Executive producer Marcel Ferrer outlines a key scene in Spanish-language political drama Preso No 1 (Prisoner No 1), which is produced by Telemundo Global Studios for US network Telemundo. It was co-developed with Keshet International, which distributes with Telemundo.
Preso No 1 (Prisoner No 1) follows a narrative style that is very different from what viewers are used to seeing in a series. It jumps back and forth in time, supplying different pieces of the puzzle of the characters’ stories over the course of three decades.
The story begins in the present, when Carmelo Alvarado (Erik Hayser), the president of Mexico, is arrested on charges of fraud. In a parallel scene, we see Carmelo taking office two years before. This scene sets the tone for the narrative, which unfolds in three different times: the past, the present and the future.
Because of this chronology, the audience doesn’t always understand everything that happens right away. Over time, the story reveals the past that led to the chaos we are witnessing in the present, or even the future. The plot, the conflicts and the political thriller are skilfully laid out in the script. The main conflict that frames the story is the corruption, extortion and abuse of power that characterise the world of politics and spill over into real life.
It’s difficult to choose a single scene that is fundamental to the story. Because of the subject matter, plot structure, and quality of the acting and direction, the series is full of great scenes. As in any production, of course, aspects of the script were adapted to suit the screen. Many scenes posed technical or directorial challenges.
But if I had to name one key scene, it would have to be one that marks a point of no return, when a character has to make a decision that, however small, has the power to change the course of the action.
Coming in episode 29, the scene features a secondary character called Dalia who has the power to free our protagonist, Carmelo. Dalia is an assistant to Judge Linares, who is in charge of Carmelo’s case. Both the judge and the interim president, Rivas Macin, have studied the evidence and it points irrefutably toward Carmelo’s innocence.
This is Carmelo’s only hope, and his freedom seems assured. But the judge makes a sudden about-face and sentences Carmelo to prison, surprising everyone, including Macin.
The key moment comes when Linares visits Dalia at her apartment after announcing the verdict and admits to her that he was blackmailed into finding Carmelo guilty. The judge’s life has been destroyed – his family has abandoned him and he is about to lose his job. Unable to see him in this predicament, Dalia agrees to take the blame for everything.
In a flashback, we see Dalia meeting Linares’ blackmailer and handing over a folder containing compromising information about the judge that will be used to pressure him into the guilty verdict.
This scene, which comes at the middle of story, marks the point of no return. If Dalia had decided not to turn over those papers, Carmelo would have been freed and the story would have gone in another direction, or even reached its conclusion.
The point of no return in a story is crucial because it defines the characters’ destiny and paves the way for the story’s outcome. Usually it is the protagonists who make these key decisions but, in this case, the responsibility falls to a secondary character. Undone by the pressure of the situation and remorse for her actions, Dalia commits suicide.
In the end, she loses, as does Carmelo, who remains in jail. But the story wins, because if Carmelo had been released from prison, the plot would have ended there.
This is the importance of the point of no return and the power to make free decisions in paving the way for the story the writers want to tell.
The co-creators, writers and directors behind HBO’s Israeli drama Our Boys talk about the complex and delicate journey they undertook to dramatise and examine the tragic real-life events that led to war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel – were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas militants, sending shockwaves across Israel. The burned body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, was later found in a forest, leading to weeks of riots in the city.
These events, which left Jewish and Arab communities alike shaken and furious and led to the outbreak of war in Gaza, have now been dramatised in HBO limited series Our Boys. The 10-part drama follows the investigation into Khdeir’s murder, led by Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), an agent from the internal terror division of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency), while the parents of the slain teenager begin their long and anguished journey toward justice and consolation.
A coproduction between HBO and Keshet Studios, Our Boys is produced by Movie Plus and distributed globally by Keshet International. It was created by Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment), Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) and Tawfik Abu Wael (Thirst), who all also write and direct.
Apart from Simon, all the characters featured in the series are based on real people involved in the events.
Here, Levi, Cedar, Wael and lead actor Elkabetz take DQ into the development, writing and production of the series, detailing how they pulled the story together for television and the challenges they faced along the way.
Why was this a story that you wanted to tell on television?
Hagai Levi: I remember the summer of 2014 very well. It was a historic summer. For two-and-a-half weeks, I, like everyone, believed that perhaps the boys would be found alive. I remember where I was when their bodies were found. On July 2, the morning of my birthday (which, as usual, I try to ignore), word quickly spread about an Arab teenager from Shoafat whose body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest. Moments after the shock, another rumour spreads: the boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was murdered by his family because he was a homosexual. The force of my repression arises again: I am amazed at how readily I accept this theory, the extent to which I refuse to believe that the murder could be at the hands of Jews.
From here on, everything happened so fast: sweeping Palestinian riots in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, rockets fired at southern Israel, the bombing of Gaza. Within a week, all the boys were almost forgotten because the war began. I felt that what happened that summer was a story that had to be told. We are artists who make artistic choices but, in this specific case, I found it far more interesting to delve into my own self and not what had been done to me; to dig deep inside in hopes of finding answers that were not too upsetting.
How was the series developed with HBO? Joseph Cedar: In the spring of 2016, Hagai invited me to join him on this show he had already begun developing with Noah Stollman. The mandate from HBO was to find a story that captures the essence of what had happened in Israel in the dramatic and violent summer of 2014.
Tell us how you developed the story. Cedar: After months of research, we finally agreed on the story we felt had the potential to touch – if not fully capture – the endlessly complicated chain of events that led to a full-blown war in the Gaza Strip, one that still reverberates today on many levels in Israeli and Palestinian society. The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, told from the separate perspectives of all the key real-life characters involved, was that story. Shlomi Elkabetz: While Hagai, Joseph and Tawfik were writing Simon, we were talking about him on a daily basis for a few months before we shot the series. What really struck me was that this guy is hunting for the truth. He knows that what he’s looking for is something he will not like, and I was fascinated by this conflict – of somebody who knows that what he finds will designate his own end. In that sense, he is looking for his own death. The reality of the story and the truth he is going to find is something that is going to define him as a murderer, in a way. Because finding the people who killed Muhammad Abu Khdeir means to find the murderer within yourself, and that is something very challenging in acting and storytelling. The process was absolutely fascinating.
