Tag Archives: HBO Europe

Welcome to Hackerville

The cast and crew behind HBO Europe’s first international coproduction, Hackerville, explain why the drama is as much about relationships and culture as computers.

Outside, it’s a bright, early summer’s afternoon in the Romanian town of Timisoara, the setting for HBO Europe’s first international coproduction. Behind the tinted windows of the gaming café location of today’s shoot, however, it’s an altogether darker, stuffier atmosphere as computer fans whir and teenagers fidget impatiently.

Hackerville is the latest venture into Romanian drama for HBO Europe after the likes of gangster series Umbre. While it might not be tackling an entirely new subject matter – ostensibly police searching for computer hackers – the rich framework on which the story is laid down allows the plot to foray into the cultures and histories of two different countries.

On the surface, that story follows two police investigators who are tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of a hacking attack on a German bank. Delve a little deeper, however, and this seems to be as much an exploration of the differing cultures of Romania and Germany as it is about the havoc that can be wreaked by talented hackers.

Reflecting this wider premise, HBO Europe has German cablenet TNT Serie on board to coproduce – and the cross-country relationships don’t end there. The story itself comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin for UFA Fiction, while Tudor Reu and Cristian Mungiu produce through Romania’s Mobra Films.

The series will air on HBO Europe across Central Europe, Scandinavia and Spain, and on TNT Serie in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and launches this Sunday, November 4. Turner International is handling sales outside the HBO Europe, TNT Serie and US territories.

Anna Schumacher, who was born in Bucharest before moving to Germany after the Romanian revolution in 1989, leads the cast as Lisa, alongside Romania’s Andi Vasluianu, who plays Adam. Voicu Dumitras (pictured above) is Cipi, the young boy seemingly at the centre of the story.

Hackerville stars Anna Schumacher and Voicu Dumitras

The roots of the show lie in an article from tech magazine Wired about the global exploits of a group of hackers. “Ralf approached me with this story he had read about the real ‘Hackerville’ in Romania,” Winger explains. “He told me he had been thinking about new ideas and I said to go check it out, so he spent five days there and came back with a whole lot of stories.

“We thought it was so fascinating. All this hacking was coming from a town in Romania – not even the capital, but a rather small city, yet they could be so effective in their actions globally. This type of story is right up my alley. I’m really interested in international collaboration and exploring new territories and cultures, so we started to develop it.”

It helped that HBO had just aired a documentary exploring the mass migration of Romanians into Germany following the 1989 revolution. And when Antony Root, HBO Europe’s exec VP of original programming, suggested that rather than having an FBI chief flying to Romania, it should be a German, a rounded vision for the show came together.

Winger admits he did not have great knowledge of Romania, so local writers were drafted in to help pen the script. “We then had a lot of discussions about Romania, Germany, Romanians in Germany, Europe. I always think these discussions that can be controversial are great food for the scripts.”

Unlike dramas driven by a single showrunner or creative lead, numerous voices had their say on the Hackerville scripts and, indeed, the production as a whole. They delivered what HBO Europe VP of original programming and production Johnathan Young describes as a “layered cake” approach to production, allowing the show to make the most of local expertise in both Romania and Germany and adding to its authenticity.

It’s a point neatly highlighted by Anca Miruna Lazarescu, from Germany but born in Romania, who directs alongside Romania’s Igor Cobileanski (Shadows). “We had to decide about Lisa’s watch, for example,” she says. “We were on the same page with the big decisions – the cast, locations – but this fucking watch kept coming up week after week.

Actor Andi Vasluianu receives instruction from co-director Anca Miruna Lăzărescu

“Lisa was supposed to wear a Casio. It was a bit of a vintage, old-fashioned digital thing. But when Igor saw it, he took one look and said, ‘This is not hip, this is not hip at all, you can get it for like 10 leu [US$2.50] at the piazza.’ I thought it was totally hip. These things are great in Berlin. It’s über hip.

“You’ll see what happens in the end, but things like this tell you so much about what is hip there and what’s cool here, and what could be boring here and what could be boring there. Things I think could be so Romanian, he’ll say, ‘No, it’s not Romanian at all, it’s a cliché about Romania.’ And I have to realise that I left 20 years ago so perhaps it’s not real and it is clichéd.”

