Tag Archives: Carrie Stein

Mind the Gap

Five go travelling in E4’s globetrotting comedy-drama Gap Year. DQ chats to stars Anders Hayward and Tim Key, creator Tom Basden and Carrie Stein of producer Entertainment One.

When Andrew Davies spoke about writing BBC drama War & Peace, he would always joke that he’d read Leo Tolstoy’s epic saga so that the audience wouldn’t have to.

Tom Basden

The same sentiment could now apply to Gap Year, the E4 comedy-drama that gives viewers who missed out on backpacking around the world the chance to see the sights and sounds of Asia from the comfort of their own home.

The eight-part series – which will be shown in Cannes on April 2 as part of the MipDrama Screenings – follows five people as they first meet in Chinese capital Beijing and decide to team up on a tour that takes in ancient rainforests, full-moon beach parties, mega-cities and remote monasteries in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Nepal.

Dylan (Anders Hayward) and Sean (Ade Oyefeso) head to Beijing with plans to backpack across China. But once they cross paths with relentlessly upbeat Greg (Tim Key), Chinese-American May (Alice Lee), who wants to reconnect with her long-lost family, and party animal Ashley (Brittney Wilson), together they end up taking on the whole continent.

Co-stars include Janeane Garofolo as a jaded American travel writer, Aisling Bea and Trystan Gravelle as a pair of bickering honeymooners, Scott Adsit as the American owner of a Vietnamese orphanage and Rachel Redford as Dylan’s ex-girlfriend.

Gap Year, currently airing in the UK, marks the first acting job for model Hayward, who trained as a dancer and was subsequently spotted by two acting agents, leading to an audition for the role of Dylan and a four-and-a-half month shoot across Asia.

Gap year stars Anders Hayward (left) and Ade Oyefeso as best friends Dylan and Sean

“I was only signed in November 2015 and managed to get this last April. It was a very quick turnaround and I did not expect this,” he admits. “I thought I’d be auditioning for a while before I got anything but it just sort of happened out of the blue. It’s just mindblowing! It’s the most phenomenal experience I’ve ever had.”

When Dylan and Sean first arrive in Beijing, a ‘chance’ encounter with Dylan’s ex-girlfriend Lauren (Redford) reveals that he may not have been entirely truthful about his motives for the trip – a revelation that infuriates his best friend.

“He’s in his own world – he’s a romantic and he thinks he’s this Casanova, that he knows more of what’s happening in the world because he studies philosophy,” Hayward says of his character. “And then when he gets out there and actually experiences it, he quickly realises he actually is quite ignorant and a bit arrogant. But he’s a total hopeless romantic. He’s torn and lost, and there’s something quite endearing about this kid. That’s what keeps the audience on his side. That naivety is quite endearing and keeps him engaging.”

In contrast to Dylan is Greg, the oldest member of the gang who in one episode describes himself as the Fonzie of the group, comparing himself to Henry Winkler’s legendary Happy Days character considered to be a big brother to those around him.

“He feels genuinely young and anything where he’d be called out for being the old guy hanging with the young people would leave him feeling completely confused!” explains Key, who is best known for starring as Alan Partridge’s radio sidekick in Mid Morning Matters and the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa movie. “He sees the group as five young people travelling around Asia and they see it as a guy who’s travelling with them.”

Comedy writer Key originally started out in the writers room as the show was pieced together, and was assigned to write episode six alongside Jonny Sweet. It was then that he was cast as Greg, meaning he wasn’t able to continue writing duties.

“In the writers room, the character was growing and was constantly called Greg, constantly 37 years old and there was a looming impression that he was being written with me in mind.” the actor says. “He starts off and maintains this status quo of being a guy who is loveable and hopelessly optimistic but has more problems lurking behind it all.”

Both Hayward and Key recall a strong bond between the five leading actors, which was boosted by the supportive crew as they made their way around multiple locations throughout Asia.

“There was a great support network between everyone and a really good rapport between us,” Hayward says. “We also had great chemistry off camera, which helped us massively in terms of getting through the process of seeing each other every day and travelling to all these different places and doing these new things. It could have spiralled out of control if we didn’t have this chemistry. It would have been a totally different show.

