Tag Archives: Cathy Payne

Shine on in Oz

The Australian arm of the Endemol Shine Group is ramping up its drama output for broadcasters and emerging platforms, partly in league with indie producers.

High production costs, a relatively small number of buyers in the domestic market, generally modest revenues from international sales – there are a number of reasons why producing Australian drama is not a high-margin business.

Yet the Australian outpost of the recently merged Endemol Shine Group is determined to ramp up its fiction output.

The union of Shine and Endemol down under strengthened the roster of in-house drama producers as John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Mimi Butler transferred from Endemol.

And the production company is also looking to work with third-party producers for the first time.

Lingo Pictures – a prodco launched in July 2015 by Helen Bowden, a co-founder and former MD of NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, and Jason Stephens, who was creative director and director of development at FremantleMedia Australia for 10 years – is developing several projects with Endemol Shine Australia (ESA).

“The combination of Endemol Australia’s successful heritage together with Shine’s young scripted team, in addition to some brilliant new projects with third-party creators, makes for a pretty potent mix,” says Mark Fennessy, who is co-CEO of ESA with his brother Carl.

“The merging of contemporary, talented teams with complementary skill sets and culture really delivers a case of one and one makes three. Drama is an absolute primary focus for us. We’re very much committed to building a diverse and exciting slate comprising both long- and short-form projects for all broadcasters and emerging platforms.”

Offspring's Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart
Offspring’s Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart

In November last year, Edwards announced he would depart the company and its predecessor Southern Star Group after 27 years to return to independent production. But he retains his ties with ESA as creative consultant on the sixth season of relationship drama Offspring for Network Ten (produced by Banks) and at least two other projects. One is a miniseries on Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, which is in development with the Nine Network.

The three Australian free-to-air (FTA) networks have become increasingly risk-averse in their commissioning, relying chiefly on returning dramas and reality shows to stave off competition from Netflix and other streaming services. That conservative mentality is both an opportunity and a challenge for drama producers.

“We are in the midst of real disruption for an already risk-averse market that is fragmenting and yet expanding at the same time – it’s a bit uncertain but it’s certainly exciting. In such an environment, programmers and commissioners are under enormous pressure where there is simply no appetite for failure,” says Fennessy.

“As a result, new commissions become fewer and harder to come by. In such a turbulent environment, content producers and creators are often confined to the equivalent of ‘development purgatory.’”

Drama production budgets have doubled over the past 10 years and now range from A$1m (US$722,000) to A$1.2m an hour, driven by escalating fees for cast, crew, post houses and locations.

That increase is in line with other markets, Fennessy observes, but it does make financing more difficult. “In a crowded market with a finite number of buyers, there is always pressure on funding,” he says. “The licence fee from a broadcaster is proportional to its (55% local) drama quota and only represents one piece of the funding pie required to meet any given project. Producers are always chasing their tail to make the numbers work, which is why it’s important to have a mix of longer-form projects among the miniseries and telemovies.

“If a first-run series of six or eight episodes bites with the audience and the concept is strong enough to open out then it’s potentially an ideal bridge to longform. Miniseries, telemovies and biopics, while great fun to make, are closed-ended, financially limiting for producers and expensive and equally limiting for broadcasters.”

International sales are rarely a pot of gold for Australian dramas. The relatively modest returns from foreign TV sales were revealed for the first time in research released recently by Screen Australia. The highest prices per territory for Screen Australia-supported series and miniseries between January 2013 and October 2015 were A$137,600 per hour for the US, A$99,500 for the UK, A$78,300 for French-speaking markets, A$59,200 for the Netherlands and A$49,800 for Italy.

Further down the table the highest prices reported were A$36,000 for German-speaking markets, A$35,000 for Latin America, A$31,800 for Scandinavia, A$13,700 for Eastern Europe, A$10,000 for pan-Asia and A$9,900 for Japan.

INXS: Never Tear Us Apart
INXS: Never Tear Us Apart

The market for scripted content in the US is challenging but robust in the rest of the world, according to Endemol Shine International (ESI) CEO Cathy Payne.

