As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
First airing on RTL in Germany, Deutschland 83 became a worldwide sensation as audiences became gripped by the story of an East German spy’s attempts to uncover a plot – and keep his identity secret – in West Berlin.
Co-creator Anna Winger, who is also the head writer, tells DQ how she shared the labour of showrunning with husband Jörg Winger and how she used her background as a novelist to plot her first television drama.
Deutschland 83 is produced by UFA Fiction and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.
A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.
With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.
Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.
Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.
Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.
Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.
The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.
Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.
This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.
Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.
Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.
“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.
At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.
Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.
Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.
Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.
“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.
“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”
Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.
Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.
Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.
It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.
“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”
Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.
The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.
“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”
Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.
“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.
“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”
On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.
“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”
Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”
He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”
Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.
“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.
“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”
There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.
“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”
Walter Iuzzolino, chief creative officer at GSN and curator of Walter Presents, reveals the shows that inspired Channel 4’s new global drama platform.
German drama is undergoing a true renaissance. Once associated with gentle, mainstream cop shows and period pieces, Germany is suddenly bursting with edgy, powerful premium series, which have gained international acclaim and recognition in a very short time.
Generation War, a compelling miniseries offering a refreshingly different take on the narrative of the Second World War, was an early indicator of the quality of productions to come.
Deutschland 83 (pictured) is one of the strongest and most powerful pieces of storytelling I have seen in years. Written and produced by husband-and-wife team Anna and Joerg Winger, this is an iconic and stylish thriller that stands in a league of its own, totally redefining standards for excellence in global scripted programming. The unforgettable, fast-paced coming-of-age story of a young spy forced to leave his past behind to start a new life in the West is an irresistible cocktail of pathos, drama and humour, delivered with the most exquisite cinematography, art direction and aesthetic framework since Mad Men.
Line of Separation is another compelling historical drama, this time set in the Second World War. Produced by the Oscar-winning team behind The Lives of Others, it also stars Jonas Nay, the lead actor of Deutschland 83. The story, inspired by true events spanning 1945 to 1961, focuses on a small town torn apart by clashing ideologies and split down the middle by a carelessly drawn border dividing it between east and west – a miniature version of the impending Cold War.
Another historical drama and family saga, this time set in Berlin, is Hotel Adlon. Directed by top movie director Uli Edel, the series is inspired by the events that marked the first 90 years of Germany’s most extraordinary hotel. Personal and political narratives of love, war and the destiny of a family through three generations are skilfully interwoven in a beautifully crafted script and brought to life by an exceptional cast.
German detective series also feature in our mix, including hit franchise Nick’s Law, Nick’s Revenge and Nick’s Pain; Inspector Borowski and crime thriller Cenk Batu. All three series revolve around charismatic maverick detectives, all of them loners but with very different policing styles.
The breadth and quality of German drama now on offer and currently in the production pipeline will surely shine a bright light on Germany as the next big creative hub for scripted content globally.
Right next door to Germany is another country that’s largely undiscovered by global audiences in terms of scripted output. Famous for its blockbuster gameshow formats and reality juggernauts, the Netherlands has never really acquired an international reputation for its drama series – but that is about to change. We have assembled a powerful slate of 61 hours we hope will prove a bit of a revelation for critics and viewers alike.
Among the key Dutch offerings is Penoza (pictured), produced by NL Films. This seminal Sopranos-style crime saga is built around the compelling central character of Carmen, a housewife who is reluctantly forced to take charge of the family’s criminal business following his assassination. The multi-award-winning series is now in its fourth season.
The Neighbours is a sassy gem of a series – a dark, sexy and voyeuristic Fatal Attraction between two couples living in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. Based on the bestselling novels by Saskia Noort, its transmission on RTL last year attracted millions of viewers on 10 consecutive nights. A second series is currently in production.
The Prey is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated drama based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Jeroen Smit. It depicts the true story of the rise and fall of Dutch banker Rijkman Groenink and the downfall of the entire ABN AMRO Bank, which was one of Europe’s financial powerhouses at the time.
Bellyacher Cel is another hit drama series from Holland, starring JanAd Adolfsen. The six-part series follows a man wrongfully accused of a fatal hit-and-run. Hunted by the police and criminals alike, he attempts to find out who has stolen his identity and why they are determined to frame him.
A country normally associated with telenovelas, Brazil is producing some really exciting and innovative dramas, with standout visceral and dramatic tones which is totally unique.
SOB (Son of a Bitch, pictured) is a comedy series about a football referee who dreams of one day officiating the World Cup final. On the pitch he’s a man of high morals and a stickler for the rules, but off it his life is in freefall. Starring Eucir De Souza and directed by Katia Lund, whose previous credits include the Oscar-nominated film City of God, the series has a wonderful supporting cast of lovable characters and also features guest appearances by Brazilian football stars and commentators.
Magnifica 70’s season premiere became the second highest-rating Brazilian original production in the last 10 years. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a married man bored with his job censoring films for the Sao Paulo government. Unexpectedly, he becomes obsessed with the beautiful Dora Dumar, an erotic actress whose films he is obliged to censor. To save her from ruin, he agrees to help write and direct her films to get them through the state censorship department. Stylish, evocative with a wonderful script and talented cast, Magnifica 70 stands out as a bold piece based on a truly unique and gutsy premise – the clash between personal freedom of expression and political repression, set against the unusual and captivating backdrop of Boca do Lixo, an iconic suburb of Sao Paulo, which was home to a flourishing erotic film industry in the early 1970s.
From Bergman movies to Strindberg plays, Sweden has always been the land of filmmaking, theatrical and literary excellence – and its TV drama output is just as exceptional. Having taken somewhat of a back seat to Denmark in the explosion of Nordic drama, Sweden now seems to be producing a much more diverse range of top-drawer series.
Thicker than Water is a 10-part drama set on an island in the enchanting Swedish Alandic archipelago. It tells the story of three siblings suddenly reunited and thrown together when their mother commits suicide. In order to inherit her money, the siblings are forced to live and work together in the family hotel for one summer. Dark secrets begin to emerge, compelling them to confront long-buried emotions from their past. Featuring an exceptional cast in a beautiful setting, this seductive family thriller has been a ratings smash hit and a second season is currently in production.
Blue Eyes (pictured) is another eye-catching Swedish series but for totally different reasons. A bold, edgy, contemporary political thriller, it focuses on the rise of political extremism in Northern Europe. There are only a few, crucial weeks left to the national election when a spate of brutal murders from a fringe group of young, dangerous Neo Nazis throws the country – and the corrupt political elite – into a state of shock.
This is as incisive and arresting as Scandi drama gets: a bold and daring approach to issues of racism, immigration and xenophobia in which the definition of good and evil is not always so black and white. It’s edge-of-your-seat television.
Finally, we’ve uncovered an unexpected treasure in the Czech Republic’s output. The Lens is a stylish and beautifully shot story about an aspiring young filmmaker who is devastated when his father dies following a hit-and-run. Determined to find his father’s killer, he joins the police force as a crime photographer.
