Tag Archives: House of Cards

Kari on directing

From writing and directing feature films, Kari Skogland has become one of the most sought-after television directors in the US, with credits including Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, The Americans, House of Cards, Vikings and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Speaking to DQ, Skogland reveals a passion for history that led to working on shows such as The Borgias and History miniseries Sons of Liberty.

With a penchant for action, stunts and explosions, she describes her desire for scale and scope when choosing her next project and her directing process when she joins or sets up a new show.

Skogland also shares her thoughts on the trend for feature directors moving to television.

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Stranger than fiction?

As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.

It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.

Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.

After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.

Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live

Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?

After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.

So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?

Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.

Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.

Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons
Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons

He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.

A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.

George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.

At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.

The West Wing
The West Wing aired during George Bush Jr’s administration

Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.

Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.

Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”

Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.

The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.

Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.

Graves
Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president, began airing in October

Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.

Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).

The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.

This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).

Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).

Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.

Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.

Madam Secretary
How will shows like Madam Secretary react to Trump’s tenure?

Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.

It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?

It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.

Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?

All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.

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The politics of TV writing

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.

westwingThe 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)

veepVeep: 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)

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-netflixHouse 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)

scandalScandal: 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)

madamsecretaryMadam 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-geena-davis-32520947-2291-1527Commander 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).

desingatedDesignated 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)

cbs_good_wife_702_clean_image_thumb_masterThe 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-bobbyJack & 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-kelsey-grammerBoss: 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)

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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Federation backs belgian content

Unit 42
Belgian drama Unit 42 will be distributed by Federation Entertainment

The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).

Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.

Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.

Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.

Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.

Salamander
Salamander sold internationally

In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.

Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.

And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.

Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.

The original Lost in Space
The original Lost in Space

Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.

Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.

Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”

Roadies
Roadies hasn’t opened particularly strongly

Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.

Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”

Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).

Could House of Cards get a spin-off?
Could House of Cards get a spin-off?

Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”

The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.

In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”

Starz's Ash vs Evil Dead
Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead

The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”

Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”

The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.

Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.

The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.

The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.

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Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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Putting the Spotlight on Oscar winners

Spotlight
Spotlight’s Oscar-winning screenplay was by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy

Let’s start this week by congratulating this year’s Oscar-winning writers.

The prize for Best Original Screenplay went to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, a film about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Meanwhile, Best Adapted Screenplay was claimed by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their financial comedy-drama The Big Short, based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Michael Lewis.

Singer’s credits to date have pretty much all been in TV and include The West Wing, Law & Order and Lie to Me.

McCarthy is more of an actor/writer/director type. Although he has acted in TV series (such as The Wire, Boston Public and Law & Order), his writing has generally been in the film arena. High-profile credits include Up, with Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, and Million Dollar Arm. He was also nominated in the director category for Spotlight.

Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in Oscar winner The Big Short
Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in The Big Short

Turning to The Big Short duo, Adam McKay is a director, producer, screenwriter, comedian and actor who has a long-standing creative partnership with Will Ferrell, with whom he usually writes films. His TV credits include two seasons as head writer on NBC’s acclaimed sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live.

Randolph, meanwhile, is a writer/producer whose credits include The Life of David Gale, The Interpreter and Love & Other Drugs. Randolph was also the writer of an ABC drama pilot called Exposed, based upon the books by best-selling Swedish author Liza Marklund. This show was doing the rounds in 2014 with a lot of high-profile acting talent attached but has since gone pretty quiet.

Outside the Oscars, the big writing story of the week is that the new showrunners for season five of Netflix’s House of Cards have been named. They are Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, who have both been working on the drama since season three.

Gibson’s credits to date cover various media. She has written plays including Placebo, What Rhymes with America, This, Suitcase or Those that Resemble Flies from a Distance and Brooklyn Bridge. She has taught playwriting at Princeton University and is an alumnus of the Yale School of Drama. She wrote the film All is Bright (Tribeca Film Festival). In addition to House of Cards, her television work includes The Americans (FX), for which she received a Writers’ Guild Awards nomination.