Comedian Tim Key started out in the writers room before taking on the role of Greg

“It was really exhilarating to go to these exotic locations. I found it quite weird at times pretending to be just among normal people going about their day. One moment I particularly remember was when we were in Ho Chi Minh City [in Vietnam] and we were just plugging away, walking and talking, and getting heckles and people wanting to be in the show – but none of them were locals. They were the people we were playing, it was hilarious! But it was really exciting and we were discovering new things every day. The biggest surprise for me was Beijing. It was so fascinating and I didn’t expect it to be what it was and how really bonkers it was.”

Key adds: “Most places had something about them but Beijing was really good. It was so Chinese! It was really good, really friendly. That’s when we were at our most cultural, we did a lot of sight-seeing. But Ho Chi Minh City was good. It came at a good time because we hadn’t been anywhere wild. Up until that point, we’d done an episode in Langkawi, an island in Malaysia, and then in Kuala Lumpur set in an orphanage and an episode in a jungle so I think we were ready to go somewhere mad, and Ho Chi Minh City delivered.”

Series creator Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) had been developing the series alongside producer Eleven’s Jamie Campbell and Joel Wilson since 2013, but reveals he had written a similar script 10 years ago, though then it was more sitcom than comedy-drama.

“It’s one of those ideas where you think, ‘I can’t believe this hasn’t been done as a TV show,’” he says. “It really lends itself to different episodes in different places and the gang making their way through a continent over a season. It’s been brewing for a long time.

“The dramatic side we wanted to hone in on comes from making sure it’s a story about coming of age and people changing and characters getting themselves into funny and amusing situations but also learning about themselves and each other. There’s not as much need to make the sitcom version of this – you know what that is. It would be a bit of a cliché. The comedy-drama version is one where you care about the characters a bit more and it feels a bit more truthful and it makes you really feel like you’re there.”

A Vietnamese orphanage features in the show

Key to the success of the series are the five central characters and the relationships they share on their travels, something on which Basden was particularly focused to ensure they each had a reason for travelling and something they wanted to get out of it.

“It’s really about a group of people who are going out of their way to get something. They’re searching for something and want some kind of breakthrough for themselves, and we’re giving it to them in ways they don’t expect at all,” he explains. “So from that point of view, we had to do a huge amount of work on the characters and make sure at every stage they have places to go and have things they hadn’t realised about themselves.”

It was also a deliberate move to open episode one with a focus on best friends Dylan and Sean, before introducing Greg, and then May and Ashley.

“It mimics what happens when you travel and the way friendships form,” Basden adds. “Although Dylan and Sean are our way into it, that was a decision we made to let the audience follow them and find the other characters.”

The series was produced in partnership with global studio Entertainment One (eOne), which also distributes it internationally. Carrie Stein, eOne Television’s exec VP of global productions, admits she loved the concept of Gap Year from the start and was instantly convinced it would have worldwide appeal.

“The thing about travelling is that it’s this great opportunity to just let down your guard and contemplate your life. What we love about the show is each character has a clear emotional journey,” Stein says. “They each have a story – why they’re there and what they left behind, where they think they’re headed, how they change over the course of travelling and how this group they hang out with impacts where they might be headed. Tom’s done an amazing job of really enriching each of these characters with a strong dramatic story.”

The series was filmed on location across Asia

Once on location, one of the many challenges the creative team faced was deciding when they would exert a level of control over their surroundings and when they would simply let the camera capture the actors naturally in the setting, as if making a documentary.

“That was the push and pull,” Basden says. “There were times when we had to say this location, like the orphanage in Vietnam, we’re just going to make ourselves and control every element of it. But when Greg goes to the full-moon party or Sean makes his way through Beijing, we decided just to shoot and see what happened.

“That was the thing that was the most exciting and the most difficult to judge because you’ve got to allow for the freedom to just be there and see what happens. But you can’t do that too much or you have no idea what you’re going to get.”

Stein picks up: “Certainly the production was ambitious but we had tremendous faith in Jamie, Joel and Tom. There were some scary moments, like receiving a phone call telling us we didn’t have permission to shoot in China. That was crazy.

