by Atlantique Productions, Nice Drama and Filmpool Nord. The cast includes Leïla Bekhti and Gustaf Hammarsten.
Atlantique has also partnered with Keshet UK, the London-based production arm of Israeli distributor Keshet International, to develop English-language drama Crater Lake. The eight-part series, created by Ron Leshem, is described as a “life-affirming, character-driven show about death.”
Oliver Bibas, MD at Atlantique, says: “People are more and more aware of international coproduction opportunities. Canal+ has a strategy to do more coproductions. It is also focused on French drama, but there is a place for coproduction. It’s the same for Arte, and now we’re seeing what will be the next move for France Télévisions, which should also step up in this area.”
Bibas says Atlantique is now developing series it wouldn’t have considered as recently as two or three years ago. In particular, the company is remaking Django, a spaghetti western from the 1960s, and is also on board the reboot of science-fiction series Metal Hurlant with producer Jamie Mathieson. “They’re not something we would have done previously but because of online platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Canal Play, there are so many new outlets that you can go deeper into a niche genre, which wasn’t the case three or four years ago,” he says.
“We’re trying to get some more niche shows into development. Western and sci-fi are not traditional genres for scripted drama in France. But we feel that when we’re pitching shows to the networks, there is an appetite for this. The market is changing – there’s new demand from networks, and you have to find shows that are in line with our times.”
In fact, Netflix is already in production on its first French-langauge drama, Marseille, with Gerard Depardieu playing the lead role of the city’s mayor in a political story of power, corruption and redemption.
Created and written by Dan Franck, the eight-part series is produced by Federation Entertainment and will launch on Netflix in 2016.
Franco-German network Arte epitomises the change in attitude towards drama among French broadcasters. Switching from
TV movies to serialised programmes, it was among the first to import European shows, most notably Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing) and Borgen, plus Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans).
The channel is now forging ahead with its coproduction strategy. Launching this autumn is Occupied, a 10-part political thriller based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbø and developed with Norway’s TV2.
It has also partnered with Denmark’s DR and Borgen creator Adam Price on a new faith-based series called Herrens veje (aka Rides Upon the Storm).
Alexandre Piel, Arte’s deputy head of drama in charge of international acquisitions and coproductions, says he’s not sure if what is happening in French drama is a revolution but admits the landscape is changing fast.
“Our behaviours have completely changed in the last five years,” he says. “We jumped from 90- to 52-minute slots; from mainly standalone collections to serial dramas. That’s a major change.
“Canal+ was one of the first to establish the strategy. Arte followed and we were very much open to European content as a pioneer channel. Now everyone has an eye on European content.
“From international acquisitions to French content, the standards have changed and everyone has to cope with it. Then we have to see in the coming months – in terms of international distribution and coproduction – if it’s a major change or just a short-term change.”
Arte’s coproduction strategy began with it working as a minor partner on Occupied, before co-developing Herrens veje. It is also onboard sci-fi drama Trepalium. Piel hopes Arte’s next copro will be a French project on which the network can take the lead.
He adds that Arte is open to new ideas, as it doesn’t want to run the same sort of shows that air on other channels.
“It means more risk-taking but the idea is to jump on originality, creativity and innovation, and to be able to offer something more audacious,” he says. “That’s really the keyword in terms of ambition.
“There are a lot of projects on the market. There are plenty of series but some are quite similar. I feel there’s less difference, creativity and innovation than a few years ago, but that’s normal. The industry is restructuring so we need new and different projects and a different way to work altogether.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of pre-buys on series including Wolf Hall, Indian Summers and Danish series Norskov. We’re trying to understand the way some channels and producers are working so we can work with them in the future.”
Meanwhile, MakingProd is developing Destination Mars, about an expedition to the red planet, with Russia’s Star Media, Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Poland’s Synergy Films. It is also producing Salazar, a period coproduction with Spain’s Plano a Plano and distributor Eccho Rights.
But while Drouet acknowledges that international coproductions are gaining traction, he says networks are still predominantly focused on homegrown drama.
“French drama is becoming more and more attractive for partners and producers, so we have a lot of people coming to us saying they would like to make international coproductions,” he says. “A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible but now it is, and it shows the success of TV drama in France.
“There will always be a strong demand for domestic drama but even now the pure French TV series are getting better and better. And even if it’s a purely French series, we have interest now from foreign countries to get shows like The Returned or Witnesses. It shows there’s a new era of TV series in France.
“Even though the shows are taking place in France and are spoken in French, now they interest foreign markets more and more because the stories we tell are more international and more universal.”
Bibas agrees that domestic drama is still the model in France. “We have a very traditional setup,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s fault – this is the way the French system has been for the past 20 years – but now more and more producers and networks are opening up a bit to something that is more modern in terms of French drama, and it’s a very good thing. We’re on the right track but it takes time to change the market.”
