Tag Archives: David Alpert

There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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David Alpert

David Alpert, president of Skybound Entertainment and the executive producer of The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Outcast, reveals the storytelling traditions from his childhood that inspired his career in television.

I grew up with stories in the blood. My family would love to gather round for the holidays and tell stories at the dinner table, so thinking about storytelling not just as pure entertainment but as something I wanted to do happened to me at a pretty early age.

I remember watching miniseries such as Shogun, Shaka Zulu and Robotech that really blew me away with their scope of storytelling and exotic locations. It was sophisticated storytelling for children; it wasn’t episodic, so if I didn’t watch the previous episode, I would be really lost.

Alpert is an exec producer on AMC mega-hit The Walking Dead and companion series Fear The Walking Dead

The producers understood that children are capable of hearing and watching sophisticated storylines unfold over multiple episodes. I always loved everything from The Cosby Show and Family Ties to Saturday morning cartoons and after-school stuff like Transformers and GI Joe, but it was the above shows that really gave me a window into the type of storytelling that was possible.

I was always told to find my niche, find an area I know better than anybody else and to make myself valuable to people who make decisions and not to seek reward right away. That was the way in which I built my career. I knew comics – I’d sold them in high school – and I knew comic book creators, so with the emergence of movies like Men in Black, The Crow and even things like Ghost World, I started going to people looking to make those movies and TV shows and offering advice or consulting. Most people would hang up on me but some would take the call and, over time, they started calling me.

As I built up a management business, I started putting some other projects together that involved physical production. One such project, Bubblebots, never got made but it was based on a multi-platform approach to storytelling. It was designed for film, television, video games, comic books – and that process of working with different writers and artists in different mediums led to what we’re doing at Skybound today.

Horror drama Outcast airs on Cinemax

I’d met [The Walking Dead creator] Robert Kirkman at a convention in 2000 and we started working together. As we put together The Walking Dead, Robert said we should launch a company. That became Skybound and I laid out the Bubblebots gameplan as what we would do inside our business.

The Walking Dead was certainly my first real success. There was nothing like it on television; nobody had been doing serialised horror. And the show also had a very distinctive look and feel – it’s shot on film and has a grainy 16mm quality to it. Creatively, the thing that hooked me was the very concept: what happens when zombie movies end? We’re taking the 28 Days Later approach to say, ‘Hey, what happens after 29 days, 30 days, six months, six years?’ The interesting thing for me is if you build a compelling group of characters, you don’t want their story to end, so the story can take a long time to tell.

We’re really looking to tell stories in any medium we can, and have recently moved into VR. Gone, a thriller about two parents searching for their missing child, was a really interesting step in figuring out what an immersive narrative looks like. We’re so used to pointing the camera in one direction, but what happens when they turn around? I think we did a pretty good job of it and I can’t wait to do more VR.

If I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self what I’m doing now, I think my head would explode!

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Graphic detail

When Greg Berlanti was a kid, he would often have his head in a comic book, reading the latest adventures of Green Arrow or The Flash.

Today, he is part of the team that has brought both characters to life as the stars of their own live action dramas on US network The CW. Arrow begins its third season this fall, while The Flash makes its debut.

“I thought Arrow would make for a great show, in part because it was realistic and in my mind had a gritty tone and a Jason Bourne-type feel,” says Berlanti. “A lot of times TV shows fail, but this one worked.”

The success of Arrow and other adaptations is now a factor behind the charge to acquire rights to comic books and graphic novels, which are being snapped up by television executives hungry to bring new characters and the fantastical worlds they inhabit to the small screen.

Network television in the US will air five series based on graphic novels and comics this fall – three making their debuts – while zombie drama The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season on cable network AMC. Further adaptations are lined up for midseason, with dozens more in development.

Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not a new source of television inspiration. Batman and The Incredible Hulk appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, while Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman presented Clark Kent to a new generation in the 1990s. They also provide a near constant source of material for animated series, largely aimed at younger viewers.

But is this resurgence of superheroes on the small screen a lasting attempt by television studios’ attempts to grab a share of the huge profits being made by their big screen siblings, or is it just a Flash-in-the-pan?

