Keshet UK’s head of drama Howard Burch reveals the story behind Channel 4 and AMC comedy-drama Loaded, about four friends who suddenly become millionaires.
In the motoring industry, they call it ‘platform sharing.’ If you’re driving a Mercedes M-Class, you are essentially driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The two vehicles may look very different, but they share the same ‘platform,’ or chassis. Underneath its sleek skin, the Cherokee is really a highly modified M-Class, sharing the latter’s efficient structure and sophisticated suspension.
Such sharing is common practice throughout the car industry and it’s becoming more and more successful in the scripted TV business too. Reformatting foreign series – taking the ‘chassis’ of a foreign hit and remodelling it for a domestic market – has exploded since the success of Homeland, which was based on the ground-breaking Keshet drama Prisoners of War.
For the automotive business, it’s a way of saving money and sharing expertise, whereas in the TV industry it’s about tapping into and exploiting an engaging narrative that has already undergone a considerable development process – and, in most cases, a sizeable bit of audience research.
Outside of novel adaptations or true stories, the overseas scripted series market is yet another stone to look under for homegrown hits. The US has a long history of taking foreign shows – even English-language programmes – and remaking them for a domestic audience, and now British and European broadcasters are doing the same.
The Bridge begat Sky’s The Tunnel, Keshet’s Yellow Peppers led to the BBC’s The A Word, and Channel 4’s Humans is the bastard offspring of the Swedish show Real Humans.
Some reformats are virtual cut-and-paste copies of their overseas progenitors, with London replacing Stockholm or Berlin and English dialogue replacing cumbersome and mainstream audience-averse Hebrew or French subtitles. Others are more thorough overhauls, where the kernel or key concept at the core of the foreign series is kept but the local adaptor brings their own unique creative vision to the characters, setting and themes.
A case in point is our new comedy-drama Loaded, based on the hit Keshet show Mesudarim, which was written by Muli Segev and Assaf Harel. The UK series, which launches tonight and is distributed by Keshet International, is a coproduction between Keshet UK, Hillbilly Television, Channel 4 and US cable network AMC, which will air the show later this year. It is written by Jon Brown, whose other credits include Veep, Fresh Meat and Babylon.
Loaded’s original premise is universal but now it feels uniquely British, with the show tackling the awkwardness and first-world problems that arise when you become a millionaire in your early 30s.
Jim Howick, Samuel Anderson, Jonny Sweet and Nick Helm play the four tech entrepreneurs and childhood friends who become millionaires overnight when they sell their start-up video game company. Mary McCormack co-stars as the VP of acquisitions at the firm’s new parent company.
Keshet UK is very much a fully fledged indie, producing and developing original ideas. However, when Loaded was initially being developed as an adaption for the British market, we looked towards a coproduction, as we did with The A Word. After a small but select beauty contest of potential suitors, we decided to work with the Bafta-winning Hillbilly Television on the series. Their response to the brief was the most exciting and they already had an existing relationship with Jon Brown.
Working with Polly Leys and Kate Norrish from Hillbilly was a truly collaborative process, with terrific input from both Roberto Troni and Lee Mason at Channel 4, as well as our inspirational and supportive co-exec Kristin Jones at AMC. Throw in an experienced producer and three directors, and you end up with a lot of voices around the table, but luckily there was consensus on the big decisions. Many an hour was spent off-set discussing what was funny, what worked, what moved – and whether a Toby jug would mean anything to anybody in America.
Leys says: “We loved Mesudarim when we saw it and thought it had real potential as a change format. The setup of four ordinary blokes running their own company, which sells for millions, was a starting point we really connected to. It was warm, funny and a great way to explore male friendship. But we knew we couldn’t do a line-by-line adaptation, it just wouldn’t have translated.