House of Cards' fourth season hits Netflix on March 4
House of Cards’ fourth season debuts on March 4

Pugliese’s work in theatre includes Aven’U Boys, The King of Connecticut, The Talk, The Alarm, The Democracy Project, The Summer Winds, Hope is the Thing with Feathers and KAOS. His TV credits include Homicide, for which he won a Writers’ Guild Award, Law & Order, Borgias and Copper. Film credits include Shot in the Heart, Undefeated and the upcoming Border Crossing. Pugliese is associate professor of TV writing at the Columbia University Graduate Film Department and is the co-director of the television writing programme at La Femis in Paris.

Gibson and Pugliese replace Beau Willimon, whose last series as showrunner of House of Cards will be released on this Friday. They received a polite vote of approval from star and executive producer Kevin Spacey, who said: “I welcome Frank and Melissa in their new roles on House of Cards and look forward to collaborating with them and our creative team on season five.”

Elsewhere, CBS has announced that it’s renewing its procedural juggernaut NCIS for another two seasons. Already in season 13, the show regularly draws an audience of 20 million (including time-shifted viewing) – making it one of the top programmes in the US. It is also licensed to around 200 countries worldwide.

The ever-reliable NCIS
The ever-reliable NCIS

CBS Entertainment president Glen Geller said: “It’s extraordinary that in its 13th season and with more than 300 episodes to its credit, NCIS continues to excel at such a high level on a global scale. It is testimony to an amazing cast, led on and off the screen by the exceptional Mark Harmon, for skillfully bringing this appealing team of heroes to life; and to Gary Glasberg and his writers for crafting compelling stories that feature NCIS’s blend of mystery, quirk, drama and comedy every single week.”

As Geller says, the success of the show is inextricably linked with the involvement of Harmon, its star and executive producer, and Glasberg, who heads the writing team on NCIS and was also the creator of NCIS: New Orleans.

Glasberg’s career actually began on animated shows such as Rugrats before progressing via series such as Crossing Jordan, Bones and The Mentalist. His name first popped up as a writer in the middle of NCIS season seven (2009-10). Starting from season eight, he took on the responsibility of writing the first and last episode of each season and also penning another two or three episodes per run. He also wrote the set-up episodes for NCIS: New Orleans but has since handed primary writing duties to a separate team. In terms of influences, Glasberg is reported to be a big fan of TV series M*A*S*H.

Sharon Horgan (centre) in Pulling
Sharon Horgan (centre) in Pulling

In the UK, meanwhile, Sky Vision, the distribution and production arm of Sky, has signed a three-script development deal with UK-based indie producer Merman. Sky will have first-look access to projects from Merman, which was founded in 2014 by Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford, plus the option to distribute.

While Mountford is a producer, Horgan has established herself as an in-demand actor, writer and director. Her key credits in the UK are Pulling and Catastrophe, though she is also making a name for herself in the US. After Pulling went to pilot in the US, she created a series for HBO called Divorce. Starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Hayden Church, Divorce is due to premier in 2016.

Kylie Munnich, Sky Vision director of drama and comedy, said Merman “is a creative force to be reckoned with. Its high-quality scripts attract some of the industry’s leading names and we’re excited to be working with them on future projects.”

On a less happy note, Amazon will not be renewing Mad Dogs, which was adapted for the platform by Shawn Ryan from the UK version of the show that aired on Sky1 in 2011.

Ryan worked with the UK show’s creator Cris Cole on the Amazon version, which consisted of 10 episodes. Ryan wrote on Twitter that he and Cole “laid out a story for season two we believed in. Ultimately, Amazon didn’t want to make that story and we didn’t want to make the kind of story they wanted us to make, so…”

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X-Files hits the spot for Fox

The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes
The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes

Fox’s reboot of The X-Files has, as expected, delivered superb ratings. The first episode of the show, which aired after an important NFL game last Sunday, attracted a massive 16.2 million viewers. Episode two, on Monday, fell to 9.2 million. But this is still a strong result that put CBS rival Supergirl in the shade.