Burning Bush (pictured), meanwhile, is a stunning three-part drama created by world-renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Based on real characters and events, this haunting drama focuses on the personal sacrifice of a Prague history student, Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in
1969 – and his family’s fight against the Communist regime following his death. It’s a deeply moving story focusing on big themes of personal and political freedom, the fight against corruption and ideological repression – and the personal family tragedy that shook a country and changed its history.
This is the drama piece that inspired us to launch the service and start Walter Presents more than a year ago. When you come across something so exceptional and powerful, you can’t help wanting to share it.
The Golden Globes award ceremony was a perfect example of why you might want to put Lady Gaga in your TV drama. Not only is she a good actress, as evidenced by her performance in FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, but her every slightest action sends the media into a feeding frenzy. When she brushed past fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio to collect her award for her role in the anthology series, she made front-page news around the world.
The Gaga factor was also evident during the first episode of AHS: Hotel, which attracted a staggering 5.81 million viewers when it launched on October 7 last year. Within weeks, FX had announced an order for season six of the franchise. Creator Ryan Murphy even went as far as to suggest that it might be possible to run two seasons of the AHS franchise per year, in spring and autumn.
Celebrity casting is, however, the TV equivalent of a sugar rush. Although Gaga’s casting had an amazing impact on AHS: Hotel’s first few episodes, the show has actually been on a steady downward slide across its entire run. From its opening high it has dropped to just 1.84 million (with the figures for the most recent episode not in at time of writing).
FX can still argue, truthfully, that the show is one of its strongest performers and that its average across the season is well ahead of channel average. But to shed 70% of its audience across a season still seems like a missed opportunity. It didn’t happen to other standout cable shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy.
So, given that Gaga triumphed at the Globes – which means her performance was, objectively, speaking a good one – what does AHS: Hotel’s ratings decline tell us? Well, possibly it means Hotel wasn’t very good. For comparison, AHS season four, Freak Show, rarely dropped below three million viewers and finished with an average of 3.85 million.
Or maybe the audience is getting bored with horror – a genre that has been on the crest of a wave recently. After all, Murphy’s other anthology horror offering, Scream Queens has only managed to turn in a so-so performance on Fox. Just how many malformed monsters can squeeze underneath one bed?
Or maybe the AHS production team needed to carry out a bit more pre-production analysis into the kind of celebrity whose fans might stick with the show (a kind of Amazon or Netflix-style data analysis). A Golden Globe winner she might be, but perhaps there wasn’t a close enough overlap between Lady Gaga’s fanbase and that of AHS. For the long-term health of the franchise, it might have been better to cast a celebrity whose fanbase wasn’t likely to jump ship halfway through. Whatever FX chooses to glean from the show’s decline, there’s no question it’s going to have to find another big name to lead in the sixth series, the subject of which is yet to be revealed.
Still in the US, NBC has just announced that Heroes Reborn will not be renewed. Speaking to journalists, NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt made out it was no big deal by suggesting the show was only ever meant to be a limited series. But the reality is that the show didn’t really capture the audience’s interest. Having started at the 6.5 million mark, it settled down at 3.7 million for the back end of the 13-part run (this is on network television, as opposed to the lower-scoring cable universe).
As its name suggests, Heroes Reborn was a reboot of Tim Kring’s original Heroes series – but it looks like the latent demand for the franchise that NBC had anticipated didn’t really exist. Perhaps we will see the franchise return again in a decade or two. But for now it’s a reminder, if we needed one, that bringing back a classic series isn’t a guarantee of success. The news won’t be too disheartening for Kring, who is partnering with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on Fox series Boost Unit.
Pretty Little Liars, a hit show for Freeform (the new name for ABC Family), returned to the air this week after a four-month break. And it did pretty well, generating an audience of 2.25 million viewers. There had been fears the show might suffer after a closely followed plotline was resolved in the last episode before the break. Figures were down, but not enough to set any alarm bells ringing.
In fact, it also provided a good launch pad for a new show called Shadowhunters, which followed it in the schedule. Shadowhunters, about a group of demon-hunting teenagers who are part angel, part human (sound like Buffy?), attracted 1.82 million viewers, making it the channel’s best new show in two years. The last big debut for Freeform was Ravenswood, a spin-off of the bankable Pretty Little Liars.
In the UK, all eyes are on the BBC’s lavish six-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The first two episodes were pretty good and have drawn a positive critical response. The harsher critics have accused it of being a bit soapy, a bit racy, a bit English and maybe just lacking some of the gravitas you’d associate with Tolstoy. But as Sunday evening entertainment, it’s a noble effort that benefits from a strong cast and Andrew Davies’ clever ability to cut to the heart of a complex story.
In ratings terms, it debuted to 6.3 million and then dropped to 5.3 million for episode two. That’s a strong performance with a not-unexpected drop for episode two – more like Poldark than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The performance of episode three will probably give us our best insight into how this six-part series will pan out. Lose another 1-1.5 million and it will look as though viewers are tiring of the show. But anything above 4.5 million and it will feel like it has found a loyal audience. All of which is significant to the international drama market because the performance of War and Peace may impact investment decisions related to other classic doorstop-novel adaptations.
Playing opposite War and Peace in the UK was German-language drama Deutschland 83. Broadcast by Channel 4, the first two episodes of the show have scored 1.5 million and 1.1 million respectively, a strong performance.
With The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) achieving audiences of around 1.4-1.5 million on BBC4 just before Christmas and The Young Montalbano (Italy) debuting with one million in January (also BBC4), it’s clear that a significant section of the UK population is now comfortable with non-English content – which is good news for mainland Europe.
The US still dominates drama exports, but in the last Hit & Miss column of the year we take a look at some of the new shows from other countries that have punched above their weight in 2015.
The Sydney Morning Herald has just named Gallipoli as the best Aussie drama of the year – and they’ve probably got it just about right. Although the lavish WW1 epic rated badly on Nine Network, it was a strongly scripted and well-acted show that has had some profile internationally thanks to Endemol Shine International. Gallipoli’s Aussie rivals this year included biopic Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, multicultural drama The Principal and undead series Glitch. But probably the best of the bunch outside Gallipoli was The Secret River, Ruby Entertainment’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel.
2015 was a decent year for Canadian-backed drama. The high point was epic miniseries The Book of Negroes, which was back by public broadcaster CBC and BET in the US. The story of escaped slaves returning to Africa via Nova Scotia pulled in 1.7 million viewers for the first episode, making it the highest-rated original drama for CBC since 1990. Another strong debutante in 2015 was sitcom Schitt’s Creek, which also aired on CBC. This show was sold internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment to countries including New Zealand.
