Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, American Gods follows the story of a war brewing between old and new gods, with the traditional deities of mythological roots from around the world steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting modern society’s love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
Its protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman but in reality one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather the latter’s forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
Bryan Fuller, who is the co-showrunner alongside Michael Green, tells DQ why the novel was “ripe” for a television adaptation and how Gaiman’s story portrays the immigrant experience, as well as describing the writing process behind the series and discussing working with stars Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane.
American Gods is produced by FremantleMedia North America for Starz, and is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
For more about American Gods, read DQ’s feature here.
Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?
The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.
But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.
Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.
This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”
Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”
A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.
Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”
Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”
This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”
This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.
Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”
One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.
The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.
So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”
There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.
Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.
Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.
It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.
Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”
A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.
Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”
None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.
While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.
Shortform web drama Blue made its name as one of the first digital series to find a following online. In the first part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Michael Pickard speaks to writer/director Rodrigo Garcia about the show’s birth on YouTube and its journey to ‘traditional’ TV.
In today’s television landscape, the rise of catch-up services and binge-watching means more and more content is being pushed online. One series, however, is swimming against the tide, having made the opposite journey from YouTube to so-called ‘traditional’ television.
Blue began life in 2013 on WIGS, one of dozens of channels set up as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative that invested US$100m in fresh programming for the video-sharing platform. Starring Julia Stiles (above) as the titular character, Blue follows a single mother trying to keep her double life as a call girl a secret from all around her, including her 13-year-old son.
The series was one of a number of scripted and documentary shortform projects launched on the female-targeted channel, which was set up by Rodrigo Garcia, Jake Avnet and John Avnet.
“Back then – and we’re talking before iPads came out, so it feels like the Middle Ages now – there was this idea that if you were doing something for the internet, there was really no need to try to do it with quality,” Garcia says about their desire to create a high-spec online drama.
“But we thought, ‘Why can’t something be done that’s scripted and well produced, even if it’s in small instalments?’ The idea was to produce content that could eventually become part of a library and have a longer life and a longer way to jump from platform to platform.”
Garcia also wanted to shake up the general consensus that people didn’t watch drama online, so began work on a story that would be spread across 12 seven-minute episodes during its first season. A bulked up second season of 26 episodes followed.
Then when YouTube lifted its exclusive distribution deal, both seasons were picked up by Fox Broadcasting for its US SVoD service Hulu, which cut the short episodes together to make hour-long instalments. A third season, consisting of four 40- to 60-minute episodes, also debuted on Hulu in 2015.
Last year, FremantleMedia International picked up distribution rights and the series travelled to Lifetime in the UK. Then, earlier this year, the show was also acquired by Lifetime Movie Channel in the US, debuting last month under the new title Blue: A Secret Life.
Taking this online series to television hadn’t always been the plan, however. “It was always part of this YouTube channel,” Garcia explains. “Fox came in as a partner but it was always destined to be on that platform. Once the series did well, it had limited lives on Hulu and other platforms. Fremantle started distributing it around the world in a longer form, it aired on Lifetime UK and we re-edited it for Lifetime US.
“When we were writing season two and season three, we were still writing them in seven-minute instalments but we were always thinking, ‘Let’s keep in mind that they might come together, six might make a 42-minute broadcast hour.’ We were writing both for our platform and a potential future where the instalments could come together in one-hour episodes.”
Initially, writing seven-minute episodes – each with its own, beginning, middle and end – proved to be a tough proposition, especially with the possibility that further down the line they might fit neatly together into a standard hour of television. But from the outset, Garcia and his writing partner Karen Graci treated every seven minutes as if it were a regular episode.
“The fact it was seven minutes did not encourage us to treat it as a lark, to try to make it a funny moment in Blue’s life,” Garcia reveals. “We treated each episode like a longer episode, meaning it had an introduction, a twist, a turn, a reveal. There were cliffhangers at the end, even within the seven-minute form. That was a challenge.
“From the content point of view, being online gave us complete freedom. I didn’t want it to be like an NC17-rated series. I was very conscious and sensitive to the fact the lead was a woman and she had a secret life as an escort, which I really did not want to be exploitative. Obviously I have Julia as a terrific filter there. She would never do anything that seemed to exploit or degrade the character. But we had complete creative freedom – much, much more than we would have had on any other platform.”
However, the very nature of shortform online drama three years ago meant Garcia and his producing partners at Ingenious Media had a budget to match their limited running time.
“YouTube gave every channel its own budget and, within that, as long as we delivered the hours of content, they knew they could count on the quality we were hoping for,” he says. “A downside was our budgets were really tiny. We did literally hundreds of episodes, not just of Blue but the others, so there’s a lot of stuff that amortised with production. Each one of our seven minutes was somewhere in the $30-60,000 range, depending on the episode. But, you know, it’s tough.”
Key to the success of Blue, both online and later on television, was casting Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, the Jason Bourne franchise) in the central role, alongside fellow cast members including Uriah Shelton, Sarah Paulson, Eric Stoltz, Kathleen Quinlan, James Morrison and Carla Gallo.
“When we did our first season for WIGS, it was a very good time because everyone knew the web was here to stay,” Garcia recalls. “Everyone was quite open to experimenting on it. Our initial group of Blue episodes was 12 seven-minute episodes, and Julia was always someone I wanted to work with. She was very open to it. Back then, it was a short commitment. She liked the material – of course, that has to always come first – and she was willing to say, ‘OK, let’s do something that’s quality for the internet and let’s see where it goes.’”
Unlike broadcast television shows that sign actors up to long-term contracts, Blue’s shortform nature meant it presented a friendly commitment to Stiles and her co-stars.
Garcia continues: “Julia was happy with the results [of season one] so she came on board [season two] and, in fact, she wrote and directed another series for our channel, called Paloma. It was all very much based on interest and availability, and you’re always encouraged by a good reception. The series was very well reviewed and it attracted a lot of attention just for its production values and the performances, so that encouraged her to stay.
“It was a time when people were willing to experiment. If you’re making a digital series now, actors will be asking if it’s on Netflix or Amazon. The budgets have become bigger. Julia, like all good actors, is always going to be interested in good material. It was great moment to be experimenting.”
