Tag Archives: Christina Jennings

Wonder women

A host of female characters are rewriting the rules for women on television. DQ explores how they are being brought to the small screen to front series ranging from contemporary crime dramas and thrillers to period and historical series.

There have been some great female characters in scripted TV down the years – the likes of Cagney & Lacey, DI Jane Tennison and Buffy ‘the Vampire Slayer’ Summers all spring to mind. But there’s no question that the last few years have seen the range and quality of roles for women expand dramatically. Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Borgen, Orphan Black, GLOW and UnReal are just a few shows that have rewritten the rules when it comes to gender on TV.

For FremantleMedia director of global drama Sarah Doole, this is a sign the TV industry is finally catching up with audience tastes. “Research shows women are in charge of the remote control until 21.30, but most of the iconic dramas you can think of focus on middle-aged white men,” she says. “So what we are seeing is a new world order that reflects audience demands.”

Doole says FremantleMedia’s production slate is addressing this in various ways: “You can see it in Hard Sun, where Agyness Deyn [playing DI Elaine Renko] is not your normal heroine. She is capable of motherly tenderness but also incredible violence. She’s an androgynous, modern character that reaches a new, younger audience. And in Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Friend, we focus on the intricacies of female friendship – issues that women don’t usually see on television.”

Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler says the improved gender balance is also linked to greater representation of women behind the camera. While there have always been a few female role models like Lynda La Plante, “a lot of women of my generation who started out as script editors have now reached positions where they are running companies or making commissioning decisions,” Shindler says. “The result has been more shows with complex and interesting women.”

Sarah Lancashire in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley

Red shows with memorable female leads include Happy Valley (starring Sarah Lancashire), Trust Me (starring new Doctor Who lead Jodie Whittaker, pictured above) and Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp). The idea for the latter came from Jones and Sally Lindsay, with Jones keen for more female roles “that weren’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to et cetera.” The series was then scripted by Sally Wainwright, with a directorial team skewed towards women. “It was a ground-breaking show,” says Shindler, “because so much of it was based around the camera pointing at women characters and them talking to each other.”

Inevitably, a lot of recent female-centric shows revolve around cops (Happy Valley, The Fall, Vera). But there are a growing number of shows that explore women in atypical social roles and contexts. After The Night Manager, for example, The Ink Factory is working on another John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. In this thriller, says The Ink Factory’s Simon Cornwell, Florence Pugh portrays female spy Charlie, “an engaging, nuanced and rewarding character, with strong agency and purpose.” Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, adds: “For me, creating roles for women that do not conform to male-defined stereotypes is more interesting.”

The mythology of the spy genre has historically been male-dominated, but Cornwell believes The Little Drummer Girl highlights the fact that women have always played a key role in espionage: “Charlie is, I hope, completely authentic as a character. She’s also not ‘atypical’ because there have been and continue to be real women involved in espionage. I think the show highlights the presence of women who were involved but possibly overlooked or not acknowledged.”

Of course, there are some shows where women play roles not at all intended to be grounded in realism. But the prevailing view is this is fine as long as the characters behave authentically within their version of reality world. A compelling example of this is Wynnona Earp, Syfy’s popular series about the granddaughter of legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp, whose mission in life is to dispatch demonic cowboys who have returned from the dead.

Melanie Scrofano in Wynonna Earp, a show led by ’empowered female characters’

Wynonna started life as a comic book character in 1993, at which point she was a textbook example of comic-geek male erotic fantasy. But for the TV series, says IDW Entertainment CEO David Ozer, “we’ve pivoted completely, as we have also done in the modern versions of the comic books. This is a show led by empowered female characters that also has a strong LGBT component, centred around Wynonna’s sister Waverley.”