Top of the pile in China this year has been The Journey of Flower, a love story based on the fantasy novel by Fresh Guo Guo. Broadcast from June to August, it told the story of Hu Qian Gu, a girl born with magical powers. At age 16, she becomes the disciple of Bai Zihua, an immortal in charge of a magical realm – and promptly falls in love with him. The series has aired internationally in markets such as Vietnam.
At the forefront of the Nordic drama explosion, Denmark public broadcaster DR gave us series like The Killing and Borgen. In 2014/2015, it added the period drama 1864, which has sold to broadcasters including RTÉ Ireland, TV4 Sweden and Arte (France/Germany). Next up is Follow the Money, a thriller set in the world of economic crime. The show has been heavily trailed in 2015 but finally airs in early 2016. It has been picked up by BBC4 in the UK – a big fan of Scandinavian TV drama.
After the success of Spiral and The Returned, it was the turn of Witnesses to catch the international market’s attention. A noir thriller set in Northern France, the France 2 show was picked up by Channel 4 in the UK, NRK in Norway, RTBF in Belgium and RTL Crime in Germany. The series was produced by Paris-based Cinétévé and written and directed by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Hernoux, who were behind Les Oubliées (Forgotten Girls) for France 3 and Pigalle La Nuit for Canal+.
In terms of German drama, it’s impossible to look beyond UFA’s Cold War coming-of-age story Deutschland 83. The show aired on RTL in its domestic market and has been sold internationally to more than 20 territories by Fremantle Media International. Buyers have included Sundance in the US, Channel One Russia, TV4 in Scandinavia and Stan in Australia. UK VoD platform Walter Presents has also picked up the title.
Israeli spy series False Flag is continuing the good work done by previous drama titles such as Prisoners of War and In Treatment. In June 2015, the show was picked up by Fox International Channels for use in 127 countries worldwide. Fox is also adapting the series into English.
After Gomorrah forced the world to reappraise Italian drama, Wildside’s 1992 proved it was no fluke. The 10×60’ story of Italian corruption in the 1990s aired on Sky Italia before being picked up by the likes of Orange France, Canal Spain and Superchannel in Canada. In September, the show was also sold to Netflix by distributor Beta Film.
We looked at Korean drama a few months ago here. With the year over, the top show still looks like KBS’s The Producers, which aired in May and June. The story focuses on a group of young producers working in the variety department at KBS. It has sold to China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, while digital streaming rights have been licensed to parts of Europe, the Middle East and North America. China’s online network Sohu paid US$2.4m for the show’s rights.
Latin America/Hispanic US
One of the hottest telenovelas of the year was Dueños Del Paraiso, starring Kate del Castillo, Adriana Barraza and Jorge Zabaleta. Created by Telemundo and TVN Chile, it tells the story of a woman who lives in poverty and whose ambition leads her to use drug trafficking as a means to become one of the most powerful women of her time.
The Netherlands is better known for its entertainment format exports than its drama. But it has given birth to series like Penoza, which was remade in the US as Red Widow. One of this year’s more interesting dramas was public broadcaster VPRO’s De Fractie, a politics-based series that combined fiction and current events. It did this by working as a fast turnaround production so that it could include new developments from the real world. A success at home, it’s the kind of project that could lend itself to international formatting.
Norway is starting to rival Sweden and Denmark when it comes to Nordic Noir series. This year’s big hit was Miso Films’ Acquitted, which tells the story of a man returning to his home town after a long absence – having been acquitted of murdering his girlfriend. A big hit for TV2, the show is distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.
Spanish drama is going through its own golden age at the moment, with titles such as Grand Hotel, Velvet and The Time In Between. All of the above are period dramas, but this year the Spanish have shown that they are also pretty adept at making contemporary thrillers. A good example is Mediaset Espana’s miniseries Los Nuestros (Our Guys), which follows a mission to save two Spanish children kidnapped by a terrorist group while on holiday in Mali. Attracting 3.7 million viewers, it was one of the year’s strong performers and there is talk of a follow-up series. Another strong performer was Atresmedia’s Under Suspicion, in which a seven-year-old girl disappears from a small community, while Hierro won the copro series pitching competition at Berlinale. The latter will air in early 2016.
If we were talking about returning series, then pick of the bunch would undoubtedly be the third season of The Bridge. But among new titles, ITV Studios Global Entertainment-distributed Jordskott is the year’s standout. A supernatural thriller from Sweden’s state broadcaster SVT, the show has been sold to ITV Encore in the UK and to broadcasters across Scandinavia. TV4’s Modus, distributed by FMI, is another new title that looks set to do well abroad.
Turkey is such a prolific producer of drama that it’s hard to single out a particular title. But one show that merits a mention is Dirilis Ertugrul, better known as Resurrection. A period drama set in the 13th century, this was public broadcaster TRT’s response to fellow huge period hit Magnificent Century (aired on Show TV and Star TV). Resurrection (which debuted on December 10, 2014 and ran through 2015) did extremely well for TRT1, delivering ratings well ahead of the channel’s average. It has also been sold internationally to more than 20 territories. Also of note in 2015 was the launch of Magnificent Century sequel Kosem Sultan, which rated particularly well with the AB demographic.
The Brits produced a lot of good drama this year but it’s hard to look beyond Golden Globe nominee Wolf Hall for the country’s outstanding scripted show of the year. Based on Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novel, the show was a success for BBC2 in the UK and also aired on PBS in the US and Arte France, among others. Wolf Hall also sold in Scandinavia and features on BBC Worldwide channels in markets such as Australia.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.
Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).
HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.
While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.
Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.
Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.
All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.
Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”
In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.
Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.
In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.
This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.
Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.
NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.
And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.
One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.
Fresh from the global success of Cold War drama Deutschland 83, Germany’s UFA Fiction is now exploring the political and sexual revolution of 1950s Berlin in Ku’damm 56. Michael Pickard reports.
A tree-lined boulevard filled with shops, restaurants and hotels, Kurfürstendamm is described as the Champs-Élysées of Berlin.
Dating back to around 1542, the 3.5km-long avenue – known as Ku’damm – is now home to an array of fashion houses and boutiques. But in the 1920s, it was the burgeoning scene of many theatres, cafes and nightclubs.
It is also the setting for a new German period drama that has dancing at its heart.
Ku’damm 56 tells the story of Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen), a dance school owner who has three daughters, Helga, Eva and the rebellious Monika. When Monika tries to break free from her mother’s strict social conventions, she begins a search for female equality during a time when women are becoming increasingly unwilling to simply stand by their man.
Produced by UFA Fiction for German broadcaster ZDF, the three-part miniseries is written by Annette Hess and directed by Sven Bohse.
UFA Fiction has been enjoying success on the international stage with Second World War drama Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter) and Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83, which became the first German-language series to air in the US after it was picked up by SundanceTV. It has now been sold to 20 broadcasters and online platforms worldwide.
The production company’s latest story is set in 1956, between the events of those two shows, and focuses the changing role of women 11 years after the end of the Second World War.
Nico Hofmann, CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA, says: “This is the first time a show has focused on women and tells the story of sexual liberation in the 1950s completely from a female perspective.
