UK indie producer Sister Pictures has picked up the rights to Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel The Power with a view to turning it into a long-running global series.
The rights were acquired from Georgina Ruffhead at David Higham Associates after what was described as an 11-way auction – all of which shows the continued importance of books as the basis of TV drama.
The Power imagines a world where women gain the physical ability to electrocute at will. This results in an overhaul of the existing world order with women using their new-found power to wrest control of society from men.
The series will be written by Alderman, who said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Sister Pictures and [CEO] Jane Featherstone. Jane’s track record and her commitment to excellence in writing speak for themselves, and Sister Pictures’ deep understanding of the book impressed me.”
Explaining how a single book will be turned into a long-running global series, Alderman added: “Readers of The Power are already asking me if there’ll be a sequel. There won’t be another novel, probably, but there are definitely so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book. I can’t wait to expand this story and bring electric women to TV screens around the world.”
Featherstone added: “Naomi is one of the boldest and most interesting authors of our time and we are beyond thrilled to be working with her as she adapts her own brilliant and compelling book for TV. The Power is a story of our times; clever, funny, important and original, it asks us to consider a world where the shifting balances of power create a new and dangerous dynamic.”
The Power is the latest in a line of projects from Sister Pictures focusing on strong female characters created by women writers. The company is already working on a show for Channel 4 called The Bisexual. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behaviour), it focuses on a New York woman navigating the world of gay and straight dating in London. Sister calls it “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality, and what it means to refuse to compromise on what you want.”
Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American who was brought up in New York, echoed Alderman’s enthusiasm: “Getting to play in the sandbox with such intelligent collaborators at Sister Pictures and Channel 4 is an absolute dream come true. They’re the perfect partners in crime for a taboo sex comedy.”
Sister has also teamed up with Abi Morgan (River, Suffragette, The Hour) on The Split, a new BBC1 drama that examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose. Hannah and Nina are leading divorce and family law lawyers, while Rose is still searching for her place in life.
Morgan said: “As Robin Williams once said, ‘Divorce is expensive – like ripping your heart out through your wallet.’ The Split exposes the complex realities of high-end divorce and broken marriage through female divorce lawyers and sisters bound by their own troubled past.”
Sticking with the subject of talented and empowered women, it was revealed this week that movie icon Julia Roberts is to star in a new limited TV series. Based on Maria Semple’s novel Today Will Be Different, the show tells the story of a woman named Eleanor Flood who makes plans to have the best day of her life, but wakes up to find a strange new future unfolding.
Semple, who has worked as a TV writer and producer (she was nominated twice for WGA Awards for comedy Arrested Development), will pen the screen adaptation. She said: “I’m giddy that Eleanor will be brought to life by Julia Roberts. This will be a fun ride!” No network has been confirmed for the show as yet.
In Spain, meanwhile, media giant Mediapro has picked up the rights to Lo Que Esconde Tu Nombre (What Your Name Conceals), a bestselling novel by Clara Sánchez that has shifted 1.5 million copies in 25 countries.
A psychological thriller, the book centres on a young pregnant girl called Sandra, who goes to live by the sea to decide what to do with her life. There she meets an old couple, who take her in as part of their family. However, Sandra’s path crosses that of a Second World War concentration camp survivor, who reveals things from the past that cause her to distrust the couple. What Sandra doesn’t realise is that the end of her innocence will put her in danger.
Sánchez was born in Guadalajara in 1955 and grew up in Valencia before moving to Madrid. In 1989 she published Precious Stones and has gone on to publish a total of 11 novels to date (the latest in 2013). What Your Name Conceals was written in 2010. There are no details yet as to who will handle the TV adaptation.
Also in the news is 1980s teen star Molly Ringwald, who has been lined up to star in The CW’s new TV series Riverdale, a dark and subversive take on a classic Archie Comics franchise. This project is being developed/written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater. Aguirre-Sacasa, who has worked on series like Glee, wrote the pilot episode of Riverdale. He is also chief creative officer of Archie Comics and wrote the 2013 screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.
Finally, on the novel-adaptation front, French producer Authentic and Federation Entertainment, the firm behind Netflix drama Marseille, have secured the TV rights to Le Temps Est Assassin (Time is a Killer), a thriller by best-selling French author Michel Bussi.
The deal, with French publishing house Presses de la Cité, will see an eight-part series created from the book, which tells the story of a woman who suffers a tragic accident resulting in the loss of her family. Federation will distribute the show abroad.
A couple of months ago, we looked at the success Disney has had with its Marvel acquisition. So it seems only fair that we also shine a spotlight on DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros that has spawned dozens of films, scripted shows and animation series.
Characters from DC, formed in 1932, have formed the basis of hit TV series since the 1950s. After early outings for Superman and Batman, DC properties gave us iconic shows like Wonder Woman, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville.
The latter ran for 10 seasons (2001-2011) and 218 episodes, first on The WB and then on its replacement network The CW (which is 50/50 owned by CBS and DC Comics owner Warner Bros).
While DC properties remain an important part of the feature-film landscape, it’s The CW that continues to provide the major platform for DC Comics’ success on the small screen.
A key landmark was the launch of Arrow in 2012. Adapted for the screen by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, the show is one of The CW’s top performers and is currently in its fifth season, attracting just under two million viewers per episode.
The importance of Arrow goes beyond its ratings, however. On the one hand, it has encouraged The CW to back a number of DC-based franchises, with Berlanti and co in charge of the creative. On the other, it has persuaded some of the larger US networks to tap into the company’s pool of comic book IP.
