Tag Archives: Red Arrow International

Ice queen

Poldark’s Heida Reed takes centre stage in Stella Blómkvist, a super-stylised Icelandic drama that is set to add a new dimension to Nordic noir. DQ chats to the actor and the key players behind the series.

When it comes to Nordic noir, there are certain traits viewers have come to expect. Moody visuals are often set against dark, foreboding landscapes, creating a style that has become synonymous with Scandinavian crime dramas like Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Trapped and Bron/Broen (The Bridge).

But a forthcoming Icelandic drama starring Poldark’s Heida Reed looks set to breathe new life into the genre with a radical, heightened and heavily stylised look that marks it out from anything that has come before. Imagine Sin City or Marvel’s Jessica Jones filmed in Reykjavík.

Stella Blómkvist follows the exploits of the titular lawyer across three feature-length instalments – The Murder at the Ministry, The Murder at Swan Lake and The Murder at Harpa. The first film sees Stella hired to defend a low-life thug accused of murder, but she soon finds herself plunged into a violent political conspiracy that threatens Iceland’s very future.

“This is not another Scandi noir,” says director Óskar Thór Axelsson (Black’s Game, Trapped). “I like to call it ‘neo-noir.’ It’s more playful and is set in a parallel world. We’re not trying to be super naturalistic, as you would be in Scandi noir. It’s more stylised and we’re trying to have fun with it.”

Lead writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson adds: “With the noir thing, I’ve been wary of the word because it’s being used for almost anything Scandinavian these days. Political drama Borgen has been called Scandi noir when it’s just Scandi. We are not following the Scandi noir rules, we’re going back to the roots of noir.

Stella Blómkvist stars Heida Reed as the eponymous femme fatale

“We’ve got an unreliable narrator, voiceovers, flashbacks, harsh lighting and all the trappings of the noir format. It goes against the typical Scandi noir format – when there’s so much of it, you want to go in a new direction.”

The show is based on a character created by a mysterious, anonymous author, who shares the same pen name as the lead character. The first episode is based on book one in the series, with two new stories completing the trio. The project has been developed by producer Sagafilm for two-and-a-half years, with Simínn (Iceland Telecom) and Scandi SVoD platform Viaplay on board as broadcasters. Red Arrow International is distributing the series.

From the outset, the creative team sought to replicate the Sherlock format of three feature-length episodes, as opposed to one 10-episode story, for example, in another bid to shake up the Nordic noir format.

“I’ve been writing a crime series in Iceland called Pressa [The Press] and experimented with the format there, but with that show we mostly focus on longer stories,” Grímsson says. “I thought it would be more fun to have shorter bursts of stories. We’re mimicking Sherlock, a show we really like. It’s a perfect vehicle for it.”

Working together in a small writers room, Grímsson, Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir and Andri Óttarsson stripped down the first Blómkvist book, threw out what they didn’t need and filled in the rest. Series director Axelsson was also a regular presence in
the room.

“Stella is almost all of the things you don’t want to see in female characters – she’s crass, rude, cold-hearted, inconsiderate,” Grímsson explains of the title character. “She’s sexually promiscuous, drinks and does whatever she pleases. It’s a fun character to work on.”

Director Óskar Thór Axelsson (left) with DOP Árni Filippusson

Axelsson picks up: “She’s a detective and a femme fatale, so she’s a super-interesting character. We had some discussion about the tone and where to place it early on, and that was something I really liked.

“Creating the look for Stella was more in the lighting, the production design and the acting. We definitely go for more intense angles than you would go for normally because it’s a noir. Some scenes we would design to be energetic, so I knew I had to speed up or shoot it in a particular way. But it’s a mixed bag – all three shows are very different. They look very different.

“It definitely has the Scandi noir elements in there but they’re pushed into a different angle. It will be more playful, it has more of a sense of humour. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also takes an interesting look at Reykjavík. We’re changing the scenery a little bit in the series.”

The director, who is currently filming episodes for the second season of fellow Icelandic drama Trapped, says Stella’s character influenced the way he shot the series. “Stella’s bisexual, she’s very opinionated and she’s constantly tricking people; she can put on a mask,” he explains. “That was something I was definitely trying to play with. Because Stella has so many faces, Heida maintained that she should not change her costume a lot and she should look the same, as that helps us identify with her because she’s always pretending.”

The casting process was a drawn-out affair as the creative team sought to find the perfect actor to fill the role, eventually securing Reed, who is back in period costume to shoot season four of BBC period drama Poldark.

“Heida had something we’d seen in the character in the books,” Axelsson says. “She’s really carrying the series – she’s in almost every scene. Hiring a young actor who doesn’t have much experience could have been suicide for us, but Heida coming off three seasons of Poldark and having that experience was a huge bonus.”

“Stella is the series,” says Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson. “It was a very important piece of the puzzle to get Stella right. We did test a lot of actresses – we wanted to see who would catch Stella and her tone, looks and demeanour. She’s a very tough woman but she also has her vulnerable sides. Heida basically nailed her.”

Reed pictured on set during a break in filming

With more than 90 speaking roles, rehearsal time was at a premium, with Axelsson admitting the 48-day shoot was shorter than he would have liked. This meant the director, working with a script that contained flashbacks and one-line scenes, had to prioritise which would be afforded the most time.

Production was complicated further by the lack of darkness in Iceland during the late-spring and summer months when filming took place. “It’s a noir so it has to have a lot of darkness, but we started shooting in early April, which meant we had a month to shoot night scenes,” Axelsson says.

“In mid-May, we’re almost into 24-hour daylight, so we had to do all the night scenes first. We started really front-heavy with that. It was a night shoot throughout April and the days gradually got longer. In May, we might still have had a night scene to do, so our schedule would be midday to midnight and we’d try to get this one night scene at the end that we’d missed.

“That was difficult, and in grading now we’re trying to match stuff we shot in June to what we got in April when it was snowing. We were really unlucky with the weather. It was a really tough shoot, actually.”

For Sagafilm, the project was born out of a desire to create an Icelandic series that could be marketed around the world. Stella Blómkvist fitted the bill, as the novels are already known across Europe and would draw the kind of production partners – and budget – needed to turn the property into a global franchise. The decision to make the series available in three 90-minute episodes or six 45-minute versions was also taken to maximise international appeal.

At €3m (US$3.6m), the show’s budget is double the standard cost of an Icelandic drama, but this was “part of the plan to up the game and we can see it in the series,” says Thordarson. “There’s a lot of different things we haven’t seen before from smaller-budget series. We tried to make it look like a €10m series.

“It’s definitely not like other things in Scandinavia. I just think we’re competing with ourselves, trying to do better every time. We don’t really want to follow what others are doing; we want to be our own voice – that’s what we’re trying to do and I think we did that with [crime drama] Case, our last series. That was unique in the market. In many ways, we played with the filmmaking aspect a little bit there and we are continuing to do that with Stella. It’s very unlike Case. So I think that will continue.”

Another appeal of making Stella Blómkvist was the potential to create a long-running franchise. Thordarson adds: “We have at least eight books and they’re still being published, so who knows how many there will be in the end. We have already started looking into what’s next in the Stella saga.”

Heida Reed with Aidan Turner in Poldark (left) and as Stella Blómkvist

Heida’s Stella performance
As Elizabeth Warleggan in BBC period drama Poldark, Heida Reed is more used to being part of a large ensemble cast than taking the lead. So when she won the title role in Stella Blómkvist, there was only one person she turned to – Ross Poldark himself.

“I actually texted Aidan Turner saying, ‘How did you do it?’” she reveals. “Suddenly I realised what it felt like to be in his position and I remember asking him, ‘Were you shitting yourself in the beginning at the first read-through and on the first day of filming?’ He just told me not to worry and had some nice, encouraging things to say. It was interesting to feel what it would be like in his shoes a little bit, and it was nice to be able to talk to someone who understood where I was coming from.”