How did you represent both sides? Cedar: It quickly became evident we needed a Palestinian partner to tell the Palestinian side of the story. Both Hagai and I are acutely sensitive to external storytelling that tends to become culturally exotic or sensational. Tawfik Abu Wael was the first and only Palestinian partner we considered. Ever since his first film, Atash (Thirst), I have felt Tawfik’s work combines a rare poetic sensibility with an unflinching look at harsh realities. This precise blend also defines our ambition for this show. Tawfik Abu Wael: Joseph and Hagai wanted to give a significant voice to the Palestinian story so reached out to me to write and direct the Palestinian part of the series. Working with them was fascinating and challenging. They’re like two scientists, brilliant and thorough. As an artist from the margins of society, I had to re-invent myself within the demands of the job. It was a profound and infinite creative process, diving into all the layers of the story, with all the tension and difficulty it creates, where they ‘represent’ the Israeli side of the story and I represent the Palestinian side. Eventually, our loyalties were always towards what was more human and towards the artistic truth of the story. That was the common basis of our work.
Why did you choose to mix documentary and dramatisation? Levi: It was very clear from the beginning this was going to be our style. The idea was to create a unifying world where you don’t reveal what is documentary and what isn’t. It was also important for us that the abducted kids and their families would not be characters in the series. That was a decision we made, perhaps because we were too close to them and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Cedar: We are reminding the audience that this is all real. In that sense, Our Boys is not at all like other Israeli shows, such as Fauda. When the riots broke out in Jerusalem after the bodies of the three Jewish teenagers were found, there were tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating on the streets, but there was no way for us to put this on the screen without using this kind of documentary footage that says, ‘This is real.’ We had some obligation to put that on screen.
Episode one begins with the three Israeli teenagers being kidnapped, but the rest of the series focuses on the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and subsequent investigation and trial. Why did you make that decision? Levi: This is a big issue and we discussed it at length. We were drawn to understanding the perpetrators of this murder more than we were interested in understanding the victimhood of our side, and there are two reasons for this. One is that we are on this wheel, where one act causes another. This has been going for years; this is our life. You can stop this wheel anywhere and it’s pretty much the same story. It’s a story of pain turning into revenge.
For us, both dramatically and politically, understanding the aggression is crucial. Understanding the victimhood is not uninteresting, but it’s easier to automatically sympathise with characters who are feeling pain. Focusing on the victimhood creates more acts of revenge. Focusing on the aggression, at least as I see it, speaks to trying to stop it. If you watch further into the series, you’ll find out the perpetrators of this horrible act are so far from anything that anyone would expect. Cedar: It’s easy to say they were extremists, but they’re not. They are just like us. So we tried to understand how this could happen – could it be us? Could it be our children? This is what interests us.
How would you describe the writing and directing process? Levi: I have been a showrunner for many years, so I’m used to cooperating and collaborating with others and then taking the best you can get, and dealing with all of the fights. For [Cedar and Wael], this was their first television experience. Cedar: We argued out every tiny detail as if it were the heart of the show and as if our entire personal and professional identities were resting on the outcome of every argument. Nothing was too small to fight over. But by fighting over ideas, abstract notions and vague opinions tend to crystallise and become distinct. Wael: I reinvented myself into this different process of working, of working with other people. I needed to argue all the time to defend and fight for things I believed. The good thing is that we all had the patience to listen to each other, to fight but not to hit each other. And, like they say in football, everything stayed on the field. Cedar: Tawfik wrote and directed the Palestinian line of this series. I directed the Jewish line of this series. Some scenes had both Palestinian and Jewish characters on set, so it was a bit like a boxing ring – I would coach my Jewish actors on one side of the ring, he would coach his actors on his side. Then they would meet in the middle, and nothing would work!
What were the key elements of the story you wanted to include? Levi: It was very important to us to not make this conflict entertainment. It was also important to us to be responsible and not to use people who are still living with this tragedy – it’s still very fresh, it was only five years ago – to make something fun. The main facts around the crime itself are always true. We invented some personal stories, but not the main story. Wael: It’s a true story; we did a lot of research, but it is a personal interpretation of that truth. Yes, I invented a few things for the drama. The main conflict is that you want to write a good story for all the world to enjoy but, on the other hand, you want to retain the dignity of the people concerned.
How did you overcome challenges in production? Wael: What made it all possible was those people behind the series – its creators who knew how to contain the story’s complexity; the producer who knew how to run everything smoothly, professionally and with endless humanity; the actors who played complex roles and who each gave their time and talent to the series; the cinematographer and two editors who knew how to maintain a distilled form of art while working with three different directors in a charged political story; and all the chiefs and technical crew who worked very hard to make this series what it turned out to be.
What are your ambitions for the series and what do you hope viewers take away from the story? Levi: As a writer, I want to deal with issues that are close to me – issues of introspection. That summer was very shocking to me personally. Something about that time had a great effect on me; it broke and disturbed me. As a former Orthodox Jew, I think that doing soul-searching is something that is really typical of us, and when I write and create a story, there is a certain ethic to which I am committed. I hope the series sparks the right kind of debate.
Israeli action drama When Heroes Fly follows four former friends – veterans of a special forces unit – who reunite for one final mission 11 years after falling out: to find Yaeli, a former lover of one and sister of another.
Their journey will take them deep into the Colombian jungle, but to succeed they must first confront the trauma that tore them apart.
Creator Omri Givon tells DQ about the origins of the show, which was named best series at the inaugural Canneseries event earlier this year and is based on Amir Gutfreund’s book.
Writer/director Givon also talks about why When Heroes Fly holds universal appeal, how he pushed his budget to bring the Colombian jungle to the screen and how Israeli creatives are now looking to work outside their home country.
When Heroes Fly is produced by Spiro Films for Keshet and distributed by Keshet International.
Israeli writer/director Keren Margalit discusses the making of her latest drama Sleeping Bears, which tackles issues of trust, and opens up about the creative process behind her screen work.
Psychologists and therapists are privy to some of their clients’ deepest secrets – so what happens if those secrets are suddenly exposed? That’s the question at the heart of Israeli drama Sleeping Bears, which also asks whether we are able to truly trust the ones we love.
The 10-part series centres on Hadas, a teacher at a school for high-risk pupils, whose world collapses around her when she receives an envelope containing pages from her psychologist Ya’akov Eshel’s diary – papers documenting their private conversations. When Ya’akov is unexpectedly killed in a car crash, Hadas is forced into a desperate search to find the anonymous sender as she faces truths she has kept hidden from her loved ones.
Blending elements of family drama and captivating thriller, it’s the latest series from writer/director Keren Margalit, the award-winning creator of Yellow Peppers, which was adapted in the UK as The A Word. Produced by July August Productions for Keshet Broadcasting, it is distributed by Keshet International.
Margalit first conceived the idea behind Sleeping Bears while working on Yellow Peppers, but it wasn’t until she made the second season of that show that she sat down to work on her latest series. “The idea goes round and round for many years. This is the tendency of ideas,” she says. “You have one and then you go to sleep and it pops up again, and when it pops up for the sixth time, you think there’s probably something there. Even now, there are a million ideas spinning around but I don’t know if they will become something. I had to research it without knowing what it was.”
