Ryan Griffen, the creator of Australian sci-fi drama Cleverman, introduces DQ to the show’s second season and a new cast of characters known as the Bindawu.
Everyone has seen a superhero movie montage in which the hero is working out the breadth of their powers and how to control them. The first season of Cleverman was, for all intents and purposes, a season-long exploration of this for our main character Koen (played by Hunter Page-Lochard), the eponymous Cleverman, but the same was also true for the entire cast and crew of the series. Armed with the experience of producing our first season, we’ve been able to make a big step up, and it shows on screen.
Season two is again an Australia-New Zealand coproduction between Goalpost Pictures Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand, a great relationship that has a real influence on the stories, look and sound of the show.
After completing season one, the key creative team really felt they knew where they wanted to head for the next season. We understood our strengths and weaknesses and this informed the scripts. We also had a vocal core audience who were telling us what they wanted to see. The political voice within the show is very much the same but the genre and storytelling dives a lot deeper. We had the advantage of knowing more about our characters, which allowed us to heighten the risk and danger that they play in, by placing them in life-changing situations and watching the effects of this take hold. What really helped this was that all of our season one partners returned, including [Australian broadcaster] ABCTV, [US cable network] SundanceTV and [distributor] Red Arrow International, and they encouraged us to continue to be bold.
Set in the near future, Cleverman sees creatures from ancient mythology, known as the Hairypeople, battle for survival in a world that seeks to silence and destroy them. Their only hope is Koen West, who discovers he is the new Cleverman, a powerful figure in Aboriginal folklore with supernatural powers.
Season two begins after the Zone [a contained area that serves as the home of the Hairypeople] has been razed by the Containment Authority. The humans and Hairypeople have scattered, disappearing deep into the city in fear for their lives. Their only hope lies in Koen realising the full potential of his Cleverman powers, and using them to bring peace to this world. But while Koen’s brother Waruu (Rob Collins) shares the same vision, the lengths he is prepared to go to make it a reality are far more extreme and far more secular. His hunger for the Cleverman’s power and his connection with billionaire Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen) sends the two brothers hurtling towards each other on a tragic trajectory that neither of them sees coming.
From the outset of season two, we explore a striking new location within our Cleverman world, as many of our returning characters come into contact with a new group of traditional Hairypeople, the Bindawu, who live deep in the bushland that surrounds the city. The word ‘bindawu’ means muscle, or strength in my language – Gamilaroi. This new location was a chance for us to take the audience out of the concrete and glass of the city and into the lush green of the trees and beautiful landscape that Australia has to offer, as well as a chance to show our modern spin on Aboriginal culture with the powerful Bindawu.
Our Bindawu Hairies were created by the world-renowned Weta Workshop and Jake Nash, and they are strikingly different from the urban Hairies of season one. The brilliant Sir Richard Taylor from Weta encouraged us to dig deeper into the design of our Hairies, to create an iconic, powerful creature. From this idea the Bindawu emerged, having a huge impact on the direction our season two story took.
Jake Nash, who stepped into the production designer role this season, is an Indigenous man and he has managed the fine balance between our sci-fi world and the 60,000 years of Aboriginal history we draw our stories from.
The Bindawu allow us to tell stories from earlier colonisation in a modern setting, most notably through a new lead character, Jarli (Clarence Ryan), a fiery young Bindawu warrior, and his reaction to the dispossession of the land his family has lived on for thousands of years. With the expansion of the city, the Bindawu are under greater threat than ever – their land is diminishing and with it so too is their ability to openly practice traditional customs and honour their culture. They are forced to live with great vigilance, and in hiding and fear, lest they be discovered.
Our directors, Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, return with a strong understanding of what our show is about, and they are brilliantly teamed with many returning creatives including Jake Nash, DoP Mark Wareham and hair and makeup designer Kath Brown. Between them, they’ve given the Cleverman world a smarter, more sophisticated look and they’ve found a stunning balance between the lush Australian bush and the darker, more sinister city. For me, the show feels much bigger and it is an honour to be able to showcase what a production team from Australia and New Zealand is capable of achieving on screen.
The Cleverman world has certainly found its legs in season two and I’m very much looking forward to continuing the journey with new and old fans of the show. There are some big story twists, laughs, tears and action ahead, but what is truly exciting for me is that we get to show the world what an Aboriginal superhero can do.