Looking first at The CW, 2014 saw the launch of The Flash, which is part of the same mythological universe as Arrow (known to aficionados as the ‘Arrowverse’). Now in season three, The Flash is currently The CW’s top-rated show with around 2.8 million viewers per episode. And earlier this year, the network launched another spin-off based on the ‘Arrowverse’ pool of characters. Called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it is currently attracting a steady 1.8 million and has been renewed for a 17-episode second season.
In addition to the above shows, The CW is also home to Supergirl, a DC-based series that was originally aired on CBS but then shifted to The CW for season two when its ratings started to decline. In the less exposed world of The CW, the show has thrived and is now its second most popular series, averaging 2.6 million viewers.
The relationship with DC has also allowed The CW to segue into the ‘Zombieverse’ with iZombie. Loosely based on a comic book series that came out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, the show has a third season on the way and averages around 1.2 million viewers.
The rise of DC’s stock has also encouraged some of the Big Four US networks to sample the company’s wares. The stand out example of this is Fox’s Gotham, which delves into the backstory of the young Batman, focusing its energy primarily on Commissioner James Gordon and the origin stories of some of Batman’s most famous enemies. Now in its third season, the show is currently attracting an OK-but-not-amazing 3.4 million (down from four million in season two and six million in season one).
Echoing its growing relationship with Disney’s Marvel, Fox has adapted a second DC property, Lucifer, based on a character that appeared in comic book series The Sandman (created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg).
The show debuted last year and did well enough to get a second season. Currently averaging around 3.5 million viewers, the second run was extended to 22 episodes last month – though the jury is still out on whether it is doing well enough to secure a third outing.
Without being overly critical, there is a pattern with DC properties – they perform strongly on The CW but modestly on the Big Four. Gotham and Lucifer have done OK but not fantastically well, while Supergirl’s strong start dissipated quickly, hence its move to The CW. To this list should be added Constantine, which aired for a single season on NBC before being axed.
The main reason for this is The CW is a narrowly focused youth channel while the Big Four are mainstream, so are probably trying to reach an audience that is more ambivalent about superheroes and fantasy adventure series. Nevertheless, there are more planned DC shows in the pipeline for the Big Four.
NBC, for example, is developing a sitcom rooted in the DC universe. Called Powerless, the shows is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in the US – with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”
Fox, meanwhile, is reported to be piloting a show based on Black Lightning, one of the first African American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. This is a welcome trend, echoing the recent Marvel/Netflix tie-in on the new Luke Cage series.
Of course, the fact that The CW does so well has not been lost on cable channels, which have a similar kind of niche profile. So we’re also starting to see more DC properties populate this part of the TV business. AMC, for example, is doing pretty well with Preacher, another idea from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The first season attracted around 1.68 million per episode and a recommission followed.
Other pilot orders include Scalped for WGN America and Krypton for Syfy (the latter set in the Superman universe). There are also reported to be several other titles in development including DMZ and Ronin for Syfy and Amped for USA Network. FX is also believed to be developing a series based on Y: The Last Man.
For those unfamiliar with the world of comic books, the DC/Vertigo dichotomy is interesting. While the former is home to mainstream franchises like Superman and Batman, the latter was specifically set up to publish more hard-hitting, adult-themed franchises. This is significant, because it opened up the range of opportunities for DC.
Supergirl, for example, might fit on CBS or The CW but would look tame on AMC. Preacher, by contrast, would not go down well with a more mainstream audience. That said, Constantine and Lucifer were both born into the Vertigo family, which shows that the Big Four networks have been exploring the potential to soften Vertigo shows for their demos.
It’s also worth noting that there have been other DC subsidiaries down the years that are still providing IP for film and TV. For example, DC acquired an imprint called WildStorm in 1999 and shut it down in 2010. During that time, WildStorm created Red, a franchise that was subsequently turned into two successful films. Recent reports suggest NBC is now planning a TV version.
One obvious final question, of course, is how DC-based shows fare internationally. Well, not too badly actually.
Gotham has been licensed to platforms including Globo Brazil, Pro7 Germany and Netflix in Poland, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have both been acquired by Italia 1 among others.
Lucifer has also travelled well, to platforms such as Amazon UK and Viasat 3 in Hungary. On UK pay TV channel Sky1, latest ratings figures put The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl as the top three shows, underlining the global appeal of the dynamic DC business.
To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.
The West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.
“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)
Veep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.
“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)
House of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.
“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)
Scandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.
“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)
Madam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.
“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)
Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.
“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).
Designated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).
“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)
The Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.
“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)
Jack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.
“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)
Boss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).
“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)
With The Flash and Supergirl set to meet for the first time, Michael Pickard looks at the trend for drama crossovers, with viewers’ favourite characters set to share more screen time in the future.
While the movie world is relishing the prospect of Batman and Superman sharing the big screen for the first time, the realm of TV is preparing for its own superhero event.
The Flash is heading to National City for an appearance in a special episode of Supergirl, which is set to air on US network CBS on March 28.
The crossover, titled Worlds Finest, sees Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) gain a new ally in the form of lightning fast The Flash (Grant Gustin) when he appears from an alternate universe to help her battle Silver Banshee and Livewire, in exchange for helping him find a way to return home.
Details of the special episode were confirmed in February, with all manner of speculation, rumour and sheer excitement building across the internet since.
But what is behind The Flash’s appearance in another series, away from his home on The CW, and why would the producers be interested in an event like this?
Regular viewers of both shows will be aware of their place in the DC Comics-inspired universe that’s building on The CW through series like Arrow, The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, coupled with Supergirl, Gotham (Fox) and Constantine, which aired for just one season on NBC in 2014/15.
But the superhero shows on The CW and CBS have more than just their comic book roots in common. They all come from the creative team of Warner Bros Television and Berlanti Productions, and in particular Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg.
