More than a decade after Alex Rider first appeared on the big screen in Stormbreaker, the teen spy is transitioning to television in a series named after the character.
Created by author Anthony Horowitz, the eight-part drama is based on the second Alex Rider novel, Point Blanc, and sees Alex discover his late uncle was a spy who had been secretly training him his whole life. Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps, where he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school.
In this DQTV interview, Horowitz and Jill Green, CEO of Eleventh Hour Films, recall the unique genesis of the project, which was fully financed by Sony Pictures Television before a broadcaster had come on board.
The husband-and-wife team also talk about how the series blends action and adventure with a coming-of-age story, and why Horowitz didn’t want to adapt his own novels, with Guy Burt (The Bletchley Circle) stepping in to write the scripts.
Alex Rider is produced by Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television, which also distributes the series.
Buyers include Amazon Prime Video (UK), Viaplay (Sweden, Denmark and Norway), Movistar+ (Spain), Kinopoisk HD (Russia), Nova (Greece), DSmart (Turkey), StarzPlay across the Middle East and North Africa, Showmax across sub-Saharan Africa, TVNZ (New Zealand), Sony Liv (India), Korea Telecom (South Korea) and U-Next (Japan). Sony-owned AXN will broadcast Alex Rider in multiple European territories, including Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.
Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.
Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.
From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.
George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.
“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”
Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”
Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”
Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.
Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”
You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”
While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.
Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”
The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”
In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”
Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”
Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”
Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”
While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.
Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.
All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”
This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”
This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”
The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”
While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).
Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”
Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”
Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”
On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”
Riverdale Rundown The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.
Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”
Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”
Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”
The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.
In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”
After 15 years writing Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz is back on television with crime thriller New Blood. He tells DQ why there’s nothing like it on television.
Investigative drama New Blood broke new ground last week when it became the first primetime drama to launch on the BBC’s on-demand service iPlayer before its linear broadcast.
And with streaming platforms perhaps now representing the best way to reach new and younger viewers who no longer adhere to traditional television schedules, series creator Anthony Horowitz was more than happy to push the show online ahead of its BBC1 debut tonight.
“I want to write for young people rather than their parents,” says Horowitz, who wrote ITV drama Foyle’s War for 15 years until it ended last January. “Foyle’s War has been a fantastic ride – I’ve loved every minute of doing it. But it did occur to me that a great chunk of viewers weren’t seeing my work. Also, having written the Alex Rider spy novels, I’m meeting people who read my work as kids and are now in their 20s and 30s, and I want to write for them again.
“When I write, I don’t think, ‘This is for young people’ and then write in a certain way. What’s happened with this show is because it has two 25-year-olds in the lead – everything has come from that.”
New Blood executive producer Jill Green, MD of Eleventh Hour Films and Horowitz’s wife, agrees: “It’s great for us because (there’s a lack of) shows that appeal to younger viewers. It’s edited in a very different way, the music is very different too.”
The seven-part series shows London through the eyes of two outsiders, Stefan and Rash, junior investigators for the Serious Fraud Office and the police respectively, who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases.
Young men frustrated with life and trying to find their feet in their professional and personal lives, they team up to become a formidable crime-solving duo as they take on the uber rich and powerful.
And central to the series are Mark Strepan and Ben Tavassoli, who play Polish Stefan and British-Iranian Rash respectively. “Mark has Polish ancestry and Ben is half-Iranian so they fit their characters to a T,” Horowitz says. “Every actor I’ve ever worked with has, to a certain extent, made the character their own. They found them and created them. When I started writing this show I was never sure, if I wrote a line, which character should say it. But now I know exactly who’s going to say what – and that’s partly down to them.
“Working on Foyle’s War, I loved working with Michael Kitchen but if he walked out of the car to the office, that was classed as an action sequence. Now we’ve got people running across London, jumping off buildings, getting punched and getting tied up and put into a car that spins eight times.”
Green continues: “In one scene, they argue about jumping off a hotel roof into a swimming pool and eventually say, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ They’re in their 20s, why not? They literally dive off into a swimming pool. These guys are physical. The amount of things (Horowitz) puts them through has been extraordinary and they love it.”