Michael Pickard reports on the latest Hollywood star to join the cast of Sky and Canal+’s The Young Pope, the most recent in a long line of papal dramas.
Diane Keaton has become the latest Hollywood star to make the move to television after signing up for a new HBO drama that will be coproduced by Sky and France’s Canal+.
And while her decision to head to the small screen is another nod towards the current appeal of television drama to traditional film actors, the show she will star in extends another trend among international series.
In the latest in a series of dramas surrounding popes, The Young Pope will see Keaton will play Sister Mary, a nun from the US now living in Vatican City. Also headlining the series is another actor known for his feature career, Jude Law, who will play Pius XIII.
Other members of the international cast include Silvio Orland, Scott Shepherd, Cécile de France, Javier Cámara, Lidivine Sagnier, Toni Bertorelli and James Cromwell.
The series comes from Paolo Sorrentino, who will direct all eight episodes. Production began last week.
It is produced by Wildside and coproduced by Haut et Court TV and Mediapro. The executive producers are Lorenzo Mieli, Mario Gianani, Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta and Simon Arnal.
The series focuses on the beginning of Pius XIII’s Pontificate. Born Lenny Belardo, he is a complex and conflicted character, conservative and yet full of compassion towards the weak and poor. Described as a man of great power who is stubbornly resistant to the Vatican courtiers, he is unconcerned with the implications to his authority.
During the series, Belardo will face losing those closest to him and the constant fear of being abandoned, even by his God. He is not, however, afraid of defending that same God and the world representing him.
Listing some of the show’s themes, Sorrentino said: “The clear signs of God’s existence. The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost. The greatness of holiness – so great as to be unbearable when you are fighting temptations and when all you can do is to yield to them. The inner struggle between the huge responsibility of the head of the Catholic Church and the miseries of the simple man that fate (or the Holy Spirit) chose as Pontiff. Finally, how to handle and manipulate power in a state whose dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love towards one’s neighbour. That is what The Young Pope is about.”
As Sorrentino describes it, it’s hard to resist this blend of good versus evil, temptation, power struggles, politics, faith and morality. So perhaps that’s why The Young Pope is just the latest in a number of dramas to be set in and around Vatican City.
Most recently, US premium cable network Showtime ordered a pilot called The Vatican. It starred Kyle Chandler as Cardinal Thomas Duffy in a contemporary thriller about spirituality, power and politics, set against the modern-day machinations of the Catholic Church.
Bruno Ganz (Downfall) was cast as Pope Sixtus VI, while Anna Friel, Sebastian Koch, Matthew Goode and Ewen Bremner were also set to star. Paul Attanasio (House) wrote the script, with Alien director Ridley Scott behind the camera.
However, Showtime decided not to move forward with the project in December 2013.
Then, of course, we have rival series The Borgias (pictured top) and Borgia. The Borgias, also from Showtime, launched in April 2011 headlined by Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the manipulative patriarch of the Borgia family, who builds an empire by bribing, buying and muscling his way to become Pope Alexander VI.
Created and written by Neil Jordan, who also directed a handful of episodes, it became Showtime’s biggest new drama series for seven years, running for three seasons until 2013.
Borgia, meanwhile, was a European series similarly about the rise of the infamous papal dynasty during the Renaissance, overseen by showrunner Tom Fontana. It was produced by Atlantique Productions, EOS Entertainment, Beta Film and Canal+, with Germany’s ZDF and Austria’s ORF and Sky Italia among the broadcasters. It was also picked up by Netflix.
Borgia, which also ran for three seasons, between 2011 and 2014, boasted a cast including John Doman (The Wire), Mark Ryder, Stanley Weber, Isolde Dychauk, Marta Gastini and Art Malik.
The Borgias was also the title of a 1981 television drama produced by the BBC and Italy’s Rai, starring Adolfo Celi as Pope Alexander VI.
As both The Borgias and Borgia showed on screen, dramas involving the papacy can provide writers and directors with a rich tapestry of colourful characters, lashings of intrigue and a host of plots to keep even the most difficult-to-please viewers in front of the TV.
Audiences can find out whether The Young Pope will take the crown among papal dramas when it hits screens in 2017.
US cable channel Syfy is developing a new horror series with Universal Cable Productions called Channel Zero. Scripted by Nick Antosca (Hannibal), it tells the story of a mysterious children’s TV show from the 1980s and its role in a series of murders.
As interesting as that concept is, Channel Zero is an anthology series, meaning season one will tell a self-enclosed story. If the show is commissioned for a second season, it will keep its overall series brand – but tell an entirely new tale.