In addition to its own high ratings, The X-Files also provided a great launchpad for Lucifer, a brand new Fox show that aired straight afterwards on Monday. Based on the somewhat bizarre notion that the Devil comes up from hell to help LA cops solve crimes, Lucifer attracted a healthy 7.15 million viewers and also achieved a pretty impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb.

With critics reporting that the next few episodes of The X-Files are strong, the show is likely to hold its ratings pretty well. However, the big issue with the show is that there are only six episodes.

Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox
Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox

Reports suggest that, having seen the early ratings, Fox would like to renew the show. Whether that happens will depend on the schedules of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, it’s hard to believe they won’t squeeze in six more if Fox opens its chequebook wide enough.

Aside from its importance on home turf, the show is also a key asset for the Fox family internationally. It was aired day-and-date across 60 territories on Fox platforms and was also picked up by Channel 5 in the UK and Network Ten in Australia – all of which is another good reason for Fox to pull out all the stops to secure a second season.

Still in the US, episode two of Showtime’s Billions dropped about 30% compared with its debut episode, down from 1.44 million to 950,000 (overnights). That still compares pretty favourably with other Showtime titles and was enough to convince the network to renew the show. It’s part of a portfolio of scripted series that also includes Homeland, The Affair and Ray Donovan.

As we’ve mentioned in previous columns, lack of ratings data means it’s pretty hard to know whether a Netflix show is a hit or a miss until it’s cancelled or renewed. However, the fact that Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards has just been renewed for a fifth season, before the fourth has even begun, means it’s obviously working pretty well for the SVoD platform.

House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix
House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix

That said, it is moving into more challenging territory. There was a feeling among critics that season three suffered from story fatigue. With Spacey’s character Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (played by the excellent Robin Wright) having achieved their goals, this line of argument concluded that the concept had gone about as far as it could go.

This may explain why the renewal announcement was accompanied by the news that House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon will not return for season five.

There’s no questioning the superb job Willimon has done so far, but in terms of keeping up the show’s (and his own) creative energy, it’s probably a smart move. Willimon appeared to acknowledge this when he said: “After five years, it’s time for me to move on to new endeavours, but I’m supremely proud of what we’ve built together, wish the show much continued success and leave it in the hands of a very capable team.”

Of course, the question now is who will pick up the showrunner mantle – and whether they will be able to sustain the high standards Willimon has established during his tenure. Season four of House of Cards debuts on March 4.

The Magicians opened well on Syfy
The Magicians opened well on Syfy

There is so much noise around the closing stages of the NFL season at the start of the year in the US that it is easy to overlook some of the new show debuts on cable. But a bit of digging around shows that Syfy channel has had a pretty good start with its fantasy series The Magicians, based on the book by Lev Grossman.

The first episode aired just before Christmas and achieved a decent 920,000-strong audience. Then the second episode, aired this Monday, posted a healthy 21% rise to 1.11 million. The critical response has been muted, but those figures mean The Magicians is the channel’s highest-rating show, and – barring some kind of calamity – a pretty strong contender for renewal.

MTV’s fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is hitting similar numbers. Although it had one under-performing episode in mid-January, it’s generally pulling in just over one million viewers per episode. This isn’t as good as long-running stalwart Teen Wolf but it is better than the recent revival of Scream, which has already been renewed. Again, this points towards renewal.

Finally, there’s a lot of talk in the market at the moment about the lack of drama procedurals. But one that has been doing great business for most of this decade is CBS police series Blue Bloods. For the first five seasons (2010-2014), the show regularly pulled in 12.5-13 million viewers.

Police procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS
Procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS

It’s a bit down this year but it’s still doing a good job anchoring CBS’s schedule. It’s also a decent performer internationally. In January, it returned to Sky Atlantic in the UK, where it is rock solid at around the 375,000 mark. By contrast, Scandi-based drama 100 Code debuted on the same channel to 315,000 viewers, but dropped to 184,000 for episode two.

More worrying for CBS is slippage on its new show Limitless, based on the film of the same name. After the series started with around 9.8 million viewers, episode 13 hit a season low of 6.3 million, with the all-important 18-49 demo also in decline. There are nine more episodes in season one, so CBS will want to see a bit of a pickup in performance before it is tempted to renew the show.