Together they launched Arrow in October 2012, before The Flash debuted in October 2014. Supergirl followed in October 2015, before DC’s Legends of Tomorrow landed in January this year.
And while The CW series were all conceived to take place in the same fictional universe – much in the same way as the Marvel feature films featuring Iron Man, Captain America et al, and the Netflix/Marvel series including Daredevil and Jessica Jones – this is the first time Supergirl will become part of that world.
“We are so incredibly excited to announce something that we have dreamed of happening since we starting making Supergirl – The Flash and Supergirl are teaming up,” said Berlanti and Kreisberg when the crossover was announced. “We want to thank Grant Gustin for making the time to come visit, on top of his already immense workload, and all of the folks at CBS, The CW, Warner Bros and DC for working this out. And finally, thanks to the fans and journalists who have kept asking for this to happen. It is our pleasure and hope to create an episode worthy of everyone’s enthusiasm and support.”
While The Flash has become one of The CW’s biggest hit shows, renewed this month for a third season in 2015/16, it has only averaged 3.7 million viewers this season, while Supergirl is soaring much higher with 8.1 million. So this begs the question why The Flash is going to spend time with Supergirl on CBS and not vice versa. With so many more people tuning in to Supergirl, CBS can’t expect much of a ratings bump with The Flash’s appearance – so what’s behind it?
In this case, it seems as though this is an entirely creative exercise, bringing together two popular characters. Berlanti and Kreisberg noted as much in their statement when they said this was something fans had been asking for – and their wait will be over soon enough.
Of course, with the worlds of Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow already meshed together, it’s no surprise that this is just the latest crossover in the DC universe. Arrow and The Flash have been regular screen buddies (see top image), ever since The Flash was initially introduced in three episodes of Arrow before landing a series of his own. They have since gone on to appear multiple times in each other’s storylines.
Similarly, some of the characters who would later star in Legends of Tomorrow were also first introduced in The Flash – namely Captain Cool (Wentworth Miller), Firestorm (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh) and Heatwave (Dominic Purcell). Arrow was also responsible for establishing Atom (Brandon Routh) and White Canary (Caity Lotz).
Conversely, both Arrow (played by Stephen Amell) and The Flash themselves have also popped up in Legends of Tomorrow, showing the fluidity of their shared storylines and characters.
Crossover episodes are not a new concept in television, of course. Two other CW shows, The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals, have crossed wires.
In the Marvel television universe, Agent Carter’s title character has popped up in sister ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On Netflix, Daredevil’s Claire Temple appeared in an episode of Jessica Jones, which also introduced viewers to Luke Cage (Mike Colter) ahead of his own series, which launches on the SVoD platform on September 30 this year.
And it is this mechanism of introducing characters ahead of a spin-off series that is one of the most common reasons for a crossover episode – in essence serving as a backdoor pilot.
A 2005 episode of CSI: Miami led to CSI: New York, while original hit CSI opened the door to CSI: Cyber in 2014. CSI, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY came together for the first time in a three-part story that aired in November 2009.
Elsewhere, NCIS was introduced through a backdoor pilot from Naval legal drama Jag, before it in turn gave birth to NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans through backdoor pilots in 2009 and 2014 respectively. They have all enjoyed further crossovers that largely involve lead characters from the main series joining its younger siblings.
More recently, NBC’s Chicago franchise, overseen by Dick Wolf (Law & Order), has seen characters from Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med cross over – with more in the pipeline should Chicago Justice get a series order for the 2016/17 season.
The increasingly common use of crossover episodes goes to show how just a handful of successful TV shows have been able to build franchises or shared worlds, giving viewers more of the stories and the characters they enjoy and dominating the broadcast networks’ schedules.
But while the idea of a crossover could help boost one series by introducing characters from its more popular sibling, in many cases, as it appears with The Flash and Supergirl, it’s just a fun way to see popular characters from different shows appear alongside each other, even if it’s only for a single episode.
And should this latest example prove to be a success, it will be only a matter of time before fans can look forward to seeing Supergirl make the return journey to The CW.
In the US, an organisation called GLAAD – formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – has spent the last 20 years tracking the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on television.
Each year it uses the data generated to create a comprehensive report entitled Where We Are On TV. The 2015/2016 edition of the report came out this week and shows that the TV industry is moving in the right direction – but still has a lot of work to do.
As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis points out, fair representation of the LGBT community on TV isn’t just about the number of LGBT characters in TV dramas, but also how they are portrayed: “As each of us lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that TV characters reflect the diversity of the LGBT community,” she says. “
It’s not enough to include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
So this week we’re taking a look at which shows and writers are making the most headway towards LGBT equality.
US broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, NBC) GLAAD’s figures show that out of 881 regular characters on 118 primetime scripted series, 35 were LGBT. This is up from 32 characters last year. GLAAD counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters in the same pool of shows.
Gay men make up a slight majority, though lesbian representation is up 5% year-on-year to 33%. Perhaps surprisingly given the prominence of the transgender agenda, “there are currently no regular or recurring transgender characters expected on broadcast networks’ primetime scripted programming.”
The organisation singles out Fox hit Empire as one of the best performers in terms of its LGBT character credentials. With a writing team headed by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, season two sees gay musician Jamal Lyon “taking on more of a business role as the head of the family music label, Empire,” says GLAAD. “Tianna, a bisexual artist signed to the label, was upped to a series regular this year. Several other gay, lesbian and bisexual characters will recur (during season two).”
There are also plaudits for Fox’s new show Rosewood, with a writing team headed by creator Todd Harthan: “While crime procedurals have long been a place where LGBT characters were most often included as villains or victims, this season introduces lesbian couple/pathology experts Pippy and TMI.”
