Tag Archives: Fortitude

Return to Fortitude

As Sky Atlantic returns to Fortitude for a second season, Richard Dormer recaps what happened in season one and what the town’s survivors can expect to face in the future. Meanwhile, new co-star Dennis Quaid reveals why the script, the cast and opportunity to spend time filming in Iceland drew him towards the series.

Fortitude is created and written by Simon Donald and produced by Fifty Fathoms. Fortitude returns to Sky Atlantic on January 26, available on Sky Box Sets.

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Asia awaits Korea’s Moon Lovers

The original version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
The original Chinese version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.

The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.

In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.

The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.

The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.

Doctors has done well on SBS
Doctors has done well on SBS

The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.

The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.

The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.

There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.

Descendants of the Sun
Descendants of the Sun

There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.

A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.

Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).

Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.

The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures
The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures

Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”

This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.

The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.

The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.

Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky
Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky

In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.

Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.

Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.

In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.

Mr Robot will return to USA Network
Mr Robot will return to USA Network

Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.

There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?

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TV jury finds in favour of FX OJ drama

Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson

Pre-transmission reviews suggested US cable network FX might be on to a winner with its new anthology series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and that hunch has now been borne out with episode one of the true-life crime drama attracting 5.1 million viewers.

That’s a huge figure for a cable drama and one that includes a high percentage of 18- to 49-year-olds. Possibly we can attribute some of that figure to heavyweight marketing by FX. But the fact the show also generated a 9.1 rating on IMDb suggests there is enough audience appreciation to help it keep up its momentum.

To put the show’s performance into perspective, it is the highest debut ever for FX – beating The Shield’s premiere in 2002. It’s also almost double the audience that tuned in for the premiere of Fargo in 2014. While it is a bit premature to talk about renewal, there are enough highly charged legal cases in recent US history to suggest American Crime Story could run for years.

One other network that will be happy is BBC2 in the UK, which has acquired the show for a mid-February transmission. If the series does as well in the UK as it is doing in the US, it will be another feather in the cap of Sue Deeks, BBC head of programme acquisitions, who has also played a large part in bringing Nordic Noir to the English-speaking world.

Deeks described the The People vs OJ Simpson “a fascinating and totally absorbing dramatisation of a case seared into the public consciousness. It is a case you might think you know all about – but believe me, you don’t know the half of it.”

The return of The X-Files has proved enormously popular around the world
The return of The X-Files has proved enormously popular around the world

The success of the FX show is the second good piece of news for the Fox family after a strong start for Fox’s reboot of Chris Carter’s The X-Files. Episode three of that six-part show has dropped a bit to 8.37 million viewers but this still represents a strong performance.

During the week, Fox also released figures showing that The X-Files has been a hit on the international market. Premiering within 24 hours of the US launch across 80 countries, the show attracted more than 50 million viewers, which Fox calls a “new ratings records in multiple markets.”

Among the highlights from that international performance, Fox says The X-Files matched or surpassed the season six premiere of The Walking Dead in several Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. Across 11 European Fox markets, the episode one premiere was seen by more than 2.5 million viewers, with an average audience of 1.7 million. In Canada, the show debuted as the most watched series premiere of the 2015/16 season with 2.4 million viewers on Sunday January 24. With premieres still to come in the UK, Germany, France, Australia and India, Fox expects the total worldwide audience to grow considerably from its current level.

Still in the US, NBC has this week decided to renew Law & Order: SVU for an 18th season and Chicago Med for a second. With Chicago Fire and Chicago PD already renewed, this means veteran showrunner Dick Wolf now has an incredible four scripted series up and running on the network.

Chigaco Med, one of four Dick Wolf procedurals airing on NBC
Chigaco Med is one of four Dick Wolf procedurals currently airing on NBC

At a time when the industry is supposed to be short of good procedurals, Wolf’s shows occupy four of the top five slots on NBC in terms of drama ratings for 2015/2016. With audiences ranging from 6.8 million to 8.2 million per episode across the four shows, only Blindspot is outperforming Wolf’s portfolio of dramas.

