Sara Johnsen, the co-creator and writer of Norwegian drama 22 Juli (July 22), tells DQ about her approach to dramatising the devastating terror attacks that struck Oslo and the island of Utøya on that date in 2011.
For Norwegians, July 22 is a date that will live forever in infamy. On that day in 2011, the country witnessed its deadliest ever terrorist attack as eight people died in a bombing in the capital, Oslo, and a further 69 young people were killed in a shooting on nearby island Utøya.
Anders Breivik, a Norwegian extremist critical of Muslim immigration and European liberalism, was later jailed for 21 years for committing acts of terror and voluntary homicide.
Screenwriter and director Sara Johnsen was also in Oslo that day, working on her third feature film, Uskyld (All That Matters is Past), when she heard a big bang. “I thought it was thunder so I went outside and looked at the sky,” she recalls.
“Then the news started to come. We saw it was an explosion and then we found out there was a shooter. We then understood it was a terrorist attack and became really frightened. There were a lot of worries and emotions, and concern for all the victims and the innocence of our country. Nothing like this ever happens in Norway.”
Two years later, Johnsen and her director husband Pål Sletaune started work on a series about the shocking events that rocked the country. But rather than simply dramatise the attack as it unfolded in Oslo and then on Utøya, they were inspired by the approach used for Treme, HBO’s New Orleans drama set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I felt it was impossible to create a fictional person who wasn’t really there to represent someone who was really there,” Johnsen says. “How could you choose which person to represent? It still felt very close in time to the terror attack. But we were watching Treme and both thought this was a really interesting way to work with catastrophe and the consequences, by looking at the people indirectly involved.
“From then, we started to work with this angle and, doing all the research, we got more and more of an idea of how to create the series.”
They took their idea to pubcaster NRK in 2014 and found the broadcaster immediately receptive. Kjetil Østli and Ola Henmo worked with the showrunners as researchers over the following two years, with Kjersti Wøien Håland then joining a writers room that was set up to shape the storyline and the scripts. Gjyljeta Berisha co-directs alongside Sletaune, with the NRK-produced drama distributed internationally by DRG.
The six-part series is set before and after the attack, culminating in Breivik’s trial a year on from the atrocities, with viewers following the story through five fictional characters: Anine, a journalist for Aftenpost; Anne Catherine, an anaesthesiologist at Ullevål hospital; police officer Eivind; teacher Helga; and right-wing blogger Mads.
Anine’s investigation into the terrorist’s childhood was inspired by Aage Borchgrevink’s book A Norwegian Tragedy, while Anne Catherine, Eivind and Helga were constructed from interviews with medical staff, police officers and teachers, respectively. Mads was created to represent right-wing voices on blogs, discussion forums and other websites.
The terrorist responsible for the attacks, however, is rarely shown, played by extras on the three occasions he is seen on screen – and even then he is only shown from behind, adhering to the creators’ desire that the show be a story about how terror affects society and its people, rather than the orchestrator.
Johnsen says she and Sletaune felt a lot of pressure and faced many ethical challenges when creating fictional characters from the real accounts of those who were involved in the aftermath of the attacks.
“We are using a lot of real experiences and creating fictional characters. It’s a delicate matter because sometimes you feel some people might think, ‘that’s me.’ But we talked to many people and told them they could be anonymous,” she explains.
“That was challenging, to turn real life into drama. In reality, things tend to happen really suddenly and then nothing happens for a long time. It doesn’t have a natural dramaturgy, so you have to work out how to dramatise these real events. That was perhaps the main challenge, organising time.”
What shocked them most during their extensive research was how people found the systems they worked in actually hindered their ability to do their jobs. “All the time, they were thinking about budgets, money and reporting to their boss,” Johnsen says. “For me and Pål, this wasn’t something we thought about beforehand, so it was something new to us.
“When we started to work with the hospital, we heard how it was going to merge with another hospital and the doctors felt suppressed because they couldn’t say what they thought and couldn’t speak freely because of the hierarchy in the hospital. As an artist, I’m not used to that. If I want to fight with my boss at NRK, I just do it. I’m not afraid he will fire me. So I was very naive, not knowing how these systems work and how people feel it.
“Also, in the police, the boss doesn’t even know how it feels to be a police officer. It was all very interesting and enlightening for us. That was not so present from the start; it was something we learned when we did the research.”
Initially, each episode of the series was to be set in a different precinct – the police, hospital, the newspaper office and so on – returning to July 22 each time to see how events unfolded in those arenas. “But after we had written some of those, we thought it was too boring, so we started to create a more traditional drama with characters,” Johnsen admits.