Having moved to the UK to embark on an acting career, Iceland-born Reed’s Stella Blómkvist part marks her first leading role in a homegrown series, after previously appearing in 2014 miniseries Hraunið (The Lava Field).

“It’s an old-school noir but in a modern setting,” she says of her new show. “Stella’s a femme fatale and detective in one, and all the villains are grotesque and over the top. It’s fun to step out of realism sometimes. All the Scandi noir stuff is as raw as you can get. We did that [in Iceland] with Case and Trapped, so it’s actually refreshing to do something a bit more fantasy-like.”

Adding to the appeal was the chance to play a role far removed from that of Poldark’s Elizabeth. “It’s always really nice and fortunate when you don’t get pigeon-holed into one thing and you get to explore how far you can take a different type of character,” she says, describing Stella and Elizabeth as extremes of her own personality. “I didn’t think I’d get it, because she’s blonde in the books – she talks about using her blonde hair as her weapon. Elizabeth was supposed to be blonde as well, so I’m always going up for blonde characters and thinking I’m not going to get them. I’m fighting the good fight [for brunettes].”

In addition to late-night shoots and unpredictable weather, another key challenge the actor faced was reacquainting herself with the Icelandic language. “I was told I had to be less clear,” she says. “Maybe because I’ve been doing Poldark for so long, I was being so careful with how I was pronouncing things because I don’t speak that much Icelandic except to my family. I got direction to be less clear and maybe more sloppy because that’s more natural, and Stella is not someone who necessarily enunciates every word. She’s someone who blurts stuff out. The longer I was there, the easier it became.”

Reed now has her sights set on a comedy role, having starred in a period drama and a heavily stylised series. But with the success of Poldark and the potential to play Stella Blómkvist for many more seasons, she could soon have two huge returning hits on
her hands.

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Match maker

Having already enjoyed life as short film and a kids’ TV show, the idea behind Martin Lund’s comedy drama Match has now evolved into a “grown-up” series. DQ chats to the writer, director and actor about finding the balance between high stakes and humour in a 15-minute running time.

It’s not unusual to see a writer doubling up as the director on their own show. Martin Lund takes things a step further, however, by adding a third spoke to his involvement in Norwegian shortform drama Match – he’s also one of its stars.

Lund plays one of two sports presenters who commentate on the life of Stian (Herbert Nordrum), a 20-something guy with 20-something guy problems. Though he can’t see them, the two onlookers are there to chat tactics, performance and foul-ups at every vital moment of his life.

Martin Lund

Together, Stian and his commentators answer some of life’s most troubling questions. One episode sees Stian wake up next to a woman, played by Eline Grødal, whose name he can’t remember. Cue lots of desperate attempts by Stian to work out her identity, coupled with some wisecracking asides from the commentators.

The 20-part shortform series, which is due to air on Norway’s NRK, had its world premiere at Série Series in France this summer, and was also selected for the Séries Mania Coproduction Forum, which took place in April.

“Match started as a short film, Hjemmekamp [Home Game], I made in 2004 so it’s been a long journey,” Lund says. “It was about how hard it is to get up in the morning to reach work on time. It was really well received; I went to Sundance with it and that was fun. So that sparked the idea that it could work with all challenges in life. Then NRK was looking for a children’s show, so it made sense to make a show about this, called Kampen (The Games).”

Running for 26 episodes, The Games followed an 11-year-old who had to overcome such daily trials as getting to school on time and sending a text message to a girl – small events that can actually seem like a much bigger deal to those involved.

“When we were in the writing room, we had all these ideas that we came up with that we couldn’t use because it was a children’s show, so we thought it could work as a grown-up show as well,” Lund recalls. “So Match is more sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It’s also a bit more relationship-based. It was almost more difficult to make the grown-up version because the junior show was more basic, like sneaking out at night past bedtime. But the grown-up version needed some more psychological stuff and it felt unnatural not to go into dialogue [between characters] more. So it was a bit more complex to write and get the melody of the show.”

Lund wrote the series with Thorkild Schrumpf, and also directs with Liv Karin Dahlstrøm. It is produced by Ape&Bjørn and distributed by Red Arrow International.

From the outset, the key to the show was finding the right dynamic between Stian and the commentators, to ensure the latter didn’t simply serve as an outlet for exposition.

“The commentators demand a lot of attention; they are the voice of the main character so it was important to keep in mind that it has to be Stian who dictates the momentum of the episode and the situation he is in,” Lund explains. “What we struggled most with was if the commentators are saying something or driving the story forward, you don’t feel Stian is in charge. It doesn’t work. He has to be the frontrunner in this story, even though they are talking about and articulating everything.

“That’s been the most difficult part in both writing and directing because it’s so easy to lean on the jokes and guys in the booth just saying what is happening. I feel like we’ve been in this voiceover challenge throughout the whole thing. It’s very difficult to write.”

Lund describes Stian as an antihero, whose thoughts and insecurities are revealed through the commentators. “That’s the dynamic that works really well – him being really insecure and the sports lingo and sports references. I think most people are insecure in their everyday life but are trying not to be, so that makes it natural for me to write him as an uncertain character.”

If there’s a common theme throughout the 20 episodes, Lund says Match is ultimately a love story that straddles the line between comedy and drama. “It’s basically Stian and a girl’s ups and downs. Every episode is a new challenge for Stian. It doesn’t always directly concern her but she will be the reason for him to do something. She’s the big thing in this season overall.

As well as writing and directing, Lund (right) also plays a key role as one of Match’s commentators

“It’s a love story – that’s the drama that is underneath the story. One episode is about meeting her friends, another episode is about being at home with her parents and the challenges as they get to know each other.”

When it comes to writing and directing a series he also stars in, Lund admits: “I put it on myself.” But he praises co-director Dahlstøm and co-writer Schrumpf among the team he built around him. “It was all planned around me because I felt it had to be my voice, my song, my melody,” he says. “These people are very close to me – they’re friends as well so it was easy for me to explain [my ideas] or for them to contribute into this universe.”

Lund and Schrumpf spent a month in a writers room to develop the series before splitting off to write the scripts. “It was very much a show about finding one small idea that has a lot of facets to it. Remembering someone’s name could be an idea on the board. We spent a lot of time working out how to handle these types of situations, like how you go about figuring out someone’s name. If a big idea has a lot of strands, it meant we had a situation we could build this episode on – making her call you, Google your name, just talking like that and trying to build the narrative and drama around those ideas with forward momentum and funny jokes.”

On acting, he adds: “At first I was very self-conscious but I got used to it. I also liked the chance to see what worked and what didn’t. I learned a lot from doing the children’s show because that was the same, so this time I had a pretty long list of things I knew would work, how things should be played and what kind of reaction we should have.”

As the web opens up new possibilities for digital shortform content, it was a largely an analogue decision to keep the running time of Match episodes to 15 minutes. Lund had once written a 28-page script for an episode, which turned in to a 19-minute instalment on camera, but the show couldn’t find its feet at a traditional half-hour running time.

“We tried a lot of stuff in the studio just to see what we could and couldn’t do with it. Even then [at 19 minutes], we felt it was maybe a bit too long. So from there it was very natural to have two episodes in one half-hour running time.”

Lund is now working on a feature film called Psychobitch, but The Games has been sold to more than 40 countries and has a Canadian remake – YTV’s Game On. Despite the short-lived but similarly framed Pete Versus Life, which aired for two seasons on Channel 4, Lund believes Match has plenty of humour and drama to ensure the show heads into extra time.


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Mata of fact

Russian-made, English-language drama Mata Hari tells the true story of Margaret Zelle, a woman of humble origins who escaped family tragedy and a loveless marriage to become an infamous exotic dancer, courtesan and spy.

