Tag Archives: Freeform

Hidden secrets

Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph talk playing superheroes, joining the Marvel universe and doing their own stunts in comic book adaptation Cloak & Dagger.

While Marvel’s big-screen ambitions have left nothing on the floor in terms of scale, ambition and epic action sequences, the same cannot be said for its television offerings. The likes of Daredevil and The Punisher may live in the same ‘universe’ as movie characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther and Thor, but there’s a stark contrast between them on screen.

In particular, TV series such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and Netflix foursome Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – as well as crossover series The Defenders, which brings the four titular characters together – offer an altogether darker, grittier and more grounded tone.

One of the most recent entries into Marvel’s television canon is Cloak & Dagger, commissioned by US cable channel Freeform and available on Amazon Prime Video across Europe. It tells the story of Tandy Bowen (‘Dagger,’ played by Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson (‘Cloak,’ played by Aubrey Joseph), two teenagers from very different backgrounds who find themselves burdened by and awakened to newly discovered superpowers that link them together. One can emit light while the other can shroud people in darkness.

The series is based on the beloved comic characters and is coproduced byMarvel Television and ABC Signature Studios. It is distributed by Disney Media Distribution.

Here, Holt and Johnson talk about how they were drawn into the world of the original comic books, their on-screen partnership and some of the issues the teenage characters face in the series, which has been renewed for a second season.

How much did you know about Tandy and Tyrone before starting the show?
Holt: We were not familiar with the comics whatsoever. We did a little bit of research going into it and I ended up bringing the first comic book to the audition just to understand the characters and the tone and their journey. Then when we got the parts, we dove into the comics a little bit more.

How do you feel the show fits into the larger world of the Marvel universe?
Holt: We’re a very progressive show and we’re taking a current-day twist on what’s happening in society right now. I think that’s unique and rare and something we don’t see a lot of in television, or certainly not in shows that are based on superheroes. As far as the larger scale of the Marvel universe goes, it’s important for us to finally tell a story about an interracial duo team and how they’re better together than they are apart. For Marvel fans, it’s about bringing a new generation of superheroes on board and telling their stories in an authentic way.
Johnson: Also, a lot of superhero duos are the hero and his sidekick, but Tyrone and Tandy are on a level playing field and they need each other. I love how the show stresses who they are as people away from their superpowers.

Did you know from the start that you had such great chemistry?
Holt: We did chemistry tests with a lot of different actors but the minute we were in the room together it just felt right. We actually did an improvisation scene where we sat down and basically talked about both of our backgrounds and stories. By the end of it we were in tears. It felt good and we left the room feeling confident that, whether we booked the parts or not, nobody could ever take that moment away from us.

Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt in Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger

In the first two episodes, you only have one scene together – was it hard to get the chemistry going again?
Holt: No because that’s the scene we did at the audition and so we’d done it a lot. But our director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed that first episode and who we just worship and love, really helped us get to an authentic place. And while it’s true we have very few scenes together in the first few episodes, when it comes to episode four we really start to develop a dynamic and a friendship.
Johnson: You get to know Tyrone and Tandy for who they are respectively, as individuals, and you’re rooting for them, so when they finally get together it’s like, ‘This is heaven.’ And I do feel the fans are in love with the chemistry that Tyrone and Tandy have. I think it’s worth the wait.

What are you most enjoying about playing these characters?
Johnson: One of the best things about Tyrone is how much he shares with Tandy. He’s an introvert, which I’m definitely not – and actually that was a challenge for me at first, but I love a challenge. Being able to portray that introverted side of him and to see how much Tandy changes him is great. Throughout the season you really watch them grow, not into two completely different people, but you really see them grow up.

The show will return for a second season on Freeform

Do you think teenagers today are switched on to what’s happening in society?
Johnson: I think this generation is so aware and so, I guess they say, ‘woke.’ They’re already talking about these things and I think this is going to push it to another level where we see that if we connect and if we talk, we’ll progress more than if we separate ourselves. Moving with hate isn’t going to take us anywhere, so I feel connecting with young people is going to achieve a lot because television and film are two of the biggest outlets in the world.
Holt: Our goal is to start an open dialogue and to make society aware of what’s happening in this day and age – what it’s like to be a female in America and a young black male in America. It has a lot of heavy material and a lot of layers and a lot of really hard topics to talk about like police brutality, addiction and sexual assault. The aim is to show it in a very raw, authentic way. Of course, we want to make a fun show that’s entertaining and has a bit of wit. We don’t want it to be dark and heavy all the time, but I think it’s important to address bigger issues.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve done on the show so far?
Holt: We got to do most of our own stunts, which is pretty cool. We definitely got our steps in and there were a lot of bruises and a lot of sore muscles towards the end of the season, but all for good reasons. To be able to actually go and do what your character is doing is really fun; to feel that adrenaline and that rush, then go into the scene afterwards with that feeling is pretty epic. There’s nothing quite like it.
Johnson: The days where we did stunts made it feel a lot more real, like, ‘Wow, I guess we are superheroes!’

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Sound the alarm

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, mermaids and humans are set for a battle to control the ocean in Siren, which launches on US cable channel Freeform next week. DQ dives into the series with showrunner Emily Whitesell.

Long before the cameras began rolling on Humans, the sci-fi coproduction from Channel 4 and AMC, the group of actors cast to play the androids at the centre of the show spent weeks in rehearsal perfecting every movement and gesture. For Freeform drama Siren, which debuts next Thursday, the starring ensemble went through a similar process – only this time they were playing mermaids, and they were underwater.

Emily Whitesell

Visual effects, the final piece of the jigsaw put into place ahead of Siren’s debut, will help to create a realistic look for this fishy tale. But when it comes to movement, that’s on the actors.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the water because we wanted everything to look as authentic as possible,” says showrunner Emily Whitesell when asked how much of the show was shot on camera. “These actors are unbelievable, they are diving into the freezing water off the coast of Vancouver [where Siren was shot]. Then for anything under the water, we have a giant tank and underwater cameras, and they’re in suits that mark them up in a way so that, afterwards, the visual effects people can add something. But as for the actors, the more they can move as these creatures, the better off we are once we get to visual effects.

