Tag Archives: Crackle

Crackle’s Halpin hand

US streaming platform Crackle delves into the world of cop gangs with 10-part drama The Oath. Showrunner Joe Halpin reveals how the show is informed by his own career in the LAPD and how he made the move from police officer to TV writer.

The jump from undercover cop to television writer might seem improbable, but that’s the one made by Joe Halpin. After 17 years in law enforcement, he worked his way from low-budget features to television and is now showrunner of the latest original series to land on US streamer Crackle.

The Oath centres on police gangs and sheds light on the corrupt and secretive societies that do whatever they must to protect each other from enemies on the outside and within their own ranks.

The 10-part series opens as a group of corrupt cops known as The Ravens are arrested by the FBI, which is targeting the multiple cop gangs in the police department. Led by Steve Hammond (Ryan Kwanten), the Ravens are pressured to inform on the other gangs and forced by Agent Aria Price (Elisabeth Röhm) to take on undercover agent Damon Byrd (Arlen Escarpeta) and sell him as one of their own.

L-R: The Oath director Jeff Thomas, exec producer Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and showrunner Joe Halpin

With the threat of prison hanging over their heads, Steve must ensure his fellow Ravens – his adopted brother Cole (Cory Hardrict), his partner Pete Ramos (JJ Soria) and Karen Beach (Katrina Law) – stay in line as they operate under the shadow of the Feds while keeping the deal a secret from the other Ravens, including their imprisoned former leader, Tom Hammond (Sean Bean), father of Steve and Cole.

The series is executive produced by Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and his G-Unit Film & Television label, along with Todd Hoffman and Dennis Kim of Storied Media Group, Anne Clements and Halpin. Sony Pictures Television holds distribution rights.

Halpin, who is the creator, writer and showrunner of the Oath, is emphatic when he explains how the plotlines are informed by something he experienced, witnessed or was privy to during his career as a cop. “I just thought it would be a great area for storytelling, and what better way to have a conversation about a problem within the department than create a show that reveals something most people don’t know about?” he says.

British-born Halpin moved to the US with his family when he was 12. He spent 17 years in law enforcement, starting in the LA County Sheriff’s department where he worked in jails holding members of notorious LA gangs including the Bloods and the Crips. After spending time as a training officer and field officer, he moved into narcotics, working on undercover operations. He later carried out undercover and surveillance work for the FBI and the DEA.

The series revolves around gangs within the police

Halpin later became in demand for celebrity bodyguard work and was shadowing Steven Seagal during a trip to Poland when he first began to consider the possibility of using his experiences as a cop to become a writer. A year later, he sold a script that was turned into a feature.

“It wasn’t anything I was looking to do but once I sat down and started doing it, I became obsessed with it and doing it well,” Halpin recalls. “There are a lot of people in this business who are glorified tech advisors, who never quite learn to write but they’re kept around because they’re great in the [writers] room and great at story. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of those people. I eventually got out of low-end features and got into television because I realised that’s where the real writers and real experienced storytellers were nowadays.”

He has since earned credits on shows such as True Justice, Hawaii Five-0, Secrets & Lies and Ice. And now his experience working for the LAPD has directly influenced The Oath, with The Ravens based on a police gang he was a member of, The Reapers. “I eventually went on to lead that gang and during that time I was being investigated and followed by both LAPD and the DA [district attorney]’s office,” he reveals. “So when I eventually got out and got into writing, I thought that world was a great place and a rich world for storytelling.”

The story behind The Oath is something Halpin says he has been pitching since he found his way into the television business, though he admits he wasn’t ready to make the show until now. “I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t really good enough or experienced enough up until this point,” he says. But after Halpin forged a relationship with Crackle, the project moved very quickly. The writers room only opened in January last year but the full series will roll out on March 8.

