Mobsters rule a corner of Berlin in German drama 4 Blocks, which has been renewed for a second season before its debut. DQ chats to the team behind the six-part series.
When it comes to mobsters on the small screen, series such as The Sopranos and Gomorrah can claim to rule the roost. But the gangs that run New Jersey and Naples respectively could be pushed off the map by the clan at the centre of a new German drama set on the streets of Berlin.
4 Blocks, which debuts on May 8 on German pay TV network TNT Series, revolves around Ali ‘Toni’ Hamady (Kida Kodr Ramadan), who has made a promise to his wife Kalila to leave behind his life of crime.
But when his brother-in-law gets arrested in a police sting, Toni feels obliged to step up as leader of the clan once again and prevent his hot-headed brother Abbas (German rapper Veysel) from becoming head of the family.
Set across six episodes, 4 Blocks tells a story about friendship and family, betrayal and trust, all within an Arab mob living in the central Berlin district of Neukölln.
It is produced by Oscar-winning studio Wiedemann & Berg Television, with executive producers Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Eva Stadler, Karsten Rühle, Anke Greifeneder and Hannes Heyelmann. The writers are Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf, with Marvin Kren directing.
4 Blocks was originally conceived as a series told from the point of view of the police, but executives from TNT Serie owner Turner felt that premise was too straightforward and formulaic. Instead, they wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the Arab family.
The inspiration for the series came from an article Berg had read that said there were areas in Neukölln into which police officers would not venture alone.
“I really liked the set-up and the clans. I’ve lived in Berlin for a few years so I knew what was going on,” recalls Greifeneder, Turner’s director of original productions. “Then I said I’d like it to be a bit more radical and change the perspective by going into the clan and telling it from their perspective.
“It’s a parallel universe within society, and that’s what’s interesting. Quirin was really happy about it; they don’t very often hear suggestions to make it more radical – and that’s how the whole project started.”
Berg picks up: “There is some kind of news from Neukölln every week, every month, so it’s really something that is vibrant and has a certain momentum. The fact the police wouldn’t really go there was remarkable because it was far away from my perception of Germany as a safe place and a safe country.
“We always wanted to tell the story from both sides, not just the police side, but there was more of that in the original concept. We really embraced Anke’s input, saying ‘Let’s be more radical.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
Because of the realities of life in Neukölln, the production team sought a story that had a balance between reality and fiction – a process that involved speaking to lots of people who actually live and work in the district.
“We spoke to officials, policemen, attorneys, lawyers and people living there,” Berg says. “It was all about treating people with respect and not judging them. We tried to really get a survey on what’s beneath the surface. For us it was not about the typical clichés of gangster life. It was more about the question of who are the people behind it, their family and their relationships.”
That’s why 4 Blocks is not just about action and organised crime, and uses the legacy of shows such as The Sopranos and Gomorrah by exploring the dynamics and relationships within the gang and what leads them to make the decisions that they make during the course of the series.
“It has some very emotional elements to it as well,” adds Hannes Heyelmann, Turner’s senior VP and managing director, central and eastern Europe and international original programming strategy. “That’s one of the big advantages when you tell the story from the inside versus the police angle. We’ve managed to show different perspectives and we’re not just fulfilling the stereotypes. This is what people on the street realised as well. When we hired some of the cast from the area and brought in lots of extras, word spread that this was not about shaping a certain image.”
Leading the project from a creative standpoint was director Kren, whose credits include crime drama Tatort. He has also been hired to helm forthcoming crime drama Freud, about the young psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1886 Vienna.
“I immediately latched on to that idea [of dramatising life inside the clan] and felt that it was really interesting,” he says. “For me as an Austrian, to try and get a foothold in this world was very difficult, and thanks to Kida, who is from a Kurd-Arab background and knows quite a few people in the area, that was a door-opener, definitely.
“We’re trying to look at family and in this case it’s a Lebanese-Kurdish family. We know they exist in Germany. It’s very authentic and we can be very confident in our approach. Then of course there is this backdrop of Neukölln. The interesting thing is if you go to France, nobody knows there is a mafia in Germany, that there are mafia-like structures and mobsters in Germany. I talked to somebody and mentioned this, and they had no idea this existed. So it’s interesting to tell a story about Germany that is not too familiar outside of Germany either.”
Berg has previously worked with Kren and describes the director as “extremely passionate” about his work, noting that he spent many days and nights in Neukölln speaking to people there. “He’s one of the best directors we have [in Germany] right now,” he says. “We developed a large part of the series with Turner and our writers. Then we brought Marvin in and he changed the game in a very good way. He spent a lot of time with people that really contributed by telling him stories and sharing their lives with him. He soaked in this authenticity and found a way to put it in our project. It’s his style, his handwriting and the whole tone of the series is what he managed to put together in a great way.”
“He also brought the writers in; they had their office there for a couple of months,” reveals Greifeneder. “You’re always better when you know what you’re writing about and that’s something you could really feel. It’s something that’s not typically German. It’s a really unique look.”
For leading actor Ramadan, 4 Blocks was something of a homecoming, as until recently he had lived in Neukölln for 37 years.
