Tag Archives: Jeremy Darroch

Sky high

From talking the talk to walking the walk, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky has put its money where its mouth is in the search for compelling original drama.

It was in 2011 that Sky group CEO Jeremy Darroch said the UK pay TV giant would be investing £600m (US$909m) a year in original content by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its previous spend.

Now that money is being seen on screen in the guise of an enviable slate of original series, including You, Me and the Apocalypse, The Last Panthers and Fungus the Bogeyman, which aired over Christmas. New series coming up include The Five, created by crime author Harlan Coben, and second seasons of The Tunnel (pictured above) and Fortitude.

And as Sky moves into a new era of year-round drama commissioning across three channels – Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts – there is only the promise of more to come.

Mensah: 'If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left'
Mensah: ‘If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left’

“We are a pay TV platform so we have a mandate from our CEO to make sure we can provide drama that people want to pay for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. “What’s brilliant about that relationship with our customers is that it’s a mandate for distinction. Everything we do is about being the boldest, the most distinctive, the most innovative drama in the UK, specifically for our customers. We have one drama after another and they all have that ambition to be absolutely best in class, but also good fun and really watchable.”

Sky is best known for its acquisition of rights, predominantly for sport, movies and US television – in particular series from HBO. Last month, Sky tied up exclusive UK rights to content from Showtime, which will include Billions and the revival of Twin Peaks.

And Mensah compares Sky’s original drama ambitions to that of the film business: “We look at television like movies. In the same way you’re working really hard to get an audience to get out of their chair and go to the cinema and buy a ticket, you buy a ticket for Sky. We treat our customers in the same way, with the same production values, the same stars and the same sense of event.

“On Sky1, it’s a blockbuster experience; on Sky Atlantic, it’s more of an art-house cinema experience. But Sky Atlantic is not niche – it’s an art-house cinema experience with wine.”

Cameron Roach, Sky’s drama commissioning editor, takes the identities of Sky’s channels further by describing them in terms of how viewers watch them.

“On Sky1 we want to promote shared viewing in households, whereas Sky Atlantic is not about the overnights and is much more like reading a novel – you might watch two or three episodes at once,” he explains. “The on-demand platform (Sky Go) is really important for that viewing experience.”

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made extensive use of CGI

But when viewers are watching Sky’s output in a variety of ways, how does the broadcaster measure success? Mensah says it’s about what the programme makers wanted their show to achieve in the first place.

“Some shows are built to be consumed like novels, to be massive critical successes and to talk to an audience that want to get into real think-pieces. Others are built to be super entertaining,” she says. “Everybody’s obsession with how you measure success is totally reductive because every show does something different. Particularly when you’ve got a pay TV platform – on a basic level our jobs are to bring people to Sky and keep them at Sky, and to give them a good experience of being Sky customers. That’s not one show, that’s the whole offering.”

As far as development goes, Sky doesn’t have a number of projects waiting in the wings. Instead, its drama team puts its money only on shows that are likely to make it to air, rather than taking scripts on and passing on them further down the line.

Mensah notes: “If we know we want to do a show, we think we shouldn’t put other things into competition with it. I would hope the talent comes to work with us and knows we’re backing their show and not slightly playing the odds like some other channels can do. It can be quite hard to get stuff into development with us, but once we’re in development with something, we’re doing it because we intend to make it.”

Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime
Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime

Roach adds that Sky’s drama team turns down lots of projects. “Before I started working with Anne, she said her ambition was to run a narrow slate,” he says. “Lots of people say that but it is genuine. We’re a small team but if something is in funded development with us, that means one of the team absolutely loves it. We’ve all got different tastes so it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but we have an absolute ambition to see that show made and we will support that production company.”

Funding from the pay TV broadcaster is also dependent on the type of project in question. With its use of CGI, Fungus the Bogeyman required extensive research and development, while horror story The Enfield Haunting also required commitments in terms of research and script development.

Sky’s development process has also become slightly more complicated since Sky UK’s acquisition of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, creating a single company that broadcasts to 21 million customers in five territories across Europe.

Both Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland have retained their own drama teams, however, with forthcoming series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, offering the first example of how the trio will work together.

The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers was simulcast across all of Sky’s territories

“The Young Pope is a coproduction through all three but editorially it goes through Sky Italia, because what you don’t need is 7,000 voices on something,” Mensah says. “There’s one editorial voice but the backing of the whole weight of Sky. The Last Panthers was simultaneously transmitted across all of our territories, as was Fortitude. What you’ve got is the best of all possible worlds, which is clear editorial focus but with the weight of this massive company backing your show.”

Sky is also a committed coproduction partner, working with NBC on end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, Showtime on horror Penny Dreadful and France’s Canal+ on cross-Channel drama The Tunnel and pan-European crime thriller The Last Panthers.

“We love coproductions but luckily with Sky, it’s not about the money as much as creativity. Working with Canal+, not only do we like them personally but they also brought creative talent to us that we couldn’t find ourselves. I’d never worked with Haut et Court (Les Revenants) before Panthers. The Warp Films-Haut et Court partnership is why Panthers is so unique. As for The Tunnel, we had worked with Kudos before but working in France with French directors was new to me.”