Sean Bean (left) plays an incarcerated former gang leader

In the room, Halpin and his team of writers laid the track for each character – their physical and emotional story arcs – before breaking down each episode to ensure it was well paced throughout the season. The biggest challenge, however, was to maintain the tension across 10 episodes. “It’s like holding a piece of string tightly,” Halpin explains. “If you make a mistake in the structure of not maintaining that tension then you can lose the audience and it becomes ineffectual storytelling. So I really focus on making sure the pacing and the structure is very strong in each episode.”

Under the stewardship of directors Jeff T Thomas and Luis Prieto, much of the series was shot with handheld cameras, granting Halpin’s wish that The Oath feel extremely voyeuristic, inviting the audience into the story.

Filming took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which provided a vivid backdrop for the series, ostensibly set in an unspecified southern US city. Production was far from straightforward, however, as the cast and creative team were twice flown off the island to avoid two incoming category five hurricanes.

“That was obviously difficult, not because of the difficulty or the interruption but because the crew became like family so there was a lot of survivor’s guilt for myself and the actors to get on a plane and leave,” the showrunner says. “But we stayed in touch on WhatsApp and we were talking to them as the hurricane was hitting, making sure everyone was OK.”

Creator and showrunner Halpin drew from his own experience working in law enforcement

He admits he was a little wary about the location when Crackle first suggested San Juan, having imagined The Oath being filmed in the South Central district of LA where he himself walked the streets. “But then when I visited and I saw the areas and the professionalism of the crew they were using out there, I realised it would enhance the show, it would make storytelling that much better and more vivid,” he says. “It’s almost like someone took a crayon to South Central – it has that same danger in the air but it’s colourful.

“Where I see familiar things like the streets of LA, New York or Vancouver where you film a lot, I kind of tune out when they’re driving in a car. But when I watch shows like Narcos, where I see different colour schemes and different architecture, it interests me more and I thought it would be great for our show because it looks like its set in the southern United States but you just don’t know where, and we did that on purpose because we didn’t want to paint any single police department with the brush of corruption. It enhanced the storytelling and made it a more dynamic exciting world.”

As a showrunner, Halpin says he “thrives during chaos,” which makes him perfect for a hugely demanding role that constantly demands he stays focused on the job while putting out numerous fires along the way. The secret to success, he suggests, is being able to trust and delegate to those around him, taking his lead from showrunners he admires such as Rick Eid (now overseeing Chicago PD) and Peter Leskov (Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver).

“What I’ve learned is the biggest sin a showrunner can commit is to not make a decision,” Halpin notes. “Whether people like it or don’t like it, you’re expected to make a decision and I equate it to asking someone back in the 1800s to go out to sea with you. You’re out there and there’s no sign of land and the food’s getting short. If you don’t know where you’re going, they’re going to cut your throat, throw you overboard and go back where they came from. If you’re going to lead people, you have to have a very clear vision and know where you’re going. If anything, it reinforced that people around me expect me to be prepared and to know where I’m going and to always be that way whenever I’m running a show.”

He’s now planning multiple season of The Oath, which he says could live on beyond the current cast of characters by sticking to its central theme of cop gang culture.

“It’s definitely set so we go deeper down the rabbit hole in season two, three, four and five,” Halpin adds. “Like any great serialised show, there’s a very good chance we’ll lose a few of the players along the way and we’ll acquire new players, but that world and that core group we’ll probably stay with for at least four or five seasons.”

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US studios extend int’l footprint

Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick
Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick

About two years ago, the international scripted TV business started to express its concern that there was a shortage of US procedural dramas coming on to the market. With the trend towards limited series and increased emphasis on superhero/sci-fi, buyers in markets like France and Germany feared a gap.

A number of companies said they would address the shortfall, including NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS), which formed a partnership with RTL (Germany) and TF1 (France) with the intention of creating US-style procedural dramas. This week, they delivered on their promise by greenlighting Gone, a 12-part series based on Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick.

Gone, which will be broadcast in late 2017/early 2018, tells the story of Kit Lannigan, survivor of a child abduction case and Frank Booth, the FBI agent who rescued her. Determined never to fall victim again, Kick trains in martial arts and the use of firearms.

