Oscar-wining writer Charles Randolph (The Big Short) has signed a development deal with Amazon Studios. His first project will be a 10×60’ drama series that will explore what it would take to create a present-day civil war in the US.
There are no further details on the project yet, but presumably Randolph will be able to draw inspiration from the current US presidential election process. Prior to The Big Short, the writer was best known for movies including Love & Other Drugs and The Life of David Gale. But he has written for TV before, with pilots for HBO and ABC.
Another writer in the news this week is Sam Catlin, who is getting rave reviews for his work on AMC’s forthcoming supernatural series Preacher. Deadline, for example, is predicting that the show has the potential to be the channel’s next The Walking Dead (though that accolade maybe should already have gone to Fear the Walking Dead or Into the Badlands).
The latest show in the ongoing comic-based series trend, Preacher revolves around a reformed criminal called Jesse Custer who is scratching out an existence as a preacher in a dusty Texas town. Jesse is visited by a higher spiritual power that gives him the power to make people obey him just by speaking to them.
Caitlin’s main credit to date is AMC’s Breaking Bad, of which he wrote 10 episodes. However, he did also pen an episode of Fox’s Rake, the US adaptation of an Australian show of the same name. That series (created by Peter Duncan) followed a criminal defence lawyer whose personal problems and self-destructive behaviour have him owing money to everyone around him. Catlin is also an executive producer on Preacher alongside Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
Also in the news this week is WGN’s Outsiders, which has just been greenlit for a second season. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, Outsiders centres on a family called the Farrells who have turned their back on society and live by their own rules.
The show, which has been a hit for WGN, was created by Peter Mattei and is executive produced by Peter Tolan. While Tolan has extensive writing credits (including long-running drama Rescue Me), Outsiders is a breakthrough project for Mattei, whose only other writing credits are Love in the Time of Money (2002) and Clarissa Explains It All (1991). Other writers credited with working on season one of Outsiders include Ryan Farley and William Schmidt.
While the international TV market is still dominated by US shows, an increasing number of European-originated series are selling well around the world. An interesting case in point is Spotless, which was this week picked up by Globosat Brazil.
An unusual production, Spotless was made by StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions for Canal+ in France. However, it was shot in English and filmed on location in London. Adding to the intrigue, it stars French actors Marc-André Grondin and Denis Ménochet as a pair of brothers – one a criminal, the other the owner of a crime scene cleaning business.
Prior to Globosat, the show was picked up by Esquire Network in the US and has also sold to DirecTV Latin America and M-Net South Africa. The goal behind the series was to give it European roots but enough of a sheen to resemble a fast-paced US drama. To achieve this, Tandem used a writer/creator team of UK-based Bafta winner Ed McCardie and Academy Award winner Corinne Marrinan.
This combination drew on two distinct schools of creativity. While McCardie’s writing credits before Spotless included London’s Burning, The Last Detective and Shameless, Marrinan’s background is as a US-based writer-producer on CSI. The Spotless setup resembles that of Red Production Company’s The Five, where the US talent (Harlan Coben) constructed the idea and was involved in story development while the UK talent (Danny Brocklehurst) did the actual writing. In the case of Spotless, McCardie was responsible for the writing while Marrinan is cited as the show’s creator.
Interestingly, Tandem took a slightly different route with its other key procedural-type thriller, Crossing Lines, now in its third season. In this case, the show was set up with Ed Bernero as a US-style showrunner – though it still centred on European locations. The show then employed a US writers-room model involving a number of different writers – including Marrinan. Overall showrunning responsibility for the show shifted in season three to Frank Spotnitz, but the writers-room model has been retained. Both seem to work, however, with Crossing Lines being aired on Sat1 in Germany, NBC in the US, Canada’s CBC and TF1 in France, among others.
In other stories this week, Australian broadcaster Network 10 has acquired a high-end drama about adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary that is billed as the most ambitious and expensive series to ever come out of New Zealand. Entitled Hillary, the TVNZ series has been written by Tom Scott. In NZ, Scott is quite a celebrity, having established himself as a leading satirical cartoonist before writing several films, books and TV screenplays.
The new series is based on a biography of Hillary that Scott wrote in 1996 and involved a lengthy shoot in Nepal. It’s a six-part series that will air this year.
Finally, Fox International Channels has set a date for the launch of Outcast, an exorcism drama from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and based on the Skybound/Image comic by Kirkman and artist Paul Azaceta. The 10-episode series will debut on June 3 on Fox channels in more than 125 countries as part of a day-and-date launch outside the US. Within the US it will air on HBO-owned channel Cinemax.
Outcast, which has already been greenlit for a second season, is exec produced by Kirkman, Chris Black, David Alpert, Sharon Tal Yguado and Sue Naegle. The showrunner is Chris Black, who has a string of high-profile writer/producer credits including Red Widow, Mad Men, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.
Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?
The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.
Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.
Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.
As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.
Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.
But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.
The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.
But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.
So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.
During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”
Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”
However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”
Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”
And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.
Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”
Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.
If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.
