Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story stars Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones as Blanco, who was a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade.
From working with local drug runners in Queens, she quickly masterminded a way to smuggle cocaine from Colombia before moving to Miami to expand her empire, becoming known as The Black Widow. Blanco, who built a drug distribution network that spanned the US, was also suspected of ordering more than 200 murders in her lifetime.
In this DQTV interview, Zeta-Jones explains why she waited three years to play the character. She describes the film as “one of the best experiences ever,” revealing her excitement at stepping outside of her comfort zone to immerse herself in a character that “has no redeemable qualities.”
The Welsh actor also discusses the types of screen roles that appeal to her and why she chose to return to television, which first launched her screen career with The Darling Buds of May.
Cocaine Godmother is produced by Asylum Entertainment for Lifetime and is distributed by A+E Networks.
Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star attraction in Cannes when she attended Mipcom to promote her forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother. DQ was on hand to hear how she helped develop the series, how she transformed herself for the role and why she has now returned to the medium where her screen career began.
She won an Oscar for her dazzling turn in big-screen musical Chicago and has starred alongside Tom Hanks and George Clooney in films such as The Terminal, Ocean’s Twelve, The Mask of Zorro and Brit comedy Dad’s Army.
Now Catherine Zeta-Jones’s career has come full circle. After beginning in theatre, her big break came with British TV drama Darling Buds of May before she moved to films. But now she’s back on the small screen, first with FX drama Feud, which aired earlier this year, and now as the lead in Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.
Zeta-Jones plays real-life drug lord Griselda Blanco, a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade who built a drug distribution network spanning the US and was suspected of ordering more than 200 murders.
The Asylum Entertainment production is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights.
Zeta-Jones last week added some star power to Mipcom in Cannes, where she spoke about the project alongside Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks, and Tanya Lopez, senior VP of original movies and miniseries at A+E-owned Lifetime.
Griselda Blanco was a vicious, brutal character – and that’s why Zeta-Jones wanted to play her on screen… Catherine Zeta-Jones: What drew me to this role was a desire to get inside the skin of such a woman with all those qualities. Usually in drama school they say you have to find some thread of yourself that you can put into a character. Well, this is not that at all and that’s what made it so interesting. A woman came from nowhere, literally the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and became the most revered, powerful, feared woman in the drug business, dominated by ruthless men. How did that happen? Who was this woman? So to be able to get deep into that character, get under her skin, is something I personally had’t had the chance to do in a long time.
For me, this movie [reignited] my love of acting. This is what it’s about. It’s all very good to be playing ingenues; it’s all very good and flattering to have your character’s name preceded by ‘the beautiful, sexy woman walks in, her name is …’ – but I always go, ‘Aw, shit’ because I know that’s way too much time in hair and make-up. With Griselda, I was able to let all that go and find the woman, find out who this woman was. [I had to] humanise her in a way that was unfathomable but certainly not to homogenise her or find some sympathetic quality to her, because I don’t think she had one. That’s why I thank A+E and Lifetime, because it would be very easy to homogenise and rose-tint this character and story, and I was adamant about that. I said, “Please, Tanya, let me loose,” and she said, “Go girl.” [Griselda] was everything I thought she would be for me as an actor – deep, dark, emotional, dangerous. [She is] unsympathetic in a way but, for some weird reason, I think our audience will connect with her or at least understand her.
Cocaine Godmother embodies what a Lifetime movie should be… Tanya Lopez: The message I want everyone to hear is we’re telling stories about strong, smart and, in some ways – and I really feel this about Griselda – badass women, with high production values and exceptional talent. That’s where, as far as we’re concerned at Lifetime, the movies are evolving to and we’re reaching for. On this particular movie, part of it was shot in Colombia, in Medellín, and the idea of us spreading out and shooting these movies in other parts of the world is very important.
TV movies can bring an audience to stories that may be lost as low-budget features, and give actors the chance to bring stories they’re passionate about… Patrick Vien: We’re living in such an extraordinary period of television where the gates have been blown wide open for a group of artists who, if you go back 15 some years, might have been more about the motion picture business. If you’ve ever worked in a company that has a motion picture division and a television division, there is that absolute rivalry between the two. What’s brilliant about television is it started at a moment in time when Kevin Costner joined our company with Hatfield & McCoys and we saw many other projects – True Detective is another example – where suddenly [film talent] was coming into the marketplace.
The golden age of television is made that much more golden by talents such as Catherine who come to us to realise projects that we can bring to vast audiences through the medium of television. This film simply puts us in the league we want to be in. Everybody uses this phrase ‘premium content.’ Having Catherine at our side and this project in our stable means we are solidifying A+E Networks’ position on a global scale as a premium content provider.
For all her bad traits, Zeta-Jones found something strangely likeable about Griselda Blanco… Zeta-Jones: There are so many qualities about her that are normally just bad, just not right but, as a woman, there’s something sadistically fantastic and admirable about where she came from and how she was literally the boss in a very dangerous man’s world. You’ve got to give it to her. I know in some of our early conversations, it was like, ‘How do we humanise Griselda? How do we make people relate to Griselda?’ I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, as bad as she is, I’m going to make people kinda like her.’ Whatever she did, the violence and the murders she’s associated with and eventually charged with, and eventually assented for, I kind of like her. It’s a very sick, dark sense of humour I’ve been hiding all my life and now it’s come out in Griselda.
The stigma of actors moving between television, film and theatre that once existed has now been broken… Zeta-Jones: I was stuck in the theatre actor box – it wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV. That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television]; they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.
The star underwent a huge physical transformation to play Griselda Blanco and relished immersing herself in the character… Zeta-Jones: Griselda had a very specific face. It was a very interesting face. I didn’t want to do a caricature so that people who never even knew who Griselda Blanco was would see a picture of her and say, ‘She’s not very good, she looks nothing like her.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get under the skin of this woman. But I wanted to have a transformation – I gained weight, I put my back out the week after I finished shooting. I’m an ex-dancer so I always have a straight back, but my pelvis was forward, I was hunched, I was a bit like a man – if I had balls, I’d grab them from time to time. So that whole transformation was something I lived through every day.
I love my husband and my kids but I was so glad to be on my own on location, to immerse myself in this woman. So I pretty much was walking around feeling like Griselda for the whole length of the shoot, and then I put my back out. But I don’t care – it was worth it. I wanted to let it all hang out. Griselda didn’t care; she thought she was beautiful. She was a movie star, starring in her own movie, and she didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I wanted to have that attitude, that mentality, not to do a caricature of the mugshot people only ever see of her. She was glamorous, she was a bit of a recluse, she was a shopaholic, she was an addict. Everything in excess. She had rooms of clothes, bags, shoes and she never went out – only to kill people. It was a fascinating character to immerse myself in, very liberating. I didn’t care that my eyes were puffy, I was really hoping I was having a puffy day on the shoot.
Her career has now gone full circle – “a wonderful circle” – as she returns to the medium that made her name… Zeta-Jones: I’d only done theatre before and then I was cast in [ITV drama] The Darling Buds of May. We did six hours for two years with our legend of a television actor, Sir David Jason. That was the first thing I did on screen. I was a complete unknown and, within an hour of television, my life changed completely. Then I was in France doing films with Philippe de Broca and Édouard Molinaro. Then I went to the States and auditioned for a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing was really coming to fruition. But I was cast in the TV version of Titanic. All I wanted was to be Kate Winslet opposite Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] – I wasn’t, but I took the TV version of Titanic. Cut to Steven Spielberg watching it on Sunday night and he casts me in The Legend of Zorro.
Next time I come back onto TV, it’s the biggest stroke of luck because I got to work with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my career, and it’s Griselda, it’s Cocaine Godmother. I feel very happy, lucky and blessed to be back in a medium which I felt very comfortable in, at home in, and what was really the start of my career. Even though I did theatre since I was nine years old in Britain and played leads in West End shows, I was completely anonymous, so it was The Darling Buds of May that opened up my world to TV and film. I’m very happy to be in a medium I feel very comfortable in.