The success of this pivot is largely down to the show’s female showrunner Emily Andras and star Melanie Scrofano, says Ozer. “Between them, they’ve created a really relatable character who is more than just a female gunslinger. You can see the female voice of the show running through all the storylines – including the relationship between Wynonna and her sister. In fact, when Melanie got pregnant just before the start of shooting season two, Emily managed to take that and weave it into the existing storylines without missing a beat.”

This isn’t to suggest men can’t write empowered female characters. Neil Cross has done it in Hard Sun and Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley likewise in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, whose female characters include a working mother (a lawyer), a rebellious teenager, an AI expert and a bunch of highly advanced androids, known as synths. Mia and Niska, synths played by Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington respectively, go on journeys that deal starkly with issues around female sexual exploitation, empowerment and awakening.

Interestingly, season three of the show also has a strong female contingent behind the camera, in terms of writers, directors, producer (Vicki Delow) and exec producer (Emma Kingsman-Lloyd). Delow calls it “good female representation, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen five years ago. And that certainly leads to some interesting debates about the female characters and the way they might be expected to behave.”

Hard Sun marked a first TV role for model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn

Kingsman-Lloyd says “there is probably a bit more of a female voice in this season.” Particularly influential, she adds, has been the input of director Jill Robertson, whose recent credits include Harlots. “There’s still a real shortage of female directors in action-based series,” she says, “but Jill is an extraordinary talent who directed the first two episodes of the new season.”

The idea of authenticity within a heightened reality scenario also underpins the Nordic success story Black Widows, made in Finland but sold around the world. In this show, three women in abusive relationships decide to take change of their lives by murdering their husbands. A big challenge with the show, says producer Roope Lehtinen, was “making it so that people rooted for the women even after they’d killed their husbands. I think we achieved that by not dwelling too long on the murder scene, making the guys really disgusting and also giving the show a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously.”

The ensemble nature of the show (something that is still more typical of female-led than male-led drama) meant it was possible to explore the shifting dynamics of the relationships between the women, but also how they reacted individually to what they had done. “They each have their own distinct voice,” says Lehtinen, “including one of them who is not quite as moral as her two friends. It’s important that female characters can have the same anti-hero flavour as we are used to with men.”

Most producers and showrunners agree that female characters need to be messy and complicated, not sanitised or sanctified. “Complicated, messed-up women are the only kind of women I know,” says Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, which tells the story of two manipulative ratings-seeking female producers running a salacious dating show. “Real, relatable women have a strong appeal to TV audiences.”

Britannia features a host of powerful women

Rukeyser says the show also stands out “because it’s still rare to see women at work outside of detective series. And I think it’s taken on a new significance during the last year. There may have been a sense that some of the issues around gender equality weren’t that relevant anymore, but now the whole debate about equal pay for men and women has exploded.”

Ellie Beaumont, co-creator (with Drew Proffitt) of Australian crime drama Dead Lucky, also favours shows that depict flawed women: “Our central character in Dead Lucky [a detective played by Rachel Griffiths] has a strong sense of social justice but she also has a temper and speaks before thinking. The best characters – of either gender – are always flawed.”

One interesting way of addressing the gender imbalance in TV drama has been to portray early-to-mid-20th century female characters challenging social stereotypes, such as in Bomb Girls, Ku’damm 56 and Call the Midwife. Susann Billberg, a producer at Sweden’s Jarowskij, identifies similar themes in Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), a period family saga that her company produces in collaboration with SVT, Viaplay and Film i Väst.

“The series explores the Swedish class system from the late 1940s and how these barriers began to break down,” she says. “It shines a light on the different female perspectives and their involvement in helping society progress. Nina is headstrong and determined to break class norms by building a nightclub. Then there is waitress and single mother Maggan who champions women’s rights in the workplace.” Another female powerhouse, adds Billberg, is Helga, the family matriarch played by Suzanne Reuter.