Having been born in Romania herself, Schumacher also had some knowledge of the country, and took her experiences into the show. “Lisa speaks two languages – Romanian and German – and funnily enough it is kind of my life story too, because I was born in Romania but have lived in Germany for 28 years now,” explains the actor, who also has scenes with her actor father, Ovidiu Schumacher, in Hackerville.

“It’s amazing to balance German and Romanian cultures and languages, and a nice part of it all is that what my character is experiencing, I too am experiencing myself,” Schumacher adds.

The premise, the actor explains, is that a German bank’s IT systems have been attacked by someone based in Romania, with her character then sent to Timisoara to sort out the problem. The town of just over 300,000 people, tucked to the south of Hungary and to the East of Serbia, offers both stunning Gothic architecture and more brutal Communist-era constructions and is, as Young puts it, “very colourful with layers of history.”

“We’ve been shooting since the beginning of March, going from winter to summer in about two weeks,” he jokes, with scenes being filmed “more or less” chronologically.

“Lisa is the right person to do the job, as she speaks both languages and cyber crime is her specialism,” Schumacher says of her character. “She comes here and finds herself having more challenges than just doing her job, particularly having challenges with the culture that she’d left behind that was still inside of her.

Schumacher on set with co-director Igor Cobileanski (centre)

“She’s trying to find new ways to adapt to the person she really is,” she continues, “and maybe who she forgot she was when she was in Germany. She finds her roots and where she really comes from, she finds out things she didn’t know about herself. That changes her.”

For Young, Hackerville is “both about homecoming and a culture clash story.” It also allows Schumacher to tap into her real-life experiences – Vasluianu, who plays her male counterpart in Romania, says that when they started shooting in Romania, certain smells would evoke childhood memories for the female lead.

For the young Dumitras, who plays Cipi, these are the scents of home. Although shooting has taken in locations in Bucharest and Frankfurt, it is Timisoara – Dumitras’s home town – that has been the main hub for the production. He describes his character as a boy “with a good heart but like the genius who does stuff and doesn’t realise it has consequences.”

“He spends most of his time playing and hacking, but not many people know about the hacking. He kind of loses track of the world. He’s just playing with his games and doesn’t realise his actions may lead to unexpected effects.”

The show also explores the non-existent boundaries of being online, both in terms of hacking and playing games against others regardless of their actual location. A first-person computer game has already been created – set in Timisoara – that features in the show, and the story delves deeper into this theme of freedom.

“The juxtaposition of what you see on the ground and where you can be in the online space is really interesting,” says Young. “You can be in a basement on a computer, but in your head you could be anywhere in the world. That is a big part of the hacking and gaming story.”

Hackerville comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin of UFA Fiction

But the show, set for a November launch on both HBO Europe and TNT Serie, also includes elements of comedy and humour that differentiate it from other hacking-focused programmes.

“We started with a fear of being another hacking show; fear because they tend to centre on doomsday scenarios involving bringing down a satellite or blowing up a nuclear power station. I won’t tell you where Hackerville goes, but it doesn’t go there,” Young says.

“We wanted to make it much more of a human story, and we’ve achieved that. Part of why we’ve been able to do so is because the gaming strand parallels the hacking strand.” Both activities involve similar mindsets, he adds, offering an element of “play fun alongside the more serious undercurrent of the real world.”

The show has been largely edited alongside filming, with musical elements being added concurrently. This has meant everyone is involved in the process together at the same time, according to Young. “It’s part of this layered cake process and that is making it a very rich, collaborative experience.

“We’re very much brought up on this notion of a showrunner and writers division, and actually this is something we believe in and that we are developing in almost every other instance. But this show has evolved in a very different way. There was the idea from Ralf and Joerg, and then we had Romanian writer input.

“It wasn’t immediately apparent where the overlaps between cultures came, and it took a little bit of time to find common ground, which is why I think of it as a layer cake. We had Joerg and Ralf come in, then the Romanians and we kept building it up like that. But then when you slice through it, you have a coherent show.”

What makes it coherent, Young adds, is Schumacher, who is “an absolutely authentic German-Romanian lead who is fascinating to watch. She flips from speaking German to Romanian, and I find that magic. It’s unfakeable.”