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Netflix and Amazon blast into 2016

mindhunter
Mind Hunter is being adapted for TV

Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.

Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.

House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.

Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.

The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).

Good Girls Revolt
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, written by Made in Jersey’s Dana Calvo

The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.

All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.

Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.

“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.

Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse
Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse

Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.

In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.

While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.

BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies
BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies

In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.

A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.

One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.

The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.

Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson
Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon

In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.

Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.

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Keeping the faith: Sarah Treem spills the beans on The Affair

The stress of Sarah Treem’s first major project almost led her to quit television. Now, as showrunner on The Affair and following a stint on House of Cards, she couldn’t be happier. So what changed?

If there’s such a thing as a perfect marriage in television, it might be between Showtime and its Golden Globe-winning drama The Affair.

The US premium cable network is best known as the home of political thriller Homeland, period piece Masters of Sex, and medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie.

The second season of The Affair is due to air in October
The second season of The Affair is due to air on Showtime in October

But it seems there was something missing from its schedule until network president David Nevins invited Sarah Treem (main image) and Hagai Levi to pitch a new series about the emotional fall-out that takes place when Noah, a teacher, and waitress Alison begin an affair. Uniquely, the show is told from the viewpoint of both Noah, played by Dominic West, and Ruth Wilson’s Alison.

The Affair debuted on Showtime in October 2014 and, just three months later in January 2015, Treem was on stage to collect the Golden Globe for best drama ahead of fellow nominees Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, and House of Cards. Wilson also won best actress in a drama series, while West was nominated for best actor.

A second run of the show was ordered halfway through the first 10-episode season. Production began in May, with The Affair due to return to screens this October.

Co-creator and showrunner Treem recalls: “We ended up pitching it to them and Nevins just kind of bought it in the room. He said he’d been looking for something in this world for a long time and he liked the concept.

“He had wanted to do something about marriage and thought this was a really great twist. We pitched it as a show about what makes a relationship work or fail, but within the guise of an affair, so it was a right-place, right-time scenario.”

Treem says The Affair aims to be honest in its storytelling, setting aside the plot twists and supernatural elements that have become common motifs in modern television drama and instead creating a plot more relevant to the lives of its audience.

And it was something of a surprise that the first season was then rewarded with the Golden Globe for best drama. “We had just premiered a couple of months earlier so it was really quick and quite a shock,” Treem admits. “Story-wise, the second season, in terms of complexity and skill, is better than the first, so I’m excited to tell the story on a richer level.

“I would absolutely love it if we won another Golden Globe, but if we don’t, that’s OK too. The fact we get to do the show again and keep going with the story is its own reward. That means more to me than having a medal for it.”

The Affair’s team of writers reconvened in LA earlier this year to break down the season two story arc. They discussed each of the 12 episodes in detail and, specifically, considered what happens to each character. They then talked over the first seven episodes further before the writers separated to pen their scripts.

Treem explains: “Our method is to sit around in a room for a couple of days and really go through what each episode is about and what the journey of the individual characters needs to be. Then we break them up into beats and come up with a rough outline in the room, and an individual writer will take the outline and write it up. We’ll give comments on it and it will go to the network for approval. And then that writer will write the episode.

“We’re dividing up the stories so it’s not just Noah and Alison’s perspectives for the second season. We’re bringing in some new perspectives, which give the season a more prismatic feel and make the storytelling more complex, which I really like.”

Treems TV break came with In Treatment
Treem’s TV break came with HBO’s In Treatment

The Affair marks Treem’s first foray into showrunning. Her TV break came as a writer on all three seasons of In Treatment for HBO, where under an overall deal she also wrote and produced How to Make It in America. She then wrote and co-executive produced on the first season of Netflix’s breakout original drama House of Cards.

“I love the job. But it’s been a really steep learning curve,” the California-based writer says. “The process this year is a lot smoother than it was last year. Showrunning is basically good management. It’s about leading people and guiding people toward a common vision but not in a way that squelches their instincts and makes them feel like they’re just cogs in a wheel.