Sticking with NBC for a moment, one show that does seem to be on its way out is Grimm, which is now part way through its fifth season. For much of this season, the show has been pulling in an audience of around 3.6 million to 3.8 million, which is down on the last couple of seasons. With enough episodes in the bag for the show to succeed in syndication – and the Wolf dramas taking up a large piece of network real estate – NBC really needs to cancel Grimm in the name of creative renewal. Until now, NBC has hedged its bets – pointing out that Grimm sells well overseas and is also strong in terms of delayed viewing. But it would be a surprise if the show came back for season six.

Another show that must be a candidate for cancellation is ABC’s reboot of The Muppets, which has been in freefall since its debut last September. After starting with nine million viewers, it was down to 3.8 million by December 8, at which point it took a mid-season break. The show underwent a bit of a revamp over winter in order to take it closer to its fun-loving roots. But an audience of 2.75 million for its February 2 episode suggests viewers have given up on the series. Assume The Muppets will be cancelled and then revived as a movie in a few years.

James Nesbitt in Stan Lee's Lucky Man, which airs on Sky1
James Nesbitt in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which has opened strongly on Sky1

In the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 got off to a very strong start with its new series Spike Lee’s Lucky Man, which stars James Nesbitt. BARB figures for the week of January 18 to 24 show that the production attracted 1.6 million viewers (seven-day figure). This puts Lucky Man up alongside popular US imports like The Flash. As always, the acid test will be how the show stands up over the next couple of weeks. To put it in context, Supergirl started at about the same level on Sky 1 but by mid-season had shed half its audience.

Still with Sky, there are reports this week that Dennis Quaid is joining the cast of Sky Atlantic drama Fortitude for season two. This is likely to give the show a ratings boost in its early episodes. Last year, the pre-launch marketing campaign for Fortitude made much of the fact that the show starred Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston. This undoubtedly encouraged new audiences to sample Sky Atlantic. The only thing Quaid needs to be wary of is that – spoiler alert – all the big-name stars ended up dead last season (Eccleston almost before he opened his mouth). So he’ll need to watch his back.

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Sky high

From talking the talk to walking the walk, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky has put its money where its mouth is in the search for compelling original drama.

It was in 2011 that Sky group CEO Jeremy Darroch said the UK pay TV giant would be investing £600m (US$909m) a year in original content by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its previous spend.

Now that money is being seen on screen in the guise of an enviable slate of original series, including You, Me and the Apocalypse, The Last Panthers and Fungus the Bogeyman, which aired over Christmas. New series coming up include The Five, created by crime author Harlan Coben, and second seasons of The Tunnel (pictured above) and Fortitude.

And as Sky moves into a new era of year-round drama commissioning across three channels – Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts – there is only the promise of more to come.

Mensah: 'If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left'
Mensah: ‘If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left’

“We are a pay TV platform so we have a mandate from our CEO to make sure we can provide drama that people want to pay for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. “What’s brilliant about that relationship with our customers is that it’s a mandate for distinction. Everything we do is about being the boldest, the most distinctive, the most innovative drama in the UK, specifically for our customers. We have one drama after another and they all have that ambition to be absolutely best in class, but also good fun and really watchable.”

Sky is best known for its acquisition of rights, predominantly for sport, movies and US television – in particular series from HBO. Last month, Sky tied up exclusive UK rights to content from Showtime, which will include Billions and the revival of Twin Peaks.

And Mensah compares Sky’s original drama ambitions to that of the film business: “We look at television like movies. In the same way you’re working really hard to get an audience to get out of their chair and go to the cinema and buy a ticket, you buy a ticket for Sky. We treat our customers in the same way, with the same production values, the same stars and the same sense of event.

“On Sky1, it’s a blockbuster experience; on Sky Atlantic, it’s more of an art-house cinema experience. But Sky Atlantic is not niche – it’s an art-house cinema experience with wine.”

Cameron Roach, Sky’s drama commissioning editor, takes the identities of Sky’s channels further by describing them in terms of how viewers watch them.

“On Sky1 we want to promote shared viewing in households, whereas Sky Atlantic is not about the overnights and is much more like reading a novel – you might watch two or three episodes at once,” he explains. “The on-demand platform (Sky Go) is really important for that viewing experience.”