GLAAD also singles out CBS sci-fi drama Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between hacker Root and assassin Shaw. It also finds encouragement in the superhero genre, at least on TV – film is a disappointment by comparison.
“Arrow (developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg for The CW) will resurrect bisexual heroine Sara Lance before moving her over to mid-season series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as a lead character, the White Canary. Her former girlfriend Nyssa will continue to recur on Arrow, and the series will add the recurring gay character Curtis Holt. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell) will introduce recurring gay character Joey Gutierrez, who has the power to melt metal.”
US cable networks The number of LGBT characters on scripted cable programmes continues to rise, says GLAAD, with 84 regular characters, up from 64 last year. This trend will presumably continue with the growing number of scripted shows being commissioned and the industry’s increasing awareness of the diversity debate.
Recurring characters were also on the rise, up to 58 from 41 previously. Echoing the situation in broadcast TV, gay men dominate, though in this universe lesbian representation dropped 3% to 22%. “Three characters are transgender,” says GLAAD. “Unfortunately one of these is the now-deceased Angelique on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (created/written by John Logan).”
According to GLAAD, “the teen- and young adult-skewing ABC Family and premium channel Showtime are set to be the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular or recurring characters (including all of the transgender characters counted on cable).
“The returning drama The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, is ABC Family’s most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters including trans teen Cole – played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.” The Fosters was created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, who continue to be directly involved in the writing of the series.
GLAAD praises ABC Family for upcoming series Shadowhunters (which has Ed Decter as showrunner) and Recovery Road, in which gay actor Daniel Franzese will play a gay man struggling to combat an addiction. There is also a positive report for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has a gay couple and a lesbian in its extended pool of characters. “The new season will also introduce Paul ‘Jesus’ Monroe, a gay character from the comic books series that provides the show’s source material.”
Other shows to get the GLAAD stamp of approval include Starz pirate drama Black Sails, where it is revealed that lead character James Flint has previously been involved with a man. Created by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, the show also features a number of other bisexual characters.
USA Networks’ critically acclaimed new series Mr Robot, created by Sam Esmail, boasts “several LGBT characters,” says GLAAD, “including cybersecurity firm CEO Gideon, Evil Corp’s VP Tyrell, and hacker/activist Trenton.” It’s a similar case with BBC America’s Orphan Black (created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett), which depicts a lesbian romance between Cosima and Shay, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Lady Gaga does her bit for the LGBT community by playing a character engaged in a same-sex relationship.
In terms of where the sector could do better, GLAAD wants to see “more racially diverse characters.” Of 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters analysed, 71% are white, which is a bit high for a country with the USA’s multiracial profile.
Streaming content providers
This is the first year GLAAD has analysed Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Due to the lack of defined seasons on such platforms, it looked at shows that premiered or are expected to premiere between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. Across 23 series, GLAAD found “43 regular LGBT characters and an additional 16 recurring characters.” Lesbians had a higher representation than on broadcast and cable, while the transgender community is represented by four characters.
“Notably, two of these four characters are leads: Maura in Transparent and Nomi in Sense8,” says GLAAD. “Transparent show creator Jill Soloway also paid special attention to ensuring diversity both in front of and behind the camera by employing trans writers, crew members and several trans actors in recurring roles.”
Other LGBT-inclusive Amazon series include Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks, while Hulu’s most LGBT-inclusive series, interestingly, are imported British soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. “The two series include 10 LGBT characters between them, with Hollyoaks, notably, including a gay character who is HIV-positive. Hulu also airs Australian series Neighbours in the US, which includes two gay characters.”
Hollyoaks works with the Terence Higgins Trust charity on its HIV storyline. The show’s executive producer Bryan Kirkwood says: “We have wanted to tell this story for a long time and while HIV can affect anyone, infection rates in young gay men remain too high and to ignore that is to do the gay audience a disservice. Hollyoaks is in a unique position to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, we can help with that on screen and through multiplatform support.”
According to GLAAD, Netflix series Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) “boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme.” Other LGBT-inclusive Netflix shows cited include Sense8, Grace and Frankie, Degrassi: The Next Class, The Fall, Bojack Horseman, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: “We’ll also be keeping an eye on upcoming series Jessica Jones,” says GLAAD.
Aside from the lack of racial diversity in LGBT portrayal, GLAAD noted that people with a disability are underserved. It also called for better representation of the HIV issue (keeping in mind the only HIV-positive character in the report is from a UK show).
GLAAD’s Ellis concludes: “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling (LGBT) stories – and hold their feet to the fire when they don’t.”
Footnote: There isn’t anything like the GLAAD report internationally. But there are good examples of LGBT-inclusive shows. A classic case from the UK is the Russell T Davies 2015 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Also worth noting is the Norwegian drama Eyewitness, distributed internationally by DRG, and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek – a mainstream show that includes a pansexual character. Another standout example (mentioned briefly above) is Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson portrays bisexual detective Stella Gibson.
Superhero TV series are nothing new. Over the years we’ve seen small-screen versions of Batman, The Hulk, Wonderwoman and Superman (in both Smallville and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), not to mention an endless array of animated series based on DC Comics or Marvel properties.
In fact, those of us around at the time will recall that ABC’s Lois & Clark was a genuine TV phenomenon, capable of attracting audiences of around 18-20 million at its peak in the mid-1990s – though the show’s ratings fell off a cliff in season four and it was rapidly cancelled.
But right now the industry is in overdrive. Not content with their domination of the feature-film arena, the supers have expanded their influence across both mainstream TV and the subscription VoD market.