The idea for the series soon took shape, however, and was boosted by making the central character a teacher – a decision that was inspired by a programme Margalit saw about people who leave their careers to go and work with troubled kids. She subsequently spent time working at a school as a teaching assistant.
Her writing process is dictated by one essential element. “The trick of deadlines is amazing,” she jokes. “You have no money, it’s been too long since your last project, and how long can I run over The A Word, which isn’t mine really. So that was the moment I sat down and started doing this. I have a script editor who works very closely with me and she also shouts at me, and we did it!
“But it took a lot of time this time. I knew the idea, I knew who [sent the secret letter], but I needed to fix the story and this happens through writing. It started to awaken.”
Margalit wrote all 10 episodes herself, an unusual step given the large episode order but one that was necessary, as when she started writing, she didn’t yet know what would happen before the story reached its conclusion.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen so I don’t have anything to give anyone, so I have to do it myself,” she says. “I also hate conflicts, so with myself [directing] I can handle it.”
As for whether she prefers writing or directing, Margalit says: “If I had to choose something, I choose writing but I don’t think I could direct someone else’s script. It’s partly because I continue to write while directing. You bring this story to life and you do that though directing. And I’m making changes on set. On Yellow Peppers, some of the best scenes were created on set. You also need to find what is happening now, what’s happening at the same moment. That’s directing. If there’s another director, he can’t do it because he doesn’t have the freedom to change anything.”
The cast of Sleeping Bears is headed by Noa Koler, who plays Hadas, alongside Yossi Marshak as Hadas’s husband Dari, Ola Schur Selektar as her best friend Iris and Yaakov Zada Daniel as Shai Gabai, the principal of the school where Hadas works.
“When I read the script, I felt many things,” Koler tells DQ. “One of them was fear; it was scary. Could I imagine myself doing these suspense scenes? I fell in love with Hadas – she’s going into a big war and she’s a strong and brave woman, and I don’t consider myself as one. I guess I am in some way, but not like Hadas. Hadas is a very strong woman and she’s at a point where she has to choose how she wants to live her life. I wanted to play that part very badly. I didn’t know if I could do it or do it as well as in the script.”
The actor describes Margalit as “unique, there’s no one like her,” and says she demands her cast give their all to their characters. “She knows what she wants and she can’t stand fakes or phonies or someone never giving themselves truly,” Kooler says. “She feels everything. There’s not a second in the series that is there by mistake. She’s amazing, she’s one of a kind.”
Getting the best performance from her actors is all about using what is happening in the real world to channel their emotions into their character, Margalit says. “You have to look at what’s happening in the moment all the time and not be automatic,” she explains. “There’s always some new condition under the surface. People are very difficult creatures, they’re so full of layers and you have to find the right layer for this approach and what feeling is going on in there. So that’s a nice game for me. Let’s see how we can translate that and make something interesting and different [on screen].”
Koler adds: “It’s an amazing opportunity for me as an actress to have this range of emotions. It’s funny when I have to run – I’m not that sporty, but [my character is] so afraid. And I love that there are some moments of humour in her life. It was very challenging, fun and tough.”
With a career spanning series including BeTipul (In Therapy), autism drama Yellow Peppers and now Sleeping Bears, Margalit tells stories about big things happening to regular people. “People can be larger than life, but these people are the exact same size as life,” she says. “They’re not expecting to do anything brave. Usually they’re very frightened people who prefer to not get into trouble. They hide at home and trouble comes to them and they have to deal with it. It’s their worst nightmare. But Hadas can’t sleep through life, she has to take a stand and fight – that’s what she’s going through.”
Israel, now a notable force on the international scripted scene, is known for creating big drama despite the relatively low budgets broadcasters and producers have to play with. It all means character and emotion are put front and centre of series that force ordinary people to deal with extraordinary circumstances.
“We’re not doing any genre series in Israel about hospitals or lawyers, we don’t have any of that,” observes Keshet Broadcasting’s Karni Ziv. “Part of it is budget but part of it is that the Israeli audience want a story they can connect with for a long time. The Israeli audience wants to fall in love – not watch a police officer solving a crime again and again.
“When you have small budgets, you can’t do big shows and it forces the writer and then the director to find a solution. People want to watch people like them, people they can relate to. Hadas is a teacher, she’s not a prime minister or a spy, and I think it makes it a series that a lot of our audience can relate to.”
Five ordinary people are accused of a high-stakes kidnapping in False Flag, the latest hit series to come out of Israel. As the thriller is rolled out around the world, DQ chats to producer Maria Feldman and writer Amit Cohen about weaving this tangled web of secrets and lies.
It was in October 2015 that Fox Networks Group (FNG) secured a landmark deal for the latest buzzworthy show to come out of Israel, a drama called Kfulmin (False Flag).
That agreement with distributor Keshet International afforded Fox global rights to the eight-part series across 127 countries around the world.
It marked the first ever Israeli drama to be picked up by FNG and, in fact, was the first time FNG had ever acquired a non-English-language series on a global scale.
Now, almost two years later, the series is finally being rolled out around the world. It debuts on Fox UK on July 31.
The gripping espionage thriller opens as breaking-news broadcasts screen CCTV footage of the Iranian minister of defence being abducted from his hotel room during a secret visit to Moscow. The identities of the five kidnappers are also made public – Israelis with dual nationalities who are reportedly part of the country’s intelligence agency, Mossad.
The seemingly ordinary citizens accused of being the kidnappers are stunned to find themselves named in the daring plot, and their attempts at denial are all in vain as the publicity turns their lives upside down and sweeps them up a wave of public attention.
The daring series is inspired by the true events surrounding the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, in Dubai in 2010. Producer Maria Feldman had been thinking about creating a show about Mossad when newspaper coverage of al-Mabhouh’s death was accompanied by the passport photos of Mossad agents linked to the incident.
“Then I said, ‘What if those people were not Mossad agents but just real people who got up one morning and were being accused of being Mossad agents?’” she recalls. “So that’s how it started.”
To develop the story, Feldman partnered with journalist Amit Cohen and together they took their idea to Israeli broadcaster Keshet. This first meeting took place in 2010, not long after the real assassination and five years before the long-gestating series would finally air.
“It was a long project,” Cohen admits. “I was a journalist at the time as the Palestinian correspondent for a big newspaper in Israel and I covered the assassination as part of my work. When Maria approached me with [the idea for False Flag], I admit I didn’t see the drama in it . Only after talking to her and understanding what she had in mind did I start to see the potential.”