“Eline Powell, who plays the mermaid Ryn [at the centre of the story], must be partly mermaid! She’s such a physical actor; she takes on the life of this thing and moves in such a way that it’s so authentic. Our main actors are so into it, they’re really embodying these creatures. We just have to keep them safe [in the water] and try to make their movement as close as possible [to a mermaid] so we can minimise the visual effects.”

Siren is set in Bristol Cove, a coastal town that, according to legend, was once home to mermaids. And when the arrival of a mysterious girl (Powell’s Ryn) proves this folklore to be true, there begins a vicious battle between man and sea as these predatory beings seek to reclaim their right to the ocean.

The drama is based on a story by Eric Wald and Dean White, who executive produce alongside Whitesell, Brad Luff, Nate Hopper and RD Robb. Disney Media Distribution is handling international sales.

Siren stars Eline Powell as Ryn

Whitesell’s reluctance to lean too heavily on her effects team also extended to a desire to avoid the pattern of shows such as 1970s/80s series The Incredible Hulk, in which viewers would see Bill Bixby’s David Banner transform into Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk each week. “We really tried throughout the first 10 episodes to vary what you’d see in terms of transformation,” she explains of the mermaids’ differing states between land and sea.

“Part of the mythology we’re using – we got to make up a whole mythology of our own – is when mermaids come onto land, they become more adaptive each time, so they can stay longer each time. So for a couple of episodes we can have a different transformation or tell a different story about what it means to be a mermaid. In every episode you see something cool as far as a transformation or visual effect, but we only do the actual transformation in visual form several times throughout the first 10 episodes.”

As a writer and producer, Whitesell’s credits include Homicide: Life on the Street, Roswell, Party of Five, American Dreams and, most recently, MTV teen drama Finding Carter, on which she was also showrunner.

“I got so lucky,” Whitesell recalls of becoming involved in Siren, which was originally titled The Deep. Her agent passed her the script as production was ramping up for the pilot, and despite initially hesitating at the prospect of a mermaid drama, she agreed to read it.

“I’m not a mermaid girl but I read the script and I could not believe the quality of it and the level it was being worked at,” she says. “I’d never seen a story like this on TV. As a producer and a writer, you’re always looking for new things to explore, and it rang all these thematic bells about things I love to write about in terms of the ‘others’ in the world and acceptance of people – very deep themes that I always care about.”

Wald and White wrote the pilot, before White left to continue his directing career and Whitesell stepped in to help Wald polish the script. Scott Stewart then directed the pilot before Freeform, the cable channel formerly known as ABC Family, greenlit a further nine episodes in April 2017. Production began in July.

Despite not being involved in the story’s conception, Whitesell says she feels fully invested in Siren, having joined at such an early stage and having taken charge of casting and the writers room. Her partnership with Wald has also blossomed.

“I know you hear all kinds of crazy stories about people not getting along but Eric, because he’s not done television, is such a collaborative and creative person and he’s been fascinated by the process,” she says. “Some of the compromises you end up making in your initial vision or what you thought of when you were writing and then how it actually plays out, he’s been fascinated by watching that happen. He has such a great film eye so he always starts from a very elevated place, and together we’re able to say, ‘Here’s the compromise.’ He has been absolutely riveted and the relationship has gotten better and better.

The show centres on mermaids that can venture onto land

“He naturally loves to work on visual effects and that is such a labour-intensive process. I am much more about how we’re telling the story and the arc of the story. I’ve taken the reins in that way and we both have different strengths, so that has been fantastic.”

Asked about her showrunning mentors, Whitesell lists peers such as Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick (both Once & Again) and Party of Five’s Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, noting that beginning her career on the lowest rung of the writing ladder meant she could reflect on different ways of doing the top job and how she might one day approach it herself.

“Nowadays, showrunning is such a big job in terms of casting and writing, and you’re responsible for every aspect [of the show]. Where are we shooting, what are we shooting, what does it look like, how are we lighting it, what stories are we telling, how are we casting? When I consider all the jobs that happen every day, I can’t think too much or my head will explode.”

Ensuring her head stays intact comes down to delegation, with Whitesell surrounding herself with talented people and letting them do what they’re good at. “You shouldn’t be threatened by really talented people, they can help you. It’s all good and you should try to elevate everyone. That helps people invest in the show.”

Fola Evans-Akingbola and Alex Roe also feature

Producing a series for teen-skewing Freeform, Whitesell is aware of the seemingly unstoppable tide carrying her target audience away from traditional television and towards YouTube and other streaming platforms. How they watch Siren, however, doesn’t concern her, as the showrunner’s focus remains locked on the type of show she is making.

“This show on FX or another network would be completely different and yet I think Freeform really wanted to take some risks with it and push some darkness and some interesting things,” Whitesell notes. “They also believe younger viewers are so savvy – not just technically, but they have great taste and they’re used to seeing visual effects and things that look good. It needs to look good.

“I do not concern myself with the idea of trying to make a hit and grab an audience. I leave that to the network to figure out. Creatively, it’s the wrong place to operate. You have to think about what you’re trying to say and the quality of what you’re doing. Beyond that, I have no control so I don’t spend much time thinking about it.”

What Whitesell has been thinking about, together with Wald, is the future direction of Siren, which the showrunner says could run to five seasons and beyond. “We always say television eats story so quickly so some of the stories we thought were going to be five years down the line, we’ve moved up already,” she explains. “But Eric does have a long-term vision for the show, which is why I think the network was so excited about it. He was really able to talk about where it was going to go, so we’ve continued that conversation and we’re so much on the same page at this point that we’re pitching the same stories for future seasons.”

Across the TV drama landscape, it’s sink or swim as hundreds of competing series look to grab enough viewers to keep their heads above the water. As a show about mermaids, creatures rarely given their own platform on the small screen, Siren has a good chance of staying afloat in 2018.

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Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

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Butterworth rules Britannia

Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth

Anyone familiar with the work of UK writer Jez Butterworth will know that he has established his reputation primarily through theatre and film.