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made extensive use of CGI

But when viewers are watching Sky’s output in a variety of ways, how does the broadcaster measure success? Mensah says it’s about what the programme makers wanted their show to achieve in the first place.

“Some shows are built to be consumed like novels, to be massive critical successes and to talk to an audience that want to get into real think-pieces. Others are built to be super entertaining,” she says. “Everybody’s obsession with how you measure success is totally reductive because every show does something different. Particularly when you’ve got a pay TV platform – on a basic level our jobs are to bring people to Sky and keep them at Sky, and to give them a good experience of being Sky customers. That’s not one show, that’s the whole offering.”

As far as development goes, Sky doesn’t have a number of projects waiting in the wings. Instead, its drama team puts its money only on shows that are likely to make it to air, rather than taking scripts on and passing on them further down the line.

Mensah notes: “If we know we want to do a show, we think we shouldn’t put other things into competition with it. I would hope the talent comes to work with us and knows we’re backing their show and not slightly playing the odds like some other channels can do. It can be quite hard to get stuff into development with us, but once we’re in development with something, we’re doing it because we intend to make it.”

Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime
Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime

Roach adds that Sky’s drama team turns down lots of projects. “Before I started working with Anne, she said her ambition was to run a narrow slate,” he says. “Lots of people say that but it is genuine. We’re a small team but if something is in funded development with us, that means one of the team absolutely loves it. We’ve all got different tastes so it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but we have an absolute ambition to see that show made and we will support that production company.”

Funding from the pay TV broadcaster is also dependent on the type of project in question. With its use of CGI, Fungus the Bogeyman required extensive research and development, while horror story The Enfield Haunting also required commitments in terms of research and script development.

Sky’s development process has also become slightly more complicated since Sky UK’s acquisition of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, creating a single company that broadcasts to 21 million customers in five territories across Europe.

Both Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland have retained their own drama teams, however, with forthcoming series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, offering the first example of how the trio will work together.

The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers was simulcast across all of Sky’s territories

“The Young Pope is a coproduction through all three but editorially it goes through Sky Italia, because what you don’t need is 7,000 voices on something,” Mensah says. “There’s one editorial voice but the backing of the whole weight of Sky. The Last Panthers was simultaneously transmitted across all of our territories, as was Fortitude. What you’ve got is the best of all possible worlds, which is clear editorial focus but with the weight of this massive company backing your show.”

Sky is also a committed coproduction partner, working with NBC on end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, Showtime on horror Penny Dreadful and France’s Canal+ on cross-Channel drama The Tunnel and pan-European crime thriller The Last Panthers.

“We love coproductions but luckily with Sky, it’s not about the money as much as creativity. Working with Canal+, not only do we like them personally but they also brought creative talent to us that we couldn’t find ourselves. I’d never worked with Haut et Court (Les Revenants) before Panthers. The Warp Films-Haut et Court partnership is why Panthers is so unique. As for The Tunnel, we had worked with Kudos before but working in France with French directors was new to me.”

Looking ahead, Roach says The Five is a good example of how Sky wants to take an existing genre – crime, in this case – and give it a different hook for Sky1.

The show follows a group of four friends haunted by the disappearance of one of
their younger brothers some years earlier while he was in their care. The group is forced to revisit the past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. It is written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company.

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is a coproduction with Showtime

“Anne and Nicola started talking about the hooky novels that come from the likes of Harlan Coben,” recalls Roach. “It was a really innovative development process and it was the same with Fungus and Lucky Man (now airing on Sky1), which was an original idea from (Marvel Comics’) Stan Lee.”

The prospect of year-round drama also looks set to create a new story for Sky’s channels, with their individual identities no longer being separated by strict boundaries.

“There has to be fluid boundaries between the channels, particularly as we’re aware of the growing importance of our on-demand offering,” says Roach. “We’re planning two or three years in advance and we’re not sure how platforms will emerge. Sky1 and Sky Atlantic have a very clear identity but as we go to year-round drama we can diversify our output.”

Mensah says anyone hoping to pitch a project to Sky should simply talk to her and her team. “A pitch should feel like a conversation,” she explains. “Too often people put too much emphasis on the formal pitch – anything we’ve got in funded development began as a conversation. People can over-think that process. We’re working with Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, and he simply called us. We bought the idea on the phone. He then won an Oscar. Equally, other people send us full scripts. There are seriously no rules.”