The show everyone is talking about right now is Supergirl, a Warner Bros-produced series that will debut on CBS in the US on October 26. The story of Superman’s cousin, it imagines the central character as a 24-year-old woman called Kara (played by Glee’s Melissa Benoist) who is trying to come to terms with her superpowers while also trying to find herself as a woman. In terms of pacing and characterisation, it feels like a superhero version of The Devil Wears Prada, with Kara alternating between saving planes from disaster and agonising over her wardrobe.
Deadline has given the show the thumbs up, calling it a “bounding, deceptively breezy and eminently watchable addition to both the superhero universe and primetime.”
But an early IMDb score of 6.2 (presumably based on the trailer and some access to the pilot) suggests the jury is out. What’s hard to tell at this stage is whether the show will appeal to both the superhero and the romcom audience – or neither of them.
It’s also questionable whether the show will do much for empowered female leads. IGN’s assessment (based on the trailer) is that: “It’s really disappointing that the property is being treated with the flowery touch we often see in romantic comedies aimed at a female audience. It’s disheartening when the material has a segment showing the hero struggling to find something to wear for a date.”
Having said all this, Supergirl has Greg Berlanti behind it, which is a good thing from a slick storytelling point of view. Berlanti also created The Flash and Arrow for The CW Network, both of which are top performers for the channel. And there’s no question that Supergirl has a warmth and wit that make it easy on the eye.
One person impressed by the series’ potential is Adam MacDonald, director of UK-based pay TV channel Sky 1, who has just picked it up for his network. He says: “We’ve already seen in the success of The Flash and Arrow that comic-book characters are a big hit with our customers, and with this fresh, fast-paced new series we’re giving them another sure-fire superhero smash.”
To give this some context, The Flash generates around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers for Sky1, which is well ahead of the channel’s slot average of 320,000.
Interestingly, Supergirl’s first episode in the US will be up against Fox’s Gotham, another Warner Bros TV show. The gothic procedural takes place in the Batman universe and focuses mostly on the activities of police chief Commissioner Gordon. Now in season two, Gotham seemed to be wobbling at the start of its new run but its figures look much better once time-shifted viewing is factored in. It is currently attracting just over seven million viewers when you factor in all platforms (Fox, Fox NOW and Hulu) across the first three days of viewing.
The show has also been doing well for Viacom-owned Channel 5 in the UK. After drawing in just under two million for the first episode of the new season, Gotham has settled in at around the 1.35 million mark (not including time-shifted viewing) on C5. This is a pretty good performance for the channel compared with key rivals Channel 4 and BBC2.
Other superhero-related shows on the market right now include ABC’s solid but unspectacular Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now in its third season, the series is currently attracting an audience of 3.7 million per episode (same-day figure), which is down on its season premiere of 4.9 million. Nevertheless, orthodox thinking is that the show is a certainty to be renewed.
A leading authority on this is Zap2it’s TVbytheNumbers, which explains why: “It’s a near-ironclad rule of broadcast TV that if a show will end its third season with 66 episodes (give or take one or two) and it’s produced by the sister studio of the network where it airs, then it will be renewed for a fourth season. Media conglomerates make more money selling 88 episodes of a show into syndication than they do with 66 episodes, thus the incentive to keep rolling into a fourth year.”
Then there is NBC’s Heroes Reborn, an unusual show in that it isn’t part of the DC or Marvel stables. A reboot of Heroes, which ran for four seasons between 2006 and 2010, Reborn is currently in its first season and is doing OK. Four episodes in, it has seen its same-day ratings slide from 6.6 million to 4.4 million, but with time-shifted viewing adding around 40% to the total, the show seems fairly well set for renewal. That would be welcome news for Global Canada and Seven Australia, which were among the first international channels to acquire it.
A number of superhero shows are also being generated as the result of a pact between Netflix and Marvel – the first of which was Daredevil, whose second season is coming soon. As Netflix doesn’t release viewing statistics, we have to content ourselves with the fact that this show has an 8.9 rating on IMDb and has generally been well received by critics.
Next up from the Netflix-Marvel deal is Jessica Jones, a 13-part series that will be made available in one go on November 20. This is a show that might do more for the cause of female empowerment than CBS’s Supergirl. After Jessica Jones will come series based around existing Marvel characters such as Luke Cage, Iron Fist and – if you believe the latest Hollywood rumour – Moon Knight.
You’d think by now that Disney-owned Marvel would be running out of characters and worlds to work with. But FX and Fox are also planning two new series based on Marvel’s X-Men franchise.
For the first, Marvel is joining forces with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley and FX to produce Legion, a story that has already been produced as a movie. Based on Marvel comic characters, it follows an army of angels who have waged a war on mankind.
Meanwhile, Marvel TV and Fox are developing Hellfire, based on the Marvel comics group The Hellfire Club. Patrick McKay and John D Payne (Star Trek 3) will write the script for the project.
The big question, of course, is when will the super trend run out of steam as a TV staple? It’s fair to say the performance of Supergirl will affect the answer to that. CBS will be hoping Melissa Benoist’s character will generate as much of a cult following as the formidable Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark.
The US is the centre of attention again this week, with scripted shows being launched, renewed or cancelled on a daily basis.
If there’s one interesting trend emerging it’s the desire among US networks to find a kickass female lead – someone who can combine the allure of Xena: Warrior Princess with the moral rectitude of Wonder Woman and the brainpower of Borgen.
CBS, for example, has given the go-ahead for Supergirl, a new series from Warner Brothers TV to be executive produced by Greg Berlanti. Starring Melissa Benoist (Glee), it tells the story of Superman’s cousin and her decision to embrace her superpowers (which unfortunately don’t extend to enhanced fashion sense). Clearly intended to attract a female audience, it is also part of the network’s strategy to reach out to much younger viewers.
