Tag Archives: MGM

Back in the game

Get Shorty showrunner Davey Holmes and director Adam Arkin welcome DQ to the set of the second season of the drama, in which Chris O’Dowd’s mobster continues his assault on the Hollywood film business.

We’re often told that Hollywood appreciates a story about itself. The meta appeal of doing a film or a TV programme based on characters involved in an audiovisual production themselves would surely get the critics chattering.

Get Shorty, US premium cablenet Epix’s mob-movie caper that returns for a second season this Sunday, is designed to both embody and pastiche this.

Davey Holmes

Season one of the comedy-drama follows the story of Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd), who serves as muscle for a ruthless Nevada crime syndicate led by the fearsome Amara De Escalones (Lidia Porto). To do right by his daughter and his estranged wife, Miles moves to LA to become a movie producer – with his friend and mob colleague Louis (Sean Bridgers) in tow – laundering money through a Hollywood film. But problems arise again when Amara and her associates take an active role in proceedings. Season two sees Miles battle to realise his ambitions as a filmmaker and responsible father despite his adroitness as a criminal.

Based on Elmore Leonard’s book of the same name, Get Shorty has been adapted for TV by Shameless US scribe Davey Holmes. The show is produced by MGM Television, which also distributes, and Holmes Quality Yarns.

Along with O’Dowd, Porto and Bridgers, the cast features Ray Romano, Sarah Stiles, Megan Stevenson, Goya Robles and Carolyn Dodd. Off the back of season one’s success, Felicity Huffman and Steven Weber have been added.

Filming is well into the second half of season two when DQ visits the set at Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Director Adam Arkin has just called ‘cut’ on an umpteenth take of Louis eating cereal while talking to Miles over the phone about a YouTube self-help beauty video.

“I thought about asking for Captain Crunch, but it fucks up the roof of your mouth,” Bridgers can be heard telling the crew.

The off-camera humour is a moment of light relief in proceedings, but Bridgers’ aside is an exemplar of the tone of Get Shorty and how it sets itself out as a drama. Though both seasons are peppered with witty lines, they are subtle, with the drama ensuring audiences are captivated as much as amused.

The massacre of a rival cartel in season one is brutal, bloody and shocking, while the scenes involving Hollywood studios, distributors, producers and on- and off-screen talent often seem funny but will likely have industry viewers shifting uncomfortably in their seats in recognition of the realistic depiction of the conversations and decision-making – which is as cutthroat as the violent actions of the gangsters on show.

Arkin says the show explores the “terrain that hovers between extreme comedy and drama” like that of FX’s hit crime drama Fargo – another series that was inspired by a film but, like Get Shorty, does not simply transplant the same characters and story to the small screen. This is doubly important for Get Shorty, given that a 1995 film version starring John Travolta was also based on Leonard’s original book.

Get Shorty stars The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd as mob enforcer Miles Daly

However, the Epix series is less a mob or crime caper and more a story of reinvention, told through the prism of a criminal father.

“Stories about people who are striving for art can be quite boring, but there’s something about the soul of an artist in the body of a thug that’s interesting to me,” creator, showrunner and exec producer Holmes tells DQ during a break in rehearsal. “I love being able to explore big, tough guys who aren’t necessarily well versed at looking at and processing their own emotions and yet have vulnerabilities, human foibles and weaknesses. Instead of playing tough guys who are just tough, you play tough guys who are frail inside. Elmore Leonard’s all about that.”

This is not exclusive to Miles either. Bridgers says his character, Louis – a trigger-happy Mormon mobster – is undergoing a metamorphosis. The series, too, either by design or coincidence, is a metaphor for today’s US, which is going through a cultural and political transition, often bearing the hallmarks of a Hollywood movie.

“Louis has been operating, like we all do a bit, on autopilot. He’s stuck in this very small world with a somewhat limited world view and Miles is the one who breaks out of it,” Bridgers says. “He’s a ball of contradictions. That is American culture in a nutshell. Louis is a very American character.