“The danger of making a contemporary series about a criminal foreigner is that you sure up stereotypes and clichés, or that you actually stoke the flames of the whole [immigration] debate,” he says of the series. “But, of course, on the other hand there are criminal clans [in real life] and we’re trying to give them a face so you can look at it in a different way and understand why the situation came about. If you touch something that’s a hot topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stoking the flames.”
The location of the series, in the south-east of Berlin, also provides a distinctive look that will be unrecognisable even to those familiar with the streets of Germany’s capital.
“Berlin is a little bit like New York – it’s shot so many times you’ve seen all these places so many times,” Greifeneder admits. “But now I’ve seen Berlin in a new way. At the beginning, you almost feel like you’re in Istanbul, but then you realise it’s Berlin. Even the typical things you know, he made it so you see it with new eyes, and that’s really difficult.”
Berg says the production used a lot of original locations, which sometimes meant going into places where the crew might not have been entirely welcome: “We made sure we were talking to the right people and that they knew we respected them,” he notes. “They loved our work as filmmakers in general so they respected us. The funny thing was, after we wrapped principal photography, a policeman came up to us and said while we were shooting the whole area was really quiet and, one day after we stopped, it all went crazy again. It’s true – it could have gone so bad and it didn’t. We didn’t have any incidents or any problems at all.”
The third original series to air on TNT Serie, after comedy Add a Friend and mystery thriller Weinberg, 4 Blocks has already been renewed for a second season. Production is due to begin later this year and the season will air in 2018.
“When we look at a concept, we try not to play it safe but take risks,” Greifeneder says of Turner’s original drama strategy in Germany. “4 Blocks is not typically German but it’s also easier for us [to commission a show like that] because we don’t have ratings pressure. We’re pay TV, so we have another business model. Saying that, we still want to reach for both. We want to have something critically acclaimed and that also has fans.”
Berg adds: “We’re not trying to please the audience, we’re trying to follow a vision we believe in. Most of the time, I find that if you have a strong creative vision you don’t try to make everybody happy and you end up having something that is stronger at the end and will attract more people. That’s one of the strengths pay TV has to offer and we’re taking full advantage of that.”
James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.
At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.
‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.
Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.
Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.
This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.
US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.
The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.
The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.
It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.
As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.
“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”
Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”
Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.
Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.
“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”
Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.
“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”
With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”
If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.
“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.
“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”
But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.
“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”
Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”
For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.
“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.
“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”
After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.
“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”
Executive producer Frank Spotnitz discusses the real-life origins of hostage thriller Ransom – commissioned by CBS in the US, Canada’s Global, German broadcaster RTL and French network TF1 – while star Luke Roberts describes the life-and-death stakes in play for his character, negotiator Eric Roberts.
Ransom is produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions, and distributed by eOne.
Described as a mix of Sherlock, Breaking Bad and The Big Bang Theory, German mystery crime drama Einstein is preparing to hit screens this spring. DQ speaks to the producers behind the show.
Albert Einstein’s great-grandson is the sleuth at the heart of Einstein, a crime drama produced by Zeitsprung Pictures for German broadcaster Sat.1.
Written by Matthias Dinter and Martin Ritzenhoff, the story follows Felix, a university professor accused of the theft and abuse of illicit stimulants – until the police offer him an extraordinary deal: if he agrees to help them solve crimes, he won’t have to serve a prison sentence.
Launched as a TV movie in 2015, which served as a backdoor pilot to a six-part series this spring, Einstein stars Tom Beck, Annika Ernst, Rolf Kanies, Laura Berlin, Burak Digit and Pierre Shrady. The director is Thomas Jahn and the distributor is Red Arrow International.
DQ speaks to the producers behind the series to find its inspiration and learn how it marks the next step in the evolution of German crime drama.
What was the inspiration for the story and making the central character Albert Einstein’s great-grandson? Michael Souvignier: We wanted to create a new crime series that felt fresh and young, with an innovative and strong main character. Albert Einstein was famed for his unconventional attitudes towards politics and social norms, and we started to ask ourselves how Einstein would have approached solving criminal cases using his scientific background.
Dominik Frankowski: Yes, and in order to set the story in contemporary Germany we created the fictional character of his illegitimate great-grandson, Felix Winterberg (Beck), a young physics professor who shares his great-grandfather’s genius and traits.
How is this a different take on the traditional crime genre? Is it a procedural or does it offer elements of serialised storytelling? Frankowski: What makes Einstein different is the strength of the characters. Unlike most lead characters in crime series, Felix is neither a detective nor a lawyer, but rather an unofficial and involuntary part of Bochum’s crime team. His participation is involuntary because he is caught taking illegal drugs to keep himself awake while trying to finish his scientific research on dark matter. He is also dying of Huntington’s disease. When caught by detectives Elena Lange (Annika Ernst) and Stefan Tremmel (Rolf Kanies), he manages to avoid prison by agreeing to a deal – to use his genius to support the local police investigation department in solving their most curious crime cases. By operating both within and outside of the law, and being quirky, impetuous and hilariously politically incorrect, his character has a sense of freedom and openness that keeps the storylines dynamic and engaging. Above all, he has a strong desire to defy legal restrictions and regulations – in both his investigations and his private life.