Cleverman season two debuts on SundanceTV on June 28 and ABC on June 29.
Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.
When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.
The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.
The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.
Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.
Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”
He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”
Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.
“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”
For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”
The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.
“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”
Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”
Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.
But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”
Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.
The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.
Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.
One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.
“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”
Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”
But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.
Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.
“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”
Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.
“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”
Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”
Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.
Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.
“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”
Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek
In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.
All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.
At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.
Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.
Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.
I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.
The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”
Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.
Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”
Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”
Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.
Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.
A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”
In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.
Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.
The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.
As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.
The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.
“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”
As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.
Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.
Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”
Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.
Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”
In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.
A new Australian drama blends Aboriginal history with contemporary culture in a futuristic landscape. DQ meets the team behind Cleverman.
It’s a groundbreaking new genre drama heading to screens in Australia – but just how can one describe Cleverman?
Set in the near future but rooted in Aboriginal history, and using a blend of CGI and traditional make-up and prosthetics, the show sees a group of non-humans (the ‘Hairies’) battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior to them – and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
In particular, the story focuses on two Indigenous brothers who are forced together to fight for survival in a land that is also home to otherworldly creatures.
The series is produced by Goalpost Pictures in Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for ABC TV Australia, with SundanceTV and distributor Red Arrow International coproducing. Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, pictured directing on set above) is the lead director, with Leah Purcell also behind the camera.
Cleverman features an all-star ensemble cast, headed by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Frances O’Connor (The Missing), Deborah Mailman and Hunter Page-Lochard (both The Sapphires), Rob Collins (The Lion King) and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games).
And it is exactly the uniqueness of the series that drew Glen to the project. “It’s just a very original script, which is where it always begins for an actor,” he says.
“It started with one of those very happy emails you get. It was very intriguing. I read the first two episodes and asked for more information about where the series was headed, and it took no persuasion.”
Goalpost also needed little persuasion to take the project on after receiving a pitch from series creator Ryan Griffen.
It was during an internship with Goalpost that Griffen first suggested a kids’ show called Dreamtime Detectives, which was based on storytelling traditions rooted in Aboriginal mythology and aimed to help children understand different cultures.
But when the project went out to public broadcaster ABC, “they kept asking to age it up, and with Dreamtime stories, a lot of the consequences are death,” Griffen explains. “You can’t put that in kids’ television, so we progressively aged it up until we got to a point where ABC said if we really wanted to push it, this would be the home for it. We jumped for that opportunity straight away.”
In Aboriginal culture, the title of Cleverman often refers to a man of power within a clan who provides the conduit between dreams and the real world.
Speaking about the show’s origins, Griffen says: “Early on, it was about creating an indigenous superhero but also looking at the idea of identity and how change in even the smallest form affects everyone. And we’ve kept on building that from when it was something very small to where it is today.”
Goalpost producer Rosemary Blight adds: “It’s just so distinct. It’s 60,000 years of storytelling. Ryan, as an Aboriginal man, comes from this line of stories. There aren’t books that provide the chance to sit and read these stories, so they haven’t really been explored. There are thousands of different dramas but there’s no Cleverman, because of where this story comes from.”
Blight describes the partnership with coproducer Pukeko Pictures as “like a glove; it was a very natural fit.” But what was it about Cleverman that ensured Pukeko, too, wanted to come on board?
Chief creative officer Martin Baynton explains: “Great genre stories are actually adult fairytales, and adult fairytales work because they speak to the heart of today’s moral issues. Science fiction and genre have always done that. They’re the ones that stay with us, that speak to the heart and to everyone in the audience.
“This is about cultural issues we’re facing now – the integration of cultural difference, how we get on as a people, how we go on that journey of bringing others in and not being scared of them. So while it’s a genre piece, it’s absolutely and most amazingly an engaging story of now.”
Glen echoes Baynton’s views: “Fundamentally, the series is about how you live with others in society, which is really pertinent today as we see swathes of people leaving their homelands and trying to belong in other areas of the world. That’s the strongest theme within Cleverman and it’s why it should be very universal. You don’t wish it to be the case but it has a horrible relevancy.”
The universal themes contained within Cleverman also resonated with Henrik Pabst, MD of Red Arrow International, who believes the story holds huge international appeal. The series received its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month and is set to debut down under in mid-2016.