Development progressed once they decided to use the kidnapping as the starting point of the story, rather than the story itself, and Cohen wrote every episode himself.
“The writing was the easy part,” he jokes. “Maria and I sat together for meeting after meeting to break the story and to make sure we had completely written characters that made an ensemble. Each one acts differently but is part of a bigger puzzle, and at some point the director [Oded Raskin] came in to give his input. We took our time to make sure we were completely happy with it. The director said at the end that this was a show he would want to watch, and that’s how we treated it. We wanted to do something we would love to sit in the living room and watch, even if someone else made it.”
From the outset, False Flag was a story about characters, and Cohen recalls delivering an eight-page outline to the broadcaster that largely focused on the ensemble cast. Throughout the development process, they and the story remained the same as the writer set out their motivations and desires, with each one reflecting a different strand of Israeli society.
“We wanted to talk about aspects of our society,” Cohen explains. “But when it came to adding the thriller elements, we didn’t want it to feel extravagant – this is why it takes some time before people die or before we see a gun in the show. Keshet bought into the story right from the beginning but they wanted to make sure we had enough [story for the series]. They thought we had a great starting point but wanted to see if we could hold the audience and have three revelations in each episode, not necessarily related to the plot.
“We had things we thought could leave until the end but Keshet said, ‘No, you have to reveal it in episode three or episode one.’ You need a very quick sale or viewers will get bored, and it improved the show because it forced us to find more secrets or make our mechanism more efficient. It really helped.”
Beyond the central plot, Cohen was keen to ensure the concept of a ‘false flag’ – a modern term describing a covert action carried out to appear as if other groups or individuals were responsible – ran throughout the series.
“We use this intelligence jargon as a theme where you see something but you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is right,” he explains, pointing to a scene at the start of episode one when a man and boy are playing with guns. “You think are they assassins but no, they’re father and son and the son is going to the army. So we played with this theme throughout the show – you think you know something, you think you know someone and then we change it. It was how we built secrets during the show. It’s an important part of the show’s DNA. We didn’t want the secrets to be too exaggerated. We wanted it to be ordinary secrets, like someone having an affair. The first part was to find the secrets, and then we had to figure out how to reveal them along the show.”
The revelations come thick and fast during the series, produced by Tender Productions, as the audience is left on edge wondering how the events will play out and whether the central characters really are just ordinary citizens or whether there’s more to their involvement in the kidnapping plot than it appears at first.
“The audience follows our lead in uncovering who is innocent and who is not, and they get a pay-off in each episode when we reveal certain things that are true,” Cohen says. “We were really nervous about it, I have to admit, because there was a question about whether the audience would follow something with so many characters and so many secrets, not only for the plot but emotionally as well. But Keshet decided to go all the way with it.”
From a production point of view, Feldman says the biggest challenge was telling a story from five different perspectives, with the number of locations and additional characters associated with the main ensemble.
Cohen interjects: “In many cases, the writer wants to write whatever he wants and then the producer and the director tell him he can’t do it, particularly in Israel with the low production budgets we have. But on False Flag it was the other way around. I tried to be economic; I tried to write scenes that weren’t expensive. In one scene we have an explosion, so I wrote that it happens on the horizon and we see it from a distance. But they said, ‘Don’t write it cheaply, write it the way you want.’ Shooting at the airport is expensive and I asked if we could do it. They just said, ‘Write it how you want it and we’ll find a way’ – and Maria found a way. All of us were really emotionally invested in the story and the way it looked.”
Casting did present another challenge, however, as Feldman and Cohen sought to avoid hiring big-name talent in order to keep the series grounded. The five central characters comprise Ishai Golan as Ben Rephael, a chemist and family man; Magi Azarzar as Natalie Alfassia, a bride-to-be who sees her face on the news just hours before her wedding; Ania Bukstein as kindergarten teacher Asia Brinditch, the one alleged kidnapper who revels in the immediate media attention; Angel Bonanni as Sean Tilson, who is flying home from a trip to India when he is informed of his new-found notoriety, leading to a suspicious mid-flight haircut; and Orna Salinger as Emma Lipman, a Briton who has just gained Israeli citizenship and has a link to Raphael.
“Almost all the actors who weren’t big names became really famous after the show, and Ania has now been in Game of Thrones [playing priestess Kinvara in season six],” reveals Feldman, describing casting as a “complicated” task. “We had to find the best actor for each role and then we needed to see that they could work as an ensemble. It was a very difficult process but the ensemble works great.”
Two years since False Flag aired to record viewing numbers on Keshet in Israel, Feldman says development on a second season featuring the same investigators hunting new suspects is well underway. Shooting is set to begin soon for an early 2018 release.
With its debut on Fox around the world imminent, the series looks set to become the next global hit from a country that has previously launched Hatufim (Prisoners of War, later adapted as Homeland), BeTipul (In Treatment), Fauda and Hostages to critical and popular acclaim.
Feldman puts the global success of Israeli drama down to their focus on stories and characters, while Cohen adds: “They feel very realistic and very grounded – this is something the Israeli audience demands. They want to see themselves and their families, so it forces writers, producers and directors to do something that appeals to most people. The fact we can’t use a lot of action or car chases [because of low budgets] forces us to put our focus on characters, stories and plot.”
Writer-director Nikkhil Advani discusses the process of adapting Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which became Homeland in the US, for Indian audiences.
When it comes to successful US remakes of foreign-language dramas, there aren’t many bigger hits than Homeland.
Based on Hatufim, the Israeli series about three soldiers who return home after 17 years in captivity, the story was transplanted to Washington DC as CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) investigated whether returning prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) was planning a terrorist attack on American soil.
Currently in its sixth season, the series has been renewed by US premium cable network Showtime through to season eight, which co-creator Alex Gansa has reportedly said will be the series finale.
Hatufim has now spawned another remake, this time in India, following a deal with Hatufim distributor Keshet International. POW Bandi Yuddh Ke (Prisoners of War India) follows two Indian soldiers who were captured 17 years previously while on a mission with their unit during the Kargil conflict in Kashmir. They return home and must re-adjust to life with their families, while a secret investigation seeks to uncover the truth about their capture.
The series – produced by filmmaker Nikkhil Advani’s Emmay Entertainment and also distributed by Keshet International – debuted on India’s Star Plus in November 2016, with seasons one and two running to 110 episodes. It concluded last month.
Writer-director Advani, who oversaw the project, tells DQ how the drama arrived in India, the approach the writers took and the similarities and differences between POW Bandi Yuddh Ke and the original series on which it was based.
