TV markets MipTV and Mipcom in Cannes are primarily known as places for buying and selling programming. But the recent surge in the quality of scripted content from around the world has given them an interesting new role – as platforms for screening new shows.
At first, the screenings were organised on an ad-hoc basis. But MipTV 2016 in April saw the launch of the Mip Drama Screenings, an array of shows selected by jury. There was even a kind of competition, with Belgium’s Public Enemy being awarded the first ever Coup de Couer.
Mipcom, which takes place next month, is also benefiting from the growing appeal of screenings. At the time of writing, market organiser Reed Midem had announced two World Premiere Screenings and eight International Drama Screenings. This is approximately twice as many screenings as last year and it’s still possible one or two more titles will be added to the overall schedule.
The first of the World Premiere TV Screenings (on the evening of Sunday October 16) is the eye-catching Mata Hari, an ambitious series about the infamous dancer, courtesan and First World War female spy.
Based on a true story, Mata Hari is an English-language drama that is produced by Star Media of Russia and distributed by Red Arrow International. It stars French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role, and features Christopher Lambert (Highlander) and John Corbett (Sex and the City) – all three of whom will attend Mipcom and take part in a Q&A session directly following the screening.
Commenting on the 12-hour series, Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale, quality and ambition of this new series mark a new chapter in Russian-made English-language drama, and we are looking forward to launching it at Mipcom.”
It is part of a growing trend towards English-language series originating in non-English markets – other examples being Versailles and forthcoming drama The Young Pope.
Screening on Tuesday October 18, 20th Century Fox Television’s much-anticipated two-hour TV special of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the other World Premiere Screening at Mipcom. A made-for-TV reboot of the iconic movie/theatre show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show sees young couple Brad and Janet stray off the highway one night and stumble upon the castle of Dr Frank-N-Furter, a gender-bending mad scientist who is keen to show off his latest creation, Rocky.
It stars Laverne Cox as Dr Frank-N-Furter, Victoria Justice as Janet, Ryan McCartan as Brad, and Adam Lambert as Eddie, the role originally played by Meat Loaf. The new version also sees Tim Curry, the original Frank-N-Furter, return as the show’s criminologist narrator.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, the editorial heritage of the project is bound to attract plenty of buyers. But it will also be interesting to see if it represents a revival of interest in the TV film format, which could lend itself well to the on-demand viewing landscape that major markets have shifted towards. It would be a major surprise if the project didn’t attract the interest of Amazon or Netflix (the latter of which works with Cox on Orange is the New Black).
Turning to the International Drama Screenings, one of the first up will be Beta Film-distributed historic epic Maximilian and Maria de Bourgogne, which will be screened on the evening of Monday, October 17. Directed by Andreas Prochaska, this sumptuous six-hour period drama is estimated to have had a budget of €16m (US$17.9m). A love story set towards the end of the Middle Ages, it stars Berlinale up-and-comer Jannis Niewoehner alongside César-nominee Christa Théret and is coproduced by MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.
Another interesting screening will be The Missing 2, an English-language thriller distributed by All3media International. Initially, the organisers of Mipcom weren’t sure if it was right to screen a follow-up season. But they were ultimately convinced by the fact that The Missing is an anthology format, part of a growing trend in scripted TV that also includes acclaimed series such as Fargo and True Detective.
The story follows a young woman who has been missing for 11 years. When she returns, she holds vital clues about another missing girl who has not yet been found.
Aside from its anthology status, the show is interesting because of the complexity of its coproduction status. It is credited as a New Pictures production for BBC1 in the UK and US premium cable network Starz, in association with Two Brothers Pictures and Playground Entertainment. It is also cited as a copro with Czar TV and BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance with the support of één (VRT) and Screen Flanders.
Screening on October 18 is Ouro, distributed by Newen Distribution. The eight-part series is a modern day adventure set in the Amazonian jungle. It tells the story of Vincent, a 20-year-old geology student, who goes to French Guiana to do an internship at a gold-mining company. His love for danger then prompts him to join forces with a local gold lord to explore an abandoned mine.