“For a start, we have less sunshine than Israel and the British have very idiosyncratic attitudes to money and success. Instead, we took the premise and told our showrunner [Jon Brown] to go in whichever direction he wanted. Apart from the running time [original episodes were 30 minutes as opposed to our 60 minutes], one of the other key differences is that we were very keen to boost the female characters. It was great to work with Keshet UK on this, who trusted us completely and helped us create a fresh, original series. Together, we’re really proud of the resulting show.”
Some foreign shows are never going to travel far beyond their own borders, because they are too culturally specific or parochial. Humour, we are forever being told, plays differently in different territories. But a good idea is a good idea the world over and, in an age of a voracious global appetite for more and more varied dramas and comedies from an explosion of buyers both domestic and international, having access to an overseas scripted catalogue is proving to be a godsend.
It’s not the be-all and end-all, and local broadcasters are always going to want to pick and choose, balancing the number of reformats and adaptations on their schedules with original pieces from home-grown voices. But at the end of the day, a successful reformat is always going to be packaged and sold to the consumer as a wholly original series. The average viewer isn’t going to know where the series came from or how it has evolved. As a must-see drama, it simply needs to excite and appeal, as would a shiny new car in a showroom.
Look beneath the bonnet, however, and you might spot that your Audi A3 shares more similarities to the Skoda Octavia than you first thought.
One of the UK’s most popular dramas, Call the Midwife, has been renewed for three more seasons. The feel-good show, created by Neal Street Productions for BBC1, launched in 2012 and has so far run for five seasons. The new commission means three more lots of eight episodes as well as the bonus of three Christmas specials.
Commenting on the BBC’s heavyweight backing for the show, which reflects a trend in TV towards multi-series commissions, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “I’m privileged to have Britain’s most popular drama series on BBC1, and this new three-series commission underlines our commitment. Call the Midwife continues to raise the bar with each series and is really valued by audiences. The quality and ambition of the storytelling is credit to the excellence of writer Heidi Thomas, who has brought the show into the 1960s with a diverse range of subjects.”
To date, the show has attracted an average of around 10 million viewers per episode each season. So far it has been rooted in the 1950s but will now tackle the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Heidi Thomas, creator, writer and executive producer of the show, said: “In the 1960s Britain was a country fizzing with change and challenge, and there is so much rich material – medical, social and emotional – to be explored. We have now delivered well over 100 babies on screen and, like those babies, the stories keep on coming!”
Interestingly, the recommission comes at a time when more and more executives in the industry are calling for entertaining, feel-good dramas. ITV director of TV Kevin Lygo recently told the audience at a Bafta event in the UK that he wanted to see more “happy, life-affirming dramas,” adding: “I’m a bit tired of endless murders where in the first five minutes someone, always a woman or a child, is abducted, raped, knifed, killed or bludgeoned.”
Networks that have invested in feel-good shows have generally secured strong ratings. ITV, for example, enjoyed success with The Durrells, which Lygo said “was a positive thing, a happy, well-made, brilliantly performed show – perfect for Sunday evening.”
His network has recommissioned The Durrells and is also about to launch another feel-good show called The Good Karma Hospital. Produced by Tiger Aspect, the programme is set in a coastal town in tropical South India. It follows the story of a British-Asian junior doctor who arrives at the run-down Good Karma Hospital to join a dedicated team of over-worked medics.
The feel-good factor is also producing some positive results in the US this season. The best example of this is NBC’s comedy drama This Is Us, which launched this year. Eight episodes in, the show is attracting a rock-solid 9-9.5 million viewers and is generally regarded as one of the best new dramas of the year.
It’s too soon to call this a trend but there are a few other shows that suggest the US audience is receptive to shows that put a positive spin on life’s challenges. In the comedy arena, we’ve seen breakout hits like Modern Family, The Goldbergs (both ABC) and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), while in drama there have been successes like The CW’s Jane the Virgin and TV Land’s Younger. The latter show, which was recently renewed for a fourth season, is the channel’s top performer with an audience in the 500,000 to 600,000 range.
Around the world, the emphasis still tends to be on crime series, with France and Italy in particular making their mark with hard-boiled series such as Spiral and Gomorrah respectively, to name a couple.