Souvignier: The series also stands out from traditional German crime shows because it is fast-paced and set in some great locations. We only shoot with a moving camera and we use fast cuts to keep the momentum. Einstein actually has more cuts than Germany’s most successful action show. In terms of storyline, Einstein is a procedural but it also uses elements of serialised storytelling. Each episode is self-contained, centring on a case being solved by the same set of characters – Felix Winterberg and detectives Elena Lange, Stefan Tremmel and Kirsten Maybach (Haley Louise Jones). But there are also strong season story arcs, including Felix’s attempt to save his scientific findings from an unknown force. This horizontal narrative was established in the movie pilot, when Felix was robbed of some of his most important research records – research that has the potential to solve the world’s energy crisis. Throughout the series he is driven to find this lost research, developing his character and relationship with the main cast as a result.
After the pilot, how did you approach making a six-part series? Frankowski: The overwhelming success of the movie pilot on German TV led to an immediate series commission. It was important to us that we used the same creative team, bringing back our proven team of writers Matthias Dinter and Martin Ritzenhoff, director Thomas Jahn, as well as the main cast and a large number of the original crew.
Were there any creative challenges that you had to overcome – such as creating elaborate crimes – and if so, how? Frankowski: “Keeping up with a genius in physics was definitely a challenge when developing the show’s crime cases.”
Souvignier: None of us have science backgrounds so it was important to bring in professionals – professors and PhD students – who supported us to make sure every case was realistic and grounded in science fact. When we see Felix processing the facts and making complex calculations to solve the case, we wanted it to be as close to reality as we could get. The crimes and how he solves them needed to be extraordinary and funny, featuring twists and light-bulb moments that keep the show both comprehensible and exciting.
How is the crime genre changing in Germany? What are audiences looking for and where do you think this series fits in? Souvignier: Germans are a very crime-savvy audience. In fact, no other country watches more crime shows. Consequently, German TV has decades of well-established crime series to draw on, such as Tatort, Soko and Ein Fall für Zwei. Tatort in particular is still incredibly successful. But there is also an increasing appetite for new formats that shake up the genre, with Scandinavian crime series like Wallander and Der Mann und das Meer and action shows such as Alarm for Cobra 11 having a big impact.
Frankowski: The German TV market is pretty open to new and innovative crime formats, especially those that appeal to younger audiences. Einstein fits this perfectly.
What is the writing process for the series? Do you have one writer or are you using a writers room? How do you compare the two methods and are writers rooms becoming more or less common? Souvignier: We develop the plots for the episodes and season-long story arcs in close collaboration with our two writers. The process of story development involves starting with putting rough outlines together in the form of an exposé and agreeing on basic plot ideas for each episode. The writers then put more flesh on the bones and develop the ideas into written treatments and finally into actual filming scripts.
Frankowski: Writers rooms are becoming more common in Germany for developing TV series, helping to be more time-efficient, which is helpful when you have to produce many episodes in a short time.
Are broadcasters in Germany looking for new types of series or are crime shows still the most popular? How is German drama changing? Frankowski: The demand for crime shows appears bigger than ever, although series about contemporary family life are also gaining ground. Family shows were popular on German TV in the 1980s and early 1990s, and were usually pretty traditional in how they represented society and family life. A lot has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. Today, broadcasters and producers ask, what does a family show – and even an ordinary family – look like in 2016? How have families evolved and interactions between people changed? The impact of everything, from politics and the economy to migration and technology, is being looked at. How do these changes affect society and families? All these questions could provide an exciting background to tell a story of contemporary family life.
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.
Built on a new willingness to tackle historical subject matter and increasing viewer acceptance of English-language shows, German drama is making international headway. DQ finds out how it’s all coming together for this growing industry.
In recent years the global dominance of Anglo-American TV drama has been challenged by a wave of innovative scripted shows from Scandinavia, France, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Korea.
But one country that should now be added to this list of emerging drama hubs is Europe’s powerhouse economy Germany. So long regarded as a creatively conservative market, Germany triumphed at 2014’s International Emmys with acclaimed miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, pictured top). Other German-language dramas that suggest this will not be a one-off include Babylon Berlin, Shades Of Guilt and Deutschland 83.
All of this activity around German-language scripted content comes in parallel with the rise of German-backed English-language drama. Companies like Tandem Communications, Red Arrow Entertainment and Tele Munchen Group (TMG) have all become major players on the international drama scene with scripted series such as Pillars Of The Earth, Crossing Lines, Bosch, 100 Code, Moby Dick and Rosamunde Pilcher-penned miniseries. In addition to this, federal and regional incentives for film and TV have made Germany a popular production site (see panel).
To understand the German drama market in its entirety, however, it’s important to start by looking at the free-to-air public broadcasting market – which is where most of the drama audience and investment still resides. And the message here is that TV movies continue to dominate schedules. “Our audience loves TV movies,” says Susanne Mueller, head of feature films at one of Germany’s two public broadcasters, ZDF. “ZDF has been the overall leader in the German market for the past two years, and a lot of that is due to the success of our TV movies, which play in the traditional primetime slot of 20.15. We have two or three primetime slots for TV movies every week and typically get an audience of five million or more, which is very good in Germany.”
According to Mueller, there are three main categories of TV movie on ZDF: “Crime, romance and dramas dealing with contemporary social issues (such as drugs, stalking, adoption and sexuality). Sometimes we will also air comedy in the middle of the week, though that is less regular. We also sometimes acquire miniseries like The Borgias and reformat them to fit our TV movie slots.”