The global nature of the television business was on show at Mipcom in Cannes this week as stars from around the world presented their latest projects. DQ editor Michael Pickard offers his thoughts on a busy week in the South of France.
When you first walk into the Palais des Festivals, it can be quite overwhelming to see the sheer number of posters, billboards and signs promoting hundreds of new drama series from around the world. The experience, of course, begins long before you have navigated through the security checkpoints, seeing as La Croisette is transformed into a mile-long red carpet of promotions for dozens more shows.
To be a drama buyer in the current market must be both a daunting and thrilling experience, with the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours searching for the next big hit and watching the contenders, whether they are produced in your broadcaster’s local tongue or a language from further afield.
What, then, can producers and distributors do to make their projects stand out from the crowd? Well, the quickest shortcut to making some noise is to add a sprinkling of star power.
TV movies are much maligned, but could Catherine Zeta-Jones bring the format back into fashion? She was here in Cannes to promote forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, a project she helped develop and bring to the screen. The Oscar-winning actor also plays the lead role of real-life Miami drug lord Griselda Blanco, who was involved in the Cocaine Cowboy Wars that plagued the city in the late 1970s.
“Years ago there used to be such a stigma between television actors, film actors and theatre actors,” Zeta-Jones said this week. “I was stuck in the theatre actor box. It wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film – and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV.
“That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television], they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.”
Adding an A-lister to a TV movie is a well-worn path for Lifetime parent A+E Networks, which has also previously cast James Franco (High School Lover), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late & a Dollar Short), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Heather Graham (Flowers in the Attic), Harvey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Susan Sarandon (The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) in such projects.
It’s a tactic others are clearly employing too. Zeta-Jones wasn’t the only star to light up the red carpet this week as a plethora of other famous faces travelled to the South of France. David Morrissey joined fellow cast members Nikolaj Lie Caas and Eleanor Worthington-Cox for the world premiere of Roman-era drama Britannia, the first series coproduced by Sky Atlantic and Amazon US.
James Norton and Juliet Rylance were talking McMafia, Kristin Kreuk chatted about making Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth, Mark Strong marked his return to television in Fox espionage thriller Deep State and Philip Glenister was Living the Dream with his new Florida-set comedy drama.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Sisto (Ice season two), JK Simmons (Counterpart), Daniel Sharman (Medici), Jessica Brown Findlay (Harlots season two) and Jon Beavers, Michael Kelly and Darius Homayoun (The Long Road Home) were also enjoying the sunshine in Cannes.
What was particularly notable about this year’s Mipcom, however, was the truly global nature of the market. Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (Kurara), Belgian actor Veerle Baetens (Tabula Rasa), Australian stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda (Pulse), Turkey’s Erkan Petekkaya, Songül Öden and Dolunay Soysert (City of Secrets), Swedish actors Charlie Gustafson and Hedda Rehnberg (The Restaurant), and Zion Baruch, creator, writer and star of Israeli vampire thriller Juda, were also in town.
Mipcom’s Russian Content Revolution was also celebrated with appearances by The Road to Calvary’s Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir plus Gogol’s Yulia Franz and Taisiia Vilkova.
For several years now, the globalisation of television has also been represented by the types of coproductions being brought to screen. Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) is probably the best example of two countries coming together in the last few years, in that case France and Sweden joining forces. But more ambitious pairings are now in evidence.
In particular, producers and broadcasters from China, France, Germany and Australia have teamed up for Farewell Shanghai, a period drama set at the start of the Second World War that recounts the shared destinies of a group of European Jewish refugees and Chinese characters in Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.
It will be shot in China in the English language and has been written by Radu Mihaileanu, based on Angel Wagenstein’s novel. K’ien Productions, Banijay Studios France, Breakout Films, France Televisions, Shanghai Media Group Pictures, China’s Holy Mountain Films, AMPCO Studios in Australia and Germany’s NDF are all involved.
Another global project announced at the market was Straight Forward, an eight-part series produced by Screentime New Zealand and Mastiff in Denmark. It is coproduced by broadcasters Viaplay and TVNZ, with Acorn TV also on board in North America and the UK.
Created by writer John Banas and set in Queenstown and Copenhagen, Straight Forward sees a Danish woman attempt to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small New Zealand town to start a new life. It will premiere on Viaplay in 2018.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that producer and distributor Banijay Group is central to both Farewell Shanghai and Straight Forward, utilising its production companies and distribution partnerships to bring these series to air.
The future of television was also on display, from Japanese broadcaster NHK’s stunning 8K presentations to the keynotes from executives at Snapchat and Facebook.
Sean Mills, senior director of content programming at Snapchat parent Snap Inc, talked about the firm’s desire for the messaging app to move into original content following the announcement it had teamed up with NBCUniversal to create a studio that will focus on producing scripted series.
The fruits of that partnership may still be some time away. More immediate are Facebook’s plans to bring original content to its Watch platform, launched six weeks ago and currently only available in the US, though an international roll-out is planned in the future.
There were audible gasps in the Palais’ Grand Auditorium when Facebook head of global creative strategy, Ricky Van Veen, revealed that the social media giant would be the home of the English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam (Shame), with original creator Julie Andem showrunning the remake.
The buzz around the NRK series has steadily increased over the past year and it’s a huge statement of intent that Facebook has picked it up – though, in many ways, it is the perfect home for a show that is made up of short video segments that are posted at the times of the day that match when the action plays out.
At the end of the four-day market, it’s clear the drama boom shows no sign of slowing – yet. It seems unlikely that every series is making its money back, meaning it is inevitable there will be a downturn at some point in the future. Until then, the debate surrounds the new players picking up scripted series and the challenge of luring star names to help a show to break through to audiences. Facebook original series? I’ll be Watching.
Canadian black comedy-drama Mary Kills People stars Caroline Dhavernas as Dr Mary Harris, an overworked single mother and ER doctor who lives a double life helping terminally ill patients to end their lives. Assisted by her business partner Des (Richard Short), they strive to stay under the radar and keep one step ahead of the police, who are determined to stop their operation.
In this video interview, Dhavernas and Short tell DQ what drew them to the series and talk about the on-screen relationship between Mary and Des.
They also debate the controversial topic at the heart of the show and how it walks the line between its dark subject matter and its many lighter moments.
In ever-changing television business, the co-stars also discuss how actors fit into the evolving landscape.
Now in production for season two, Mary Kills People is produced by Entertainment One (which also distributes) and Cameron Pictures in association with Corus Entertainment. It airs on Global in Canada and Lifetime in the US.
Heading into its third season in 2017, Lifetime drama UnReal has shaken up television drama with its focus on what goes on behind the scenes of a reality television dating show. Stars Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby chat to DQ about the series.
Shortform web drama Blue made its name as one of the first digital series to find a following online. In the first part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Michael Pickard speaks to writer/director Rodrigo Garcia about the show’s birth on YouTube and its journey to ‘traditional’ TV.
In today’s television landscape, the rise of catch-up services and binge-watching means more and more content is being pushed online. One series, however, is swimming against the tide, having made the opposite journey from YouTube to so-called ‘traditional’ television.
Blue began life in 2013 on WIGS, one of dozens of channels set up as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative that invested US$100m in fresh programming for the video-sharing platform. Starring Julia Stiles (above) as the titular character, Blue follows a single mother trying to keep her double life as a call girl a secret from all around her, including her 13-year-old son.
The series was one of a number of scripted and documentary shortform projects launched on the female-targeted channel, which was set up by Rodrigo Garcia, Jake Avnet and John Avnet.
“Back then – and we’re talking before iPads came out, so it feels like the Middle Ages now – there was this idea that if you were doing something for the internet, there was really no need to try to do it with quality,” Garcia says about their desire to create a high-spec online drama.