“He’s very religious but he picks and chooses which tenets of that faith he’s going to adhere to – very American, that – and he’s also prone to violence: he shoots first and asks questions later. I try not to think about it too much because that analytical part of my brain will try to make sense of certain things, and I can’t. But that frees it up; anything’s possible with Louis.”

The scenes Bridgers has been filming during DQ’s visit (the second of which involves a big spoiler) have typified the duality of characters and the series’ dramatic and comedic interplay. Arkin says the reason he kept coming back to the scene of Louis munching cereal was a desire to respect Holmes’ approach to the material, and not just because he wants to “see Sean Bridgers eat five bowls of Fruit Loops before the day is up.”

Everybody Loves Raymond star Ray Romano plays film producer Rick Moreweather

“There are countless processes that everybody goes through [to translate the vision on screen]. I try to stay very attuned to the material; that’s obviously the first clue as to what direction everything wants to be going in,” he says.

“The biggest problem was finding that sweet spot, stylistically, between the comedy and the drama, knowing that both of them have to live in a consistent atmosphere. You can’t go too far, too recklessly in one direction or another.”

Holmes picks up: “The look of the show is an interesting and complicated discussion. We try to find a combination of a cinematic approach and veering away from what we think of as network TV in as many ways as possible. And yet, not jazzing up a scene visually, not drawing attention to the camera work, not a whole lot of jiggly handheld or trick shots – just trying to find that line where it’s cinematic without detracting from the scene itself.”

While stylistic fine-tuning can be arduous, it is exacerbated by the physical demands placed on cast and crew. In season one, shooting was divided between Hollywood and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a tragicomical example of art imitating life imitating art, the crew sometimes felt like their fictional counterparts – who intermittently struggle with sandstorms, fires and gunfire.

“We went back and forth about four or five times. Just handling that and the logistics of what we were shooting and where, it did at times lead to a certain amount of vertigo as to where we were in the process,” Arkin recalls.

“In episode five of season two, about 75% takes place in one location, which was very challenging to shoot in. We’re underground, we were pumping a lot of atmospheric smoke into the location; everyone was running around in coveralls and hard hats, respirator masks.

Lidia Porto is Amara De Escalones, the fearsome boss of a crime syndicate

“It was physically very demanding. It ended up being a wonderful episode, but it came at a cost. It put the crew and cast through their paces in terms of endurance.”

Sarah Stiles, who plays Gladys, the secretary to Romano’s film producer boss Rick Moreweather, illuminates the cast’s intensity.

“We’re all a little ‘method’ on this show. But nobody’s killed anybody yet… that I know of,” she jokes. “Ray Romano is a genius at that [intense] stuff – him orbiting around the steadiness of Gladys is just delicious to play against. He cares about the project, so he stays in Rick’s neurotic voice and asks, ‘Was that ok, did this work?’ Yeah, you’re fucking awesome, get it under control Ray Romano!”

Stevenson, who plays April Quinn, a film executive and professional antagonist to Moreweather, says it is “scary how much everyone enjoys each other.”

“We were in New Mexico for the majority of the time for the new season. That was like summer camp; we were just forced to get to know each other, because none of us are from there. On the weekends, we’d go hiking together, and every night after shooting we went in the jacuzzi together. That is so beneficial for a show. If you’re not forced to get to know each other, you just go home to your life.”

Both Stiles and Stevenson concur that what attracted them to the project was the writing, and that TV is going through its golden age in terms of attracting the best on- and off-camera talent to projects. Holmes also sees the benefits of working for a cablenet rather than a US broadcast network.

“When I first got into TV, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV that I was excited about. Now there’s a lot,” he says. “It’s also lovely because there’s a very good chance you’re going to get to do the whole season, if not two seasons, while they evaluate what the audience is.