ZDF’s reliance on TV movies in primetime is mirrored over on ARD, Germany’s other public broadcaster. Despite a self-inflicted financial crisis that severely dented budgets at the broadcaster’s drama division, ARD Degeto, in 2012 and 2013, ARD continues to air a large number of TV movie-length dramas in primetime. Some are standalone titles and some are set up as branded franchises. An example of the latter is Tatort (Crime Scene), which has been airing at 20.15 on Sundays since 1970 and invariably rates well. Another long-running police franchise that continues to perform for ARD is Polizeiruf 110 (Emergency Call 110), on air since 1990.
ARD Degeto came out of its financial crisis with a dynamic new chief, Christine Strobl, who has a budget of around €400m (US$455m) a year to spend on drama. While ARD’s basic reliance on TV movies hasn’t changed, Strobl has made it clear that she wants to up the creative stakes at ARD, telling local media that the formula “‘beautiful landscape plus complicated family history equals success’ is no longer enough.” One title that underlines the new agenda at ARD is The Barschel Case. Produced by Cologne-based Time Warp, the show looks at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of German politician Uwe Barschel in 1987, who may have been killed by Israeli secret service the Mossad.
Other ARD greenlights include biopics about Hans Rosenthal and Bernhard Grzimek, high-profile German figures whose career paths were dogged by personal difficulties. Rosenthal was a Jewish radio and TV host who overcame anti-Semitism in his youth to become one of Germany’s best-loved celebrities, while Grzimek was a zoo director and conservationist who was accused of being a Nazi but later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Like the Barschel film, both subjects show a growing appetite from German television to explore the country’s recent tumultuous history through the prism of character-based storytelling.
Germany’s fascination with domestically oriented TV movies has presented challenges from a content distribution perspective for a couple of reasons. First, international buyers tend to favour long-running series, because it is easier and more cost-effective to build a marketing program around them. Second, TV movies don’t lend themselves well to scripted format adaptations.
Nevertheless, leading distributors such as ZDF Enterprises, Global Screen and Beta Film have all had success selling German TV movies to markets like Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Beta Film MD Eric Welbers cites recent examples such as Anatomy of Evil (a five-movie franchise) to back the point. “The Anatomy Of Evil series has sold to RAI2, Antena3 and broadcasters in Scandinavia,” he says.
Welbers is also optimistic about the prospects of Murder by the Lake: The Celtic Mystery, the first part of a TV movie trilogy produced by Rowboat Film in partnership with Graf, ZDF and Austrian pubcaster ORF. Set on the shores of Lake Constance, the trilogy depicts German and Austrian police forced to work together on a murder case. The film attracted 6.6 million viewers on ZDF (20% share) last winter, and Welbers is confident it will do well with international buyers.
Global Screen, meanwhile, has had success with A Faithful Husband (Männertreu), an ARD primetime movie that was sold to Italy (RAI), Slovakia (STV) and Hungary (MTVA). It has also done well with Naked Among Wolves, which was pitched at Mipcom 2014 and the German Screenings last December. Directed by Philip Kadelbach (Generation War) and set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, the show aired in April and has since been sold into France, Poland, Benelux and Lithuania.
With TV movies occupying so much of their primetime schedules, ZDF and ARD tend to place series in afternoon, access primetime or late evening slots. “When we acquire British or Scandinavian drama series they usually go into the Sunday 22.00 slot,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “That’s also where we put our German crime series called The Team (which began airing in February).” An eight-part series, distributed internationally by ZDFE, The Team follows an international police unit on the trail of a cross-border crime network.
As with TV movies, German-language series have historically tended to appeal most to neighbouring markets. Betafilm’s Welbers cites Homicide Hills, a Tuesday night series on ARD that is also a strong performer on RAI in Italy, as an example. Also popular in Italy and Eastern Europe is another classic series, For Heaven’s Sake. One show that has travelled widely, says Welbers, is Kommissar Rex, a long-running police procedural centred on a police dog called Rex. Originally produced in German for Austrian pubcaster ORF, Rex has sold around the world and been remade in Italy and Poland. According to Welbers, there are also plans for a Canadian version.
ZDF Enterprises drama VP Tasja Abel says crime has historically been the strongest seller in her company’s catalogue. In particular, she points to classic series Derrick, a ZDF production that sold to markets including Australia, India, South Africa, France and Scandinavia. Global Screen has also done well with cop show Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been airing on RTL since 1996. A perennial seller, Cobra was most recently farmed out to Thailand.
Away from crime, another German-language show that has been exported widely is Storm of Love, an afternoon soap based in a five-star hotel at the foot of the Alps. Launched in 2005, the show is produced by Bavaria Film for ARD. To date, it has racked up more than 2000 50-minute episodes and been sold by Global Screen to 24 territories, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy. With format rights also sold to Turkey, the show was named by Madigan Cluff and Digital TV Research as “one of the 10 most valuable drama series in Europe” in 2012.
Undoubtedly the most interesting export of all, however, has been 2013’s Generation War, a high-end production that tells the story of five young German friends (one of them Jewish) living through the trauma of the Second World War. Described as Germany’s answer to Band of Brothers, the miniseries has sold to around 150 countries and, unusually, managed to secure slots on mainstream English-language networks like BBC2 in the UK.