Now the experiment is over and online platforms boasting shows such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black have turned the entire TV industry upside down as broadcasters scramble to catch up with their digital competitors.
But Garcia sees Blue’s transformation into a ‘traditional’ TV programme as an added bonus stemming from the show’s success in an era when quality content will always find an audience.
“A few years ago, if someone said there would be a quality series on Amazon, you would have found it laughable,” he admits. “Now, after Transparent, Bosch and The Man in the High Castle, I would never underestimate any platform. Great work can be done anywhere. It’s great to travel from platform to platform; it’s great to start online and end up on Netflix or HBO, but that’s just a sign of the quality of the work. Content will always win out – if the content is good, people will see it.”
But can fans now look to a fourth season of Blue, either on television or on WIGS’s dedicated website? “We’re not quite sure yet what shape it’s going to take,” reveals Garcia. “We’re very pleased it’s doing so well on the Lifetime Movie Channel. It’s gone through many incarnations so we’re waiting to see what’s next.
“Obviously I’m happy Blue’s had such a long life. It keeps on giving. We had very good actors on it and we did a lot with very little money, so I’m just happy it’s still going. It’s had a longer life than a lot of stuff made a lot more expensively. And, as always, Julia’s work is really excellent, so I’m always happy about that.”
There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.
FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.
Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”
The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.
FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.
Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.
Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”
Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”
Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.
In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.
“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”
Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.
“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”
Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.
The FremantleMedia director of global drama’s list is largely UK-focused, mixing hard-hitting drama with a healthy dose of comedy, while there’s also a space for some Nordic noir.
When the Boat Comes In (BBC)
This show is the reason I work in television. It aired when I was a teenager and I was obsessed with it. I’d watched every episode but just before the finale, my mum said we were going on holiday to Cornwall. So we all had to go on this family holiday and when we arrived, there was no TV in the cottage – and in those days you couldn’t record anything or watch via catch-up. I sulked for the whole holiday in the way only teenagers can and, in the end, my dad bought me a train ticket from Cornwall to our home in Derby so I could watch the final episode live. I loved the series – we’re looking at it for a possible remake. A lot of the themes of where socialism started and that idea of a working-class community still resonate today. It was beautifully written and very avant-garde at the time. And it had James Bolan in it!
The Royle Family (BBC)
I remember watching the pilot for this show when I was at Granada and I’d never seen anything like it – working-class humour straight to camera, like you’re eavesdropping on people, and with no laughter track. It was revolutionary. Writers Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal were just geniuses. It was something totally different. Although it’s comedy, it’s comedy-drama because it’s got immense pathos in it as well as humour and brilliant characters that live forever in your imagination.
State of Play (BBC1)
I like anything by Paul Abbott but State of Play was totally revolutionary. It had brilliant acting from star David Morrissey. It was a really thrilling conspiracy drama, and Paul has a knack of telling the whole story of the season in the first four minutes. It hooks you in.
Cracker was the first time I felt the impact of a show having a single lead detective. Now we’re really used to that, and American drama had already been doing it for years with Columbo and Kojak. But it was the first time a British show had that really eccentric central character that fed the whole storyline and became iconic. Robbie Coltrane brought so much of his own personality to the lead role, and it was also the first time we’d seen a detective in British drama that wasn’t a traditional leading man. He was the opposite. And Cracker was brilliantly, beautifully written.
Gavin & Stacey (BBC)
This show just got everything right. It’s a comedy-drama, with moments that make you cry because they’re so poignant as well as scenes that make you fall off your seat laughing. It’s totally repeatable – most fans have probably watched a single episode about 25 times. It was so exciting at the time because its writers, James Corden and Ruth Jones, were unknowns. Now they’ve gone on to other things, but at the time it was a real risk to run a comedy off the back of two pretty unknown writers. There were also brilliant characterisations. Each of the characters in the ensemble is so beautifully drawn and stays in your head, and each could have had their own series.
The Bridge (SVT/DR)
The Bridge is totally addictive, full of red herrings that keep the story twisting and turning throughout and features one of the best female characters ever in drama with Saga (Sofia Helin). It’s violent and it’s grown-up. I like the way it deals with contemporary issues, whether it’s gay marriage, ecology or hostage situations. And it’s full of different kinds of relationships and different kinds of families, including Saga’s own family, which you don’t really see until season three. When I started the third run, I didn’t think I would like it without Martin (Kim Bodnia, who left the show after season two) but actually I liked it even more. The relationship between Saga and Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) is honest and real.
Hot on the heels of Amazon’s announcement of its content origination plans in Japan, Netflix has revealed a new scripted project in India.
Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The author, who will also write the adaptation, said: “Over the last few years, I’ve watched with great excitement and pleasure as Netflix has transformed narrative television with its ground-breaking, genre-bending shows. I’m confident all the colour, vitality and music of the fictional world I’ve lived with for so long will come fully alive on the large-scale canvas provided by Netflix. I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix and Phantom Films (the show’s production company).”
The show is set in Mumbai against a backdrop of crime, political corruption, and espionage. Seven years in the making, it centres on Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force. The story pits Singh against Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. Shot on location in India, the series will be a hybrid Hindi-English production. It will be available to Netflix members globally upon completion.
Now 55 years old, Chandra was born in New Delhi and has a number of novels to his name, including the award-winning Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which has been published in territories such as the UK and US.
Commenting on the opportunity to work with Chandra, Madhu Mantena of Phantom Films said: “We are very happy to start this journey with Netflix by producing Vikram’s outstanding story. And we are confident we will create some exciting and groundbreaking television content from here on.”
Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, added: “We are delighted to partner with creative powerhouse Phantom Films to bring Vikram Chandra’s epic novel to life with the best Indian and global film talent available today. Sacred Games reinforces our commitment to bring the authenticity of local stories to Netflix members across 190 countries worldwide.”
Other high-profile stories this week include AMC and Sony Pictures Television’s decision to develop a six-part miniseries based on The Night of the Gun, the memoir by late New York Times columnist David Carr.
Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) will play Carr while Eileen Myers is attached as an executive producer and writer. Myers has several high-profile credits, including Mad Dogs, Masters of Sex, Last Resort, Hung, Big Love and Dark Blue.
For those unfamiliar with Carr’s memoir, it is an acclaimed depiction of his battle with cocaine and alcohol addiction. As an active figure in the US media business, he is credited with having kick-started the career of Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls.
Elsewhere, CBS has given a straight-to-series order to Ransom, a new hostage negotiator series created by David Vainola and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle). The show has been set up as an international coproduction, with France’s TF1 and Canada’s Global also signed up for the 13-parter. Also on board is global content distributor Entertainment One (eOne).
The series will star Luke Roberts as Eric Beaumont, an expert crisis and hostage negotiator who resolves difficult kidnap and ransom cases. The show is inspired by the experiences of crisis negotiator Laurent Combalbert, one of the top negotiators in the world.
Spotnitz said: “The world of crisis negotiation is incredibly compelling, as demonstrated by the fascinating real-life cases Laurent Combalbert has negotiated. Laurent has inspired a brilliant and complex character, and you can’t help but be moved seeing all the lives he’s saved around the world.”
Amazon continues to be busy – picking up a number of new scripted pilots. Among them is Carnival Row, a supernatural series from Guillermo Del Toro, Travis Beacham and Rene Echeverria. A coproduction between Amazon Studios and Legendary TV, the show is based on a feature-film script created by Beacham 11 years ago. Since then, he has established himself as a leading action-adventure movie screenwriter with titles like Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim (on which he worked with Del Toro).
Another Amazon pilot continues the current fascination with Cuba now that the country is opening up to the international market. Called Tropicana, it is set in the world of the Tropicana nightclub against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Written/executive produced by Josh Goldin and Rachel Abramowitz and executive produced by Andrea Simon, the series will feature all the usual suspects including the mafia, the CIA, Batista loyalists and Castro revolutionaries. Goldin and Abramowitz previously worked together on Klondike, while Goldin’s solo credits include Darkman.
Interesting projects bubbling up in the UK include a BBC2 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s superb novel Decline and Fall. With comedian Jack Whitehall already installed as the lead of the three-part miniseries, there are reports that Eva Longoria is in negotiations to co-star.
The adaptation is being handled by James Wood, who came to fame with BBC comedy Rev. Set in the 1920s, Decline and Fall follows student Paul Pennyfeather, who is unfairly expelled from Oxford University and ends up teaching at a boys school in Wales.
Still in the UK, FremantleMedia has announced that it is backing a new scripted indie to be headed by feted producer Laurence Bowen. Called Dancing Ledge, the company is setting up new offices in Notting Hill with projects from some of the UK’s most talented writers and a development deal with The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.
According to Fremantle, the new Dancing Ledge slate includes a dozen projects for UK and US broadcasters including dramas by Mark Gatiss, Guy Hibbert, Chris Lunt, Dan Sefton, and John Donnelly, as well as a new limited event-series development commission for History written by Simon Block (Home Fires). Bowen is also developing several scripted ideas with Martin Freeman.
Commenting on the new company’s excellent writer relationships, Bowen said: “Dancing Ledge is only ever going to be as good as the writers it works with and we are lucky enough to already be working with some of the very best in the UK.”
Finally, Canadian broadcaster CityTV has greenlit some dramas. Bad Blood: The Vito Rizzuto Story, will debut on City and FX in the US in 2017 and is inspired by the life and death of mobster Rizzuto. New Metric Media, Sphere Media and DHX Media will produce the series, based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War – co-authored by Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso.
Another commission is Second Jen, a coming-of-age comedy about two second-generation Chinese and Filipino-Canadian millennials and best friends. Created by and starring Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy, the show will be produced by Don Ferguson Productions and premiere on Citytv.com in the autumn.
Hotels are great places to set dramas. Not only do you get to see the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff, from lowly bellboy to entrepreneurial owner, you also have guests coming in and out every week.
As with hospitals and shops, this means a constant turnover of stories and characters as the series progresses.
Hotel dramas are nothing new – think back to the UK’s iconic soap Crossroads, for example – but in the last few years they have certainly been in vogue.
There was, for example, the BBC’s Hotel Babylon, set in the world of a luxury five-star hotel. And then came ZDF period drama Hotel Adlon. In the US, we have seen American Horror Story’s most recent season set in a hotel, while Spain has given us the best example of them all with Grand Hotel.
An opulent series set in the early 20th century, the show has proved a big hit at home and in the international distribution market. Not to be overlooked either is Stephen Poliakoff’s new spy drama Close to the Enemy, set in a run-down hotel after the Second World War.
And so to the point of this preamble, which is that ITV in the UK has commissioned The Halcyon, a series set in a London-based five-star hotel during the Second World War. Produced by Left Bank Pictures and written by Charlotte Jones, it will focus on the guests and staff of the hotel in 1940. As such, it adds the unsettling backdrop of conflict to the transitory nature of hotel life – bombs overhead, staff going to war, soldiers passing through and perhaps even spies.
The eight-hour drama will be produced by Chris Croucher, who also produced the last two seasons of ITV’s period hit Downton Abbey. So there is clearly a hope that The Halcyon can go some way towards replacing that show.
ITV director of drama Steve November said: “A hotel is the perfect place to show ambition in telling the story of the Second World War. It was an extraordinary time in our country’s history, and London was a transforming city. The Halcyon takes us right to the heart of this as the hotel is busy, energetic and vibrant, which reflects how people carried on with their lives with defiance in the air.”
Left Bank CEO Andy Harries added: “1940 was one of the most dramatic years in our island’s history. Who could have imagined London would survive the blitz and Luftwaffe’s attempted destruction of the city? What was it like to be in a five-star hotel in the West End through this extraordinary period? It’s such a compelling idea for a drama. The world of The Halcyon has to carry on through thick and thin and against all odds. The bedrooms have to be made safe, the bars have to stay open and the band has to play on. People have to sleep, eat and survive.”