She finds her calling when Booth persuades her to join a task force dedicated to solving abductions and missing persons cases. Paired with former army intelligence officer John Bishop, Kick brings her unique understanding of the mind of a predator to the team.

Gone will be executive produced by Matt Lopez, JoAnn Alfano and Sara Colleton. All episodes will be written, cast and produced in the US.

Hilary Bevan Jones
Hilary Bevan Jones

RTL and TF1 will broadcast and distribute the series in their territories (German and French respectively) and NBCUniversal International Distribution will license rights for the US and the rest of the world on behalf of the partnership.

Michael Edelstein, president of NBCUIS, said: “We are all delighted to be moving forward so quickly on our first series. In Gone, Matt Lopez has created a fascinating character who we believe will connect with procedural audiences around the world. We are assembling a first-rate production team and look forward to future series with our partners.”

Fabrice Bailly, head of programmes and acquisition TF1 Group, said: “The collaborative relationship represents a new way of working, for both studios and European broadcasters, to achieve high-quality procedural dramas.”

Joerg Graf, exec VP of production and acquisition at RTL Deutschland, added: “TF1 and NBCUniversal International Studios share our view that tailor-made formats will meet the need of our viewers for high-quality crime dramas.”

While the project is a welcome development, one point of interest is that Gone’s 12-episode run is still shorter than a standard US procedural. The first season of Fox’s Lethal Weapon, for example, is 18 episodes, while ABC’s Quantico has received 22-episode orders in seasons one and two. So a 12-episode order still leaves open a questions over the volume of new procedural episodes such cross-border alliances can bring to market.

Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons
Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons

Another interesting story this week is the announcement that Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Africa has commissioned its first original drama in the region. While it isn’t a procedural like Gone, it does illustrate the increasing level of US studio engagement in the international market (in our last column, we also reported how HBO Europe is increasing its slate of original dramas).

Called The Nine, the new FNG show is created by Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell (American Odyssey) and produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (Close To The Enemy, State of Play). An eight-hour drama, it tells the story of an ex-spy “who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from spreading chaos throughout the Middle East.”

Maxwell and Parkhill said: “We wanted to tell a story set against the backdrop of our dangerous and uncertain times. The Nine unfolds through the eyes of a man caught between two versions of himself, the past and the present. The genre of an espionage thriller gives us the perfect opportunity to mix his personal story with the turbulence of an ever-changing geo-political landscape.”

UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel
UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel

The project was commissioned by Jeff Ford, senior VP of content development, and Sara Johnson, VP scripted drama for FNG, Europe and Africa, and will go into pre-production in the new year.

“Following the success we’ve had with our Fox global content, we made a commitment to develop drama for this region that has the potential to be a success worldwide,” said Ford.

Another story that showcases the increasing international clout of the US studios’ production operations is the news that Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with Chinese streaming service iQIYI on a three-part Mandarin-language drama. The partners will create a new version of Chosen, a Crackle original that has aired for four seasons.

SPT’s Playmaker Media is producing with support from Screen NSW and the show will be shot entirely in Australia. Production begins in the spring with a launch due at the end of 2017.

The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series
The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series

The past week has also seen a number of production and development announcements flowing out of C21’s Content London event. For example, ITV Studios-owned indie Big Talk Productions confirmed that it is remaking sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, with Luther creator Neil Cross attached to the project.

Also, screenwriter/director Tony Grisoni revealed that he is developing a drama set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development.

In the US, meanwhile, Thunderbird Entertainment has teamed up with David Salzman (Dallas) to develop a TV series based on Faye Kellerman’s Decker-Lazarus series of mystery novels.

The initial development process will focus on The Ritual Bath, the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series. The story follows a tough LAPD detective and a widowed mother of two who witnesses a brutal crime and becomes embroiled in solving it.

Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie
Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie

Also in the US, Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, a tween/teen series based on the 2003 cult movie of the same name. Originally ordered straight-to-series, the show was given a rapid second season order of 13 episodes and has been attracting an average of around 1.4 million viewers.

The third season, which will go into production in 2017, will have 20 episodes, suggesting Nickelodeon is very happy with the show. School of Rock was the first series order for Paramount TV and is the first to go to a third season. The studio has also enjoyed success with Epix show Berlin Station and USA Network’s Shooter.

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Just getting started: Creator Ben Ketai on Crackle’s StartUp

Silicon Valley meets The Wire as technology and crime clash in StartUp, US SVoD platform Crackle’s latest original series. Creator Ben Ketai explains why the world of cyber currency is the perfect setting for this 10-part thriller.

The murky worlds of technology and hacking have proven to be fertile grounds for TV drama in recent years. This trend is best exemplified by the success of Mr Robot, USA Network’s original drama that was one of the success stories of 2015 and scooped the Golden Globe for best drama earlier this year.

Other examples include Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s period piece that dramatises the personal-computer revolution of the 1980s and is now in its third season.

For five seasons, CBS crime drama Person of Interest saw the use of a computer to predict the victims and perpetrators of future crimes, while on the same network Scorpion brought together a team of genius misfits to act as the last line of defence against modern, high-tech threats. The show’s third season launches next month.

Creator Ben Ketai on set
Creator Ben Ketai on set

The most recent spin-off within the CSI franchise, CSI: Cyber, also saw Patricia Arquette investigate tech-based crimes for two seasons on CBS between 2014 and this year.

The latest entry in this genre is StartUp, a 10-part thriller that merges the tech world with the traditional crime drama for US SVoD platform Crackle.

Set in Miami, the plot sees financier Nick Talman (played by Adam Brody) invest his father’s ill-gotten gains into a tech start-up pitched by Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero). When local Haitian gang leader Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi) discovers the money he left with Nick’s father has vanished, the trio form a dangerous alliance that makes them a target for FBI agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman).

“With these characters and the subject matter, it’s not the sort of thing you see every day,” admits creator and executive producer Ben Ketai, who also writes and directs on the series.

Ketai had previously worked with Crackle on Chosen, the streaming service’s action-thriller that stars Milo Ventimiglia as a lawyer who discovers he has been selected by a mysterious organisation to play a deadly game whose players must kill or be killed.

Otmara Marrero and The OC's Adam Brody (right) star
Otmara Marrero and The OC’s Adam Brody (right) star

So the platform was the natural home for Ketai’s next project, in which he wanted to explore how tech is changing the face of crime and organised crime in the 21st century. The result is StartUp, which he describes as “Silicon Valley meets The Wire.”

The series is produced by Critical Content and Hollywood Gang Productions. Tom Forman, Andrew Marcus, Ray Ricord, Gianni Nunnari and Shannon Gaulding executive produce with Ketai. Brody and Anne Clements are the producers.

Filming for the show, which landed on Crackle on September 6, took place in Puerto Rico between January and May this year.

And at the centre of the story is GenCoin, a brilliant but controversial digital currency created by Marrero’s unorthodox tech wizard Izzy.

“We did a lot of research,” reveals Ketai. “One of my favourite parts of the job is doing research. In what other job do you learn about so many things at once? It was great becoming a student of crypto currency [a digital currency that operates independently of a central bank].

“There are certain things out there that are very difficult to wrap your head around unless you’re a tech person. It took six months of research to hone what was important about Bitcoin and other digital currencies and how big the gap was between Izzy’s idea and it really existing. We consulted with a lot of experts and they assured us it was within the realm of possibility. It’s very exciting to us that it’s feasible.

Martin Freeman plays FBI agent Phil Rask
Martin Freeman plays FBI agent Phil Rask

“Season one is focused on the idea that the American dream doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been stolen, and sometimes to be good you have to do some bad. That’s the theme that ties our characters together.”

It wasn’t just the writers who had to understand this new tech world, with the cast and crew also requiring a crash course into the world of crypto currency – something Ketai describes as the biggest challenge of the series.