Although he co-wrote a couple of short films for ITV and Channel 4 in the early 1990s (both with his brother Tom), his breakthrough moments were the 1995 play Mojo and the 2001 movie Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman. Subsequently, career landmarks include the play Jerusalem (2008) and movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass and Spectre.

Now, however, he is set to make a major impact on the small screen as writer of Britannia, the first coproduction between Sky and Amazon. The lavish 10-part drama will star Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, The Hollow Crown), Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Stanley Weber (Outlander).

Butterworth will again team up with his brother (who has already established his reputation as a TV writer with Fortitude and Tin Star), as well as Richard McBrien (Spooks, Merlin), on the writing.

According to Sky, Britannia is “set in 43AD as the Roman Imperial Army – determined and terrified in equal measure – returns to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.”

The series is shooting on location in Prague and Wales and will appear on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video in the US in 2017. International distribution rights (excluding the US) for Britannia will be handled by Sky distribution arm Sky Vision.

Patrick Harbinson
Patrick Harbinson

Commenting on the show, Butterworth said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic. Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned round and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back. I’m fascinated in what happens when gods die. When an entire, ancient faith stalls, topples, collapses – and a whole new one grows in its place. New names, new faces, to suit the new times. Here we have a war between two pantheons – the Roman gods v the Celtic gods. It’s the heavyweight clash of all time, the one which most shapes who we are today. And we see it all from a human perspective, of individual survival, ambition, courage, lust, loss, revenge. All the stuff the gods have always loved us humans for the most!”

Another high-profile writer in the news this week is Patrick Harbinson. Although Harbinson’s most recent credit is as a writer-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, he is actually a Brit who broke into the business writing episodes of UK dramas Soldier Soldier and Heartbeat. Since then, he has managed to carve out an impressive career working on both US and UK series such as Person of Interest, Lewis, 24, The Day of the Triffids, Wire in the Blood, Dark Angel and Hornblower.

Now he is working with producer Mammoth Screen on a six-part series for ITV entitled Fearless. The show, starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), centres on Emma Blunt, a solicitor known for defending lost causes. She is investigating the killing of a schoolgirl in East Anglia and trying to free the man she thinks was wrongly convicted of the girl’s murder. But as she digs deeper, she begins to sense powerful forces, in the police and the intelligence services at home and abroad, who want to stop her uncovering the truth. Harbinson calls Fearless “a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide.”

Harbinson said he was first approached by Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer three years ago: “[He] asked me if I was interested in writing a legal series inspired by the work of lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Helena Kennedy. I immediately said yes. Much of the work I’ve done in America in the last 10 years has been about life in the post-9/11 world. The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the ordinary workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach – and the great majority of us are prepared to accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions, who fights for those outside the normal run of society, and who is uncompromising, difficult and indifferent to unpopularity and danger. The result was Emma Blunt and Fearless.

“I’m delighted Helen McCrory has agreed to play Emma. She is a complex and contradictory character, and I am lucky to have someone of Helen’s wit, warmth and intelligence bringing her to life.”

Fearless will be produced by Adrian Sturges (Houdini and Doyle, The Enfield Haunting, The Disappearance of Alice Creed). Filming will begin in London and East Anglia in September 2016.

Veena Sud
Veena Sud

Butterworth and Harbinson are currently two of the film and TV industry’s most in-demand writers. However, breaking into the industry in the first place continues to be a struggle for most. One company that has a good track record for unearthing diverse new talent, however, is Disney-ABC though its writing programme.

Organised on an annual basis, the Disney-ABC writing programme accepts submissions from May and selects writers in around December. These writers then participate in a one-year programme that starts in February. If they turn out well, then they are given jobs on Disney-ABC series, examples being Veena Sud (The Killing, Cold Case) and George Mastras (Breaking Bad).

This week, Disney-ABC announced today that all eight of the writers selected for the 2016 programme have been given jobs on TV series. These include Dayo Adesokan (Downward Dog), Amanda Idoko (Imaginary Mary), Andrew Mathieson (Dr Ken), Ron McCants (Speechless), Miguel Ian Raya (Famous In Love), Janine Salinas Schoenberg (American Crime), Christina Walker (Still Star-Crossed) and Jeffery Wang (Notorious).

Commenting on this year’s bumper crop, Tim McNeal, VP of creative talent development and inclusion at Disney-ABC Television Group, said: “We’re proud that our selection of writers proved appealing to not only creative executives but also showrunners.”

One particularly impressive aspect of the programme is the number of writers who continue to build their career after that initial lift-off. For the coming year, 50 alumni will be employed at various levels in the industry, from staff writers to executive producers. Zahir McGhee, for example, is co-exec producer on ABC’s Scandal.

“Just as we pride ourselves by introducing new diverse voices to the creative process at the lower level, we find it equally rewarding to champion the staffing of programme alumni as a means to career longevity,” said McNeal.

Sarah Watson
Sarah Watson

In another piece of Disney news, its Freeform channel (formerly known as ABC Family) has greenlit a new scripted pilot called Issues. Inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, it follows three young women who set out to conquer New York City together.

Issues is the brainchild of Sarah Watson, who worked for more than 100 episodes on NBC’s Parenthood, rising from mid-level staff writer to executive producer during that time. Having broken into the business on That’s So Raven (2004), she then worked on shows like Monarch Cove, The Unusuals and About a Boy before her career-transforming six-season stint on Parenthood.

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True crime tops TV trends

Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr and John Travolta in American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson
Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr and John Travolta in American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson

There’s a new trend in US TV and it’s called true crime. Cutting across the drama and documentary genres, it’s a category of shows that seeks to shine a light on the workings of the US justice system (usually by giving examples of its failings and weaknesses).

The most high-profile examples to date are Fox’s sophisticated drama series American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson and Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer. But more are on the way.

This week, for example, it was revealed that CBS is developing its own true-crime unscripted series, centring on the 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey. Also coming up soon is Guilt, a drama series greenlit by Freeform (previously known as ABC Family).

Guilt, which debuts on June 13, is about a young American woman in London who becomes the prime suspect in the savage murder of her roommate. Loosely based on the famous Amanda Knox case, success for this show would undoubtedly keep the true crime bandwagon rolling.