French actor Vahina Giocante reflects on playing this real-life “fantasy” figure, the audition process to win the role and why she feels at home when she’s on set.

Mata Hari is produced by Star Media for Channel One Russia and Ukraine’s Inter and is distributed by Red Arrow International.

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Bringing Bosch to life

As Amazon’s original crime drama Bosch heads into its third season, award-winning author Michael Connnelly tells DQ how his literary creation has been brought to life on the small screen – and why he thinks the series can run and run.

Since his first appearance some 25 years ago, LA homicide detective Harry Bosch has featured in more than 20 novels written by Michael Connelly.

But for the third season of Bosch, Amazon Prime Video’s flagship crime drama, which launches on April 21, the character is going back to the beginning.

Bosch’s literary debut came in 1992 thriller The Black Echo, and that book forms part of the main narrative of the forthcoming third instalment of the TV series, alongside Darkness More than Night and some remaining strands of The Last Coyote, which also featured in season two.

Adapting his stories for the screen with Amazon has been a fulfilling journey for Connelly, who splits his time between his home in Florida and Bosch’s LA set, where he admits he spends most of his time during production.

“You can’t ever imagine an adaptation happening, you just have to keep your head down and write the best book you can and hope for these kind of things,” he tells DQ during a break in production for the season three finale in November 2016. “It’s not like I never thought about it! In January it was 25 years since the first book came out about Harry Bosch, and that book is the subject of this season – so to have this happen all these years later, it’s really fulfilling beyond words.

“It’s hard to explain how cool that is. And I’m involved in the show – I’m on the set almost every day. It really is amazing. It’s a big city of people, almost 150 people all working on the show and they’re all there because 25 years ago I was in a room by myself and wrote about this guy named Harry Bosch. That kind of journey is amazing and very fulfilling.”

Developed by former showrunner Eric Overmyer (who stepped down in January to run Amazon stablemate The Man in the High Castle) and Fabrik Entertainment for Amazon Studios, Bosch was among the drama pilots launched in early 2014 by the then-nascent streamer, which allowed viewers to leave feedback that would be used to determine whether a full season would be ordered.

The show, distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, was an instant hit and season one – based on Connelly’s novels City of Bones, Echo Park and The Concrete Blonde – launched in February 2015. Season two, which drew storylines from Trunk Music, The Drop and The Last Coyote, launched in March 2016.

Season three was ordered shortly afterwards, in April 2016, before Amazon took the unusual step of picking up a fourth season in October that same year – before season three had aired.

It’s a rare but treasured position to be in for Bosch’s cast and crew, who can now plan to take the series towards its 40th episode.

Michael Connelly alongside actor Amy Aquino during filming

“The main thing [about having season four] is all the writers on the show know that at the end of the third season, they don’t have to worry about where they’ll work next!” Connelly jokes. “That also entered into our discussions about what we tie up, don’t tie up or set up for season four. It’s been extremely helpful. Here we are wrapping up episode 10 and last year we didn’t know if we had any future, even though we left some things open. This year we know there’s a future so we’re planting bigger seeds, bigger stuff to carry forward. There is much more of an open-ended feeling to the finale this season.”

Which books will form the basis of season four, which is likely to air in spring 2018, comes down to Connelly and new showrunner Daniel Pyne, who will meet early in the pre-production phase of the new season to discuss the best way to develop Bosch’s character on screen.

“That’s why we didn’t start at the beginning [of the books], we started with City of Bones where it was a case we thought would provide an emotional connection for Bosch and things would come out of that,” the author explains, adding that, after two seasons, the creative duo are now preparing to take the detective into murky moral conundrums.

“Darkness More than Night has always been one of my favourite books and really examines ideas about justice, vengeance and the differences between them,” Connelly continues. “It’s not the greatest portrait of Harry as a hero, but we felt in the third season we could explore that. And now that we have a fourth season, we’re even happier about that because, no matter how low you go, if you know there’s another story, there is always redemption in the next season.

“That’s how I approached it in the books. Harry reaches a personal low point in Darkness More than Night but when I was writing that I knew there would be a book afterwards so that I could bring him out of the abyss. That’s what has happened now with the TV show – we know there’s a fourth season and it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel that’s going to draw Harry out.”

Titus Welliver gets ready to shoot a scene Harry Bosch

Connelly has written five episodes of the TV series so far, including the third season finale, and it’s clear he is relishing seeing the character he created being brought to life on television. Admitting he’s “very much involved” in the writing process, the author reveals that he works alongside Bosch’s six writers to produce scripts, sometimes rewriting episodes or individual scenes.

“That’s where I’m most involved and can give the most,” he continues. “Then eventually you get into production and I love that because all these people are endeavouring to make a show about a character I created a long time ago. It’s very cool. But I have to say, that’s where my skill set drops off tremendously! I don’t know much about camera angles and production co-ordination, so I’m really there almost as a cheerleader to encourage people, especially the actors and the director, and give the thumbs up when needed.”

It’s a big contrast to the solitary life of a novelist, but Connelly says being in a writers room reminds him of his early career as a crime journalist, first in Florida and then at the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s quite different writing,” he adds. “When I’m writing books, I’m constantly inside Harry Bosch’s head and I know what he’s thinking. You never have any of that in the scripts, so it’s a good challenge for me at this point in my life to think in terms of delineating Harry’s character by what he says and what he does and not on the much easier component of interior thought.

“He’s very much the same character [on TV as in the books], he’s just on a different timeline. The guy in the books, I’ve aged him in real time so he’s mid-60s. Titus [Welliver, who plays Bosch on screen] is 55 and that’s a big difference. I’m 60 years old and I feel quite old compared to the Harry Bosch in the TV show. So in a way, they’re different animals – Titus is fantastic as Harry Bosch, he’s perfect, but he’s not the same guy I’m writing about these days when I sit down to write books.”

Alongside Bosch, the other central character in the Amazon drama is LA itself, echoing the presence of the city in the works of Connelly’s literary hero, Raymond Chandler. It was his job at the LA Times that first brought the writer to the City of Angels, which he argues is as complex as the detective at the centre of his novels.

“It’s just a very difficult place to get your arms around, to understand, so it’s like an ongoing, ever-revolving mystery – the kind of place where you feel compelled to look over your shoulder – and that makes it a great place to build fiction around,” he explains. “We carry that over into the show. We have a certain realism and gritty tone to what we’re filming and it’s an attractive way to portray the city. We want to have a lot of scenes that show the vastness of it. There are millions and millions of dreams here and, somewhere, something really bad has happened.

“For whatever reason, LA has a fascination for people around the world. I know I’ve benefited from that as a book writer, and it’s the same when it comes to television. It always comes down to LA as a mystery. It’s a real hard place to understand. I first visited in 1987 and would be the first to say I don’t really know this place as well as I know the town I grew up in.”

As an early adopter of SVoD platforms, watching television on his laptop, Connelly says Amazon was a natural home for a show based on his books, which have a pace to them that also benefits from the opportunity to binge entire seasons in a short space of time.

And when the show first went into development, the author had ambitions to reach 60 episodes. With 40 now guaranteed with Bosch’s fourth season commission, Connelly now sees no reason why it should stop after season six.

“It would be fantastic if it ran and ran, but we’ll see,” he says, adding a note of caution. “There are plenty more plots, it’s just more about whether we have said all we need to say about Harry Bosch. That goes for the books as well, where there’s more of a finite constriction because he ages in real time – he’s a private eye in the latest book and that can last at least a few more years.

“If I do ever reach a ceiling of forward progression with him, I can always go back and write about him in the 80s, 70s or even the 60s, so it’s really about what inspires me,” Connelly adds. “But I don’t think there’s any limit on Bosch as a literary figure or a television figure.”

