Tag Archives: Christian Vesper

Happy endings

Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?

The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.

But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.

Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.

This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.

“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”

Did the early announcement that Mad Men’s seventh season would be its last help Jon Hamm (second from right) finally win an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper?

Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”

A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.

Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”

Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”

This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”

Networks would undoubtedly be keen to extend the The Night Manager, but the people behind the show decided against continuing the series

This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.

Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”

One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.

The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.

Creator John Logan was behind the decision to end Penny Dreadful after three seasons

So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”

There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.

Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.

Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.

It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.

Bates Motel is among shows to have been granted a ‘soft landing’ as opposed to immediate cancellation

Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”

A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.

Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”

None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.

While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.

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

Shining bright

SundanceTV has been steadily building its homegrown drama credentials over the past few years. Christian Vesper, senior VP of scripted development and current, tells DQ why he believes the network has turned a corner.

There is perhaps no other name more closely identified with independent movies than the Sundance Film Festival. And there is no other television network more closely associated with the festival than the Sundance Channel, which is why, when the station decided on a rebrand last year, it stayed well within the halo of the Robert Redford brand.

Christian-Vesper
Christian Vesper, SundanceTV senior VP of scripted development and current

SundanceTV arrived in time for the February 2014 premiere of the channel’s second wholly owned homegrown drama series, The Red Road – signifying another step towards its ambition of becoming better known for scripted television.

The journey began in 2010 with Carlos, a miniseries about the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed The Jackal, originally commissioned by France’s Canal+ and directed by Olivier Assayas – marking the auteur’s first foray into TV. Sundance got involved in the French/German production at the rough-cut stage and took a coproduction credit, though these days such collaborations see it much more heavily engaged in the creative process.

SundanceTV’s senior VP of scripted development and current, Christian Vesper, has been with the network for the past 12 years, playing a central role in its evolution – and Carlos, he says, was a pivotal moment.

“It made a lot of noise. We won best miniseries at the Golden Globes with a US$15m project against the US$150m project that was The Pacific. It led to a realisation in the higher levels of our organisation that the network could distinguish itself in the scripted space.”

At the time, that organisation was in the midst of major change. Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media was being spun out of Cablevision as a separate entity to be named AMC Networks, housing fellow cable outlets AMC, IFC and WE tv.

Carlos-1
Carlos, ‘a genuine differentiator for Sundance’

Carlos stood out as a genuine differentiator for Sundance, which until then had predominantly been seen as an elite, art-house movie destination. For Vesper, the show was a clear statement of intent – aiming to establish the channel as a home to directors, producers, writers and talent with a theatrical vision that could be transposed to the small screen. “We want our shows to look and feel cinematic. We are still part of the Sundance family, and that’s important,” he says.

Restless (2012) came next – another mini – this time an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name about a young woman who discovers that her mother was recruited as a spy during World War Two. Hilary Bevan Jones’s Endor Productions made the two-parter, which garnered accolades including a Best Actress Emmy nomination for Charlotte Rampling.

“We’re big fans of William Boyd and the idea again is to work with artists and writers who are exceptional,” says Vesper. This was Sundance’s “first proper copro,” he adds, and its first alliance with the BBC – a relationship that was to deepen with Top of the Lake (2013), director Jane Campion’s first TV project in more than 20 years. The seven-part series, shot in New Zealand, starred big names including Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and centred on the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival and aired at around the same time as Rectify, the channel’s first wholly owned homegrown series. Vesper describes the dual release as “an inflection point for the network – when we really meant to make a statement that we were in the scripted space for real.” He calls Rectify, heading into its third season next month, “a beautifully rendered piece of art television.” Top of the Lake, meanwhile, which has also been renewed, was “a fantastic opportunity” that BBC Worldwide and producer See-Saw brought to the network.

The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)
The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)

“We got involved very early in the script stage. It turned out to be a terrific brand signifier and audience generator, and we received a ton of award nominations – which we need to make some noise in such a crowded marketplace,” Vesper says, again emphasising the desire for projects with genuine artistic merit but also critical and commercial resonance.