“For networks, they really appraise you week by week. I’ve been on plenty of interesting shows that did four episodes or six episodes and then they’re gone, before you’ve really even started telling the story. This show seems to be catching on… that alone is a game-changer creatively.”

As the cast settles in for another take, it feels as though Get Shorty has only just begun.

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Quebert in Quebec

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud takes the reins and actor Patrick Dempsey returns to the small screen in The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a 10-part murder-mystery series from Epix, MGM and TF1. DQ visits the set.

But for the sign that reads ‘Maine State Police Station’ and the fact the road has been closed off by police, there’s little to suggest anything is amiss on a quiet street in Quebec’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

Situated about 40 kilometres south-east of Montreal and not far from the border with Vermont, the scene is set for a police press conference. Outside an inconspicuous office building, imitation news cameras and news vans blend in with actual film equipment and transport vans, blurring the lines between the stage and the outside world. To most passers-by, it probably looks like an actual press conference is taking place.

It’s late November 2017 and the final stretch of principal photography on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, an ambitious 10-part miniseries being made by MGM Television, Barbary Films and Eagle Pictures, is under way. Based on the acclaimed second novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker, the adaptation is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy), Ben Schnetzer (Snowden), Damon Wayans Jr (Singularity) and Virginia Madsen (Sideways).

The show is set to open France’s inaugural Canneseries TV festival, screening out of competition on April 7, before airing on Epix in the US and TF1 in France. MGM will be selling rights for other territories at MipTV, shortly after the Canneseries premiere.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair director Jean-Jacques Annaud (left) with Joel Dicker (the author of the book)

The murder mystery sees Schnetzer playing Marcus Goldman, a young novelist seeking inspiration for his next book. As he arrives in New Hampshire to stay with his college professor, the titular Harry Quebert (Dempsey), the body of a teenager who disappeared more than three decades ago is discovered, implicating Quebert.

The show marks Annaud’s first foray into directing for TV. Having won an Oscar with his 1976 debut La Victoire en Chantant, he’s best known for helming a string of Hollywood features including 1986’s The Name of the Rose, 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet and 2001’s Enemy at the Gates.

Nevertheless, he has spent recent years contemplating a move to the small screen. “I saw that television was taking the lead in terms of storytelling and more mature material,” he says during a break on set. Having read Dicker’s novel two years ago, Annaud was initially offered it as a film, “but as I was turning the pages, there were so many interesting characters and so many twists in the story that I said, ‘This is the perfect moment for me to say yes to television, for a 10-episode miniseries.’

“There were also other factors: I’ve been used to rather large movies with long setups, and the idea of moving quicker is something that appeals to me.”

Annaud’s idea of “quicker” appears to be an understatement. On set, crew remark that most day’s shoots are remarkably tight and rarely go into the night. “We’re moving fast, therefore we’re moving with energy, keeping in mind that we have to tell the grand story and not worry so much about the little details, reflections in mirrors, things like that,” the director explains. “And I must say I enjoy the process immensely.

Annaud preparing for a scene with Kristine Froseth (Nola) and Patrick Dempsey (Harry Quebert)

“I was not too sure if I was going to direct all 10 episodes, but MGM insisted. And, as a matter of fact, I like being in control. I don’t know how several directors could have adjusted to know the intimacy of each character, the complexity.”

Annaud’s approach to the series has been to shoot it “like a 10-hour movie in segments.” As such, the team are block-shooting on location, rather than filming episodically. “It’s good for the budget, it’s good for the energy and it’s very efficient,” he notes.

In shooting at speed, he is reverting to a technique that he developed nearly four decades ago, while filming Paleolithic period drama Quest for Fire, which won an Oscar for best make-up. While making the 1981 film, “I could not do many shots because the make-up would be ruined, so I was shooting three cameras all the time,” he explains. “But it was three cameras with very different angles, which allows great coverage and also puts the actors in a situation where they know that if it’s good, then take one, without rehearsal, is going to be the take.