Such authenticity underlines HBO Europe’s wider remit, according to Root, who says the company “defines itself by its localism.” Certainly, emerging from that dingy internet café in Timisoara and back onto the breezy streets after the shoot, the world of internet gaming and hacking seems a million miles away. And perhaps that’s the point.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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Japanese and Polish dramas make headlines

Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent
Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent

Declining ad revenues mean Japanese broadcasters are increasingly looking to the international market to make money. And one of the areas they are keen to build on is drama exports.

One example of this is NHK’s fantasy adventure Moribito, created with the international market in mind, while Nippon TV’s recent sale of format Mother to Turkey – a first for Japanese drama – is another. Also significant is Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group (SMG).

Under the terms of the latter partnership, SMG is adapting a total of five Fuji dramas for the Chinese market. The second of these, Operation Love, began filming in Guangzhou this month with a view to airing on online platform Tencent from Spring 2017.

A light-hearted love story, Operation Love first aired in Japan in 2007 and has also been remade in South Korea as Operation Proposal. It follows an earlier remake of Dating: What’s it Like to be in Love?, which will air on SMG’s channels in 2017.

Another interesting drama story this week is the news that HBO Europe has commissioned a six-part Warsaw-set drama about a cocaine dealer planning a holiday in Argentina. Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, said of the show: “We believe Blinded by the Lights, a story set in Warsaw’s demi-monde and showing off the city in a wholly new way, will not only appeal to Polish audiences but also to our subscribers all around the HBO Europe region. We are confident it will equally excite audiences internationally.”

Wataha (The Pack)
Wataha (The Pack) has been given a second series on HBO Europe

The show is part of a growing slate of original HBO Europe series that kicked off a few years ago with Burning Bush and was followed by Pustina. In addition to Blinded by the Lights, HBO Europe also announced a second series of Wataha (The Pack). This show tells the story of a border guard unit based in the remote Bieszczady Mountains on Poland’s border with Ukraine. “The Pack/Wataha proved its appeal to viewers having achieved huge ratings in Poland for its first season,” Root said. “It also played extremely successfully in the other HBO Europe territories and has sold in foreign markets. We are very excited by this new chapter and the way the writers explore the challenges now faced on Europe’s longest border.”

Also this week, Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG announced it had renewed its first-look deal with indie producer Three River Fiction for a further two years. Three River has 15 to 20 projects in active development, including several adaptations. Its largest acquisition to date is a 15-book estate of Golden Age crime fiction, written in the 1930s by John Bude. Colin Bateman (Murphy’s Law, The Journey) is attached and has written a pilot script based on the crime franchise.

Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

According to DRG, there are two further projects in development, including a dark re-imagining of the Robin Hood story. With Mark Skeet and Matthew Faulk (Titanic: Blood and Steel, Vanity Fair) attached to write, the series will be “a vibrant, venal and complex post-watershed saga set in a bloodstained 12th century England,” said the distributor. The other is a sci-fi series, created and written by Richard Smith (Trauma,) exploring how an isolated community is torn apart by secrets and lies following the crash landing of a UFO.

On the distribution front, Netflix has acquired rights to Renaissance period drama Medici: Masters of Florence for a select number of territories. The Rai-backed drama, which is distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will air on Netflix in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India from December 9. It has already been picked up by broadcasters and streamers in France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The fact Netflix has done a deal for a limited number of territories is interesting, because it suggests the international drama market may be moving away from a model where Netflix attempts to secure the rights to series on a worldwide basis.

Also this week, Deadline is reporting that Amazon has struck an exclusive SVoD deal for USA Network’s new supernatural thriller Falling Water. The show, which tells the story of three unrelated people who discover they are dreaming separate parts of a single common dream, hasn’t rated that well on USA. But Amazon’s involvement will make it easier for the network to back a second series – an increasingly common scenario in the US TV business.

Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon
Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon

This week has also seen some interesting strategic insights from Eurodata TV Worldwide as part of its Scripted Series Report 2016. Based on feedback from 103 channels, Eurodata found that networks, on average, devoted 32% of primetime to series.

Within this total, local series are the biggest hits. “They represent no less than 84% of the primetime top 15,” said Eurodata. “Imports, and consequently international hits, appear less often in rankings of the top programmes. Despite this, broadcasting these imports remains a winning strategy for smaller channels. As an example, The X-Files succeeded in placing among the top shows for M6 (France), Pro7 (Germany), TV3 (Sweden) and Channel 5 (the UK). US imports are challenged by series imported from countries geographically closer to the channel. The latter occupy a minor place in schedules: 15% of the channels studied broadcast a significant amount of these imports in primetime. Most of all, they are an alternative for small markets and smaller channels.”