The Walking Dead print (1) (web)
Graphic novel The Walking Dead, on which the series was based.

When NBC passed on the pilot script for The Walking Dead, the show spent four years in the wilderness looking for a new home. It was only in 2010 when AMC committed to the series, rather than sending it into development limbo, that it was given a platform to become one of the highest rated US dramas.

David Alpert, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, says: “There was a degree of scepticism as to the merit of the artform of comic books and over time, as the success of the Marvel and DC Comics movies has increased alongside independent comic book movies like Men in Black and Road to Perdition, it started to make an impression on people that comic books are as vital an art form as any other.”

He agrees that comic book adaptations are hot properties in television. The New Zealand-based firm is developing an animated version of Image Comics’ Rat Queens but has live action series in development.

“They’re high concept, they’re world-building, they’re noisy,” he explains. “That’s what everybody wants. And graphic novels and comic books tend to be a good source of that kind of material.”

Universal Cable Productions (UCP), the production company behind Syfy’s Defiance and Suits on USA Network, currently has four comic book and graphic novel adaptations in development, alongside an untitled project from Iron Man writer Warren Ellis and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment.

And Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive VP of development, admits she has been shopping for IP since she joined the NBC Universal-owned studio earlier this year.

“I’ve only been there for five months and have been on a graphic novel and comic buying spree,” she says. “If you look at what’s happening in television right now, big distinctive ideas and worlds are really interesting, not only for network presidents but for audiences.

“In today’s market where there are a million shows coming at people, a world that’s distinctive and has a fresh imagination brings with it the opportunity to stand out. People have been doing it for a long time in comics and graphic novels, and we’re just finding that they’re really translatable, not just into movies but also into TV.”

Night Mary
Night Mary

UCP’s slate includes IDW Publishing’s Night Mary, a horror story about a 17-year-old girl who is trained to enter the dreams of patients at her father’s sleep disorder clinic, and Image Comics’ Pax Romana, in which the Vatican discovers the secret of time travel and hopes to change the future by sending soldiers and modern weaponry back to Rome in 312AD.

Olmstead says: “Which projects we choose comes down to gut reaction. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it comes across our desks, or we hear it in a room.

“Everybody now has control over what they put on their television and they can search for what they want. We use a gut litmus test – can you imagine searching for that show?

“Then the character has to be great. You’re really going to get to know Walter White in Breaking Bad because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, and we really look for characters that can hold up to that test.”

Constantine
Constantine

One of the biggest winners from this surge in live action adaptations is DC Comics, through its DC Entertainment division, which will have four series on US network television this fall. Freshman series Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, lands on NBC, Batman prequel Gotham is heading to Fox, and The Flash is joining Arrow on The CW.

Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, says: “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are great, but audiences don’t want to dress up like those characters. People don’t have action figures of those characters. The comic book genre hits you and becomes part of your lifestyle.

“When you go to Comic-Con and see 7,000 people cramming in to watch the premiere of Gotham, The Flash, or Constantine, you realise how much people love this stuff. They just want to see it done with care and love, by people who are as fanatical about it as they are.That’s the key.”

Writer and executive producer Berlanti had been reading the adventures of Green Arrow since he was a kid, so when he signed a production deal with DC’s parent Warner Bros Entertainment, he knew the story of a vigilante facing up against the villains running his home city was perfect for television.

A pilot was ordered in the 2011/12 development season by The CW, which later commissioned a full season.

For Berlanti, however, there was one comic book character he had always wanted to bring to life – the light to Arrow’s darkness – and after introducing the character in season two of Arrow, The Flash now has its own spin-off series.

“I wouldn’t have done The Flash two or three years ago,” says Berlanti, who executive produces both shows through his Berlanti Productions label. “The visual effects departments in TV didn’t have the capacity at the time to deliver the visual effects that would accompany a character like this,” he says of Barry Allen, who gains the ability of super-speed when a lightning bolt causes chemicals to spill over him.

Recreating The Flash’s super-speed also posed problems for Johns, who describes the finished effects as “pretty phenomenal”.