“I think we will start a huge debate in Germany when it airs because this is a topic nobody has ever had on their agenda. It’s not just a dancing school adventure, it’s about society in those days. It’s very critical, very sharp, and how you deal with sex and how we were educated in those days is the key issue of the whole show.”
Alexander Coridass, president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises, which distributes the series internationally, continues: “It’s the beginning of the sexual revolution. Don’t forget 1956 is only 11 years after the war – even some prisoners of war had only just returned.
“Directly after the war, women had to take over the country. Then the men returned and they wanted to take up their old roles again. Partly, at least, I experienced that myself and it was extremely interesting. On one hand, women were pushed back slightly but they became aware they didn’t have to accept it. This clash of two cultures – pre-war society and the dawn of a new era – led to political and sexual liberation. That’s a unique, spicy, sometimes funny and sometimes dramatic mixture.”
Hofmann is no stranger to using his series to start debates, following the controversy that surrounded Generation War’s depiction of the Nazi era and the subsequent conflict. Now he hopes the story of women finding their way in post-war Germany will spark new discussions.
“It’s a huge topic in Germany,” he says. “It’s very unique because you had a situation where you can say modern Germany was founded by women. There were no men. It wasn’t the same situation as in France or the UK. You had a lot of POWs coming back 10 years later. There were six million men killed. It’s a female society.
“We had a very controversial debate over Generation War. We had a month-long debate in Germany – and in Poland as well. We will have the same with this show because it’s a topic that’s never been seen. I’m amazed no one has done it before.”
Beyond the role of women, Ku’damm 56 – which will likely be called Berlin 56 for international viewers – also offers an opportunity to look at other emerging trends of the era, such as new fashions and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music.
“The fashion was great,” says Coridass. “It was conservative but stylish. At that time, the fashion and rock ‘n’ roll would still have been forbidden but, after the war, we were focused on other things. This was also the first sign of the rise of the German economy after the war. There are so many aspects that come together that we are pretty sure this will be a unique story.”
Hofmann adds: “It’s a very sharp and very critical portrait of society of those days. It’s not easy to watch. The most important thing about Annette’s script is the accuracy with which she’s portraying these women. It’s about our families, our mothers. A lot of it portrays my own mother in those days. It will have a similar impact to Generation War in terms of debate.”
While German drama has often looked back on its own history, Hofmann says the way these stories are told is now changing. “They’re moving away from kitsch and melodramatic structures and getting to a very sharp, analytical way of showing society,” he explains. “That’s why we’re proud of Deutschland 83 and Generation War, which have opened doors for me in other countries. It’s a game-changing moment for the industry in Germany. We’re now talking to (US cable channels) AMC and SundanceTV about new projects, and with Scandinavia, Italy and France about coproductions.”
In particular, Hofmann also says he plans to work more closely with Jens Richter, the CEO of distributor FremantleMedia International, and other drama producers within Fremantle’s production group.
“It’s the best time in my life,” he adds. “We have six shows on the way and made nearly €50m (US$57m) in revenues last year. We are having some very good conversations talking about what we’re doing after Deutschland 83 with SundanceTV.”
Other projects currently on UFA’s slate include three-part spy drama The Same Sky; Breaking News, about a war correspondent operating in Israel in the 1920s; and Hitler, an eight-hour biopic examining events from the Nazi leader’s rise to power to the Second World War. Based on the book Hitler’s First War by Thomas Weber, it has already been pre-sold to TF1 in France.
Another UFA drama, Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves), which tells the story of a three-year-old Jewish boy who is smuggled into the Buchenwald concentration camp in March 1945, has been sold by Global Screen to networks including SVT in Sweden, Spain’s TVE, DR in Denmark, Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
In recent years there has been a small but significant trend for non-English-language drama to be aired in its original form in English-speaking markets. This began with the export of Nordic scripted content, such as Borgen, but has since expanded to encompass French, German and Italian shows – including Les Revenants, Generation War and Inspector Montalbano respectively.
For the most part, this trend has involved the sales of shows to British broadcasters and subscription VoD platforms. But there was a major breakthrough earlier this year when US cable channel SundanceTV picked up the original version of Deutschland 83, an eight-part drama from UFA Fiction set in during the latter years of the Cold War.
Nico Hofmann, producer and chairman of UFA Fiction, said of the deal: “Never has a German-language series received so much attention before broadcast. Sundance TV’s reputation for exceptional series is yet further confirmation of Deutschland 83’s high quality. This is a milestone for German TV production.”
The arrival of Deutschland 83 in the US brought a lot of mainstream PR and a positive critical response. For example, Variety called it a “taut spy thriller” that “mixes coming-of-age material for the protagonist and intrigue from the tense political climate that Germans on both side of the (Berlin) Wall faced in the 1980s.”
It also scored well on IMDb, securing an 8.6 rating out 10. To put this in perspective, it is higher than Orange is the New Black (8.4) and Sense8 (8.5) – albeit based on a much smaller voting sample.
Deutschland 83’s positive reviews, however, haven’t transformed into very high ratings for Sundance. With the last episode airing on August 8, the website ShowBuzzDaily has the show’s ratings coming in at around 70,000-100,000.
Clearly, caveats need to be made regarding time-shifted viewing, repeat airing and the ferocious competitiveness of the US market, but this figure suggests the US cable audience isn’t quite ready for non-English language drama.
To compare with the UK, an equally competitive but much smaller market, this kind of content would probably secure an audience somewhere in the region of 500,000.
Deutschland 83’s ratings may have been impacted by the fact it is at the forefront of a new wave, and Sundance is to be applauded in this respect. So it may be that the AMC Networks-owned channel will need to persist with foreign-language drama in order to build up a loyal audience base. In the meantime, the best bet for foreign-language producers will continue to be the formats route.
All of this shouldn’t, however, have a negative impact on Deutschland 83’s sales performance elsewhere in the world, where language is not such a barrier.
Distributor FremantleMedia International has, for example, sold the series to Canal+ France and numerous mainstream broadcasters across Scandinavia.
Still with the AMC family, this Sunday will see AMC air the last episode of Humans. A bona fide hit for Channel 4 in the UK, which recently renewed the show, Humans has proved a steady but not spectacular performer for AMC. After debuting with 1.7 million viewers, it has been running at about 1.1-1.2 million ever since. AMC is already on board the second season.
Meanwhile, this was a big week for ABC Family’s long-running hit series Pretty Little Liars, with Tuesday’s Game Over Charles episode involving a big reveal. For six seasons, the show’s central characters have been hounded by a mysterious enemy, whose identity was finally revealed this week.
The result was a two-year ratings high for the show among its target 18-34 and 18-49 demographics. With 3.1 million total viewers and 1.8 million viewers among 18-49s, the show was also the top performer across all US cable viewing.