“As a distributor, I think about how I can differentiate,” he says, reflecting the need of broadcasters around the world to offer programming that stands out from the crowd. “I can have the next cop show or I can try to reposition myself and find a niche. Broadcasters tell me they need an audience to come to them, so they can’t have average programming. They need something different – and Cleverman is that. I’m really interested in seeing the results. I’ve got interest from broadcasters I’d never thought of. Commercial broadcasters are looking broader and asking if Cleverman provides something for their audience because the topic is so relevant, and that’s what we love.”
To create the look of the Hairies, Cleverman’s creative team sought out Pukeko’s Oscar-winning sister studio Weta Workshop, which together with production designer Jake Nash brought the creatures to life.
Initially, Nash worked with Griffen, Goalpost and Pukeko to begin exploring what these characters and the world they inhabit looks like. “It’s such a great project and something I connected with strongly,” Nash explains. “As it’s an Aboriginal story and I’m an Aboriginal man myself, it connected personally and culturally in a contemporary world. For Ryan to tell this story, it’s the continuation of our culture, which is so exciting.”
One Cleverman creature in particular, the Namorrodor, described as a flying serpent, also comes from Aboriginal culture, so the team had a starting point from which to build the character. “Ryan came forward with a good brief and there were some original artworks that we used to inspire us, and that was really important,” says Nash, who also took on the role of Cleverman’s Indigenous advisor.
“With everything on this project, we started from the bottom and worked our way up. What does this character eat? How does he move? What’s his attack mode? We had this list of questions that we had to answer and that began to shape what our characters looked like, which was a really fun process. You learn so much about the characters.”
Ideas and designs were then sent between the team and Weta’s New Zealand base as the creatures began to take shape. Many of the special effects were achieved on camera, ensuring a balance between CGI and traditional character design.
“The creation of the Hairy family is pretty special – you’ve never seen anything like them,” Nash adds. “They are amazingly unique and I think we’ve done a great job.
“For Australia, Cleverman is a first. It takes us out of realism and into genre TV, and that’s really exciting. It’s a story rooted in Aboriginal culture, it’s genre-based and has
an international and Australian cast. Viewers are going to eat it up – it’s great, it’s the next big thing.”
Of course, HBO’s Game of Thrones is often cited as the benchmark for contemporary genre fiction – and Glen admits the show, in which he plays swashbuckling knight Ser Jorah Mormont, has been a game-changer in the industry.
“It took what was perhaps a tired genre, or one that people were nervous of, and made it the biggest global hit ever,” he says. “It’s blown out of the water any notion that TV is a small-screen affair because there are film budgets for pretty much every episode. Not every drama needs vast amounts of money to make it look good, but Game of Thrones changed what was possible and raised the bar.”
He adds of Cleverman: “When you start trying to describe what Cleverman is, it’s quite hard. But at its roots, it’s a character drama. It’s about families, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And it’s about their relationships, which are universal and to which people can relate very easily.”
Each year, Screen Australia releases a detailed report that analyses feature film and TV production levels in Australia. Entitled Drama Report, the 2014/15 edition came out last week.
When all elements are combined, the market is in pretty good shape. Total expenditure for the year in question was A$837m (US$597m), down just 1% on the previous year’s record high, and there is a positive trend in terms of inward investment.
All told, 16 foreign projects came to the country in 2014/15, generating a record expenditure of A$418m. These included the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, underlining the fact that the country can be relied on to deliver superb quality.
But the situation in domestically produced TV drama isn’t looking so good. According to Screen Australia, total spend on TV drama in 2014/15 was down 13% year-on-year to A$299m. And the situation is worse if you strip out children’s drama, which actually saw an increase last year.
Looking specifically at adult drama titles, the decline is 19% – from A$291m to A$235m. Onscreen, this translated into 34 adult titles and 401 hours of production, compared with 40 titles and 472 hours last year and a 2012/13 peak of 40 titles and 502 hours.
The figures are a reminder that the ‘golden age of drama’ doesn’t benefit everyone in the value chain equally.
Explaining the figures, Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason said domestic drama is “very expensive to produce, especially when weighed against the cost of cheap American imports. With competition in subscription VoD further fragmenting audiences, government incentives to produce local content will be more important than ever.”