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Welcome to Pregau

Nothing is as it seems in the sleepy town of Pregau, which lends its name to a German/Austrian crime drama. Writer/director Nils Willbrandt introduces DQ to some of the challenges of piecing the thriller together.

At a glance, Pregau appears to be an ordinary Austrian town. Scratch the surface, however, and therein lies a terrifying underbelly of lies, corruption and violence.

It’s this premise that sits at the centre of the simply named Pregau, an eight-part German-language drama written and directed by Nils Willbrandt.

The story centres on police officer Hannes Bucher, who finds no end of trouble, particularly as he has married into the Hartmann family, which unofficially controls the town.

Nils Willbrandt

One night, after a momentary lapse in judgement, Hannes sparks a chain reaction of events that threatens to tear apart his family and the once quiet world of Pregau. With the bodies starting to pile up around him, Hannes desperately tries to cover up his crimes, but finds himself spiralling deeper into trouble.

With no one to trust, the more Hannes tries to conceal his secrets, the more he uncovers the extent of the Hartmanns’ criminal operation — from high-level corruption and coercion to prostitution and human trafficking. The family control the town, and Hannes is beginning to realise just how far they will go to ensure it stays that way.

The series stars Maximilian Brückner as Hannes, alongside Ursula Strauss, Antonia Jung, Patricia Aulitzky, Thomas Schubert, Nikolai Gemel, Zoe Straub, Wolfgang Bock and Karl Fischer.

It is produced by Mona Film and Tivoli Film, in coproduction with Germany’s ARD Degeto and Austrian public broadcaster ORF, which aired the series in September and December 2016 respectively. It is distributed by Red Arrow International.

Here, creator Willbrandt tells DQ about one of the pivotal scenes in the four-part drama and the opportunity to work with a German and Austrian cast.

The show stars Maximilian Brückner as Hannes Bucher

What is the standout scene of the series?
For me it’s the starting point of our story: police officer Hannes Bucher works in a sleepy Austrian town. When he stops a car one night, he finds his niece behind the wheel, drunk and without a licence, and with her boyfriend by her side.
Hannes makes a momentary lapse of judgment with his niece, which sets off a frightening chain of events. We call this scene ‘the blowjob scene!’
In the scene, it is very difficult to condemn either Hannes or his niece. The power of the scene is in the subtext: for a brief moment he confuses her behaviour for real affection — affection he is not getting from anywhere else — and Rosa (played by Straub) just doesn’t know what else to do to rescue the situation. However, underneath it all, there is some real emotional affection between them.
It’s a fateful moment that changes everything for both of them. Hannes realises he is not quite as good a person as he thought he was; that there is a person inside of him that he didn’t know existed until this point, but has been unleashed. And just 300 minutes later, this new person will drive him to his end.

Where and how was this scene shot logistically?
It was shot over several, thankfully very still, nights in a big field near Vienna, and was lit by moon balloons. It was hot and some of the team got ticks during filming. We filmed until sunrise, which always came too early and always caused panic on set. The area lit up at night was more or less an entire valley.

Pregau has roots in real-life stories

Were there any script or practical challenges you had to overcome?
In a project as big as Pregau, you learn to live with the constant feeling of a writing crisis. ‘When did this or that person do what again and when? Oh yes, right, that was 206 pages earlier in front of the shop.’ There are so many thousands of small details that it doesn’t make sense to capture them all on cue cards. So you are forced to follow your intuition or else you’ll be driven mad by tiny details, which is both exciting and frightening.

What was it like working with the cast?
Being a German is not the same as being an Austrian and vice versa. Nuances of language and culture are only partly accessible to you and so you have to delve into the collaboration through the creative people around you and their backgrounds. On this show we were especially reliant on the help of the actors to do justice to the text and the intended subtext. The long shooting time brought everyone together, and you come to feel as though you know each other inside and out. In this profession, there’s nothing better than being able to work with actors so extensively over such a long period.

What is it like filming in Austria?
Austria is a very accommodating country. The people are positive, vibrant and, above all, artistic. They also love the bizarre, the deep and, for some, even the thrill of risk-taking. Through the filming of Pregau I have made some life-long friends.

Is Pregau based on any real-life cases?
Yes, it is. I knew the family, the place, the circumstances, the feelings. I have exaggerated them and fictitiously distorted them but at the core is truth, even though this is perhaps a really frightening thought.

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Mata Hari

Russian drama Mata Hari charts the extraordinary life of the eponymous exotic dancer, courtesan and infamous spy. Amelie Von Kienlin, senior VP of scripted acquisitions and coproductions for distributor Red Arrow International, gives DQ seven key facts about the sumptuous period drama.

1. To her audiences, Mata Hari was a renowned performer and exotic dancer. To her wealthy lovers she was a charming yet mysterious seductress. And to both the German and French intelligence services, she was an invaluable and trustworthy informant who was exposed as a double agent during the First World War and ultimately executed by firing squad. But few saw Margaret Zelle, the real woman behind the legend of Mata Hari, which is what this series brings to light.

Amelie Von Kienlin
Amelie Von Kienlin

2. The 12-part show is based on the real-life story of Margaret Zelle. Born of humble beginnings, Margaret escapes personal family tragedy and a loveless marriage to become the most controversial woman of her time. But for all her fame and wealth, she cannot forget the daughter that was taken away from her. Desperate to be reunited with her child, Margaret seeks to win favour with anyone powerful enough to help her – by using her mind, her information or her body. But as the world descends towards war, and as the stakes get higher than she could ever have imagined, Margaret is no longer sure which side she is on. In a way, her life becomes a performance from which she cannot seem to escape.

3. This landmark new drama about love, loss and defiance features an acclaimed international cast including Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (Sex and the City), Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), Gerard Depardieu (Life of Pi) and Vahina Giocante (99 Francs) as Mata Hari. Mata Hari is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg (Falco).

4. A number of locations were used for the production. Filming of the first and third blocks took place in Portugal. Lisbon and its vicinity, plus Porto and Sintra, were used to shoot the European architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second block was filmed in Russia and Ukraine, where we depicted military and battle scenes of the First World War and covered the life and career of Mata Hari’s Russian lover, the foreign intelligence officer Vladimir Maslov. Large-scale sets of early 20th century Parisian streets were built at the studios of the producer, Moscow’s Star Media, and the final dub and sound design were completed in LA.

Behind the scenes on the forthcoming drama
Behind the scenes on the forthcoming drama

5. The costumes were created by designer Xenia Mavrina, who tailored each of the main characters’ outfits. Not only did the costume team have to make clothes for the socialites and the nobles of the time, they also had to search for authentic military uniforms. The ladies’ fashion of the period was for full-length skirts (without crinolines, metal inserts or hoops), always matched with gloves, a hand purse and a hat. Bare female ankles were considered the height of eroticism. For the male costumes it was wide, straight trousers, jackets and shallow V-necks with stand-up collars. Ties were just coming into fashion, so most men were still wearing neckerchiefs, always wore a hat and would usually be carrying something in their hands such as a cane.

6. Mata Hari was filmed entirely in English. It is the first time Channel One in Russia has commissioned an English-language series, which will then be dubbed into Russian for its local audience.

7. Red Arrow International is distributing the series and has already received strong interest from broadcasters around the world. Star Media and their partners – Channel One Russia and Inter Ukraine – have done a great job to bring together a multinational creative team led by directors Berry and Berg, and a prestigious cast of international actors.

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DQ uncovers the hidden story of Farang

Red Arrow International is at Mipcom 2016 distributing action-packed Swedish thriller Farang. Producer Anna Wallmark Avelin and co-ordinator Frida Wallman reveal the hidden story behind the series.