The ABC group has established a good reputation for its ability to build social media buzz around its shows, and Pretty Little Liars is a prime example. With 1.6 million tweets, the latest episode became the third most tweeted-about scripted show in cable TV history, accounting for 50% of all TV tweet activity for the day.
Significantly, the only shows ahead of it in this list are also episodes of Pretty Little Liars. All told, the show has three million Twitter followers and 3.4 million Instagram followers.
Commenting on the programme’s social media performance, Jenn Deering Davis, editor-in-chief of social analytics firm Union Metrics, said: “Pretty Little Liars’ finale was a true Twitter triumph. ABC Family continues to innovate in how it encourages fan participation across social media, never content to let its social strategy stagnate. Before the finale even started yesterday, Pretty Little Liars fans had already posted more than two million tweets about the show, breaking previous all-day records. Pretty Little Liars still has one of the most active and engaged Twitter fandoms in existence.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, ABC Family has already commissioned two further seasons.
There was also good news this week for The Last Ship, commissioned for a third season of 13 episodes by US cable channel TNT. According to the channel, the Sunday-night show is “basic cable’s top scripted series this summer with adults 25-54.”
The programme is currently nine episodes through its second season and is a steady performer with ratings of around 2.9 million. TNT has also set things up so that authenticated users can watch all previous episodes of the show on an on-demand basis.
This summer the series is “reaching an average of nine million viewers across TNT’s linear, VoD, digital and mobile platforms,” according to the channel.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, The Last Ship chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly destroys the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy, forcing captain and crew to confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they are among the few remaining survivors.
We’re only a few weeks away from the all-important autumn season and a lot of buzz is building around NBC’s new scripted series Blindspot. The show focuses on a mysterious tattooed woman who has lost her memory and does not know her own identity. On her back is the name of an FBI agent, who soon learns that the other tattoos on her body contain clues to upcoming crimes.
The two-minute trailer shows the lead character, played by Jaimie Alexander (Thor), being found naked in a holdall in the middle of New York’s Times Square. So perhaps not surprisingly it has racked up millions of views on YouTube. The big question now is whether Blindspot can sustain the narrative beyond an intriguing opening premise.
The show was created by Martin Gero and Greg Berlanti, who recently discussed it at the Television Critics Association’s summer press event. Gero’s enigmatic assessment was that Blindspot is “a procedural for people who don’t like procedurals, and a character drama for people who don’t like character dramas.”
He added: “There is an overarching mythology to this show week to week. You’re going to get some great resolution by the end of the year – you’re going to get some great resolution by the end of episode two. As we come through this mythology, there are a lot of twists and turns.”
A spokesman for FremantleMedia International, which distributes Deutschland 83, has provided further viewing figures for the show on Sundance. She said: “Over its eight episodes Deutschland 83 significantly outperformed the Sundance slot average share across several key demographics and more than doubled the average in the channel target audience adults 25-54 (Live+3D). Deutschland83exceeded the Sundance slot average share by 83% for total individuals 2+, 109% among 25-54s, 73% among 18-49s and 59% among women 18+ (Series 1, Live+3 Days).”
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.
US remakes of foreign-language dramas have often struggled in the recent past, with shows such as The Returned ending up on the scrapheap. But could this negative trend be fixed with AMC’s forthcoming series Broke?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That seems to be the message from US drama executives who are continuing to look for overseas formats that they can turn into their next drama hit.
Cable network SundanceTV broke the mould earlier this month when it debuted Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 to critical and popular acclaim. Commissioned by RTL, it is the first time a German-language series has aired in the US and the channel should be praised for its decision to air the UFA Fiction-produced spy drama in its original form.
But it does seem to be the exception to the rule that American networks prefer to remake foreign-language dramas, and that trend has continued today with news that SundanceTV’s sister station AMC has gone straight-to-series on another reboot.
Broke tells the story of two best friends who take one last shot at their dream of opening a restaurant together. One is a brilliant chef in trouble with the mob and the law, while the other is the best sommelier in the city and the widowed father of a teenage son.
Based on Danish series Bankerot (aka Bankruptcy, pictured top), which was created by Kim Fupz Aakeson and airs on public broadcaster DR, it will be coproduced in the US by AMC Studios and Lionsgate. The rights were sold by DR Sales.
Nurse Jackie showrunner Clyde Phillips, whose credits also include Dexter, will write and executive produce the 10-part series, which is expected to air in 2016.
“Broke is unique, edgy and sexy. I can’t wait to jump in and help it evolve into a groundbreaking bit of television,” said Phillips. “More than that, I’m looking forward to continuing what’s been a remarkable partnership with Lionsgate, and starting out on an exciting new adventure with AMC.”
It’s also interesting to note that many creatives from the Danish series are retaining a role on the US adaptation, with Henrik Ruben Genz, Malene Blenkov and DR head of drama Piv Bernth all named as executive producers.
Describing Bankerot as DR’s “little gem,” Bernth said: “There’s no doubt Kim Fupz Aakeson’s story of Thomas and Dion – who really is bankrupt, mentally, emotionally and financially – hits something universal. The series’ message that if we stand together and help each other against all odds, we should be fine, fits well all over the world and especially in the US. It’s great that the series will have a new life in multiple languages.”
The show has already been sold in its original form to French/German network Arte, but the deal with AMC marks the first time remake rights have been secured.
DR can now expect a flood of enquiries from other international networks interested in picking up Bankerot, such is the power of a US acquisition – whatever its form.
But that doesn’t mean the remake will be an instant success, as US networks have a decidedly chequered history with their adaptations of international hits. Most recently, A&E scrapped The Returned, its reworking of French zombie drama Les Revenants, after one season, while AMC has previously adapted another DR drama, Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing). It survived for three seasons, with a fourth picked up by Netflix. But it never translated into the breakout success the original series enjoyed.
FX also ran two seasons of The Bridge, a reworking of the Swedish/Danish crime drama Bron/Broen, before it was cancelled last October.
Of course, there have been successes, most notably Homeland, Showtime’s take on Israeli drama Hatufim that’s now heading into its fifth season.
But while all eyes will be on whether Broke takes off after its launch next year, it is more intriguing to see whether Sundance’s gamble on a foreign-language series will see more US channels following its lead and opening the floodgates to a wave of subtitled drama reaching American shores.
Television schedules are no strangers to stories of war. From BBC1’s The Crimson Field, which was produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War last year, to RTL’s Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83, conflicts continue to provide scriptwriters with a host of compelling stories.
Fresh from producing historical epic 1864, which is set against the backdrop of one of Europe’s bloodiest ever battles, Denmark’s Miso Film is now turning its attention to a drama that will examine issues that are new to the country.
The prodco has partnered with writer/director Christoffer Boe for six-part series Warrior (fka Prospect), which is based on an idea from Boe and is being developed with Simon Pasternak.
It tells the story of a former soldier who struggles to find his way back into society after returning home from war. When he learns that a friend and fellow former soldier has committed suicide, he sets out to learn the truth behind his death.