How was Prisoners of War brought to India? Nikkhil Advani: Star Plus has been a pioneer and always sets the benchmark in bringing some of the most thought-provoking shows and progressive characters to the homes of Indian families. When I saw the show [Hatufim] I was totally blown away. Although it’s called Prisoners of War and it tells the story of prisoners that have returned from captivity, it also deals with the wives, the children, the people who have been living in limbo unable to move forward with their lives as they are waiting for closure and clarity about their lost loved ones. In a sense, the people left behind are also prisoners of the same war.
Moreover, it was the channel’s initiative to bring this show to its audience before they approached me to work on it. The story strikes a chord emotionally with every Indian, and with a platform like Star Plus, it was possible to ensure that the story reached the masses.
How was the story developed for the network Star Plus?
In terms of sparking the spirit of patriotism and keeping the audience on a razor’s edge, it’s not different from Hatufim. In every detail it is parallel to its contemporaries in international markets as these emotions transcend geographies.
What is starkly different [in the Indian version of Hatufim] is the characters and the relationship dynamics of Sartaj and Harleen, and Imaan and Nazneen. The role that the women play in these relationships and their spirit is representative of the strength of Indian woman. The personal conflicts and relationship dynamics have been created in line with the Indian ethos. The cultural unit of a family and their imprisonment is what makes you wonder, “Who is the real POW?” The emotions were kept so that it’s relatable to every Indian family and uniquely Indian.
How has the original Israeli version influenced the Indian version?
Hatufim is a legendary show in Israel, so the pressure of making it work and adapting it correctly to everyone’s satisfaction was paramount in my mind. The reaction that Gideon Raff [the creator of Hatufim] had when he saw the pilot episode gave me a lot of confidence.
Of course, we have a historical enmity with our neighbour Pakistan, which echoes the Israel-Lebanon/Palestine conflict. As a result, the adaptation became almost too easy to do. It’s the cultural differences and the role of the women that has been a challenge, but I think my writing team has managed to pull that off. Like I said earlier, the women and the children have also been prisoners of the same war.
What elements did you introduce to make the show more appealing for Indian viewers?
Human emotions and drama. The show is beautifully entwined between human drama and the spirit of patriotism. Television gives you a platform to explore the depths and complexities of human emotions and relationships. The journey of these characters and the emotional graph, given the thriller backdrop, will have high viewer involvement and have to be told with time.
The series is fast-paced and has a logical, finite ending and hence the story spans a period of five months only. A large-scale, high-octane family drama with a thriller backdrop, the story takes the viewers through the journey of the lives of the two couples, Harleen and Sartaj, and Nazneen and Imaan, and the aftermath of the return of the war heroes following 17 years in captivity.
How would you describe the writing process?
The writing team has been constantly working to compile details and create a real-life experience for actors as well as viewers. Right from the medals on the army uniforms to the coded and crisp language used by the agents, the costumes while at war, the hairstyles, the shoes and other props, all have been aligned accurately to allow the viewers to travel into the world of Kargil in every episode.
The cast went through various workshops and readings. The male actors had to train with guns and understand the nuances of fight sequences. Manish Chaudhuri, who plays a sceptic in the show and has worked with me on [movie] D-Day, helped the team prepare for their roles.
We carefully based the story in North India, showcasing the culture and viewpoint of the rural and urban in the locations. To retain the authenticity and flavour of real locations, we have shot across multiple cities including Delhi, Karnal, Mumbai and Patiala.
Who are the lead cast members and what do they bring to the series?
We have Purab Kohli playing Sartaj Singh, Satyadeep Misra playing Imaan Khan, Sandhya Mridul playing Nazneen Khan, Amrita Puri as Harleen Singh and Manish Choudhari as Vikram Singh – the lead roles in the show.
They bring their immense experience in theatre and movies, their attitude of getting into the skin of the character and their sincerity and hard work towards giving excellent performances. The two leading ladies, by the end of the show, were able to cry at the drop of a hat and their emotions towards the characters stayed with them even after the shoot was over.
These actors understood the milieu and the ‘zone’ and helped me to push the show to the next level as a director. Everyone we have cast has been applauded and received accolades for sterling performances in the films they have worked on.
Where was the series filmed and how were locations used in the script?
Delhi, Patiala, Karnal and Kamalistan Studio in Mumbai. All these cities are in India.
What were the biggest challenges during production?
The only challenge I had in mind was to do justice to Hatufim and my own series, POW Bandi Yuddh ke – to ensure the sentiment and essence of the show maintained the message that we wanted to take to every Indian.
What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
I want the audiences to be moved and identify with the emotions that the characters are going through, and at the same time be placed on a razor’s edge. I want the audience to be yearning for the next day, the next episode and for everyone associated with the show to hold their head high and say we did something special.
What are you working on next?
Emmay Entertainment is working on two other productions, the films Lucknow Central and Oonchaiyaan. Bazaar [a movie about the world of stock markets] will kick off this year.
Writer/director Emily Diana Ruth tells DQ about her digital drama Cold, which is being screened as part of the Drama Series Days at the European Film Market.
A 16-year-old girl is at the centre of a tragic family mystery in Cold, a digital drama being screened at this year’s European Film Market in Berlin.
The 10×12’ thriller stars Annalise Basso (pictured top) as Isla Wallis, who discovers her real father is in prison for killing the mother she never knew. Furious at this revelation, she runs away to the mining town where she was born, only to learn of a series of horrific murders that may be linked to her mother’s death.
With the help of her friend Isla, she begins to uncover the truth behind these brutal crimes. But when she is left for dead in the sub-zero wilderness, she faces a battle to survive long enough to expose a dark secret that will shatter an entire town.
The cast also includes Todd Lowe, Jim True-Frost and Marcus Johns.
Produced by New Form Digital and distributed globally by Keshet International, the series made its debut in the US on Verizon’s Go90 platform in October 2016. Keshet is screening it this week as part of the European Film Market’s Drama Series Days 2017.
Here, creator Emily Diana Ruth tells DQ about the origins of the series, how Go90 picked it up and why the its setting was key to the story’s success.
How would you describe Cold and what’s the main story?
Cold is the story of Isla, an adopted teenager who seeks out a face-to-face meeting with her birth father when she discovers that he is still alive – and in prison serving a life sentence for the murder of her mother. When she makes it to the small northern town where she was meant to grow up, she begins to question the validity of that verdict and starts unravelling a mystery that remained buried for the last decade.
What were the origins of the project?
I was given the opportunity a couple of years ago to pitch a project for New Form Digital’s second Incubator series. It was supposed to be an idea that could exist as a standalone short film but the storyline could be extrapolated for a series as well. I’ve always loved mysteries and wanted to get a chance to try that but also to create something that worked as a coming-of-age story. We made the short on a modest budget in my hometown with a bunch of my friends and family. It was a great chance to explore character and a tone before making the series.