Over at ABC, meanwhile, the decision has just been taken to give a second season to Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Captain America movie franchise that centres on formidable female agent Peggy Carter. There were serious doubts about whether the show would be renewed due to its modest ratings, high cost (it’s a period drama) and the fact that sister series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming back after a season’s break. However, the fact that Agent Carter has received a positive critical response, coupled with the fem factor, has proved decisive.
ABC Family has another female-centred fantasy coming through in the shape of Shadowhunters, based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Vaguely reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shadowhunters follows 18-year-old Clary Fray, a human-angel hybrid who hunts down demons. This week, ABC announced that the lead will be played by Katherine McNamara (New Year’s Eve).
The emphasis on female-led shows isn’t only evident in the realm of fantasy. An NBC renewal attracting attention this year is The Mysteries of Laura, a police procedural comedy drama in which a female detective attempts to juggle her day job with single motherhood. The first series was panned by critics but rated well enough during 2014/2015 to secure a 13-episode renewal.
Leaving the female-led issue to one side, there are a number of interesting aspects to Laura’s renewal. Firstly, it is based on a Spanish show, proving that foreign formats can work on US network TV. Secondly, it was the only one of NBC’s 2014/2015 drama launches that got renewed, underlining what a ruthless market the US is (and how off the mark NBC was with its commissions last year).
It’s also interesting to note that two of the show’s executive producers are Greg Berlanti and Aaron Kaplan. Why does this matter? Because Berlanti will have six shows on TV next season and Kaplan seven. The clear message is that both know what it takes to make network drama tick.
After the recent revival of interest in sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick (The Man in the High Castle. Minority Report and much more), it’s the turn of Aldous Huxley’s iconic novel Brave New World to be dusted down and reimagined for the TV screen. Set in a world where mind-altering drugs, free sex and rampant consumerism are the order of the day (no, not 21st century LA), and people are genetically engineered in hatcheries, the TV version of the book will be produced by Syfy and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television.
Announcing the project, Dave Howe, president of Syfy & Chiller, said: “Brave New World 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.” Les Bohem (Dante’s Peak) will write the screenplay and executive produce.
Sci-fi fans will also be delirious to learn that BBC America and Canadian network Space have renewed Orphan Black for a fourth season. Produced by Temple Street Productions, the show stars Tatiana Maslany as a woman with several cloned identities. The show has proved to be something of a cult hit, generating high levels of social engagement and time-shifted viewing. With a total of 40 episodes (including the new run), it’s also becoming a key property for BBC Worldwide’s international distribution efforts.
In terms of the new dynamics of the TV business, there’s a lot of interest this week in the fate of The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy that has aired for three seasons on Fox in the US. Fox cancelled the show on May 6, but there are reports that Hulu is interested in reviving it with a two-season order from coproducers Universal Television and 3 Arts Entertainment. Reminiscent of the Amazon deal that saved Ripper Street, it’s an indication of the growing significance of SVoD platforms.
There are also a few indications that channel chiefs are seeking to manage the cost of drama more carefully. A+E’s decision to simulcast Roots and War & Peace across three of its networks is an example of this. So is Discovery’s desire to spread the cost of drama across its global family of channels. We’re also seeing more mid-sized US cable channels jumping on board European dramas as partners, rather than taking a commissioning position.
Sundance, for example, picked up Deutschland 1983, while Pivot took a position in Fortitude. This week, building on this point, Esquire US acquired Tandem Productions’ thriller Spotless (an English-language series that has aired in France on Canal+).
Esquire is calling the Spotless acquisition an original series, adopting a form of language Netflix has been using to great effect. This is a model we’re likely to see more of as broadcasters try to make sense of the high cost of marquee scripted programming.
In a week dominated by the US, one international story stands out – the BBC’s decision to cancel Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. Commenting, the BBC said: “There are no current plans for Banished to return. We are very proud of the series and hugely grateful to all those who worked so hard on it. However, the BBC2 drama budget only allows for a limited number of returning dramas a year, which means we have to make hard choices.”
When Greg Berlanti was a kid, he would often have his head in a comic book, reading the latest adventures of Green Arrow or The Flash.
Today, he is part of the team that has brought both characters to life as the stars of their own live action dramas on US network The CW. Arrow begins its third season this fall, while The Flash makes its debut.
“I thought Arrow would make for a great show, in part because it was realistic and in my mind had a gritty tone and a Jason Bourne-type feel,” says Berlanti. “A lot of times TV shows fail, but this one worked.”
The success of Arrow and other adaptations is now a factor behind the charge to acquire rights to comic books and graphic novels, which are being snapped up by television executives hungry to bring new characters and the fantastical worlds they inhabit to the small screen.
Network television in the US will air five series based on graphic novels and comics this fall – three making their debuts – while zombie drama The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season on cable network AMC. Further adaptations are lined up for midseason, with dozens more in development.
Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not a new source of television inspiration. Batman and The Incredible Hulk appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, while Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman presented Clark Kent to a new generation in the 1990s. They also provide a near constant source of material for animated series, largely aimed at younger viewers.
But is this resurgence of superheroes on the small screen a lasting attempt by television studios’ attempts to grab a share of the huge profits being made by their big screen siblings, or is it just a Flash-in-the-pan?
When NBC passed on the pilot script for The Walking Dead, the show spent four years in the wilderness looking for a new home. It was only in 2010 when AMC committed to the series, rather than sending it into development limbo, that it was given a platform to become one of the highest rated US dramas.
David Alpert, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, says: “There was a degree of scepticism as to the merit of the artform of comic books and over time, as the success of the Marvel and DC Comics movies has increased alongside independent comic book movies like Men in Black and Road to Perdition, it started to make an impression on people that comic books are as vital an art form as any other.”
He agrees that comic book adaptations are hot properties in television. The New Zealand-based firm is developing an animated version of Image Comics’ Rat Queens but has live action series in development.