“What I found challenging in the first season was the act of creating something brand new out of nothing. Birthing a show is a very different skill from managing people. It takes a certain amount of solecism and, frankly, a narcissistic focus, which doesn’t let other people in that easily.

“I think the reason everyone says the second season is easier than the first is that in the second you have the blueprint: everybody knows what the show is and everyone is familiar with the characters and their psychologies, so you can be more open and let go of the reins a lot because you know where you stand. It’s just easier. I’ve really enjoyed the process this year.”

Treem’s rise to become showrunner of an award-winning drama after working on just three other TV shows might be considered meteoric, but she doesn’t see it that way. Writing stage plays from an early age, Treem had graduated from the Yale School of Drama when one of her scripts was passed to HBO, which sent it on to Rodrigo Garcia, the showrunner of the first season of In Treatment. The series was adapted from the Israeli format BeTipul, about a psychologist and his weekly sessions with patients.

“I got really lucky,” Treem admits. “Rodrigo read this play that was kind of wild and he loved it and hired me sight unseen. He just called me up and offered me the job.”

After writing the character of Sophie, played by Mia Wasikowska, Treem returned to teaching in Maine, but was later called to LA to become the on-set writer for In Treatment – a role that almost led her to quit television.

“It was so hard that first year,” she says. “It was crazy because that year we were doing 54 episodes, and I was the only on-set writer. I was 26 or 27, I’d never been to Hollywood, I knew nothing about television production and I was really out of my element, exhausted and under a tremendous amount of stress.

“So I thought maybe this was not for me. After that season, I flew back to New York and told my agents to never put me up for television again. They told me to take a vacation.”

Treem changed her mind, however, when HBO offered her an overall deal, and she continued writing on In Treatment for two more years. During the off-season, she also worked on comedy-drama How to Make It in America, about two entrepreneurs trying to find success in New York City’s fashion scene.

After Treem’s HBO deal ran out, Beau Willimon, who she had met when she was a 19-year-old theatre intern, invited her to join a new series called House of Cards. Treem worked on the show during its first season.

The first season of House of Cards was 'like the Wild West'
Treem says the first season of House of Cards was ‘like the Wild West’

The first year of House of Cards, she says, was “like the Wild West. There were no creative executives at Netflix, so nobody was giving us notes. There was so much money, so much talent, and the rules were getting broken and rewritten all over the place.

“We kept joking that if we were really good, we were going to win a Webby (the awards that honour excellence on the internet), because we didn’t know if anyone would watch the show, and then it just blew up beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”

While House of Cards was shooting its first season, Treem was already looking towards her next project, The Affair, which was co-created with Hagai Levi, the creator of BeTipul and a producer on In Treatment. Expecting her first child, she wanted to set up a project after the birth and so wrote the pilot on nights and weekends, and then pitched it to Showtime when she was seven months pregnant.

“We felt that was a pretty natural evolution out of In Treatment, which is where we met,” Treem says of The Affair’s creation with Levi. “In Treatment is about perspective and how having to explain yourself to somebody else is so very difficult. Everyone is trapped in their own consciousness. As writers, that idea appealed to us on a thematic level, and then Hagai said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about an affair but from two perspectives so we can double-down on that idea?’

“We spent some time coming up with the characters and figuring out the worlds, and it grew really organically. We wrote the script on spec; we didn’t develop it with any particular network, so we really had a chance to let it incubate on its own.”

It’s that freedom that Treem attributes, in part, to the success of Netflix and the growth of original drama on other VoD platforms, and an increasing number of cable channels.

“Netflix exploded the marketplace in this way that has reinvigorated the creativity of writers,” she says. “There are now so many places your show can get made that you don’t have to think, ‘I need to write the type of show AMC or another network is going to buy,’ which was the mentality we had for a while. Now you just write the show – write whatever the heck you want – and someone will probably be interested in it if it’s good. It’s really freeing.”