When did Verizon’s go90 become involved and how did the demands of the platform change the show’s development?
I found out Verizon had given the show a series order a couple of months after it was made live on YouTube. I was thrilled but naturally a bit terrified of what was to come, knowing that all projects like this have many obstacles and not knowing what exactly they would be, having not worked on a project of this size and budget before. Making this into a series that would be rolling out week by week was the biggest challenge about this platform – it was necessary to make every episode end on somewhat of a cliffhanger to keep people coming back the next week.
How did you juggle writing, producing and directing duties?
Luckily the only job I had to do entirely on my own was the directing – I had several writers I worked with, and although I have a producer credit, I also worked with three producers who had their own team so I never had to wear too many hats.
Where was the show filmed and how did you use locations to tell the story?
We filmed the show in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. I knew the location would be key in providing context for what kind of place these characters lived in and how it formed their identity. I wanted to be as true to rural Ontario life as possible, so it was important for me to shoot there. We also shot all of our reserve scenes on an actual reserve in the greater Sudbury area. This was a location that I was hell-bent on showing as authentically as possible, so we were pleased they allowed us to use their land. We also used a lot of shots of the wide sprawling woods and frozen lakes in the area to give a sense of how middle-of-nowhere this town was.
Who are the key members of the cast and how did you collaborate with them to bring their characters to life?
I got to work with an exceptional cast and I am so thankful for that. Our lead, Annalise Basso, was talented and professional beyond her years and really came through to help bring her character to life, despite very fast-moving days. Getting to work with seasoned actors like Jim True-Frost and Todd Lowe was also so exciting and I learned so much from them. I admit I was intimidated to be directing them but they were both lovely and treated me so respectfully.
Marcus Johns and Kawannahere Devery Jacobs rounded out the rest of the key cast. Marcus was somewhat new to acting on this scale but was really fun to work with and nailed his performance. I was thrilled that I was able to work with Devery, since she was always who I pictured as her character, Tina. She’s such a badass character and getting to see Tina and Isla’s friendship blossom on screen was my favourite.
Because we were filming so remotely and could only bring actors up for a limited time, our rehearsals were very brief and mostly consisted of talking though the material and the characters, and seeing what things in our personal lives we could draw upon for certain scenes. I always like to be very collaborative with my cast and invite them to bring their own versions of the character into the mix.
What were the biggest challenges during production and how did you overcome them?
Easily the biggest challenge was lack of time, which is often the case on these kinds of projects. We had a set number of shoot days despite an ever-more complex script. This meant our days were very packed and we had to constantly move very fast. We overcame this, or tried to, by simplifying our setups, being as economical as possible with our shot list and keeping everyone in good spirits. My assistant director Jeremy Doiron helped immeasurably with this – despite having the hardest job, he was always in a positive mood and helped me and my director of photography to lead our teams to get things done well and in time.
What are you working on next? Could Cold have a sequel or perhaps transition into a longer-running series elsewhere?
I would love to get a chance for a sequel or to make Cold into a TV show or even a film. I think most directors are never totally satisfied with their work and will usually jump at a chance to give it another swing. I love the Cold world and know I could do so much more with it. Right now I’m working on lining up my next digital project as well as writing the screenplay of what I hope will be my first feature.
Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.
The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.
The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.
For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”
The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”
With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.
The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.
The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.
In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.
Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.
It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).
Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”
Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.
Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”
Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.
Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.
Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”
On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.
This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).
The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.
Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.
Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.
“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.
HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”
The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”
Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).
Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.
Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.
This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.
Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.
Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.
Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”
The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.
There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.
Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”
Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.
Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”
Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.
There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”
The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.
Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.
If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.
And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.
Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.
“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”
There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”
The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.
This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.
The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.
“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”
From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”
This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”
The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.
So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”
Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.
Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”
Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.
Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.
Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.
It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”
The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.
“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”
Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”
French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”
Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”
Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”
Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”
Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”
Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”
Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.
There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.
Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”
A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”
Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.
With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.
Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”
The 2016 Primetime Emmys didn’t spring too many surprises when its winners were unveiled at the weekend. One of the top performers on the night was HBO’s magnificent Game of Thrones (GoT), which was named Best Drama for the second year running.
Aside from being one of US cable TV’s most-watched series ever, it has now broken the record for the highest number of Emmys won by any fictional series (38, beating Frasier’s 37).
GoT’s two showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, also picked up Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the season six’s Battle of the Bastards. This follows their win in 2015 for the exceptional Mother’s Mercy episode.
The big irony surrounding GoT, of course, is that there is such a schism between the progress of the TV series and the progress of the books it is based on. The novels’ author George RR Martin is, much to the consternation of his fans, taking an eternity to finish his magnum opus.
But the end of the show is now just two seasons away and there is no question that Martin will still be tapping away at his keyboard when Benioff and Weiss’s TV adaptation concludes in 2018 with season eight.
For those of us who fell in love with GoT as a written work, that creates a conundrum regarding the story’s closure.
HBO also has a conundrum, which is what to do when its most popular show by far ends. It seems so unlikely that HBO would let such an important franchise slip through its fingers that everyone remotely interested in GoT is speculating on whether there is scope for a prequel.
When this subject came up after the latest batch of Emmy wins, Martin kept that possibility open – with a proviso. “I do have thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of material there and I’m writing more,” he said, before adding: “At the moment we still have this show to finish and I still have two books to finish, so that’s all speculation.”
If there is a prequel, however, it seems Benioff and Weiss have already decided they won’t be involved. In response to questions about the idea, Benioff said: “You might want to ask George about that. It’s a great world that George created. I think it’s a very rich world, and I’m sure there will be other series set in Westeros but, for us, this is it.”
Of course, this means HBO actually has two challenges – how to keep the spirit of GoT alive and how to hold on to Benioff and Weiss. Maybe it’s time for a Lord of the Rings reboot…
Another writer to go home with an Emmy last weekend was DV DeVincentis for Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – an episode of FX’s excellent series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special). All told, The People vs OJ won nine Emmys from 22 nominations, making it the top performer on the night.
DeVincentis wrote three of the show’s 10 episodes and was part of a writing team led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Echoing an increasingly common theme in the TV business, his previous credits are mostly movies (but with some extended career gaps).
He co-wrote the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and then penned the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity (also starring Cusack) in 2000. Short-lived TV series Dead Last (2001) and movie Lay the Favourite (2012) followed. The latter, which didn’t review well, reunited him with director Stephen Frears, with whom he worked on High Fidelity. Now he’s in the TV big league, but there is no news yet on his next scripted project.