After all, the competition is only getting stronger. SundanceTV is a sibling of AMC, which has been responsible for some of the greatest drama successes of the past decade – notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in October 2014 it gained a new sister, after the AMC Networks mother ship paid US$200m for a 49.9% stake in BBC America – home to originals including Copper and, more recently, Intruders.

Outside of the family the world has been moving fast, with Starz (another regular BBC partner) stepping up efforts to displace HBO and Showtime, while History Channel, A&E and others have been moving into scripted against the backdrop of Netflix and Amazon redrawing the landscape completely.

SundanceTV last year aired the original version of French supernatural drama The Returned (Les Revenants), and together with Canal+ has become a coproduction partner on the upcoming second season – but in the meantime an English-language version penned by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse is in the works at A&E.

Vesper acknowledges the difference in reach between the two channels (A&E is in close to 100 million households, whereas SundanceTV is available in around 60 million) but believes his own network has several advantages over newer entrants. “It’s not as if we’ve shifted from comedy to drama or anything like that. Drama has always been our focus and it is our brand,” he says.

Top of the Lake, SundanceTV's 'first proper copro'
Top of the Lake, SundanceTV’s ‘first proper copro’

“We have a pre-existing relationship with Sundance, and the niche we seek to fill is somewhere between our big brothers at AMC and the kind of content associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute.

“We’re looking to work with and highlight the auteurs. We want heavily character-based storytelling that is distinct, perhaps because of the unique tales we tell or progressive kind of storytelling we’re willing to engage in.”

The Honourable Woman (main image), Hugo Blick’s political spy thriller, fell squarely into this category. It follows an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business and with it all the trappings of his Middle Eastern dealings.

Maggie Gyllenhaal took the lead role, again underscoring the importance to SundanceTV of having big-name draws. “She’s a movie star, which guaranteed the series would be written about. And once people knew to pay attention, they realised the show had enormous quality. It’s an essential element to making things work,” says Vesper. The eight-part series was made by UK indie Drama Republic and Blick’s own business, Eight Rooks, again via the BBC’s commercial arm. It premiered on BBC2 in the UK on July 3, 2014 and on SundanceTV stateside on July 31, winning Gyllenhaal Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.

In an age of simulcasts and collapsing release windows, a four-week transatlantic gap seems like a long time for a series around which so much anticipation was built. But Vesper argues this only helped build interest in the US, as UK buzz about the show began to travel.

The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled
The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled

The tables were turned with One Child, Guy Hibbert’s miniseries about an adopted woman who is suddenly called back to China by her birth mother to save the brother she never knew she had from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It was coproduced with the BBC’s in-house production team, and although BBC2 was the lead broadcaster, SundanceTV aired the show on December 5 and 6 ahead of the BBC. “It’s a discussion on a per-show basis,” Vesper says.

Straight acquisitions are still on the agenda, with SundanceTV recently becoming the first major US network to pick up a German-language drama in the form of Deutschland 83, a Cold War thriller made by FremantleMedia’s UFA Fiction for RTL.

In wholly owned originals, The Red Road came from Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the hit 2013 movie Prisoners. Martin Henderson and Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa led the cast in another character-driven study, this time focusing on conflict between Native Americans in a deprived neighbourhood on the outskirts of white middle-class Manhattan. However, the show was cancelled after the end of its second season last month.

Meanwhile, in the pipeline is Hap and Leonard – SundanceTV’s third wholly owned original show and its first solo book adaptation, based on a series of novels by Joe Lansdale. The script is being penned by Sundance Film Festival alumni Jim Mickle and Nick Damici – again underscoring the ongoing importance of that association – with the show due to air next year.

Sundance Channel may have become SundanceTV and gone a significant way down the road to being recognised as a serious scripted TV player, but it will always owe a 10-gallon hat tip to Butch Cassidy’s notorious sidekick.

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