“That was something that was really important,” he says. “If you don’t believe he can move fast, it’s not going to work.”

But why does Johns think comic books and graphic novels are suddenly hot property?

Blockbuster movies, he says, are a big factor, but he goes further when he says television “is probably the closest to comic books in terms of storytelling that I know”.

He adds: “The Flash is built like a comic book, complete with cliff-hangers and subplots. Gotham is more of an urban saga you’re following, a police procedural that feels more like a comic book. When I was a kid, comics were not cool, but they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.”

“Network television in particular is going to have to do more of this kind of stuff, to create both good stories but big, juicy landscapes for people to enjoy because we live in a world where there are 400 channels, you’ve got access to every film and TV show of all time, and they have to compete.”

One network still dipping its toes into the waters of original scripted series is Netflix, the digital platform that has quickly become one of the biggest players in the industry with hits including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its burgeoning reputation was further enhanced when it partnered with Marvel Television to commission four new series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and a miniseries called The Defenders. The first series, Daredevil, will be released in 2015.

And they will join ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and midseason entry Agent Carter in Marvel’s expanding line-up.

Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, says the Netflix projects are “separate stories but one large tapestry”, akin to Marvel’s film strategy that saw Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor later team up as The Avengers.

“This wasn’t something we forced together,” he explains. “It wasn’t like we picked four random characters and just put them together. They already had their own kind of world; they’re what we refer to as street level heroes. You get to really explore the world that doesn’t quite have the lustre or sparkle that you get from the Marvel movies, or for that matter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. Our ABC shows do not feel like our Netflix shows because they’re from a different part of the Marvel universe.”

Loeb won’t be drawn on whether the Netflix series represent ‘phase one’ of Marvel’s assault on television, in a similar vein to the decade-long blueprint it has mapped out for its cinematic adventures. “But it seems to work well for the movies, doesn’t it,” he adds.

Another comics publisher getting into the TV business is IDW, which launched IDW Entertainment under the control of president David Ozer in October 2013.

Former Starz and Sonar Entertainment executive Ozer and IDW CEO Ted Adams have identified 10 properties to package as television adaptations, including Night Mary with UCP; Pantheon, a story set in the near future where the only gods worshipped are money and power, developed with The Shield actor Michael Chiklis; and V Wars, a vampire drama adapted by Dexter’s Tim Schlattmann. Circle of Confusion, which executive produces The Walking Dead, is overseeing development.

Adams revealed a “frustrating” experience seeing another of its comics, Locke & Key, fail to land a series order with Fox was the catalyst for IDW to build its own television division and, significantly, retain control of the adaptation process.

Another key marker was networks’ increasing openness to straight-to-series orders, which appeal to Adams.

He says: “There’s definitely something in the air. When we launched this, we didn’t know there was the huge number of shows based on comics that are going to be on air this year.

“Everybody’s looking for great ideas. Although our stories come from comic books initially, they’re not stereotypical superhero comic books. It’s just great genre storytelling. The networks want the same things for their shows as I want for my books, which is to be able to tell a great story, find interesting characters and create a world that gets people interested.”

So once they’ve won a commission, how do producers and writers begin adapting comic books and graphic novels for television? “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard,” says Olmstead. “Sometimes they’ve written something that’s adaptable in both scale and episodic journey. But sometimes they tend to put out really big ideas about society that’s hard to translate in dialogue and in scenes.”

“There’s always pressure to get it right, but it’s a good kind of pressure,” says Johns, who has written comic stories for characters including Green Lantern, Superman and The Flash. “If you were doing a biographical movie of Abraham Lincoln, you’re going to research the guy’s life, the world around him, what he did, what he accomplished, and the people around him.

“There are visual cues you want to keep because that’s the iconic feel of the characters. But the key point is the emotional content of the character – John Constantine’s emotional centre, his virility, his anti-hero status, or The Flash’s optimistic outlook and the joy of being a superhero. Every one of these characters has an emotional core you want to stay true to because that’s what is going to resonate the most.”

Comic books and graphic novels also come with an extra feature – ready made artwork. Characters and costumes are brought to life without the need for conceptual artists to present a vision of the show to network executives. But is this a blessing or a curse?