Stan Lee's Lucky Man
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man

No rules, then, but if one were to offer potential partners some guidelines, it would be to avoid generalised stories and to throw caution to the wind in a bid to offer big, bold, epic tales.

“If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left,” says Mensah. “With The Five, everyone else was doing lovely, languid thrillers so we thought, ‘how can we do it as quickly as possible?’ It turns on a dime every five seconds and the producers have done such a good job.”

Ultimately, to have a drama land on Sky, you’ve got to reach for the stars. “If you feel a show could sit on ITV or the BBC, they’re brilliant so that’s the space it should be in,” Mensah adds. “We really do look for stuff that feels like it could only be us.”

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AMC’s Badlands does the business

badlands
Martial arts drama Into the Badlands has started strongly on AMC

US cable channel AMC is in phenomenally good shape. Its flagship scripted series, The Walking Dead (TWD), continues to deliver massive ratings and has spawned a successful spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. And now TWD has provided the launchpad for another strong performer – the martial arts fantasy series Into the Badlands.

Into the Badlands debuted on Sunday at 22.00, after the latest episode of TWD. Despite some reviews suggesting the opening episode spent too long on its setup, the show attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers and a 3.15 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds. That makes it one of the biggest new series of the autumn so far across both cable and broadcast TV, comparable to shows like Supergirl and Blindspot. Once time-shifted viewing is factored in, the series can expect to see another surge in its numbers.

Even if Into the Badlands experiences a drop-off in episode two, its premiere performance suggests it will still even out as one of the top-performing cable shows of the year. And the good news doesn’t end there for AMC. Still to look forward to is season two of Better Call Saul, which is due in February. The Breaking Bad prequel was a strong performer for the channel last year and there is no reason to suppose this will change as the show starts to tie in to the mythology of its critically acclaimed parent.

Having four massive hits in its schedule gives AMC the freedom to support other programmes that don’t rate so highly, which bodes well for the likes of Humans and Halt & Catch Fire.

The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series
AMC’s mega hits like The Walking Dead allow it more freedom with its lower-rating shows
Returning to TWD for a moment, it’s interesting that the latest episode saw a 5% jump in 18-49s week on week. That rise can probably be explained by the fact that the episode focused heavily on Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus). If the character is ever killed off, expect to see a huge spike in time-shifted viewing followed by a decline in the youth audience.

In today’s fragmented TV landscape, the numbers achieved by Into the Badlands are genuinely impressive – but pay TV channels don’t need to be getting ratings of this magnitude to be classified as a success. Just as important is what a show says about a channel’s brand. If it sends out the right message, it can help with the pickup or retention of subscribers. If you look at European pay TV platform Sky, for example, a lot of money has been spent on demonstrating that it is the home of quality content. Its relationship with HBO, recently extended, is a classic example of that – as is the company’s heavy investment in original drama.

Having said all this, drama is an expensive genre. So Sky has been looking for ways to deliver quality without breaking the bank in terms of its scripted content investments. One way it is doing this is by acquiring or making dramas that can play across all 21 million homes in its five core European markets: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, it is seeking to coproduce with PayTV providers in other markets – so the commercial risk is spread even more broadly.

Samantha Morton in The Last Panthers
Samantha Morton in The Last Panthers
Let’s say, for example, that Canal+ in France comes on board a drama – then suddenly your production is hitting an addressable market of around 28 million. If Sky’s distribution arm Sky Vision is then able to sell the show into other markets, the cost is further defrayed. Fortitude was a high-profile example of this. Although it only attracted around 700,000 viewers in the UK, the fact it was played out in numerous other markets made it a relatively easy decision for Sky to back a second series.

Slightly less certain is Sky’s new series The Last Panthers, a coproduction with Canal+ and US network SundanceTV. The show debuted in the UK last week and attracted just 228,000 viewers, 38% of which were 35- to 44-year-olds. That figure is ahead of the slot average – but it’s still quite low for an original. Sky will be hoping it picks up some momentum in the coming weeks.

