They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
In 2011, US programme market Natpe moved from Las Vegas to Miami to be closer to the Latin American TV community. So it’s fitting that Natpe 2016 (held between January 19 and 21 last week) provided a platform for so many Latin American scripted TV announcements.
Pick of the bunch was the news that Brazilian media giant Globo is moving into Spanish-language production with a thriller called Supermax. Although Globo has previously coproduced Spanish-language shows with the likes of Azteca in Mexico and Telemundo in the US, Supermax marks the first time it has fully funded a drama in Spanish.
The 10-part series, being produced in-house with Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman as showrunner, follows eight characters who travel to a remote prison to participate in a reality show. Although production doesn’t start until April, it has already been picked up by Azteca for broadcast in Mexico.
Commenting, Globo executive director of international business Raphael Corrêa Netto said: “We’ve taken a strategic look at the market and worked out how to leverage our creative capabilities. We wanted to develop and produce (this show) based on our thinking for the global market – from script development to production and design.”
In other Latino news, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa has revealed that it is to adapt four Keshet International Israeli dramas from the original Hebrew into Spanish. One of them is a title we discussed last week, Loaded, which is also being remade by Channel 4 in the UK. The other three are yet to be selected but will be produced over the course of the next three years.
Televisa is also involved in a coproduction with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) that will focus on the life of Alejandro Muñoz Moreno, a Mexican wrestler better known as the Blue Demon. The 65×60’drama, simply called Blue Demon, will air across Latin America on Televisa platforms and before being distributed worldwide jointly by SPT and Televisa.
The show is the latest title to come out of a coproduction alliance formed by the two partners in 2014. Angelica Guerra, senior VP and MD of production, Latin America and US Hispanic for SPT, said: “There is a growing demand in the region for stories about real people and events, a trend that started in Colombia and has made its way to Mexico. Blue Demon will offer audiences an intimate look at one of (freestyle wrestling’s) greatest legends, exploring a complex and turbulent world that few knew about.”
Also coming out of Miami was news that producer Ben Silverman is teaming up with Eric Newman, the showrunner behind Netflix hit Narcos, on a series about Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, the Colombian singing sensation better known as Juanes. The show, whose English title is Chasing the Sun, will follow Juanes’s early life in Colombia through to his arrival as an aspiring musician in Miami.
The goal is to produce an edgy series, with the press announcement saying it will “stylistically be in the vein of an Entourage-meets-Narcos bilingual drama.” No network is attached as yet, but Silverman has a good track record for bringing Latin American ideas to the world with series such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. Note that it is being set us as a bilingual series.
In other greenlight news this week, USA Network has given a straight-to-series, 10-episode order to Eyewitness, a drama based on Norwegian crime thriller Øyevitne. The US version will be created by Adi Hasak, whose credits include Shades of Blue. He will work alongside Norwegian series creator Jarl Emsell Larsen.
Øyevitne, which aired on NRK, was one of the most talked-about Scandinavian shows of 2015. It focuses on two gay teenage boys who secretly meet up in a forest. During one such liaison, they witness a shooting and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the perpetrator, they remain silent.
Commenting on the decision to pick up the show, Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming at USA, said: “Eyewitness takes a horrific crime and, in compelling fashion, uses it to examine a whole network of unique character relationships. We were immediately drawn to the source material, and Adi has found a very smart way to adapt it into a universal and engaging story.”
The dark tone of the show fits a broader agenda at USA, which is reinventing itself as a more exciting destination for young viewers. Alongside the Eyewitness project, it has Golden Globe-winning hacker drama Mr Robot and Carlton Cuse-produced series Colony. Earlier this week, it also announced another new drama called Falling Water. This series centres on three strangers who realise they are dreaming separate parts of the same dream that has major implications for problems in each of their lives.
“Today’s world demands shows that challenge and reward the audience in spectacular ways,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at USA Network’s parent company NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Falling Water is the type of show that can move the needle of popular culture with its thrilling exploration of the dark side of the mind.”
Meanwhile, Netflix, now up to 75 million subscribers worldwide, continues to commission new shows. Its latest addition is a 10-part sci-fi series based on Richard K Morgan’s book Altered Carbon. Set in the 25th century, Morgan’s novel imagines a world where the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. The series is being produced by Skydance Television and written by Laeta Kalogridis. Kalogridis’s previous credits include the screenplays for the movies Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys.
Elsewhere, there have been rumours circulating in the last few days that Fox in the US would love to commission a follow-up to its six-part X-Files reboot, which debuted last night in the US. However, the big obstacle to that appears to be scheduling the talent.
In an interview with Variety, male lead David Duchovny said: “Gillian (Anderson, co-star) and I have talked about (doing more episodes), and then we just stop because we get to 2023 and we still haven’t found a date we can do it. It’s like, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens after this,’ and then we can start to talk seriously about whether we can make it work again.” Possibly, if the ratings are good enough to justify it, there might be room to squeeze in another short run of six or eight episodes.
Finally, the big story on the drama acquisition front is that pay TV platform Sky has done a deal with CBS that means its Sky Atlantic channel will become the exclusive home to Showtime’s original drama series across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The agreement covers all new and future series including Billions, which premiered strongly in the US this week, and the forthcoming revival of cult drama Twin Peaks.