Casting for the leads wasn’t straightforward, however, with several actors in the running for both parts until Strepan and Tavassoli found instant chemistry during the auditions.
“We saw an enormous number of people,” admits Horowitz. “It was always a question of whether we were going to cheat. Could we really cast British-Iranian and British-Polish? Or would we get a British guy who could do a Polish accent? We then found these two guys but what clinched it wasn’t the individual auditions, it was when we put them together.”
Green explains: “At the last moment we had four Rash’s and four Stefan’s so we interchanged them together, looking for the right combination, and it was about that chemistry. It was very real.”
It’s that chemistry that will also make the difference between New Blood being a success or a failure. But Horowitz says he hopes the show has managed to tell serious stories in a serious world with two light-hearted characters at the centre.
“I’m thrilled by their performance,” he adds. “I’ve been around for a long time but these two guys, they’re at the beginning of their careers and I’m so excited to see whether it goes well for them. They’re very likeable.”
From the opening scenes of the first episode, it’s clear Stefan and Rash aren’t the only characters central to New Blood. From Stefan’s bike ride to work into the City to the quick cuts between shots of the capital’s iconic landmarks, the backdrop of London looms large over the series.
“Jill hasn’t forgiven me for setting it in London,” Horowitz quips when asked of the production challenges of filming in the city. “But when you see the show, London is the third character. It’s a really attractive view of London. We tried to find something that isn’t tourist London, isn’t Disney London. It’s real London and it’s energised London. The number of cranes and building sites and traffic jams and roadworks – that’s the London we live in.”
It was a difference experience for Green. “If you’re not doing a US movie on a Tom Cruise budget, don’t try to film in London,” she says. “It’s not a city that’s interested in filmmaking because it’s got terrorism, security and other bigger issues. It was really hard. And because we were 95% location and we had to do some really difficult action sequences, most people didn’t want us around and sometimes they wouldn’t play ball. City Airport shut us down because pilots complained they could see lights from an explosion we were filming in a wasteland that was quite near the airport.
“It’s hard and expensive. The sequence where the guys jump off the roof was shot over three days in three different places. That’s expensive. When you’re doing big action, which has got to have a high production value, you can’t skimp on that. But when you’re doing it in London as well, that’s tough. But it does look and feel like London.”
Horowitz and Green first met when they both were working in advertising. They later took different paths into television and it was only after a decade that Horowitz’s writing started to be developed for the screen by Greenlit Productions and now Eleventh Hour Films – both established by Green, the latter in 2010.
“Why should Jill produce shows for other people and I write shows for other people when we can do it together and control and own the shows?” argues Horowitz. “We’ve done that now for Foyle’s War, Injustice, Collision, Menace and New Blood.”
“We’re very privileged to get Ant’s work and it makes us work 300% harder because the responsibility is huge,” explains Green, whose other credits include ITV thriller Safe House. “There’s no deal (with him) but I know if we don’t take Anthony’s ideas – and we don’t always agree – then somebody else might. But the scripts are wonderful, which is always the best place to start.
“We can be quite rigorous with each other but there’s a fantastic shorthand between us and I do think we work very well together. I think the best work we’ve done has been together, rather than apart. We can problem solve together as well, which you have to do.”
New Blood could be the pair’s best collaboration yet. With music from Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge and a new visual take on London, Horowitz claims “there’s nothing on British television like it – in terms of tone, look, editing, the youth of the two lead actors – it’s really different. It’s very American in some ways in the pacing and ambition of it, and I hope people simply enjoy it.
“It’s not about naked dead women being found tied up in alleyways, it’s not about that sort of brutality and darkness, which I’m not knocking, but I think we’ve now had enough of that. Here is a show that’s got a bit more of a smile. It’s serious when it needs to be, it’s dangerous when it needs to be but isn’t rubbing your face in the underbelly of life. It’s got murder and death but what it hasn’t got is that grubbiness.”