“But we thought, ‘Why can’t something be done that’s scripted and well produced, even if it’s in small instalments?’ The idea was to produce content that could eventually become part of a library and have a longer life and a longer way to jump from platform to platform.”
Garcia also wanted to shake up the general consensus that people didn’t watch drama online, so began work on a story that would be spread across 12 seven-minute episodes during its first season. A bulked up second season of 26 episodes followed.
Then when YouTube lifted its exclusive distribution deal, both seasons were picked up by Fox Broadcasting for its US SVoD service Hulu, which cut the short episodes together to make hour-long instalments. A third season, consisting of four 40- to 60-minute episodes, also debuted on Hulu in 2015.
Last year, FremantleMedia International picked up distribution rights and the series travelled to Lifetime in the UK. Then, earlier this year, the show was also acquired by Lifetime Movie Channel in the US, debuting last month under the new title Blue: A Secret Life.
Taking this online series to television hadn’t always been the plan, however. “It was always part of this YouTube channel,” Garcia explains. “Fox came in as a partner but it was always destined to be on that platform. Once the series did well, it had limited lives on Hulu and other platforms. Fremantle started distributing it around the world in a longer form, it aired on Lifetime UK and we re-edited it for Lifetime US.
“When we were writing season two and season three, we were still writing them in seven-minute instalments but we were always thinking, ‘Let’s keep in mind that they might come together, six might make a 42-minute broadcast hour.’ We were writing both for our platform and a potential future where the instalments could come together in one-hour episodes.”
Initially, writing seven-minute episodes – each with its own, beginning, middle and end – proved to be a tough proposition, especially with the possibility that further down the line they might fit neatly together into a standard hour of television. But from the outset, Garcia and his writing partner Karen Graci treated every seven minutes as if it were a regular episode.
“The fact it was seven minutes did not encourage us to treat it as a lark, to try to make it a funny moment in Blue’s life,” Garcia reveals. “We treated each episode like a longer episode, meaning it had an introduction, a twist, a turn, a reveal. There were cliffhangers at the end, even within the seven-minute form. That was a challenge.
“From the content point of view, being online gave us complete freedom. I didn’t want it to be like an NC17-rated series. I was very conscious and sensitive to the fact the lead was a woman and she had a secret life as an escort, which I really did not want to be exploitative. Obviously I have Julia as a terrific filter there. She would never do anything that seemed to exploit or degrade the character. But we had complete creative freedom – much, much more than we would have had on any other platform.”
However, the very nature of shortform online drama three years ago meant Garcia and his producing partners at Ingenious Media had a budget to match their limited running time.
“YouTube gave every channel its own budget and, within that, as long as we delivered the hours of content, they knew they could count on the quality we were hoping for,” he says. “A downside was our budgets were really tiny. We did literally hundreds of episodes, not just of Blue but the others, so there’s a lot of stuff that amortised with production. Each one of our seven minutes was somewhere in the $30-60,000 range, depending on the episode. But, you know, it’s tough.”
Key to the success of Blue, both online and later on television, was casting Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, the Jason Bourne franchise) in the central role, alongside fellow cast members including Uriah Shelton, Sarah Paulson, Eric Stoltz, Kathleen Quinlan, James Morrison and Carla Gallo.
“When we did our first season for WIGS, it was a very good time because everyone knew the web was here to stay,” Garcia recalls. “Everyone was quite open to experimenting on it. Our initial group of Blue episodes was 12 seven-minute episodes, and Julia was always someone I wanted to work with. She was very open to it. Back then, it was a short commitment. She liked the material – of course, that has to always come first – and she was willing to say, ‘OK, let’s do something that’s quality for the internet and let’s see where it goes.’”
Unlike broadcast television shows that sign actors up to long-term contracts, Blue’s shortform nature meant it presented a friendly commitment to Stiles and her co-stars.
Garcia continues: “Julia was happy with the results [of season one] so she came on board [season two] and, in fact, she wrote and directed another series for our channel, called Paloma. It was all very much based on interest and availability, and you’re always encouraged by a good reception. The series was very well reviewed and it attracted a lot of attention just for its production values and the performances, so that encouraged her to stay.
“It was a time when people were willing to experiment. If you’re making a digital series now, actors will be asking if it’s on Netflix or Amazon. The budgets have become bigger. Julia, like all good actors, is always going to be interested in good material. It was great moment to be experimenting.”
Now the experiment is over and online platforms boasting shows such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black have turned the entire TV industry upside down as broadcasters scramble to catch up with their digital competitors.
But Garcia sees Blue’s transformation into a ‘traditional’ TV programme as an added bonus stemming from the show’s success in an era when quality content will always find an audience.
“A few years ago, if someone said there would be a quality series on Amazon, you would have found it laughable,” he admits. “Now, after Transparent, Bosch and The Man in the High Castle, I would never underestimate any platform. Great work can be done anywhere. It’s great to travel from platform to platform; it’s great to start online and end up on Netflix or HBO, but that’s just a sign of the quality of the work. Content will always win out – if the content is good, people will see it.”
But can fans now look to a fourth season of Blue, either on television or on WIGS’s dedicated website? “We’re not quite sure yet what shape it’s going to take,” reveals Garcia. “We’re very pleased it’s doing so well on the Lifetime Movie Channel. It’s gone through many incarnations so we’re waiting to see what’s next.
“Obviously I’m happy Blue’s had such a long life. It keeps on giving. We had very good actors on it and we did a lot with very little money, so I’m just happy it’s still going. It’s had a longer life than a lot of stuff made a lot more expensively. And, as always, Julia’s work is really excellent, so I’m always happy about that.”
Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.
The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.
In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.
The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.
The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.
The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.
The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.
The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.
There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.
There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.
A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.
Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).
Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.
Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”
This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.
The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.
The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.
In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.
Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.
Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.
In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.
Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.
There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?
Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.
However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).
This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.
Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.
Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.
Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.
Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.
Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”
Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.
Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.
Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.
HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.
HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.
Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.
In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”
Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”
Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”
In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.
News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
Telling the story of an African man sold into slavery in the US, miniseries Roots became a cultural sensation upon its release in 1977. Now, History hopes to make a similar impact with a remake of the iconic show. DQ meets the cast and crew.
There’s no denying that remakes are in vogue. From film-to-TV adaptations to reboots of classic television series, the 2016/17 broadcast season will be littered with a host of familiar stories and titles.
Some of the films getting small-screen versions include The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon, Taken, Emerald City (based on The Wizard of Oz), Training Day, Frequency and Time After Time.
And new versions of MacGyver, Prison Break and 24 will join long-running Hawaii Five-0 among the series enjoying a new life this fall.
Before then, however, US cable channel History has chosen to remake classic slavery drama Roots for a new generation of viewers, almost 40 years after Alex Haley’s iconic novel was first adapted for television.
Launching on May 30 and airing over four consecutive nights simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime, the A+E Networks series is described as a historical portrait of American slavery recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite hardship.
Spanning multiple generations, the story begins with young Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby, pictured top) who is captured in his homeland in The Gambia and transported in brutal conditions to colonial America, where he is sold into slavery.
Throughout the series, the family continues to face adversity while bearing witness and contributing to notable events in US history – including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and eventual emancipation.
“It’s pretty surreal on a lot of levels, coming back to the same project but on the other side of the camera this time,” says co-executive producer LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries. “Being present for scenes that I was a part of or witnessed 40 years ago, with a different cast of actors and technicians around – it’s like someone who’s been married several times! It’s kind of a weird experience. And one that is so fraught with pressure and a sense of responsibility. It’s always there, it never goes away.”
The original series was a critical and commercial hit for ABC. On average, more than 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Some 100 million viewers – almost half the country – saw the final episode.
It also scored a host of awards, winning Emmys including Best Limited Series, Best Director, Best Music Composition and Best Writing in a Drama.
While the drama captivated a nation, it also proved a catalyst for people to learn more about the US slave trade and race relations, having a lasting impact in schools and universities less than 10 years after the battle for civil rights dominated the 1960s.