There is also a trend towards greater exposure, Eurodata added. “In addition to longer availability thanks to catch-up opportunities, a series is now more available over various platforms in a single country. Traditional players and OTT platforms play with the various windows possible for their content. The multiplatform strategy is often a winning one. For example, Zwarte Tulp (NL Film), a new show in the 2015-16 season for RTL4, is a hit in the Netherlands. Five months before its launch on the RTL Group’s first channel, the series had been streamed on Videoland, the group’s SVoD platform. The series Black Widows (DRG) was broadcast simultaneously on the TV3 channels of the MTG group in Sweden and Denmark, and also on the group’s SVoD platform. It is among the channel’s top three shows in both countries.”

Black Widows
Black Widows, distributed by DRG, is a top show in both Sweden and Denmark

According to Eurodata, examples of collaboration between TV and SVoD services are on the rise. “Whether to reduce production costs, grow a viewer base or [increase] international visibility for their content, or fill their schedules and catalogues, players from the various groups are working together in production and distribution. One example, the series Narcos, was recently broadcast on Univision in the US after its distribution on Netflix. In the future, El Chapo will be coproduced by Netflix and Univision and Britannia (Sky Vision) will be a Sky/Amazon coproduction.”

Other trends include a shift towards short formats and adaptations. Eurodata explained: “Short formats have proven popular. They are often conducive to quality series, as they encourage participation by well-known actors, screenwriters and directors. The Night Manager (WME/IMG, The Ink Factory), adapted from John Le Carré’s eponymous novel, immediately earned fourth among series in the UK and fifth in Denmark. Adaptations, meanwhile, allow inspiring characters and stories to reverberate further. Many of the season’s hits are adaptations of series that exist in other countries. Among the European countries covered in the report, the proportion of local adaptations launched has doubled with respect to those in the 2014-15 season. Some channels particularly count on these to appeal to their viewers. This is the case with the Dutch channel SBS6, whose top three series are exclusively local adaptations of foreign formats.”

Avril Blondelot, international research manager at Eurodata TV Worldwide, said: “True international hits are appearing less and less in the national top rankings.”

However, the international stage is playing a growing role in the development of local series. “More and more new series have been adapted from foreign formats,” commented Eurodata media consultant Léa Besson.

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Czech this out

Štěpán Hulík is hoping to repeat the international success of Burning Bush with his next project, Czech drama Pustina. He tells DQ what drew him to the story of a mining village on the verge of extinction.

In 2013, HBO Europe’s compelling miniseries Burning Bush received critical acclaim for the way it dramatised the true story of Prague history student Jan Palace, who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Štěpán Hulík
Štěpán Hulík

Helmed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and scripted by Czech writer Štěpán Hulík, the three-part miniseries was the centrepiece of the pay TV network’s push into original series.

Three years on, HBO Europe has reteamed with Hulík for Pustina (aka Wasteland), an eight-part drama set in the Czech Republic that focuses on a mining village on the verge of extinction.

With the village sitting on huge reserves of coal, foreign mining interests plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a soulless mining complex. The villagers are divided: some see it as an opportunity for a new life elsewhere, while others want to preserve their homes – and traditional life and the community start to fall apart.

Directed by Ivan Zacharias and Alice Nellis, the series, which launched last month, is produced by Nutprodukce and Etamp, which also made Burning Bush for HBO Europe. Beta Film is distributing the series, which was screened in its entirety at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

The story, which opens with the search for a missing girl, first emerged with the help of producer Tomas Hruby, who conceived the plot of a community under threat.

“This idea was very appealing to me,” Hulík admits, “so I started to think about it and develop it further. That was the beginning of the process. We were just figuring out what the story was, making up ideas. I was trying to write a script. This process lasted for two years – it was very complicated.

Pustina centres on a village disrupted by mining industry interests
Pustina centres on a village disrupted by mining industry interests

“With Burning Bush, we had set the bar for ourselves quite high and we didn’t want to make anything smaller than that show. We wanted to achieve something as appealing to the audience and as powerful and strong as Burning Bush. So it was difficult but it was also great motivation.”