“It was also a juggling act for Tom because he had certainly written a lot and had a writers room but, once you start location scouting, you find out about different things in particular places that you want to make part of the story. So then there’s rejigging. It’s one of those pieces that evolves as you’re in pre-production and then you’re playing catch-up on the script side.”

Basden continues: “That kind of makes it really fun as well. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, one of the benefits of being on set and doing rewrites and changing things is you really can adapt to what you’re learning about the cast and the locations. That gives it a slightly organic chemistry when you’re doing it, even though I was shut up in a hotel room for most of it. I was hardly on the set at all, but I can’t complain. I got to hang out in some lovely cafes!”

While now enjoying a well-earned break, Basden says there’s definitely scope for a second season, which he imagines would see many of the same cast return for another trip along with a broader range of international characters.

“It’s so fucking hard – that’s what we’ve all learned from it,” he concludes. “It’s really difficult dramatically to make an exciting story about people travelling. That, from the script point of view, was the hardest thing – and then the logistics of it without faking it and doing some kind of backlot shoot, that is really tricky.

“Because you’re not using the same locations, it’s harder to build because every episode is a mini film. So it’s not like a sitcom where you reuse locations and characters. There’s not really a formula for this show but, for the viewer, that’s great because you don’t know where you’re going to be every episode. From a writing point of view, it means you start the next episode where anything could happen.”

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Novel approach

Turning books into TV is a well-trodden path, but as pressure for hits increases, development execs are reading more novels than ever before.

This may be the disruptive age of digital, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry mining the fusty old world of books for drama ideas. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, The Pillars of the Earth and The Walking Dead (a graphic novel) are just a few of the high-profile projects that have made stunningly successful transitions from paper to pixel.

Yellowbird chief commercial officer Berna Levin
Yellowbird chief commercial officer Berna Levin

Coming soon are adaptations of the likes of Russian classic War and Peace, fantasy series Shannara and Sharp Objects, based on an early novel by marriage-noir queen Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), while Fox is currently airing Wayward Pines, M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Blake Crouch novel Pines.

Ask drama producers why they are still so enthralled by books and they tend to cite similar reasons. One of the most obvious, says eOne TV senior VP of creative affairs Tecca Crosby, is that “you’re starting with something that has a built-in fanbase or name recognition. All of us are challenged by how to break through, so if you secure a well-known book, that’s an advantage when talking to networks or introducing the project to audiences.”

Just as significant, adds veteran producer Sally Woodward Gentle, is the fact that there is a ready-made story, world and characters to play with. Woodward Gentle, whose company Sid Gentle Films is adapting Len Deighton classic SS-GB for BBC1 in the UK, says: “It’s easier for the commissioning editor to visualise the end result when you have a book to show them. It’s also attractive to screenwriters. Many don’t want to start an idea from scratch. With strong source material, they can get straight into developing their interpretation of the story.”

Interestingly, though, this is about as scientific as it gets. Ask producers if they scrutinise international sales spreadsheets or conduct focus groups before making a decision and the general consensus is that this isn’t the priority. “We are in business, so you have to align your project to the needs of the marketplace,” says Paula Cuddy, partner at indie producer Eleventh Hour. “But you can’t embark on this process unless it’s a personal passion. Producing drama is such a long, arduous, treacherous process that you have to love what you’re doing.”

Noomi Rapace (left) starred in the adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium's trilogy
Noomi Rapace (left) starred in the adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium’s trilogy

She cites the example of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which she worked on in her previous role as head of development at Hat Trick Productions: “The literary agent gave me a galley proof of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale on a Friday. I read it over the weekend and pitched it to the head of drama at Hat Trick on the Monday. He loved it. I then approached the film and TV agent representing the rights, and on this occasion was granted a limited window of exclusivity to pitch it to a broadcaster (ITV/Laura Mackie was the natural home) and get a writer on board. Upon me achieving this, the agent and Indie swiftly formalised the contract for the rights.”