And that legacy is something the cast and creative team of the new Roots miniseries are only too aware of.
Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kizzy, says: “I don’t feel pressure (to repeat the success of the original adaptation). I feel a joyous responsibility, which is greater than just a responsibility to the original – it’s also a cultural responsibility. This story is owed to so many people who came before us, all of us. But it’s a wonderful thing to have the honour of telling a story of such an intense survival.”
For executive producer Mark Wolper, there’s an added element of responsibility in the fact that his father, David, produced the original adaptation. “We could not have taken on a more difficult, ridiculous notion than remaking Roots,” he says. “The equivalent would be remaking one of the greatest films of all time – we’re trying to do Casablanca again or Singin’ in the Rain. But in the TV world, we’re taking on one of the most successful dramas of all time.
“There’s a historical responsibility of telling the story even better than Alex did the first time because of all the work that’s been done since then to improve civil rights. There’s also a responsibility to represent cultural issues in America and globally now, with forced migration and slavery; a responsibility to the History channel, which has a brand and identity; to A&E Studios, which is producing one of its first projects. There’s a responsibility to the legacy of my father and what he produced. All these things on top of this project make it exciting – and scary.”
Although Wolper calls the new Roots a “completely different imagining” of Haley’s story, he admits it is a remake, adding: “But if you remember something being great and you go back and look at it now and think, ‘It’s not as strong as I remember it,’ you should do it again. If you remember something being great and you go back and it’s still great, you shouldn’t touch it.
“The original was made in the 70s. We have the capacity to make it better now, technically speaking. My son was the catalyst for me deciding to do Roots again. He did not respond to the original Roots and since it is a family event, I was disturbed by the fact the old one didn’t speak to him. It’s like my music, it didn’t speak to him, so that was the catalyst for me realising why we needed to tell this story again and translate it for a whole new generation, for a generation that didn’t know of it.”
Burton adds: “That’s the most compelling reason – to tell this story so that we don’t forget it, so it stays alive in cultural consciousness. It’s a sense of doing this important story more justice in a modern context.”
Rose was cast in the miniseries after meeting Wolper and finding out more about his ambitions for a new version of Roots. “I was satisfied in that meeting that it was something that was respectful, and that made a great difference to me,” she says, adding that she avoided watching the original series before or during filming.
“I had read the book as an adult just to read the book, but I’m a reader. I love to read. My parents had the book and I snatched it up and ate it, basically. So I re-read the book, which is not an easy read, to bring myself to this. In some ways, it was extraordinarily helpful just to know the genealogical history of the family, but this wasn’t necessarily immediately helpful in telling this story. Not all things we took with us and utilised.”
The cast also includes big-name stars Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anna Paquin, who also hadn’t watched the original, or read the book, when she signed up to play Nancy Holt.
“I’m just appropriately respectful of the fact that I’m not American, it’s not my story and it’s very important. I wanted to make sure if you’re going to tell someone else’s story, you’re doing it properly and in the appropriate way,” the New Zealander says. “Also, I wasn’t dying to play someone who was evil, so I was a little apprehensive about being white and in Roots. It depended on what I had to do, because there are some things I don’t think I creatively need to explore.
“So then reading the script and finding out she’s essentially a spy and essentially a deeply good person, which matters to me, was really fascinating. And then educating myself more about that period of time, I did a lot of reading and research. It was fascinating.”
Leading the cast, however, is newcomer Malachi Kirby, who stars as the young Kunta Kinte. “Malachi has an amazing intensity and he embodies both the fire and the heart of a warrior,” says Burton, who shot to fame in the same role and went on to play Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Ultimately, you have to fall in love with Kunta; you have to root for him in order for the story to be successful. If you don’t imprint upon the hero in the opening chapters of the story, you don’t care what comes next.”
Filming took place in Louisiana last summer, with Rose describing the shoot as “physically gruelling.” She recalls: “It was Louisiana in August. It’s not nice in August. It’s unkind, actually, but that serves the story because the time wasn’t nice and they were essentially living August in Louisiana every damn day. But it wasn’t one of those things where we tried to make it gruelling so we could talk about it later and talk about our struggle as artists, it was just how it happened to be. It allowed it to be even a truer tribute to the people whose life this was.”
Wolper says Roots became “the most difficult and complex thing” he has undertaken in his 35-year career as the production team strived to realise their ambitions of creating four distinct films that will air on consecutive nights.
“We were shooting some of them simultaneously, on different continents and on a very rushed schedule because our broadcast partner wanted to air it this May,” he explains. “So it was enormously complex, with the added burden of the responsibility to the show, what it represents, its history, the legacy – all these things contributed to making it supremely difficult, challenging and emotional.
“One particularly emotional day was when we were shooting a significant sequence that was in the original Roots, which is where Kunta Kinte is whipped into submission to say his new name. LeVar was on the set that day, watching as Malachi went through the identical thing he had to experience 40 years earlier. That was very powerful and emotional.”
It also puts into perspective one of the most difficult aspects of filming Roots for television – how do you balance the importance of the story on screen with the desire to entertain viewers?
“Where we are now is because of where we were yesterday and where we are tomorrow is because of our knowledge of both of those periods of time,” notes Wolper. “That’s part of the responsibility of the show. But let’s not forget, it has to be good, it has to be entertaining as well – otherwise the lessons I hope are seeped into it won’t translate. Nobody will see it, nobody will respond to it. So you have to balance the experience with the knowledge you’re trying to share with people.”
But in another 40 years, will there be a need or a desire to retell Roots for the next generation?
Burton says: “It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll have to tell this story again in 30 or 40 years’ time, given that we told this story 40 years ago and looking at where we are today.”
Wolper adds: “But given where we might be 40 years from now, we still have to tell the story again because we might fall into the same trap again. You have to keep telling stories – that’s how you protect yourself from making the same mistakes.”
Rose concludes: “That’s why African villages would have griots. They would go from village to village to tell stories of the history of a people, to keep it a living word so you can move forward and hopefully not make the same mistakes again. And that’s the power of story.”
ABC’s early pickups show its new entertainment president is keen to keep its hit shows on top form by giving their creative teams as much time as possible to prepare for next season. Michael Pickard reports.
She’s been in the job little more than two weeks – but the new entertainment president at US network ABC is wasting no time making her mark.
Two months before advertising executives gather in New York to hear the Upfront presentations for the 2016/17 season, Channing Dungey has given them a big insight into what they can expect to see on the Alphabet’s schedule next season with a host of renewals across the television spectrum.
Long-running reality veterans The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars will be back for seasons 21 and 23 respectively, while there’s also good news for fans of comedies Black-ish, The Goldbergs, The Middle and Modern Family, among others.
On the drama side, ABC has picked up six series – including three from the Shonda Rhimes stable. Grey’s Anatomy will return this fall for its 13th run, How to Get Away With Murder will be back for season three and political drama Scandal gets a sixth outing.
Elsewhere, there were renewals for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (season four), fantasy Once Upon a Time (season six) and a second season order for one of the new breakout shows of the year, FBI thriller Quantico (pictured top), which stars Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.
Fans of Castle, American Crime, Marvel’s Agent Carter and music drama Nashville, however, are still in the dark about whether their shows will be back next year, while freshman series Wicked City and Blood and Oil have already been cancelled.
Some of those series left in limbo may find time is running out, with 11 drama pilots in contention for series orders next season. One of these is Conviction, which stars Hayley Atwell as the daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into joining LA’s new Conviction Integrity Unit – which examines whether the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime. Atwell, of course, is the star of Agent Carter so it seems unlikely she will appear in both shows unless Conviction receives a smaller episode order to allow her to continue in the Marvel series.
The possible cancellation of one Marvel series seems all the more likely considering another ABC pilot in contention – Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that stars Adrianne Palicki.
Room also needs to be found in the schedule for Designated Survivor, which was ordered straight to series, bypassing the traditional pilot process. The show stars Kiefer Sutherland as a low-level US cabinet member who becomes president when a catastrophic attack during the State of the Union kills everyone above him in the line of succession.
