Tag Archives: Morgan Wandell

Appetite for disruption: Amazon Studios’ Morgan Wandell

With a reputed US$2bn annual content budget, Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell is enjoying his position as prime disruptor of traditional TV.

Having built a career in US network television with series like ABC’s Ugly Betty and CBS’s Criminal Minds, it must have felt strange to segue from Hollywood to heading drama development at the world’s largest online retailer.

Morgan Wandell admits he was apprehensive about joining Amazon Studios just over two years ago, having spent seven at ABC Studios, but says the reaction couldn’t have been more positive.

Bosch
Bosch was one of Amazon’s first drama pilots

“The reality was people were dying to move away from broadcast television, they were desperate to get away from industrial-grade shows,” he says. “There were a lot of creators with passion projects that they hadn’t been able to find homes for or who wanted to do something different.”

Wandell joined a few weeks before Amazon confirmed its first two drama pilots. Bosch, an adaptation of Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch crime novels, went ahead and has since been renewed for a second season. The After, a sci-fi drama that marked The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s return to series, never made it off the starting blocks.

But it was Transparent that really put Amazon on the map. Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender became the first online-only show to win Golden Globes in 2015. It was also nominated for three gongs at this year’s ceremony, though it failed to take home any awards.

“Transparent was an unbelievable asset for the company to have out of the gate. It really helped define the brand and what people should expect from us,” says Wandell.

Transparent
2015 saw Transparent become the first online-only show to win a Golden Globe

Next came Ron Perlman thriller Hand of God, about a corrupt judge who has a breakdown and starts hearing the voice of the Almighty. Bigger still was The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel imagining an alternative outcome to the Second World War. Exec produced by Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz, it was released in November.

The latter came about in much the same way as other Amazon dramas. “I started to call producers who I’d previously worked with,” says Wandell. “I knew Frank from a show called Night Stalker we did at ABC. My question to him was simple: ‘What do you have that you’re dying to make that keeps you up at night that you haven’t been able to get made at any other place?’ He said, ‘The answer’s simple – The Man in the High Castle.’”

This begs the question why no one else was prepared to make it. “It’s challenging material,” says Wandell. “It’s Nazis, fascism – a lot of uncomfortable moments.”

Amazon’s own High Castle advertising did create worries in the US, however, where Nazi and imperial Japanese flags plastered on the New York subway had to be removed.

The Man in the High Castle
Alternate future drama The Man in the High Castle has received critical acclaim

Wandell is more comfortable discussing the liberation of TV from the shackles of tradition. When he began at Amazon, he was surprised to realise there was “a whole generation of creators who’ve spent their lives building up very specific narrative muscles” as a response to network requirements.

When he started out as a development exec, a four-act structure for TV shows was prevalent. During his time at ABC this evolved to five, then six. But at Amazon the rulebook is thrown out of the window.

“There were a lot of producers or writers who, once they moved into this environment and were liberated from that kind of structure, had a difficult time creating the sorts of scenes you really need in premium TV because we’d stripped away the narrative tropes they relied on,” he says.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘traditional TV’ and what Amazon is doing. “Broadcast networks have schedules, they need programming,” Wandell says. “They’re in the business of being a lot of people’s third-favourite show. We’re in the business of being somebody’s absolute favourite.”

He admits the company might not achieve this every time but believes its open online pilot process offers improved chances of success. “Hopefully you make better decisions when you have hundreds of thousands of people watching versus testing centres in north Hollywood where 50 people who have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon will, for cold pizza and 40 bucks, come in and tell you why your pilot stinks.”

Wandell may owe his present position to a career in broadcast, but he doesn’t hold high hopes for the future of the networks he came from. “It’s very challenging for them,” he says. “I have no crystal ball but it’s a lot more fun to be the disruptor than the disrupted.”

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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