Freeform has actually been making a lot of trade headlines this week as a result of its Upfronts. One of its most interesting announcements is that it is making a local version of Misfits, the UK drama that aired on E4 from 2009 to 2013. Created by Howard Overman, the show focuses on a group of young offenders who develop superpowers after being exposed to an electrical storm. The new series comes from executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who previously developed Gossip Girl.

The original UK version of Misfits, which aired on E4
The original UK version of Misfits, which aired on E4

Other dramas coming through on Freeform include The Deep, Hunted and Lore, a sci-fi drama about the lone survivor of an ancient race of paranormal beings who is abducted and forced to put his extraordinary abilities to work for the government.

For 2017 there is Beyond, a one-hour drama about a young man who wakes up from a coma after 12 years and discovers new abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. Also of note, given the current trend towards series with a transgender theme, is New People. Executive produced by Joel Silver and writer/director Don Roos, in association with Lionsgate, this drama-comedy focuses on a middle class family who adopted identical twin boys at birth. One is all boy, one grew up trans.

Another trend gathering pace is that of dramas that explore the nefarious world of high finance. Recent examples that deal with this subject head-on or tangentially include Showtime series Billions, Sky/Canal+ show The Last Panthers and DR’s Follow the Money. Now, Zodiak Rights and Arise Pictures have joined forces on The Cleaners, a 10-part series about international money laundering.

Described as Casino Royale meets Wall Street, the drama revolves around CIA operatives working with illegal money launderers in the Middle East to achieve regime change. Coproduction partners already on board include Spain’s Arcadia Motion Pictures and the UK’s Propulsion Pictures. “This new drama could not be more topical after the recent leak of the Panama papers, highlighting how and where heads of state hide their money around the world,” said Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights.

Grimm has been given a sixth season
Grimm has been given a sixth season

In May last year, we looked at the success of NBC’s supernatural crime drama Grimm and the reasons it had been renewed for a fifth season. This week, NBC announced a sixth season of the show. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said of the team behind the show: “They have created a whole new world of creatures and have a truly devoted fan base. We can’t wait to see what comes next.”

Season five of Grimm finished in April, with its ratings actually on an upward trajectory. The 4.5 million viewers it attracted to the 16th and final episode was the highest of the entire series. The show is also very strong in time-shifting, almost doubling its audience in terms of Live+7-day ratings.

Elsewhere, CBS has renewed NCIS: Los Angeles for an eighth season, while Fox has awarded renewals to two of its new dramas, Rosewood and Lucifer. Both have performed above Fox’s scripted average for the season without really setting the schedule on fire. Nevertheless, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “We knew we had something special with Lucifer, from the engaging performances of Tom Ellis, Lauren German and the rest of the cast, to Len Wiseman’s visually stunning look of the show.”

As for Rosewood, Madden said creator Todd Harthan “has put a fresh, playful spin on the procedural format, infusing it with wit and warmth, while Morris Chestnut, Jaina Lee Ortiz and the show’s supporting cast have turned in fantastic performances. We look forward to standout sophomore seasons from both series.”

Lucifer has also been renewed
Lucifer has also been renewed

Outside the US, Nordic broadcaster C More Entertainment, which owns networks including TV4 Sweden, has started production on a thriller about a bank robber who moves to Thailand to start a new life. Called Farang, the series was created by Malin Lagerlöf and Stefan Thunberg, and will premiere on C More in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland next year before later airing on TV4.

Bo Thörnwall, director of programmes at C More, said: “Announcing new local content is always a pleasure, since our strong Swedish offer makes us unique in the market.” Josefine Tengblad, head of drama at TV4 and C More, added that the show “will be a gut-wrenching thriller – a drama about the emotional, fragile connection between a father and the daughter he abandoned.”

The show is part of a concerted drive by C More/TV4 into the drama business. Other titles on their slate include Gåsmamman, a thriller that was doing the rounds at MipTV last week, Beck and upcoming crime drama Missing.

In other international news, UK indie Mam Tor Productions has joined with Escapade Media on the upcoming Australian drama series Art of Killing. The six-part psychological thriller is adapted from the novel A Dark Place to Die by Ed Chatterton. The scriptwriters include Paul Duane, Rob Cawley and Sarah Smith. Commenting on the partnership, Escapade Media MD Natalie Lawley said: “In the growing world of international coproductions, it’s imperative to have a producer who can drive the project to distinction, especially in face of the strong competition. Tally’s work is proof of this and she is a perfect fit for this project.”

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Vikings prosper on History

Vikings' 20-episode fifth season will air next year
Vikings’ 20-episode fifth season will air next year

The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.

Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.

Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.

In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.

To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.

Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.

Rowan Joffe
Rowan Joffe

Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.

Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.

With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.

At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.

Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters has been given a second run on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family)

In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.

NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.

This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.

Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.

Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.

Doctor Thorne
Doctor Thorne has sold into a number of territories

Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.

Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.

Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.

While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.

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Coben sees Red with new prodco

The Five writer Harlan Coben
Author Harlan Coben has formed Final Twist Productions alongside Red Production Company

As we’ve discussed previously, there’s a growing trend in the TV business for producers to go in search of talent and ideas from theatre, film and the book world. A good example was Red Production Company’s decision to link up with author Harlan Coben on The Five, an original series for European pay TV broadcaster Sky.

The primary rationale for this is to get access to good ideas. But there is also a commercial advantage in being able to add a name like Harlan Coben to your package. Producers regularly bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough top rank writers to go round, so this is one way of sprinkling sufficient fairy dust on a project to help it pass muster with the commissioning broadcaster.

As it happens, Coben didn’t write The Five. He provided the idea, which was then turned into TV by Danny Brocklehurst (with Coben an active participant in the creative process). Potentially there’s a double benefit here. If The Five does well, Coben-backed projects have greater appeal. At the same time, Danny Brocklehurst also becomes an increasingly in-demand writer.

Anyway, the point of all this speculation is that Coben has just announced that he is launching his own independent production company in partnership with Red. Coben will be joint CEO of the new company, Final Twist Productions, alongside Red founder Nicola Shindler, with StudioCanal handling international distribution of any original content that emerges from the firm.