“If camera A is not good, it’s usually good on camera B or C. And that gives them great energy on the set, it’s terrific,” he adds. “[Seven Samurai director Akira] Kurosawa used to do that.”

By 10.00, the crew are keen to proceed with the day’s filming, but the weather is proving problematic. It’s supposed to be autumn in New England, so they use leaf blowers and shovels to clear snow from the set. But it is falling as fast as they can remove it. For now, they will have to wait.

Patrick Dempsey is best known for starring in Grey’s Anatomy

In the first of two scenes, Schnetzer arrives at the police station and exits a taxi, walking briskly inside while talking on his phone. The second sees him and Wayans Jr departing the station together, walking and talking as they head to the latter’s police cruiser.

“I kind of play the audience’s role within the series, so my character sees the twists to the story at the same time the audience sees them,” Schnetzer explains. “Because we’ve shot the series as a movie, it hasn’t been shot episodically, it’s almost like shooting a 500-page film. I’ve had to do a lot more work chronologically, figuring out where in the story we are now – that’s definitely been an undertaking.”

Nevertheless, the actor notes that the line between film and TV “has become much more blurred” over the past five years, “particularly with a limited series or a 10-episode miniseries, which is a great medium to adapt a novel because you don’t have to be as ruthless in what you cut.”

With Quebec doubling for New England, today’s shoot takes place in the series’ near-present-day timeline of 2008. More challenging, however, have been Harry Quebert’s 1975 flashbacks, which have required a completely different look, comprising set design, VFX and hair and make-up.

Among those adopting a period look for the series is Tessa Mossey, an emerging actor originally from Canada’s Prince Edward Island. The teenager plays young prom queen and love interest-of-sorts Jenny Quinn in the show’s flashbacks, with Victoria Clark as the present-day version of the character.

“There’s a whole other level of preparation when it comes to entering a different time period,” Mossey offers between takes. “I find, especially with a character like Jenny, that the people who were popular at that time, the music that was popular, all of that plays a such big part of her identity.

“She wants her hair to look like Farrah Fawcett’s, she wants her eyelashes to look like Twiggy’s… she has all of these people she really looks up to and whom influence her identity, which she thinks is so important to how people view her. So the time period is very influential in creating that aesthetic.”

In addition, the series employs considerable hair and make-up to age its characters. In the case of lead actor Dempsey, who is returning to television following 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, this has involved making him look both older and younger for the show’s 30-year time leaps.

“With ageing him down, what we can do is kind of limited,” explains series make-up designer Émilie Gauthier. “It’s pretty much beauty make-up and we’re going to do a little bit of VFX in post.”

Adding extra years to Dempsey has been considerably more work, however. “We understand that he’s about 35 in 1975, so he now has to be about 68,” Gauthier says. That entails about three-and-a-half hours’ worth of make-up each day. “He has one big neck piece, three other pieces on the jaw and near the nose, and then we work by hand around the eyes, with a process we call stippling.”

Beyond the hair and make-up, director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou – a frequent collaborator with Annaud – has been the one charged with creating instantly identifiable, unique visuals for the series’ time periods. “The main requirement from Jean-Jacques was to set up, visually, the two time periods straight away,” says Dreujou.

“It was most important that the viewer could see immediately what period it was, because the series is complicated as far as the flashbacks – and the flashbacks within the flashbacks – are concerned. It’s essential to know exactly where you are as soon as you see the picture, between 1975 and the other years in the film.”

Both the DoP and the director express their love for shooting in Canada, which they have now done on multiple occasions, and cite the talent and professionalism of Canuck crews in addition to the country’s generous system of tax credits.

After lunch, the temperature on set drops from -4°C (25°F) to -8°C. Schnetzer and Wayans Jr, dressed in light, autumnal jackets, thrust their hands in their pockets between takes, hopping from foot to foot in a bid to stay warm.

At least the brisk pace of filming offers some respite from the biting cold. Annaud “really knows what he wants and he gets what he wants; you just have to be prepared to do one or two takes,” remarks Wayans Jr, who plays the show’s lead investigator, Sgt Gahalowood.