Indeed, The Economist went as far as calling Italian political drama “the new Nordic Noir.” But there is a decent array of international shows that can be categorised as feel-good, inspirational or life-affirming.
Keshet’s Yellow Peppers was a big hit in Israel before being adapted successfully as The A Word for the BBC in the UK, while UFA’s Ku’Damm 56 has been one of the breakout shows of the last year for ZDF in Germany.
Even the gloomy Nordics have series like Rita and The Legacy in among their crime noir shows. One of the region’s recent hits is Next Summer, a comedy drama that satirises the idea of the idyllic, cosy family summer holiday at a getaway. A hit for TV Norge/Discovery in Norway, Next Summer is now up to three seasons and is being remade for Kanal5/Discovery is Sweden. (There has also been talk of a Fox remake coming to the US market).
Australia’s contribution to the feel-good revolution is Seven Network’s The Secret Daughter, a musical show that stars former Australian Idol contestant Jessica Mauboy as a part-time indigenous pub singer whose life changes forever when she meets a wealthy city hotelier. Produced by Screentime, the 10-episode first season started in October and received some positive notices from the press at launch. Now six episodes in, it’s posting a respectable one million viewers per episode (with consolidated viewing included) and has been renewed for 2017.
The Koreans also manage to make space for some upbeat shows – the best recent example being KBS2’s Oh My Venus. In this series, a Korean personal trainer working in Hollywood returns home after a scandal involving an American actress. Back on Korean soil, he becomes emotionally involved with a former teen star who is now an out of shape 33-year-old lawyer – cue romance.
There’s a similar ‘coming home’ vibe to Fox Turkey’s In Love Again (Ask Yeniden). In this case, two young people go to the US (separately) to start new lives, but the American Dream turns sour for both of them. They meet on the plane home and, embarrassed to admit the truth to their families, pretend to be married. Fox has also enjoyed success with Cherry Season, which focuses on the tangled lives and loves of a fashion designer and her friend.
In the world of telenovelas, there has always been a steady flow of upbeat or uplifting shows such as Ugly Betty, The Successful Pells, Rebelde Way and the original Jane the Virgin. One title about to hit the market is Telemundo’s La Fan, which tells the story of a happy-go-lucky woman from a poor background who is a passionate fan of a famous telenovela actor. One day, a twist of fate brings the two of them together. At first, he hardly notices her, but before long he can’t imagine his life without her.
The big challenge with feel-good drama is making sure it doesn’t skew too heavily towards the female audience, with most of the shows in this area relying on strong female leads. However, many of the above examples have proved it is possible to create a cross-gender, cross-generational hit with the right story.
Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.
This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.
All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.
In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.
In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.
Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”
The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.
Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.
Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”
Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.
The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”
Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.
Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”
Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.
The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.
Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”
Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”
As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.
The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.
A feast of drama will be served in Cannes when MipTV hosts its first ever Drama Screening event next week. DQ previews the line-up and the rest of this year’s market.
Drama will once again be the focus for the television industry when executives arrive in Cannes for this year’s MipTV, which begins on Monday.
It’s an event at which the genre has traditionally taken a back seat. US studios generally have a quieter presence at a market held just a few weeks before the LA Screenings – when networks and cable channels announce their programming line-ups for the new season ahead – while mini-markets such as Mip Formats and Mip Docs have given those genres their own platforms.
This year is different, however, with the launch of Mip Drama Screenings, which will see 12 series presented to delegates for the first time. Bodo (Poland), Bordertown (Finland), I Know Who You Are (Spain), Ku’Damm 56 – Rebel With A Cause (Germany), Mathilde (Russia), Medici: Masters of Florence (Italy), Public Enemy (Belgium), Ramona (Chile), Section Zéro (France), and The A Word, The Secret and Victoria (all UK) will be previewed for 350 acquisition executives from around the world.