Speaking about her early renewals, which numbered 15 in total, Dungey said: “We’re very proud of our strong roster of performers, and we’re excited about what they will bring us creatively next season.”
And as ABC’s drama development executive prior to her recent promotion, Dungey knows creativity is key.
While a new season order placed in May gives writers and producers just four months to get the opening episodes ready to air in time for the new season launch in September, any extra time they can get to plot story arcs, fine-tune scripts and enhance special effects can only be beneficial – particularly if they’re on board the network treadmill that will see them churn out as many as 24 episodes by the season end next May.
This is where the larger episode orders associated with the five US broadcast networks come into stark contrast with cable networks, which tend to lean towards 10 to 13 episodes per season – and give creatives as long as a year to film a show ahead of its debut.
Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry admitted as much when he spoke about starting work on his Lifetime drama Devious Maids back in 2012.
Housewives ran for eight seasons on ABC, before Cherry crafted an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Ellas Son la Alegría del Hogar, about four women who have ambitions and dreams of their own while working for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. ABC ordered a pilot but ultimately passed on the project, which was then picked up by Lifetime and is now heading into its fourth season.
Describing the benefits of working for a cable channel, he said: “Artistically, it gives you greater licence to do much more complicated storytelling and richer and deeper writing than you have time for on a network schedule.
“With the networks, from the time they pick up your show to the time you start shooting is approximately six weeks. That’s not a lot of time to plan what you’re going to be doing for 23 episodes, whereas I have four straight months of plotting before we start shooting. What the fans are going to see from me is the best writing I’ve ever done because I have time to plan things and talk about them and get to deeper places.”
With her background in drama development, Dungey knows this and it’s too her credit that she has given these six dramas as much time as possible to prepare for the 2016/17 season.
Other networks have also given some early season orders, with CBS renewing NCIS and Fox planning more Empire. And like ABC, NBC has also gone big on early renewals for The Blacklist, Shades of Blue, Chicago PD, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Blindspot.
With networks under pressure to keep ratings high in the age of catch-up and increasing competition from both cable and OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon, giving writers and producers more time to stay on top of their game and keep their series entertaining and engaging will benefit viewers and advertisers alike.
And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?
It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.
More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.
And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?
And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”
The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.
Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”
Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”
She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”
Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”
When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.
“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’
“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”
The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.
“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.
“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”
Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.
“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.
“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”
Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”
“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.
“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”
Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.
“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.
“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”
With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?
“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”
With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.
“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong explains why adaptations of the celebrated author’s stories, which remain popular across the world, will keep on coming.
The 125th anniversary of the birth of author Agatha Christie this year is being marked with two new television adaptations.
Sleuthing couple Tommy and Tuppence appeared in a new BBC1 series called Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, in July. A six-part drama placing the characters in the 1950s, it re-imagined the events of Christie novels The Secret Adversary and N or M? across two three-part stories produced by Endor Productions.
BBC1 has also partnered with US cable network Lifetime on a new adaptation of And Then There Were None, which was named the world’s favourite Christie novel in a survey published in September.
The classic thriller, which tells of 10 individuals invited to an isolated island where they are killed one by one by an unknown murderer, has been adapted by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations) and produced by Mammoth Screen. The cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens and Aidan Turner, and is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas.
These new adaptations serve as a fitting tribute to the prolific writer, dubbed the Queen of Crime. But they also represent the efforts of Agatha Christie Ltd to introduce her to a new generation of fans by becoming more proactive when exploiting the rights to the author’s vast library.
Hilary Strong (pictured top), CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, says: “The brief from Mathew Pritchard, Christie’s only grandchild and chairman of the company, was that we would work together to exploit the brand ourselves and that’s why he brought me in with my television background,” explains Strong. “We were coming to the end of our Poirot films series on ITV that first aired in 1989. David Suchet’s work as Poirot is iconic and no one else has played a leading drama role for 25 years. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done but we knew they were finishing and we knew then that we had to do something new and fresh.
“It gave us the opportunity to sit back and decide what we wanted to do. Did we want to carry on with Christie being the traditional, much-loved work that it is? People’s perception of it is ‘cosy crime.’ But for a brand to remain alive and resonate for a modern audience, it needs to do something new and give a different message.”
With a background in television and rights management, Strong is perfectly placed for this new challenge. She was previously MD of Acorn Productions, where she had responsibility for developing drama around the works of Christie and other properties, including Foyle’s War. She has also worked for Chorion (Enid Blyton, Paddington Bear) and was group business director at Hat Trick Productions.
With Partners in Crime, the company made its first move away from ‘cosy crime,’ setting the action in a more recent period and casting Walliams and Raine to attract a younger audience. And Then There Were None, while set in 1939, has a more contemporary tone and is, Strong says, “really fucking scary.”
She explains: “Sarah Phelps has done an amazing job and has been absolutely truthful to the story while giving us this deep dark tone. For me, it embodies what we’ve been trying to do – take something and retell it so it appeals to modern audiences. If we can achieve that, then we’ve done our job. I don’t want to shake off the cosy crime image but I want people to understand that Christie can be delivered in a different way.”
The company isn’t just interested in a new way of telling Christie – it is also shaking up the way its television adaptations are built. No longer simply licensing rights away, Agatha Christie Ltd is keeping its hand in the creative process and building direct relationships with broadcasters and suggesting potential projects before selecting the production partners they want to work with to bring the idea to the screen.
“It is quite unusual,” Strong says of the strategy. “It helps that there are relationships before that process. Damien Timmer, who runs Mammoth, was an executive producer at ITV on Poirot and Miss Marple, so he has a long relationship with the family and the company. When we sat down with him, he was extremely open to the benefits of collaboration because you get a different insight when you’ve got people who really know the brand involved. The script process is very collaborative but once production starts, they get on and make the programme. It works really well.
“The thing I was most keen to do was move away from the idea that the estate is there to approve or disapprove, which does happen with estates. So if we get it right and we’ve chosen the right writer and worked on the scripts, then once you get to production, those parts are in place. It would be quite unusual to hit a fundamental problem then.
“We also do a lot of the design stuff together because that’s really important to us. We need to make sure the imagery being used when you get to promotion works cross-platform. We had new book covers for Partners in Crime, with a logo that goes across the TV programmes.”
Christie isn’t just popular in Britain, however. Strong says the novelist’s works have been translated into more languages than those of any other author, while TV adaptations have been sold into more than 180 countries. Japanese network NHK aired a two-part version of Murder on the Orient Express in January this year, produced by Fuji TV. And French broadcaster France 2 is behind Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie, which plants two detectives into Christie plots. Twenty-three episodes have been produced by Escazal Films since 2009.
“What’s been really interesting is just how big Christie is in other countries,” says Strong. “In South America, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Christie is huge and they have their own indigenous productions in foreign languages.”
She also suggests a big deal for the German-language rights to Christie’s books is near completion, adding that the estate is very open to doing “very radical, avant garde, contemporary new things” with Christie’s stories.
“But we’re unlikely to muck about with the core plot because that’s what works,” she explains. “When people start trying to mess with it, that’s when it goes wrong. You can tell it in a new way, give it a contemporary tone or set it in a contemporary setting. And Then There Was None means there is no one left at the end. It’s not a returning series!”
Strong recognises the drama business is tougher now than at any point in her career: “The fact that budgets have come down and expectations in terms of quality are higher, together with the need to compete on the international market, means your vision and scale has had to go up.
“It’s a very good time for drama. There’s an awful lot out there but that’s because there’s an appetite for it. As people keep on watching it, people want more. And the fact there’s so much, if you’ve got a brand like Christie, you can put your head above the parapet a bit and people can find you in the schedules.