From Canada, Frankie Drake Mysteries is another period show, set in the 1920s, that depicts a woman defying stereotypes, this time as a private eye. Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury and executive producer of the show, says: “At its heart, Frankie Drake Mysteries is about female empowerment. Frankie is a woman living life on her own terms, building a career of her own design and empowering other women along the way. We wanted to explore this era and its challenges through the lives of a group of women working together to solve crimes.”

Lauren Lee Smith (left) and Chantel Riley in 1920s-set Frankie Drake Mysteries

Canada “is in a good place right now in terms of producing series with women in lead roles,” says Jennings, whose company also produced vampire web series Carmilla. “There is a focused effort to ensure women are taking their place behind the camera, and this helps inform the stories.”

But how do producers approach gender in earlier period drama, where the assumption might be that women were treated as second-class citizens? Take a show like Versailles, for example. “It is true that Versailles was an arena created by Louis XIV to impose his absolute power,” says Aude Albano, an executive producer from Versailles prodco CAPA Drama, “and 17th century France was generally ruled by men. But women also used to play an essential role in that environment and it was important to us to depict and highlight it in the show. It was not our intention to make a feminist show, but it was our intention to use what we found fascinating in history and bring a modern look.”

One way into this subject was the fact that Louis was raised by a very strong woman, Anne of Austria. “The relationship Louis had with his mother had a clear impact on his attraction to strong and smart women, such as Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon,” says Albano. “This gave us the scope to create strong, complex and singular female characters, each one of them coming with their drives, their flaws, their ambitions.”

Another option with period drama is to go so far back in history that there is little guidance on the gender roles. In Sky series Britannia, the creative team constructed a vision of a gender-balanced Britain fighting against a tyrannical Rome. “The little we know of those times was mostly written by the Romans,” says James Richardson, co-founder of producer Vertigo Films, “and they were a patriarchal, quasi-fascistic state. But there is evidence that ancient Britain was a more egalitarian society with female queens and warriors. That gave us something to play with.”

This opened up powerful roles for the likes of Zoe Wanamaker, who plays the ferocious Queen of the Regnis tribe Antedia, and Kelly Reilly, the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii tribe. There’s also a key role for Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays Cait, a teenage girl whose family are murdered by the Romans just as she is coming of age. “I don’t like the notion of ‘strong’ female characters, but what [writers] Jez and Tom Butterworth gave Britannia was interesting women – funny, fierce, complicated, messed up – front and centre of the story,” Richardson adds.

The Girlfriend Experience centres on a call girl

Worthington Cox’s role is a reminder that teenagers and young women are rarely portrayed in a meaningful way in mainstream TV drama. Shows that tackle this gap include Clique, The Girlfriend Experience and upcoming series Hanna, written by David Farr and based on the movie of the same name.

Hanna is an NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) and Working Title Television production for Amazon. A high-concept thriller that differs in tone from the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same name, it follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, accompanied by her battle-hardened father, as she evades the relentless pursuit of a female CIA agent. “What makes it especially interesting,” says NBCUIS executive VP of scripted programming JoAnn Alfano, “is that it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who, for the past 15 years, has been raised in isolation in the remote forests of northern Poland. She’s extraordinary, but what she wants most of all is to be normal. Pitching the character at this age is important to the show because she’s finding out what it is to be a woman. And, at the same time, she’s learning how to have a mind of her own.”

Of course, the debate about gender has intensified in the last year as a result of the numerous sexual abuse and harassment scandals that have gripped the media sector. The Ink Factory’s Cornwell says: “Initiatives like #MeToo, and the questions raised by our sudden recognition of behaviours in our industry that have been endemic and profoundly inappropriate, are forcing us to examine not just our actions but the social norms that have led to those behaviours or created an environment in which they could flourish. We need to address the way we have been perpetuating or internalising problematic gender constructs and behaviours through the worlds we create.”

Shindler raises a salient point, which is that the new gender balance on TV isn’t just about what women do on screen, but what they don’t do: “In Red shows, rape is never a story – and we don’t depict dead female bodies. We made a decision in our TV dramas not to portray women in our dramas as victims.”