Miso Film co-founder Jonas Allen says Warrior confronts a topic that is still very new for people in Denmark. He explains: “Christoffer is a very talented director so we wanted to work with him – but we really liked the story. It’s about a soldier coming back from war in Afghanistan. This is new in Denmark – having veterans coming back, having people in service and Denmark stepping into a war in present times.
“This story is about a soldier returning and trying to cope, but he can’t really find his place in society. I think that’s very interesting in the time we’re in right now.”
Warrior is set to go into production in spring 2016, and will air on TV2 in Denmark.
Meanwhile, 1864 was recently nominated for Best Drama at the Golden Nymph Awards, which took place earlier this month at the Monte Carlo TV Festival (though the prize was won by UK/US copro The Missing). The show’s stars Jens Setter-Lassen and Sarah-Sofie Boussnina were also nominated, for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively.
The eight-part series tells the story of two brothers who sign up for the army when war breaks out between Denmark and Prussia, and follows the love triangle they become embroiled in during a brutal conflict.
Allen says: “1864 aired last fall on DR. We were very pleased – we had one of the greatest openings. I think it was about 1.8 million viewers or 67% audience share. Our average was 1.4 million viewers, which was great.
“You look forward to the premiere and the reaction, and then it came out on BBC Four. It’s overwhelming that people really loved the show. It’s a great launch for the international market, and it also just premiered on Arte in France.”
Miso Film is also preparing to begin shooting the third season of its TV2 crime drama Dicte, which is based on Elsebeth Egholm’s novels. Production will get underway in September.
Built on a new willingness to tackle historical subject matter and increasing viewer acceptance of English-language shows, German drama is making international headway. DQ finds out how it’s all coming together for this growing industry.
In recent years the global dominance of Anglo-American TV drama has been challenged by a wave of innovative scripted shows from Scandinavia, France, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Korea.
But one country that should now be added to this list of emerging drama hubs is Europe’s powerhouse economy Germany. So long regarded as a creatively conservative market, Germany triumphed at 2014’s International Emmys with acclaimed miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, pictured top). Other German-language dramas that suggest this will not be a one-off include Babylon Berlin, Shades Of Guilt and Deutschland 83.
All of this activity around German-language scripted content comes in parallel with the rise of German-backed English-language drama. Companies like Tandem Communications, Red Arrow Entertainment and Tele Munchen Group (TMG) have all become major players on the international drama scene with scripted series such as Pillars Of The Earth, Crossing Lines, Bosch, 100 Code, Moby Dick and Rosamunde Pilcher-penned miniseries. In addition to this, federal and regional incentives for film and TV have made Germany a popular production site (see panel).
To understand the German drama market in its entirety, however, it’s important to start by looking at the free-to-air public broadcasting market – which is where most of the drama audience and investment still resides. And the message here is that TV movies continue to dominate schedules. “Our audience loves TV movies,” says Susanne Mueller, head of feature films at one of Germany’s two public broadcasters, ZDF. “ZDF has been the overall leader in the German market for the past two years, and a lot of that is due to the success of our TV movies, which play in the traditional primetime slot of 20.15. We have two or three primetime slots for TV movies every week and typically get an audience of five million or more, which is very good in Germany.”
According to Mueller, there are three main categories of TV movie on ZDF: “Crime, romance and dramas dealing with contemporary social issues (such as drugs, stalking, adoption and sexuality). Sometimes we will also air comedy in the middle of the week, though that is less regular. We also sometimes acquire miniseries like The Borgias and reformat them to fit our TV movie slots.”
ZDF’s reliance on TV movies in primetime is mirrored over on ARD, Germany’s other public broadcaster. Despite a self-inflicted financial crisis that severely dented budgets at the broadcaster’s drama division, ARD Degeto, in 2012 and 2013, ARD continues to air a large number of TV movie-length dramas in primetime. Some are standalone titles and some are set up as branded franchises. An example of the latter is Tatort (Crime Scene), which has been airing at 20.15 on Sundays since 1970 and invariably rates well. Another long-running police franchise that continues to perform for ARD is Polizeiruf 110 (Emergency Call 110), on air since 1990.
ARD Degeto came out of its financial crisis with a dynamic new chief, Christine Strobl, who has a budget of around €400m (US$455m) a year to spend on drama. While ARD’s basic reliance on TV movies hasn’t changed, Strobl has made it clear that she wants to up the creative stakes at ARD, telling local media that the formula “‘beautiful landscape plus complicated family history equals success’ is no longer enough.” One title that underlines the new agenda at ARD is The Barschel Case. Produced by Cologne-based Time Warp, the show looks at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of German politician Uwe Barschel in 1987, who may have been killed by Israeli secret service the Mossad.
Other ARD greenlights include biopics about Hans Rosenthal and Bernhard Grzimek, high-profile German figures whose career paths were dogged by personal difficulties. Rosenthal was a Jewish radio and TV host who overcame anti-Semitism in his youth to become one of Germany’s best-loved celebrities, while Grzimek was a zoo director and conservationist who was accused of being a Nazi but later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Like the Barschel film, both subjects show a growing appetite from German television to explore the country’s recent tumultuous history through the prism of character-based storytelling.
Germany’s fascination with domestically oriented TV movies has presented challenges from a content distribution perspective for a couple of reasons. First, international buyers tend to favour long-running series, because it is easier and more cost-effective to build a marketing program around them. Second, TV movies don’t lend themselves well to scripted format adaptations.
Nevertheless, leading distributors such as ZDF Enterprises, Global Screen and Beta Film have all had success selling German TV movies to markets like Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Beta Film MD Eric Welbers cites recent examples such as Anatomy of Evil (a five-movie franchise) to back the point. “The Anatomy Of Evil series has sold to RAI2, Antena3 and broadcasters in Scandinavia,” he says.
Welbers is also optimistic about the prospects of Murder by the Lake: The Celtic Mystery, the first part of a TV movie trilogy produced by Rowboat Film in partnership with Graf, ZDF and Austrian pubcaster ORF. Set on the shores of Lake Constance, the trilogy depicts German and Austrian police forced to work together on a murder case. The film attracted 6.6 million viewers on ZDF (20% share) last winter, and Welbers is confident it will do well with international buyers.
Global Screen, meanwhile, has had success with A Faithful Husband (Männertreu), an ARD primetime movie that was sold to Italy (RAI), Slovakia (STV) and Hungary (MTVA). It has also done well with Naked Among Wolves, which was pitched at Mipcom 2014 and the German Screenings last December. Directed by Philip Kadelbach (Generation War) and set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, the show aired in April and has since been sold into France, Poland, Benelux and Lithuania.
With TV movies occupying so much of their primetime schedules, ZDF and ARD tend to place series in afternoon, access primetime or late evening slots. “When we acquire British or Scandinavian drama series they usually go into the Sunday 22.00 slot,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “That’s also where we put our German crime series called The Team (which began airing in February).” An eight-part series, distributed internationally by ZDFE, The Team follows an international police unit on the trail of a cross-border crime network.