Set in Thailand, Farang is a landmark new series about love, betrayal and the complicated ties that bind a father with his daughter.

Anna Wallmark Avelin
Anna Wallmark Avelin

The show features a stellar cast including Ola Rapace (Skyfall, Section Zero, Wallander, Together), Louise Nyvall (Girls Lost) and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam (Only God Forgives).

Former criminal Rickard (Rapace) has vanished. Fleeing Sweden and the old friends he has testified against, he abandons his name, his life and his family to start over in Thailand. Ten years later and still with a price on his head, Rickard knows that a return home would be a death sentence. And so he ekes out his existence as a small-time crook in the back alleys of Phuket. Life’s tough and dirty, but at least it won’t kill him. That’s the idea, anyway.

When his 15-year-old daughter Thyra comes looking for him, Rickard’s self-imposed exile in this gritty paradise is soon under threat. His attempts to push her away only drive her deeper into the dark underworld that Rickard knows only too well. After a momentary lapse in judgement, Rickard’s cover is blown and both he and his daughter find themselves in very real danger. Their only chance of survival is to strike back at those who are coming for them.

Frida Wallman
Frida Wallman

This story arc wasn’t always the path for Farang’s main character. Rickard was originally a policeman. He planned to start a new life in a Thai paradise, but throughout the development of the show, new angles began to develop and new people came along. So it all changed and he switched sides: from a cop to a criminal in the dark underbelly of paradise.

We found the most rewarding and yet challenging thing about the creative process in producing Farang was trying to keep a consistent voice and holding on to the uniqueness of the series through all of the different eyes and brains who have worked on the project over the years.

Another major change was that the eight-part series, produced by Warner Bros for CMore Entertainment and TV4 Sweden, shifted genre over the development period.

What initially started out as a light drama became a thrilling, edgy drama. Originally the show was about a policeman in paradise solving a minor criminal case, with tourists somehow involved in each episode, and with some added rom-com glitter.

Farang stars Ola Rapace
Farang stars Ola Rapace

We then felt we wanted to add a strong emotional theme to the series. We didn’t want the audience to know what was going to happen next – who would fool them, who would fall in love and who would be sacrificed.

So when this project and the scripts finally landed, it wasn’t so light anymore. We also needed time to tell the story in all its scope, so the thriller journey began and all of a sudden there was only one case left to solve over the whole season. We also found that it was far more exciting and complex if Rickard was a criminal with a hidden identity, on the other side of the law.

We then came to the visuals and the environment. The initial plan was to shoot the series on the sunny beaches of Thailand but, based on the above journey, we felt we had to move behind the postcard-worthy vistas. The new take on the story required something more.

Rapace alongside Louise Nyvall, who plays his teenage daughter

We wanted to make a Scandi noir set in an exotic place to suit the story, but also to make it resonate with the themes, so all the reccies began to take place around corners, behind the glitzy hotels, away from the big streets. That’s how we built the universe of Farang.

The word ‘farang’ is used by Thais for people of European descent in Thailand, and usually denotes a foreigner. It sums up the feeling of unease and outsider-dom that pervades the series and Rickard’s psyche.

In terms of filming in Thailand, one small challenge was putting a very Scandinavian cast in a tropical location!

Ola Rapace’s character Rickard has been living in Thailand for 10 years and is consequently used to the warm climate. Rickard is comfortable walking around in jeans – even when the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Imagine the sweat on him after shooting 10 hours a day in jeans and boots for months in this heat! He lost one kilo a week.

Our lead actress, Louise Nyvall, who plays Rickard’s 15-year-old daughter Thyra, had similar difficulties. She arrives in Thailand in the first episode and then she has to stay pale throughout the whole series – a struggle when shooting for three months in sunny Thailand without getting any sunburn or a tan!

Ultimately we are hugely proud of the show and the journey it has taken to be what it is today. We hope viewers will be drawn into the world behind the glamour of a beach paradise, and delight in seeing a Scandi noir set among the palm trees.

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Mipcom showcases global writing talent

Malin Lagerlof
Malin Lagerlof

Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.

At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.

French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.

Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.

Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.

Jesse McKeown
Jesse McKeown

Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.

Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.

Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”

Chris Haddock
Chris Haddock

This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.

StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.

Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK  as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.

Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind
Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind

Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.

From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”

Sebastian Ortega

RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.

Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.

It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”

Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.

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Mipcom’s mega screening session

Mata Hari
Mata Hari has been produced by Russia’s Star Media

TV markets MipTV and Mipcom in Cannes are primarily known as places for buying and selling programming. But the recent surge in the quality of scripted content from around the world has given them an interesting new role – as platforms for screening new shows.

At first, the screenings were organised on an ad-hoc basis. But MipTV 2016 in April saw the launch of the Mip Drama Screenings, an array of shows selected by jury. There was even a kind of competition, with Belgium’s Public Enemy being awarded the first ever Coup de Couer.

Mipcom, which takes place next month, is also benefiting from the growing appeal of screenings. At the time of writing, market organiser Reed Midem had announced two World Premiere Screenings and eight International Drama Screenings. This is approximately twice as many screenings as last year and it’s still possible one or two more titles will be added to the overall schedule.

The first of the World Premiere TV Screenings (on the evening of Sunday October 16) is the eye-catching Mata Hari, an ambitious series about the infamous dancer, courtesan and First World War female spy.

Based on a true story, Mata Hari is an English-language drama that is produced by Star Media of Russia and distributed by Red Arrow International. It stars French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role, and features Christopher Lambert (Highlander) and John Corbett (Sex and the City) – all three of whom will attend Mipcom and take part in a Q&A session directly following the screening.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show stars Laverne Cox (left)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show stars Laverne Cox

Commenting on the 12-hour series, Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale, quality and ambition of this new series mark a new chapter in Russian-made English-language drama, and we are looking forward to launching it at Mipcom.”

It is part of a growing trend towards English-language series originating in non-English markets – other examples being Versailles and forthcoming drama The Young Pope.

Screening on Tuesday October 18, 20th Century Fox Television’s much-anticipated two-hour TV special of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the other World Premiere Screening at Mipcom. A made-for-TV reboot of the iconic movie/theatre show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show sees young couple Brad and Janet stray off the highway one night and stumble upon the castle of Dr Frank-N-Furter, a gender-bending mad scientist who is keen to show off his latest creation, Rocky.

It stars Laverne Cox as Dr Frank-N-Furter, Victoria Justice as Janet, Ryan McCartan as Brad, and Adam Lambert as Eddie, the role originally played by Meat Loaf. The new version also sees Tim Curry, the original Frank-N-Furter, return as the show’s criminologist narrator.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, the editorial heritage of the project is bound to attract plenty of buyers. But it will also be interesting to see if it represents a revival of interest in the TV film format, which could lend itself well to the on-demand viewing landscape that major markets have shifted towards. It would be a major surprise if the project didn’t attract the interest of Amazon or Netflix (the latter of which works with Cox on Orange is the New Black).

Beta Film's Maximilian
Beta Film’s Maximilian

Turning to the International Drama Screenings, one of the first up will be Beta Film-distributed historic epic Maximilian and Maria de Bourgogne, which will be screened on the evening of Monday, October 17. Directed by Andreas Prochaska, this sumptuous six-hour period drama is estimated to have had a budget of €16m (US$17.9m). A love story set towards the end of the Middle Ages, it stars Berlinale up-and-comer Jannis Niewoehner alongside César-nominee Christa Théret and is coproduced by MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.

Another interesting screening will be The Missing 2, an English-language thriller distributed by All3media International. Initially, the organisers of Mipcom weren’t sure if it was right to screen a follow-up season. But they were ultimately convinced by the fact that The Missing is an anthology format, part of a growing trend in scripted TV that also includes acclaimed series such as Fargo and True Detective.