This is another show that is certain to attract a lot of interest. Aside from the fact it is part of a resurgence of interest in adventure series, it’s a Canal+ original drama, meaning it’s part of the same stable as acclaimed French scripted shows like The Returned, Versailles, Spiral and Braquo.
Continuing the popularity of challenging period drama, there will also be a screening of Carnival Films’ Jamestown, which tells the story of the first British settlers in North America’s inhospitable but magnificent wilderness. As three young women arrive in a fledgling Virginian colony, the community battles against threats from both outside and within. This is another six-parter, underlining the popularity of this format.
At the other end of the scripted spectrum, there is also a screening for AwesomenessTV’s Freakish, the story of 20 high-school students trying to survive after their school has been destroyed by an explosion that causes the surviving population to mutate.
Wednesday October 19 in Cannes will see a double bill of screenings, starting with Global Screen-distributed Prisoners (working title). Combining the international market’s interest in Nordic content with its fascination with women’s prison drama, this six-part scripted series, directed by Ragnar Bragason, is about a woman who is sent to serve time in Iceland’s only female prison for a vicious assault that leaves her father in a coma. But no one knows that she harbours a dark secret that could tear her family apart – a secret that could also set her free.
The second leg of the double bill is UFA Fiction’s Charité, also a six parter. Set in Berlin in 1888, it centres on the world-famous Charité Hospital.
Aside from telling a compelling human-interest story, the series uses the hospital as a microcosmic reflection of late 19th century Wilhelmine society. This period saw unprecedented scientific progress in medicine accompanied by radical changes in society and the economic upheavals of industrialisation. The series is directed by Sönke Wortmann and written by Dorothee Schön and Sabine Thor-Wiedemann.
Finally on the Mipcom screening slate comes The Legendary Tycoon, from China Huace Film & TV. A welcome addition to the mix, the show is set against the backdrop of the Chinese film industry and is based on the true story of Asia’s first movie mogul, Sir Run Run Shaw.
Shaw, who founded Shaw Brothers Film Studios in the 1960s, was a media mogul who popularised Chinese Kung Fu movies in the west and worked in the entertainment industry for 80 years. Known as The King of Asian Entertainment, he died in 2014 at the amazing age of 107.
There’s no question that the dramas that secured screenings at MipTV 2016 benefited enormously in terms of profile among international buyers. So it will be interesting to see if this autumn’s crop of shows get a similar boost to their distribution efforts.
Martin Ambrosch, the writer behind German crime drama Anatomy of Evil and the forthcoming historical series Maximilian, tells DQ about the challenge of meeting his own ambitions on screen.
As one half of a prolific writer-director partnership, Martin Ambrosch describes himself as a specialist in thrillers.
During his career he has penned episodes of German police procedural Tatort and Austrian crime dramas SOKO Kitzbühel and SOKO Donau.
But it is together with director Andreas Prochaska that Ambrosch brought to life the hit TV movie franchise Anatomy, which airs on ZDF in Germany and ORF in Austria.
The series, which debuted in 2010 with Anatomy of Evil, follows psychologist Richard Brock (played by Heino Ferch) as he is called in by the Vienna police to investigate the murder of a man who was about to stand trial for embezzlement.
Four more films featuring Brock followed – Anatomy of Revenge, Anatomy of Fear, Anatomy of Shame and Anatomy of Surrender, which aired in February – while the sixth in the series, Anatomy of Desire, began filming in February. A seventh instalment is already in development, with production due to begin in November this year.
Anatomy of Evil was subsequently sold to 34 countries by distributor Beta Film, with buyers including Netflix, Rai Cinema in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain. Ambrosch himself won an Austrian TV Romy award for the film, having previously earned a German Grimme award for one of his Tatort episodes.
“It’s a series I came up with. I just proposed it to the producer and the director and we developed a unique story,” Ambrosch says of Anatomy. “It’s a very character-driven story, which I like very much. It’s my child.”