As with TV movies, German-language series have historically tended to appeal most to neighbouring markets. Betafilm’s Welbers cites Homicide Hills, a Tuesday night series on ARD that is also a strong performer on RAI in Italy, as an example. Also popular in Italy and Eastern Europe is another classic series, For Heaven’s Sake. One show that has travelled widely, says Welbers, is Kommissar Rex, a long-running police procedural centred on a police dog called Rex. Originally produced in German for Austrian pubcaster ORF, Rex has sold around the world and been remade in Italy and Poland. According to Welbers, there are also plans for a Canadian version.
ZDF Enterprises drama VP Tasja Abel says crime has historically been the strongest seller in her company’s catalogue. In particular, she points to classic series Derrick, a ZDF production that sold to markets including Australia, India, South Africa, France and Scandinavia. Global Screen has also done well with cop show Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been airing on RTL since 1996. A perennial seller, Cobra was most recently farmed out to Thailand.
Away from crime, another German-language show that has been exported widely is Storm of Love, an afternoon soap based in a five-star hotel at the foot of the Alps. Launched in 2005, the show is produced by Bavaria Film for ARD. To date, it has racked up more than 2000 50-minute episodes and been sold by Global Screen to 24 territories, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy. With format rights also sold to Turkey, the show was named by Madigan Cluff and Digital TV Research as “one of the 10 most valuable drama series in Europe” in 2012.
Undoubtedly the most interesting export of all, however, has been 2013’s Generation War, a high-end production that tells the story of five young German friends (one of them Jewish) living through the trauma of the Second World War. Described as Germany’s answer to Band of Brothers, the miniseries has sold to around 150 countries and, unusually, managed to secure slots on mainstream English-language networks like BBC2 in the UK.
At home, Generation War was adapted into a TV movie format and played in ZDF primetime, an unusual move for such an edgy production. For Nico Hofmann, producer of the show and head of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Films, Generation War is indicative of a new style and energy in German drama: “We have a very strong business in traditional TV movies and crime dramas, thanks to titles like Soko (ZDF) and Donna Leon (ARD), but there is a growing appetite in the market for high-end drama storytelling.”
In part, this is because broadcasters need special events to showcase their schedules, says Hofmann. But it is also a response to the fact that young German audiences are increasingly attracted to the slick narrative style of US cable drama. “The good news is that we have a wave of young talent coming over from cinema that can make great drama,” he explains. “But the unknown question is whether this kind of drama can get the kind of ratings to appeal to a mainstream primetime audience.”
This isn’t just a question for the public broadcasters, says Hofmann. Commercial broadcaster RTL (which owns RTL, RTL2 SuperRTL and Vox) has tended to rely more on factual and entertainment in primetime, “but it is expanding its interest in drama. We are making Deutschland 83 for them, a series about a young East German spy who is sent to West Berlin during the Cold War. If that can get around four to five million viewers in primetime then it might encourage broadcasters to commission more primetime series.”
Like ZDF and ARD, RTL’s upcoming drama plans focus heavily on historical subject matter. Aside from Deutschland 83, the broadcaster is also working with UFA on an epic eight-part series that looks at Adolf Hitler’s life as a soldier during World War I (a project that is likely to stir up as much debate as Generation War).
More typical for RTL is the TV movie Iron Fist, which was introduced to the international market by Global Screen at Mipcom 2014. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of Götz von Berlichinge, a charismatic knight who fought for the Holy Roman Empire. According to Global Screen, the film has attracted interested from markets such as France, Benelux, Eastern Europe and Asia.
While RTL doesn’t commission as much drama as ZDF or ARD in primetime, it has done extremely well in daytime with reality dramas from Filmpool, a subsidiary of All3Media. Filmpool’s Felix Wesseler says the company first hit on the idea of reality drama a decade ago and now produces around 1500 hours a year, primarily for non-primetime slots on RTL and its main rival in the free-to-air commercial TV market, Sat1. “The idea is to take real-life situations and amateur actors and then place them in a scripted drama scenario. The result is a very compelling drama at an efficient production cost, with format potential,” he explains.
Wesseler cites examples like Cases of Doubt, a family-based whodunnit in which an unsuspecting husband or wife is confronted with the possibility that a family member might have committed a crime. Now up to 600 episodes, Cases of Doubt doubled RTL’s share in its daytime slot and has been sold on to Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other examples of this approach include Families at the Crossroads and Berlin Day & Night, a youth-based series that airs in post-primetime on RTL2.
A big hit on TV, Day & Night also has a strong online following and has spawned a spin-off series, Cologne 50667. Both series are hitting audience shares of 16-17% of 14-49s against a channel average that is generally sub-10%. “I think this is one of German drama’s mega-trends,” says Wesseler. “We’ve just been commissioned to make a new series for primetime (details regarding subject matter and broadcaster still under wraps) which will allow us to see if this format can extend to those commercially important slots.”
Like RTL, Germany’s other major commercial broadcaster Pro7Sat1 (owner of Sat1, Pro7 and Kabel 1) doesn’t air as much primetime drama as the pubcasters. However, Jochen Ketschau, its senior VP of German fiction and coproduction, stresses that “German drama has always been and still is a crucial element in the portfolio for Sat1. Key slots on Sat1 are Monday night (20.15 and 21.15) for serial drama. And Tuesday is Movie Night. For more than 20 years, Sat1 has been showing German fictional movies in this same timeslot.”
Sat1 is well known for historical movies as well as romantic comedy, comedy and drama, says Ketschau. Successes include Die Hebamme, the story of a young woman in 1799 whose ambition to train as a midwife sees her embroiled in a murder-mystery in university town Marburg.
Among other titles that have worked well for Sat1, Ketschau picks out Der Letzte Bulle and Danni Lowinski, “both of which are very successful and unique shows that have won several prizes over the past five years and have also been licensed for international markets.” In ratings terms, Ketschau says: “A good share is more or less 10% in our main target group of women aged 30-49.”
Recent times have seen Sat1 inject a new kind of energy into its primetime schedule with politics-based dramas, says Ketschau. One is Der Rucktritt, a docu-drama that follows the events leading to the resignation of former German president Christian Wulff (2010-2012). Another is Der Minister, a satire on the rise and fall of a young political star. The TV movie, produced by UFA-owned teamWorx, is loosely based on the plagiarism scandal that engulfed former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
As with RTL (owner of FremantleMedia), it’s important to keep in mind that Pro7Sat1 has positioned itself as an international TV business. In terms of drama, this manifests itself in two ways. First, the company sometimes joins projects as a coproduction partner. For example, it has teamed up with Munich-based Tandem Communications on a number of projects, including Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, Labyrinth and Crossing Lines.
Second, it is directly plugged into the English-language drama market through its international production/distribution division Red Arrow, whose projects include Bosch, 100 Code and Esio Trot.