The story follows a young woman who has been missing for 11 years. When she returns, she holds vital clues about another missing girl who has not yet been found.

Aside from its anthology status, the show is interesting because of the complexity of its coproduction status. It is credited as a New Pictures production for BBC1 in the UK and US premium cable network Starz, in association with Two Brothers Pictures and Playground Entertainment. It is also cited as a copro with Czar TV and BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance with the support of één (VRT) and Screen Flanders.

The Missing 2 is unconnected to the first season of the show
The Missing 2 is unconnected to the first season of the show

Screening on October 18 is Ouro, distributed by Newen Distribution. The eight-part series is a modern day adventure set in the Amazonian jungle. It tells the story of Vincent, a 20-year-old geology student, who goes to French Guiana to do an internship at a gold-mining company. His love for danger then prompts him to join forces with a local gold lord to explore an abandoned mine.

This is another show that is certain to attract a lot of interest. Aside from the fact it is part of a resurgence of interest in adventure series, it’s a Canal+ original drama, meaning it’s part of the same stable as acclaimed French scripted shows like The Returned, Versailles, Spiral and Braquo.

Continuing the popularity of challenging period drama, there will also be a screening of Carnival Films’ Jamestown, which tells the story of the first British settlers in North America’s inhospitable but magnificent wilderness. As three young women arrive in a fledgling Virginian colony, the community battles against threats from both outside and within. This is another six-parter, underlining the popularity of this format.

At the other end of the scripted spectrum, there is also a screening for AwesomenessTV’s Freakish, the story of 20 high-school students trying to survive after their school has been destroyed by an explosion that causes the surviving population to mutate.

Charité centres on the Charité Hospital

Wednesday October 19 in Cannes will see a double bill of screenings, starting with Global Screen-distributed Prisoners (working title). Combining the international market’s interest in Nordic content with its fascination with women’s prison drama, this six-part scripted series, directed by Ragnar Bragason, is about a woman who is sent to serve time in Iceland’s only female prison for a vicious assault that leaves her father in a coma. But no one knows that she harbours a dark secret that could tear her family apart – a secret that could also set her free.

The second leg of the double bill is UFA Fiction’s Charité, also a six parter. Set in Berlin in 1888, it centres on the world-famous Charité Hospital.

Aside from telling a compelling human-interest story, the series uses the hospital as a microcosmic reflection of late 19th century Wilhelmine society. This period saw unprecedented scientific progress in medicine accompanied by radical changes in society and the economic upheavals of industrialisation. The series is directed by Sönke Wortmann and written by Dorothee Schön and Sabine Thor-Wiedemann.

Run Run Shaw
Run Run Shaw

Finally on the Mipcom screening slate comes The Legendary Tycoon, from China Huace Film & TV. A welcome addition to the mix, the show is set against the backdrop of the Chinese film industry and is based on the true story of Asia’s first movie mogul, Sir Run Run Shaw.

Shaw, who founded Shaw Brothers Film Studios in the 1960s, was a media mogul who popularised Chinese Kung Fu movies in the west and worked in the entertainment industry for 80 years. Known as The King of Asian Entertainment, he died in 2014 at the amazing age of 107.

There’s no question that the dramas that secured screenings at MipTV 2016 benefited enormously in terms of profile among international buyers. So it will be interesting to see if this autumn’s crop of shows get a similar boost to their distribution efforts.

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ABC Oz makes Clever decision

Cleverman made its debut last week

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.”

Outlander has been given two more seasons

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.

Amazon has renewed Transparent (pictured) and unveiled a slew of Japanese originals

“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.

HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre has been picked up by Hulu

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.

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Nordic drama in good company

Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh
Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh

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.

ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season
ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season

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.

Cleverman is BBC3's first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network
Cleverman is BBC3’s first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network

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.”

DRTV's Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada
DRTV’s financial crime drama Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada

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.

US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla
US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla

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.

Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC's Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan
Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC’s Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan

“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.

Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season
Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season on A&E

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.

Don Cheadle in Showtime's now-axed comedy House of Lies
Don Cheadle in Showtime’s now-axed comedy House of Lies

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.

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Writers’ rising stock

Bret Easton Ellis (photo by Mark Coggins)
Bret Easton Ellis (photo by Mark Coggins)

There is an inexorability about the way the TV drama business is heading. From the viewer’s perspective, the emergence of large-screen HD/4K TVs, combined with high subscription fees, creates an expectation that broadcasters and platforms will deliver great shows.

For those broadcasters and platforms, this puts a stronger emphasis than ever on the pursuit of high-profile and high-quality writing, acting and producing talent. But securing that kind of talent costs a lot of money, which means subscription fees need to rise.

And so the creative arms race escalates, with the companies in charge of content delivery forced to make bolder and bolder decisions. In a way, it’s similar to what has happened with sports rights.

While the big draw with any drama is its cast, it’s noticeable that the track record of writers is also becoming more important – not just in satisfying commissioning editors, but also as a way of appealing to audiences.

This is why novelists like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø have become such a focal point. While most TV writers don’t have a public profile (because of the collaborative nature of the TV process), novelists are often respected brands – with loyal fans who follow their every move.

The movie version of American Psycho, Ellis's best-known work
Christian Bale in the movie version of American Psycho, Ellis’s best-known work

Against that backdrop, this week saw AT&T-backed SVoD platform Fullscreen unveil a raft of new content including a show directed and written by Bret Easton Ellis – the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction, known for cult novels like Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction and, most famously, American Psycho.

The new show, called The Deleted, focuses on the disappearance of three seemingly unconnected people from LA. The occurrence triggers a collective paranoia among a group of young people, all of whom escaped from a cult ‎several years previously.

The project is a new departure for Ellis. Although he has tried his hand at screenwriting movies, such as The Canyons and The Informers, this is his first gig as a director. “It’s going push some boundaries and it’s definitely going to be the darkest of our original shows,” said Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos.

“We created a new kind of entertainment experience which merges the things we love about premium content and social media. We’re building it for an audience we know and love – a social-first, mobile-first generation. The future of media is going to look more like what we’re doing than what we’ve seen over the past several decades.”

Russell T Davies (photo by Tony Hassall)
Russell T Davies (photo by Tony Hassall)

Writers celebrating this week include Russell T Davies, who has just won the Bafta TV Craft Drama Writer Award for his 2015 drama serial Cucumber. Davies edged out a formidable line-up of rivals to secure the award, including Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall) and Neil Cross (Luther).

Cucumber was part of a trilogy of dramas for Channel 4 that also included Tofu and Banana. Loosely described as a sequel to Davies’ iconic 1999 series Queer as Folk, it focused on a middle-aged gay man (Henry) who has to adapt to sudden change after a disastrous date night with his boyfriend of nine years.

Although the emphasis of the story was on the social and emotional challenges faced by gay men, critic Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, said the show had a more universal theme: “The broader genre of respectability meltdown, as Henry (the central character) is accelerated from smug dullness to scenes featuring police intervention, furious colleagues and social humiliation.”

Other Bafta winners included Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan for their hit comedy Catastrophe (Channel 4). There was also a breakthrough award for actor/writer Michaela Coel, creator of fellow Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum. All in all, that made it a good night for Channel 4 in terms of its writing credentials.

Other writers in the news include Scott Shepherd, who has been signed up by Televisa US to pen a 10-part sci-fi thriller. The Seventh Day is the Mexican media group’s second foray into English-language content after Duality, starring Dougray Scott.

Davies' award-winning Channel 4 drama Cucumber
Davies’ award-winning Channel 4 drama Cucumber

The series is based on Shepherd’s serialised novel of the same name. Treading a well-worn furrow, it centres on one of the few people left unharmed when most of humanity is wiped out.