Looking ahead, Roach says The Five is a good example of how Sky wants to take an existing genre – crime, in this case – and give it a different hook for Sky1.

The show follows a group of four friends haunted by the disappearance of one of
their younger brothers some years earlier while he was in their care. The group is forced to revisit the past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. It is written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company.

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is a coproduction with Showtime

“Anne and Nicola started talking about the hooky novels that come from the likes of Harlan Coben,” recalls Roach. “It was a really innovative development process and it was the same with Fungus and Lucky Man (now airing on Sky1), which was an original idea from (Marvel Comics’) Stan Lee.”

The prospect of year-round drama also looks set to create a new story for Sky’s channels, with their individual identities no longer being separated by strict boundaries.

“There has to be fluid boundaries between the channels, particularly as we’re aware of the growing importance of our on-demand offering,” says Roach. “We’re planning two or three years in advance and we’re not sure how platforms will emerge. Sky1 and Sky Atlantic have a very clear identity but as we go to year-round drama we can diversify our output.”

Mensah says anyone hoping to pitch a project to Sky should simply talk to her and her team. “A pitch should feel like a conversation,” she explains. “Too often people put too much emphasis on the formal pitch – anything we’ve got in funded development began as a conversation. People can over-think that process. We’re working with Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, and he simply called us. We bought the idea on the phone. He then won an Oscar. Equally, other people send us full scripts. There are seriously no rules.”

Stan Lee's Lucky Man
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man

No rules, then, but if one were to offer potential partners some guidelines, it would be to avoid generalised stories and to throw caution to the wind in a bid to offer big, bold, epic tales.

“If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left,” says Mensah. “With The Five, everyone else was doing lovely, languid thrillers so we thought, ‘how can we do it as quickly as possible?’ It turns on a dime every five seconds and the producers have done such a good job.”

Ultimately, to have a drama land on Sky, you’ve got to reach for the stars. “If you feel a show could sit on ITV or the BBC, they’re brilliant so that’s the space it should be in,” Mensah adds. “We really do look for stuff that feels like it could only be us.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Foxtel boosts drama down under

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh
Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh

For fans of TV drama living down under, things are about to get very interesting indeed.

Pay TV platform Foxtel this week announced plans to “create the best in Australia” by doubling its investment in original content, including factual, lifestyle and entertainment programming by 2018.

The key point, however, came when it was revealed that in each of the next three years, Foxtel will commission at least five major drama series. Currently it averages two every 12 months.

And while other programming genres will get a boost in funding, the budget for scripted content, including comedy, will be tripled.

Viewers of prison drama Wentworth will be well aware of Foxtel’s push into local drama. The series, which debuted on the SoHo channel in 2013, is described as a contemporary reimagining of the classic drama Prisoner and has proved such a success that a fourth season was ordered earlier this year.

Other homegrown commissions include A Place to Call Home and The Kettering Incident. The former, created by Bevan Lee, is a 1950s period piece that follows one woman’s journey to heal her soul and a privileged family rocked by scandal. After two seasons, a landmark deal between Foxtel and Seven Productions last year saw a further two runs commissioned, with season three due to launch on SoHo later this year.

Foxtel's prison drama Wentworth
Foxtel’s prison drama Wentworth

The Kettering Incident, created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan, is an eight-part mystery thriller that sees a woman uncover terrifying secrets hidden in her town as she investigates a missing person case. Uniquely, it is also the first major TV drama to be filmed entirely in Tasmania.

Foxtel has already put other news series into development. The first to be announced is Secret City, a political thriller inspired by novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, both co-written by journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman.

The six-part series, produced by Matchbox Pictures, is set in the Australian capital Canberra where a journalist uncovers a web of interlocked conspiracies that are putting innocent lives – including her own – in danger. The cast includes Anna Torv (Fringe), Damon Herriman, and Dan Wyllie, and it is set to air in 2016.

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh said Secret City “is further commitment by Foxtel to explore bold and interesting ideas for the screen and commission unique Australian storytelling to complement the best of the international series. We keep looking for inspiring and intelligent scripts and we think we’ve found one again with Secret City.”

The news of Foxtel’s original-content investment echoes similar plans by Sky in the UK. In 2011, its CEO Jeremy Darroch unveiled ambitions to invest more than £600m (US$944m) a year in fresh British programming by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its 2011 budget. This led to new dramas including The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful, while Darroch has since vowed that Sky will continue to raise its game towards £1bn a year.

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch
Sky boss Jeremy Darroch

However, whereas Sky’s plan was a proactive bid to attract more viewers who weren’t interested in its movie or sport channels, Foxtel’s own drama investment could not have come at a more critical time for its business. US VoD giant Netflix stepped up its international expansion earlier this year by landing in Australia, hoping to attract subscribers to its own original drama series and, in turn, possibly denting Foxtel’s numbers, while other online players including Stan are also up and running.

