Tag Archives: Content London

Easy as ABC

The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.

Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.

Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.

Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.

Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.

The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.

L-R: James Prichard, Sarah Phelps and Damien Timmer at Content London

Meet Poirot

James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.

Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.

Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.

Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.

Hollywood heavyweight John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot

Playing detective

Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.

Meet Poirot

Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.

Harry Potter star Rupert Grint plays Inspector Crome

Changing Christie

Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.

Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.

Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?

On location

Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.

Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.

Brazilian director Alex Gabassi (centre) pictured during filming

Building the cast

Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’

Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.

Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.

Behind the camera

Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.

Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.

Reinventing Christie

Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.

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Ripple effect

A year on from winning the C21 Drama Series Script Competition at Content London, Michele Giannusa is on the write track. She tells DQ about the origins of her winning project and offers her advice to this year’s finalists.

It is one year on from the moment Michele Giannusa’s name was called out as the winner of C21’s Drama Series Script Competition 2017. In the intervening 12 months, she has worked with global producer and distributor Entertainment One (eOne) to develop her script and has pitched her series to broadcasters and SVoD platforms including Fox and Netflix.

But for the writer, that winning moment still remains all too unbelievable, much like everything that has happened since. “It was so surreal,” she recalls. “I never went to Content London thinking I would win, I just thought it was a good opportunity and I was really happy to be able to do it. The actual pitch part was very scary and not something most typical writers do – we’re quite isolated and don’t talk to tons of people! I also wanted to make sure I was giving a bit of personal story to let people know how the project came about. So when they called my name, it was really one of the most amazing feelings.”

Giannusa (pictured above left alongside eOne’s Polly Williams) says she was amazed at how people responded to her script, with a constant stream of Content London delegates approaching her to talk about it. “This was a five-minute pitch and I felt like there was this personal touch for people. There’s nothing I want more than to be able to make this show, and it feels like we’re getting closer to that possibly happening.

Michele Giannusa is revealed as last year’s Drama Series Script Competition winner

“As a writer, you just want people to respond to your work and feel like they get it and see something in the story that connects them to their own lives. Once I knew I won, I felt, ‘I think I have a chance to make this show.’ It was one of the most incredible feelings ever.”

Her winning script, Ripple, follows four different people going through different stages of grief – one character loses his wife suddenly, another is going through a divorce, one suffers a miscarriage and the fourth has lost their job. It was an emotional state shared by Giannusa when she first conceived the idea, having come out of a “brutal” divorce shortly before she moved to LA.

She found comfort in a support group, something that is also featured in Ripple, which examines how people can find support from strangers. As the plot progresses, “it shows how we can be hopeful and things can start to turn around,” Giannusa explains. “That’s the biggest part of the pilot for me, and that’s where it came from.”

Her prize for winning the competition was a deal with eOne. She worked with Jeff Boone, eOne’s global scripted development manager (now head of development for Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s transatlantic production company Bad Wolf), who Giannusa says became her “partner” on the project.

“We went into meetings with production companies, we did pitches together with networks,” she says. “He has to get the accolades because he was constantly checking in. We were always on the same page. Jeff never made me feel intimidated or felt he had to speak for me. He let me do my thing. There was a lot of respect there for each other and, having had other experiences with people from other companies, it’s not always the case. Sometimes you get someone you don’t pair with so well. I’m very grateful to have had someone who initially just believed in the project and who saw exactly what I wanted to do.”

With the project now being considered by several networks and streaming services, Giannusa would likely be paired with an experienced showrunner to steer the drama through production should it be picked up to series. “I just want to be as involved as I can be,” she says. “For the most part, writers want to run their own show. I just want to learn from someone who’s been in the business, who knows what they’re doing and can appreciate what I’m trying to do with this show.”

Originally from New York, Giannusa has lived in LA for the past four years. She has an agent, recently signed a manager and has been busy with meetings about potential writers room opportunities that crop up with the avalanche of new series debuting in the US every autumn. Prior to the C21 Drama Script Series Competition, Giannusa had also won a place on an NBCUniversal’s Writers on the Verge scheme, as well as becoming a finalist in similar competitions organised by HBO, Disney/ABC and Fox.