The new company is already in development on a series called Six Years, adapted from Coben’s bestselling novel. It tells the story of Jake, a college professor who six years earlier watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. But when Natalie’s husband is murdered and Jake goes to find her, he discovers the grieving widow is not Natalie at all, but a woman he’s never seen before. As Jake seeks to uncover the truth, his search takes him on a dark journey that puts his life at risk.

Shindler: 'We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky'
Red Production Company’s Nicola Shindler

Significantly, the new firm will be based in the US and will develop “contemporary, thrilling drama for American broadcast networks.” This is a significant step both for Red and StudioCanal, both of which take pride in their European DNA.

Coben said: “Nicola and I had such a terrific experience creating The Five for Sky1. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve made. Final Twist Productions will take our American-British teamwork to the next level by bringing Nicola’s daring new outlook and producing style to the USA.”

Shindler was equally enthusiastic: “I am excited about our upcoming projects for US audiences, which will have Harlan’s characteristic blend of suspense, humour and hope.”

The race to lock in great writing talent has also seen Zodiak Rights, part of the newly enlarged Banijay Group, sign a first-look finance and distribution deal with Arise Pictures this week. Key to this deal is access to an original slate of programming created and written by Arise’s co-founder, LA-based British writer/director David Raymond (The Other Man, Sins, Absence of War).

Tim Mutimer, head of distribution at Banijay Group, said: “David is brilliant at creating original, returnable series with global appeal, and Arise comes equipped with a slate of content that perfectly aligns with the Banijay Group scripted strategy. We are delighted to be working together to utilise the international distribution channels of the newly merged group to help bring these projects to the market.”

David Raymond working on set
David Raymond working on set

Raymond added: “For me, the great thing here is the creative support. By collaborating with a global partner, we have been able to create a flexible commercial framework that puts the creatives first and moulds the finance plan around the project’s individual requirements. It’s liberating and gives us a platform to focus on narrative and hopefully create content that audiences are going to want to return to.”

The first series under the deal is expected to go into production later this year – details to follow.

Other interesting announcements this week include Sonar Entertainment’s decision to option the rights to bestselling graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J Tiwary. The critically acclaimed novel will be developed as a multi-part event series, with Tiwary adapting his work for TV and serving as executive producer.

The Fifth Beatle recounts the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and his effort to drive the unknown band from playing in a cellar in Liverpool to international superstardom. Epstein overcame great obstacles, being a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.

Tiwary says: “Brian Epstein’s story is rich in inspiration and is set amid a backdrop of great cultural change and the legendary history of The Beatles, so an event series feels like the only way to do Brian justice. We’re going to do wonderful things with the extra creative room afforded to us and I’m thrilled to be working with Sonar to take advantage of all the exciting elements this format has to offer.”

The Fifth Beatle
Vivek J Tiwary’s The Fifth Beatle is being made into an event series

News of the adaptation comes as another man often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – legendary producer George Martin – passed away aged 90.

Another interesting project in the works is a series about Grand Duchess Anastasia, which is being prepared for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the US. Anastasia was probably executed with the rest of the Russian royal family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But there were rumours in the following years that she had actually escaped with her life. This project supposes she did survive and went to live in Paris, where she became a spy.

The idea is from Daniel Mackey and Seth Fisher. We’ve talked about Fisher in this column previously. Having made his name as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, he moved on to co-write National Geographic Channel’s four-hour Mayflower pilgrims miniseries Saints and Strangers. In January he was also named as co-writer of Discovery Channel’s Harley & The Davidsons, a limited series about the origins of the iconic motorcycle brand. Clearly he is seen as being good at spicing up history. His partner on the new project – Mackey – is less well established. His major credit to date is web series Aim High.

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Fans go Gaga for Hotel – but what next?

Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel

The Golden Globes award ceremony was a perfect example of why you might want to put Lady Gaga in your TV drama. Not only is she a good actress, as evidenced by her performance in FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, but her every slightest action sends the media into a feeding frenzy. When she brushed past fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio to collect her award for her role in the anthology series, she made front-page news around the world.

The Gaga factor was also evident during the first episode of AHS: Hotel, which attracted a staggering 5.81 million viewers when it launched on October 7 last year. Within weeks, FX had announced an order for season six of the franchise. Creator Ryan Murphy even went as far as to suggest that it might be possible to run two seasons of the AHS franchise per year, in spring and autumn.

Celebrity casting is, however, the TV equivalent of a sugar rush. Although Gaga’s casting had an amazing impact on AHS: Hotel’s first few episodes, the show has actually been on a steady downward slide across its entire run. From its opening high it has dropped to just 1.84 million (with the figures for the most recent episode not in at time of writing).

FX can still argue, truthfully, that the show is one of its strongest performers and that its average across the season is well ahead of channel average. But to shed 70% of its audience across a season still seems like a missed opportunity. It didn’t happen to other standout cable shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy.

So, given that Gaga triumphed at the Globes – which means her performance was, objectively, speaking a good one – what does AHS: Hotel’s ratings decline tell us? Well, possibly it means Hotel wasn’t very good. For comparison, AHS season four, Freak Show, rarely dropped below three million viewers and finished with an average of 3.85 million.

Scream Queens
Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens has achieved so-so results on Fox

Or maybe the audience is getting bored with horror – a genre that has been on the crest of a wave recently. After all, Murphy’s other anthology horror offering, Scream Queens has only managed to turn in a so-so performance on Fox. Just how many malformed monsters can squeeze underneath one bed?

Or maybe the AHS production team needed to carry out a bit more pre-production analysis into the kind of celebrity whose fans might stick with the show (a kind of Amazon or Netflix-style data analysis). A Golden Globe winner she might be, but perhaps there wasn’t a close enough overlap between Lady Gaga’s fanbase and that of AHS. For the long-term health of the franchise, it might have been better to cast a celebrity whose fanbase wasn’t likely to jump ship halfway through. Whatever FX chooses to glean from the show’s decline, there’s no question it’s going to have to find another big name to lead in the sixth series, the subject of which is yet to be revealed.