“It’s not something you easily translate to a cast and crew,” he explains. “It’s hard enough for the writers, and then you have a 150-strong production. Everyone has to speak that language. That was a big challenge, being able to tell a story this big with the references we had, but we had an incredible cast, crew and producers. We’re fortunate to have such a wonderful group of people because, without that, there’s no way you pull this off.

“Like other shows, we all have to take some creative licence to make it more compelling for the viewer. We want to service the tech world to the best of our ability, but what comes first is the story and the characters.”

Among those characters is FBI agent Phil Rask who, over the course of the first season, plans to take a journey to “the very pit of darkness” to take down the unsuspecting trio he is tracking. And to play Rask? There was only ever one actor in mind.

“Martin Freeman was the natural choice from the start,” Ketai reveals. “When we started developing the character, we always wanted to cast against type. We’ve seen corrupt FBI agents before so we wanted to find someone that would be surprising to us and the viewers. I’ve always loved Martin. I’ve only seen him in more comedic roles but he has charm and believability. It was very exciting to see and work with him and watch him embody the character. It was a no-brainer.

“The most important part of my job as a directing showrunner/producer is to hire the best people in front of the camera. I leave it in their hands and I’m there as a guide. The cast are all just incredible, smart actors. That’s the only kind of actor I know how to work with. You rely on them to craft the emotional landscape of the characters and their story.”

With a team of five writers on the show, Ketai admits StartUp is “a very big story – there’s a lot to tell in 10 hours” – and the trickiest part was setting up the pilot to ensure every character was adequately introduced.

“They have their own stories to tell and without us understanding where they’re coming from, none of it works,” he says.

“I wish we could have had 20 episodes! That’s what season two and three will do, if we get recommissioned. And we are starting the process to get ready in the event that we are getting a second season.”

If StartUp takes off, Ketai could be cashing in his GenCoin chips for many more seasons to come.

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C21 Awards highlight cream of the crop

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, 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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State-of-the-art TV

The creator and showrunner of Crackle’s first original drama, The Art of More, tell Michael Pickard why they think they’re working within a model that will become the future of television.

As channels and on-demand platforms bid to win over viewers in an increasingly competitive market, Crackle believes it has the winning lot.

The Art of More, its first original drama, is set in the high-stakes world of New York City auction houses where Graham Connor, a blue-collar hustler, leverages his way into this exclusive realm of premium auction houses by exploiting connections to smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier.

Shot in Montreal, it stars Dennis Quaid (Vegas), Cary Elwes (Saw), Kate Bosworth and Christian Cooke (Magic City) as Connor. The series launched this month.

The cast of The Art of More from left:
The cast of The Art of More from left: Cary Elwes, Dennis Quaid, Kate Bosworth and Christian Cooke

“It’s been a wonderful production,” says creator Chuck Rose. “We have such an incredible cast and the crews have been great. Everybody seems to love what they’re doing, which makes a huge difference.”

Rose says he was inspired to create the series after a friend who worked at an auction house surprised him with his description of the business as a “cutthroat world.”

“I don’t think many people know that,” explains Rose. “I was trying to find a way into the world that would be exciting and then I started reading about the huge trade in antiquity smuggling. These beautiful objects we see in museums often start off in such terrible, war-ravaged places and then wind up on somebody’s mantlepiece on Park Avenue. I was interested in that journey from Iraq to Turkey to London to New York and that became the impetus for the idea.”

Rose developed a pitch and wrote a pilot before taking it to Sony Pictures Television (SPT). At the same time, SPT-owned Crackle was seeking its first original drama and was after something set outside the conventional police station/hospital/court-room setting. Gardner Stern came on board the project as showrunner and it was given a 10-episode season order.

Rose and Stern executive produce with Quaid, Laurence Mark, Gary Fleder and Tamara Chestna.