She has several other scripts in development, but while Ripple is very much about friendships turning into family, Giannusa’s other properties look at a different aspect of family – siblings. Ladies of Cambridge is about four sisters who, 10 years earlier, suffered the shock of their father killing their mother and then himself. Now these women, aged between 19 and 22, are facing separating from each other for the first time.

The second project, Lucid, deals with a father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his adult children who are dealing with their past.

This year’s finalists (L-R): Samuel Garza Bernstein (The Secret World of Danny Rizik – US), Alice Burden (On Solstice Hill – UK), Carolyn Kras (The Second City – US), Phil Mulryne (Switches – UK), and Jan Smith (Parasomnia – UK)

“There’s always an underlying grief tone in the things I write because I’m really fascinated by the way people handle it,” Giannusa says. “Every one of us is going to face it at some point. Do you accept what it is or try to fight it and prolong the whole experience?”

But while the subject matter might be dark, for the writer, these series are all about creating characters who are relatable, whatever situation they might face. “I just love writing characters and what makes them tick,” she says. “Any time you watch something, if you’re disinterested 15 minutes in, the guarantee is it’s because the characters are not written well. You just don’t care about them. My goal is to make you want to tune in next time. Are you going to care enough to want to know what’s going to happen? Grief is a theme but it’s just about the characters.”

From more than 200 entries, five new finalists have been chosen for the C21 Drama Series Script Competition 2018, produced in association with Script Angel. They will pitch their scripts during this year’s final today before the result is announced during C21 Media’s International Drama Awards tomorrow. The winner will collect a US$10,000 prize and development option through C21 WritersRoom.

Giannusa’s message to this year’s finalists is, simply, open up to the whole experience, rather than focusing on the pitch itself. “I went in, did my best and then let it go. Because once you do the work, once you’ve written the script, once you go up there and do your thing, at that point just let it go and be able to take it in,” she says.

“There were many times through the competition where I would stop and be like, ‘I need to take in the fact I’m in London talking to people about a television show I wrote and, regardless of the outcome, appreciate the fact I’ve got here.’

“There are so many writers I know who work for decades and just don’t get a break. If you’ve got there and you’ve got to that competition, that’s huge.

“Appreciate the fact that has happened because that means something and it certainly should help to validate your writing and let you know you’re on the right track. Just don’t have expectations. Go and take it in.”

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Creative focus

As Content London 2017 comes to an end, it’s clear that talent is now in greater demand than ever. But while a host of A-list names attended the three-day event, delegates also learned about a community of new writers with stories ripe for adaptation.

In its fifth year, C21Media’s Content London this week was bigger than ever before, bringing together more than 1,500 people from across the scripted television business for the International Drama Summit.

Panel sessions covered every corner of the industry, from the challenges facing distributors and how drama producers are changing, to ever-evolving market forces, uncovering new sources of financing and the secret to working with SVoD players.

Speakers were drawn from every major company in the sector, including FremantleMedia, Banijay, Endemol Shine and ITV Studios. Commissioner panels featured the BBC, Channel 4, SVT, DR, YLE, Starz, AMC, HBO, Epix, YouTube and Netflix.

The Alienist star Luke Evans discusses the TNT show

Executives hailing from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia also took to the stage to discuss their domestic markets and their strategy on the international scene.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws at the three-day event, which finished today, was Swedish actor Sofia Helin, who discussed her career, the legacy of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and new projects including Heder (Honour).

Helin’s appearance capped a line-up that focused heavily on the creative side of making television drama – and with good reason. As more and more money is made available to producers – through coproductions, SVoD players with money to burn and new funding companies ready to invest – financing is available to meet the high-end budgets dramas now demand. The talent attached to a project is now paramount, with the number of shows in development and production meaning actors, writers, directors and other key creatives are more in-demand than ever.

At Content London, Agyness Deyn, discussing her first television role, Jim Sturgess and Nikki Amuka Bird spoke about starring in six-part drama Hard Sun. Adrian Lester joined delegates to watch the world premiere of new ITV drama Trauma (pictured top), which is written by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett.

Wattpad Studios’ Aron Levitz takes to the stage

David Morrissey showcased BBC2’s The City & The City, Kim Rossi Stuart talked Italian hit Maltese Luke Evans joined a case study of The Alienist, which examined US cablenet TNT’s forthcoming period drama.