Left Bank is owned by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), so the likelihood is that SPT will hold the international distribution rights to the show. If so, this will echo the business model of Downton Abbey, which was commissioned by ITV but produced by NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films. The series will begin filming in London and surrounding areas from April 2016.
It’s been a good week for Left Bank, which has also been commissioned by ITV to make a fifth season of crime drama DCI Banks. The series, which premiered in 2010, is based on the novels by Peter Robinson and stars Stephen Tompkinson. It is set and filmed in the county of Yorkshire.
Harries said: “I’m delighted we are producing a fifth season of DCI Banks, one of ITV’s best-loved dramas. The stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside is contrasted with the uncompromising storylines the team is dealing with.”
Left Bank isn’t the only indie to have benefited from ITV’s voracious appetite for new drama this week. Indie producer CPL Productions has been given the greenlight to make Brief Encounters, a six-parter looking at a group of four women who get into the lingerie and sex-shop business in the 1980s.
The series is inspired by chapters telling the story of the early days of the Ann Summers party plan business found in Good Vibrations, the memoir by Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold. “Brief Encounters is a refreshingly different domestic drama taking us back to the wonderful world of the 1980s,” said November. “We’re really excited by this commission – it’s full of heart, story and great new characters.”
Executive producer Arabella McGuigan added: “Brief Encounters is gutsy, emotional, warm and surprising. Like the real Ann Summers saleswomen, through their camaraderie our women discover hidden strengths and an ability to come out fighting no matter what life throws at you. As wives, mothers and businesswomen, they unleash talent – and they blossom.”
CPL belongs to Red Arrow Entertainment, which presumably means distribution will be handled within the Red Arrow family.
Still in the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has commissioned a new detective series from Euston Films called Hard Sun. The six-parter is being written by Neil Cross, creator of Luther and a writer on Doctor Who. FremantleMedia International is handling sales.
It’s described as a pre-apocalyptic drama, meaning it is set against the backdrop of a dying world. “Imagine the world you see when you look out your window… except it’s been given a death sentence,” Cross said. “There’s no hero to come save us; no contingency plan. What’s it like, trying to keep order, trying to enforce the law in a city that, day by day, slips closer to certain destruction? How do you get up in the morning? How do you get out of bed and leave your family and go out there, putting your own life at risk? And what about the predators? What about the murderers, the rapists, the thieves? What about the psychopaths, the religious nuts, the cult leaders, the serial killers? Who would fear a prison sentence?”
Meanwhile, comic books continue to be a fruitful source of TV ideas, with US cable channel Syfy developing a new series based on the Dark Horse comic Harrow County. The story focuses on a teenage girl who finds ghosts, goblins, and the restless dead in a nearby forest. She subsequently learns she is the reincarnation of a powerful witch.
The series is being written by Becky Kirsch, who has previously worked on Syfy’s Dominion and 12 Monkeys.
Discovery is also reported to be working on an anthology drama series. According to Deadline, the broadcaster is developing a show called Manifesto, which will explore how the FBI caught infamous criminal masterminds, with each closed-ended season following a different case. The show sounds similar in structure to Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story on FX.
Finally, in Canada, OMNI Television has announced that it has renewed crime drama Blood and Water, just a month after the first season’s debut. The show, which is set in Vancouver, is unusual because it delves into the lives of Chinese immigrants and is produced in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.
Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).
HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.
While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.
Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.
Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.
All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.
Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”
In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.
Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.
In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.
This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.
Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.
NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.
And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.
One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.
Led by gritty series like the Mafia-focused hit Gomorrah, Italian drama is enjoying new levels of global interest. DQ finds out why.
The world has been watching great Italian movies for more than half a century. Following The Bicycle Thieves in 1948, films like La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, Life Is Beautiful, Gomorrah, The Great Beauty and Human Capital are past and present proof that superlative screen craft is a cherished component of Italian culture.
But until recently Italy’s TV business hadn’t achieved anything like the same profile beyond its borders. “The main free-to-air broadcasters, Rai and Mediaset, have a history of participating in continental European coproductions,” says Beta Film senior VP for international sales and acquisitions Oliver Bachert, “and there was the stand-out success of La Piovra (The Octopus), which sold around the world, but historically Italy has mostly focused on local productions that don’t attract much attention internationally.”
The roots of this insularity probably lie in a backlash against imported content that occurred in the 1980s. It took Italian TV producers until the 1990s to perfect their response, but when they did, they began to achieve real success with domestically produced soaps (such as A Place in the Sun and A Doctor in the Family) and police thrillers. Locally know as ‘giallo,’ the police titles included popular shows such as Marshal Rocca, Inspector de Luca and Inspector Montelbano. While they achieved some sales internationally, they didn’t spark the interest associated with, for example, the recent wave of Nordic Noir exports.
The catalyst for change has been the arrival in the market of pay TV platform Sky Italia, says Bachert, “which started commissioning dramas that are more in line with international trends. First came Romanzo Criminale from 2008 to 2010, and then Gomorrah, which we distribute.”
According to Bachert, Gomorrah, which was produced by Italian indie Cattleya, “took Italian drama to a new level.” The story of organised crime in Naples, told across 12 episodes, “won numerous awards and sold to 113 countries. It now has a second season coming up and has encouraged the international market to look more closely at Italian drama.”
Proof that Gomorrah was not a one-hit wonder came with the launch of 1992 in March of this year. Another Sky-backed project, the 10-episode series revolves around six people whose lives become intertwined with the political and social earthquake that swept away Italy’s post-war establishment.
Echoing its approach with English-language drama Fortitude, Sky was sufficiently excited by 1992 that it aired it across the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria, in addition to Italy – a total market of 20 million homes. That, says Bachert, came in addition to sales in France (Orange), Spain (Canal+), Scandinavia (HBO Nordic) and Benelux (HBO Europe). Now there is talk of a follow-up series entitled 1993.
1992 was produced by one of Italy’s leading indie producers, Wildside. Explaining how the company came about, co-founder Lorenzo Mieli says: “It was founded in Rome in 2009 as a merger between Mario Gianani and Saverio Costanzo’s Offside and Wilder, plus Fausto Brizzi and Marco Martani who joined the team at the moment of the company’s creation. Wilder was a company founded by me and some partners in 2001. Basically that was the place where everything started – we used to produce scripted and unscripted for Italian pay broadcasters.”