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Can-do attitude: Why Canada’s drama sector looks healthy

DQ speaks to broadcasters and producers about the state of the Canadian drama industry and finds a sector in positive mood when it comes to its place in the international market.

Stepping out of the shadow cast by the US, Canada has emerged as a powerful player in TV drama. From Orphan Black and Rookie Blue to Motive and Murdoch Mysteries, series produced in Canada are now on air around the world.

But amid a changing regulatory landscape, what domestic challenges are now facing broadcasters and producers – and what opportunities are they taking advantage of?

“There’s no question the Canadian industry, as is the case worldwide, has undergone a profound transformation due to changes in technology. But the good news is the industry overall is very healthy,” says Tracey Pearce, senior VP of specialty and pay at broadcast group Bell Media.

“We’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how TV is alive and well in Canada. Television continues to be very powerful but that’s not to suggest we don’t understand the importance of being in the digital space. We do, but we do ourselves a disservice as an industry by forgetting how powerful television is.”

Christina Jennings
Christina Jennings

Like broadcasters around the world, Bell Media looks to homegrown drama series to help define its channels, from general entertainment CTV (Motive, Saving Hope) to cable channels Space (Orphan Black, pictured top) and Bravo (crime drama 19-2).

But while Bell can enjoy the success that comes from airing some of Canada’s biggest original dramas, Pearce says she recognises the “nervousness” currently found within the production sector.

“That’s understandable given the technological changes worldwide and the new regulatory environment we are now in. People wonder what impact that will have on production,” she explains. “But we are as, if not more, committed to Canadian programming as we look to sharpen up our brands in this ‘pick and pay’ environment. While we recognise it’s always been a challenging production environment for independent producers in Canada, we’re still in it with both feet.”

The new regulations to which Pearce refers came into force on March 1, when TV providers in Canada were forced to introduce ‘skinny’ cable bundles for consumers, priced at C$25 (US$19) or less. This followed a ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last year that consumers should have a greater choice of – and access to cheaper – cable and satellite packages.

Viewers can now pick and pay for their own channel packages or opt for the basic bundle, which must include broadcast networks CBC, Global and CTV as well as certain regional channels.

As a result, questions are being asked about the future of some Canadian speciality channels and whether, like in the US, smaller networks will begin commissioning original drama in a bid to find their defining series – think AMC and Mad Men – in a bid to stay on the air.

“It’s certainly a changing landscape,” says Melissa Kajpust, head of creative development at pay TV network Super Channel. “We don’t anticipate this will affect our subscribers but it’s a landscape where no one can predict what will happen. Certainly people are going to be looking for good content, and that’s what we’re focused on finding.”

But according to Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO at prodco Shaftesbury, drama producers shouldn’t be worried. “There’s no question that it’s going to affect non-scripted factual and lifestyle producers, and it will also affect those broadcasters – but as drama producers it doesn’t affect us.

“What does affect us is the culmination of several years of consolidation, which means on the drama side we’re now down to just a handful of buyers. The uncertainty when you have so few buyers makes it tougher but, on the plus side, Canada has two new OTT services, Shomi and CraveTV.

Omni Television’s Blood and Water
Omni Television’s Blood and Water

“We’ve only seen one original commission from either (Bell Media-backed Crave’s comedy LetterKenny, which has been renewed for a second season) and it’s early days but, as they build their subscriber bases, we’re hopeful they’re going to become buyers of content.”

Shaftesbury’s slate includes CBC’s long-running crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Super Channel’s original drama Slasher and period supernatural procedural Houdini & Doyle, a coproduction with the UK’s Big Talk Productions for UK commercial network ITV, Canada’s Global and US network Fox.

“The other slight concern,” Jennings says, “is there are so many channels, so many options, how do you cut through? It helps to have a big brand or comic book, a big star or a big showrunner. We’ve had great luck with (House creator) David Shore joining Houdini & Doyle. David coming on board got the show made, no question. But will everything soon need one of these big auspices to get a commission? Not every project necessarily needs them.”