Writers and directors also taking part included Neil Cross (Hard Sun), Hossein Amini and James Watkins (McMafia), Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), Marc Evans (Trauma), Harry and Jack Williams (Liar, The Missing), Jakob Verbruggen (The Alienist), Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper), Tony Grisoni (The City & The City, Electric Dreams), David Farr (Electric Dreams) and Jon Cassar (Medici).

In a separate session, Helin was also joined by fellow actors Alexandra Rapaport and Julia Dufvenius to talk about Heder (Honour), which they have created and executive produced together with Anja Lundqvist, another actor.

The focus on creative talent inevitably led to the subjects of packaging and when to attach talent to projects, with ‘the sooner the better’ emerging as the general consensus.

Netflix’s Elizabeth Bradley (right) with Jane Featherstone of Sister Pictures

Euston Films MD Kate Harwood revealed how the BBC snapped up Hard Sun before star names such as Deyn, Sturgess and Amuka Bird were cast in the lead roles, though commissioning the next series from Luther creator Cross was unlikely to be a difficult decision.

In such a congested market, talent is the quickest way for a show to make some noise. For most, however, there just isn’t enough to go around. That’s why it was encouraging to hear the Williams brothers discussing their forthcoming slate, which features series White Dragon and Cheat, both for UK broadcaster ITV and both coming from first-time writers.

With more than 10 years in the business, and being responsible for some of the most talked-about and compelling series of recent time, Harry and Jack Williams are now using their experience in the business to bring forward new voices – something broadcasters always say they are keen to do but rarely act upon.

In their bid to nurture new TV talent, commissioners and producers could also do a lot worse than sign up for a Wattpad account. The social media storytelling platform has a community of 60 million writers and readers, and the company is drawing data down to find the biggest hit stories and working with their creators and partners including NBCUniversal and Universal Cable Productions to bring them stories to screen. With more than 400 million stories uploaded every month in more than 50 languages, Wattpad looks set to become the next major player in the content revolution.

As Netflix warned that its seemingly limitless pot of money might not be enough to lure some series from emerging competitors such as Apple, Facebook and YouTube, talent will be more coveted than ever. In the words of Artists Studio co-founder Justin Thomson Glover: “You don’t know how exciting a project is until a script comes in and you have the talent and director.”

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Q&A: TF1’s Marie Guillaumond

TF1’s head of French drama Marie Guillaumond tells DQ how the drama boom is building in France and how she hopes to work with streaming giants Netflix and Amazon.

As part of C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, currently underway in London, Drama Quarterly asked some of the biggest names in the television drama industry about their thoughts on the business.

Here, Marie Guillaumond (above), head of French drama at French broadcaster TF1, talks about working with bestselling author Harlan Coben and building budgets to pay for the ambitious drama series now demanded by audiences.

What was your biggest hit of 2016 and why?
French series are becoming increasingly successful on TF1, hitting records for the fourth year in a row in 2015/16. I ‘d like two highlight two programmes that are particularly in line with our editorial strategy. Une Chance de Trop (No Second Chance) has been an extraordinary journey with Harlan Coben. No Second Chance marks the first French TV adaptation of a book by the bestselling writer and it was also the author’s first time as a showrunner. This breathtaking thriller was a massive success with 8.7 million viewers (35% market share and 38% of women) – our biggest hit in 2015. The series was a hit outside of France as well and sold to 65 territories, including the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Benelux.
Le Secret d’Elise, the local adaptation of Marchlands, attracted 8.3 million viewers (29% market share and 37% of women, which is our prior market target). This mini-event is a high-end drama and stands out by mixing various genres such as thriller, family saga and supernatural, but also by the quality of the directing and its great cast.

Une Chance de Trop
Author Harlan Coben was showrunner for TF1’s Une Chance de Trop (No Second Chance)

What is currently informing your development strategy?
Over the last three years we have changed our editorial strategy in a very bold way, exploring new topics, edgier fare, more diversified artistic perspectives and going into serialised dramas. We have also diversified our talent, appealing to many coming from the French film industry. These initiatives have been very successful and have been appreciated both by the audience and the industry. This was very important for us as we want to renew French drama along with our partners. The next step was to take these experiments to the next level by offering regular high-end dramas to the audience, while reinforcing our traditional schedule with the arrival of new characters. The outstanding results achieved in 2016 show that taking risks is necessary.
Another challenge for TF1 is to think about original creation from a 360-degree perspective. By mixing freemium, pay, linear and non-linear broadcast, we can not only build on our traditional audience but also grab new and young viewers. All our original creations are available on [VoD platform] MYTF1 and we are also creating digital extensions of all these titles.
In the past five years we have maintained excellent market shares for original creations and have even garnered new audiences, especially in the 15-24 target group, which has seen a 5% increase.