An additional problem for Australian TV producers is that the “cheap American imports” referred to by Mason actually rate pretty well down under. One of the key consequences of this is that domestic broadcasters tend to look abroad for longer-running series and ask the local production community to focus more on miniseries and shorter runs.
There are exceptions, of course, such as long-running soaps Home & Away and Neighbours, but it’s notable that the most popular domestic dramas of the past year have been miniseries like Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, House of Hancock and The Secret River.
Even Glitch, recently renewed by ABC, comes in batches of only six. All of the above are excellent shows that may earn their producers awards and acclaim, but it’s not easy to run a drama production business on the back of miniseries and serials.
The extent of the problem for Aussie producers is further underlined when you look at how reliant domestic drama funding is on public sources. According to Screen Australia, a significant share of funding comes from public broadcaster ABC, Screen Australia itself, state agencies and a refundable tax rebate known as the Producer Offset.
Commercial free-to-air networks provided only A$93m (across 21 titles) during the year in question – “the group’s lowest contribution to the slate since 2005/06.”
In other words, the health of the domestic drama business going forward will require continued goodwill from politicians.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The fact that Australian writers and producers have the craft and creativity to make great drama is clearly a blessing. And there are new trends emerging that may support the sector.
While the ABC, Seven and Ten Networks have been the biggest supporters of scripted production, public network SBS recently aired its first home-grown drama in two years (four-parter The Principal). Nine Network also used its Upfront presentation last week to say that it will be increasing its spend on local content significantly in the next three years.
Having recently ended an output deal with Warner Bros, it has invested some of the freed-up money in titles like Hide & Seek, an espionage thriller from Matchbox Pictures, and House of Bond, a miniseries about the colourful entrepreneur Alan Bond. Produced by Paul Bennett (House of Hancock), House of Bond is exactly the kind of project that is likely to set Nine’s ratings alight (for a day or two).
Screen Australia also cites new areas of activity that might support Aussie drama producers into the future. “Subscription TV had a very strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and A Place To Call Home. This year’s slate also featured four series made for broadcaster catch-up or subscription VoD services: Fresh Blood Pilot Season, SBS Comedy Runway, No Activity and Plank.”
Not to be overlooked either is the contribution from foreign investors, which presumably includes international distributors looking to pick up global rights to shows. Although Screen Australia’s 2014/15 figure of A$54m was down on the previous year, it’s still a potent reminder that Aussie shows have the ability to work well in a number of foreign TV markets.
Similarly, the state-supported body also picked out a trend towards international coproduction, with activity up “on last year and the five-year average.” While a lot of this is down to kids’ drama coproduction, Screen Australia said this was “the fourth consecutive year with at least one adult TV drama coproduction in the slate,” in this case Cleverman, a partnership between Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand.
Cleverman, which will air on ABC in 2016, is an interesting project that was launched to the international market at Mipcom last month. A six-hour sci-fi genre series, it has been picked up in the US by Sundance TV and is being distributed worldwide by Red Arrow International. If it does well, it will provide the kind of creative and business model that may help Australian producers ease the financial pressures they currently face.
In the meantime, what have Aussie viewers got to look forward to? Aside from shows like Cleverman, Hide & Seek and the next run of Glitch, Seven has just unveiled plans for Molly, Wanted and The Secret Daughter. The first two are miniseries, but the latter is a 10-parter from Screentime that will be distributed by Banijay International.
Also coming up is a new series of ABC thriller The Code, which did well at home and overseas. Ten has struggled with drama recently, with titles like Wonderland and Party Tricks failing to hold on to viewers (it announced on October 26 that Wonderland has been cancelled after three seasons). Perhaps that is why it has announced a sixth season of Offspring, its most popular drama in recent years.
Offspring was rested for a year, with some fans fearing it might never come back. But with Ten anxious for a drama hit, reviving the show clearly makes sense. As yet it’s not clear what else Ten is planning in terms of drama.
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.
When Greg Berlanti was a kid, he would often have his head in a comic book, reading the latest adventures of Green Arrow or The Flash.
Today, he is part of the team that has brought both characters to life as the stars of their own live action dramas on US network The CW. Arrow begins its third season this fall, while The Flash makes its debut.
“I thought Arrow would make for a great show, in part because it was realistic and in my mind had a gritty tone and a Jason Bourne-type feel,” says Berlanti. “A lot of times TV shows fail, but this one worked.”