Heroes Reborn will not return
Heroes Reborn will not return

Still in the US, NBC has just announced that Heroes Reborn will not be renewed. Speaking to journalists, NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt made out it was no big deal by suggesting the show was only ever meant to be a limited series. But the reality is that the show didn’t really capture the audience’s interest. Having started at the 6.5 million mark, it settled down at 3.7 million for the back end of the 13-part run (this is on network television, as opposed to the lower-scoring cable universe).

As its name suggests, Heroes Reborn was a reboot of Tim Kring’s original Heroes series – but it looks like the latent demand for the franchise that NBC had anticipated didn’t really exist. Perhaps we will see the franchise return again in a decade or two. But for now it’s a reminder, if we needed one, that bringing back a classic series isn’t a guarantee of success. The news won’t be too disheartening for Kring, who is partnering with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on Fox series Boost Unit.

Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars is still going strong

Pretty Little Liars, a hit show for Freeform (the new name for ABC Family), returned to the air this week after a four-month break. And it did pretty well, generating an audience of 2.25 million viewers. There had been fears the show might suffer after a closely followed plotline was resolved in the last episode before the break. Figures were down, but not enough to set any alarm bells ringing.

In fact, it also provided a good launch pad for a new show called Shadowhunters, which followed it in the schedule. Shadowhunters, about a group of demon-hunting teenagers who are part angel, part human (sound like Buffy?), attracted 1.82 million viewers, making it the channel’s best new show in two years. The last big debut for Freeform was Ravenswood, a spin-off of the bankable Pretty Little Liars.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters opened strongly

In the UK, all eyes are on the BBC’s lavish six-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The first two episodes were pretty good and have drawn a positive critical response. The harsher critics have accused it of being a bit soapy, a bit racy, a bit English and maybe just lacking some of the gravitas you’d associate with Tolstoy. But as Sunday evening entertainment, it’s a noble effort that benefits from a strong cast and Andrew Davies’ clever ability to cut to the heart of a complex story.

In ratings terms, it debuted to 6.3 million and then dropped to 5.3 million for episode two. That’s a strong performance with a not-unexpected drop for episode two – more like Poldark than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The performance of episode three will probably give us our best insight into how this six-part series will pan out. Lose another 1-1.5 million and it will look as though viewers are tiring of the show. But anything above 4.5 million and it will feel like it has found a loyal audience. All of which is significant to the international drama market because the performance of War and Peace may impact investment decisions related to other classic doorstop-novel adaptations.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

Playing opposite War and Peace in the UK was German-language drama Deutschland 83. Broadcast by Channel 4, the first two episodes of the show have scored 1.5 million and 1.1 million respectively, a strong performance.

With The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) achieving audiences of around 1.4-1.5 million on BBC4 just before Christmas and The Young Montalbano (Italy) debuting with one million in January (also BBC4), it’s clear that a significant section of the UK population is now comfortable with non-English content – which is good news for mainland Europe.

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Stepping out of the big screen’s shadow

If a feature film fails to meet expectations on the big screen, could it successfully transition to television? Shadowhunters shines a light on this new trend.

When BBC1 last year unveiled plans to adapt Philip Pullman’s celebrated novel trilogy His Dark Materials, it was not forgotten that this was once a series that had big-screen ambitions.

The Golden Compass, based on Northern Lights – the first book in Pullman’s trilogy – received mixed reviews when it was released in 2007 and failed to set the box office alight. The sequels never materialised.

However, announcing the BBC project and his partnership with producer Bad Wolf, Pullman himself noted the promise TV now offers to complex stories that film often cannot. “In recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations or originals, can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel.”

Gary Marenzi
Gary Marenzi

The path of Pullman’s novels to TV follows that of Shadowhunters, a new fantasy drama now showing on Freeform, the US cable channel recently rebranded from ABC Family.

Opening on January 12 to 1.82 million total viewers – marking the channel’s biggest series debut for two years – Shadowhunters is based on the bestselling young-adult book series The Mortal Instruments, which is written by Cassandra Clare and once also had a future on the big screen. A movie called The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on the first of six books in the series, was released in 2013, with plans for a sequel based on the second book, City of Ashes, widely reported.

That too failed to materialise, allowing Freeform to develop its own version of the story, which follows 18-year-old Clary Fray, who discovers she comes from a long line of Shadowhunters – human-angel hybrids who hunt down demons.

When her mother Jocelyn is kidnapped, Clary is thrown into the world of demon hunting with the mysterious Jace and her best friend, Simon. Now living among faeries, warlocks, vampires and werewolves, she begins a journey of self-discovery as she learns about her past and how it will shape her future.

Shadowhunters is produced by Constantin Film and executive produced by Ed Decter and McG, who also directed the first episode.

It stars Katherine McNamara as Clary, with Dominic Sherwood as Jace and Alberto Rosende as Simon. The cast also includes Emeraude Toubia, Matthew Daddario, Isaiah and Harry Shum Jr.

“Constantin had owned the rights to the IP and developed the film. It did OK,” explains Gary Marenzi, who has been working as an adviser to the production company for the last two years. “But we sat down and said it’s perfect for a TV series because it’s a huge ecosystem. You have the shadow world, the shadowhunters and the demons, and in between you have warlocks, werewolves and other myths and legends.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the big-screen adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s work

“It’s set in an urban setting where people look real. It’s not some complete fantasy world so it’s really that urban realism this show brings. We were fortunate enough to find Ed Decter as a showrunner. He had read the books and was passionate about the project. However, the protagonist is only 15 in the books so we had to age that up. Ed and his team outlined stories that we liked and, based on the first draft of Ed’s first script, Karey Burke (exec VP of programming and development) at ABC Family – who knew Ed and the books –  said, ‘We’re rebranding, this is perfect. Can you come in?’ So they went in and, boom, we got a 13-episode order right away.”

Any fans of the film who are expecting the show to continue where it left off will be disappointed, however, as the first episode of Shadowhunters serves as a fresh entry point into Clary’s world.