From Wilder’s perspective, the big step-change actually predated Sky Italia’s investments, though it was the same corporate family that was behind its expansion: “Wilder experienced dramatic growth with Boris, which was the first scripted show ever made by Fox International Channels in Italy. It was a huge success that was crucial to boosting the business.”
Boris was a comedy series that ran for three seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2010 (totalling 42 episodes). Towards the end of the show’s run, FIC commissioned Wilder to make another series, a six-hour serial killer thriller called The Monster of Florence. Both series were broadcast by FIC on the Sky Italia platform, effectively priming Wilder for the next phase of its development following the merger with Offside.
Today, says Mieli, “Wildside’s pipeline is a combination of Offside’s traditional expertise in feature films and Wilder’s TV background. At the moment, our catalogue spans from art-house movies and commercial/blockbuster comedies to scripted shows for both pay and free TV channels. Our main job is to deliver high-quality products, with a focus on talent-driven projects that have a strong international appeal. To do this, we work to build solid relationships with top Italian directors and writers, which is also a way to attract international talent.”
Like Bachart, Mieli gives a nod in the direction of Gomorrah, which he says “did a priceless job for the Italian production community. It demonstrated that an Italian way to make quality shows exists. Maybe a component of exoticism is helping Italian shows travel so much. But we do believe now that the global audience is ready for something different from US storytelling.”
According to Mieli, coproduction is currently Wildside’s key modus operandi: “Considering the work we’ve been doing in the last two years and what we’re currently developing now, it’s pretty clear that our product is closer to the anthological and talent-driven model.”
The best current example of this is The Young Pope, an ambitious English-language production that Wildside is making for Sky, HBO and Canal+. “The Young Pope is the most representative example of our strategy… a high-profile coproduction with a pure Italian creative core. And we are developing three scripted projects for the international market with a similar model. But we haven’t forgotten the Italian scenario – two shows for Rai and one for Sky are in production and couple of features are in pre-production.”
Starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton in her most high-profile TV production to date, The Young Pope was one of the year’s surprise scripted announcements. Mieli explains its appeal: “The story sounded amazing from the very first moment. The idea of a controversial pope born in the US and surrounded by daily life in Vatican City had evident ground-breaking potential. Plus Paolo Sorrentino’s writing was a stunning piece of literature from the very early stages of development.”
Mieli is convinced The Young Pope can have the kind of impact already made by shows like Gomorrah and 1992, and not just because it has HBO, Sky and Canal+ behind it. “The Young Pope’s distribution will be managed by FremantleMedia International and we’ve no doubt it will travel a lot. We have a great story, an award-winning creator, an all-star cast and a very fascinating, highly recognisable arena in the Vatican.”
As it happens, the Wildside story became even more interesting during production – when FremantleMedia decided to acquire a 62.5% stake in the firm. Commenting on the deal at the time, FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz said: “This is a key strategic acquisition as we continue to strengthen our primetime scripted presence. Wildside is fast becoming one of Europe’s most sought-after drama producers and will complement our existing businesses in the US, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK. The team has an impressive track record of attracting world-class creative talent and delivering award-winning drama, so I’m really excited that they are joining our family of production companies.”
Being in the Fremantle family may also give Wildside an opportunity to take scripted formats into Italy. There have been signs in recent times that this side of the business, traditionally underdeveloped, is starting to pick up.
Wildside, for example, made Israeli format In Treatment for the Italian market, while Spanish period drama Velvet and French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned) have also been adapted. Utilising FM’s international expertise should allow Wildside to push this door open further.
Wildside, of course, is not the only Italian indie providing a bridge to and from the international market. Cattleya, which counts DeAgostini and United Pictures International among its shareholders, recently announced plans for season two of Gomorrah. It also has a deal with Canal+ to create an English-language series called ZeroZeroZero.
ZeroZeroZero is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, who also wrote the book on which both the film and TV versions of Gomorrah are based. The director is Stefano Sollima, whose credits include Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah – all of which guarantees a solid international showing for ZeroZeroZero.
Fabrice de La Patellière, director of French drama and coproductions for Canal+, says: “We are delighted to be involved in initiating this international project driven by Roberto Saviano’s talent and commitment. This story, with the work of the scriptwriters Stefano Bises and Leonardo Fasoli and director Stefano Sollima, offers an uncompromising, in-depth look into the world of cocaine trafficking and the complexities of the system. This invaluable partnership with Cattleya offers the opportunity of a unique series for our subscribers.”
Cattelya is also exploring the scripted format business. It is remaking NBC’s Parenthood for Rai Uno, the first ever US scripted format to be picked up by the channel. At the same time, it has signed a deal with Atlantique Productions to turn two Italian properties into English-language TV series. The first will be a re-imagining of the cult western Django, which has its roots in the spaghetti Western tradition. The second is Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror film Suspiria, which will be reinvented as period horror series set in London and Rome between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Cattleya president Riccardo Tozzi says: “Cattleya’s role on these series marks a further step in our plan to produce high-end English-language series. And, of course, we are extremely proud to be working with Dario Argento, a leading figure for an entire generation of filmmakers.”
It’s no real surprise that Sky’s international axis has provided the platform for Italian producers to reposition themselves on the global stage. But it’s notable that Mediaset and Rai are also exploring what might be possible beyond their borders.
Mediaset started to show some interest in the English-language drama market when it came in as a coproducer on , a Left Bank Pictures adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s detective novels that also had BBC, WGBH Boston and ZDF as coproducers.
That was very much an ad-hoc experiment. But last year Mediaset started to talk up the possibility of making international drama in a more systematic and strategic way. The first fruit of this came earlier this year when it joined forces with France-based Federation Entertainment to coproduce Lucky Luciano, a 12-hour miniseries about mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
With Alessandro Camon on board as writer, Lucky Luciano will follow the life of the man considered to be the father of modern organised crime in the United States. “This is an extraordinary project based on the life of one of the most compelling figures in crime,” says Federation Entertainment’s Pascal Breton, who is producing the series alongside Stephane Sperry. “Lucky Luciano remains a mystery in many key facets of his life, especially in his relationship with the FBI. We intend to explore these mysteries and offer the most definitive work on his life that’s ever been produced.”