With drama series now commonly promoted as the flagship content for a television network or platform, the quality – and quantity – of shows is only going up, fuelled by extra investment. This growing competition, across free and pay TV and online, is great news for viewers, who can look forward to hours of new programmes – providing they are willing to pay for it.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

Sky seeking scripted surge

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch
Sky boss Jeremy Darroch

At MipTV, Jeremy Darroch, CEO of European pay TV broadcaster Sky, gave a keynote interview during which he talked about the company’s ambition to increase its investment in scripted content. A key focus of his attention was the UK-based channel Sky Atlantic, which deals primarily in high-end scripted content.

Sky Atlantic launched in 2011 on the back of a wide-ranging content supply arrangement with HBO in the US. This was renewed and expanded last year, with the two companies announcing their intention to coproduce “epic” dramas.

Running in parallel with this partnership, Sky Atlantic has also assiduously built relationships with other key players in the international drama arena. In 2013, it coproduced The Tunnel with Canal+ in France (a detective drama based on acclaimed Swedish/Danish copro The Bridge). Soon after, it partnered with Endemol on arctic thriller Fortitude – a series that, despite a slightly indigestible narrative and the puzzling under-use of actors Christopher Eccleston and Stanley Tucci, did a good job of attracting new viewers to the channel and secured a second run.

In the last couple of weeks, Sky Atlantic has given further insight into its drama ambitions. First came the news that it is to coproduce The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, with HBO and Canal+. And now it has announced that it will partner NBC on 10-part plague drama Patient Zero (w/t). Like Fortitude, Patient Zero will be produced by Fifty Fathoms and will also star Tucci. It will tell the story of a global pandemic that turns those infected into predators, addicted to violence.

Stanley Tucci as he appears in Fortitude
Stanley Tucci, pictured here in Fortitude, will star in Patient Zero

Underlining the scale of the channel’s ambition in drama, Patient Zero is being written by Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) and directed by Marc Forster (World War Z). Commenting, Sky head of drama Anne Mensah said: “As we continue to bring our customers more original drama, I am delighted to be partnering with two creatives at the top of their game (Moore and Forster) in a thriller that will grip from the outset. We’re excited to be expanding our relationship with NBC/NBC Universal and it’s great to be working with Fifty Fathoms after the huge success with Fortitude.”

For the last couple of years, there’s been a gradual trend towards Hollywood movies being remade as TV series. There’s a commercial logic to this, because it means the spin-off shows can launch with in-built brand awareness. But creatively this trend has the potential to be quite claustrophobic, with films that only just managed to fill 120 minutes being stretched out across 10 hours.

Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta, is being remade for TV
Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta, is being remade for TV

Whether this movies-as-pilots-for-TV-series trend can work at an industrial scale will become clearer by the end of this year, because there are so many examples coming through at the US networks. CBS, for example, has greenlit Rush Hour and Limitless, while ABC is developing Uncle Buck (based on the 1989 John Candy comedy of the same name). Fox, having already announced plans to adapt Minority Report, has now revealed that it has given a script order to Urban Cowboy, a drama based on the 1980 romantic movie starring John Travolta. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) will write, direct and executive produce the drama.

Interestingly, this movie-to-TV trend is also beginning to catch on outside the US production system. In the UK, Buccaneer Media has announced plans to make a TV series based on the 2014 indie sci-fi film Robert Overlords (produced by Tempo Productions). The plan is for the spin-off series to target a family audience – along the lines of BBC Worldwide’s international hit Doctor Who. Buccaneer will work with Tempo on the project, which imagines a world in which humanity has been enslaved by robots. Tempo’s Piers Tempest, who produced the film, said: “This series will really expand the canvas of the robot occupation and we are aiming to make an explosive show that the UK will be very proud of.”

The Wicked + The Divine is the latest comic to be adapted for television
The Wicked + The Divine is the latest comic to be adapted for television

Alongside movies, graphic novels/comics have become an increasingly important source of ideas for scripted series (see Michael Pickard’s feature about this trend). The latest idea to get a pick up is The Wicked + The Divine, from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. An award-winning series about a group of people with superhuman powers known as The Pantheon, the property has been picked up by Universal and will be developed by Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick via their company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds. MCM signed a deal with Universal in February to make TV shows based on comics.

Finally, BBC1 has announced plans for a new pre-watershed period drama series, to be written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel, Darling Buds of May). Titled My Mother and Other Strangers, this 5×60’ series follows the fortunes of a rural family, the Coynes, when a huge US Air Force airfield is built in their parish. Set in Northern Ireland during World War Two, it will be made by BBC Northern Ireland with funding from Northern Ireland Screen.

Commenting on the project, Barry Devlin says: “I wanted to write a series that had an exotic love story at its heart but that was set in a place I recognise. So I’m delighted the BBC has commissioned the series. It’s really great to be part of a story about Northern Ireland that is entirely originated and filmed here.”

In other scripted news, UK broadcaster ITV has acquired Poldark producer Mammoth Screen. Check out C21 Media for details.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,