This anthology approach is not new, having been utilised by classic US shows such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, it is certainly on its way back. Current examples of scripted anthology series include True Detective, Fargo, American Horror Story and the upcoming Scream Queens. The implication from the above titles is that the anthology approach works best with horror and crime, but it will be interesting to see if this style catches on in other genres, and in other territories. Series two of British drama The Missing will, for example, go down a similar route – keeping the title but exploring a new setup.
The big renewal news of the week is that USA Networks has greenlit a 16-episode sixth season of Suits. Also produced by Universal Cable Productions, the show is an extremely slick drama that centres on a fast-paced Manhattan corporate law firm led by super-sharp lawyer Harvey Specter. Season five of the show has only just premiered – but with an audience of 3.4 million it continues to be a stalwart performer for USA. Commenting, USA Network president Chris McCumber said: “Suits has set the bar high in every way and continues to be a strong performer and marquee property for USA. From incredible on-screen performances and brilliant writing to the aspirational lifestyle portrayed, we look forward to continuing to bring viewers into the world of Suits.”
NBC, meanwhile, has cancelled Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s AD: The Bible Continues, a decision that has been on the cards for some time. With an average audience of around 6.5 million viewers, it fell well short of the ratings achieved by its predecessor The Bible (which brought in higher numbers despite being aired on cable TV).
Why, you may ask, are we discussing a cancellation in a Greenlight column? Well, the answer is that the show may yet continue. Echoing the discussion around another recently cancelled NBC show, Hannibal, Burnett and Downey have said they would like to continue the franchise on a new OTT channel they are planning to launch via United Artists Media Group, a partnership with MGM.
Although details are sketchy at present, the idea is for the online channel to be a hub for faith-based content. As such, it would be an ideal platform for AD – if Burnett and Downey can devise a viable business model for what is, after all, a big-budget show.
One of the biggest stories in US TV over recent years has been the increasingly high profile of black talent. Following on from Shonda Rhimes’s groundbreaking work with ABC (most notably with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder), and the astute multi-ethnic casting of The Walking Dead and Orange is the New Black, we’ve seen recent success for Empire and Power.
The latest project to try to take advantage of this trend is Atlanta, a comedy pilot for FX that revolves around two cousins trying to make their way up through the Atlanta rap scene. The pilot was created and written by Donald Glover (Community, 30 Rock), who will also star in the show. Named this week, the rest of the cast includes Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Lee Stanfield and Zazie Beetz. Tyree Henry’s TV credits include The Knick, Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife and Law & Order. (Click here for a good article on black TV from Vanity Fair.)
Meanwhile, continuing another increasingly widespread trend, US premium pay TV channel Showtime has announced that it is giving US viewers the opportunity to sample the third seasons of drama series Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex via non-standard platforms ahead of their official TV launches. While both shows launch on Sunday July 12, they can currently be viewed for free via YouTube, Kindle Fire, Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, Apple TV, various mobile platforms and several Showtime-branded digital platforms (such as SHO.com).
In terms of content acquisitions, there was good news for Endemol Shine International this week, with the sale of The Frankenstein Chronicles to French pay TV platform Canal+. The 6×60’ show is being produced for ITV in the UK by Rainmark Films in association with Far Moor. Starring Sean Bean and set in London in the 1820s, the show was created by Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook) and Barry Langford (Torte Bluma).
There was also an important breakthrough for Brazil’s Globo, which licensed its latest hit telenovela Helena’s Shadow to EPG in Korea last week. The 75-episode show was launched at Natpe 2015, having hit a 55% share (44 million viewers) in its home market. Although it has previously sold to broadcasters in Mongolia and Vietnam, the Korea deal will significantly boost the show’s profile in Asia. The agreement with EPG also includes other recent Globo telenovela hits, including Precious Pearl and Avenida Brasil.
Finally, there were some sobering statistics from UK media regulator Ofcom this week, showing that spend on UK-originated drama by public service broadcasters (defined by Ofcom as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) has dropped by 44% in the last six years. In cash terms, this represents a drop from £484m investment in 2008 to £278m in 2014.
Interestingly, this coincides with the global drama boom, suggesting that this severe downward trend must have been offset by increased dependence on international coproduction and greater investment by pay TV and, latterly, SVoD platforms (with perhaps some upside from production efficiencies). The question going forward is whether this paradigm shift away from traditional broadcasters towards a kind of globalised, subscription-supported business model will be sufficient to sustain the current boom in scripted production (as well as its creative diversity).
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).
NBC has generated a lot of headlines in the last few weeks for culling so many of its “freshman” shows – those that have only aired for one season. But one NBC show that has built up decent momentum is Grimm, a police procedural fantasy hybrid now in its fourth season. With ratings currently on a high, it was an easy decision for NBC to greenlight a fifth series in February this year.