Mediaset’s perspective on the project comes from content MD Alessandro Salem, who says: “We’ve been looking for a long time for the right coproducer that shares our fascination towards the human complexity of such a criminal icon as Lucky Luciano. We’re thrilled to have found an outstanding partner for this miniseries event in Federation.”
Mediaset doesn’t intend Lucky Luciano to be a one-off. While it has yet to formally flesh out its strategy, the company says it is “devoted to pursuing international production as a new vector of development for high-profile, ambitious original scripted content together with world-renowned partners.”
For public broadcaster Rai, the challenge is how to engage with the international market while staying focused on the needs of the domestic market. Mattia Oddone, head of cinema and TV international sales at commercial arm Rai Com, says his parent company’s domestic channels are currently doing very well: “Drama works wonderfully on Rai, making Rai 1 and Rai 2 the leading channels in Italy. The key slots are on Sunday and Monday nights, primetime for miniseries and longer series.”
Rai produces around 400 hours of original drama per year with a budget of around €200m (US$223m). In terms of Rai dramas that cross over into the international markets, Oddone says: “Genre series account for most of our sales. One of our most marketable products this year has been new seasons of Il Giovane Montalbano (The Young Montalbano – a spin-off of the original Montalbano series), based on the popular protagonist of Andrea Camilleri’s acclaimed Sicilian crime novels.”
The Young Montalbano is one series that has ridden the wave of interest in non-English language drama, says Oddone, “selling to the US, the UK, France and Benelux.” More generally, “Latin America and Spanish-language rights for the US market are very important to us, as is Central and Eastern Europe. Crime series like the second season of Sfida Al Cielo – La Narcotici 2 (Anti Drug Squad 2) and La Catturandi (Palermo Police Squad, pictured top) have been in high demand there. Biopics on internationally recognisable figures such as Oriana, a dramatisation of the life of storied Italian journalist and campaigner Oriana Fallaci, have also performed very well.”
Oddone acknowledges there has been a change in the way TV drama is produced in Italy. But he also stresses that Italian success has so far been rooted in subject matter that is closely associated with the market. “Rather than making Italian content more international, we have seen Italian themes become more accessible for international audiences. Topics like the family and the Mafia are very much connected with Italy and the possibility to develop such stories has allowed Italian producers to tell them with more intelligence and subtlety.”
Given Rai’s role at the heart of the Italian cultural landscape, Oddone says there is no reason why Rai Com cannot also play its part in the growing international market for Italian drama. And there have been separate reports that the broadcaster is looking at a project about the Medicis and one based on Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. But Oddone also reiterates the point about not losing sight of the needs of the domestic audience. Rai is less likely, for example, to follow some of its Italian peers into English-language drama. “We are about to enter drama coproduction and we are seeking new projects. But it is a delicate matter and it also has to engage the interest of our channels, with which we are now working very closely.”
It’s worth noting that Italian scripted content has also started making ground in markets like China and Turkey, primarily as formats. But if there is one other big story worth following, it’s the arrival of Netflix in Italy this October. The subscription VoD platform’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos was in the country recently trying to win over the Italian industry with promises of investment in Italian-originated content that can travel.
Speaking at the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival, he said: “We think we can bring a large global audience to a local Italian show and that we will be able to invest at a higher level than an Italian producer would invest in a series or a film from Italy.”
Echoing the company’s approach in France, where it greenlit a major local series called Marseilles, Sarandos said Netflix is planning a major commission that will “represent probably 15% to 20% of our spending on Italian programming.”
With Netflix spending an estimated US$5bn a year globally on content, the company’s entry into the Italian market should provide a welcome boost to the country’s producers at this pivotal moment.
Mediaset feeling lucky
Mediaset’s Alessandro Salem and Federation Entertainment founder Pascal Breton discuss their new coproduction Lucky Luciano and outline how Italian drama is taking on the international market.
Alessandro Salem: “What is happening right now is the spotlight is again on the power of Italian stories and the success they are achieving worldwide. In Italy and abroad the national frame isn’t always appropriate to nourish the creative process and to grant the financing of ambitious projects, so international development is more and more crucial.
“Rather than cinema or television, today we should speak of talents who explore storytelling and, depending on the specific nature of the project, later take on a TV or cinema direction.
Pascal Breton: “We’ve witnessed a ‘Scandinavian wave’ these past few years, and I think we’re now seeing a French wave with series like The Returned and The Bureau, as well as Versailles and Marseille within the next year, along with a wave of highly talented directors, writers and producers. The meeting of TV producers with top talent from French and Italian cinema is bringing a new creative force into a field that’s been dominated by Anglo-Saxon series.”
Salem: “Lucky Luciano is a TV series with international DNA: Italian roots, American trunk and international branches. It is about one of the most famous, and yet less known, criminal icons of the 20th Century, Charles Salvatore Lucania, also known as ‘Lucky.’ The series discloses what’s behind the story of the kid from Sicilian sulfur mines who will organise the American mob as an actual corporation, and will leave a lasting mark on the story of our countries through the controversial collaboration with the American and Italian authorities.
“The locations, the renowned character, the popularity of the Italian organised crime stories in the TV and movie iconography, have made it natural for us to launch the project on an international scale, and have led us to look for partners who share our ambitious and transnational vision.”
Breton: “Lucky Luciano is a perfect example of a story originating in Europe that has had a deep impact on the history of the US, and the story’s potential is endless. We were looking for an opportunity to coproduce with Mediaset, and we couldn’t have found a better subject.
Salem: “Mediaset has ambitions to become a major player in the international drama market. Within the next three years the goal is to have a constant pipeline of international dramas. To this aim, on one side, Taodue – our in-house production company – is focusing its talent towards international production with several projects greenlit. On the other side, we are confident we can count on our distribution strength through our presence in Italy and Spain.