“But one of the things we don’t do is work with people just because they think the brand will help them sell more shows. We will only work with people we know have a genuine love for the stories. We have tried developing a couple of smart ideas and then down the road realised the people we were working with didn’t have the depth of understanding of the brand, and in those circumstances it rarely works. If you work with people who understand Christie, it just works much better.”
Strong would love to see Witness for the Prosecution, a short story about a woman who gives evidence for the prosecution in her husband’s murder trial, made for television and says the global appeal of Christie’s stories is in the pure and simple language she uses.
In the meantime, fans can look forward to a new big-screen version of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh for 20th Century Fox. Branagh will also star as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who must investigate a murder on board the famous train – but there are a number of passengers who could have committed the crime.
Agatha Christie Ltd has also launched its own digital drama based upon Christie’s character Mr Quin, which launched as an app in November 2015.
But what is it about Christie’s work that means it has stood the test of time? “Her plot lines are just ingenious and her characters are lovable,” Strong adds. “People adore them. And the breadth – there are 33 Poirot novels to read. You’re not going to do it in a hurry.
“I don’t see any time when people don’t want to carry on reading her books. Our job is to retell those stories in a way that makes them accessible for people. What I’d love – and would tell me I’d done my job – is if people watched And Then There Were None and then went back and read some of the original books.”
It’s been one of the surprise hit series of the year – but what is the secret of UnREAL’s success? Michael Pickard reports.
From Breaking Bad to Mad Men, True Detective to House of Cards, there is a seemingly endless conveyer belt of complex – and often flawed – male characters headlining TV dramas. But one new show has turned this trend on its head and placed the concept of imperfect female heroes, and antiheroes, firmly into the public consciousness.
UnREAL, which launched on US cable network Lifetime in June and has been picked up for a second season, is set against the backdrop of a reality dating TV show called Everlasting, where young producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, pictured above left) is pushed to manipulate the contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by the programme’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer, pictured above right).
Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL was inspired by Sequin Raze, the short film made by Shapiro who worked for nine years as a producer of real-life dating series The Bachelor.
Noxon executive produces with Sally DeSipio and Robert M Sertner, while Shapiro serves as supervising producer and Stacy Rukeyser co-executive produces. The series is produced by A+E Studios and distributed by A+E Networks.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Appleby (Roswell, Girls) when asked about her attraction to the project. “The character of Rachel was a woman I’d never met – someone who had so much conflict and a really deep story. I was excited about the challenge of playing a woman who wasn’t going to be likeable and whose purpose on the show is not to serve a man. She’s on her own journey trying to find herself and find where she fits in this world. Each episode continued to interest me and engage me personally and professionally.”
The actress met with some reality show producers as part of her research for the role, and says it was “refreshing” to have the chance to play an unlikeable character.
“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of female showrunners, including Lena Dunham (Girls), so working for Sarah and Marti was comfortable for me. What was awesome was that they were writing a show about women and allowing them to be ugly and complicated, and they weren’t concerned with making these characters likeable. That’s what was so refreshing. The response has been really gratifying.”
Zimmer (Entourage, House of Cards), who boarded the series after the pilot had already been shot, said she was initially concerned about appearing on a Lifetime drama but, after a two-hour meeting, she became convinced UnREAL would change the face of the network.
“It was a stretch for Lifetime but if any show was going to break it out, it was this one,” she says. “If this show were anywhere else, it might not have been as well received because it was so unexpected. People were hesitant – and are still hesitant – to watch a show on Lifetime, but now we’ve broken the mould. People were talking about UnREAL, and once you saw it, you couldn’t stop yourself. That was a huge compliment.”
Zimmer also admits to being a “little terrified” of playing Quinn, a no-nonsense TV producer who demands results from her team. But the challenge of the role also excited her: “With this kind of show, you have to go big or go home. You can’t do this inside reality show where no person is bad – everybody’s flawed and you have female antiheroes.
“We were embarking on a huge journey and to do it we all had to be scared to do certain things – and that’s what was so fun. Because we were all so committed to making it as dark as we could, it was challenging but lots of fun.”
Appleby and Zimmer say they were lucky to land on UnREAL together, but it wasn’t until the show was described by some critics as “the female Breaking Bad” that they realised what they were involved in.
“It just shows you there’s a lack of flawed female characters and that you don’t have to be perfect as women,” Zimmer says. “You can still have a voice if you’re not perfect. Nobody on this show was afraid to be ugly or sinister to have a voice.
“We just tapped into so many different emotions across the board. People were fascinated with the reality side of it, whether they had ever seen a reality show or not, and they were fascinated by these evil characters. That doesn’t happen very often. And because it has two women, it has this Breaking Bad quality, where Walter White was doing horrible things but you still liked him.
“Maybe if it were two men, it might not have been so impactful but because it was two women running this world and abusing other women and themselves at the same time, it spoke to a lot of people about what we all do in our daily life to women.”
With the clamour among television networks around the world for an increasing amount of original drama and the dearth of a new breakout reality or entertainment format – the last big hit arguably being The Voice in 2011 – it is perhaps a sign of the times that reality TV is the subject of a drama.
But according to co-creator Noxon, a series that not just parodies reality television but also explores how it is made was long overdue.
“I wanted to show how these reality shows are really made and the damage they do, not just to those involved but to the people who watch it,” she explains. “This culture of bully television, where you watch to make fun of people or feel superior to them – it’s really corrosive; it’s ugly. I knew it was the perfect setting for a big soapy, juicy drama but also there was a real opportunity to comment on something that has been making me really angry for a long time.”
But has Noxon been on the receiving end of any criticism for the way UnREAL portrays reality television? “The only person who’s commented in any negative way is someone who’s on the show. Everybody else I know involved in reality has secretly said to me, ‘You nailed it, that’s what it’s like,’ and that is shocking to me,” she says. “We pushed the boundaries as far as we could and to have people say, ‘Yeah, that feels like my job,’ is pretty chilling actually.
“One of the things I learned through this experience is that I was like a lot of people watching reality television – I was judgemental, because I felt people on reality TV knew what they were signing up for. Now I know, from getting into how these shows are constructed, that nobody can know what they’re signing up for. They have no idea. Unless you’ve worked on a reality show, you think you can beat the system but you can’t.”
Zimmer agrees UnREAL has “touched a nerve” with some viewers who work in the industry portrayed on the show: “They’ve been unbelievably vocal about saying how much our show is what they deal with, and that was terrifying,” she says. “I was so scared when someone came up to me and said, ‘I know exactly who you’re playing.’”
With a second season of the show due to air on Lifetime in 2016, A+E Networks has already sold UnREAL into more than 100 territories, including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
Joel Denton, the distributor’s MD of international content sales and partnerships, recognises the show’s departure from Lifetime’s regular programming, admitting it’s not the type of series you’d normally see on the female-targeted channel.
“It’s younger, edgier, dark and comedic,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you’d traditionally expect to see there. It’s really pushing boundaries and it’s great to see it was such a huge critical success.
“It’s poking fun at a lot of things that go on in television and that’s fairly universal. Ultimately, it’s a workplace drama and it’s the drama and characters that drive its success. There are a lot of hooks in terms of themes and ideas that are universal.”
With viewers around the world falling in love with UnREAL, many more networks can now be expected to make a date with this hit series.
After a strong showing at the Emmys, Amazon is in buoyant mood. It’s now hoping to keep up the momentum with six new drama and comedy pilots that will launch on Amazon Video later this year in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. As with previous pilots, Amazon will use audience feedback to decide whether to take any of the new scripted shows to series.
The pilots include Good Girls Revolt, a story set in 1969 that follows a group of young women seeking to be treated fairly and ultimately sparking changes that upend marriages, careers, love and friendships. Created and written by Dana Calvo, the show is based on landmark sexual discrimination cases chronicled in a book by Lynn Povich. Amazon is coproducing with Tristar TV.
Another female-protagonist drama is Z, a bio-series about Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written by Dawn Prestwich (The Killing), Z will star Christina Ricci as the beautiful and talented southern belle who became the original flapper and icon of the flamboyant Jazz Age in the 1920s. The story will follow Zelda’s social successes and her descent into mental illness.