“The really difficult thing was writing characters without giving them personal problems. When we got some feedback from a reader, they said there were too many characters and the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the story because they wouldn’t be able to get interested in the characters. That really stressed me out. We spent a lot of time thinking about it. Then we had this challenge to tell everything factual that happened on July 22, and it’s difficult to combine it with the drama. That was a puzzle.”
Episode one opens before July 22, when a van delivers six tonnes of fertiliser to a property belonging to Anders Breivik. A fertiliser bomb was responsible for the explosion in Oslo. The first instalment also introduces many of the central characters and highlights some of the problems they face in their jobs. Episode two then covers the bombing in the Norwegian capital’s government quarter, with journalists watching smoke billowing around their office and teacher Helga searching for her missing son as stunned survivors mix with emergency service workers racing into action.
Subsequent parts then cover the Utøya shooting, the immediate aftermath of the attacks and the trial.
When it came to recreating the bombing – an explosion so big it rocks the characters mentally and physically – Johnsen says they had to manoeuvre the characters so they would be in town to see what happens. “The head of drama told us we could afford one big special effect, so we first planned for Helga to see it [the explosion], but then we wrote Anine’s story so she also would be in the centre and she would see the government building after the bombing.
“Pål and I wanted to recreate the feeling of chaos in the town but, at the same time, some other characters just see the smoke from a distance.
“With Utøya, we knew we did not want to be there during the shooting as our characters could not be there, so the challenge was how to tell the story from a distance and still feel the tragedy and terror. We found out Anine could be sent there by her boss as the news about Utøya came. The trauma team at Ullevål is also an important element in the storytelling, focusing on the way the doctors reacted when all those wounded young people came in.”
Central to the development and production process was the showrunners’ desire for realism at all times, a quality heightened by their decision to largely cast unknown actors, save for Alexandra Gjerpen (Norsemen) as Anine.
“Pål took responsibility for how to create this realism and what it was going to look like,” Johnsen says. “He’s very concerned about details, and that’s a very important part of the series. The human faces and their reactions to terror – that’s the main idea for the visuals. There are a lot of realistic details from the hospitals from which you can tell a bigger story, so that was important. He improvised a lot in the beginning of each scene. He doesn’t plan too much, which is very demanding but it made for good footage.”
Johnsen then spent a year-and-a-half in the editing room alongside the filmmaker’s longtime editor, Zaklina Stojcevska, cutting the material.
She says working alongside her husband also meant they both stayed fully engaged in the project. “We sat up almost every evening when he came home from the set – we sat in our kitchen and went through the next day,” she explains. Things would change because maybe we didn’t get a location or I would have to rewrite some dialogue. It’s been a very good experience that we don’t regret. This incident is so much bigger than our own egos, so we would always go back to the real events and say, ‘This is important because it happened.’”
Ultimately, making July 22 has been “the most meaningful project I’ve ever done,” says Johnsen, whose work on the show has seen her nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond prize, which recognises outstanding writing of a Nordic drama. It takes place as part of the Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event.
“It’s been really engaging and very sad, sometimes too sad. But, at the same time, it’s been really meaningful and important,” she adds. “I really like to work for a long time on something. NRK gave us a lot of freedom, responsibility and trust from both the producer and head of drama. The working process felt very important.
“I want to tell people what happened, but the good thing about this story is it’s really anti-violence. It really shows the consequence of killing someone. It’s not making it into something exciting. It shows the consequences for society – for every dead person, there are 200 people affected. I hope it’s going to work in a humanistic way.”
Four-parter The Cry is a psychological drama set between Scotland and Australia, chronicling the collapse of a marriage in the aftermath of an unbearable tragedy.
Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Doctor Who) plays Joanna, a struggling new mother who falls into a state of despair when her baby is abducted from a small coastal town in Australia. Together with her husband Alistair (Ewan Leslie), they must come to terms with what has happened under increasing public scrutiny.
In this DQTV interview, Coleman reveals why she was intrigued by the journey of Joanna, a flawed character who is by no means presented as a hero and is finding it difficult to cope with her newborn baby.
Executive producer Claire Mundell, creative director of producer Synchronicity Films, also talks about why four-part dramas are so in vogue at broadcasters like the BBC and explains why the short-run format can help turn a TV series into an event.
The Cry is produced by Synchronicity Films for BBC1 and distributed by DRG.
Norwegian drama Monster takes the hunt for a serial killer to the northernmost part of the country. Producer Lasse Greve Alsos tells DQ six things we need to know about the show, which is produced by broadcaster NRK and distributed by DRG. International buyers include US premium cable channel Starz, SBS in Australia, Russia’s Spike and Canal Plus in France.