As Cuddy’s comment indicates, enthusiasm is swiftly followed by the pursuit of rights to the book (assuming it is still in copyright – we’ll come to classic works later). Typically, this is handled by the producer, though sometimes they’ll come with the backing of a broadcaster or a programme distributor.

The exact process varies project by project, says Tally Garner, founder of Mam Tor Production, “but typically you’d be looking to get an 18-month to two-year option on the TV rights, with a holdback on film rights so that you don’t end up competing with a rival project. If you are successful in getting the project into production then usually you’ll acquire the rights on the first day of principal photography, working to a fee structure that you agreed when you took out the original option.”

Garner has been immersed in this process for years. Initially a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, she was then tasked with setting up the agency’s in-house production company Cuba Pictures. At Cuba, she adapted Boy A and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before leaving to form Mam Tor, which has a first-look deal with Endemol Worldwide Distribution (now under the new Endemol Shine International banner). In her experience, the course of options negotiations is inevitably affected by the level of competition for rights, though money is not the only consideration: “As an agent, you want there to be a market value to the rights – so you tend to have a rough figure in your head. But the final decision really hinges on a combination of cash, enthusiasm and vision. When I was an agent, I was always wary of selling rights where there wasn’t a creative producer involved in the pitch, someone who had a real sense of how the elements might come together.”

The issue of whether the proposed producer truly understands the book comes up a lot. Even when there isn’t a bidding war over option rights, most producers have to undergo a beauty parade to persuade the author and agent they are the right people for the job.

ITV Studios creative director Kieran Roberts says he engaged in a pretty thorough creative dialogue with author Phil Rickman when ITV decided it wanted to adapt his book series Midwinter of the Spirit (which features Merrily Watkins, a country vicar with exorcism skills who helps the police with crime cases). “It wasn’t too difficult for us to establish our commercial credentials. But, understandably, Phil wanted reassurances about how we would approach the project and whether we would be faithful to the world.”

A key issue was the fact that the books are based around the UK town of Hereford, which is not the easiest place to mount a major production. “He’d had offers to relocate to the Home Counties but wanted to keep the stories where they were set,” says Richardson. “We were happy to go along with him because that part of the country has a special, quite magical quality – even though it will present a few more practical challenges.”

Richardson stresses, however, that producers also need to come to projects with a clear vision of what they are trying to do – because ultimately they are responsible for producing a show that works: “I enjoyed the first book, but didn’t come away with a real sense of how it might develop as a returning series. However, I really felt that the second book delivered on the premise. So I had a conversation with Phil and we agreed that it made sense to begin the series with the second book.”

Tecca Crosby: 'A proactive approach to projects can help win the author over'
Tecca Crosby: ‘A proactive approach to projects can help win the author over’

eOne’s Crosby says a proactive approach to projects can help win the author over. She cites the example of Canadian author Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, which is being adapted for CBC Canada. “We were trying to persuade her that we were the right people to adapt the book. She was keen on the fact that Alan Hawko (star of Republic Of Doyle) would be involved. But I also talked to her about the fact that one of the minor characters in the book had an interesting back-story that could be explored more in a TV series. She loved that idea.”

Wooing the author is critical when securing rights. But producers then need to make a judgement call about how much they should be involved in the adaptation. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Berna Levin, chief commercial officer at Swedish film and TV producer Yellowbird, because it depends on the character of the authors in question. “The writers we work with are very cool. All of them say, ‘The books are my children, but the film/TV productions are my grandchildren – someone else is responsible.’ They want to be convinced you know what you are doing, but then they will let you get on with your job.”

Yellowbird has established a global reputation for its adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, Liza Marklund’s Anneka Bengtzon and Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. In Levin’s opinion, having some distance between author and production is useful because it allows the screenwriter the time and space they need to establish their own vision: “But it isn’t like we want to exclude the authors from the process. They are brilliant writers of crime and sometimes they have 10, 20 or 30 ideas that never made it into their books, which makes them a great resource. For example, it was very exciting for us to work on Occupied, which was an original idea from Jo Nesbo, not from a novel.”