The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story
The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story

Despite the fact season two of The Affair is still in the relatively early stages of production, Treem is already plotting the storyline for season three.

“I have a pretty clear idea for season three,” she reveals. “My concept for season four is a little vaguer. When we pitched it, we pitched a three-season arc. So we’ve always known pretty clearly how the show goes through the third season. How it evolves beyond that remains to be seen.”

As one of a growing number of female showrunners working in television, Treem says it feels “like a real watershed year for women in television,” and describes the emergence of limited-episode event series as network television’s answer to cable channels’ hugely successful slow-burn, narrative-driven dramas.

And having started in television writing on the adaptation of an Israeli series, she says remakes can work when people take the concept and inspiration of a show and make it their own. “Where people get into trouble is when they copy something from another culture word for word and shot for shot. There’s a lot that’s lost in translation.”

Looking back on her career so far, Treem adds: “I got lucky that my first job was In Treatment, which was a very niche show, but it was incredibly prestigious and we had a tremendous amount of freedom in the writing. It was a writers’ show because there was one person writing each character, so I got very close to the actors and actresses I was writing for and it really became a team effort.”

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Let’s ask the audience

Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit
Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit

Subscription VoD platforms Netflix and Amazon have emerged as two of the most important players in the scripted TV business. But they are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest. While they are happy to make carefully choreographed appearances at TV industry events and provide subscriber information during their quarterly results presentations, they are not easy to interview and refuse to provide data about the audiences their shows attract.

This, of course, is their prerogative – but it does make it difficult to judge how original commissions are doing. How do we know, for example, that Netflix flagship House of Cards is the hit show that we all seem to assume it is? And what evidence is there that Amazon’s critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent is anything other than a global media village talking point?

Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal
Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal

In the absence of ratings data, the most obvious measurement of success on SVoD is whether a show gets recommissioned. Viewed from this perspective, House of Cards is clearly doing a good job, because Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season for 2014. We also have to assume that Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove are algorithmically acceptable because they both have third seasons coming up. (Orange’s debuts on June 12, and it actually also has a fourth lined up.) By a similar token, Amazon’s decision to recommission both Bosch and Transparent suggests it is also happy with the impact these shows are having on its business.

Using recommissions as a benchmark for ratings success has its limitations however. For a start, it’s possible that the decision to renew these shows is more about creating a positive PR bubble than rewarding strong ratings. If the SVoD platforms can secure positive notices among critics and reviewers for their shows – plus the occasional Emmy or Golden Globe – they can drive new subscriptions without necessarily winning big audiences.

In other words, raw audience size isn’t an issue for the SVoD platforms as long as they feel like they are achieving ROI with their dramas. But it’s more of a concern for traditional broadcasters thinking of acquiring the rights to a show, because they need metrics to work out a show’s appeal to advertisers.

Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted
Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted

Furthermore, international channel buyers often have to make decisions about whether to acquire a show before the decision to recommission has taken place. So they may find themselves having to acquire a show without any ratings or audience demographic data. In this scenario, they won’t know whether the decision to recommission was for PR purposes or due to a commercial commitment to the producer or distributor of the show, which may only have signed up with the SVoD platforms on the understanding that it would get at least a second/third run.

The TV industry has tried to get round the ratings issues in various away. Variety magazine, for example, recently published some insights from Luth Research, a San Diego-based company that surveyed 2,500 Netflix subscribers to analyse their viewing habits. Although there were some methodological limitations to the research, it showed that Marvel show Daredevil has been the platform’s most popular series of the year so far, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in the first 11 days. With Netflix’s US subscriber base currently at around 41 million, this means the show drew around 4.5 million viewers. The same research showed a more modest audience for House of Cards season three (6.5% over the first 30 days) and a pretty lacklustre performance for Bloodline (2.4% over 30 days – around one million).