“It will follow book one and zig and zag, plus there’s new characters and situations created that are inspired by the books,” Marenzi says. “Then when we brought in McG to direct the first episode; he brought a whole new level of energy to the proceedings.

“The combination of Ed, his talented writers room, McG and the guys at Constantin, who know the IP, was great. We were very comfortable with our line producer, Don Carmody, and we set up in Toronto. The sets and locations are perfect for urban drama.”

Marenzi is keen to stress that the big-budget series is not a kids' show
Marenzi is keen to stress that the big-budget series is not a kids’ show

With Shadowhunters’ budget coming in at a hefty US$3.5m an hour, Marenzi stresses “this a big show, it’s not a kids’ show.”

He continues: “The interesting challenge is that when you tell people it’s based on The Mortal Instruments and it’s for ABC Family, people automatically assume it’s a kids’ show. It’s not – it’s a 21.00 show.”

In terms of Shadowhunters’ visual style, Marenzi says the creative team wanted it to have a modern look, “not gothic like Harry Potter.” He adds: “We wanted to make it look like these guys are going out to a club every night, just with vampires and werewolves.

“I was also involved in MTV’s Teen Wolf. It’s a much smaller show but it succeeded because people loved those characters – and they’ll love these characters too. They’re going to root for them every week and that’s the heart of a good TV show. Then it’s just a question of scale. This is bigger; there’s more drama, more jeopardy.”

While Freeform will be hoping Shadowhunters can join its roster of young-adult hits including Pretty Little Liars and Stitchers, other producers will be keen to see whether this former big-screen franchise can successfully transition to television.

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The horror, the horror!

Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road is being adapted as Haunted
Bob Cranmer’s book is being adapted by Fox as Haunted
With shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story performing so well, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to climb aboard the horror show bandwagon.

FX sister channel Fox, for example, has already backed Scream Queens and is now planning another horror comedy series based on Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road. Called Haunted, the new show centres on a military agent who is partnered with her demonologist ex-boyfriend to help a family overcome a demonic infestation at their house. William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has been signed up to write the project.

ABC Family, soon to be renamed Freeform, is also moving into horror for the first time with Dead of Summer, which is set in a doomed summer camp in the late 1980s. The network, which has given the show a straight-to-series order, is from Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Once Upon a Time writer Ian Goldberg.

Meanwhile, Syfy has advanced a horror project it first started talking about in the summer. Channel Zero is an anthology series developed by Nick Antosca (Hannibal). This week Syfy greenlit what is being described as two six-part seasons. The first is based on Candle Cove by Kris Straub, which originates from an online horror concept known as creepypasta. There is no news yet on the second batch of six, though the assumption is that it will centre on a different story.

Meanwhile, in the UK, broadcaster ITV has ordered a three-part horror miniseries called Him. Produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy with a hidden supernatural power inherited from his grandfather.

In the realm of sci-fi, one of the week’s most interesting projects comes courtesy of The CW, which is working on Cry, a drama about a doctor who works out how to bring cryogenically preserved people back to life. In an interesting twist on the Frankenstein myth, he starts by unfreezing his own father – but there are, of course, unexpected consequences. The show is being made in partnership with Paulist Productions, a Catholic-oriented company that makes shows exploring moral dilemmas.

Original cult sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot
Cult 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot courtesy of Netflix

Bigger news for sci-fi geeks is that Netflix is planning a remake of cult classic Lost In Space, which ran for three seasons in the 1960s. Created by Irwin Allen, the original story centred on an ordinary family called the Robinsons that becomes marooned in space along with the reprehensible Dr Zachary Smith. The franchise, which started life in a comic book, was brought back in 1998 as a not-very-good movie starring Matt LeBlanc. However it is probably better suited to TV. The challenge for writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless will be getting the tone of the project right. While it will need to be more plausible than the original to satisfy sci-fi fans, it would probably be a mistake to take it too far from the family-adventure feel of the original.

In the UK, meanwhile, actor Ray Winstone is to star as visionary author HG Wells in a new drama for pay TV channel Sky Arts. Called The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, the Clerkenwell Films drama will be an anthology series consisting of four stories about madness, obsession, hallucinations and horror (there it is again). These are based on Wells’ stories and will be adapted by Graham Duff. The series was commissioned by Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones, who says: “One of my earliest memories is seeing row upon row of blue-covered HG Wells books on my grandad’s bookcase and being fascinated by the strange and disturbing worlds inside them. The team at Clerkenwell has brought four fantastic Wells stories to life in a wonderfully realised, stunningly performed compendium.”

There’s also some buzz around medical series this week. After a strong opening on NBC for Chicago Med, CBS has now given an extended order to its own medical show, Code Black. Although the show has not rated well, it now has 18 episodes to prove its worth.

Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS
Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS to 18 episodes

In the UK, another ITV commission announced this week is The Good Karma Hospital. Set in Goa, India, this six-parter follows a team of UK and Indian medics as they cope with work, life and love at an over-worked, under-resourced hospital. ITV says: “Run by a gloriously eccentric Englishwoman, the Good Karma turns no-one away – locals, ex-pats and tourists are all welcome. With a stunning location, exotic medical cases and unforgettable characters, the series mixes the heartbreaking with the humorous, as the doctors, nurses and patients discover that the hospital is more than a rundown medical outpost – it’s a home.”

The show goes into production next year and is being produced by Tiger Aspect. It is created and written by Dan Sefton, whose credits include Death in Paradise. There’s some logic to this since Death In Paradise (about a British policeman in the Caribbean) is another show that uses the interaction of different cultures as a backdrop.

UK dramas that showcase the Indian sub-continent are in vogue at the moment. First came Channel 4’s Indian Summers (shot in Malaysia but set in India) and then ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Also in the mix have been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.

The Good Karma Hospital has been commissioned for ITV by director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea. November says: “Dan Sefton’s scripts are beautifully written and deal with themes we’ll all identify with – love, loss, relationships, family conflict, facing adversity and the importance of seizing the day. The Good Karma Hospital is a feel-good drama full of warmth and characters we will love.”