Is the drama boom the new normal or do you see the market contracting?
The drama boom is a recent phenomenon in France. It is among the audience’s favourite genres. Local series have evolved a lot, by renewing genres, exploring unusual topics and introducing more provocative angles. The quality of format adaptations has also improved, with such shows now fully localised, integrating into our way of life and our culture. In a way, adaptation is creation.
The risk is not the audience appetite, it is the financing model. All the players in France look forward to a greater profitability.

Le Secret d'Elise
Le Secret d’Elise was adapted from ITV’s Marchlands

How has your commissioning process changed over the past year?
French dramas were previously driven by the 90-minute format. This was a guarantee of good quality, but production of such shows was on a small scale. The appetite for series, and for returning characters, forced the TV industry to change and to make the international 52-minute format a standard in France as well. This is one of the reasons French series now sell better internationally.

What’s the biggest challenge for you at present?
To pursue a strategy of high-quality drama and find innovative financing structures to improve profitability. And to increase the international reach of our series while also improving our traditional audience in France and reaching out to new audiences by implementing new consumption models.

What does the drama industry need to address in order to survive and prosper?
Original creation is expensive. We are looking to find new financing models and are willing to work with new partners, such as Netflix or Amazon. Alongside partners, we hope to identify said models and are exploring how to structure windows to adapt to modern consumption. As long as original creations can find a place on TF1, we will continue to explore.
The international expansion of French content is also critical to survive.

What story/genre would you like on your slate that you don’t have?
A 26-minute daily series for our summer schedule.

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Q&A: Euston Films’ Kate Harwood

Euston Films MD Kate Harwood tells DQ why international coproductions are the way forward and suggests broadcasters should take a risk on new talent to avoid a talent drain.

As part of of C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, which begins today, Drama Quarterly asked some of the biggest names in the television drama industry for their thoughts on the business.

Here, Kate Harwood (pictured above), MD of FremantleMedia-owned Euston Films, tells DQ why she’s happy to be back in production and why the talent drain is the biggest problem facing the UK drama industry.

What’s your highlight from the past 12 months?
The biggest highlight of the past 12 months has definitely been getting Neil Cross’s first original drama in the UK since Luther was commissioned. Hard Sun was commissioned by BBC1 and was announced at the International Drama Summit last year.

What new opportunities are you taking advantage of in the industry?
The thing I’ve taken most advantage of is setting up Euston North with my former colleague and future colleague, the very talented and ambitious Hilary Martin. I’m really looking forward to everything we’re going to be doing together.

Neil Cross's Luther
Neil Cross’s Luther. The writer is now working on Hard Sun, which Euston is producing

What is the biggest challenge you currently face?
The talent drain from the UK. Across casting, crews and writers, talent is now spread far more thinly across English-speaking drama, generally going to the prolific and wealthy US. Availability has become an issue due to options and exclusivities. Things have generally become far more restrictive than they were last time I produced when I was at the BBC [as head of drama production for England].

Is the drama boom the new normal or do you see the market contracting?
I don’t see any sign of the market contracting any time soon. The drama boom may shift to become less local and projects will get bigger via more international coproductions. The genie won’t go back in the bottle; we’re not going to end up making a lot of small dramas.
People make their own personal connection with the dramas that they want to watch and love. They want big-scale series, whether they’re watching them on their phones or their high-definition screens at home. Whether in terms of emotional scale or actual budget scale, the new normal for a drama will be ‘big.’ We will find many more opportunities for making drama, away from the anchorage of smaller national channels.

How are you working differently now compared with a year ago?
This year I’m in production; last year I was in development. It’s a huge mind shift and one that I really welcome going back to. I haven’t been in production since I left the BBC, so this is very thrilling, if a little bit nerve-wracking.