“They’re high concept, they’re world-building, they’re noisy,” he explains. “That’s what everybody wants. And graphic novels and comic books tend to be a good source of that kind of material.”
Universal Cable Productions (UCP), the production company behind Syfy’s Defiance and Suits on USA Network, currently has four comic book and graphic novel adaptations in development, alongside an untitled project from Iron Man writer Warren Ellis and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment.
And Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive VP of development, admits she has been shopping for IP since she joined the NBC Universal-owned studio earlier this year.
“I’ve only been there for five months and have been on a graphic novel and comic buying spree,” she says. “If you look at what’s happening in television right now, big distinctive ideas and worlds are really interesting, not only for network presidents but for audiences.
“In today’s market where there are a million shows coming at people, a world that’s distinctive and has a fresh imagination brings with it the opportunity to stand out. People have been doing it for a long time in comics and graphic novels, and we’re just finding that they’re really translatable, not just into movies but also into TV.”
UCP’s slate includes IDW Publishing’s Night Mary, a horror story about a 17-year-old girl who is trained to enter the dreams of patients at her father’s sleep disorder clinic, and Image Comics’ Pax Romana, in which the Vatican discovers the secret of time travel and hopes to change the future by sending soldiers and modern weaponry back to Rome in 312AD.
Olmstead says: “Which projects we choose comes down to gut reaction. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it comes across our desks, or we hear it in a room.
“Everybody now has control over what they put on their television and they can search for what they want. We use a gut litmus test – can you imagine searching for that show?
“Then the character has to be great. You’re really going to get to know Walter White in Breaking Bad because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, and we really look for characters that can hold up to that test.”
One of the biggest winners from this surge in live action adaptations is DC Comics, through its DC Entertainment division, which will have four series on US network television this fall. Freshman series Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, lands on NBC, Batman prequel Gotham is heading to Fox, and The Flash is joining Arrow on The CW.
Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, says: “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are great, but audiences don’t want to dress up like those characters. People don’t have action figures of those characters. The comic book genre hits you and becomes part of your lifestyle.
“When you go to Comic-Con and see 7,000 people cramming in to watch the premiere of Gotham, The Flash, or Constantine, you realise how much people love this stuff. They just want to see it done with care and love, by people who are as fanatical about it as they are.That’s the key.”
Writer and executive producer Berlanti had been reading the adventures of Green Arrow since he was a kid, so when he signed a production deal with DC’s parent Warner Bros Entertainment, he knew the story of a vigilante facing up against the villains running his home city was perfect for television.
A pilot was ordered in the 2011/12 development season by The CW, which later commissioned a full season.
For Berlanti, however, there was one comic book character he had always wanted to bring to life – the light to Arrow’s darkness – and after introducing the character in season two of Arrow, The Flash now has its own spin-off series.
“I wouldn’t have done The Flash two or three years ago,” says Berlanti, who executive produces both shows through his Berlanti Productions label. “The visual effects departments in TV didn’t have the capacity at the time to deliver the visual effects that would accompany a character like this,” he says of Barry Allen, who gains the ability of super-speed when a lightning bolt causes chemicals to spill over him.
Recreating The Flash’s super-speed also posed problems for Johns, who describes the finished effects as “pretty phenomenal”.
“That was something that was really important,” he says. “If you don’t believe he can move fast, it’s not going to work.”
But why does Johns think comic books and graphic novels are suddenly hot property?
Blockbuster movies, he says, are a big factor, but he goes further when he says television “is probably the closest to comic books in terms of storytelling that I know”.
He adds: “The Flash is built like a comic book, complete with cliff-hangers and subplots. Gotham is more of an urban saga you’re following, a police procedural that feels more like a comic book. When I was a kid, comics were not cool, but they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.”
“Network television in particular is going to have to do more of this kind of stuff, to create both good stories but big, juicy landscapes for people to enjoy because we live in a world where there are 400 channels, you’ve got access to every film and TV show of all time, and they have to compete.”
One network still dipping its toes into the waters of original scripted series is Netflix, the digital platform that has quickly become one of the biggest players in the industry with hits including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its burgeoning reputation was further enhanced when it partnered with Marvel Television to commission four new series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and a miniseries called The Defenders. The first series, Daredevil, will be released in 2015.
And they will join ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and midseason entry Agent Carter in Marvel’s expanding line-up.
Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, says the Netflix projects are “separate stories but one large tapestry”, akin to Marvel’s film strategy that saw Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor later team up as The Avengers.
“This wasn’t something we forced together,” he explains. “It wasn’t like we picked four random characters and just put them together. They already had their own kind of world; they’re what we refer to as street level heroes. You get to really explore the world that doesn’t quite have the lustre or sparkle that you get from the Marvel movies, or for that matter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. Our ABC shows do not feel like our Netflix shows because they’re from a different part of the Marvel universe.”
Loeb won’t be drawn on whether the Netflix series represent ‘phase one’ of Marvel’s assault on television, in a similar vein to the decade-long blueprint it has mapped out for its cinematic adventures. “But it seems to work well for the movies, doesn’t it,” he adds.
Another comics publisher getting into the TV business is IDW, which launched IDW Entertainment under the control of president David Ozer in October 2013.
Former Starz and Sonar Entertainment executive Ozer and IDW CEO Ted Adams have identified 10 properties to package as television adaptations, including Night Mary with UCP; Pantheon, a story set in the near future where the only gods worshipped are money and power, developed with The Shield actor Michael Chiklis; and V Wars, a vampire drama adapted by Dexter’s Tim Schlattmann. Circle of Confusion, which executive produces The Walking Dead, is overseeing development.