The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season
The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season

From Germany, news this week that ARD is producing a series based on the novels of Swiss author Martin Suter. Allmen, produced by UFA Fiction and Mia Film in the Czech Republic, is the story of a rich bon vivant who gets caught up in a murder after turning to crime to pay off his debts. Filming is taking place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic until mid-February next year.

Finally, there was bad news this week for showrunner Kurt Sutter whose medieval drama The Bastard Executioner has been axed after just one season by broadcaster FX. Having opened in September with an audience of four million, it fell away to 1.9 million by the end of its run. But this probably doesn’t signify the end of the sword and savagery genre. HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s Outlander and History’s Vikings continue to do well while the BBC’s The Last Kingdom has also received decent reviews. Also coming up is ITV’s retelling of the Beowulf saga, which should provide us with another indicator of the genre’s popularity.

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Women in the lead

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Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, is flying high on CBS during its debut season

There’s a growing trend in the US towards female-led series and movies. And one interesting aspect of this is the reboot of ideas that previously had male leads.

Supergirl, currently doing very well for CBS network, is a kind of example of this trend, since it takes DC Comics’ ‘Super’ mythology and sidelines the traditional male lead character. But even more to the point are upcoming series where the central character is being given a gender swap.

ABC, for example, is working with Sony Pictures on a reboot of Fantasy Island in which the central character Mr Roarke will be recast as a woman. CBS, meanwhile, is taking a similar route with its reimagination of HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau and with a planned resurrection of 1980s series MacGyver. All of this is in addition to movie launches such as the all-female Ghostbusters.

This week came news of another gender-swap drama, with US channel Syfy picking up Nomadic Films’ new take on the Dracula story, in which vampire hunter Van Helsing will be a woman. A 13-part series due to launch in autumn 2016, the show will focus on Vanessa Helsing, who must lead mankind against a world controlled by vampires. Neil LaBute is the writer/showrunner.

There was more good news for female onscreen talent this week with the news that BBC1 has commissioned UK hit drama Doctor Foster (starring Suranne Jones) for a second series. The renewal follows a trend in the UK of bringing back successful serials even if they look to have reached a natural conclusion (Broadchurch, The Missing, Safe House and Prey are other examples).

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The Van Helsing movie starred Hugh Jackman as the vampire hunter

The trick is to leave a loose editorial strand at the end of the first run and then see if the audience is sufficiently interested to justify a follow-up. In the case of Doctor Foster, which is written by Mike Bartlett, an average consolidated audience of 8.2 million across five episodes made renewal a no-brainer, even though the first run seemed to have come to a fairly neat conclusion.

The second season order was announced by Polly Hill, BBC Drama commissioning controller, who said: “Mike has not finished telling the story of Gemma (Dr Foster) and Simon (her husband) and there will be many more surprises in the next chapter of this powerful drama.”

Bartlett added: “I’ve been astounded by the response to Doctor Foster. So I’m thrilled that alongside (production company) Drama Republic and the phenomenal Suranne Jones, we’re going to tell the next chapter in Gemma’s story. Her life in Parminster may look better on the surface, but as she will discover to her cost, every action has its consequences eventually. No one comes through hell unscathed.”

Still in the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV is the latest company to announce a drama revival, with news that it is bringing back Cold Feet. Created and written by Mike Bullen, Cold Feet ran from 1998 to 2003 and was both a ratings and critical success for ITV.

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Suranne Jones-starring Doctor Foster has been given a second season on BBC1

Centred on the lives of three couples, it was credited with addressing social issues in a way not previously seen on British TV. Likened to US shows such as Friends and Thirtysomething, it was also adapted for NBC in the US, although the Stateside version was quickly cancelled.

There aren’t too many details on the new Cold Feet as yet, but media reports seem to suggest it will involve most of the original cast. This means it will be looking at the same characters later in life (presumably with kids), as opposed to using a new cast working with similar but updated scripts to the earlier run.

Interesting stories out of Europe this week include the news that German pubcaster ARD is backing a miniseries about the brothers who founded Adidas and Puma – Adi and Rudi Dassler respectively. Called Rivals Forever: The Sneaker Battle, the four-part production will air in 2016.

The series is being distributed internationally by Global Screen, which has already licensed the show to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. “Rivals Forever tells one of the greatest success stories of German industry,” says Global Screen head of TV sales Alexandra Heidrich. “At the same time, it is a gripping and dramatic saga, full of love, friendship, mistrust and intrigue.”

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The original Cold Feet cast – who will return for ITV’s revival of the hit series?

Elsewhere, the Turkish drama success story continues with the news that Indonesian channel SCTV is to adapt the Green Yapim drama Elif. The original version of Elif has already been a hit on SCTV, having first aired successfully on Kanal 7 in Turkey. International distribution of the show is handled by Eccho Rights.

Back in the US, cable channel ABC Family is poised to rebrand as Freeform from January. The new name is part of the channel’s attempt to become a “core destination” for people in the 14- to 34-year-old age range (which it calls ‘becomers’ as shorthand).

To support the shift, the channel has given series orders to two new shows. The first is Beyond, a drama about a young man who wakes up from a coma after 12 years and discovers he has developed supernatural abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. The second, Guilt, the pilot of which was much discussed because of its similarity to the Amanda Knox story, is about a young American woman in London who becomes the prime suspect in the savage murder of her roommate.

The pilot of Guilt was shot in London and Budapest – and presumably the series will need to follow a similar line. Perhaps it’s too early to call this a meaningful trend, but it seems like a growing number of US cable networks are taking advantage of European production tax breaks. In addition to Guilt, we’ve seen E!’s drama series The Royals come to London, FX’s The Bastard Executioner shot in Wales and Homeland film in Germany. Starz and History have also produced in Europe.

Following another trend, Syfy has decided to do its bit for the undead by renewing its zombie series Z Nation for a third season. Eight episodes into its current 13-part run, the show is proving rock solid with an average audience of around 0.88 million. The show is currently Syfy’s strongest performer among 18-49s.

Finally, this week saw Amazon launch six new drama pilots. Based on their popularity with subscribers these show will either fade away and die or be given a shot at a series.

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