Amazon will also reinforce the recent revival of the western genre with Edge, based on George G. Gilman’s best-selling book series of the same name. Set in 1868, the story centres on Josiah ‘Edge’ Hedges – a Union officer turned cowboy who prowls the post-Civil War American West doling out his own savage brand of justice. Edge was developed by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) and Fred Dekker (Tales from the Crypt, Star Trek: Enterprise). The pair also wrote the screenplay.
The other three Amazon pilots are Highston, One Mississippi and Patriot, a political thriller about an intelligence officer assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear. Patriot is written and directed by Steven Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Weather Man), who executive produces alongside Gil Bellows, Glen Ficarra, Charlie Gogolak and John Requa.
Amazon Studios VP Roy Price said: “Our latest pilot season brings together diverse shows that we think customers will really enjoy. We have something for everyone in this season and I am excited to see which shows spark conversation among our customers and what they want to be made into series.”
Amazon’s continued drive into scripted TV was further reinforced this week with the acquisition of exclusive rights to USA Network’s critically acclaimed drama Mr Robot. The first series (10 episodes) of the show will be available to Amazon subscribers in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan from spring 2016.
Meanwhile, reports have been bubbling under for a couple of weeks that Netflix might be about to commission Charlie Brooker to make some new episodes of his dystopian anthology series Black Mirror. This story has now been confirmed, with Netflix greenlighting 12 episodes. Brooker described the SVoD giant as “the most fitting platform imaginable” for the series, which until now has been produced for Channel 4 in the UK. Explaining the appeal, he said: “Netflix connects us with a global audience so that we can create bigger, stranger, more international and diverse stories than before, while maintaining that Black Mirror feel.”
Netflix will premiere the show exclusively worldwide, except in the UK and Ireland where plans are still being determined. This hesitation over the UK is unlike Netflix, but is probably due to Channel 4’s involvement in the franchise to date. Possibly, Netflix and Brooker are looking for a way to include C4 in the deal so that it can benefit from the expansion of a show it helped to build.
Netflix VP of original content Cindy Holland said: “Charlie has created a one-of-a-kind series with an uncanny voice and prescient, darkly comedic vision. We’re tremendously proud to bring Black Mirror to our members as a Netflix original series.”
In terms of other renewals, there is good news for Mistresses, which has been awarded a fourth season by ABC. Another female ensemble series, Lifetime’s Devious Maids, is also returning for a fourth season next year. Announcing the recommission, Liz Gateley, EVP of programming for Lifetime, said: “Devious Maids is a steady hit that continues to deliver for us. It has found a loyal audience that is socially engaged with the show. The entire writing and production team worked hard to up the storytelling this year and the cast delivered great performances, so the show just gets better and better.”
Inspired by the hit telenovela, Ellas son… la alegría del hogar, Devious Maids is produced by ABC Studios. Last season it drove Lifetime to rank as the number-two cable network with scripted programming in the Monday 21.00-22.00 slot among women aged 25-54 and 18-49, while its August 24 season finale reached season highs among total viewers, adults aged 25-54 and women aged 25-54.
This week also saw an announcement by Italian public broadcaster Rai that it has commissioned an eight-part drama. Medici: Masters of Florence will chronicle the rise of the Medici family, with Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) playing Cosimo de’ Medici and Hoffman portraying family patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici.
The series, which will be produced by Lux Vide and Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, has been created by Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), with Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (The Pillars of the Earth) directing. Germany’s Wild Bunch TV is a co-financier and will oversee international sales, starting at Mipcom next month.
Spotnitz, a US writer who has carved out a strong niche for himself writing European coproductions in English, called the tale of the Medicis a “powerful story that resonates even now.”
Medici: Masters of Florence is a major step forward for Rai at a time when Italian producers and broadcasters are starting to have a much bigger impact on the international drama market. RAI Fiction director Tinny Andreatta said the show “has great international appeal and we hope it will open up a new era of creative coproductions.”
Finally, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa responsible for English-language programming, and Lantica Media have announced they are developing a new version of Gran Hotel, based on hit Spanish series from Bambu Producciones. The show will be shot at Lantica’s Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios and is based on an original script by Stephen Kronish (24, Kennedys).
The new version of the format, which is distributed internationally by Beta Film, will be set in 1950s Cuba. “It was a time when mobsters, politicians and celebrities flocked to Havana, the world’s most exotic and permissive playground,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Setting Gran Hotel in a sexy, sinful atmosphere offers up a rich fusion of glamour and intrigue deeply rooted in an exceptional murder-mystery format with a proven global footprint.
Antonio Gennari, CEO of Lantica Media, added: “Since the introduction of (a new) film law and incentives, the Dominican Republic has seen substantial growth in film and TV production. The country offers mesmerising scenery and world-class production capabilities that will serve as the ideal backdrop for Havana’s Gran Hotel.” As part of the announcement, Gennari said Lantica and Televisa USA were also planning other projects.
The original Gran Hotel aired for three seasons on Antena 3 in Spain. During its first season, it reached an 18.5% share of viewers in Spain and was also sold to broadcasters in France, the UK and Russia, as well as being reversioned in Italy.
Beta Film SVP Christian Gockel said: “Gran Hotel is one of Beta’s biggest sales hits and franchises of recent years, as proven currently on Rai’s primetime. As coproducers of the Italian adaptation, we are thrilled to see Gran Hotel opening its doors in Cuba’s 1950s.”
As Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce heads to the UK, Michael Pickard speaks to its star and creator about sexual politics and new opportunities for strong female characters.
She’s best known for her long-running role in Fox medical drama House.
But with a string of credits on shows including The West Wing, Ally McBeal, Scandal, Castle and The Good Wife, Lisa Edelstein is now heading the cast of the first original drama to air on US cable network Bravo.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce stars Edelstein as a self-help book author who shocks the world when she reveals her seemingly perfect life has been a lie after separating from her husband. As a newly single woman in her 40s, she turns to her divorced friends to help her confront some unexpected and life-changing experiences.
Executive produced by Marti Noxon, the series is based on the best-selling Girlfriends’ Guide book series by Vicki Iovine – with episode titles such as Rule No 174: Never Trust Anyone Who Charges by the Hour. The show is produced by Universal Cable Productions and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution is handling worldwide sales.
The series was originally pitched to Showtime, but the premium cable network let it pass and Girlfriends’ Guide instead landed at Bravo, where it debuted in the US in December 2014. Edelstein is now back on set for season two, with production on 13 new episodes due to wrap in mid-November.
Speaking to DQ ahead of the show’s launch on Lifetime in the UK, Edelstein says the opportunity to play a woman her own age as the lead in a romantic comedy-drama was previously unheard of.
“It’s such a cool experience,” she says. “This show is a drama about funny people, that’s how we put it. It’s about people who themselves are funny but the story itself is very real and deep.
“I love the mistakes that she makes. I feel like I made a lot of those mistakes myself when I was much younger because I did the opposite of this character, I stayed single for a very long time and then got married in my 40s, and she’s single for the first time in her 40s. She’s making a lot of rookie mistakes.”
Girlfriends’ Guide is one of a number of series across US television now pushing strong female characters into leading roles. Another example is Lifetime’s UnReal, which was co-created by Noxon.
“I love it, it’s so fantastic,” says Edelstein of this trend. “The stories are so interesting and compelling and they just haven’t been told.
“I would never imagine this opportunity at this point in my life when I started. I didn’t see an opportunity like this until a year before I got this job but now it’s just part of the world. It’s because there are so many more outlets now that they have to break through. You can’t do the same thing as another network. Everyone’s more competitive and the result is better quality shows, better quality scripts, and things that would never have seen the light of day because they are too edgy or different now get a chance and get to shine.”
Edelstein adds that she had no qualms about joining Bravo’s first original drama, describing it as “the network’s baby.”