Breakthrough Entertainment may have found another way. The Toronto-based producer was behind a new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, which starred Martin Sheen and aired on YTV in February. But it is another of its productions, Omni Television’s Blood and Water, that proved to be an interesting experiment when it premiered last year.

David Cormican
David Cormican

The eight-part cop drama aired in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese and featured a cast that was 80% Asian-Canadian. It has now been renewed for a second season of eight half-hour episodes, written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu.

“Because of the plethora of great dramas, you have to find new ways to cut through,” says Ira Levy, partner and executive producer at Breakthrough. “It starts with a great director or writer and a wonderful script, but the good news is there’s a voracious appetite for drama from around the world. The golden age allows for new models of content because there’s such a demand for stories.”

Of Blood and Water, he adds: “There’s a market of ex-pat Chinese and hundreds of millions of people (around the world) interested in seeing contemporary drama in a language they can relate to. That’s part of our strategic positioning but, first and foremost, it’s a great story that hasn’t been told in this way. You do something not because it’s different but because you believe in the story. If it has other elements that can cut through, that’s just a smart thing to do.”

A glance at the schedules of Canadian broadcasters – both free-to-air and pay TV – shows that US series are still widespread, but there is now a growing belief that homegrown series can go head-to-head with imports.

“They’re a little late but broadcasters are coming around to the idea you can have a pretty good Canadian drama slate now,” says David Cormican, executive VP of business development and production at Don Carmody Television. “So you’re seeing an influx of Canadian dramas taking off, doing multiple seasons and finding US buyers themselves.

“What’s more interesting is the Canadian consumer is watching these programmes without necessarily realising they are Canadian shows. Whereas before we had this negative stigma attached to Canadian dramas, the comment now is, ‘I didn’t realise it was Canadian,’ which we take as a compliment. It’s been tricky for many years because our largest trading partner is immediately to the south.”

Super Channel has, Kajpust notes, raised the bar in terms of its own original drama aspirations, leading to horror series Slasher and Van Helsing, a modern-day take on Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter starring Kelly Overton.

“The US will always influence Canada but it has changed,” she says. “Canadians are watching more Canadian programming and the other broadcasters are commissioning more Canadian series, so it’s a good time for writers and producers.”

But it’s only by partnering with US outlets, such as Chiller for Slasher and Syfy on Van Helsing, that Super Channel is able to do more expensive dramas.

Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix
Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix

Don Carmody is also building its US relationships, most notably with Freeform (formerly ABC Family) fantasy Shadowhunters, which has been renewed for a second season, and science-fiction drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix in partnership with Canada’s City.

Described by Cormican as “Lord of the Flies meets The Walking Dead – but without zombies,” Between is set in a small town where everyone over the age of 21 dies from a mysterious disease. Looking to build its coproduction slate, Netflix came on board after reading the first two scripts, and a second season is due to drop on July 1.

“Netflix was looking to explore this coproduction model and we were the guinea pig, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cormican says. “Both Netflix and City are taking pride and ownership of the project. We have two very strong partners. They’re not always on the same page but we manage to find middle ground that works for everyone.”

Muse Entertainment has also built strong partnerships in the US, leading to its slate of TV movies for Hallmark Channel (including the Aurora Teagarden and Gourmet Detective franchises), Egyptian drama Tut for Spike and The Kennedys for Reelz. A sequel to the latter, called After Camelot, will see Katie Holmes reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy when shooting begins in May. Friends alum Matthew Perry has also been cast as Ted Kennedy.

“Most Canadian consumers are watching American programming most of the time anyway,” CEO Michael Prupas says. “The CBC is focused on doing programming that is distinctively Canadian and, as such, it tends to be a turn-off for most international broadcasters, with Canada not being the hottest girl at the dance.