Ambrosch’s partnership with Prochaska also includes the 2014 TV movie Sarajevo, about the events that led to the First World War; mystery western feature film The Dark Valley, which starred Sam Riley (SS-GB); and the forthcoming historical drama Maximilian.
Set in the 15th century in the Austrian Middle Ages, the latter retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The three-part miniseries is coproduced by MR Film and Beta Film for ZDF and ORF. It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“Maximilian was very intense,” Ambrosch says. “It was very different from pure fiction because the life of Maximilian is known to many. I had to create my own Maximilian out of his historic personality. It was a challenge but I think we managed it.
“Andreas and I have been colleagues and friends for a long time. We’re both very ambitious, so we knew we could create something really important. It was my first chance to do three 90-minute episodes in a historic setting, so it was a big opportunity for me and I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I love the historic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
Ambrosch says he spent a year researching the true story behind Maximilian – but admits there’s a strong element of fiction to the tale viewers will see on screen. “That’s the creativity we wanted to give to the series,” he says. “You can’t just make a documentary. You have to create something that’s close to reality, but it’s bigger than reality and hopefully interesting for viewers.”
Ambrosch’s scripts are also quite detailed, ensuring the cast and director can play out his vision in front of the cameras. “I write it as I see it, and not just dialogue,” he says. “We did readings of the script quite a few times and I was on the set for many days, just watching and getting a feel for every actor.”
The German-language production was complicated by filming several scenes in French, but Ambrosch believes it important that European drama use organic languages to help tell the story. “I speak French but not well enough, so we had a translator,” he says. “I wrote it in German but I have a feeling for the French language because I lived in France for a year, so I know a little bit about it.
“It wasn’t clear at the start in which language we were going to shoot. There was a discussion at the very beginning to maybe shoot everything in English, but then we thought about it some more. I had to write the scripts nonetheless, so I wrote them in German and it was then we decided to shoot in two languages, which is of course a challenge.
“We have regional specialities in Europe. France is quite different from Austria, Germany and England, so it’s interesting to see the differences and get the feeling that Maximilian has to overcome the obstacles when he goes from poor and laid-back Austria to modern Burgundy and the French king with his own politics and lifestyle. It’s much more diverse than just shooting it all in English and saying there’s only one world. Back then it was very different and this is a good opportunity to show that.”
As partnerships go, Ambrosch and Prochaska’s is evidently successful, and Ambrosch credits this to a deep understanding between the pair. “The most important thing is we don’t have to use many words to connect,” he explains.
“We are each other’s biggest critics, so there’s a very open-minded atmosphere. I can tell him what he is doing is bullshit and he tells me what I wrote is bullshit and nobody is pissed off afterwards. That’s very important.
“But it’s also important for me to work with other directors because I don’t want to work only with Andreas. I’m doing a film with Stefan Ruzowitzky right now, the Oscar-winning director of Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008). It’s called In Hell (working title).”
Describing his writing style, Ambrosch says he first outlines a treatment before starting his research and writing a few pages “to get my thoughts on paper. After that, I let my mind flow free. You have a huge amount of input when you do a year of research, like I did for Maximilian, and then you start to feel the characters and put it on paper. But when the research is done, you have to throw away a lot of ideas and focus on telling the most important stories. That’s the hardest part. The rest is just fun writing.”
And the biggest challenge facing a writer today? “The challenge is to live up to my own ambitions,” he says.
As television drama continues to draw talent from the feature film industry and proves increasingly capable of rivalling the quality and production values offered by movies, Ambrosch readily admits the standards of the small screen have improved significantly – particularly in Germany, where series such as Cold War saga Deutschland 83 are breaking out as global hits.
“It’s difficult to say but, more often than not, the stories in really good TV movies are much better than the films in the cinema,” he says. “It’s a good time for German drama because there’s some money in the market and there’s a need for these kinds of TV series. There’s no other way than to be as ambitious as the UK and the US. You can’t just go on the way you have for the last 20 or 30 years; you have to adapt, and that’s an opportunity for writers and filmmakers in Germany and Austria.
