US cable channel AMC is making headlines again this week by commissioning a 10-part anthology series based on a 2007 novel by Dan Simmons called The Terror.
Set in 1847, The Terror unfolds as a Royal Naval expedition searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks their ships and crew. The show continues the recent fascination with thrillers set against a backdrop of snow and ice (Fargo, Fortitude, Trapped and Liam Neeson movie The Grey, to name a few).
The Terror is being exec produced by Ridley Scott and will be adapted for the screen by David Kajganich, whose recent credits include the movie The Bigger Splash. Kajganich will also be a co-showrunner with Soo Hugh.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Originality is still something that gets our attention every day, and the very unique mixing of historical non-fiction with a gripping and imaginative science-fiction overlay in Dan’s novel is something we hadn’t seen before. That, combined with an exceptional team behind the project, made this something we really wanted to bring to air on AMC.”
Meanwhile, Netflix has ordered an original western series from director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank. Called Godless, it is set in a 19th century New Mexico mining town.
As yet there are no more details. However, the news is generating a lot of excitement because of the Soderbergh/Frank link-up. The last time they worked together was on the acclaimed movie Out of Sight. Since then, Soderbergh has shifted much of his energy in the direction of TV with shows such as The Knick, while Frank has been screenwriting movies including Minority Report, The Wolverine and Marley & Me.
Netflix has also renewed its revival of US family sitcom Full House for a second season. The reboot, titled Fuller House, follows a pregnant and recently widowed woman who is living with her younger sister, best friend and teenage daughter. They all help to raise her two boys and prepare for the birth of the new baby. The original Full House aired on US network ABC from 1987 to 1995.
Elsewhere, projects now getting kickstarted out of the UK include Tina and Bobby, a three-part drama from ITV that will celebrate the life of England football legend Bobby Moore and his wife. The project writer is Lauren Klee, who has a strong track record on shows like EastEnders, Waterloo Road and Holby City.
Meanwhile, Colin Callender’s indie prodco Playground has picked up the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. It plans to make a TV series based on the book, which charts Kingsley’s journey to 17 countries where he met hundreds of refugees making their way across deserts, seas and mountains in a bid to reach Europe.
Discussing the decision to acquire the book, Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground’s UK office, said: “The New Odyssey is an epic piece of journalism that provides an intimate account of the people caught up in one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the Second World War. We believe this can be TV at its best – powerful, emotional and compelling storytelling that explores the complexities and human dimensions of the biggest story of our time.”
One of the most eye-catching stories to have come out of the US TV business in recent weeks was the news that Channing Dungey, executive VP of drama at Disney-owned network ABC, was being promoted to entertainment president, replacing incumbent Paul Lee. The story came as a surprise and got people wondering about how it might affect decisions over cancellations and renewals.
Well, Dungey hasn’t wasted any time making her mark, giving early renewals to a huge swathe of ABC shows this week. Among these are dramas like Quantico, Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, Once Upon a Time and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the comedy front, Fresh off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Black-ish and The Middle got the nod.
Dungey’s renewals are interesting for a few reasons. First, because it looks like she is playing safe in season one. Rather than rip up the schedule, she has decided to play the percentages and give herself time to settle in. Second, because she has renewed the shows much earlier than Lee had a habit of doing. This is her way of quickly distinguishing herself from her predecessor.
Finally, Dungey’s list of renewals is also notable because of what she has not yet committed to. Long-running procedural Castle (nearly at the end of season eight), for example, has not yet been given the OK. Dungey has also delayed decisions on four other scripted series, Nashville, The Muppets, Marvel’s Agent Carter and Galavant.
Castle stands a reasonable chance of being renewed if star Nathan Fillion is prepared to sign up for a new season. However, the other series are harder to call.
In January, Paul Lee said Nashville would probably be back for a fifth season. But the show has never really been a massive ratings hit, so it might not secure the same support from Dungey. In the case of The Muppets, a strong start has given way to sub-par ratings. But this is a Disney-owned property so ABC won’t necessarily want to give up on it just yet. Similarly, Agent Carter hasn’t been particularly strong in ratings terms but it does come from the Disney-Marvel stable of scripted shows.
Galavant, a musical comedy/fantasy series, is coming to the end of its second season and probably looks like the easiest of the five to say goodbye to. Ratings haven’t been especially strong and there’s no obvious Disney 360-degree reason to keep it alive. That said, it does have a top creator behind it in the shape of Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Cars). So that might be enough to persuade ABC to give the show another chance.
Finally, in Scandinavia, Swedish commercial broadcaster TV4 has ordered two 10-part seasons of a medical drama based on a Finnish format called Nurses, produced by Yellow Film & TV and distributed by Eccho Rights. Jan Blomgren, CEO of Swedish production company Bob Films, said: “The original version of Nurses is well written and produced. We believe the audience in Sweden will relate to real stories in a glossy drama series.”
This isn’t the first time a Finnish drama has been adapted for the other Nordic territories. It’s also just happened with DRG-distributed thriller Black Widows.