The day of screenings comes on top of the world drama premiere on Monday evening, which this year will be Roots (pictured top), the remake of the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Hanley’s book. A+E Studios International is distributing the show, which will debut in the US on Monday, May 30.
Others dramas being launched include Beta Film’s The Embassy, NHK’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Endemol Shine International’s Turkish series Intersection, and Cannabis from Lagardère Studios Distribution.
Among the panel sessions taking place inside the Palais des Festivals, executives will discuss trends, channels and platforms, financing and the emergence of web series. The spotlight will also fall on Germany – MipTV’s Country of Honour 2016 – and the Nordics.
Meanwhile, Drama Quarterly editor Michael Pickard will moderate a discussion on Tuesday called Scripted Formats: What’s Hot, What’s Next?.
But what other industry talking points will be up for debate in the south of France?
For distributors, identifying the needs of a multitude of buyers is now key if they stand any chance of completing a deal, such is the wide range of content providers now on the market.
Among them, international producer-distributor Entertainment One (eOne) has a slate of new shows it hopes will appeal to the majority of broadcasters, whether free or pay TV, linear or online.
Its new series include comedy-drama You Me Her, procedural Private Eyes (starring Jason Priestley) and serial Cardinal. It is also distributing Designated Survivor, from Mark Gordon and starring Kiefer Sutherland, and is on board Sharp Objects, an adaptation of the Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) book with showrunner Marti Noxon and star Amy Adams.
Outlining where demand lies around the world, Stuart Baxter, president of eOne International, says: “The reality is the US networks have got fewer and fewer slots available for procedurals but international free TV channels, particularly in Europe, love them. They want closed-end episodes and long runs – they love 23 or 24 episodes in a season. Whereas the international pay TV and OTT market love more serialised, expensive and talent-driven shows.”
Since their entry into original content production, Netflix and Amazon have certainly shaken up the industry – and their appetite for library content means distributors have been eager to sell them series from their back catalogue.
Yet when it comes to these streaming giants and the general demand of international broadcaster groups to take multi-territory rights to an individual show, the question is no longer about doing a deal but about what sort of deal can maximise a show’s international audience.
Keshet International made a big splash at Mipcom last October when it sold global rights for its spy thriller False Flag to Fox International Channels.
“Everybody is working with Netflix and Amazon and working out how to work with them at the same time,” Baxter admits. “We’ve got shows with them and we like them as partners. But there are shows that are less suitable for them and some shows where it’s better for us to do territory-by-territory deals, rather than global deals with one platform.
“The challenge comes if they will only do global deals. It forces us to make a decision on whether we do territory-by-territory deals and it depends how early in the process that happens.”
So while distributors try to push their series past the noise created by the vast competition, buyers will be on the hunt not only for the best content but also the best deal. It promises to be a fascinating duel that could determine the path for deals in the future – and whether streamers have the right to place their ‘original’ tag on a show after securing worldwide rights.
Beyond the dealmaking, the bar continues to be raised in terms of the ambition and production quality of television drama, which can only be good for audiences, no matter where they watch the show. Watch out for Victoria to lead the charge for the buzziest title at the market.
A family struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism in BBC1 drama The A Word – the latest international drama to be inspired by a hit Israeli series.
Israeli dramas have inspired a host of successful international remakes, most notably In Treatment and Homeland – based on Be Tipul and Hatufim (Prisoners of War) respectively.
Now comes The A Word, a BBC1 series that finds its origins in Yellow Peppers and tells the story of a family that struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism.
The cast is led by Christopher Eccleston, Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby and also includes Greg McHugh and Vinette Robinson. The series also introduces six-year-old newcomer Max Vento as Joe, whose diagnosis with autism proves to be the catalyst for an emotional, thought-provoking and often funny family drama penned by Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Capital).
From Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word is executive produced by Bowker, Patrick Spence, Jenny Frayn, Sara Johnson, Avi Nir, Lucy Richer and Yellow Peppers creator Keren Margalit. Keshet International distributes both the original series and the BBC version.