“You’re always on your toes because he’s gonna move quick, he’s moving on,” he adds. “I’ve honestly never been on anything that goes this fast, but it’s a fun exercise, I like it. You don’t really have the chance to ramp up into a scene; you have to make sure that you’re there already, as much as possible.”

Annaud grins in agreement. “They feel the energy, they feel the story,” the director says, preparing for another scene. “Everybody knows they have to be good first take; the focus pullers, the actors… they know that if they don’t know their lines, they’ll look stupid, so it’s internal competition for everyone.”

Our conversation is interrupted as an out-of-breath crewman runs up to inform that it’s time to shoot. “I’m sorry,” the runner interjects, “but before it snows again, we need to get this right now.”

And with that, Annaud’s headphones slip over his ears, cameras slide into position and the director is back behind a monitor for another rapid take.

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Hulu tells Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale has previously been made into a feature film
The Handmaid’s Tale has previously been made into a feature film

Inevitably, the current TV drama boom has resulted in a lot of formulaic, derivative and half-baked series. But that has to be balanced against the impressive ambition of the industry.

This week, for example, Hulu announced that it has commissioned an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The only bad news about this is that it didn’t come two years ago so it could help my daughter with her English exams.

Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale centres on Offred, a reproductive slave who lives in the male-dominated totalitarian regime of Gilead. In Hulu’s TV version, Offred will be played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake), with Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, and Warren Littlefield serving as executive producers (Wilson was also the producer of a 1990 film version of the story).

The adaptation will be written by Bruce Miller (The 100), with Atwood also on hand as a consulting producer.

Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu, said: “Hulu has established itself as a home for blockbuster television events and what better way to expand our originals offering than with a series based on this acclaimed, best-selling novel? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was seen as ahead of its time and we look forward to bringing it to life on our platform.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is produced by MGM TV and marks the first collaboration on an original series between Hulu and MGM. It will go into production later this year and will premiere in 2017. In a joint statement, MGM’s Mark Burnett, president, television and digital group, and Steve Stark, president, television development and production, said: “The Handmaid’s Tale is a project we have been committed to bringing to life as its story remains as powerful today as it did when Margaret first published her novel. It has inspired a film, a graphic novel, an opera, a ballet and, finally, for the first time, a compellingly immersive drama series.”

Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)
Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)

Attwood added: “I am thrilled MGM and Hulu are developing The Handmaid’s Tale as a series, and extra thrilled that Elisabeth Moss will be playing the central character. The Handmaid’s Tale is more relevant now than when it was written, and I am sure the series will be watched with great interest.”

This week’s other big story is that National Geographic Channel has greenlit its first scripted series (as opposed to docuseries or miniseries), with the first episode to be directed by Ron Howard.

The plan is for the show, called Genius, to be a multi-season anthology series, with a different subject in each run. The first season, based on Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, will be adapted by Noah Pink. Production is expected to begin this summer in Prague and the series will premiere on Nat Geo in 171 countries.

Genius is being made by Fox 21 TV Studios, Imagine TV, OddLot and EUE/Sokolow. Fox 21 president Bert Salke said: “Genius is a franchise with infinite possibilities. We think this instalment, which tells the fascinating back-story of the man who articulated the theory of relativity, is just the beginning of a long and successful partnership between our companies.”

Howard said the show will be “an ambitious but intimate and revealing human story behind Einstein’s scientific brilliance,” adding: “I hope his story, as well as those of other geniuses, will entertain and inspire the next generation of Einsteins.”

Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel's first full drama series
Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel’s first full drama series

Meanwhile, the migration of movie heavyweights into TV continues apace. Last week, it was Mel Gibson, and this week it’s Sylvester Stallone, who is set to star in a TV adaptation of Mario Puzo mafia novel Omerta (Puzo is best-known as the author of The Godfather).