1. The title is based on a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said whoever fights monsters should see to it that they do not become a monster in the process. Knowing this, you then understand it’s not so much about the serial killer our two detectives – local police officer Hedda Gilbert and young hotshot detective Joel Dreyer – are trying to catch, but about the detectives themselves. They’re on the hunt for a serial killer but it becomes more about them – particularly Hedda, as this is happening in her home town and the hunt becomes personal. By episode three, when more brutal murders are discovered, their investigation starts to spin out of control.
2. I was working in the NRK drama department and we were looking for some family friendly series. Then [Monster creator] Hans Christian Storrøsten walked through my door with the draft for the first episode. It was well written but not what we were looking for. Three weeks later, he came back with episode two. It was even better. So I gave him some money to write episode three, which he returned with a month later. We were all sold. It was the best project, and we just had to cancel our ideas about making a family friendly show. But because he was a newcomer, I thought I needed a director who could do this with him. We made a list of directors we would approach and Anne Sewitsky [Homesick] was at the top
3. Hans wrote the scripts in a very particular way; it was like reading a book. We liked the atmosphere he’d created but he wrote that everything takes place in the woods. We were looking for locations all over the north that fitted his scripts and we loved the roughness of the location, despite the lack of trees that were in the script. What we discovered with Anne was that actually this open landscape gives the drama a different sense of claustrophobia – there’s nowhere to hide. We liked the feeling of going the opposite way to the original intentions.
4. Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, who plays Joel, is a big star in both Norway and Denmark. He studied in Denmark so he speaks Danish fluently as well. Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes (Hedda) is a newcomer. We took a lot of time casting her role. We knew we would see a lot of Hedda in this show so we needed someone we wouldn’t be bored by, and you could watch Ingvild over and over again. I think she will be a really big star in Norway.
5. The biggest challenge of the series was the logistics of getting to our location. It’s as far away from Oslo as Italy is, so it was hard and both time- and money-consuming. We filmed in September to December 2015 and February to April 2016. In September winter can arrive early, so when we first arrived the local people told us we might have two or three days where we couldn’t leave the hotel because there would be a white-out. That would mean we couldn’t drive our cars to locations because the road would be blocked with snow. But we had some luck and were very well prepared. The day after shooting finished, the snow came.
6. We’ve preserved the core values of Nordic noir. A lot of people in Scandinavian countries now want to move on from Nordic noir but one of the things we wanted to do was speak to those core values, use them and go further, because there is so much good in the genre. It’s full of psychology and atmosphere and these are perfect for TV drama. Why abandon them? And as our head of drama pitched it, it also has the most incredible nude scene you will ever see, but it has nothing to do with sex – it’s about two old men fighting.
Declining ad revenues mean Japanese broadcasters are increasingly looking to the international market to make money. And one of the areas they are keen to build on is drama exports.
One example of this is NHK’s fantasy adventure Moribito, created with the international market in mind, while Nippon TV’s recent sale of format Mother to Turkey – a first for Japanese drama – is another. Also significant is Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group (SMG).
Under the terms of the latter partnership, SMG is adapting a total of five Fuji dramas for the Chinese market. The second of these, Operation Love, began filming in Guangzhou this month with a view to airing on online platform Tencent from Spring 2017.
A light-hearted love story, Operation Love first aired in Japan in 2007 and has also been remade in South Korea as Operation Proposal. It follows an earlier remake of Dating: What’s it Like to be in Love?, which will air on SMG’s channels in 2017.
Another interesting drama story this week is the news that HBO Europe has commissioned a six-part Warsaw-set drama about a cocaine dealer planning a holiday in Argentina. Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, said of the show: “We believe Blinded by the Lights, a story set in Warsaw’s demi-monde and showing off the city in a wholly new way, will not only appeal to Polish audiences but also to our subscribers all around the HBO Europe region. We are confident it will equally excite audiences internationally.”
The show is part of a growing slate of original HBO Europe series that kicked off a few years ago with Burning Bush and was followed by Pustina. In addition to Blinded by the Lights, HBO Europe also announced a second series of Wataha (The Pack). This show tells the story of a border guard unit based in the remote Bieszczady Mountains on Poland’s border with Ukraine. “The Pack/Wataha proved its appeal to viewers having achieved huge ratings in Poland for its first season,” Root said. “It also played extremely successfully in the other HBO Europe territories and has sold in foreign markets. We are very excited by this new chapter and the way the writers explore the challenges now faced on Europe’s longest border.”