Having worked as a teacher of children with learning disabilities for 14 years and known for putting social issues at the heart of his writing, Bowker had been interested in writing about autism when Johnson approached him with a proposal to adapt Yellow Peppers.
“I went in to see Keshet worried they just wanted me to transcribe it (into English) and the first thing they said was they didn’t want a cover version, they wanted something brand new,” Bowker says.
“I always want to write about how families see themselves, how the myth of the perfect family pervades our culture and puts great pressure on people to appear that way. A lot of my writing is about people who are, for other reasons, unable to express the most profound emotions. That for me is what’s interesting in drama, when you are not articulate enough to express that.
“It’s already in the ballpark of what I like to write about, but what I wanted to do here was take a family that, on the surface, is aspirational, fairly comfortably well-off, smart, funny and articulate but that still can’t talk about this stuff.”
The series opens with young Joe, played by Vento, walking alone through the scenic Lake District carrying nothing but a pinwheel spinning in the wind (pictured top), his headphones blasting the Arctic Monkeys. Later it becomes clear there’s something more to his love of music than is first apparent, while he also becomes the subject of arguments between his family, leading to his diagnosis.
Bowker purposefully keeps Joe’s diagnosis hidden from viewers at the start, preferring instead to initially present him as a young boy who simply doesn’t quite fit in.
“I wanted to write about hidden disability, hidden difference,” the writer explains. “I felt if you had a child pretending to be a child with severe autism, it would be both unwatchable and exploitative. I wanted to get under the bells and whistles of visible disability and look at what happens when there are a number of behaviours that don’t quite fit.”
Another key character in the drama is the setting – the Lake District in North West England provides a picturesque backdrop to The A Word, which takes in a number of outside scenes and even sees some characters running through the hills.
“I chose the Lakes very early because in the original, they’re living on the edge of a desert,” Bowker says. “I chose somewhere where it looks like you’re raising a child in paradise until the problems for the child arise, in which case how do you access resources? And the Lake District is both pretty and threatening so suddenly you start to see the landscape in a completely different way.”
Behind the scenes, Bowker enjoyed collaborating with lead director Peter Cattaneo (Rev), who helms the first three episodes in the six-part series.
While he has no aspirations to get behind the camera – “People ask me if I want to direct and I don’t” – he says Cattaneo immediately understood the style and tone of The A Word that he had written into his scripts, all played out to a pulsating indie soundtrack.
“I loved Rev. It was brilliant in so many ways but, particularly, I’m an atheist and yet he made me care about faith – and I wanted a director who could make this special to someone who had had nothing like these kinds of experiences,” Bowker says. “It’s no use to me if just parents of children with autism watch it. It’s preaching to the converted anyway. It needs to be more universal than that.”
Working on The A Word, Cattaneo enjoyed finding a similar balance between comedy and pathos that he employs in Rev. Visually, he also makes the most of the sweeping vistas offered by the Lake District setting in which the action plays out.
“It’s like life,” he explains. “Life is about laughter and tears and it was about trying to not go too maudlin with the sad stuff but ensure it was poignant, and not to go too gaggy with the comedy but hopefully to make deft moves from one to the other. For this, authenticity felt key.
“Pete was brilliant. He let me get on with it but it was great to have someone to turn to as a collaborator. He let me direct and we’d talk about my notes here and there to open it out visually. He was very respectful.”
Bowker is already thinking of a second season of The A Word – and beyond: “My ambition for this is to ‘do a Boyhood’ (Richard Linklater’s acclaimed film tracking 12 years of a boy’s life) and watch him grow up, because the challenges change over time and I’d love to follow a family for that length of time.”
Until then, he’s concentrating on an epic Second World War drama called World on Fire, produced for the BBC by Mammoth Screen. He also has aspirations to work with producer Julian Farino on a “gritty but sweet” series based on the real-life story of a group of Syrian refugees who are rehomed on the Scottish island of Bute.