Strategically, this approach allows Red Arrow to build up a slate of titles that are more attractive to buyers than the majority of German drama. It also means there is a significant level of German input on any English-language drama that is sold back into the German market.
This latter point reflects the pragmatism of the German TV market. While German drama is still the most popular form of scripted content, years of exposure to Hollywood movies and series have created a familiarity with and acceptance of dubbed English-language content. A good example of this is TMG’s run of TV movies/miniseries based on the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (recent examples being The Other Wife, Unknown Heart and Valentine’s Kiss). These are aired on ZDF but shot in English so that TMG can sell them internationally. It’s a strategy that works. ZDF gets good ratings, while TMG sells the shows to more than 20 countries, including the likes of Spain, Scandinavia and Australia.
With more and more successful international coproductions, there’s increased willingness among German broadcasters to see this as a primary route to sourcing content. “A growing number of German producers want to see their drama succeed internationally but are restricted by the language,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “So we are seeing more projects that feature German actors and locations but are shot in English.”
Like its commercially owned counterparts, ZDF Enterprises is also investing more time and money in the international drama arena. In June 2014, it joined forces with executive producer Uwe Kersken to form G5 fiction, a joint venture designed to create original drama (miniseries, long-running series and event productions – predominantly history) with German and international market potential. Among G5’s first projects for the international market are the series Alexander the Great, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Vikings) as showrunner, and a miniseries called Ellis Island.
One interesting feature of the German market over the past two decades has been the strength of its free-to-air market compared with those of the US, UK and France. From a drama perspective, this has meant German pay TV has not really been a major contributor to drama investment when compared with US cable, Sky UK and Canal+.
Beta Film’s Welbers believes this might be about to change, and points to Babylon Berlin as evidence: “Babylon Berlin is a coproduction between X-Filme, ARD, Sky Germany and Beta Film that is an example of the creative risk-taking we are starting to see.”
Based on novels by Volker Kutscher, the show is set in 1920s Berlin and centres on police inspector Gereon Rath. The TV version will be headed by showrunner Tom Tykwer, whose directing credits include Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
All the partners involved see Babylon Berlin as a groundbreaking project. It is, for example, the first time ARD has gone down this kind of coproduction route with Sky Deutschland. “In order to realise this costly and intricate project, we wanted to try out a new form of co-operation with Sky,” explains ARD Chairman Lutz Marmor. “It could also be a viable model for the future.”
As for Sky Deutschland, Gary Davey, executive VP of programming at Sky, says of the show: “The story is perfectly suited to our mission statement to offer our customers high-quality productions. It describes a very special place at a very special point in history. Babylon Berlin will be the perfect addition to our successful US series.”
According to Welbers, a further illustration of the growing ambition of German pay TV channels is Weinberg, a six-hour psycho thriller series that will air on TNT Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. Produced by Bantry Bay and Twenty Four 9 Films with Gerda Müller, Jan Kromschörder and Philipp Steffens, international distribution is again being managed by Beta Film.
The strength of Germany’s indigenous drama market, combined with its attraction to US and Scandinavian content, means it has never been a big buyer of scripted formats. But there are a couple of important examples produced by UFA for RTL. One is the long-running soap Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, adapted from the Australian series Good Times, Bad Times. Another, more recent example is a local adaptation of female prison drama Wentworth. Produced originally by FremantleMedia Australia, UFA went into production with a German version in March last year.
As evident throughout the above story, a large part of the current drama drive is built around historical subjects. If there are two notable trends here, they are the following: a willingness to tackle subjects previously thought of as taboo (like Hitler and the Nazis); and a greater exploration of periods outside WW2.
One of the richest sources of ideas is the period before the East-West reunification. Aside from Deutschland 83, for example, there has been Annette Hess’s critically acclaimed Weissensee, a family drama set in communist East Germany during the 1980s. The show first aired in 2010 and, having achieved a strong audience of around six million, will return for a third series this year. The show has also proved popular internationally, selling to Benelux, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
Also of note is Bornholm Street, an ARD TV movie that took a light-hearted look at the final few hours of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of an East German border guard. The film attracted 7.5 million viewers and was named TV event of the year at the prestigious BAMBI Awards. Like Deutschland 83, it shows a new side to German drama, by tackling tough historical subjects through an ironic storytelling style more typical of the US and UK.
UFA’s Hofmann cites additional examples to underline the point about the historical flavour of German drama. One is Die Ärzte (The Doctors), which is set at the end of the 19th century in the world-famous Charité hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Another is Berlin Kurfürstendamm, the story of three young women in 1950s Berlin. “A lot of people talk about the fact that modern Germany was created by a generation of strong women, because so many men died in the war,” he says. “So this is a look at the era of sexual and social liberation they lived through.”
One other interesting dynamic worth mentioning in Germany is the existence of a strong bond between theatrical and TV, a situation that makes sense when you take account of ZDF and ARD’s dependence on TV movies. At last count, more than half of all feature films made in Germany had TV money in the budget (though there was a dip during ARD Degeto’s crisis).
A good recent example of this relationship at its best is Der Medicus (The Physician), a €10m UFA Cinema production which was a box-office success before going on to air as a two-part miniseries in ARD primetime. Hofmann says this kind of collaboration is acting as a blueprint with a raft of new projects being lined up for theatrical then television release. Worth noting here is that Der Medicus was shot in English and featured high-profile international stars Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Kingsley.
Echoing developments in other territories, increased quality in the TV market is encouraging some movie producers to place greater emphasis on TV production. A good case in point is Constantin Film, which has announced plans for TV series spin-offs of its Mortal Instruments and Resident Evil movies.
In addition, Constantin subsidiary Moovie, run by producer Oliver Berben, has been making its mark with some strong drama series. Following the success of period piece Hotel Adlon, Constantin/Moovie made Shades of Guilt, a 6×60’ legal/crime series based on true cases and featuring Moritz Bleibtreu. Distributed by Beta Film, the well-received show “is not a crime-solving series but a series that explores the motives of the people who commit crimes,” explains Beta Films’ Welbers.
The growing significance of TV is also having an impact on the European Film Market, which took place this year from February 5-13 in Berlin. This year, an expanded emphasis on TV saw the launch of a Drama Series Day and enhanced opportunities for screening, buying, selling and coproduction dialogue.
Explaining the move, Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the EFM, said: “Unusual, often complex and sophisticated, stories combined with high production values and a first-class acting ensemble are now the trademarks of successful drama series, and they have moved the format closer to film. It was therefore natural for us to offer series producers and creators a platform at the EFM for the first time.”
Finally, it’s impossible to write a drama story these days without some reference to SVoD platform Netflix. Netflix Germany opened for business in September last year with its standard offering of series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and The Killing. There is no news yet on German-language originals, but the strength of the local SVoD competition (Watchever, Maxdome, Amazon) combined with the use of local-language originals during the recent launch in France suggests that may be the next step.