US cable channel FX has renewed its stylish anthology thriller Fargo for a third season. Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo’s second run will finish stateside on December 14 and is currently receiving rave reviews. The first season was nominated for a total of 18 Primetime Emmys, winning three.
The show was written by the multi-talented Noah Hawley, who was a singer-songwriter and a published novelist before he turned to TV screenwriting. He wrote for Fox drama Bones for three seasons before being handed the Fargo gig, as well as a couple of projects for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation).
Some writers might have been intimidated by the Coen brothers’ shadow lurking in the background of the Fargo project, but Hawley managed to stay true to the original concept while taking the show’s mythology in an exciting new direction.
For this, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries – and it would be a surprise if he weren’t on the list again for Fargo season two.
Commenting on the renewal, Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Year two of Fargo is an extraordinary achievement and, given Noah Hawley’s masterful storytelling, we can’t wait to see where the third version of Fargo takes us. Our thanks to Noah, Warren Littlefield, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Cameron and our partners at MGM TV for making Fargo a memorable and rewarding journey.”
Despite getting his break in network TV, Hawley did an interview with Hollywood Reporter in 2014 in which he made it clear that he was more comfortable in cable drama: “The leap from network to cable was huge for me because at the networks there’s a real desire for original content but also a fear of original content. To arrive at FX and have them say, ‘Can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous?’ is incredible. (FX Networks CEO) John Landgraf would rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody.”
FX seems equally enthusiastic about Hawley. Aside from greenlighting Fargo season three, it has gone into partnership with him on Cat’s Cradle, a series based on Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel.
Another writer in the news this week is Billy Ray, who will be adapting F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon for Amazon. Ray is primarily known as a movie writer, having written around a dozen titles including The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips.
The Last Tycoon, which was made into a film in the 1970s with a Harold Pinter script, looks at Hollywood in the 1930s and is being produced by Sony Pictures Television. There were rumours in 2013 that the project was heading for HBO – but there has clearly been a rethink since then.
The project comes after the recent movie version of The Great Gatsby and another Amazon project about Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. So keep you eyes peeled for TV adaptations of This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night.
Congratulations are also due this week to the team behind French series Spiral, season five of which has won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series. A Canal+ show, Spiral (Engrenages in French) follows the lives and work of Paris police officers and lawyers working in the Palais de Justice.
Created by Son et Lumiere, it debuted in 2005 and has been produced at the rate of one season every two years. The first two runs comprised eight episodes each, rising to 12 after that. With season five having aired in late 2014, a sixth season is due towards the end of next year. In the meantime, it has proved popular abroad, selling to 70 countries including the UK, Australia, Japan, Mexico and the US (via Netflix).
In terms of story and script duties, the show was created Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, with the latter writing the first season. Season two was overseen by Virginie Brac, while season three was handled by Anne Landois, Eric de Barahir and Simon Jablonka. Landois and de Barahir also led season four, while Landois and Jablonka oversaw the Emmy-winning fifth outing.
For anyone wanting to learn more about the structure and intention of the show, Spiral showrunner Landois did an interesting video interview with Vivendi. She also spoke to her UK fans via a BBC blog platform.
This year’s International Emmys provided another strong indication of French drama’s increasing impact on the global scripted market. Alongside recognition for Spiral, TV movie White Soldier (Soldat Blanc) won the award for best TV movie/miniseries. Set in Saigon in 1945, the production looks at France’s conflict with Vietnam’s Viet Minh through the eyes of a pair of friends. The idea for White Soldier was from Georges Campana and the screenplay was by Olivier Lorelle. Director Erick Zonca was also credited as a writer.
Winner of the telenovela category was Imperio (Empire), which first aired on Rede Globo in Brazil. Created by Aguinaldo Silva, Imperio aired from July 2014 to March 2015 and was a substantial hit for the network. Seventy-two-year-old Silva himself is one of the most feted telenovela writers in Brazil, having been at the forefront of the industry since the 1980s. His numerous credits include a 1989 adaptation of Jorge Amado’s classic novel Tieta, which scored huge ratings, and 2004’s Senhora de Destino, another huge hit.
The International Emmys also gave a deserved nod to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, in the shape of the 2015 Founders Award.
From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.
There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.
Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.
There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.
By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.
Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.
With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.
A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.
“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”
At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.
SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.
“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.
“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”
Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”
Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.
“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”
Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”
Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.
“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”
Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”
American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.
As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.
FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”
Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”
Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.
The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.
Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.
“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”
Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”
The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?
That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.
“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.
Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.
By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.
The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.
Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.
NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.
Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.
Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.
Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”
It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”
Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”
Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”
While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”
US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.
When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.
In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.
He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”
Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.
But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.
Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.
WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.
Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.
Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.
“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”
Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.
“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.
“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”
Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.
“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.
Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.
“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”
While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.
With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.
Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.
“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.
“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”
Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”
It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”
Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.
“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”
That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.
“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”
Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).
“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.
“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”
Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.
This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?
“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”
The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.
“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”
At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.
“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”
One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?
“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).
“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”
Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”
Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.
“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”
From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.
“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”
Following the PBS path
US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.
For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.
The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.
“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”
Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.
More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.
Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”
Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.
“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”
PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.
It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.
“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.
“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”
PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.
Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.
Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”
Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”
That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”
As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.
Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.
Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.
While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.
Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.
Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”
A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.
Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”
The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.
The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.
This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.
Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”
FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”
Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.
At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.
Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.
Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.
This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.
Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.
In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”
The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”