Adams revealed a “frustrating” experience seeing another of its comics, Locke & Key, fail to land a series order with Fox was the catalyst for IDW to build its own television division and, significantly, retain control of the adaptation process.
Another key marker was networks’ increasing openness to straight-to-series orders, which appeal to Adams.
He says: “There’s definitely something in the air. When we launched this, we didn’t know there was the huge number of shows based on comics that are going to be on air this year.
“Everybody’s looking for great ideas. Although our stories come from comic books initially, they’re not stereotypical superhero comic books. It’s just great genre storytelling. The networks want the same things for their shows as I want for my books, which is to be able to tell a great story, find interesting characters and create a world that gets people interested.”
So once they’ve won a commission, how do producers and writers begin adapting comic books and graphic novels for television? “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard,” says Olmstead. “Sometimes they’ve written something that’s adaptable in both scale and episodic journey. But sometimes they tend to put out really big ideas about society that’s hard to translate in dialogue and in scenes.”
“There’s always pressure to get it right, but it’s a good kind of pressure,” says Johns, who has written comic stories for characters including Green Lantern, Superman and The Flash. “If you were doing a biographical movie of Abraham Lincoln, you’re going to research the guy’s life, the world around him, what he did, what he accomplished, and the people around him.
“There are visual cues you want to keep because that’s the iconic feel of the characters. But the key point is the emotional content of the character – John Constantine’s emotional centre, his virility, his anti-hero status, or The Flash’s optimistic outlook and the joy of being a superhero. Every one of these characters has an emotional core you want to stay true to because that’s what is going to resonate the most.”
Comic books and graphic novels also come with an extra feature – ready made artwork. Characters and costumes are brought to life without the need for conceptual artists to present a vision of the show to network executives. But is this a blessing or a curse?
Alpert says: “It’s the greatest blessing we have. I can only imagine what it’s like to go into The Killing or Homeland thinking ‘we just had an amazing season one, how do we do something different in season two?’ The fact we have 130 issues to draw from gives us a real leg-up on other shows out there.
In the pilot for The Walking Dead, Alpert says there are scenes shot frame-for-frame from the comic, which was created by Robert Kirkman.
“I remember being in downtown Atlanta as hundreds of people in zombie make-up were chewing blood-filled condoms from a fake horse’s stomach and squeezing them, exploding them, and Robert looking at them and thinking this was exactly the way he had envisioned it,” he recalls.
But it’s not just the artwork that offers an instant benefit to executives bringing their projects to market. An existing fan base that has followed and fallen in love with the paperback adventures provides an instant audience, though that in itself can pose as many risks as rewards.
Adam Fratto, executive VP at animation studio Pukeko Pictures, explains: “Comic books can become quite popular so if you have a built-in fan base, that can really help. But there’s always the fact that with any underlying material, you run the risk of alienating the fans.
“Comic book fans are smart and want to be entertained. They don’t expect it to be a slavish repetition of the books. It’s important not to get too hung up on being 100 per cent faithful. My approach is usually to use the existing material as a jumping off point, not as a blueprint.”
Despite the success of the Marvel films, Loeb says the Netflix series and those on ABC still face the same challenges as any other series. “You want to make sure you’re telling something entertaining and compelling, that the viewers are caught up in a storyline they can’t get enough of – and in particular on Netflix, when you have the opportunity to download all 13 shows at once. In so many ways, Netflix lends itself much more to the same experience that you get when you buy a stack of comics where as soon as you put the first one down you want to get the second one, third, and fourth.
“Our goal is hopefully, on that first weekend, people will download all 13 episodes of Daredevil and make a weekend out of it, and have Daredevil parties and get completely caught up in it.
“We have seven series moving forward. That’s a lot of production. We are going to be producing 56 hours of television in the next 52 weeks. Hardcore fans and brand new people are not going to be disappointed.”
With a number of US broadcasters commissioning comic book adaptations, what does this mean for international buyers?
Channel 5 in the UK is the free-to-air home of The Walking Dead, picking up season four for its sibling 5* after fan power saw it overturn its earlier decision to drop it, and it has now added Gotham for the new season.
“There’s always been a lot of TV series around comic book heroes but it’s been a bit more family friendly,” says Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions. “Certainly the take on it now is a lot darker and edgier.
“What you have with The Walking Dead and Gotham is an innate fan base and when there are people who have grown up with those comics and then get to see them realised on screen, you know you’re going to draw an audience. People love to see their heroes on screen and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Alpert is now reteaming with Kirkman for exorcism drama Outcast, which has been developed with Cinemax and Fox International Channels. They are also plotting a Walking Dead spin-off for AMC set in the same world but featuring new characters.
“There’s always a sense that if something works, try to replicate it. So I definitely see more stuff being picked up from comics,” says Alpert. “It will be cyclical, so there will be a wave of original programming that comes along. But given the high degree of investment and the huger and desire to cut through the noise out there, it’s useful to tap into something that has a pre-awareness and a fan base.”
At UCP, Olmstead’s IP buying spree will continue “until they tell me I’m out of money”. She adds: “Comic book and graphic novelists are some of the best creators out there. They’re incredibly smart and are translating society’s problems in a really creative way, and as long as they’re doing it, I think we’ll be buying them.”
After bringing Arrow and The Flash to life, Berlanti says there’s “definitely more I would like to see” on television. “What people are starting to say about The Flash is we didn’t know one of these shows could be funny or light-hearted too,” he explains. “Our hope was to zig when other people are zagging and I think there are more opportunities like that in terms of tone or types of characters not represented in TV.”
While The Flash and Gotham have ready-made fans, The Walking Dead is proof that lesser known properties can also become television hits. The endless supply of comic book and graphic novel material is matched only by the appetite of television executives for these properties in the hope of finding the next success story.