The drama has yet to be attached to any network, but with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) also on board as director, it presumably won’t be too long before that is sorted out. Omerta was published after Puzo’s death and had its fair share of critics. However, the halo effect of The Godfather will prove appealing to would-be suitors who can use it as a marketing hook.

While Hulu has stolen this week’s headlines, the other SVoD platforms have also been in the news. Netflix, for example, has ordered a second season of its new Ashton Kutcher comedy The Ranch – just a few weeks after the first season premiered. Set in modern-day Colorado, the series stars Kutcher as a failed semi-professional football player who returns home to manage the family ranch. There will be 20 episodes in the second season.

Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta
Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta

Meanwhile, Deadline reports that John Krasinski (The Office) will play the title role in a new Amazon series based on Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan. The new series, created by showrunner Carlton Cuse and writer Graham Roland, is reported to be “a new contemporary take on the character in his prime as a CIA analyst/operative, using the novels as source material.” For Amazon, the franchise will sit neatly alongside Bosch.

Finally, US indie studio IM Global has unveiled a slate of new TV projects this week. The company, which first got into the TV business in 2014, is working on five titles including Muscle Shoals, a project that has been in development for a while with partners Johnny Depp and Virgin Produced.

The other titles on the slate are I Rebel, LD50, The Lesser Dead and Planetoid. The Lesser Dead is an acclaimed vampire-themed novel from Christopher Buehlman, while Planetoid is a graphic novel first released in June 2012 by Image Comics. Written and drawn by Ken Garing, it focuses on Silas, a space pirate who crashes onto a planetoid where he must fight off various mechanical creatures, cyborgs and aliens.

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Just like starting over: The growth of anthology series

From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.

There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.

Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.

There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.

The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS
The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS

By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.

Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.

With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.

A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.

“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”

At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.

Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters 'a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding'
Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters ‘a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding’

SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.

“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.

“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”

Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”

Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.

“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”

Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”

Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.

American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style
American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style

“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”

Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”

American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.

As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.

FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”

Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”

Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.

The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.

Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.

“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”

Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”

The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?

That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.

“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.

Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.

By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.

The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.

Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.

NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.

Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.

Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.

Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”

Payne: 'Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore'
Payne: ‘Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore’

It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”

Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”

Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”

While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”

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Repackaging Hollywood

CBS has ordered a pilot  based on 2001's Training Day
CBS has ordered a pilot based on the 2001 movie Training Day

It’s a regular cause for discussion that feature film studios and talent are moving into the scripted TV business. But there’s an equally significant trend involving archive movies being reinvented as TV series.

Already out in the market, and doing pretty well, are classic titles including Fargo, Sleepy Hollow, Transporter, Hannibal, 12 Monkeys, Teen Wolf and Parenthood. And this autumn will see the floodgates open still further, with TV spin-offs launching across a wide range of US channels.

Examples include Limitless, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Supergirl, Scream, Ash vs Evil Dead and Uncle Buck, all of which are just weeks away from launch. Coming down the line soon after will be a TV version of Shooter, the 2007 film starring Mark Wahlberg.

The main reason for this spate of remakes is the need to cut through the clutter of competition. With around 400 TV dramas a year vying for attention in the US market alone, any kind of in-built brand awareness is extremely valuable at launch. While a movie’s heritage can’t, in itself, make an audience like a TV show, it can at least encourage viewers to sample it – especially if some aspect of the originating film crosses over (thus adding authenticity).

MGM, for example, made much of the fact that the Coen brothers had a hand in the scripts for the Fargo reboot. And Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper is lined up to appear in some episodes of Limitless, having starred in the movie.

Fargo returns for a second season in October
Fargo returns for a second season in October

The future prospects for this film-to-TV business model may well depend on the hit rate of this year’s batch of remakes. But it’s worth noting that all of the existing film-to-TV productions mentioned in the opening paragraph made it to season two at least. Teen Wolf, for example, is at season five. This hit rate compares pretty favourably with shows based on foreign scripted formats, where successes are few and far between.