The writer admits his latest series has a complex opening, with viewers quickly introduced to different elements of the story and a large ensemble cast. “The most difficult thing when writing TV series is to keep in mind all the sub-plots, all the characters. We have 100 speaking parts in the series so it’s very difficult to keep a map of the story in mind. To know where the key points are and to follow them is quite difficult.

“It’s much easier when writing a feature, where you have just a couple of main characters and your basic storyline is much more simple than with a TV series. But, on the other hand, with TV you have great space and time. In some ways, TV series are like a novel.”

Hulík hopes viewers will be surprised as the story reaches its thrilling conclusion. “I hope it will make perfect sense – this is the only possible ending,” he says. “It will be a shot in the dark but a very natural conclusion. I’ve known the ending since the beginning but it was difficult to get to.”

Hulík’s previous HBO Europe series Burning Bush met critical acclaim
Hulík’s previous HBO Europe series Burning Bush met critical acclaim

From the opening scenes of Pustina, it’s clear the northern Bohemia location that serves as the visual backdrop to the series will play as important a role as any character in the show, with the English translation of the title – Wasteland – conjuring images of a desolate and foreboding landscape.

Hulík describes the environment as a “living organism” and one of the main protagonists: “You should get the feeling that the mine is ‘breathing.’ It should feel like it expands literally day by day and that, in the end, it will swallow up all the people and the whole nearby village.

“We were using the woods that surround the village in a similar way. We did our best to create the feeling that nature is a silent witness to everything. At least one of our characters – Karel – can feel this. At the end of episode two, he is looking at the trees in the woods and seems to be mesmerised by them. He knows that those trees are saying something to him but he can´t understand what they are trying to tell him – and the viewer can understand this as well.”

Hulík says that while he writes his scripts with visuals in mind, his notes are merely suggestions for how the drama should play out on the screen, rather than instructions to the director. “Each small gesture or small pause in the dialogue I try to write down in the script. But it’s just my suggestion. It’s a way of how to do it but maybe the director will find another option.”

Pustina was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year
Pustina was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year

But would he ever consider sitting behind the camera himself? “Absolutely not! I have no ambition to direct,” he insists. “I’m happy as a scriptwriter. My collaboration with Agnieszka Holland on Burning Bush was such a wonderful experience, we became such good friends. Scriptwriters quite often want to be directors when they see some directors spoiling their script, but nothing like that has happened to me. I don’t want to be a director. I’m quite happy!”

Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, recalls that Hulík proposed Pustina just a month after the premiere of Burning Bush. “It’s what the British would call a ‘State of the Nation’ piece,” he explains. “We were very intrigued at the mystery of the missing daughter juxtaposed with the piece about what a community does when someone wants to knock down their village. It seemed to be a very potent dilemma.”

The drama, says Root, works on three levels: the mystery, the socio-political backdrop of the community’s peril and the family drama. “It’s a signature HBO piece with authorship and point of view,” he adds. “It’s not like anything else around in its country of origin and it will have some international reach. It’s a very original piece, certainly something with a voice. HBO looks for atmosphere and point of view and it gives us both.”

It was also a natural decision for the writer to return to HBO after the success of his first project with the network. “They are very open-minded,” Hulík notes, “and they are very smart. I hope to work with them again because it’s been a pleasure.”

He is currently adapting Simon Mawer’s novel Mendel’s Dwarf for the big screen but says he is already turning his attention to his next TV project.

“I hope Pustina will connect with audiences,” Hulík concludes. “I wanted to make something that would be appealing both for our audience in the Czech Republic and also abroard – like True Detective, Top of the Lake or The Missing. This was my hope and our dream. I don’t know whether we will fulfil it, but we did our best.”

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Eyes on the Red Planet Prize

deathinparadise
Death In Paradise resulted from Robert Thorogood winning the Red Planet Prize

Red Planet Pictures, the UK indie behind productions such as Dickensian, Stop! In the Name of Love and Hooten and the Lady, has launched the latest edition of its scriptwriting competition.

First held in 2007, the Red Planet Prize aims to kickstart the career of new writing talent by optioning their television pilot script in the hope of turning it into the next hit series. The winner will receive £5,000 to have their screenplay exclusively developed by Red Planet Pictures and will also have six months of intensive development with an experienced script editor.