Grimm’s success is not really surprising when you realise that one of the show’s co-creators, David Greenwalt, has a credit list that includes iconic series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel. Working with Buffy creator Joss Whedon, Greenwalt wrote, directed and produced large chunks of the first three seasons of Buffy before working with Whedon on Angel. At this point, he brought in Jim Kouf, an old screenwriting buddy whose credits up until that point included the movie Stakeout.
Angel ran for five seasons (110 episodes) on WB Network before being killed off in 2004, much to the shock of its adoring fans. Whedon himself was mortified, comparing the cancellation of the show to a “healthy guy falling dead from a heart attack.”
Roll forward a few years and the idea of a Brothers Grimm-based contemporary drama was first mooted by Todd Milliner (co-founder of production company Hazy Mills). Milliner met with Greenwalt to discuss the idea and Greenwalt immediately called up Kouf. Along with Stephen Carpenter, they devised what would become Grimm. Carpenter was credited on the first episode of season one, but since then Grimm has very much been a Greenwalt/Kouf enterprise. Although other writers have penned episodes, Greenwalt and Kouf tend to write the early and late episodes of each season and also an episode somewhere in the middle.
Grimm isn’t Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but it does a stalwart job for NBC on Friday evenings while also getting positive reviews from critics. During season three, The New York Times said: “Grimm is not a profound show, but few are more purely entertaining, engaging, clever, tense, funny and well-paced…”
Not to be overlooked is the fact it also does well in markets like Germany, France and Australia. The earlier series have also just been picked by Amazon for use in markets like the US and UK.
So what morals can we draw from Grimm? Well, there’s clearly a message here about the power of screenwriting partnerships, and also about the enduring nature of certain story archetypes (Grimm is, in some ways, an upgrade on Angel). And it’s interesting that Greenwalt and Kouf are 65 and 63 respectively – age clearly hasn’t prevented them from writing a show that is proving a regular ratings success among 18- to 49-year-olds.
Last week, we looked at British screenwriter Sally Wainwright and the way her mature works have focused on her home county of Yorkshire. Until now, Wainwright has focused on contemporary drama. So this week it’s worth noting that she is to write a two-hour special about 19th century novelists the Bronte Sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and their troubled brother Branwell.
Operating under the slightly unwieldy title To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, the production will be filmed in and around Yorkshire, where the sisters lived their brief lives (Anne and Emily were dead by 30 – and there were actually two more sisters who died as children). Commenting, Wainwright said: “I am thrilled beyond measure that I’ve been asked by the BBC to bring to life these three fascinating, talented, ingenious Yorkshire women.”
The project was commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore, who added: “The Bronte sisters have always been enigmatic but Sally Wainwright’s brilliantly authentic new BBC1 drama brings the women behind some of our greatest literary masterpieces to life. It’s an extraordinary tale of family tragedy and their passion and determination, against the odds, to have their genius recognised in a male 19th century world.”
The BBC’s broadcasting rival ITV has also decided to delve into the 19th century, commissioning an eight-part series on the life of Queen Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Based on Victoria’s diaries, the series will focus on her early life as she ascends the throne at age 18. Given that Victoria lived until the age of 82 and her diaries run to a total of 62 million words, there’s plenty of potential for this project to run and run if it appeals to audiences.
The writing task has been handed to Daisy Goodwin, best known within the TV business as a producer, having run indie company Silver River until last year. The Victoria project is Goodwin’s screenwriting debut – though she has carved out a successful career as a novelist in recent years.
Explaining the appeal, she says: “I’ve been fascinated by Victoria since I started reading her diaries at university. She’s a woman whose personality leaps off the page – a tiny 4’11” teenager who overnight became the most powerful woman in the world, and her candour and spirit makes for an irresistible heroine.
“Victoria was the first woman to have it all; she had a passionate marriage, nine children and was grandmother to most of Europe’s royalty. But she also had a job, being Queen of the most important nation in the world. It wasn’t easy; her reign was beset by scandal and sleaze, and it was only by sheer force of personality that she prevailed. Her diaries give an astonishingly vivid picture of her transformation from rebellious teenager into, to my mind, our greatest queen.”
Another standout project revealed this week is The Young Pope, an HBO/Sky/Canal+ coproduction about a fictional Pope starring Jude Law. Production on The Young Pope will begin this summer and continue into 2016, with filming predominantly in Italy. The eight-part series will be directed by Italian Paulo Sorrentino, who will also write in collaboration with Tony Grisoni, Umberto Contarello and Stefano Rulli.
Sorrentino is quite a catch. His career to date has primarily been focused on feature films. His film The Consequences Of Love was nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2004 and he went on to win the 2008 Prix du Jury with Il Divo. More success followed when his film The Great Beauty won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2014. Sorrentino has recently started to work in English. His film Youth, starring Michael Caine, is currently competing for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival (winner to be announced on Sunday May 24).