The winner of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series was Netflix’s Master of None, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. This makes it a good year for SVoD comedy, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle picking up a Golden Globe in early 2016.
While Ansari, the star of the show, is by far the better known of the two, Yang put himself firmly in the spotlight this week with an Emmy acceptance speech that pleaded for more diversity – but immediately managed to stir up a controversy on the subject.
He said: “There’s 17 million Asian Americans, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong [a character from Sixteen Candles regarded as a racist stereotype by the Asian community]. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you can do me a favour: just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll all be good.”
While Yang’s intentions can’t be faulted, the sensitivity of the diversity issue was underlined when his comments received a disapproving response from The National Italian American Foundation, which said it was “disturbed by the very public degradation of Italian American history. Mr Yang listed what he considered to be notable representations of Italian Americans in the entertainment industry citing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. Mr Yang’s comments, while meant to point out the under-representation of Asian Americans in film, ended up including a reckless disregard for Italian Americans by citing films that portray Italian Americans as violent, dim-witted, and involved with organised crime – all three – and insensitive stereotypes that in no way reflect the lives of everyday Italian Americans.”
Away from the Emmys, Channel 4 in the UK and NBCUniversal-owned comedy streaming channel Seeso have announced there will be a second season of Flowers, a dark dysfunctional dramedy that stars Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, the show was created by Will Sharpe.
Sharpe is best-known as an actor (Casualty, Sherlock, Dirk Gently), with Flowers his first significant breakthrough on the writing front. Commenting on the re-commission, he said: “Channel 4, Kudos, Seeso and [executive producer] Naomi de Pear have all been such supportive partners on this show and I’m very excited about working with them on another series of Flowers.”
C4 deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans added: “Covering complex issues like fidelity, mental health, sexuality and fraying family bonds, Will Sharpe’s hilariously awkward and heart-breaking show offers another unmissable look at the Flowers’ messed up world. Will’s scripts and the show’s perfect cast are so brilliant at making you wail with laughter one minute, and well up the next.”
Also this month, French production group Newen and the distribution and production arm of Keshet Media Group, Keshet International (KI), unveiled a drama development initiative for French and Israeli writers of high-end drama series. The two companies are calling for professional writers to submit proposals and projects in either English or Hebrew for unique one-hour or half-hour drama series with appeal for European audiences.
The initiative is being led by Atar Dekel, head of global scripted coproductions and Nelly Feld, KI sales director for Europe, on behalf of KI, and Sandra Ouaiss, Newen head of coproductions.
Dekel said: “Within KI’s aim to grow its global drama coproductions, we are excited to be partnering up with a company as prestigious as Newen. This is a unique opportunity for the creative communities in both France and Israel to take their local stories to the international stage. There is a keen appetite in the global market for Israeli and French scripted content and we hope this collaboration will instigate several high-end international coproductions.”
The submission period began on September 6 and ends on October 31 this year. Each candidate may submit a maximum of two projects via the KI or Newen websites (where full terms and conditions are available). The firms have committed to selecting at least one and up to three projects that they will co-develop and coproduce if appropriate. The finalists will be announced in January 2017 and given the opportunity to work with an experienced European showrunner.
Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.
Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).
This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.
20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).
Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.
More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.
Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”
Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.
We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.
The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.
Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.
Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.
Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.
Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”
Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”
A few years ago, Israeli producers started to make serious inroads into the US market with local adaptations of their dramas. Exemplified by shows like In Treatment, Traffic Light and Homeland, we looked at this trend in a column in June 2015.
Subsequently, Israel has also started to have notable successes in other parts of the world. A good example is Keshet International (KI)’s The A Word, a comedy drama adapted by the BBC in the UK. Having secured strong ratings in BBC1 primetime, the show has now been recommissioned for a second season and is being adapted for the Greek market. It has also been licensed to broadcasters including Sundance in the US, CBC (Canada), BBC First (Australia) and, ironically perhaps, pay TV broadcaster YES in Israel.
It’s not just Israeli adaptations that are winning over buyers. Original Hebrew-language dramas have also started to generate interest. In October 2015, for example, Fox International Channels acquired KI drama False Flag – the first time it had bought a non-English-language scripted series for use on a global scale.
Federation Entertainment and Armoza Formats, meanwhile, have had a lot of joy selling Hebrew-language series Hostages internationally, and there is also an English-language version of the show. Additionally, Endemol Shine International recently sold Israeli thriller Mossad to Turner Latin America.
This week, there was another positive development for Hebrew-language drama, with the news that Channel 4 in the UK is to air Endemol’s Israel-produced comedy-drama The Baker and the Beauty – the first time C4 has ever aired an Israeli drama in its original form. The show, distributed by KI, was picked up earlier this year for use on the C4-backed foreign-language VOD service Walter Presents. But airing on C4’s main channel means it will get much greater exposure in the UK market.
The show, which has been adapted for Greece, The Netherlands and Russia, is a top performer in Israel and has been greenlit for a second season. It follows the love story between a female celebrity and a baker who still lives with his parents. A chance encounter results in their romance, but the big question is whether their relationship can survive her jet-setting lifestyle, her overbearing agent, his unworldly family, both their exes and media intrusion.
Elsewhere this week, there are reports that Sony PlayStation is cancelling superhero drama Powers after two seasons. The news was broken on Twitter by creator Brian Michael Bendis.
this is hard to tweet, but word is that @POWERStheSERIES is sadly, no more. season 2 was the last. at least for now. 1/2
The ‘at least for now’ may mean Bendis is planning to look for another network home for Powers. But the show has not been especially well received by critics, so a season three revival seems unlikely. At least Bendis can console himself with the fact that Powers will continue in comic book form with Marvel.
Powers was PlayStation’s first original drama commission, so the fact that it has been cancelled may signal that the Sony-owned gaming platform is pulling back from investment in television. That wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that Sony is now ploughing money into scripted productions for Crackle.
Another show in trouble this week is Houdini & Doyle, which we have discussed before in this column. The show’s first season aired on ITV Encore in the UK and Fox in the US earlier this year, drawing modest ratings. Fox has now said it won’t recommission it, so it remains to be seen if ITV will go searching for other partners to keep the franchise alive.
This week also saw the conclusion of The Secret Agent on BBC1. The three-part miniseries was an adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s finest novels. As far as I can tell, it’s the first Conrad TV adaptation since Nostromo in 1997. The Secret Agent itself was previously adapted as a film in 1996, with Bob Hoskins.