“There are more opportunities in TV but it’s not so easy because you have to appeal to the viewers of public broadcasters. The young viewers are streaming US and British series and the older ones are used to the existing patterns. You need really good stories that producers will risk money on. The market is changing quickly and I’m very interested in where it’s all going to end.”
On the eve of MipTV 2016, German producer/distributor Beta Film sold a slate of German dramas to leading broadcasters in Scandinavia.
Among the titles picked up by DR Denmark, NRK Norway, SVT Sweden and YLE Finland were the right-wing terror trilogy NSU German History X and Tom Tykwer’s 1920s crime series Babylon Berlin.
The four networks also acquired Oliver Hirschbiegel’s spy drama The Same Sky and 15th century period drama Maximilian.
Historically, drama has travelled in the other direction – from Scandinavia to Germany. But the new deals are further evidence of the way German scripted content has started to appeal to international buyers.
Expressing the German industry’s newfound confidence, Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto – talking about Babylon Berlin – said: “Made in Germany is also a hallmark of quality in television. Due to the subject (of Babylon Berlin), the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
That view was endorsed by Stephen Mowbray, head of acquisitions SVT, who said: “German producers are now delivering world-class fiction, and partnering with Beta secures a raft of exciting titles for the Swedish public.”
Also upbeat is Tarmo Kivikallio, head of acquisition at YLE: “New German drama is strong at the moment in Finland. The way it deals with German history is unique and thrilling. I am sure Finnish audiences will enjoy these series and I am very happy about the co-operation with Beta.”
German drama was preivously known for being quite conservative in tone and style, targeted primarily at the mainstream free-to-air domestic market. But a shift in the market came with Generation War, produced by UFA and distributed by Beta Film. A hard-hitting, high-quality exploration of the Second World War from the perspective of five young German friends, it has sold widely around the world.
The success of this show was then repeated by Deutschland 83, another UFA, which that took a quirky, offbeat look at the end of the Cold War era. The story of a young East German spy who is sent to the West on a mission, it was picked up in English-speaking markets such as the US (by SundanceTV) and the UK (Channel 4) – a significant breakthrough for German drama.
All of which brings us to Cannes’ MipTV market, where Germany will be making a lot of noise as Country of Honour. The event will be hosting numerous networking and screening events throughout the week, as well as a series of conference sessions.
In terms of drama titles, the Beta Film titles mentioned at the outset will all be on show or up for discussion. There will, for example, be a screening of NSU German History X. Produced by Gabriela Sperl (Line of Separation) and Academy Award-winning Wiedemann & Berg (The Lives of Others), this drama explores the true story of a series of murders that, despite serious hints, were only exposed as right-wing terrorism 10 years after the first killing took place.
“In the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a clandestine far-right German terrorist group called National Socialist Underground, or NSU, began operating in Germany by killing immigrants in cold blood, termed the Bosporus Serial Murders,” explains Beta Film. “It took the police and intelligence services over 10 years to hunt down the perpetrators. Beate Zschäpe, suspected to be a member of the NSU, is still on trial today.”
The 20th century has proved a strong source of inspiration for German scripted TV producers. Another project coming through from Beta Film, for example, is Hitler – a 10–hour event series based on the biography Hitler’s First War by historian Thomas Weber. The show, which promises to shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history, has been pre-sold to French broadcaster TF1 and is likely to be the subject of numerous conversations with buyers next week in Cannes.
As is evident from the above scripted shows, Beta Film has played a key role in the new wave of German drama exports. But there will also be plenty of activity at MipTV involving the country’s other leading content owners. ZDF Enterprises, for example, has already had success with its crime drama The Team. And at MipTV it will launch Ku’damm 56 – Rebel With a Cause. A three-part drama produced by UFA Fiction for ZDF/ZDF Enterprises and written by Dorothee Schon, it is set in the 1950s and tells the story of young women of the era and their struggle for equality.