“Perhaps not for new writers, but for established writers, it feels like a great era of television,” he adds, citing Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Andrew Davies (War & Peace) as scribes at the top of their game. “The ambition and the understanding that an audience doesn’t have to be spoon-fed is incredibly encouraging.”
In 2011, US programme market Natpe moved from Las Vegas to Miami to be closer to the Latin American TV community. So it’s fitting that Natpe 2016 (held between January 19 and 21 last week) provided a platform for so many Latin American scripted TV announcements.
Pick of the bunch was the news that Brazilian media giant Globo is moving into Spanish-language production with a thriller called Supermax. Although Globo has previously coproduced Spanish-language shows with the likes of Azteca in Mexico and Telemundo in the US, Supermax marks the first time it has fully funded a drama in Spanish.
The 10-part series, being produced in-house with Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman as showrunner, follows eight characters who travel to a remote prison to participate in a reality show. Although production doesn’t start until April, it has already been picked up by Azteca for broadcast in Mexico.
Commenting, Globo executive director of international business Raphael Corrêa Netto said: “We’ve taken a strategic look at the market and worked out how to leverage our creative capabilities. We wanted to develop and produce (this show) based on our thinking for the global market – from script development to production and design.”
In other Latino news, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa has revealed that it is to adapt four Keshet International Israeli dramas from the original Hebrew into Spanish. One of them is a title we discussed last week, Loaded, which is also being remade by Channel 4 in the UK. The other three are yet to be selected but will be produced over the course of the next three years.
Televisa is also involved in a coproduction with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) that will focus on the life of Alejandro Muñoz Moreno, a Mexican wrestler better known as the Blue Demon. The 65×60’drama, simply called Blue Demon, will air across Latin America on Televisa platforms and before being distributed worldwide jointly by SPT and Televisa.
The show is the latest title to come out of a coproduction alliance formed by the two partners in 2014. Angelica Guerra, senior VP and MD of production, Latin America and US Hispanic for SPT, said: “There is a growing demand in the region for stories about real people and events, a trend that started in Colombia and has made its way to Mexico. Blue Demon will offer audiences an intimate look at one of (freestyle wrestling’s) greatest legends, exploring a complex and turbulent world that few knew about.”
Also coming out of Miami was news that producer Ben Silverman is teaming up with Eric Newman, the showrunner behind Netflix hit Narcos, on a series about Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, the Colombian singing sensation better known as Juanes. The show, whose English title is Chasing the Sun, will follow Juanes’s early life in Colombia through to his arrival as an aspiring musician in Miami.
The goal is to produce an edgy series, with the press announcement saying it will “stylistically be in the vein of an Entourage-meets-Narcos bilingual drama.” No network is attached as yet, but Silverman has a good track record for bringing Latin American ideas to the world with series such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. Note that it is being set us as a bilingual series.
In other greenlight news this week, USA Network has given a straight-to-series, 10-episode order to Eyewitness, a drama based on Norwegian crime thriller Øyevitne. The US version will be created by Adi Hasak, whose credits include Shades of Blue. He will work alongside Norwegian series creator Jarl Emsell Larsen.
Øyevitne, which aired on NRK, was one of the most talked-about Scandinavian shows of 2015. It focuses on two gay teenage boys who secretly meet up in a forest. During one such liaison, they witness a shooting and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the perpetrator, they remain silent.
Commenting on the decision to pick up the show, Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming at USA, said: “Eyewitness takes a horrific crime and, in compelling fashion, uses it to examine a whole network of unique character relationships. We were immediately drawn to the source material, and Adi has found a very smart way to adapt it into a universal and engaging story.”
The dark tone of the show fits a broader agenda at USA, which is reinventing itself as a more exciting destination for young viewers. Alongside the Eyewitness project, it has Golden Globe-winning hacker drama Mr Robot and Carlton Cuse-produced series Colony. Earlier this week, it also announced another new drama called Falling Water. This series centres on three strangers who realise they are dreaming separate parts of the same dream that has major implications for problems in each of their lives.