I was very much looking forward to the production – because Conrad is one of my favourite authors and lead actor Toby Jones (Verloc) is one of my favourite actors. But it seems to have missed its mark with the audience. The first episode came in below the slot average, which doesn’t bode well for the next two episodes (the ratings aren’t in yet). It also scored just 5.8 on IMDb, which is low. And entertainment critics weren’t exactly enthusiastic.
There appear to be two key problems with the show. The first is that the story is so bleak, a point well articulated by Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph. The second is that Conrad novels are not structured in a way that lends themselves to adaptation. So often in his works, key pieces of action happen early and then become the basis for extended psychological studies. This is very different, for example, from a Thomas Hardy novel – where there is usually a powerful setup, some unexpected twists and turns and a dramatic conclusion.
The strength of the acting and writing certainly make The Secret Agent worth watching – it’s only three hours long, after all. But the show should be a warning to anyone thinking of adapting other Conrad novels. Those tempted should probably focus on his sea stories – and should perhaps look for a contemporary setting (echoing the way Francis Ford Coppola created Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness). Anyone interested in following up on this subject should see this Guardian article.
Finally this week, Starz Digital, the on-demand licensing arm of US cable network Starz, has licensed comedy-horror series Ash vs Evil Dead to Amazon in Germany. The first season of the show was a big hit for Starz in the US, reaching 8.7 on IMDb. Season two will hit US screens on October 2, while Amazon’s deal will see it air season one next month.
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
The A Word is a six-part drama that tells the story of a family struggling to come to terms with their youngest son’s autism diagnosis. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it is coproduced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK for BBC1, and has also been acquired by SundanceTV in the US. Both the original and the adaptation are distributed by Keshet International. Here, writer Peter Bowker and director Peter Cattaneo describe their favourite scenes from the opening episode.
With so much time-shifted viewing taking place these days, you can understand why TV executives get frustrated when scripted shows are judged on the basis on their same-day audience.
Same-day ratings are a good indicator of a show’s social currency but have little value as the basis of a renewal decision.
This point is well illustrated by US cable data for the week of February 8 to 14, which makes it clear some shows are being saved up for later viewing.
A good example is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which is expected to earn the greenlight for a second season soon. For the week in question, its same-day audience was 801,000. But after seven days this had risen 164% to 2.1 million.
Similarly impressive were USA Network’s Colony, which recorded a 129% rise from 1.07 million to 2.46 million; Showtime’s Billions, which rose 115% from 1.01 million to 2.17 million; American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson, up 112% from 3.88 million (same day) to 8.26 million (live+7); and USA Networks hit Suits, up 99% from 1.7 million to 3.4 million.
The one criticism you can make of seven-day ratings is that they suggest a lack of urgency on the part of the audience to watch a show. Compare the above results with The Walking Dead, for example, which recorded a 45% rise from 13.7 million to 19.98 million over the course of the first week. A key reason why the time-shifted viewing figure is lower here is that audiences can’t wait to discover who is next to succumb to the dreaded ‘walkers’ – and perhaps avoid dreaded spoilers. Still, the best advice is to avoid immediate judgement of a show.
Elsewhere in the US, the big story of the week is that CBS has just renewed its hugely popular procedural NCIS for two more seasons (taking the show up to 15 seasons). Echoing the point made above, a salutary lesson from this show is that the first few seasons, while not bad, weren’t massive ratings winners. The show only really started to pick up momentum in season three and four before going into overdrive in season six.
These days NCIS continues to deliver huge ratings and has also spawned a spin-off – NCIS: New Orleans. Given that NBC is also having a lot of success with Dick Wolf’s Chicago procedurals, you can’t help thinking that US networks might start putting a bit more effort into finding the next big police/lawyer/hospital show.
One programme whose future is completely in the balance is The Mysteries of Laura, an NBC drama about a policewoman trying to juggle her home life with her work responsibilities. The show has just finished its second season with modest ratings and there is no word yet on whether it will be renewed by the network. The general consensus is that it could go either way.
There are two reasons why this matters. The first is that it is a female-led show, so renewal on modest ratings might give us a clue as to NBC’s intentions regarding gender-balance. The other is that the show is actually a format, based on a Spain’s Los Misterios de Laura (TVE 2009-2014).
European drama formats don’t often manage to survive for very long in the US so it would be nice to see this one get renewed. That might persuade other networks to keep the faith with format-based shows. Too many early cancellations of scripted formats isn’t great news for anyone trying to crack the US.
Still on the subject of international formats, one of the week’s big stories is that Indian entertainment channel Star Plus has ordered a local version of Keshet International (KI) format Prisoners of War (aka Hatufim), which was famously remade as Homeland in the US. The Indian version will be produced by Emmay Entertainment and directed by Nikkhil Advani, a Bollywood director whose credits include Kal Ho Na Ho, D-Day, Delhi Safari and Katti Batti.
Created, written and directed by Gideon Raff, Prisoners of War follows two soldiers as they attempt to re-adjust to their lives after returning home from 17 years in captivity. Aside from the US deal, it has already been licensed for adaptation in South Korea (Star J Entertainment), Russia (Weit Media) and Turkey (Medyapim). In the context of India, you could easily imagine a plot involving soldiers who have been imprisoned in Pakistan.
KI distribution MD Keren Shahar said: “The versatility of the format is evident, since it has attracted a dedicated following anywhere it has aired in the world. Securing this deal with a highly esteemed partner is indicative of KI’s future ambitions in India.”
Still looking overseas, we’re now just a month away from MipTV. The international programme market, held in Cannes, has always played a big role in whether scripted shows manage to attract the attention of buyers. And now it is building on that position by increasing the number of drama screenings it hosts.
At this year’s MipTV, titles given screenings include Bodo (TVP Poland), Bordertown (Fox US), Ku’Damm 56 – Rebel With a Cause (ZDF Enterprises), Medici: Masters of Florence (Wild Bunch), Roots (A&E US), Section Zero (Studiocanal), The A Word (Keshet) and Victoria (ITV). A solid performance for any of these shows down in Cannes could provide a useful boost to their international sales prospects.
One other series that rates a mention is the Canadian half-hour comedy Schitt’s Creek, which has just been renewed for a third season by CBC Canada. The decision comes despite the fact that the second season is only four episodes in. More good news for Schitt’s Creek is that the third season has also been picked up by US cable network Pop (a JV between CBS and Lionsgate).
Pop is yet to air the second season of the show, which centres on a wealthy family that suddenly finds itself broke and forced to live in Schitt’s Creek, a small town they once bought as a joke. Eugene and Daniel Levy co-created and star in the comedy. The third season renewal will also be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which distributes.
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.
Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?
The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.
Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.
Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.
As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.
Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.
But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.
The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.
But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.
So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.
During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”
Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”
However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”
Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”
And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.
Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”
Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.
If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.