“CTV and Global are happy and interested in programming sold to the US but they tend to put in the lesser part of the financing, which means the show is American-orientated and the driving force behind it is often the US company.”

Muse is also looking further afield, with projects in Germany and ambitions to work in the UK and France. Shaftesbury, too, is well placed internationally and Jennings says coproductions are now more important than ever to piece together financing.

“When you have fewer buyers in Canada, unless you’re going to pack up your tent and go home, you have to find other ways to raise finances,” she says. “But for many years, we’ve all taken advantage of Canada’s government support, tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, so Canada took an unreasonable amount of the burden of financing shows. We’re going to start seeing coproductions where more money is brought to the table and Canada is the smaller piece of the puzzle.”

Fellow producer Incendo is also focusing on international coproductions. It’s currently in production on season two of Versailles, the English-language series produced with Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction for French pay TV network Canal+. The period drama, which airs in Canada on Super Channel and recently debuted on BBC2 in the UK, is set in 1671 and follows France’s King Louis XIV during his first years in power when he made the decision to move his court to Versailles and construct the largest palace in Europe.

It is also developing Ice, in which a suburban woman turns to diamond theft following her divorce, for Bell Media. Writer Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) is attached.

“I’ve been doing coproductions here and there for 25 years and now, over the past few years, the world has discovered coproduction,” says Incendo president Jean Bureau. “It’s great because minds are opening up to sharing ideas and having discussions on creative issues between two or three producers. When we talked about coproductions 10 years ago, people would freak out. Everybody wanted control. Now it’s very different. We’re competing with the very best productions from around the world, so Canadian producers must create compelling drama if we want broadcast partners to participate. It pushes us to be the best.”

Montréal producer-distributor Attraction Images’ forthcoming projects include crime drama Séquelles (titled McDougall in English), which is based on novels by Johanne Seymour and will air on Series+ in April. Among its other credits is medical drama Au Secours de Béatrice for TVA.

“Broadcasters want fiction because that’s the most addictive programming for viewers,” notes Louise Lantagne, the firm’s VP of fiction. “But here in Québec, they don’t really look for procedurals. They want character-driven stories over multiple seasons. It’s really tough.

“Coproduction in French is also more difficult than in English,” she adds. “In English, it’s organic to coproduce with the US, England or Australia. But here, if we’re not going to work with France, there are no opportunities for coproduction, which makes things difficult.”

However, there may be a solution in the form of rights exploitation. Attraction is producing a French-language version of US series Web Therapy, which starred Lisa Kudrow as a therapist who treats her clients via webcam. And it’s by selling rights to its own original formats, in lieu of coproduction, that the producer hopes to bring in extra income to devote to new series.

“If we’re looking for additional money, coproduction might not be the first option for us,” admits Chrystine Girard, Attraction VP of content rights management and international relations. “But we have dramas that have quality scripts so we can talk to other parties about producing remakes in English or other languages. This is where you can finance additional series, and it’s why I believe there will be more emphasis on exploitation of original content than ever before.”

The challenge going forward, then, is winning commissions from a select number of buyers while building the budgets modern audiences demand to see on screen. Muse’s Prupas admits he’s “nervous about what the future is going to bring. There’s too much supply coming down the pipeline but, at the moment, there’s a lot of demand as well.”

Don Carmody’s Cormican agrees Canadian drama is in a “huge boom cycle,” but warns producers shouldn’t get accustomed to the good life: “You have to practice some restraint and not expect the good times to roll all the time. And we have to be incredibly supportive of our government to ensure we have a strong incentive front.”

As for the broadcasters, Bell Media’s Pearce is just looking for the next Orphan Black: “That show was a huge risk – but what I remind myself is that the next Orphan Black is going to be nothing like Orphan Black. So we have to ask what the next big story is. You feel emboldened by success, and it has energised the Canadian production community to find the next big hit.”

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