“The international market for scripted product has never been as buoyant with many new linear and non-linear channels, particularly in the US where the subscription platforms have successfully found an audience for non-US product,” she says.

“At the same time, the market for US scripted product has changed. As new US channels move into scripted, increased competition has seen channels target specific audiences with more US domestic fare and/or US-centric stories. Success in the US market does not guarantee success internationally for much of this product. In addition, international markets have matured and domestic scripted product dominates in a home market.

“So there are more outlets than ever with the caution that the bar is high. We have all seen the migration of theatrical talent behind and on camera to premium television where they can tell longform stories with the freedom of not being locked to multiple-season options or restrictions in areas like episode length. UK scripted continues its renaissance with its well-packaged, innovative storytelling.

“Australian scripted needs to compete in this landscape and, as such, there will be pressure to secure that level of creative and writing talent and to invest in scripts to a higher level. Strong shows from Australia will find homes, in particular genre pieces such as crime, thriller and family saga. We are currently enjoying success with (Seven Productions’) A Place to Call Home.”

In the lead-up to the merger, Carl and Mark Fennessy (pictured in that order above), who had launched Shine Australia in 2009, turned down the offer of running ESA last April. The brothers were considering returning to their roots as independent producers, having founded comedy and factual specialist Crackerjack, which was acquired by FremantleMedia in 2003.

But after Martha Brass, CEO of international operations at Endemol Shine Group, began an international search for a new CEO, the brothers changed their minds. “It was simply a case of not getting there on the first pass,” Fennessy explains. “We had a period to serve out on the existing Shine deal so, amid the process of sourcing replacements, there was sufficient goodwill on both sides to explore a landing point to continue. Beyond that, we’re loyal to our super-talented team, which has been with us for some years, so this was also a consideration.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door
Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door

Shine Australia’s first venture into drama was INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. The untold story of the pop band, led by the late Michael Hutchence, was made for the Seven Network and exec produced by Mark Fennessy plus former Southern Star executives Rory Callaghan and Kerrie Mainwaring. The two-part miniseries was the most popular drama of 2014 and gave the firm the credibility it was seeking in the drama space.

“The strategy was to start small and earn our stripes,” says Fennessy. “We needed the right projects that would generate enough noise and hopefully success to put us on the map; this was easier to do with shortform miniseries. In achieving that objective, we’ve created a strong foundation on which to build so it’s time to wade into the deeper waters.”

Momentum built in 2015 as the company created two of the year’s most watched dramas, both produced by Mainwaring. Catching Milat, the saga of the police investigation that led to the arrest of Sydney serial killer Ivan Milat, aired on Seven and drew 2.55 million viewers.

For the same network, Peter Allen – Not the Boy Next Door, which starred newcomer Joel Jackson as the singer/songwriter from New South Wales who was the first Australian to win an Oscar (for Arthur’s Theme) as well as a Grammy (I Honestly Love You, sung by Olivia Newton-John), attracted 2.23 million.

ESI sold INXS: Never Tear Us Apart to more than 121 countries, including the US (Showtime), France (MTV), Benelux (AMC/Sundance Channels), pan-Asia (AMC/Sundance Channels), Africa/South Africa (MNet), Latin America (DirecTV), Globosat (Brazil), Sweden (SVT), Spain (Telefonica) and Bell Media in Canada for SVoD.

ESI closed deals for Catching Milat in 83 countries, including pan-Latin America (A&E), Italy (Discovery), Poland (ITI Neovision), France (NBCUniversal and NRJ) and Japan (NHK).

Catching Milat
Catching Milat

Network Ten’s first drama commission for ESA was Brock, a telemovie starring Matthew Le Nevez as Peter Brock, the Australian motor racing champion who was plagued by self-doubt. He died in 2006, aged 61, when his car hit a tree during a rally in Western Australia.

Asked why Ten was attracted to the project, the broadcaster’s head of drama Rick Maier says: “It’s a great story, and a great production team. Australians love heroes and underdogs. Brock was both. To use a bad analogy, he really did start a long way back on the grid – he was not entitled to be as successful as he was. Nor was he Peter Perfect. Yet he still went on to become arguably the greatest driver we have ever seen.