The success of Arrow and other adaptations is now a factor behind the charge to acquire rights to comic books and graphic novels, which are being snapped up by television executives hungry to bring new characters and the fantastical worlds they inhabit to the small screen.
Network television in the US will air five series based on graphic novels and comics this fall – three making their debuts – while zombie drama The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season on cable network AMC. Further adaptations are lined up for midseason, with dozens more in development.
Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not a new source of television inspiration. Batman and The Incredible Hulk appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, while Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman presented Clark Kent to a new generation in the 1990s. They also provide a near constant source of material for animated series, largely aimed at younger viewers.
But is this resurgence of superheroes on the small screen a lasting attempt by television studios’ attempts to grab a share of the huge profits being made by their big screen siblings, or is it just a Flash-in-the-pan?
When NBC passed on the pilot script for The Walking Dead, the show spent four years in the wilderness looking for a new home. It was only in 2010 when AMC committed to the series, rather than sending it into development limbo, that it was given a platform to become one of the highest rated US dramas.
David Alpert, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, says: “There was a degree of scepticism as to the merit of the artform of comic books and over time, as the success of the Marvel and DC Comics movies has increased alongside independent comic book movies like Men in Black and Road to Perdition, it started to make an impression on people that comic books are as vital an art form as any other.”
He agrees that comic book adaptations are hot properties in television. The New Zealand-based firm is developing an animated version of Image Comics’ Rat Queens but has live action series in development.
“They’re high concept, they’re world-building, they’re noisy,” he explains. “That’s what everybody wants. And graphic novels and comic books tend to be a good source of that kind of material.”
Universal Cable Productions (UCP), the production company behind Syfy’s Defiance and Suits on USA Network, currently has four comic book and graphic novel adaptations in development, alongside an untitled project from Iron Man writer Warren Ellis and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment.
And Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive VP of development, admits she has been shopping for IP since she joined the NBC Universal-owned studio earlier this year.
“I’ve only been there for five months and have been on a graphic novel and comic buying spree,” she says. “If you look at what’s happening in television right now, big distinctive ideas and worlds are really interesting, not only for network presidents but for audiences.
“In today’s market where there are a million shows coming at people, a world that’s distinctive and has a fresh imagination brings with it the opportunity to stand out. People have been doing it for a long time in comics and graphic novels, and we’re just finding that they’re really translatable, not just into movies but also into TV.”
UCP’s slate includes IDW Publishing’s Night Mary, a horror story about a 17-year-old girl who is trained to enter the dreams of patients at her father’s sleep disorder clinic, and Image Comics’ Pax Romana, in which the Vatican discovers the secret of time travel and hopes to change the future by sending soldiers and modern weaponry back to Rome in 312AD.
Olmstead says: “Which projects we choose comes down to gut reaction. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it comes across our desks, or we hear it in a room.
“Everybody now has control over what they put on their television and they can search for what they want. We use a gut litmus test – can you imagine searching for that show?
“Then the character has to be great. You’re really going to get to know Walter White in Breaking Bad because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, and we really look for characters that can hold up to that test.”
One of the biggest winners from this surge in live action adaptations is DC Comics, through its DC Entertainment division, which will have four series on US network television this fall. Freshman series Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, lands on NBC, Batman prequel Gotham is heading to Fox, and The Flash is joining Arrow on The CW.
Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, says: “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are great, but audiences don’t want to dress up like those characters. People don’t have action figures of those characters. The comic book genre hits you and becomes part of your lifestyle.
“When you go to Comic-Con and see 7,000 people cramming in to watch the premiere of Gotham, The Flash, or Constantine, you realise how much people love this stuff. They just want to see it done with care and love, by people who are as fanatical about it as they are.That’s the key.”
Writer and executive producer Berlanti had been reading the adventures of Green Arrow since he was a kid, so when he signed a production deal with DC’s parent Warner Bros Entertainment, he knew the story of a vigilante facing up against the villains running his home city was perfect for television.
A pilot was ordered in the 2011/12 development season by The CW, which later commissioned a full season.
For Berlanti, however, there was one comic book character he had always wanted to bring to life – the light to Arrow’s darkness – and after introducing the character in season two of Arrow, The Flash now has its own spin-off series.