At home, Generation War was adapted into a TV movie format and played in ZDF primetime, an unusual move for such an edgy production. For Nico Hofmann, producer of the show and head of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Films, Generation War is indicative of a new style and energy in German drama: “We have a very strong business in traditional TV movies and crime dramas, thanks to titles like Soko (ZDF) and Donna Leon (ARD), but there is a growing appetite in the market for high-end drama storytelling.”
In part, this is because broadcasters need special events to showcase their schedules, says Hofmann. But it is also a response to the fact that young German audiences are increasingly attracted to the slick narrative style of US cable drama. “The good news is that we have a wave of young talent coming over from cinema that can make great drama,” he explains. “But the unknown question is whether this kind of drama can get the kind of ratings to appeal to a mainstream primetime audience.”
This isn’t just a question for the public broadcasters, says Hofmann. Commercial broadcaster RTL (which owns RTL, RTL2 SuperRTL and Vox) has tended to rely more on factual and entertainment in primetime, “but it is expanding its interest in drama. We are making Deutschland 83 for them, a series about a young East German spy who is sent to West Berlin during the Cold War. If that can get around four to five million viewers in primetime then it might encourage broadcasters to commission more primetime series.”
Like ZDF and ARD, RTL’s upcoming drama plans focus heavily on historical subject matter. Aside from Deutschland 83, the broadcaster is also working with UFA on an epic eight-part series that looks at Adolf Hitler’s life as a soldier during World War I (a project that is likely to stir up as much debate as Generation War).
More typical for RTL is the TV movie Iron Fist, which was introduced to the international market by Global Screen at Mipcom 2014. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of Götz von Berlichinge, a charismatic knight who fought for the Holy Roman Empire. According to Global Screen, the film has attracted interested from markets such as France, Benelux, Eastern Europe and Asia.
While RTL doesn’t commission as much drama as ZDF or ARD in primetime, it has done extremely well in daytime with reality dramas from Filmpool, a subsidiary of All3Media. Filmpool’s Felix Wesseler says the company first hit on the idea of reality drama a decade ago and now produces around 1500 hours a year, primarily for non-primetime slots on RTL and its main rival in the free-to-air commercial TV market, Sat1. “The idea is to take real-life situations and amateur actors and then place them in a scripted drama scenario. The result is a very compelling drama at an efficient production cost, with format potential,” he explains.
Wesseler cites examples like Cases of Doubt, a family-based whodunnit in which an unsuspecting husband or wife is confronted with the possibility that a family member might have committed a crime. Now up to 600 episodes, Cases of Doubt doubled RTL’s share in its daytime slot and has been sold on to Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other examples of this approach include Families at the Crossroads and Berlin Day & Night, a youth-based series that airs in post-primetime on RTL2.
A big hit on TV, Day & Night also has a strong online following and has spawned a spin-off series, Cologne 50667. Both series are hitting audience shares of 16-17% of 14-49s against a channel average that is generally sub-10%. “I think this is one of German drama’s mega-trends,” says Wesseler. “We’ve just been commissioned to make a new series for primetime (details regarding subject matter and broadcaster still under wraps) which will allow us to see if this format can extend to those commercially important slots.”
Like RTL, Germany’s other major commercial broadcaster Pro7Sat1 (owner of Sat1, Pro7 and Kabel 1) doesn’t air as much primetime drama as the pubcasters. However, Jochen Ketschau, its senior VP of German fiction and coproduction, stresses that “German drama has always been and still is a crucial element in the portfolio for Sat1. Key slots on Sat1 are Monday night (20.15 and 21.15) for serial drama. And Tuesday is Movie Night. For more than 20 years, Sat1 has been showing German fictional movies in this same timeslot.”
Sat1 is well known for historical movies as well as romantic comedy, comedy and drama, says Ketschau. Successes include Die Hebamme, the story of a young woman in 1799 whose ambition to train as a midwife sees her embroiled in a murder-mystery in university town Marburg.
Among other titles that have worked well for Sat1, Ketschau picks out Der Letzte Bulle and Danni Lowinski, “both of which are very successful and unique shows that have won several prizes over the past five years and have also been licensed for international markets.” In ratings terms, Ketschau says: “A good share is more or less 10% in our main target group of women aged 30-49.”
Recent times have seen Sat1 inject a new kind of energy into its primetime schedule with politics-based dramas, says Ketschau. One is Der Rucktritt, a docu-drama that follows the events leading to the resignation of former German president Christian Wulff (2010-2012). Another is Der Minister, a satire on the rise and fall of a young political star. The TV movie, produced by UFA-owned teamWorx, is loosely based on the plagiarism scandal that engulfed former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
As with RTL (owner of FremantleMedia), it’s important to keep in mind that Pro7Sat1 has positioned itself as an international TV business. In terms of drama, this manifests itself in two ways. First, the company sometimes joins projects as a coproduction partner. For example, it has teamed up with Munich-based Tandem Communications on a number of projects, including Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, Labyrinth and Crossing Lines.
Second, it is directly plugged into the English-language drama market through its international production/distribution division Red Arrow, whose projects include Bosch, 100 Code and Esio Trot.