Shepherd, who is actually a writer/producer, has a shopping list of writing credits that date back to Murder She Wrote and Miami Vice in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he executive produced Haven and The Dead Zone – while also contributing to the writing efforts.

For The Seventh Day, he will share writing and showrunning duties with Cindy McCreery, who also wrote on Haven. Commenting on the new project, which will be shot in Mexico, Televisa USA head of production and distribution Chris Philip said: “Scott and Cindy are once again weaving gripping stories into compelling TV. Their masterful tales fit perfectly with the wide array of sets and terrain that Televisa has to offer in Mexico, where we plan to shoot all of the series we greenlight with our pioneering production and distribution venture.”

As the expansion of Televisa illustrates, one of the most exciting developments in the international drama business is the formation of new alliances. Another interesting example of this is the Russian drama Mata Hari, based on the life of the famous female spy/courtesan. The show has been produced by Star Media in Russia and will be distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, starting at Mipcom in October.

Mata Hari
Mata Hari will debut at Mipcom in October

Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale and quality of this ambitious new drama is truly impressive and marks a real step change in the international ambitions of the Russian production sector.”

Red Arrow will distribute an English-language version of the show, which stars the likes of Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Rade Serbedzija (X-Men: First Class) and Rutger Hauer (Batman Begins, Blade Runner), plus French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role.

The series, which is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg, recently completed filming in Lisbon and St Petersburg, and will air on Russian state network Channel One and Ukraine’s Inter later this year.

It has been written by Igor Ter-Karapetov and Oleg Kirillov. Of the two, Ter-Karapetov appears to have the more established track record, having penned numerous series and miniseries over the last few years. Credits include spy thriller Smert shpionam, Udarnaya volna and Ubit Stalina, a Second World War drama about a plot by the Germans to kill Joseph Stalin. The latter also contains a spy component, which suggest Ter-Karapetov is the perfect writer to tackle another period espionage story.

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A vision of the future: UK indie producer Nevision

UK indie Nevision is shaking up the drama production model by investing in new writers and offering them a share of the business. Michael Pickard reports.

When independent producer Nevision announced a co-development deal with distributor Red Arrow International, it marked the latest stage in the growth of a company that puts writers at the heart of its business.

Linking with Red Arrow to bring high-end drama series to the worldwide market, it announced two projects already in the works with producer Sharon Bloom (Silent Witness).

The first, Post One, is described as a high-concept series written by Gregory Edmont, while Geneva is a spy thriller from writer Matt Thorne. Both will be produced by Nevision and distributed by Red Arrow.

The partnership marks Nevision’s continued push into the global drama industry as it aims to exploit coproduction opportunities while developing its own slate of dramas in partnership with the creatives behind them. But that wasn’t always the plan.

Neil Zeiger
Neil Zeiger: ‘We tell writers to come to us with something they really want to write. If they believe in a story, we’ll engage with them’

Nevision launched in early 2013 with ambitions to support the drama sector by providing new streams of funding. But, spurred on by consolidation in the industry and the relatively small number of independent producers left in the UK, it began to focus more on the creative process – finding greater value in seeking out new writers and developing their ideas for television.

“What’s interesting is over the last couple of years in the independent sector, producers suddenly became bigger, were bought by multinationals and given a value none of us could understand,” explains Nevision producer Neil Zeiger (Kingdom, Collision).

“A lot of writers found they didn’t have any control over their work that had created the success that generated all that money. The writers we talked to wanted to control their output, and the only way you can really do that is by not giving it away to somebody else.”

Traditionally, writers might be paid for writing a treatment and then a script, but in turn hand over rights to the production company involved. Nevision promotes a different kind of relationship, where writers become partners and retain some control over the IP while Nevision moves the project forward through production, ensuring the original creator remains involved in the decision-making.

Zeiger continues: “We tell writers to come to us with something they really want to write. If they believe in a story, we’ll engage with them. Then you’ve got as much chance as everybody else in this business because the other bits that you put to it – cast, director, money – that’s just how you make a broadcaster feel relaxed. The key thing is we’re developing stuff that we believe in, that the writers believe in, and that’s all you can ever do. Ultimately, the only way you break through is with quality content.

Nevision is also in a position to help finance projects. In particular, it can plug funding gaps to help kickstart production and ensure broadcasters can put a series into their schedule.

Sharon Bloom
Nevision has two projects in the works with producer Sharon Bloom

“All the broadcaster has to worry about is whether it’s commissioned the right piece of drama, not whether it will get funding in time or if it has to get some money out of the distributor,” Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne notes. “All of that goes away.”

Zeiger continues: “Our funding model is flexible. There will be some productions where a coproduction makes sense simply because of geography. Other projects don’t require that, so we can deficit-fund, we can pre-sell. But it’s all balanced against the value of the work at the end. Are people going to want to watch it and is it going to make its money back?”

Bringing new writers to the screen isn’t an easy job, however. With broadcasters on the hunt for big ratings, they are naturally more inclined to work with established top-tier writers.

But Cabourne argues they need to take more risks and put their faith in emerging voices: “There is a coterie of writers who broadcasters fall over themselves to get, but the average person in the street has got no idea who wrote what. But they do know really good drama when they see it, and that’s where broadcasters need to loosen up.”

Nevision announced in 2014 that it was working with former FremantleMedia CEO David Ellender’s Slingshot Global Media on Oil, a drama set in the Persian Gulf during the 1970s.

Created by Alan Whiting (Wire in the Blood), Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, who writes the series, it follows a young American woman and her oil executive husband who live within the tight-knit community of expats from the US and Europe.

More recently, however, it bought a majority stake in distributor About Premium Content (APC), which has offices in London and Paris and counts drama Contact (pictured top) – which piloted on France’s TF1 – among its titles. The deal extended Nevision’s reach into Europe, where it has access to new funding and coproduction opportunities – possibilities enhanced further by the subsequent link with Red Arrow International.

James Cabourne
James Cabourne: ‘There is a coterie of writers who broadcasters fall over themselves to get, but the average person in the street has got no idea who wrote what’

“Neil and I have spent a long time understanding drama output in Europe, which is why we’re so fascinated with APC’s business,” says fellow producer Tim Buxton. “There’s a very different set of rules operating in Europe, with very different budgets. It is extraordinary what some of the Scandinavian and Spanish producers are able to make on budgets that the British can’t get their heads round.

“Broadening horizons into Europe gave us the confidence to say we’ve got some things that could attract European interest, whether in France, Spain or Germany. We have to remind ourselves that an awful lot of programming gets made outside the UK and some of it is remarkably good. Spanish dramas are being made for €400,000 ($450,000) an hour – you wonder how they do it.”

Nevision now has around 15 projects in development and is starting to pitch projects to UK broadcasters. It hopes to have two series in production or on air this year.

“As we’ve got more involved in Europe through APC, we can see how things can be done in different ways,” Cabourne adds. “The current model has worked for so long that people know any other way. We’re looking at different ways of making things – maybe you don’t go down the commission route; you take a risk and make something on a pre-sale basis. There are different strategies but people tend to do the same thing. We’re not going to just do one thing. We’re open.”

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Smart TV: Get the lowdown on Cleverman

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.

Ryan Griffen
Ryan Griffen

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.

Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade
Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade

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.”

An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation
An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation

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.

Cleverman takes inspiration from Aboriginal stories

“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.”

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Turning the volume down

Seduction and espionage marry in Canadian thriller The Romeo Section. Showrunner Chris Haddock outlines the ‘quieter’ series’ origins and explains why showrunning is like a football match.

While spy dramas such as Homeland and 24 are filled with explosions, gunfire and high-speed car chases, The Romeo Section is decidedly more covert.

The Canadian drama follows a seasoned spymaster and academic who secretly manages a team of agents, known as Romeo and Juliet spies, who use their powers of seduction to extract secrets from state intelligence targets.