Announcing this year’s competition, Belinda Campbell, head of drama at Red Planet Pictures, explained: “The Red Planet Prize is about finding hidden writing talent and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills through an unrivalled mentoring scheme. Red Planet Pictures is all about the writer and we are committed to finding new voices, original stories and ambitious scripts from upcoming talent.”

Red Planet head of development Judith King added: “We’re looking for ideas that burst with character, people and worlds we’ve never seen before, new spins on genre or totally new genres. But, most importantly, ideas that are deeply truthful and personal to the writer – stories that only they can tell.”

Red Planet Pictures' Dickensian
Red Planet Pictures’ Dickensian

Last year, the competition (held in partnership with Kudos) was won by documentary editor Paul McIntyre and former film art executive Tracy Ann Baines, the first time there had ever been joint winners. McIntyre’s project The Family Next Door was about a woman who discovers family secrets after finding a hole leading to her neighbour’s house. Baines, meanwhile, was singled out for her period drama Iron Roads, which looked at the men on the frontline of the industrial revolution.

There’s no news yet on whether either of these projects is going forward into production. But if you delve a bit further back into the history of the prize, it’s clear that it can deliver on its promise to kickstart writing careers. The most celebrated example of this is Robert Thorogood, who won the 2008 prize with his ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea. Three years later, it hit the screens as BBC drama Death in Paradise. Thorogood wrote five episodes of the first season, which immediately proved popular with UK audiences. He went on to write episodes across the next three seasons and also wrote a series of Richard Poole murder mystery novels (Poole was the central character in the first couple of series of Death In Paradise).

So what does it take to win the prize? There is an interesting interview here with 2013 winner Jonathan Neil, where he outlines how he approached the competition. And there is also a useful blog here, from someone who got to the second phase in 2009.

Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik
Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik

One interesting point to take away from both these articles is the issue of the first 10 pages. The way the competition works is that you enter 10 pages of your script in the first round. If the judges like those, you’ll be asked to send the rest of your script. Neil’s assessment of this was that it was important to be dramatic and bold and to “set the tone quickly.”

However, what’s also clear is that you need to have made some progress with the rest of the script as well. The message from the second blog is that there is no point having a great 10 pages if you haven’t got the rest of the script in shape. This is because the turnaround time between finding out you have made the second round and submitting the rest of the script is too tight.

With that warning, for anyone interested, submissions are being welcomed here from 12.00 on Monday January 4, 2016 until 12.00 on Friday January 22, 2016. You’ll also find full details about what the competition requires from you.

Elsewhere in the world of writing, HBO Europe has announced is now in production on an original idea from writer Stepan Hulik. Called Pustina (Wasteland), the eight-hour drama tells the story of a village on the verge of extinction. The village sits on huge reserves of coal, and foreign companies plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a mining complex.

Commenting on the show, Antony Root, exec VP of programming and production for HBO Europe, said: “We are proud and excited to be producing this major original piece from one of the most talented young screenwriters in our region. Pustina tells a story that goes to the heart of the economic and social changes facing communities in the new Europe. It is also a page-turning mystery. We believe both the story and its themes will resonate strongly with our audiences.”

Hulik’s major credit to date is Burning Bush, a three-part miniseries centring on the true story of a Prague history student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.

El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US
El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US

That show saw success at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, where Ivan Trojan won a Golden Nymph award for best actor in a miniseries. Hulik himself won screenwriting awards in his native Czech Republic. Hulik, who is also reported to be working on a biopic of the troubled 1960s jazz singer Eve Olmerova, is also known as a film historian. As part of his work, he has looked at the famous Barrandov Film Studio and how it was affected by the Soviet occupation in the period after the 1968 invasion.

Finally, DQ reported a few weeks ago that ABC in the US is leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit of international ideas that can be adapted for its home market. More evidence that this is a concerted drive comes this week with the news that ABC is developing a local version of Spanish drama El Chiringuito de Pepe. The US version will be written by Don Todd, whose writing credits include Sleepy Hollow, Hart Of Dixie, Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty.

The original show is about a famous chef who comes to a small beach town to breathe life back into his father’s failing cafe. However, he quickly finds himself falling in love with the place.

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