Strategically, this approach allows Red Arrow to build up a slate of titles that are more attractive to buyers than the majority of German drama. It also means there is a significant level of German input on any English-language drama that is sold back into the German market.
This latter point reflects the pragmatism of the German TV market. While German drama is still the most popular form of scripted content, years of exposure to Hollywood movies and series have created a familiarity with and acceptance of dubbed English-language content. A good example of this is TMG’s run of TV movies/miniseries based on the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (recent examples being The Other Wife, Unknown Heart and Valentine’s Kiss). These are aired on ZDF but shot in English so that TMG can sell them internationally. It’s a strategy that works. ZDF gets good ratings, while TMG sells the shows to more than 20 countries, including the likes of Spain, Scandinavia and Australia.
With more and more successful international coproductions, there’s increased willingness among German broadcasters to see this as a primary route to sourcing content. “A growing number of German producers want to see their drama succeed internationally but are restricted by the language,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “So we are seeing more projects that feature German actors and locations but are shot in English.”
Like its commercially owned counterparts, ZDF Enterprises is also investing more time and money in the international drama arena. In June 2014, it joined forces with executive producer Uwe Kersken to form G5 fiction, a joint venture designed to create original drama (miniseries, long-running series and event productions – predominantly history) with German and international market potential. Among G5’s first projects for the international market are the series Alexander the Great, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Vikings) as showrunner, and a miniseries called Ellis Island.
One interesting feature of the German market over the past two decades has been the strength of its free-to-air market compared with those of the US, UK and France. From a drama perspective, this has meant German pay TV has not really been a major contributor to drama investment when compared with US cable, Sky UK and Canal+.
Beta Film’s Welbers believes this might be about to change, and points to Babylon Berlin as evidence: “Babylon Berlin is a coproduction between X-Filme, ARD, Sky Germany and Beta Film that is an example of the creative risk-taking we are starting to see.”
Based on novels by Volker Kutscher, the show is set in 1920s Berlin and centres on police inspector Gereon Rath. The TV version will be headed by showrunner Tom Tykwer, whose directing credits include Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
All the partners involved see Babylon Berlin as a groundbreaking project. It is, for example, the first time ARD has gone down this kind of coproduction route with Sky Deutschland. “In order to realise this costly and intricate project, we wanted to try out a new form of co-operation with Sky,” explains ARD Chairman Lutz Marmor. “It could also be a viable model for the future.”
As for Sky Deutschland, Gary Davey, executive VP of programming at Sky, says of the show: “The story is perfectly suited to our mission statement to offer our customers high-quality productions. It describes a very special place at a very special point in history. Babylon Berlin will be the perfect addition to our successful US series.”
According to Welbers, a further illustration of the growing ambition of German pay TV channels is Weinberg, a six-hour psycho thriller series that will air on TNT Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. Produced by Bantry Bay and Twenty Four 9 Films with Gerda Müller, Jan Kromschörder and Philipp Steffens, international distribution is again being managed by Beta Film.
The strength of Germany’s indigenous drama market, combined with its attraction to US and Scandinavian content, means it has never been a big buyer of scripted formats. But there are a couple of important examples produced by UFA for RTL. One is the long-running soap Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, adapted from the Australian series Good Times, Bad Times. Another, more recent example is a local adaptation of female prison drama Wentworth. Produced originally by FremantleMedia Australia, UFA went into production with a German version in March last year.
As evident throughout the above story, a large part of the current drama drive is built around historical subjects. If there are two notable trends here, they are the following: a willingness to tackle subjects previously thought of as taboo (like Hitler and the Nazis); and a greater exploration of periods outside WW2.
One of the richest sources of ideas is the period before the East-West reunification. Aside from Deutschland 83, for example, there has been Annette Hess’s critically acclaimed Weissensee, a family drama set in communist East Germany during the 1980s. The show first aired in 2010 and, having achieved a strong audience of around six million, will return for a third series this year. The show has also proved popular internationally, selling to Benelux, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
Also of note is Bornholm Street, an ARD TV movie that took a light-hearted look at the final few hours of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of an East German border guard. The film attracted 7.5 million viewers and was named TV event of the year at the prestigious BAMBI Awards. Like Deutschland 83, it shows a new side to German drama, by tackling tough historical subjects through an ironic storytelling style more typical of the US and UK.
UFA’s Hofmann cites additional examples to underline the point about the historical flavour of German drama. One is Die Ärzte (The Doctors), which is set at the end of the 19th century in the world-famous Charité hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Another is Berlin Kurfürstendamm, the story of three young women in 1950s Berlin. “A lot of people talk about the fact that modern Germany was created by a generation of strong women, because so many men died in the war,” he says. “So this is a look at the era of sexual and social liberation they lived through.”
One other interesting dynamic worth mentioning in Germany is the existence of a strong bond between theatrical and TV, a situation that makes sense when you take account of ZDF and ARD’s dependence on TV movies. At last count, more than half of all feature films made in Germany had TV money in the budget (though there was a dip during ARD Degeto’s crisis).
A good recent example of this relationship at its best is Der Medicus (The Physician), a €10m UFA Cinema production which was a box-office success before going on to air as a two-part miniseries in ARD primetime. Hofmann says this kind of collaboration is acting as a blueprint with a raft of new projects being lined up for theatrical then television release. Worth noting here is that Der Medicus was shot in English and featured high-profile international stars Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Kingsley.