Yellowbird is unusual because of the impact it has made from its Swedish base. Aside from the quality of its shows, a couple of practical factors have underpinned that progress. “Firstly, we have focused almost entirely on crime novels, because that seemed to us to be the genre with the best potential to travel internationally,” says Levin. “And we also make sure we secure global rights when we option a novel. We need to do this to ensure we aren’t competing with international versions.”

For every author who doesn’t want to be involved in the adaptation process, there is another that does. “I think there is a generation of writers such as William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and Ben Richards who are equally comfortable in both forms,” says Cuddy. “We’re working with Sebastian Faulks on an adaptation of his novel On Green Dolphin Street. He is so bright and brilliant that he can manage the transition very well.”

Authors who write the screenplays to their own books tend to have two main challenges. The first, says eOne’s Crosby, is that “novels are often based around the interior world of characters, but screen storytelling is about action and dialogue. Writers who cross over have to be able to translate that.”

The other, says Cuddy, is the need to avoid over-attachment to the source material – since not all of the book’s content will work on TV. William Boyd and Gillian Flynn are both reputed to have this ability “and Sebastian Faulks is also demonstrating a real pragmatism with our project,” she adds.

Starz show Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon's series of novels
Starz show Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of novels

This challenge is even more intense when dealing with book series. Jenna Glazier, senior VP of TV series at Sonar Entertainment, is currently overseeing an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy epic Shannara for MTV. Shannara consists of 14 books written between 1973 and 2013, “so there is a big challenge in knowing where to start and where to end; what to include and what to leave out,” she says. “We’ve decided on the second book, Elfstones of Shannara, as our starting point because it’s a fan favourite that has a love triangle at the centre of the story.”

On the author/screenwriter issue, Glazier says: “It’s always of value to have the author involved because they’ve spent years with the work. With Shannara, Terry is executive producer and Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) are on board as writers.”

One way of addressing the above issues is to have a team that combines the author and screenwriters, says Glazier, “We’re adapting Philipp Meyer’s 2013 best-seller The Son for AMC. Philipp is adapting it with the support of two screenwriters.”

Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne makes an interesting observation on this issue, which is that a lot of contemporary writers have grown up absorbing the grammar of film and TV in their daily lives. This has led to a growing number of novels that are written with a sparser style, punchier dialogue and a more visual sensibility. This in turn lends itself to screen adaptation.

As hinted at earlier, the nature of the book optioning process will depend to some extent on whether the book is a new title subject to an intense bidding war, an older title that has slipped slightly off the radar, or a work that’s no longer subject to copyright (i.e. anyone can adapt it without permission). Books that are subject to a bidding war tend to have strong in-built awareness, “but you have to be sure you’re bidding for something that will fit the requirements of broadcasters,” says Cuddy. “Not all books, no matter how good, fit the schedule.”

eOne senior VP of global production Carrie Stein, who worked at agency ICM earlier in her career, also advises caution. “There’s always a buzz around a new book and that can seem like a reason to go out and bid for it. But I urge my team to think about all the books that got optioned for $100,000 10 years ago and are still sitting on the shelf. When you chase best-sellers, you can lose focus on creativity and passion.”

As if to underline the point, Stein is currently shepherding a 1983 novel by Harry Crews called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (ranked 1,127,231st on Amazon US’s best-sellers list as this sentence was written). For Stein, the relative obscurity of the book is offset by the original, idiosyncratic nature of the story, Crews’s cult following and the fact that a rising screenwriting star is committed to the project. “Matt Venne (currently writing The Devil’s Advocate for NBC – which started as a book, then became a film and will now be a TV series) has read it and is on board the project.”

Rights-free classic novels are, of course, fair game – with BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point currently working on two prestigious projects, War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. At first sight, they seem like manna from heaven, but there are two potential problems. The first, raised by Cuddy, is that they can be creatively restrictive: “We’re interested in period stories but would probably want to take a more revisionist approach than a classic novel would allow. So instead of adapting Bleak House, for example, we’re currently working on an adaptation of Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. That is set in the 1700s but was published last year and has real contemporary resonance as well as being a great mystery story.”