While researching the art world, Rose found support at word-famous auction house Bonhams, where he went to auctions and was shown behind the scenes. “The showrooms are very plush and then you go upstairs to where people work and it’s like these little rabbit hole cubicles, so I saw the difference in front of the curtain and behind it,” he says. “It’s all about putting on a show for the buyers and sellers and they told me great stories about how auctions are usually about people who are in trouble.

Chuck Rose said the project has benefited from the ‘name recognition’ brought by stars such as Kate Bosworth (pictured)

“There’s a saying in the auction world that auctions are built on the three D’s – death, divorce and debt. They were really helpful, they gave us a lot of backstory on real auctions, which have worked their way into the show.”

Stern, whose credits include NYPD Blue and Law & Order, says he was intrigued by entering a world where not everything is as you think it is.

“You assume it’s this very refined world of very wealthy people and auctioneers with refined British accents saying ‘sold,’” he says. “That is an element of it but, in addition, there’s this seedy underbelly that no one knows about. I find that very fascinating – the degree to which there is fraud and smuggling and theft and all those sorts of things that contribute to the end product that is presented as this refined world of the wealthy. That dichotomy is not only interesting but also makes for great drama.”

After Rose had written the show’s pilot, experienced showrunner Stern came on board to help steer the project. Both say they have enjoyed the working partnership. “It’s worked out really well. We can bicker and have disagreements but once it comes to presenting it to the network, we try to have a united front,” admits Stern. “We discuss everything; it’s a very collaborative process.

“There are some showrunners who like to micro-manage things. Producing a show like this involved 150 people, almost all of them are very talented in what they do, and I think giving them a little leeway and respecting their talents gets better results than being on top of everything and not letting them show what they can do.

“The other big thing is dealing with the actors, which we both do. That can be delicate because they have a vested interest in their character and what that character says but, at the same time, we the producers have to be cognisant of what the end goal of the series is, that it’s bigger than any one actor or speech. It’s a balancing act.”

The Art of More has a cast headed by big-screen stars Quaid, Elwes and Bosworth, and both Rose and Stern say it has been important for them to listen to their actors and make them part of the production process.

“It’s been a great experience for them and we’ve certainly benefited from the name recognition that people like Dennis Quaid bring to the project,” says Rose.

The team behind the show think viewers will be surprised by the ‘cutthroat’ auction house world depicted in The Art of More

Stern continues: “It’s a very collegial cast and crew. Everybody likes each other. I was talking to Kate Bosworth about this – I’ve been doing this a long time, her not so long, but we both said our goal now is just to work with people we like. At a certain point you reach that life’s-too-short moment where you say, ‘I don’t want to work with assholes anymore.’ And there are more than a few of them to go around in Hollywood.

“You try to pick and choose your projects to not only be something that interests you creatively but that also has a group of people you will enjoy working with. We work 14-hour days so you’re with these people a long time.”

As for Crackle, watching Netflix and Amazon raise the stakes of original drama meant it wasn’t long before it too was looking for an original hit – it’s own House of Cards. Rose says that and the chance to get a straight-to-series order meant it was an exciting opportunity to link up with the VoD platform, which is available in more than 20 countries worldwide.

“One of the other good things about this being done on Crackle is that this is the future,” says Stern. “Streaming and online platforms – there’s going to be much more of this than traditional network television shows. No one gives a shit what time a show is on anymore because everybody records it. My kids, for instance, barely watch anything on regular television. They watch on their computer. So it’s good to get in at an early stage. You only need to look at Amazon, which is spending US$11m on a pilot. This is the future.”

Rose notes that even traditional channels like HBO and Showtime are turning to streaming – see also CBS’s recent revival of Star Trek for its CBS All Access online platform – “so the difference between a channel that originates content for the internet and one that’s now streaming will be indistinguishable in a couple of years.”

The Art of More’s creators are hoping for a second season

As for the current boom in scripted programming – whether on air or online – Rose believes overall audience numbers will continue to rise, though the sheer number of shows on offer means individual ratings are likely to be hit.