Dicte
Dicte is being developed alongside Denmark’s Miso Film

What new methods are you using to finance productions?
The most obvious thing is the tax break that’s come in and is the fuel in the UK for high-end drama. I think that’s certainly something that has brought a lot of production to the UK and is allowing us to grow collectively as an industry. Negatively, I think it has been inflationary and costs have definitely gone up. But the benefits should be felt by the whole industry, on and off screen.

What are your international ambitions and how will you achieve them?
Being part of FremantleMedia means international relationships with our sister companies in other countries have been extremely fruitful. We are currently co-developing with both our Danish sister company Miso Film [on Dicte] and with our Italian sister company Wildside [The Young Pope].

What does the drama industry need to address in order to survive and prosper?
We need to work out how to grow new writers. Everybody pays lip service to this, but if we have an industry that is mainly fuelled by our brilliant authored pieces, which are the envy of the world, we also need to work out how to bring on new writers.
When budgets are high and costs are high, it takes a lot of nerve to commission something from someone who has yet to deliver at that scale. But if we don’t find other ways, either by putting writers into teams or actually trying to develop and shoot some smaller-budget dramas, we will find very quickly that other people will give those writers opportunities outside of this country. We’ll be left begging for their time at the end of a very long queue, and that’s the thing that worries me most.
It’s a truism that writers are the lifeblood of television, but very few arrive fully formed. We have to put effort into bringing them on; we have to find ways of backing their creativity, backing their ideas and backing them learning their craft – and you can’t fully learn that craft until you’ve turned words on a page into drama on a screen. The right to fail gets harder and harder when shows get more and more expensive.
I think UK broadcasters also have a responsibility not just to try to make the best shows but also to engage with newer writers early on in their careers and work with them on developing their scripts. It’s a holistic approach, but we have to look for opportunities to engage with and develop newer writers. A failed script can be a huge step to a successful show. It’s not altruism, it’s survival!

Stranger Things
Stranger Things embodies the ‘tremendous variety’ of drama currently on the market

How will the industry change in the next 12 months?
There are more streaming services coming down the line, and services that are only in certain territories now may start to move out into new countries and become global forces. That unique relationship between the producer, the story and the audience is finding a whole new platform and it’s going to be very exciting. It will also be exciting to see how the broadcasters respond to that and whether the beginnings that have been made with BBC3 and iPlayer demonstrate ways the BBC can start to engage with a different, global audience. It seems to me the BBC has got one of the best catch-up services in the country and yet there is still not quite enough being made uniquely for it.

What is the biggest threat to the drama business?
Paradoxically, the biggest threat to the industry is the huge appetite for high-end drama. We have to be careful that we don’t go so mainstream – to justify the budgets that we’re spending – that we end up not making the projects that are unique and bespoke enough to reach younger or slightly more niche audiences.
At the moment there’s tremendous variety out there. What’s wonderful is that the hits – this summer’s Stranger Things being the obvious example – seem to come on the wings of passion and excitement, from incredibly creative people who are young and who want to be working in drama. We should just celebrate that.
We have to look for not just novelty but new ideas, new expression and scale. Drama needs scale – emotional scale as well as actual scale. I think that’s out there. Drama is a huge driving force in humanity and in storytelling, so it’s never going to go away.

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C21 Awards highlight cream of the crop

Narcos
Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos won major accolades at this week’s C21 Drama Awards

It’s increasingly difficult these days to judge the success of a drama series. While ratings are still an important benchmark, a growing number of industry executives say you need to take into account a broader range of measures in order to judge the value of a particular show to a network or platform.

The most obvious form of alternative measurement is audience appreciation, which can be assessed through surveys and social media sweeps. But there is also a role for industry awards, which generally provide an insight into what commissioners, critics and creative peers think about a show’s performance.

There are a number of reasons why success at industry awards matters. The first is that it can help create buzz around a show, which is especially important in this era of on-demand viewing. Shows that win awards get noticed by the media and often see audience uplift as a result. Assuming the award was well deserved, this can help word of mouth build. In other words, award wins are like an unbiased marketing push or a review that feeds into the positive conversation around a show.