Research suggests Daredevil has been  Netflix’s most popular series of 2015
Research suggests Daredevil has been Netflix’s most popular series of 2015

Aside from this kind of bespoke research study, the industry is forced to fall back on audience feedback as a gauge for how a show is performing. So if we stick with Daredevil for a moment, Goscoop.tv was quick to spot the fact that the show secured 4.6 out of five stars on Netflix’s audience review chart, higher than House of Cards. Daredevil also scores well on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb is particularly useful because you get to see a rating (9.1/10) and the number of users who have voted (79,169 at last count). This is important, because high volume hints at high ratings – and also allows us to build a picture of how the mainstream audience has responded to a show. A low volume of reviews will inevitably skew more towards fanboys or haters.

IMDb gets pretty interesting when you start exploring how other dramas stack up against these scores. We can see, for example, that House of Cards has a 9.1 rating from 212,263 users, Orange is the New Black has 8.4 from 129,964 users, Bloodline has 8.4 from 8,833 users, Bosch has 8.4 from 8,745 users, Marco Polo has 8.2 from 21,666 users, Transparent has 8.1 from 7,256 users and Hemlock Grove is trailing the pack with 7.3 from 24,091 users.

This isn’t an ideal way to analyse shows but it does throw up some interesting points. Firstly, it underlines how strong Daredevil is. Not only are its rating high, but it has stimulated high levels of audience engagement in a very short time. With season two already commissioned this is a hit for Netflix and will undoubtedly prove a popular pick up when it moves into distribution.

Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits
Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits

Hemlock Grove’s performance also suggests that the audience’s assessment of a show is broadly in line with the critics, who have not liked the show. Variety’s comment coming into series two was: “While a loyal contingent was inclined to give Hemlock Grove the benefit of the doubt in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way, watching the opening of the second go-round still tips the scales toward so bad — and boring — that it’s just plain bad. Efforts to improve the show, or just make sense out of it, have largely foundered.”

Continuing with this deeply unscientific but mildly entertaining analysis, what happens when we compare the above IMDb ratings with high-profile shows on cable TV (I’ve limited it to cable because these shows are most similar to what is on offer from Netflix and Amazon)? Well, Game of Thrones has a 9.5 rating from 772, 837 users, Breaking Bad has 9.5 from 680,964, The Sopranos has 9.3 from 153,972, Better Call Saul has 9.1 from 69,893, The Walking Dead has 8.7 from 511,536, Mad Men has 8.7 from 121,003, Vikings has 8.6 from 126,260, Wayward Pines has 8.4 from 3,497 and The Returned has 7.3 from 3,473.

If you look at these results through squinty eyes, this isn’t actually a bad reflection of the quality and popularity of these shows (Game of Thrones – notwithstanding recent controversy – and Breaking Bad spectacular, The Returned a disappointment). There’s even a kind of correlation to US platform penetration figures. With cable in 100 million-plus homes and Netflix in 41 million, there’s a proportionality in Breaking Bad and House of Cards user totals.

Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success
Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success

There are all kinds of health warnings you could apply to these numbers, connected to the time they’ve been on air, who their core audience is, whether they are the kind of shows that polarise people and whether the shows’ creators have tried to artificially hype positive reviews. But the overall scorecard seems to suggest that Netflix has had two slam dunk hits (Daredevil and House of Cards) and one that is dividing audiences a bit (Orange Is The New Black). If Daredevil keeps up its momentum, then you’d have to say that Netflix’s four-series deal with Marvel is a masterstroke.

Amazon has had a reasonable start with detective series Bosch, though its numbers are probably skewed upwards by pent-up demand from fans of the book series. This ‘jury’s out’ feel would align with The Guardian’s assessment that Bosch is a paint-by-numbers cop show that leaves “no cop-show cliché unturned.” Arguably, Transparent’s 8.1 rating is one of the most interesting scores. In an era obsessed with transgender TV, Transparent is of its time. And it did win a Golden Globe for best comedy. But if we take 8.7 as a benchmark of high quality (see above), a rating of 8.1 suggests the show is polarising audiences to some extent.

The overall assessment has to be that Amazon is yet to get its scripted strategy quite right. So a lot will be riding on upcoming projects like The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs and Hand of God. Amazon, of course, is still playing catch-up to Netflix – but at some point it will probably need its own Marvel moment.

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