“We are aware that English is nowadays a sort of precondition for international drama – indeed, Lucky Luciano will be shot in English. An exception can be Spanish, when the story justifies it, because of the extent of Spanish-speaking markets. That’s the case of Taodue’s upcoming movie Call Me Francesco.”
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.
In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.
Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.
Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.
The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.
Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.
Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”
Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.
ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.
Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.
Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.
The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.
And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.
“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.
“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”
The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.
“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.
“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”
Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.
At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.
Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.
Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”
However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”
ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.
The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.
“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.
“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.
“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.
“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”
Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”
Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.
“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”
Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.
Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.
One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.
Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”
By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.
Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.
Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.
The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.
Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”
On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”
Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”
She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”
This week’s standout drama is Doctor Foster, a five-part thriller produced by Drama Republic for BBC1 in the UK. Although a number of critics have questioned the show’s “uninspiring” title, there’s a general consensus that Mike Bartlett’s script is a sophisticated look at marital suspicion and the corrosive impact of jealousy.
The Independent said: “The first instalment of the five-parter charted Dr Foster’s (Suranne Jones) growing suspicion that her husband Simon (Bertie Carvel) was having an affair. The old green-eyed monster is a common topic in a relationship-focused show, but Mike Bartlett’s (The Town) naturalistic script, brilliantly delivered by Jones and Carvel, was close to the bone.”
The Daily Telegraph’s assessment was also upbeat: “When I saw the title of new drama Doctor Foster, I must confess my stony cold critic’s heart sank. Not another medical drama. Don’t tell me: maverick surgeon fighting the system while saving lives, yes? Thankfully, it turned out to be an edgy nail-biter that rather reminded me of the hit drama Happy Valley. This was tensely intriguing fare. It was reminiscent of Fatal Attraction from the wronged wife’s point of view or the domestic noir novels that have been all the rage since (Gillian Flynn’s) Gone Girl.”
The viewers seem to have shared the critics’ opinion. Episode one, airing at 21.00 on Wednesday night, attracted an audience of 6.1 million (29.4%), well ahead of the 4.2 million slot average.
The show had a couple of things in its favour that might explain this high figure. The first is that its lead actress, Suranne Jones, is well known to the British public through previous roles in shows such as Coronation Street and Scott & Bailey. The second is that the show followed BBC1’s mega-hit The Great British Bake-Off (which attracted in excess of nine million viewers at 20.00). Nevertheless, the first episode has probably done enough to retain a large proportion of its audience for episode two.
By coincidence, the UK also saw the return of Buffalo Pictures’ long-running drama series Doc Martin this week. A gentle comedy about a high-flying London doctor who goes to live in a small village in Cornwall, the show is now in its seventh season and appears to be as popular as ever. The first episode of the new eight-part run, which comes after a two-year absence, attracted 5.9 million viewers.
While this is down on season six, it is still significantly ahead of ITV’s slot average over the past year. If there is a downside to the show, it’s that it has a pretty old audience. But Doc Martin’s return will be welcomed by the numerous networks around the world that have acquired or adapted it.
Anyone following the TV trades over the last few weeks will have noticed that RTL-owned FremantleMedia has been busy snapping up production companies around Europe. The most high-profile examples are Fontaram in France and Wildside in Italy, with the latter currently making The Young Pope for HBO, Sky and Canal+.
Fremantle will undoubtedly be hoping its new acquisitions can have the same kind of impact as Nordic indie Miso Film, an earlier acquisition that is enjoying a lot of success both in its home market and internationally. It was Miso, for example, that produced Acquitted, a Norwegian thriller that has been a massive hit across the Scandinavian market. Acquitted was also selected to open the Festival de la Fiction TV de La Rochelle, which runs from September 9 to 13 in France.
Explaining why it was chosen, Carole Villevet, head of the festival’s European selection, said: “Acquitted is an excellent series with top writing, directing and acting talents. Our goal this year is to focus on Europe and to platform European shows that have had great ratings nationwide. Acquitted is therefore a perfect choice for our prestigious opening slot.”
Miso also produced Danish period drama 1864, which sold internationally to broadcasters such as BBC4 in the UK. And now its fledging Swedish production base is launching Modus, a thriller based on Anne Holt’s bestselling novel Fear Not for commercial broadcaster TV4. An eight-hour limited series, Modus follows psychologist and profiler Inger Johanne Vik as she investigates a series of brutal murders. FremantleMedia International will launch it at Mipcom.
In the US, the TV industry is on the cusp of its all-important fall season. Dates have now been set for shows – some of which will have crashed and burned by Christmas. It’s impossible to know at this stage which shows will live or die, but one that already has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it is Fox’s Minority Report, which premieres on Monday September 21 at 21.00. When it was first announced, the show’s heritage as a spin-off of a Steven Spielberg film (starring Tom Cruise) created a lot of buzz. But since then there’s been a steady drip of less positive sentiment.
One issue is that the TV series turns the film’s concept on its head. In the movie, the story is about trying to stop pre-crime policing – a system under which arrests are made on the basis of clairvoyant predictions. But in the TV series, the goal seems to be to bring pre-crime policing back, a plot direction that has got the geek community chattering.
Then there was a feeling that the trailer released at San Diego Comic Con this summer wasn’t especially encouraging, with the show coming off more clichéd than conspiratorial. The tone, which should have been dark and gritty, was like a sci-fi procedural mash-up. Concerns about the direction of the series seem to be confirmed by reviewers who have seen the first episode.
Deadline was especially scathing, calling the show “predictable and surprisingly plodding. With opportunistic politicians, tacky tech, promotion-grabbing cops, air-bound assassination attempts and paranoia galore, the over-explained show tripwires itself from the beginning. Minority Report is a connect-the-dots drama masquerading as a creaky procedural. And, legacy or not, it will have a hard time breaking through even though it is one of the first shows up to the plate this fall.”
TVLine is also unsure of the show’s prospects on a network that has a reputation for not taking any prisoners: “With no Bradley Cooper-like cameo (this refers to the Limitless TV series coming up) from Tom Cruise to give this TV adaptation an implicit movie-star endorsement, Minority Report will sink or swim based on word of mouth. Given the sci-fi-er’s bumpy road to fruition (a lot of reshooting took place over summer), its future is, at best, unpredictable.”