Also coming through is Blender, a six-part series that Tele München Gruppe is developing together with Friedrich Ani, Ina Jung and Dominik Graf. Based on a true story, the series centres on the head of a police drug squad accused of being involved in the drug world himself.
Global Screen, meanwhile, will continue selling its acclaimed TV movie Naked Among Wolves. Based on a novel about a three-year-old Jewish boy who is smuggled into the Buchenwald concentration camp in a suitcase, it has already sold to markets including the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, France, Benelux, Poland and Lithuania.
The company will also present Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the story of the battling brothers behind Adidas and Puma, set against the backdrop of the rising Nazi regime. The show has already been sold to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
One of the main sponsors of the Germany In Focus event is Red Arrow Entertainment, the content creation and distribution arm of ProSiebenSat.1 Media. For the most part, Red Arrow’s international strategy has been driven by participation in non-German scripted content (Bosch, Cleverman, Peter & Wendy, The 100 Code). But it does have a story to tell in terms of German scripted formats. Classic series The Last Cop has been adapted for France, Japan, Estonia and Russia, while Danni Lowinski was recently reversioned for the Netherlands Market.
In terms of future prospects for German drama, there is another development that points to a bright future – namely the emergence of SVoD platforms as content commissioners. Amazon, for example, has recently greenlit its first German-language series in The Wanted. Starring Matthias Schweighöfer as a Berlin convention centre project manager whose life is turned upside down following a mysterious hacking attack, the series will debut on Amazon Prime in Germany and Austria in 2017.
Netflix, meanwhile, has just unveiled plans for its first German original, a supernatural family saga called Dark. Commenting on that one, Erik Barmack, VP of International Originals at Netflix said: “Dark is an incredible German story that will appeal to a global audience.”
All in all then, it looks like we are only at the start of a boom time for German-language drama exports.
For more about Rivals Forever and an interview with Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch, be sure to pick up the latest copy of Drama Quarterly in Cannes.
Andreas Prochaska, director of Austrian period drama Maximilian, reveals the challenges of realising an epic, action-packed script while sticking to a strict budget.
Andreas Prochaska is under no illusions: he is facing the biggest challenge of his career. The Austrian director is a multiple award winner in his home country and in Germany for his work behind the camera, most notably claiming an International Emmy in 2013 for TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) and several best director gongs for 2014 feature film Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley).
His focus is now on Maximilian, a €15.5m (US$17.5m) television drama in production for MR Film, Beta Film, Austrian broadcaster ORF and German network ZDF. Set in 1477 in the Austrian Middle Ages, the three-part miniseries retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, set against a backdrop of politics and power struggles.
It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“I got a phone call three or four years ago about a project about Hapsburg and the founding of the empire,” Prochaska (pictured second from left in the main image) recalls. “I was immediately interested in being part of it because I think it’s a great European story and a great love story, and you have all the ingredients for a big TV production – love, politics, elements of a thriller and a bit of action. There’s also something very timeless about the whole thing.”
Prochaska is no stranger to costume dramas. The Dark Valley is a western set in the Austrian Alps, while he also directed TV movie Sarajevo, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – considered to be the incident that sparked the build-up to the First World War. Yet it is Maximilian he describes as the biggest challenge of his career.
“It’s a challenge because I was watching a lot of historical pictures in preparation and there’s a style and a goal you want to reach but we don’t have that kind of money,” he explains. “But you still have images in the back of your head that you want to achieve, so I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to capture those scenes with our budget. I don’t want to just copy and paste other styles, I want to generate a style of my own with my own director of photography (DOP), art department, costumes and make-up.
“We’re not doing a documentary about guys in the 15th century, so we have done research to figure out how to make this interesting for a younger, contemporary audience. That’s a fine line you have to find. But we’re also not doing Game of Thrones. We’re based in reality and we did a lot of research with historians. But they’re like doctors – ask three of them and you get four opinions.”