Echoing developments in other territories, increased quality in the TV market is encouraging some movie producers to place greater emphasis on TV production. A good case in point is Constantin Film, which has announced plans for TV series spin-offs of its Mortal Instruments and Resident Evil movies.
In addition, Constantin subsidiary Moovie, run by producer Oliver Berben, has been making its mark with some strong drama series. Following the success of period piece Hotel Adlon, Constantin/Moovie made Shades of Guilt, a 6×60’ legal/crime series based on true cases and featuring Moritz Bleibtreu. Distributed by Beta Film, the well-received show “is not a crime-solving series but a series that explores the motives of the people who commit crimes,” explains Beta Films’ Welbers.
The growing significance of TV is also having an impact on the European Film Market, which took place this year from February 5-13 in Berlin. This year, an expanded emphasis on TV saw the launch of a Drama Series Day and enhanced opportunities for screening, buying, selling and coproduction dialogue.
Explaining the move, Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the EFM, said: “Unusual, often complex and sophisticated, stories combined with high production values and a first-class acting ensemble are now the trademarks of successful drama series, and they have moved the format closer to film. It was therefore natural for us to offer series producers and creators a platform at the EFM for the first time.”
Finally, it’s impossible to write a drama story these days without some reference to SVoD platform Netflix. Netflix Germany opened for business in September last year with its standard offering of series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and The Killing. There is no news yet on German-language originals, but the strength of the local SVoD competition (Watchever, Maxdome, Amazon) combined with the use of local-language originals during the recent launch in France suggests that may be the next step.
Though international coproductions now seem ubiquitous, this hasn’t always been the case. Rola Bauer explains how Tandem, an early adopter of copros, put them at the centre of its drama strategy to impressive effect.
In the past couple of years producers and broadcasters around the world have become increasingly reliant on international coproduction partnerships to secure the budgets necessary for high-end drama series. But one company that based its business on copros is Munich-based Tandem, the production powerhouse behind epic historical miniseries The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End.
Formed in 1999 by Rola Bauer (a Canadian), Tim Halkin (an American) and Jonas Bauer (a German), Tandem’s first major success was The Ring of the Nibelungs, a €20m (US$24m) fantasy miniseries commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, Sat1 in Germany and SyFy in the US.
“We realised after Rings of the Nibelungs that we had satisfied a need in the market that the US was no longer providing,” Tandem president/partner Rola Bauer tells DQ. “That encouraged us to build on this success and continue to supply the international market with high-end long-form dramas that broadcasters could create an event around.”
A run of drama productions followed, but the real game-changer for Tandem was The Pillars of the Earth, an 8×50’ miniseries based on the classic novel by Ken Follett. “Along with several others, we chased after Ken for years to option this book,” says Bauer. “He had pushed back on all theatrical offers, finding the format too limited for the richness of the novel, and held out for a solid commitment of a longer limited series, which we offered.”
In hindsight, securing the rights was the easy part. The real challenge was coming up with a viable financial model. Explaining Tandem’s thinking, Bauer says: “Along with our coproducing partner, Scott Free, we were hoping to pioneer a new way of producing television on a global basis without depending on having the first key broadcaster out of the US market. We needed a US$40m production budget to create the kind of eight-hour event not only that the book deserved, but that would have a cinematic quality to it.”
Unfortunately from a financial perspective, the Nasdaq had recently crashed and the German stock exchange segment, Neue Markt, had virtually folded – putting pressure on the production from the outset. “With French, German, Spanish and Canadian partners on board, we went into production with an US$8m gap and the hope that our years of combined experience would enable us to create a programme that we could later sell into the US market and not only cover our deficit, but also make a profit,” Bauer explains. “Two years of development, production and sleepless nights later, the risk we took did pay off: Starz supported the programme and enabled it to become an Emmy-winning show.”
The show also proved to be a success for the European and Canadian partners, says Bauer, “and that paved the way for World Without End, with a US$46m production budget.”
While Tandem’s event miniseries had put it on the global map, it was clear the company needed to diversify its output and secure additional financial resources to stay competitive in the rapidly consolidating drama market.
The good news was that Tandem’s success had started to alert potential suitors: “Three years ago Tandem was approached by two studios, one in the US and one in Europe, interested in making a strategic acquisition of Tandem. We spoke intensely with both, but were ultimately convinced to enter into a relationship with StudioCanal, which became Tandem’s majority (51%) shareholder.”
StudioCanal appealed for a number of reasons: it had the same European-led creative sensibility as Tandem; its TV production ambitions aligned with Tandem’s; and it provided assets Tandem could tap into.
Bauer adds: “There are so many synergies, such as remake rights from the StudioCanal library, producing originals for Canal+ and coproductions with our ‘cousins’ in the TV production unit, RED Production Company and SAM. We are already in coproduction with RED in the development of a format idea for the US and Germany.”
With StudioCanal backing, Bauer says Tandem has “set a benchmark to increase the programme hours we produce and sell per year.” The emphasis is clearly on one-hour series with potential for renewal. “The international market was in need of procedural series. Hugely successful US shows were coming to an end and that market was not showing signs of gearing up for the next generation of procedural shows. With StudioCanal, we were able to enter the narrative of one-hour drama very quickly. The relationship enables us to move fast and go straight to series once we have put certain basic elements together.”