“You won’t have 90 million people watching one show the way you did when M.A.S.H. concluded. But the overall number of people watching will be greater,” he says. “You can have a show with a more niche appeal and those people who want it will tune into it.”

Following its launch, The Art of More will roll out on Crackle every Thursday, and though their thoughts haven’t quite turned to season two yet, the team behind the series are prepared to go back into the auction room.

“Obviously Sony and Crackle have certain metrics they use to evaluate the success of the show,” Stern says. “Crackle’s just starting out, plus it could have 100 shows if it wanted because there’s no timeframe; there’s no schedule you have to adhere to because viewers can watch whenever they want. That’s to our advantage. They will know very quickly once this thing drops whether we’re coming back – which they will have to, because if they want all the scripts ready, we need to get working pretty quickly!”

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US networks go easy with the axe

Minority Report has been cut to 10 episodes
Fox has cut sci-fi drama Minority Report to 10 episodes

The big four US networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are playing a strange game this year. Usually by now they would have axed their underperforming new shows.

But instead they have adopted a policy of reducing the number of episodes they initially ordered then letting the shows in question quietly crawl away to die.

A case in point is Fox’s Minority Report, which was initially meant to have 13 episodes. But after failing to impress in the ratings, its order was cut to 10. The same has happened to ABC’s Blood and Oil and NBC’s Truth Be Told, also reduced to 10. NBC also cut Wesley Snipes drama The Player to nine episodes after poor ratings.

Various theories have been put forward to explain this emerging trend. One is that the networks have decided to give scripted shows more time because of the complex nature of audience behaviour these days. With so much time-shifting going on, they don’t want to kill a show off before they know for sure it is a dud.

This thesis takes on added weight now that subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon have started picking up and reviving a few axed shows. The last thing the networks want to do is produce a show and then hand the benefit to their fast-growing rivals.

Another possibility, mooted by E! News, is that networks don’t want to face flak from fans by axing a show early. By giving these shows a reasonable run out, it’s a way of reducing the size of the social media backlash that invariably follows cancellation.

Alternatively, there may be a commercial agenda here. Possibly the networks have decided there’s more value in having nine or 10 episodes of a show with closure than four or five without a satisfactory end. Such is the international demand for drama content that maybe there is an opportunity to recoup some of the cost of production via the distribution side of the business.

Wicked City is struggling on ABC
Wicked City is struggling on ABC

Some international channels would rather have a single series of a big-budget American series (complete with star) than none at all.

Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see what it takes to finally push one of the big four networks over the edge into cancelling a scripted show. There is, for example, a particularly badly performing anthology show on ABC right now called Wicked City.

Three episodes in, the show has seen its ratings fall from 3.3 million to 2.4 million to 1.7 million, making it the joint lowest-rated non-Saturday drama original on the major four broadcast networks in Nielsen People Meter history. If that isn’t a good enough reason to axe a series then we may never see a cancellation again.

While Minority Report has failed to live up to expectations, another Philip K Dick-based project is receiving plenty of plaudits ahead of its appearance on Amazon. The Man in the High Castle, a 10-parter that will launch on November 20, is an alternative-history drama that imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japan each control half of the US (having won the Second World War).

Adapted for TV by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), a recent screening of the show received a swathe of positive reviews. While we are unlike to ever see any ratings for The Man in the High Castle, Amazon is confident it could be a game-changer for the platform.

Buzz is building around Amazon's The Man in the High Castle
Buzz is building around Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Russell Morris, marketing and merchandising director of Amazon Video in the UK, says: “All the data points to this being our out-and-out success.” It’s unusual for Amazon to be so openly enthusiastic, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the series is already starting to build up some decent momentum.

There are also positive noises for Crackle’s The Art of More, which debuts on November 19. Starring Dennis Quaid as a ruthless real-estate billionaire, the 10-episode first season is set in a high-octane version of the art world, where rival auction houses battle to secure the best clients and works of art are smuggled into the US from exotic locations.