The story is set within three different courts of Europe – France, Austria and Burgundy – and they are all being filmed in Austria. “If we could take our budget and go where we wanted, it would be easier. But we’re in a situation where we have to spend most of the money in Austria,” the director explains. “It’s a puzzle we have to put together to achieve the things the script requires.”
The logistics of the four-month shoot, which began in August, include 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3,000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour. Real-life settings include the castles of Rosenburg, Rapportenstein and Franzensburg, plus the Votive Church in Vienna.
Prochaska adds: “We’re shooting continuously and we have some travel days in between because the crew moves to the Czech Republic to shoot some battle scenes and in late November we move to Hungary to do some studio scenes there. It’s like a road movie – most of our locations are all around lower Austria so every two days we’re moving. It’s expansive and thrilling for everybody.”
Using real locations will help the miniseries add a layer of authenticity for viewers – but only if the lighting is right, Prochaska says. “We watched a lot of films (in preparation) and what I realised is that the light, to my taste, is often wrong. You get the feeling those places couldn’t have looked like they do in a lot of movies. When I’m talking to my DOP, I always try to find something that still feels real.
“The greatest challenge is ensuring things don’t look artificial with the actors in these weird costumes – the 15th century is not as cool as the 12th in terms of costume. I want to drag the audience into the middle of the scenes and not have the sense of looking at it from a distance that those costumes and locations could create.”
Maximilian also marks the first time Prochaska has worked with French actors, and the director says he enjoyed the opportunity to meet a new group of performers and to find a way to work with them across language barriers.
“We started with a scene in a French court and, thanks to the brilliance of the script by Martin Ambrosch (Sarajevo), we attracted an exciting French cast,” he says. “I don’t speak French, but even if you don’t understand every word, you very quickly get a sense if it’s right or wrong and that’s one of the first great experiences I had with this project. What we’ve seen in the dailies is amazing. Anlgade is a god in terms of acting.”
If television is considered to be a writer’s medium, nobody told Prochaska. With his background in film, where the director is king, he has brought the same level of involvement to Maximilian, including bringing Ambrosch on board to write the script.
“It doesn’t make a difference if I’m in television or film. When I’m doing something, I try to do it as well as possible,” he says. “I’m not just some hired gun to shoot the stuff that’s scheduled. I brought Martin onto this project because I knew he would deliver the material I need to get access to good actors and to get a story that people want to see.
“I was very involved in the whole development of the script. I didn’t get a call saying, ‘Here’s a screenplay, do you want to do it?’ I’m still a hired gun in a sense because it’s not something I was pushing forward, but it costs me two years of my life so I’m very keen that it’s good.”
Part of Prochaska’s involvement in the script process was to make sure the story didn’t go in a direction he felt would be too difficult to achieve on screen. “With our budget it’s not possible to do a battle scene like at the beginning of Gladiator. That’s what people expect when they see battle scenes,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into places where I couldn’t win.”
This meant that set pieces beyond the show’s budgetary limit had to be worked around with some creative thinking, but also meant Prochaska could build up the emotional aspects of the story while fighting takes place in the background. “At the beginning of the whole story, someone is found dead in a swamp in the aftermath of a battle. Then we have a dream sequence for the second battle and another sequence where the tension builds up to the start of a battle before cutting away to the people waiting at home,” he explains. “It’s more emotional to stay with Mary, who is waiting for Maximilian to come back, not knowing if he’s going to survive. For me, it’s more interesting to explore the emotional side of those situations than to do a battle scene we can’t afford.”
Like many film directors of late, Prochaska found the opportunity to move into television too good to turn down, and hopes he will be back for more. “This was something very attractive to me; this kind of miniseries or bigger series are the future of television,” he says. “Single TV movies will still be made but the focus is more on serialised content and Maximilian is a great opportunity for me to go in this direction.”
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.
A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.
At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”
Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.
Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”
Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.
From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.
The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.
Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.
Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.
Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”
Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.
His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.
The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.
Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.
Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.
Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”
With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.
Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”
Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.
Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.