Alpert says: “It’s the greatest blessing we have. I can only imagine what it’s like to go into The Killing or Homeland thinking ‘we just had an amazing season one, how do we do something different in season two?’ The fact we have 130 issues to draw from gives us a real leg-up on other shows out there.

In the pilot for The Walking Dead, Alpert says there are scenes shot frame-for-frame from the comic, which was created by Robert Kirkman.

“I remember being in downtown Atlanta as hundreds of people in zombie make-up were chewing blood-filled condoms from a fake horse’s stomach and squeezing them, exploding them, and Robert looking at them and thinking this was exactly the way he had envisioned it,” he recalls.

But it’s not just the artwork that offers an instant benefit to executives bringing their projects to market. An existing fan base that has followed and fallen in love with the paperback adventures provides an instant audience, though that in itself can pose as many risks as rewards.

Adam Fratto, executive VP at animation studio Pukeko Pictures, explains: “Comic books can become quite popular so if you have a built-in fan base, that can really help. But there’s always the fact that with any underlying material, you run the risk of alienating the fans.

“Comic book fans are smart and want to be entertained. They don’t expect it to be a slavish repetition of the books. It’s important not to get too hung up on being 100 per cent faithful. My approach is usually to use the existing material as a jumping off point, not as a blueprint.”

Despite the success of the Marvel films, Loeb says the Netflix series and those on ABC still face the same challenges as any other series. “You want to make sure you’re telling something entertaining and compelling, that the viewers are caught up in a storyline they can’t get enough of – and in particular on Netflix, when you have the opportunity to download all 13 shows at once. In so many ways, Netflix lends itself much more to the same experience that you get when you buy a stack of comics where as soon as you put the first one down you want to get the second one, third, and fourth.

“Our goal is hopefully, on that first weekend, people will download all 13 episodes of Daredevil and make a weekend out of it, and have Daredevil parties and get completely caught up in it.

“We have seven series moving forward. That’s a lot of production. We are going to be producing 56 hours of television in the next 52 weeks. Hardcore fans and brand new people are not going to be disappointed.”

With a number of US broadcasters commissioning comic book adaptations, what does this mean for international buyers?
Channel 5 in the UK is the free-to-air home of The Walking Dead, picking up season four for its sibling 5* after fan power saw it overturn its earlier decision to drop it, and it has now added Gotham for the new season.

“There’s always been a lot of TV series around comic book heroes but it’s been a bit more family friendly,” says Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions. “Certainly the take on it now is a lot darker and edgier.

“What you have with The Walking Dead and Gotham is an innate fan base and when there are people who have grown up with those comics and then get to see them realised on screen, you know you’re going to draw an audience. People love to see their heroes on screen and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”

Outcast
Outcast

Alpert is now reteaming with Kirkman for exorcism drama Outcast, which has been developed with Cinemax and Fox International Channels. They are also plotting a Walking Dead spin-off for AMC set in the same world but featuring new characters.

“There’s always a sense that if something works, try to replicate it. So I definitely see more stuff being picked up from comics,” says Alpert. “It will be cyclical, so there will be a wave of original programming that comes along. But given the high degree of investment and the huger and desire to cut through the noise out there, it’s useful to tap into something that has a pre-awareness and a fan base.”

At UCP, Olmstead’s IP buying spree will continue “until they tell me I’m out of money”. She adds: “Comic book and graphic novelists are some of the best creators out there. They’re incredibly smart and are translating society’s problems in a really creative way, and as long as they’re doing it, I think we’ll be buying them.”

After bringing Arrow and The Flash to life, Berlanti says there’s “definitely more I would like to see” on television. “What people are starting to say about The Flash is we didn’t know one of these shows could be funny or light-hearted too,” he explains. “Our hope was to zig when other people are zagging and I think there are more opportunities like that in terms of tone or types of characters not represented in TV.”

While The Flash and Gotham have ready-made fans, The Walking Dead is proof that lesser known properties can also become television hits. The endless supply of comic book and graphic novel material is matched only by the appetite of television executives for these properties in the hope of finding the next success story.

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