The first idea to gain traction after the StudioCanal takeover was Crossing Lines, a series centred on a special crime unit that functions as a kind of European-wide FBI. “We wanted to create a show that focused on the very real and dangerous situation in Europe of criminals being able to escape justice simply by crossing over borders,” explains Bauer. “Showrunner Ed Bernero saw the similarity to the historical situation in the US before the inception of the FBI. Europe still has no proactive law enforcement agency that can effectively handle cross-border crimes and bring criminals to justice. This includes everything from drug and human trafficking to smuggling and serial killing.”
The show, which was backed by broadcasters including TF1 France, Sat1 Germany, NBC in the US and AXN (multiple territories) in season one, sought to combine the best of US and European stylistic elements: “It has a familiarity to audiences worldwide who have enjoyed US procedural series. However, the locations are exotic.” The 12-episode second season has just wrapped, with TF1, Sat1 and AXN still on board and Amazon UK joining the line-up.
Following on from Crossing Lines, Tandem recently entered production on Spotless, its second one-hour drama series since joining StudioCanal. A 10×50’ series for Canal+ Creation Originale, it’s a dark comedy shot on location in London. It stars Marc-André Grondin as the owner of a crime scene cleaning business who gets dragged into a murky gangster underworld by his reckless brother.
“Co-creators Ed McCardie and Corinne Marrinan have dreamed up a storyline and characters that are so special and unique,” says Bauer, whose company is handling global distribution. “We are very excited at the potential of Spotless to engage audiences worldwide.”
Other one-hour format dramas in development include Sex, Lies and Handwriting, a coproduction with Lionsgate based on a book by Michelle Dresbold. “We are currently in development at ABC in the US, TF1 in France, Sat1 in Germany and Bell Media in Canada, with a targeted start of principal photography in early 2015,” says Bauer.
Then there is Rubber Ducks, a 10×60’ ecological/psychological thriller that Tandem is developing with Haut et Court TV (The Returned) and July-August Productions. “The story is based on an experiment by Nasa, exploring ideas of ecological change not only on the environment but also on human behaviour. The series writer is Yael Hedaya, known for her work on Israeli drama series In Treatment.”
Tandem is handling worldwide distribution on this series, and the company clearly sees this side of the business as fundamental to its growth strategy – whether it relates to its own productions or those of third parties. For example, Tandem is sharing distribution duties with Sky Vision on The Last Panthers, a six-part series commissioned by Canal+ and Sky Atlantic, which has been developed and coproduced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films (This is England, Four Lions, Southcliffe).
“The series originated as an idea from celebrated French journalist Jerome Pierrat and the screenplay is from Jack Thorne (Skins, This is England, A Long Way Down, Glue, The Fades),” says Bauer. “It’s based on the world-famous Pink Panthers, a network of jewel thieves. Filming began late October 2014 in the four key shooting locations of London, Marseille, Belgrade and Montenegro.”
Other current third-party distribution projects, include ZeroZeroZero and Pirate’s Passage. The former, says Bauer, is based on Roberto Saviano’s recently released book of the same title and is the follow-up to his international best-seller Gomorrah. “The eight-hour series was commissioned by Canal+ Creation Originale and Cattleya, Italy’s leading independent film and TV producer. It is a compelling and revelatory dissection of the global traffic of cocaine and how it touches lives across an international social spectrum.”
Pirate’s Passage, meanwhile, is an unusual project for Tandem to be involved with: “It is an animated movie coproduced and co-written by, and starring the voice talent of, Donald Sutherland. The book, written by fellow Canadian George Gilkerson, resonated with Donald in a very personal manner – he is passionate about the story.”
Anyone who has been around the TV business long enough will realise there is always a risk attached to ramping up production and getting ahead of demand. But Bauer doesn’t see any imminent danger of that: “The amount of programming needed each year just continues to increase, with many of the US nets’ demands now 12 months a year. With the summer re-run season dying out, channels need fresh programming where they are not carrying the full load of financing. The most attractive option to close these gaps is via an international coproduction, which is what Tandem has been producing since 1999. And, incidentally, every one of our productions has been sold into the US market.”
It’s not just the US market that is driving Tandem’s growth, however. “Another factor that has propelled the current wave of drama is the burgeoning media landscape worldwide,” says Bauer. “There has been enormous growth in media channels, broadcasters and platforms, and everything has become so niche and specific when it comes to programming. This requires a constant flow of new series to accommodate the demand – and there are just so many good stories to tell.
“Also, the industry’s success in producing cinematic television drama has continued to blur the lines between film and TV. Audiences worldwide can now get on TV what they were formerly only accustomed to viewing in the cinema.”
Explaining Tandem’s success with copros, Bauer cites factors such as: “Working with top-level writers/showrunners who have proven themselves as having editorial lines that transcend borders and maintaining budgets in keeping with the successful US one-hour series that have ruled the international primetime slots for years.”
Above all, however, she says: “For us, it always starts with the writing – telling the best possible stories with interesting and well-developed characters. The creative aspect must always come first. When this is sacrificed for the business side, it doesn’t work.”