Commenting on the deal, Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “This is one of the most important content deals Sky has ever agreed, cementing Sky’s position as the market leader in Europe for world-class drama. The agreement means our customers can enjoy an incredible slate of upcoming new dramas and can also explore hundreds of hours of amazing series such as Dexter, Californication, The Affair and House of Lies on demand from the back catalogue.”
Netflix has been in the news a lot this week. There has, for example, been furious speculation about the future of Sense8, a 12-part sci-fi drama that quickly established itself as a hit series for the subscription VoD platform.
Launched on June 5, it has attracted audiences and acclaim in key markets such as the US, France and Germany. With positive reviews on both Netflix itself and IMDb, it has also quickly become a target for the non-Netflix pirate audience.
The story of eight strangers from different parts of the world who suddenly become emotionally and mentally linked, Sense8 was created and written by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski. It attempts to deal with subjects that the writers believe sci-fi shows avoid or don’t do justice to, such as politics, identity, sexuality, gender and religion.
Straczynski had an opportunity to discuss the show at this week’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in California. Speaking on a panel, Straczynski made it clear the Sense8 team will continue the show if they get the greenlight from Netflix.
“We’re still awaiting word,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s Netflix’s call. The way the Wachowskis and I tend to work, we are long-thinking people. We look down the road and say to ourselves, ‘Where is this going to go?’
“Season one is like an origin story, while season two has some particular arc and we figure it out from there. But to spoil that here would not be best for the surprise at the end.”
One thing that stands out in the show is its graphic content. Explaining its inclusion, Straczynski said: “We wanted to do a show for adults and grown-ups. There’s a tendency for science fiction to be seen as something other than for adults. It tends to be about the device, the gadget, the mission and not about the journey.”
Straczynski has a long and varied track record in TV writing, which goes all the way back to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, of which he wrote nine episodes. After stints on The New Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote and Walker Texas Ranger, his big breakthrough project was sci-fi series Babylon 5, which ran for five seasons. Straczynski wrote 92 episodes out of a total 110 for the 23rd century-set space opera, before going on to create a spin-off called Crusade and another series called Jeremiah.
The trajectory for the Wachowskis has been quite different. After the success of their Matrix movie franchise, the brother/sister team has had a couple of feature film disappointments in the shape of Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. So the success of Sense8 has led some observers to ask whether their offbeat approach might be better suited to longform TV series. The answer to that seems to be that they’ll work across both formats.
One interesting theme that emerges from Sense8 is the issue of transgender identity. Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman and there is also a central transgender character in the show, Nomi – played by trans actress Jamie Clayton.
Clayton, who was on the TCA panel, praised the way the Wachowskis and Straczynski devised her character. She said: “There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before that didn’t revolve around his or her transition. Nomi is the first… no one cares because, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t care that she’s trans.”
Alongside all the Sense8 speculation, the pre-launch publicity for Narcos, another Netflix series, also kicked off at the TCA event. Produced for Netflix by Gaumont International Television, Narcos is a 10-part series that explores the 1980s drug war between the US administration and Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. It will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday August 28.
Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, Carlo Bernard and Jose Padilha, who initially intended it to be a film but found that the wealth of material favoured a TV series.
Explaining the project, Padilha said: “The series follows how (Escobar) became powerful, his political ambitions and bigger-than-life stories. Cocaine was cheap to produce, highly addictive and had incredible profit margins. No one knew what they had until it hit America.”
Newman’s involvement in the project is another good indication of the huge film-to-TV swing the industry is witnessing. After making his name as a producer of films such as Children of Men, The Thing, In Time and Robocop, his last two projects have been the TV series Hemlock Grove and Narcos. Padilha, who is from Brazil originally, counts Elite Squad among his recent credits.
Also this week, Netflix confirmed that the third season of Norwegian-American series Lilyhammer will be its last. The show, which centres on a US gangster trying to start a new life in Norway, was a landmark moment in scripted business.
It was one of the first shows that really put Netflix on the map and also kick-started a trend towards shows that are comfortable hopping between different languages. The star and co-writer of the show is Steven Van Zandt, who seemed disappointed by the cancellation.
He wrote on Twitter: “#Lilyhammer RIP. Not my decision. Let’s just say for now the business got too complicated. Very proud of our 24 shows. New ideas on the way.”
While Lilyhammer (which was also a breakout hit for Norwegian broadcaster NRK) is often thought of as being Van Zandt’s creation, the original idea was actually conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, who pitched it to Van Zandt while he was in Bergen producing a rock band. After a further meeting in New York a deal was done.
Among other Netflix announcements this week was the news that the streamer has greenlit a Spanish-language series that will air in 2016.
“Netflix is committed to the creation of high-quality, Spanish-language original series for Mexico, US, Latin America and the world,” said chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We are thrilled to be working with one of Latin America’s biggest and most talented stars Kate del Castillo on Ingobernable.”
In Ingobernable, del Castillo will play Irene Urzua, the wife of Mexico’s president. A woman with a strong personality, conviction and clear ideas, Urzua is capable of “creating a president, leaving a president and killing a president,” said Netflix in a press statement.
The 20-part series will be produced in Mexico by Argos and directed by Jose Luis Garcia Agraz and Pedro Pablo Ibarra. No details were provided on who is writing the show.
Netflix is also due to premiere Gaz Alazraki and Mike Lam’s Spanish-language series Club de Cuervos on August 7.