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke's book, airs on BBC1
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke’s book, airs on BBC1

Tally Garner, meanwhile, points out that classics are non-exclusive, which means you get to spend lots of time and effort developing a version, only to find that someone else has got there first. Exactly this happened a couple of years back when a Great Expectations miniseries and movie hit the market within a few months of each other. This rush to exploit IP is particularly common when copyrights initially expire.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the book business has not made its own changes as a result of digital media. So how does this impact on the book-to-TV transition? One way, says Garner, is that there is now a vibrant source of content available in the e-publishing market (EL James and Hugh Howey both started in this space): “We’re developing a property called Confessions of a GP, which started out as an ebook before going to traditional publishing. I still tend to see the agents/publishers as the key relationships but there is this growth of great content coming through on the internet.”

eOne’s Crosby says the new landscape also opens the producer up to a more real-time dialogue with the author’s fanbase, something that can be beneficial from a marketing perspective: “We developed fantasy TV series Bitten (pictured top) out of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld book series. She has a huge online fanbase and they really let us know what they think when we take decisions about who to cast in key roles.”

With TV in the ascendancy at the moment, another key question is whether the medium is starting to secure rights to books that might previously have been picked up for film. Payne is not convinced of this, arguing that the love affair between books and TV goes back decades. For her, one of the key points that has to be reiterated is that basing a story on a book can only take you so far, “because ultimately it has to work as TV. We have properties like Cider with Rosie on our slate. That’s pretty well known in the UK but not outside. When it goes into distribution it will be judged on its own merits.”

Books in development
Mam Tor’s Tally Garner has a few projects bubbling away, including an adaptation of The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and another of Mary S. Lovell’s Bess of Hardwick, about the creation of Chatsworth. The latter has Harriet Warner attached (Call the Midwife) as writer.

Sally Woodward Gentle, former creative director at Carnival Films and now CEO of Sid Gentle, is working with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall) on Len Deighton’s SS-GB for BBC1. Based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain, SS-GB takes place in Nazi-occupied London. Deighton is back in vogue at the moment, with Simon Beaufoy reported to be adapting novels featuring Cold War spy Bernard Samson.

Lookout Point is close to going into production on War and Peace with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. It’s also developing a mega-budget version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities with another screen heavyweight, Alan Bleasdale.

FremantleMedia is working with Corona Pictures on an adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s Bird of Prey, with the script written by JJ Connolly (Layer Cake). It’s also working on Ugly (based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) with Roland Joffe, while FMNA is adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with Starz.

Yellowbird’s upcoming productions include an adaptation of Johan Theorin’s novel Echoes from the Dead (with Fundament Film) and a third Swedish Wallander series. It is also developing an English version of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters with HBO.

Donna Wiffen, formerly of FremantleMedia, is now MD at indie producer Duchess Street Productions. Backed by investment firm Bob & Co, she is working on a saga about two families based on The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer.

Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott are behind an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle. The project has been linked to various channels, but is currently positioned as a pilot for SVoD platform Amazon. Amazon is also behind the adaptation of the Bosch novels.

Netflix, following its breakout success with House of Cards (the second adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ acclaimed series of novels), has announced plans to make a series based on Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Red Planet Pictures’s Tony Jordan is developing a major BBC drama called Dickensian which will bring Charles Dickens’ characters together into one world. Expect Tiny Tim with Miss Havisham and
so on.

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As digital changes the game, where does drama go next?

With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?

The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.

In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer  at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”

For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”

Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.

“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”

With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.

The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”

The Honourable Woman
The Honourable Woman

BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.

Ripper Street
Ripper Street

In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”

The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”

Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”

His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.

For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”

He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”

While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).

Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”

Gaumont's Katie OConnell
Gaumont’s Katie O’Connell

It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”

Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”

Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”

With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”

eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”

One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”

The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.

The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.

Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”

He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”

While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.

Justin Glover
Justin Thomson-Glover

One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).

Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”

This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.

Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”

Future Drama panel features from left to right,
The Future Drama panel, from left: Amazon’s Chris Bird, Greg Brenman from Drama Republic, eOne’s Carrie Stein, Justin Thomson-Glover, Simon Vaughan and James Baker.

On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”

Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”

For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”

While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.

The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”

Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”

So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”

At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.

C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.

Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.

However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”

BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”

Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”

 

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