Amazon has dominated the drama headlines over the past few days, with the e-commerce giant’s subscription VoD platform Prime Instant Video continuing to bolster its original content.
On Friday September 4, it launched edgy new thriller Hand of God, in which a morally corrupt judge (played by Ron Perlman) suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. The show, which has opened to mixed reviews, starts when the judge is found naked in a fountain speaking in tongues.
There has also been a steady drip-feed of news about forthcoming programmes on the platform. Sneaky Pete, for example, is now going to series. The show, which credits Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a co-creator, stars Giovanni Ribisi as a conman who, after leaving prison, takes cover from his past by assuming the identity of his cellmate, Pete.
There was also good news for Electus-backed period production Casanova. With the pilot having recently aired, more scripts have been commissioned by Amazon (though this doesn’t guarantee that the production will be taken forward to series).
The platform also recently announced that Billy Bob Thornton is to star in a legal drama called The Trial, which will have David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) as its showrunner. Aside from the talent attached, an interesting point about The Trial is that Amazon has ordered a full series, whereas it usually orders pilots and makes its final decision about whether to go to series based on audience feedback.
It’s a significant change in approach that suggests one of two things: either top talent is refusing to commit to shows on the basis of a pilot – forcing Amazon to make more attractive offers; or Amazon is feeling pressure to get shows to the consumer market quicker. Either way it’s a move that contributes to the current scripted feeding frenzy.
As for subject matter, The Trial focuses on a once-respectable lawyer who is ousted from the firm he co-founded. He spends his days getting drunk until a big case comes his way that pits him against the head of his former firm. On paper it sounds very much like a John Grisham story and joins the rising number of legal-focused scripted shows hitting the market.
This feeding frenzy shows no sign of stopping, despite recent expressions of concern from channel execs in the US. The last week has seen reports that Apple and UK telco/pay TV provider BT are both planning to invest in original scripted content to distinguish their services.
The BBC has also announced plans to invest an additional £50m (US$76m) a year in drama, with BBC director general Tony Hall saying the corporation must ensure drama continues to form the “backbone” of its output.
David Nevins, president of premium US cable channel Showtime, recently said there may be “too much TV.” But this hasn’t stopped the network pursuing its own high-end scripted agenda. Reports this week suggest it is developing a new drama about the life of former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Called the Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt, the limited series is being written by David McKenna, with Electus and Authentic Entertainment producing.
Elsewhere, AMC-owned cable channel SundanceTV has proved itself very receptive to dramas with a non-US perspective in recent times – examples including The Honourable Woman and Deutschland 83. It is continuing to pursue this bold strategy with the acquisition of Australian/New Zealand series Cleverman, which is distributed by Red Arrow International.
The six-hour drama, which will launch at Mipcom next month, is produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures in coproduction with SundanceTV and Red Arrow International. Based on an original concept by Ryan Griffen and starring Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), the story follows a group of non-humans who are battling for survival in a world where humans feel inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Meanwhile, as anticipation builds for the launch of Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner – which debuts on FX on September 15 – there are reports that Sutter is working on a spin-off of biker drama Sons of Anarchy, the show that firmly established his reputation.
If the spin-off goes ahead, it is like that Sutter will not be as hands-on as he was with Sons, thus enabling him to juggle more projects. It’s no surprise that FX is interested in a Sons spin-off. The show ran for seven years and ended as the channel’s most successful series to date.
Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox International Channels appears to be redoubling its interest in the UK. Following the announcement that it is to launch a female-focused free-to-air channel in the UK called YourTV, FIC has also acquired six-part Australian series Jack Irish for its pay TV channel Fox UK. Based on the books by Peter Temple, Jack Irish follows a former criminal lawyer who now spends his days as a part-time investigator, debt collector, apprentice cabinet maker, punter and sometime lover.
The Jack Irish books first came to the screen as three TV movies, which aired on ABC Australia and ZDF in Germany. Fox UK also aired the TV movies and will transmit the spin-off TV series in 2016. Both the movie and TV versions of the property star Guy Pearce, whose career to date has mainly focused on film (LA Confidential, Memento).
“We’re thrilled to be premiering Jack Irish dramas first on Fox in the UK,” said Fox UK head of programming and scheduling Toby Etheridge, who brokered the deal for Jack Irish with DCD Rights. “We’re massive fans of the compelling, entertaining and intelligent books and TV movies.”
Finally, there was an interesting funding story for producers this week as the Scottish government launched a £1.75m “production growth fund” in association with public body Creative Scotland. Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop announced the initiative as a way of stimulating the country’s television and film production industry. Applications are expected to be open by the end of October, with the initiative lasting at least until the end of the 2016/17 financial year.
Aimed at indies, funding awards will be based on criteria that are currently being drawn up. “The Production Growth Fund will help to attract new inward investment, further support homegrown productions and will boost Scotland’s economy as well as our international reputation,” said Hyslop. Next month, Drama Quarterly’s Mipcom issue takes a deeper look at the issue of locations and the factors that drive the places where producers decide to make their shows.
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).