“Today’s world demands shows that challenge and reward the audience in spectacular ways,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at USA Network’s parent company NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Falling Water is the type of show that can move the needle of popular culture with its thrilling exploration of the dark side of the mind.”
Meanwhile, Netflix, now up to 75 million subscribers worldwide, continues to commission new shows. Its latest addition is a 10-part sci-fi series based on Richard K Morgan’s book Altered Carbon. Set in the 25th century, Morgan’s novel imagines a world where the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. The series is being produced by Skydance Television and written by Laeta Kalogridis. Kalogridis’s previous credits include the screenplays for the movies Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys.
Elsewhere, there have been rumours circulating in the last few days that Fox in the US would love to commission a follow-up to its six-part X-Files reboot, which debuted last night in the US. However, the big obstacle to that appears to be scheduling the talent.
In an interview with Variety, male lead David Duchovny said: “Gillian (Anderson, co-star) and I have talked about (doing more episodes), and then we just stop because we get to 2023 and we still haven’t found a date we can do it. It’s like, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens after this,’ and then we can start to talk seriously about whether we can make it work again.” Possibly, if the ratings are good enough to justify it, there might be room to squeeze in another short run of six or eight episodes.
Finally, the big story on the drama acquisition front is that pay TV platform Sky has done a deal with CBS that means its Sky Atlantic channel will become the exclusive home to Showtime’s original drama series across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The agreement covers all new and future series including Billions, which premiered strongly in the US this week, and the forthcoming revival of cult drama Twin Peaks.
Commenting on the deal, Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “This is one of the most important content deals Sky has ever agreed, cementing Sky’s position as the market leader in Europe for world-class drama. The agreement means our customers can enjoy an incredible slate of upcoming new dramas and can also explore hundreds of hours of amazing series such as Dexter, Californication, The Affair and House of Lies on demand from the back catalogue.”
This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.
In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.
It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).
Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).
The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.
E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.
Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.
Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.
“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”
Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.
It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).
It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.
Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.
With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”
Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.
With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.
Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.
Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin). “Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk,” says the pre-production blurb.
Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”
Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.
Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.
The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.
Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).
HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.
While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.
Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.
Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.
All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.
Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”
In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.
Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.
In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.
This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.
Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.
NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.
And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.
One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).
Israeli scripted series first had a significant impact on the global stage towards the end of the last decade, when Hot Broadcasting’s BeTipul was reinvented for the US market as In Treatment. Launched on HBO in 2008, the US version of the show ran for three series (106 episodes) and focused on the personal and professional life of a psychologist played by Gabriel Byrne.
The next Israeli scripted show to break into the US was Ramzor, a 30-something comedy from Keshet that was remade as Traffic Light for Fox. This show only ran for one season, in 2011, but provided further conformation that Israeli was a country worth scouting.
The big breakthrough came later that year when the Keshet show Hatufim, which tells the story of two Israeli soldiers who are released after 17 years in captivity, was reinvented as Homeland for Showtime. In English, ‘hatufim’ means ‘abductees,’ though the Israeli show is generally referred to internationally as Prisoners of War (except in the US). Homeland has just entered production on a fifth series and is regarded as one of the standout scripted series of the last five years, mentioned in the same breadth as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Echoing the situation with high-profile Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty and Nordic Noir series like The Bridge, the success of Homeland in the US has turned the Homeland/Prisoners of War franchise into an industry in its own right. Both versions are available to the international market as completed shows. And Prisoners of War is also available as a format, having already sold to Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea.
Homeland injected a new level of intensity into the search for adaptable Israeli shows. For example, in the case of Bnei Aruba, CBS in the US struck a deal that allowed it to develop a US version of the show in parallel with the creation of an Israeli version for Channel 10. Called Hostages, the US version actually aired three weeks before the original. Like with Homeland, this also helped kickstart international interest in the original Hebrew show, which sold to BBC4 and Canal+.