Deadline – particularly impressed with Quaid’s performance – has declared itself a fan of the show, which has already managed to rack up quite a few international sales.

While The Man in the High Castle and The Art of More are yet to launch, one show that has already established itself as a huge franchise is FX’s anthology drama American Horror Story (AHS), created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.

Now in its fifth season, AHS: Hotel, the show is averaging 3.8 million viewers, which makes it the channel’s highest-rated scripted series. As a reward for its strong showing, FX this week announced that there will be a sixth season.

John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, says: “American Horror Story has unquestionably joined the ranks of television’s landmark series. From Murder House to Hotel, AHS has pioneered a new TV form as well becoming FX’s highest-rated show – while also pushing every conceivable boundary of creative excellence and audacity.

The Art of More begins on Crackle next week
The Art of More begins on Crackle next week

“This is even more remarkable because Ryan and Brad tear up the playbook every year, challenging the entire creative team to come up with something even more spectacular, frightful and entertaining. You could not ask more of an artist, their team or a series.”

The icing on the cake for FX is that AHS is not just a ratings success, but also an award winner. The first four seasons received 71 Emmy nominations and 13 Emmy wins, including five awards for its fourth instalment, AHS: Freak Show.

Finally, this week, it’s interesting to note that there is another trend in the market right now – the ‘falling off a cliff’ phenomenon. This is where shows start incredibly strongly then see their ratings collapse almost immediately. ABC’s The Muppets is a case in point, with its ratings dropping from nine million to 5.8 million viewers between episodes one and two and then continuing to slide, so that they are now below the four million mark at episode seven.

CBS’s Supergirl is now experiencing something similar, with ratings for the first three episodes going from 12.9 million to 8.9 million to eight million. Although some ground will be clawed back once the time-shifted numbers are in, that’s still a pretty precipitous drop. NBC’s Heroes Reborn and ABC’s Quantico are showing similar fragility.

The latest American Horror Story series, Hotel, continues to deliver for FX
The latest American Horror Story series, Hotel, continues to deliver for FX

What’s behind this? It seems to be a combination of two factors. First, networks are getting very good at generating a movie-style buzz around their new series so that audiences feel compelled to be in at the start. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a rebooted idea, because large swathes of the TV population are lured in by the promise of a nostalgia fix.

Having grabbed the audience’s attention, however, the slightest misbeat on the part of the show and viewers lose interest – creating the mass migration effect seen with programmes like The Muppets.

Like the apocryphal script reader who knows 10 ten pages whether he or she is in the presence of a great script or another addition to the recycling pile, a significant part of the audience will cut its losses before the first ad break has occurred – turning to rival channels or second-screen entertainment.

An interesting premise or unusual setup may hold the audience in for a little longer, but in the end the only thing that will get them to come back for a second helping is genuinely compelling work. And even in this ‘golden age’ of drama, that is still quite rare.

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Mipcom 2015: The peak of drama’s golden age?

Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.

Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?

The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.

Shiri Appleby in Cannes promoting UnREAL
Shiri Appleby in Cannes promoting UnREAL

This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.

Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.

Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.

The Girlfriend Experience's Riley Keough
The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough

As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.

Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.

But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.

The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.

Iain Glen attended to support Cleverman
Iain Glen attended to support Cleverman

But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.

So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.

During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”

Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”

Tuppence Middleton spoke about the forthcoming War and Peace
Tuppence Middleton spoke about forthcoming BBC epic War and Peace

However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”

Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”

And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.

Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”

Fox International Channels during a Mipcom panel
Fox International Channels’ Jason Simms during a Mipcom panel

Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.

If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.

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Netflix senses second-season success

Sense8 has been given a second run

As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.

Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.

Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.

While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.

Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.

Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”

The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October
The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October

A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.

Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”

The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.

The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.

This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.

Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”

The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe
The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe

FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”

Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.

At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.

Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.

Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.

ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special
ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special, to be produced by Red Production Company.

This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.

Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.

In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”

The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”

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