“The idea had been pitched before, but not with this level of significant production talent attached. Kerrie Mainwaring produced, Adam Todd and Justin Monjo were the writers and Geoff Bennett directed. In this genre, that’s pretty much the A-team. Shine (now ESA) has always put the money on screen.”

Alice Bell and Shirley Barrett have been added to the writing team for Offspring, joining returning writers Jonathan Gavin, Leon Ford and Christine Bartlett. “Imogen is one of the best,” Maier says. “John, as he puts it, is a great alchemist and he’s done it again by assembling such a talented team. There is a genuine excitement both in the writers room and among the cast.”

Banks and Edwards produced The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, for pubcaster ABC. Scripted by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, the six-part drama starred Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Daniel Henshall, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe and Alexander England.

The tale of adultery and scandal involving three enmeshed families across three generations screened on Sunday nights and resonated strongly with the targeted 35- to 49-year-olds, but less so with older viewers.

“We did appear to lose a segment of the 50-plus audience who traditionally watch the ABC on Sunday nights. However, that does not tell the whole story and definitely does not capture the incredible popularity of The Beautiful Lie on (catch-up platform) iview,” says ABC TV head of programming Brendan Dahill.

“With almost one million plays, it was one of the most popular series on iview in 2015, which points to a very different way that viewers are now choosing to consume their drama. We know that for years drama has been the most time-shifted genre and now, with the convenience of iview, that ability to watch a show when you want and also to choose exactly how many episodes of it you watch has been heightened.”

Edwards has long been critical of the Australian FTA broadcasters’ increasing focus on telepics, miniseries and short-run series. Speaking at Screen Producers Australia’s annual conference in November last year, he likened the state of the Australian TV drama production industry to a “stagnant billabong,” marked by fewer series, the same writers, inflated costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and an increasing reliance on subsidy.

The Beautiful Lie
The Beautiful Lie

“All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared,” he said. He lamented the demise of 40- and 22-part series and said 13-parters are almost an anachronism.

Ten’s Maier welcomed Edwards’ speech and believes some sections of the media misunderstood his message. “He was being inclusive, not laying blame,” he says. “His last three series were shortform, so he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no doubt TV drama is in an incredibly competitive space, and attention spans ain’t what they used to be in the binge-viewing landscape.

“I don’t necessarily agree longform is the answer because viewing tastes appear to have changed so much, but I do agree the training ground for emerging writers, producers and directors needs attention. Neighbours and Home and Away play their part, but the next rung of the ladder is missing or at least significantly harder to attain.

“John has always led the way with blooding new writers, directors and producers and he’s done that with 13-part series. It is obviously much harder with a shorter run. When it comes to costs, our dramas are expensive relative to those from other countries. If we can bring the costs down, we will be more competitive and more ideas can be developed.”

ABC exec Dahill adds: “John’s speech was great and touched on many areas that we as an industry should be discussing more often. Australian talent is rightly being recognised as world class and thus being courted by broadcasters and producers from all over the world – from actors and writers to directors and producers. You can also see that global recognition in the recent acquisition of many Aussie drama producers by big internationals. The downside is that this is leading to a drain on the current talent pool here at home.

“We are focused on our audience and their tastes. We live in a global marketplace and internationally there has definitely been a drift, driven by Netflix/premium US cable and Nordic noir, towards eight-part, high-impact and highly serialised drama and away from the longer-running and more soapy drama.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Just like starting over: The growth of anthology series

From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.

There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.

Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.

There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.

The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS
The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS

By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.

Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.

With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.

A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.

“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”

At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.

Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters 'a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding'
Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters ‘a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding’

SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.

“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.

“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”

Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”

Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.

“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”

Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”

Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.

American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style
American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style

“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”

Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”

American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.

As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.

FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”

Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”

Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.

The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.

Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.

“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”

Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”

The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?

That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.

“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.

Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.

By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.

The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.

Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.

NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.

Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.

Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.

Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”

Payne: 'Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore'
Payne: ‘Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore’

It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”

Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”

Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”

While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,