Ironically, one issue that may affect film-to-TV adaptations is the current shift in the TV industry’s favour. With the film industry polarising between blockbuster and low-budget independent productions, the mid-market where many of the above film titles lived is under pressure. In other words, films capable of adaptation may prove a precious resource that gets over-mined by the industry.

For now, though, there is no sign that the future pipeline is drying up, with confirmation coming this week that Denzel Washington movie Training Day is being lined up for a remake at CBS (initially as a pilot from Warners Bros TV and Jerry Bruckheimer).

CBS, it should be noted, is a fan of this approach, having already greenlit Supergirl, Limitless and Rush Hour – which has also been picked up by E4 in the UK.

Meanwhile, it was revealed last week that NBC is backing a TV adaptation of RED, a cult film series starring Bruce Willis that was itself based on a comic book franchise. There is also talk of a third movie in the RED franchise, so we may be seeing an era of parallel development emerge.

Baywatch is being converted into a movie starring Zac Efron
Baywatch is being converted into a movie starring Zac Efron (High School Musical)

As a footnote, last week also saw the announcement that cult TV show Baywatch is being brought back as a movie with Zac Efron. That is sure to revive interest in the library rights of the TV show – NBC-owned Cozi TV and Telemundo’s TeleXitos both recently relaunched the series – and could even stimulate a TV reboot down the line.

Other TV-to-film stories this week centred on Downton Abbey. With the iconic period drama having just wrapped production on its final season, producer Carnival is now considering continuing the franchise on the big screen –possibly taking the show into the pre-Second World War financial crash.

All of the recent talk about there being too much scripted TV doesn’t seem to have unsettled Viacom-owned channel Spike. Having recently finished airing ancient Egyptian miniseries Tut, Spike has just ordered its first one-hour drama series in nine years – a 10-parter from Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Horizon Television called Harvest.

The show is being written by Ian Sobel and Matt Morgan (12 Monkeys) and tells the story of a cemetery caretaker who finds his quiet life in jeopardy when his estranged criminal father tracks him down. To protect his daughter, he works with his father in the illegal trade in body tissue.

This week also saw Australian subscription VoD platform Presto pick up rights to USA Network thriller Mr Robot, which has Christian Slater among its cast. Presto, which acquired the show from NBCUniversal, will show the first seven episodes of Mr Robot immediately before adding the last three after they air stateside on USA.

The show follows a young programmer who suffers from a debilitating anti-social disorder. He finds himself caught between working for a cybersecurity firm and the murky world of mysterious anarchist Mr Robot, played by Slater. In the US, the show is averaging an audience of around 1.42 million viewers, though recent episodes are nearer the 1.2 million mark. The show was recommissioned for a second season very early on the basis of a digital preview.

Presto has picked up the rights to Mr Robot
Presto has picked up the rights to Mr Robot

Finally, a week after Showtime Networks president David Nevins criticised some of the current risky investments in scripted TV, Showtime announced it is producing I’m Dying Up Here, a new one-hour pilot being executive produced by Jim Carrey.

Based on the non-fiction novel by William Knoedelseder, the pilot will be directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies) and produced by Endemol Shine Studios and Assembly Entertainment. Written and executive produced by former stand-up comedian Dave Flebotte (Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, The Bernie Mac Show) and set among the famous Hollywood comedy clubs of the 1970s, the dark comedy pilot “will delve into the inspired and damaged psyches that inhabit the hilarious but complex business of making an audience laugh”.

Nevins said: “The 1970s LA comedy scene gave rise to some of the biggest and most influential performers of the last half-century. Who better than Jim Carrey and Dave Flebotte, who were both there, to tell the story of that special era?”

When asked last week about the current situation with scripted programming, Nevins said Showtime is in expansion mode, but he questioned networks that were rushing into new shows – giving two-season commitments on the basis on pitches, for example. He said brands like Showtime that “stand for something” will survive.

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