Book of Negroes
Book of Negroes was named Best Miniseries

Award wins also have an impact on other stakeholders in the business. Once a show starts having success of this kind, it stands a chance of being picked up in distribution by foreign broadcasters. Actors, writers, directors and producers also take notice – and may decide to stay with a show if they are already in it, or join it if they are invited to do so. For a career advancement point of view, being attached to a critically acclaimed show can be as valuable as being attached to a ratings hit, which is one reason many top movie actors will find time in their schedule to do a feature film that is geared towards the Oscars. As more and more top talent is attracted to a show, it can then build momentum in ratings too.

Then there is the impact on the primary commissioning broadcaster. If they are looking just at their ratings charts, they may be inclined to cancel a show. But if they start to see positive reviews and awards success, this may give them the confidence to wait a little longer – and perhaps to commission season two, which may give the show the time it needs to break out.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall took home Best English-Language Drama

All of which brings us to the C21 International Drama Awards, held this week at the C21 Drama Summit as part of Content London. Based on input from around 70 drama commissioners, the awards recognise the shows that are having a major impact on the global drama business – even if ratings aren’t the primary measure.

A big winner, for example, was Netflix’s Narcos, which looks at the rise and fall of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar. While there is very little information about how scripted series perform on SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon, the show’s success at the C21 Drama Awards chimes with the feedback from critics and review platforms like IMDb. The series, from director Jose Padilha and US-based Gaumont International Television, won both the Editor’s Choice award and Best Male Performance, for Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Escobar.

Another star performer at the awards was Deutschland 83, which is distributed across the world by FremantleMedia International. This show secured gongs for Best Non-English-Language Drama and Best Casting. It was matched by The Bridge, from Filmlance International for Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT. This much-loved show won both Best Returning Drama Series and Best Female Performance (Sofia Helin).

How to Kill wife
New Zealand comedy How to Murder Your Wife was awarded Best TV Movie

Other winners included Book of Negroes (Best Miniseries), Wolf Hall (Best English-Language Drama), Limitless (Best Fall Season Network Show) and How to Murder Your Wife (Best TV Movie). There was also recognition for Dixi Unchained (Best Digital Original) and Humans (Best Consumer Marketing Campaign). It will be interesting to see how this latest wave of recognition plays into the future of all these shows.

Away from the awards, Sony’s digital streaming service Crackle has ordered a second run of its original drama The Art of More, which stars Dennis Quaid. The 10-episode renewal comes just two weeks after its series debut on November 19. According to Crackle, the series has already achieved two million views, more than half of which have come from viewers new to Crackle.

Crackle is one of the few companies in the streaming space that provides any information on the performance of its shows – a commitment to transparency it says it will maintain going forward. In terms of what the two million figure means, it refers to anyone who starts viewing an episode of the show. It’s not a figure for how many people have watched the entire series, but for how many have started to watch an individual episode.

Limitless
Limitless, based on the 2011 movie of the same name, was given Best Fall Season Network Show

The renewal comes despite the fact that critics have not been that complimentary and the show is not rating very well on IMDb. Here’s a flavour of what some critics think. That said, Sony Pictures Television has already sold The Art of More to 25 territories, so is presumably feeling pretty upbeat about its long-term potential.

Next, an update on AMC’s new adventure show Into the Badlands. After a stellar start, the show saw an inevitable dip in episode two but recovered ground for episode three. With its overnight audience currently at around five million, it has to be classified as another hit for the US cablenet. There was further good news this week when Chinese online platform LeTV acquired Into the Badlands from distributor eOne. The show is due to air on AMC Global in 125 countries next year, while eOne has also sold it to Foxtel in Australia and Amazon in the UK.

The opening series of the show comprises six one-hour episodes, and star Daniel Wu believes it could run for a number of seasons. Speaking to Digital Spy, he predicted that, if the show is a success, it could run for five or six series. He also suggested a renewal (which now seems very likely) might see it expand to 10 episodes.

Finally, Amazon has secured exclusive streaming rights to the first season of Channel 4/AMC’s hit sci-fi drama Humans. The show will be available to Amazon Prime members in the UK, Germany, US and Japan from next spring – presumably just in time to spark interest in the second series. “Humans was one of this summer’s top new series and is exactly the type of smart, thought-provoking show that Prime members love,” said Brad Beale, VP of digital video content acquisition for Amazon.

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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