There are probably a couple of explanations for The Last Panthers’ debut falling so short compared with Fortitude. The first is that it didn’t have the same kind of cast clout as Fortitude, which made it less promotable. True, it features Samantha Morton and there was a fleeting glimpse of John Hurt. But this is nothing compared with Fortitude, which boasted Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston (briefly). Second, the opening episode was not easy to get to grips with, switching language and location frequently and not making it obvious who the audience should root for. While UK audiences are more comfortable these days with subtitles, The Last Panthers probably makes them work a bit too hard.

Chicago Med, one of NBC's trilogy of Chicago drama series
Chicago Med, one of NBC’s trilogy of Chicago drama series from Dick Wolf
The UK critics are split on the show. For The Guardian, The Last Panthers is “bold, smart and seductive,” but for the Telegraph it’s “turgid” and “lacks tension.” The Independent gets it about right when it says: “If you can cope with the violence, the underlit filming, the dialogue in French with subtitles and the unremittingly depressing scenes then The Last Panthers is a fine thriller, with a touch of The French Connection about it.” SBS Australia seems happy enough, acquiring the show this week.

While an important element of the current ‘golden age’ of drama is the freedom to pursue interesting creative ideas like Badlands and Panthers, it’s also worth noting that NBC’s big success at the moment is a trilogy of procedurals that are all based in Chicago. If you look at the channel’s top five dramas at the moment, three of them are Chicago PD, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med, which launched this week with a same day audience of 8.6 million.

Fire was the first to appear and has recently been renewed for season five. PD came next and has just been renewed for a fourth run. Med is only one episode old but already looks like it will get a renewal. Apart from the procedural formula, the common denominator among the three is that they come from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. Aged 68, Wolf continues to be one of the masters of mainstream drama and has an awards cabinet to prove it.

The forthcoming Christmas special will be the very final episode of Downton Abbey
The forthcoming Christmas special will be the very final episode of Downton Abbey
Finally, we can’t sign off without observing that Downton Abbey is over, except for the upcoming Christmas Special. The final episode of the final season scored a consolidated audience of 11 million viewers for ITV. There’s no question that Carnival Films’ drama, superbly scripted by Julian Fellowes, has been one of the most memorable British TV dramas ever made. While the show was perhaps starting to become a little repetitive, it continued to make hugely entertaining Sunday night viewing.

The fact Downton Abbey is now ending is a clear loss for ITV, particularly when the show has so many unresolved storylines. In fact, the broadcaster would be mad to let all of that stored up audience affection just fizzle out. No US network would allow the show to die at this stage in its life cycle. And in any other business you’d be castigated for giving up on such a strong brand.

While it’s possible that Julian Fellowes and some of the cast are keen to move on, ITV should at the very least explore whether there is spin-off potential – maybe a series focusing on the London lives of some of the younger cast. Lady Edith, Thomas the footman and a handful of others could provide the spine of a new show.

In the meantime, take a look at this video if you want to see the cast of Downton behaving badly.

 

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Hitting the right spot

Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.

Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.

A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade's End, which was filmed in Belgium
Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End, which was filmed in Belgium

Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.

“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”

He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”

However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.

Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”

Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”

The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.

“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”

Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland
Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland

There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”

Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.

A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.

Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”

Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”

Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”

Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania
Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania

Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”

Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”

However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”

Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”

Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”

Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.

The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco
The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco…

Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.

With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.

Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).

Gene Stein,  the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”

However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”

This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.

In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.

...as did Spike TV's Tut
…as did Spike TV’s Tut

Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”

There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”

One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”

While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.

Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.

For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”

Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand
Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand

Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.

It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.

Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”

While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.

Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”

So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.

Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.

Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.

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Sky seeking scripted surge

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch
Sky boss Jeremy Darroch

At MipTV, Jeremy Darroch, CEO of European pay TV broadcaster Sky, gave a keynote interview during which he talked about the company’s ambition to increase its investment in scripted content. A key focus of his attention was the UK-based channel Sky Atlantic, which deals primarily in high-end scripted content.

Sky Atlantic launched in 2011 on the back of a wide-ranging content supply arrangement with HBO in the US. This was renewed and expanded last year, with the two companies announcing their intention to coproduce “epic” dramas.