Although the Finns make dramas to a decent standard, tight budgets mean their shows often aren’t glossy enough to appeal to audiences in the other Nordic markets. In the case of Nurses, a third season is about to air on YLE in Finland. Eccho Rights, which licensed the format to Sweden, has also sold it into the UK. At the same time, it has licensed the first two Finnish seasons to ProSiebenSat.1. Eccho will also sell the Swedish version of the show internationally.
ABC’s early pickups show its new entertainment president is keen to keep its hit shows on top form by giving their creative teams as much time as possible to prepare for next season. Michael Pickard reports.
She’s been in the job little more than two weeks – but the new entertainment president at US network ABC is wasting no time making her mark.
Two months before advertising executives gather in New York to hear the Upfront presentations for the 2016/17 season, Channing Dungey has given them a big insight into what they can expect to see on the Alphabet’s schedule next season with a host of renewals across the television spectrum.
Long-running reality veterans The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars will be back for seasons 21 and 23 respectively, while there’s also good news for fans of comedies Black-ish, The Goldbergs, The Middle and Modern Family, among others.
On the drama side, ABC has picked up six series – including three from the Shonda Rhimes stable. Grey’s Anatomy will return this fall for its 13th run, How to Get Away With Murder will be back for season three and political drama Scandal gets a sixth outing.
Elsewhere, there were renewals for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (season four), fantasy Once Upon a Time (season six) and a second season order for one of the new breakout shows of the year, FBI thriller Quantico (pictured top), which stars Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.
Fans of Castle, American Crime, Marvel’s Agent Carter and music drama Nashville, however, are still in the dark about whether their shows will be back next year, while freshman series Wicked City and Blood and Oil have already been cancelled.
Some of those series left in limbo may find time is running out, with 11 drama pilots in contention for series orders next season. One of these is Conviction, which stars Hayley Atwell as the daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into joining LA’s new Conviction Integrity Unit – which examines whether the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime. Atwell, of course, is the star of Agent Carter so it seems unlikely she will appear in both shows unless Conviction receives a smaller episode order to allow her to continue in the Marvel series.
The possible cancellation of one Marvel series seems all the more likely considering another ABC pilot in contention – Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that stars Adrianne Palicki.
Room also needs to be found in the schedule for Designated Survivor, which was ordered straight to series, bypassing the traditional pilot process. The show stars Kiefer Sutherland as a low-level US cabinet member who becomes president when a catastrophic attack during the State of the Union kills everyone above him in the line of succession.
Speaking about her early renewals, which numbered 15 in total, Dungey said: “We’re very proud of our strong roster of performers, and we’re excited about what they will bring us creatively next season.”
And as ABC’s drama development executive prior to her recent promotion, Dungey knows creativity is key.
While a new season order placed in May gives writers and producers just four months to get the opening episodes ready to air in time for the new season launch in September, any extra time they can get to plot story arcs, fine-tune scripts and enhance special effects can only be beneficial – particularly if they’re on board the network treadmill that will see them churn out as many as 24 episodes by the season end next May.
This is where the larger episode orders associated with the five US broadcast networks come into stark contrast with cable networks, which tend to lean towards 10 to 13 episodes per season – and give creatives as long as a year to film a show ahead of its debut.
Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry admitted as much when he spoke about starting work on his Lifetime drama Devious Maids back in 2012.
Housewives ran for eight seasons on ABC, before Cherry crafted an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Ellas Son la Alegría del Hogar, about four women who have ambitions and dreams of their own while working for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. ABC ordered a pilot but ultimately passed on the project, which was then picked up by Lifetime and is now heading into its fourth season.
Describing the benefits of working for a cable channel, he said: “Artistically, it gives you greater licence to do much more complicated storytelling and richer and deeper writing than you have time for on a network schedule.
“With the networks, from the time they pick up your show to the time you start shooting is approximately six weeks. That’s not a lot of time to plan what you’re going to be doing for 23 episodes, whereas I have four straight months of plotting before we start shooting. What the fans are going to see from me is the best writing I’ve ever done because I have time to plan things and talk about them and get to deeper places.”
With her background in drama development, Dungey knows this and it’s too her credit that she has given these six dramas as much time as possible to prepare for the 2016/17 season.
Other networks have also given some early season orders, with CBS renewing NCIS and Fox planning more Empire. And like ABC, NBC has also gone big on early renewals for The Blacklist, Shades of Blue, Chicago PD, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Blindspot.
With networks under pressure to keep ratings high in the age of catch-up and increasing competition from both cable and OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon, giving writers and producers more time to stay on top of their game and keep their series entertaining and engaging will benefit viewers and advertisers alike.
ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.
To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.
This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.
Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.
“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.
“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.
“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”
The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.
Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.
“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.
“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”
The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”
HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.
The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.
These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.
Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.
“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”
Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”
#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.
“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.
The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”
Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.
As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”
“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.
ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.
It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.
“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.
Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.
Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.
While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”
Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.
With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?
The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.
In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”
For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”
Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.
“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”
With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.
The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”
BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.
In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”
The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”
Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”
His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.
For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”
He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”
While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).
Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”
It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”
Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”
Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”
With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”
eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”
One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”
The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.
The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.
Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”
While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.
One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).
Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”
This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.
Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”
On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”
Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”
For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”
While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.
The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”
Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”
So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”
At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.
C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.
Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.
However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”
BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”
Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”