“It still has enough of the glamorous aspects that people are used to seeing on Bravo, but then the stories themselves are a lot truer when you’re in a scripted drama than when you’re in a reality show,” she explains. “People relate in a much stronger way. They’re not just laughing and pointing at people like they do when they watch reality shows; they get to go inside a story and relate it to their own experience. That’s something Bravo was really itching to do and they’re an incredible network to be on because they’re so excited about this move that they’re very supportive. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Following a career that included working on shows such as Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends’ Guide marks Noxon’s first show where she is billed as the creator. She says a big part of Girlfriends’ Guide is appealing to a specific audience – working women.
“Television has changed so much,” she says. “There’s so much more opportunity now. When you’re working at networks, there are layers and layers of bureaucracy but so much of that is simplified in cable. I’m also able to write stuff that’s much more specific.
“We’re not about trying to reach as many people as possible, we’re trying to reach certain people. We’re able to identify the audience we’re trying to reach and be as frank as real as possible. Girlfriends’ Guide is funny but it also really reflects the world that me and a lot of people I know are living in today. It’s really great to be able to be honest and put it all out there.”
Noxon says she never considered writing a show particularly for women, but just about her experiences and those of her friends: “The idea of the show came from two places: myself and other friends who had all been through divorces so we all had lots of stories, and Vicki’s story was also so compelling. She made her money writing advice books for women. While she was on a book tour, her marriage broke up while she was out there pretending she had this family she could hold up as an example of how to do things right. For me, that was the best kicking off place for a show.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happened to me – in episode three, Abby (Edelstein) gets her fingers stuck in a window and she’s alone in the house and that happened to me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really divorced because there’s no one here to help me.’ Lots of things are based on things that really happened and we continue to do that. Going back out in the world as a single woman in your 40s is no picnic.”
Those experiences are also where much of the humour in Girlfriends’ Guide originates. “The comedy comes from real situations. We don’t write jokes,” Noxon explains. “It’s about people who happen to be funny in funny situations. They can comment and editorialise on their own experiences as people do in life. Sometimes the worse things get, you have to find a way to laugh about it, so I think it’s a good fit for me. I don’t like forced humour but I love it when it feels organic to what you’re writing about.”
Inspired by Iovine’s self-help books, Noxon says she was interested in exploring sexual politics and how the dynamics are changing between men and women, both at home and at work.
“If you talk to women across the world, a lot of women have to work full-time or all the time to help support their families but what’s new in more and more cases, women are earning the same or more than their husbands and that shift is really having an impact, at least on relationships in the circles I run in,” she says. “That to me was interesting – how do we navigate this new world where often its women initiating divorce more than men. Part of that has to be we’re financially able to support ourselves whereas previously the impetus to stay was for financial security.”
But if you think this show is just for women, you might want to think again. Both Noxon and Edelstein say Bravo noted a high number of male viewers tuning into the first season.
“Because it’s called Girlfriends’ Guide, a lot of men got tricked into watching it by their female partners or friends and then ended up becoming just as engaged in the story in the story as the women are,” Edelstein adds. “But men are by no means the bad guys. It’s a complicated story.”
Sci-fi drama Humans is now halfway through its eight-episode run on Channel 4 (C4) in the UK and two episodes into its airing on US cable channel AMC. In both cases its ratings are on the slide, but it is doing well enough in the UK that C4 will want a second series.
In the UK, the show generated a huge number of headlines when its opening episode attracted an impressive audience of 5.47 million (live plus seven days). Episode two dropped to 4.45 million, the third outing secured 3.6 million and the numbers are yet to be released for the most recent fourth edition. In the minus column is the scale of the slide, but on the plus side Humans is still massively outperforming C4’s usual drama ratings. Even if figures dip further over the next two to three episodes, the hardcore audience looks strong enough to merit renewal.
The AMC audience, however, has not been so enthused with the show. After a debut audience of 1.73 million for episode one, the show attracted 1.09 million for episode two. That’s a 37% drop, compared with the 19% drop on C4. Of course, we need to give the show a few more episodes on AMC before we reach any firm conclusions. But producer Kudos will be hoping that the US audience stays strong enough to merit an AMC renewal. It won’t want to be in a position where C4 says yes and AMC says no. For comparison, AMC’s version of Low Winter Sun was cancelled after one season, having averaged 1.21 million and a 0.43 rating among 18-49s. Humans is performing at a similar level on AMC.
While AMC will need to think carefully about Humans, its sister channel SundanceTV has announced a fourth season of Rectify. Revealing the renewal on the eve of the season three premiere (July 9), Charlie Collier, president of AMC and SundanceTV said: “Even in an increasingly crowded field of dramas on TV, Rectify has established itself as something special. What (creator) Ray McKinnon, this incredible cast and everyone associated with the show have achieved is remarkable, and we are so pleased to usher in this third season with an order for a fourth.”
Rectify follows the life of Daniel Holden, who returns to his small hometown in Georgia after serving 19 years on death row. It has received good reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly (“TV’s wisest, deepest drama”) and TIME (“Terrific slow-burn drama”). News that it is going to a fourth series will be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which has sold the show internationally to such firms as Sky Germany, Netflix and Arte.
USA Network’s much-hyped hacker series Mr Robot launched this week to a solid start. Live-plus-three ratings came in at 3.7 million, which is at the upper end of recent USAN launches. Elements in the show’s favour include the fact that the audience was pretty strong in terms of the all-important 18-49 demo. It’s also important to take account of the fact that the show had been previewed online a month earlier, attracting 2.7 million viewers. Presumably, some of those early adopters wouldn’t have bothered to watch this week’s linear TV transmission.
Success with the 18-49 demo is also one reason why Lifetime has decided to renew UnREAL, its reality TV-based drama. The opening episode of the first season didn’t rate at all well, but Lifetime’s subsequent decision to put the first four episodes online appears to have revived the show’s fortunes – resulting in a strong showing for the TV airing of episode five. The dynamic at work here seems to be that Lifetime wants shows like UnREAL to attract younger audiences. But the problem is persuading those younger audiences to come looking for content on Lifetime. The online experiment seems to have addressed this conundrum, by allowing non-traditional Lifetime audiences to sample the show. The result is that UnREAL is now being described as Lifetime’s youngest scripted series ever, with a median viewer age of 43.
Commenting on the renewal, network executive VP and head of programming Liz Gateley said: “We couldn’t be more proud to bring back UnREAL. With authentically flawed characters, sharp storytelling and impeccable performances, this show is propelling our brand in a truly exciting direction – an unexpected and bolder Lifetime. We are thrilled to continue our work with (co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) and the A+E Studios team, as we together bring a new generation of viewers to Lifetime.”
Adweek has a good analysis of this story, exploring the way US channel chiefs are increasingly leaning on digital numbers when making their renewal decisions.
Adweek also makes an interesting observation about the tendency for cable channels to recommission shows early (Rectify, Mr Robot and UnREAL all being examples). It says early pickups are a way for networks to “assure viewers who may be on the fence about diving into a new show that might get cancelled that, yes, it’s safe to start watching.” This is a growing problem for channel chiefs – and not just in the US. Audiences don’t want to invest time and emotional energy in shows that may be axed in the near future, so viewers adopt a wait-and-see attitude by banking episodes. The problem with this, of course, is that their reluctance to jump on board may increase the likelihood of cancellation, because it dampens ratings performance. This is another factor channel chiefs need to ponder.
In terms of projects to watch out for, July 19 sees the launch of Spike US’s six-part miniseries Tut. Produced by Muse Entertainment, the drama will tell the story of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s rise to power and the political machinations in his court. There is very little indication yet as to what the show will be like, but it has been acquired this week by Channel 5 in the UK, which – like Spike – is part of the Viacom family of channels.
A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”
The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”
Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.
Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.
The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.
Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”
Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.
Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).
We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.
Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.
This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.
Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”
In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.
Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.
Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.
Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.
Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.