Running in parallel with this partnership, Sky Atlantic has also assiduously built relationships with other key players in the international drama arena. In 2013, it coproduced The Tunnel with Canal+ in France (a detective drama based on acclaimed Swedish/Danish copro The Bridge). Soon after, it partnered with Endemol on arctic thriller Fortitude – a series that, despite a slightly indigestible narrative and the puzzling under-use of actors Christopher Eccleston and Stanley Tucci, did a good job of attracting new viewers to the channel and secured a second run.

In the last couple of weeks, Sky Atlantic has given further insight into its drama ambitions. First came the news that it is to coproduce The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, with HBO and Canal+. And now it has announced that it will partner NBC on 10-part plague drama Patient Zero (w/t). Like Fortitude, Patient Zero will be produced by Fifty Fathoms and will also star Tucci. It will tell the story of a global pandemic that turns those infected into predators, addicted to violence.

Stanley Tucci as he appears in Fortitude
Stanley Tucci, pictured here in Fortitude, will star in Patient Zero

Underlining the scale of the channel’s ambition in drama, Patient Zero is being written by Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) and directed by Marc Forster (World War Z). Commenting, Sky head of drama Anne Mensah said: “As we continue to bring our customers more original drama, I am delighted to be partnering with two creatives at the top of their game (Moore and Forster) in a thriller that will grip from the outset. We’re excited to be expanding our relationship with NBC/NBC Universal and it’s great to be working with Fifty Fathoms after the huge success with Fortitude.”

For the last couple of years, there’s been a gradual trend towards Hollywood movies being remade as TV series. There’s a commercial logic to this, because it means the spin-off shows can launch with in-built brand awareness. But creatively this trend has the potential to be quite claustrophobic, with films that only just managed to fill 120 minutes being stretched out across 10 hours.

Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta, is being remade for TV
Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta, is being remade for TV

Whether this movies-as-pilots-for-TV-series trend can work at an industrial scale will become clearer by the end of this year, because there are so many examples coming through at the US networks. CBS, for example, has greenlit Rush Hour and Limitless, while ABC is developing Uncle Buck (based on the 1989 John Candy comedy of the same name). Fox, having already announced plans to adapt Minority Report, has now revealed that it has given a script order to Urban Cowboy, a drama based on the 1980 romantic movie starring John Travolta. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) will write, direct and executive produce the drama.

Interestingly, this movie-to-TV trend is also beginning to catch on outside the US production system. In the UK, Buccaneer Media has announced plans to make a TV series based on the 2014 indie sci-fi film Robert Overlords (produced by Tempo Productions). The plan is for the spin-off series to target a family audience – along the lines of BBC Worldwide’s international hit Doctor Who. Buccaneer will work with Tempo on the project, which imagines a world in which humanity has been enslaved by robots. Tempo’s Piers Tempest, who produced the film, said: “This series will really expand the canvas of the robot occupation and we are aiming to make an explosive show that the UK will be very proud of.”

The Wicked + The Divine is the latest comic to be adapted for television
The Wicked + The Divine is the latest comic to be adapted for television

Alongside movies, graphic novels/comics have become an increasingly important source of ideas for scripted series (see Michael Pickard’s feature about this trend). The latest idea to get a pick up is The Wicked + The Divine, from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. An award-winning series about a group of people with superhuman powers known as The Pantheon, the property has been picked up by Universal and will be developed by Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick via their company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds. MCM signed a deal with Universal in February to make TV shows based on comics.

Finally, BBC1 has announced plans for a new pre-watershed period drama series, to be written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel, Darling Buds of May). Titled My Mother and Other Strangers, this 5×60’ series follows the fortunes of a rural family, the Coynes, when a huge US Air Force airfield is built in their parish. Set in Northern Ireland during World War Two, it will be made by BBC Northern Ireland with funding from Northern Ireland Screen.

Commenting on the project, Barry Devlin says: “I wanted to write a series that had an exotic love story at its heart but that was set in a place I recognise. So I’m delighted the BBC has commissioned the series. It’s really great to be part of a story about Northern Ireland that is entirely originated and filmed here.”

In other scripted news, UK broadcaster ITV has acquired Poldark producer Mammoth Screen. Check out C21 Media for details.

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