Forbes also has a review of the first episode, which essentially accuses the TV adaptation of lacking ambition.
Fox is giving Minority Report the best possible chance by airing it directly after the new season of Gotham. So it should become clear pretty quickly whether the show stands any chance of survival.
Finally, one show certain to launch with a bang is the new-look version of The X-Files. This week Reed Midem, the organiser of Cannes-based TV market Mipcom, revealed that the first episode of the Fox reboot will be given a world premiere at the market on October 6.
“The return of this iconic series underlines the current demand for storytelling at its best,” said Laurine Garaude, director of TV at Reed Midem. “We are delighted that Fox has chosen MIipcom for the world premiere of the return of The X-Files, one of several high-profile series being showcased exclusively at Mipcom.”
The X-Files was a huge international hit the first time round and is expected to do just as well in its new form.
Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) recently lamented the number of sci-fi and superhero sagas that are appearing on television and in the movies. Speaking to The Radio Times, he said: “Obviously I’m a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.”
He has a point – particularly when you look at the factory-farm exploitation of the DC and Marvel mythologies by Warner Bros and Disney. But there is a flip side to sci-fi and fantasy – which is that it provides creatives with new ways to address important themes about the way humanity conducts itself. The best projects, many of which start in book form, are superb treatises on power, war, gender, immigration, the environment, medical ethics and the advance of AI. So many of the challenges and opportunities we are living through now were first identified and debated by the farsighted sci-fi writers of the last century.
US sci-fi channel Syfy has broadcast its fair share of tripe down the years, but more recently it has really been getting to grips with what the genre can offer at its best. This week, for example, it announced that it is teaming up with Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Graham King (The Departed, Argo) and Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) to develop Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award-winning best-selling novel Hyperion as an event series. As if that isn’t enough top talent to be getting on with, the screenplay will be written by Itamar Moses, best known for Boardwalk Empire.
Set on the eve of Armageddon with the galaxy at war, Hyperion is the story of seven pilgrims who set forth on a voyage to seek the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. A complex and intelligent work that employs a similar narrative structure to The Canterbury Tales, it’s a million miles from the kind of projects Pegg is concerned about. Commenting on the project, Syfy and Chiller president Dave Howe said: “Epitomising the gold standard of science-fiction story-telling, Hyperion tackles smart, provocative themes that help define Syfy’s development vision.”
Syfy isn’t completely free of the shackles of comic book tyranny (it recently greenlit David Goyer’s Superman prequel Krypton, for example), but there’s no questioning the channel’s ambition. Aside from Hyperion, recently announced projects include The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling books; a futuristic detective series called The Expanse; Childhood’s End, based on an Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic about a peaceful alien invasion; and Brave New World, a series from Amblin Television based on Aldous Huxley’s superb novel. For Howe, the latter is another example of the way the channel is heading: “Brave New World is precisely the groundbreaking programming that is becoming the hallmark of Syfy. It is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.”
The inclusion of Bradley Cooper in its roster of talent is, of course, a coup for Syfy. But it’s not the only example of Syfy’s ability to attract A-listers. In April, it greenlit Incorporated, a futuristic espionage thriller from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Productions, CBS TV Studios and Universal Cable Productions.
Set in a future where companies have unlimited power, Incorporated tells the story of executive Ben Larson, forced to change his identity in order to infiltrate a cut-throat corporate world and save the woman he loves. In the process, he will take on the entire system – with deadly consequences. Syfy says the dystopian future of the show – created by David and Alex Pastor (Selfless, The Last Days) – reflects contemporary trends: the growing influence of corporations and private interests in Washington, the slow but steady dismantling of the public sector, and the accumulation of an amazing amount of wealth by an ever-shrinking minority. “It is an electrifying example of what science fiction does best,” says Howe, “holding a mirror to present realities and projecting forward to a recognisable future in which we face the impact and consequences of our actions.” And there won’t be a cape in sight.
Back in the here and now, Starz has just greenlit a third series of Power, the New York-based drama from Courtney Kemp Agboh that came with Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer. Power is a crime drama set in two different worlds: the glamorous New York club scene and its brutal drug trade. With its predominantly black cast, it has been a revelation for Starz. The first episode of the second series, which aired on June 6, logged 1.43 million Live+SD viewers, the most ever for a Starz Original series season premiere. More than 3.62 million Live+SD viewers watched the episode over the initial weekend.
Kemp Agboh, who created the show, has much to celebrate this week. In addition to record ratings and a third season pick-up for Power, Starz has just signed her to an overall deal. Commenting, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “Courtney is a highly regarded showrunner whose creative vision brings viewers into the two worlds of Power. We are extremely pleased to continue our relationship with Courtney in the coming years.”
There was also good news for Matt LeBlanc this week, following Showtime’s decision to order a fifth season of Episodes, a scripted comedy starring the former Friends actor as a fictionalised version of himself. After a relatively low-key launch in 2011, the Hat Trick Productions show has emerged as one of best comedies of the last few years. Now up to 43 episodes in total, it has also sold well internationally for distributor Hat Trick International.
Finally, it seems Nordic, French and Israeli drama producers might have a new competitor. At the New Europe Market in Dubrovnik, FremantleMedia and Jadran Film Zagreb announced a strategic partnership to bring the literary works of one of Croatia’s most popular writers, Marija Jurić Zagorka, to global audiences.
Zagorka, who died in 1957, is one of the most read writers in Central and Eastern Europe, although her novels have never been translated into English. The partnership kicks off with a joint production of one of Zagorka’s most famous works: The Witch of Grich (Grička vještica), which has sold more than 10 million copies in Eastern Europe.
Set in the second half of the 18th century, it tells the story of a young countess called Nera, whose popularity among men causes envy among her female peers. When Nera tries to save a group of poor women from a witch-hunt, her rivals see this as an opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft. FremantleMedia and Jadran Film are also looking at developing titles such as Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Gordana and Jadranka.