“I wouldn’t have done The Flash two or three years ago,” says Berlanti, who executive produces both shows through his Berlanti Productions label. “The visual effects departments in TV didn’t have the capacity at the time to deliver the visual effects that would accompany a character like this,” he says of Barry Allen, who gains the ability of super-speed when a lightning bolt causes chemicals to spill over him.
Recreating The Flash’s super-speed also posed problems for Johns, who describes the finished effects as “pretty phenomenal”.
“That was something that was really important,” he says. “If you don’t believe he can move fast, it’s not going to work.”
But why does Johns think comic books and graphic novels are suddenly hot property?
Blockbuster movies, he says, are a big factor, but he goes further when he says television “is probably the closest to comic books in terms of storytelling that I know”.
He adds: “The Flash is built like a comic book, complete with cliff-hangers and subplots. Gotham is more of an urban saga you’re following, a police procedural that feels more like a comic book. When I was a kid, comics were not cool, but they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.”
“Network television in particular is going to have to do more of this kind of stuff, to create both good stories but big, juicy landscapes for people to enjoy because we live in a world where there are 400 channels, you’ve got access to every film and TV show of all time, and they have to compete.”
One network still dipping its toes into the waters of original scripted series is Netflix, the digital platform that has quickly become one of the biggest players in the industry with hits including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its burgeoning reputation was further enhanced when it partnered with Marvel Television to commission four new series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and a miniseries called The Defenders. The first series, Daredevil, will be released in 2015.
And they will join ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and midseason entry Agent Carter in Marvel’s expanding line-up.
Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, says the Netflix projects are “separate stories but one large tapestry”, akin to Marvel’s film strategy that saw Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor later team up as The Avengers.
“This wasn’t something we forced together,” he explains. “It wasn’t like we picked four random characters and just put them together. They already had their own kind of world; they’re what we refer to as street level heroes. You get to really explore the world that doesn’t quite have the lustre or sparkle that you get from the Marvel movies, or for that matter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. Our ABC shows do not feel like our Netflix shows because they’re from a different part of the Marvel universe.”
Loeb won’t be drawn on whether the Netflix series represent ‘phase one’ of Marvel’s assault on television, in a similar vein to the decade-long blueprint it has mapped out for its cinematic adventures. “But it seems to work well for the movies, doesn’t it,” he adds.
Another comics publisher getting into the TV business is IDW, which launched IDW Entertainment under the control of president David Ozer in October 2013.
Former Starz and Sonar Entertainment executive Ozer and IDW CEO Ted Adams have identified 10 properties to package as television adaptations, including Night Mary with UCP; Pantheon, a story set in the near future where the only gods worshipped are money and power, developed with The Shield actor Michael Chiklis; and V Wars, a vampire drama adapted by Dexter’s Tim Schlattmann. Circle of Confusion, which executive produces The Walking Dead, is overseeing development.
Adams revealed a “frustrating” experience seeing another of its comics, Locke & Key, fail to land a series order with Fox was the catalyst for IDW to build its own television division and, significantly, retain control of the adaptation process.
Another key marker was networks’ increasing openness to straight-to-series orders, which appeal to Adams.
He says: “There’s definitely something in the air. When we launched this, we didn’t know there was the huge number of shows based on comics that are going to be on air this year.
“Everybody’s looking for great ideas. Although our stories come from comic books initially, they’re not stereotypical superhero comic books. It’s just great genre storytelling. The networks want the same things for their shows as I want for my books, which is to be able to tell a great story, find interesting characters and create a world that gets people interested.”
So once they’ve won a commission, how do producers and writers begin adapting comic books and graphic novels for television? “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard,” says Olmstead. “Sometimes they’ve written something that’s adaptable in both scale and episodic journey. But sometimes they tend to put out really big ideas about society that’s hard to translate in dialogue and in scenes.”
“There’s always pressure to get it right, but it’s a good kind of pressure,” says Johns, who has written comic stories for characters including Green Lantern, Superman and The Flash. “If you were doing a biographical movie of Abraham Lincoln, you’re going to research the guy’s life, the world around him, what he did, what he accomplished, and the people around him.
“There are visual cues you want to keep because that’s the iconic feel of the characters. But the key point is the emotional content of the character – John Constantine’s emotional centre, his virility, his anti-hero status, or The Flash’s optimistic outlook and the joy of being a superhero. Every one of these characters has an emotional core you want to stay true to because that’s what is going to resonate the most.”