Also this week, Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG announced it had renewed its first-look deal with indie producer Three River Fiction for a further two years. Three River has 15 to 20 projects in active development, including several adaptations. Its largest acquisition to date is a 15-book estate of Golden Age crime fiction, written in the 1930s by John Bude. Colin Bateman (Murphy’s Law, The Journey) is attached and has written a pilot script based on the crime franchise.
According to DRG, there are two further projects in development, including a dark re-imagining of the Robin Hood story. With Mark Skeet and Matthew Faulk (Titanic: Blood and Steel, Vanity Fair) attached to write, the series will be “a vibrant, venal and complex post-watershed saga set in a bloodstained 12th century England,” said the distributor. The other is a sci-fi series, created and written by Richard Smith (Trauma,) exploring how an isolated community is torn apart by secrets and lies following the crash landing of a UFO.
On the distribution front, Netflix has acquired rights to Renaissance period drama Medici: Masters of Florence for a select number of territories. The Rai-backed drama, which is distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will air on Netflix in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India from December 9. It has already been picked up by broadcasters and streamers in France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The fact Netflix has done a deal for a limited number of territories is interesting, because it suggests the international drama market may be moving away from a model where Netflix attempts to secure the rights to series on a worldwide basis.
Also this week, Deadline is reporting that Amazon has struck an exclusive SVoD deal for USA Network’s new supernatural thriller Falling Water. The show, which tells the story of three unrelated people who discover they are dreaming separate parts of a single common dream, hasn’t rated that well on USA. But Amazon’s involvement will make it easier for the network to back a second series – an increasingly common scenario in the US TV business.
This week has also seen some interesting strategic insights from Eurodata TV Worldwide as part of its Scripted Series Report 2016. Based on feedback from 103 channels, Eurodata found that networks, on average, devoted 32% of primetime to series.
Within this total, local series are the biggest hits. “They represent no less than 84% of the primetime top 15,” said Eurodata. “Imports, and consequently international hits, appear less often in rankings of the top programmes. Despite this, broadcasting these imports remains a winning strategy for smaller channels. As an example, The X-Files succeeded in placing among the top shows for M6 (France), Pro7 (Germany), TV3 (Sweden) and Channel 5 (the UK). US imports are challenged by series imported from countries geographically closer to the channel. The latter occupy a minor place in schedules: 15% of the channels studied broadcast a significant amount of these imports in primetime. Most of all, they are an alternative for small markets and smaller channels.”
There is also a trend towards greater exposure, Eurodata added. “In addition to longer availability thanks to catch-up opportunities, a series is now more available over various platforms in a single country. Traditional players and OTT platforms play with the various windows possible for their content. The multiplatform strategy is often a winning one. For example, Zwarte Tulp (NL Film), a new show in the 2015-16 season for RTL4, is a hit in the Netherlands. Five months before its launch on the RTL Group’s first channel, the series had been streamed on Videoland, the group’s SVoD platform. The series Black Widows (DRG) was broadcast simultaneously on the TV3 channels of the MTG group in Sweden and Denmark, and also on the group’s SVoD platform. It is among the channel’s top three shows in both countries.”
According to Eurodata, examples of collaboration between TV and SVoD services are on the rise. “Whether to reduce production costs, grow a viewer base or [increase] international visibility for their content, or fill their schedules and catalogues, players from the various groups are working together in production and distribution. One example, the series Narcos, was recently broadcast on Univision in the US after its distribution on Netflix. In the future, El Chapo will be coproduced by Netflix and Univision and Britannia (Sky Vision) will be a Sky/Amazon coproduction.”
Other trends include a shift towards short formats and adaptations. Eurodata explained: “Short formats have proven popular. They are often conducive to quality series, as they encourage participation by well-known actors, screenwriters and directors. The Night Manager (WME/IMG, The Ink Factory), adapted from John Le Carré’s eponymous novel, immediately earned fourth among series in the UK and fifth in Denmark. Adaptations, meanwhile, allow inspiring characters and stories to reverberate further. Many of the season’s hits are adaptations of series that exist in other countries. Among the European countries covered in the report, the proportion of local adaptations launched has doubled with respect to those in the 2014-15 season. Some channels particularly count on these to appeal to their viewers. This is the case with the Dutch channel SBS6, whose top three series are exclusively local adaptations of foreign formats.”
Avril Blondelot, international research manager at Eurodata TV Worldwide, said: “True international hits are appearing less and less in the national top rankings.”
However, the international stage is playing a growing role in the development of local series. “More and more new series have been adapted from foreign formats,” commented Eurodata media consultant Léa Besson.
The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.
The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.
There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.
Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.
Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.
Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.
Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.
Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.
SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.
The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.
Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”
Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.
Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.
Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.
Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).
Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.
While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”
Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).