Of course, not all Israeli series have been hits in the US. Espionage drama Ta Gordin (The Gordin Cell), which aired on Yes, was a hit on home soil but didn’t make it to the end of the first season when NBC remade it as Allegiance. Launched Stateside in February 2015, it was axed five episodes later due to low ratings. But even this result wasn’t a total negative for the show – because it gave it international exposure. Korean company IMTV, for example, elected to produce a version for its highly competitive market.
When Israelis are asked to analyse why their shows have generated so much interest, they cite three main factors. First, they explain, Israeli audiences are highly critical and get bored easily – which means there is a high turnover of original stories and a constant quest for fresh insight. Second, Israel is a small country operating on tight budgets. So if a show can work in this environment, it will have no problem once it secures a bigger budget. And finally, there is an authenticity and honesty to Israeli scripted shows that comes from living on the front line.
The question, of course, is whether they can keep up the momentum. So what is coming down the line that might catch the attention of the international market? Well, one new title that has already caught the attention of the US market is Beit HaMishalot, a Channel 1 series about a psychiatrist who makes clients’ wishes come true. Presumably buoyed by its success with In Treatment, HBO is remaking the show as House of Wishes.
Keshet, meanwhile, has secured international interest in Pilpelim Zehubim, a poignant but humorous story about a family that learns to adapt after discovering their five-year-old son is autistic. Critically acclaimed in Israel, the show is now being remade in the UK under the title The A Word. The six-part drama series will air on BBC1 and will be coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet’s UK arm.
Brazil is also riding the Israeli wave. In November 2014, cable channel TNT Brazil announced plans to remake Allenby. Based on a novel by Gadi Taub and originally produced for Channel 10 in 2012, this series is a sex industry crime drama that follows the story of a nightclub on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and one of the strippers working there. Explaining why TNT picked up the show, Rogério Gallo, movies and series VP for Turner International Brazil, said: “The similarities between Allenby Street in Israel and Rua Augusta (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) are magnificent; both are a part of each city’s history and the centre of a sizzling nightlife. These are great ingredients for a remarkable television show.”
The Israeli press has also started to get excited by Fauda, a new show from co-creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz that has only recently finished airing. Broadcast by cable platform Yes, Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) is a typically Israeli no-holds-barred series about a group of undercover operatives trying to capture a notorious Hamas terrorist. Commenting on the show, The Times of Israel said: “It’s been just three months since Fauda brought the chaos of the West Bank to Yes viewers, but the show has become so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street without being stopped by fans.”
The series stands out because it makes a genuine effort to be even-handed about the Israel/Palestine conflict, casting Arabic actors and creating storylines that deal with the pain of being on the receiving end of Israel’s military might. With a second series on the way and US interest, the Times of Israel said Fauda “has been lauded for its realism, its extensive use of Arabic and the empathy viewers are forced to have for the Hamas characters.”
We’ll finish this week’s column by crossing the border into Egypt, which, like the rest of the Muslim world, is about to embark on Ramadan (from June 18). For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, Ramadan is an important holy period that is marked out by fasting during daylight. Ramadan is also important in TV terms, because countries like Egypt spend large sums of money producing TV dramas to entertain people during Ramadan.
One show that catches the eye this year is Haret al-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter). Set in 1952 to 1956, it tells the story of Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a Jewish woman, who fall in love. Their romance is played out against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism and tensions over the creation of Israel.
Speaking to local Egyptian media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, series writer Medhat al-Adl, a respected figure within the Egyptian creative community, said he wanted to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which all religions and languages coexist. “(The series) talks about how Egypt once coexisted with all religions and embraced people from all over the world because it was a cosmopolitan country. Egypt was great then. The Jews were of Egypt’s fabric. They were Egyptians. They were traders who lived with Muslims and they contributed to the Egyptian economy. The stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Egyptian films is that they are penny-pinchers (but) they were the best merchants of Egypt.”
Here’s hoping that Fauda and Haret al-Yahood both prove successful, because they are an antidote to the kind of extremism and bigotry that characterises 21st century politics and media.