Comic books and graphic novels also come with an extra feature – ready made artwork. Characters and costumes are brought to life without the need for conceptual artists to present a vision of the show to network executives. But is this a blessing or a curse?
Alpert says: “It’s the greatest blessing we have. I can only imagine what it’s like to go into The Killing or Homeland thinking ‘we just had an amazing season one, how do we do something different in season two?’ The fact we have 130 issues to draw from gives us a real leg-up on other shows out there.
In the pilot for The Walking Dead, Alpert says there are scenes shot frame-for-frame from the comic, which was created by Robert Kirkman.
“I remember being in downtown Atlanta as hundreds of people in zombie make-up were chewing blood-filled condoms from a fake horse’s stomach and squeezing them, exploding them, and Robert looking at them and thinking this was exactly the way he had envisioned it,” he recalls.
But it’s not just the artwork that offers an instant benefit to executives bringing their projects to market. An existing fan base that has followed and fallen in love with the paperback adventures provides an instant audience, though that in itself can pose as many risks as rewards.
Adam Fratto, executive VP at animation studio Pukeko Pictures, explains: “Comic books can become quite popular so if you have a built-in fan base, that can really help. But there’s always the fact that with any underlying material, you run the risk of alienating the fans.
“Comic book fans are smart and want to be entertained. They don’t expect it to be a slavish repetition of the books. It’s important not to get too hung up on being 100 per cent faithful. My approach is usually to use the existing material as a jumping off point, not as a blueprint.”
Despite the success of the Marvel films, Loeb says the Netflix series and those on ABC still face the same challenges as any other series. “You want to make sure you’re telling something entertaining and compelling, that the viewers are caught up in a storyline they can’t get enough of – and in particular on Netflix, when you have the opportunity to download all 13 shows at once. In so many ways, Netflix lends itself much more to the same experience that you get when you buy a stack of comics where as soon as you put the first one down you want to get the second one, third, and fourth.
“Our goal is hopefully, on that first weekend, people will download all 13 episodes of Daredevil and make a weekend out of it, and have Daredevil parties and get completely caught up in it.
“We have seven series moving forward. That’s a lot of production. We are going to be producing 56 hours of television in the next 52 weeks. Hardcore fans and brand new people are not going to be disappointed.”
With a number of US broadcasters commissioning comic book adaptations, what does this mean for international buyers?
Channel 5 in the UK is the free-to-air home of The Walking Dead, picking up season four for its sibling 5* after fan power saw it overturn its earlier decision to drop it, and it has now added Gotham for the new season.
“There’s always been a lot of TV series around comic book heroes but it’s been a bit more family friendly,” says Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions. “Certainly the take on it now is a lot darker and edgier.
“What you have with The Walking Dead and Gotham is an innate fan base and when there are people who have grown up with those comics and then get to see them realised on screen, you know you’re going to draw an audience. People love to see their heroes on screen and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Alpert is now reteaming with Kirkman for exorcism drama Outcast, which has been developed with Cinemax and Fox International Channels. They are also plotting a Walking Dead spin-off for AMC set in the same world but featuring new characters.
“There’s always a sense that if something works, try to replicate it. So I definitely see more stuff being picked up from comics,” says Alpert. “It will be cyclical, so there will be a wave of original programming that comes along. But given the high degree of investment and the huger and desire to cut through the noise out there, it’s useful to tap into something that has a pre-awareness and a fan base.”
At UCP, Olmstead’s IP buying spree will continue “until they tell me I’m out of money”. She adds: “Comic book and graphic novelists are some of the best creators out there. They’re incredibly smart and are translating society’s problems in a really creative way, and as long as they’re doing it, I think we’ll be buying them.”
After bringing Arrow and The Flash to life, Berlanti says there’s “definitely more I would like to see” on television. “What people are starting to say about The Flash is we didn’t know one of these shows could be funny or light-hearted too,” he explains. “Our hope was to zig when other people are zagging and I think there are more opportunities like that in terms of tone or types of characters not represented in TV.”
While The Flash and Gotham have ready-made fans, The Walking Dead is proof that lesser known properties can also become television hits. The endless supply of comic book and graphic novel material is matched only by the appetite of television executives for these properties in the hope of finding the next success story.