Haddock directing on set
Haddock directing on set

And creator and showrunner Chris Haddock, pictured above, says he intentionally decided to walk a different path to other noisier series when developing the show for Canadian pubcaster CBC.

“All you hear in Hollywood when pitching is ‘bring me a noisier show,’” Haddock says. “There’s so much of it and there’s so very little difference between one cast and another or the appearance of one show or another. My gut told me counter-intuitively I’m going to make the quieter show that everybody gets drawn to.

“We’re in a niche market now. You’re looking for the audience that loves that stuff, and people see the value in that. If you get a strong demographic behind you, a show can really grow and become a long-term success.”

The Romeo Section, which launched its 10-episode first season last October, is described as a taut thriller about espionage set in the Pacific Rim.

Filmed on location in Vancouver, where the story is set, the show slowly introduces viewers to the underside of a seemingly serene city that is exposed as a haven for international drug barons, fugitives and covert financiers.

The ensemble cast includes Andrew Airlie, Jemmy Chen, Juan Riedinger, Eugene Lipinski and Stephanie Bennett.

The series is filmed on location in Vancouver
The series is filmed on location in Vancouver

Haddock worked alongside fellow executive producer Laura Lightbown, director Stephen Surjik, producer Arvi Liimatainen and writer/co-executive producer Jesse McKeown on the series, which is produced by Haddock Entertainment and distributed by Red Arrow International.

The showrunner says he had been interested in the espionage genre for a while but was looking to create a new drama that didn’t follow the paths trodden by similar series already on air.

He explains: “I was thinking about espionage and reading about it, and the title of the show came from this guy who was head of the Stasi in East Germany during the Cold War who used to run what he called Romeo and Juliet spies – he’d run people over the border into West Germany and try to get them to cosy up to and get into intimate relationships with people in power or with the secretaries to people in power.

“The use of honey traps and seduction is a classic technique of intelligence-gathering and I thought there was something there that I could make into a show. I enjoyed pursuing the idea that the lead of this ensemble was also an academic at university because that’s also such a breeding ground for intelligence agents worldwide. They go after the smart kids at universities.”

The Romeo Section is not Haddock’s first foray into the world of espionage and informants, however. He previously created crime drama Intelligence, which aired on CBC for two seasons between 2006 and 2008, and says that audiences can relate to lots of themes integral to the spy genre.

The Romeo section focuses on the use of seduction in espionage
The Romeo Section focuses on the use of seduction in espionage

“I enjoy people worming into other people’s heads in drama and trying to out-psych them, so there’s a lot of duplicity that relates to normal everyday human nature,” he says. “We all know what it’s like to hold secrets and to try to acquire information. It’s human nature to know that if you’ve got information, you’ve got a better chance of survival.

“The audience can relate to people withholding secrets from them, be it friends or partners, and they know what it’s like to be betrayed. People understand in their gut what it’s like to be sneaking around. There’s a direct connection with how we know people can be – they can be completely deceptive.”

But why the added element of seduction? Haddock says it can be used to “pry into the darker corners of the drama. I try to keep it parallel to real relationships where you make an advance, you seduce someone and it goes from there. And people know what that’s like. I thought it would be a really fruitful area. There’s lots of places you could go with it and I’ve got a great cast.”

Immediately prior to The Romeo Section, Haddock had been a writer on HBO’s prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, which was brought to life by showrunner Terence Winter and executive producer Martin Scorsese.

“That gave me the itch to do my own thing and create a show again because it can be very rewarding,” he says, having been approached by CBC to create a new series for the broadcaster after leaving 1920s Atlantic City behind. “So it was nice to have the broadcaster eager to work with me, rather than fighting uphill and convincing them that you know what you’re doing. It’s good to go back and work with people you have a successful history with because you can get through that early wariness of trust issues and creative freedom. They give me creative freedom, which is the holy grail for screenwriters and television writers.”

It's not yet known if the series will be given a second season on CBC
It’s not yet known if the series will be given a second season on CBC

Working on Boardwalk Empire was something of a departure for Haddock, however, as it was the first time he wasn’t running the show that he was writing in more than 10 years. But he says he enjoyed the chance to sit back and watch someone else in the showrunner role – and when it came to The Romeo Section, he put some of the lessons he learnt as an observer into practice.

“One of the things I learnt was to make sure the scripts are out in time for the people you’ve hired to do their best work,” he says. “There’s no point in delivering a script three days into shooting it so they have no time to display their talents. It’s no joke. You have to get scripts out on time and that means you’ve got to get an efficient writers room.”

Haddock also aims to spend as much time as possible on set, rather than spending all his hours looking over scripts: “When starting a show, you want to get in there and make sure the actors are hitting the right spot. They may never see some of the other actors and might not know what the overall tone is, so I’m there saying you should do this or that. That’s how I bring it all together.

“Showrunners love just being in the writers room and the editing room – they get two shots at telling the story, in the script and the edit – but I’m writing it, I’m on set and sometimes directing. So I hire some of the best editors I’ve ever worked with and give them a chance to put a cut together because sometimes you’re too close to it and it’s important to have that trust and collaboration. Sometimes you’re blind because you work to close to the storyline and you might be missing it.”

While it’s clear that Haddock enjoys playing a part in all aspects of his shows – he also sits with the composer to discuss how the music for his shows is developed – he stresses that collaboration is also a key theme of any of his projects. And nowhere is that more important than in the writers room.

“The first phase is complete immersion in the subject, the story and the characters,” he explains. “We read as much as possible, swap sources and immerse ourselves in it until we can’t stand it. A writer might then sketch a scene we talked about. I try not to get hung up on writing a polished script very early because you’ve got to develop a structure that allows the characters freedom. You’ve got to make sure you’re not closing doors; I like to keep open the potential and possibility of where characters can go.”

The cast includes Andrew Airlie (pictured), Jemmy Chen, Juan Riedinger, Eugene Lipinski and Stephanie Bennett

On 10-part The Romeo Section, shooting began with five scripts in hand, allowing the writers the chance to react to any on-set chemistry or character development in the latter half of the season.

“It’s like being in a football game,” Haddock says. “You do all this prep but you’ve got to be able to react to what’s going on immediately and go with any openings and see if you can develop them. That’s the exciting part of the whole process. It’s a bit intimidating. I only threw up once this year, so that’s a good year!”

And as if he didn’t have enough to do, whether in the writers room, on set or in the editing suite, Haddock also likes to climb into the director’s chair.

“I enjoy the hell out of it,” he exclaims. “The challenge is finding the time to prep each episode and get out there with your location managers in the van looking around for the right location or one that fits the schedule. A lot of that is time-consuming and it steals me from other writing, but 10 scripts is an achievable number to be able to hold in your head and know where you’re going. The directing is very exciting and I did enjoy working with a bunch of actors I hadn’t worked with before. You never know what’s going to happen.”

The first season of The Romeo Section concluded in December last year, and CBC says no decision has been made yet on whether it will return for a second run.

But whether it’s with this show or another, it’s hard to imagine Haddock away from the TV spotlight for long.

“It’s exciting and exhausting but that’s the job and I’m happy to have it,” he adds. “This job allows you to keep all your interests in different crafts – music, design, costumes – and storytelling. It all feeds what I write because I’m learning about different ways stories are told. It’s a privilege of the job.”

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TV drama faces dilemma down under

ABC miniseries success The Secret River
ABC miniseries success The Secret River

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.

Nine Network's hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries
Nine’s hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries

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.

Glitch has been renewed by ABC
Glitch has been renewed by ABC

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.

Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman
Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman

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.

Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident
Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident

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.

A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way
A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way

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.

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The Last Cop: How to go from German to Japanese

Michael Pickard speaks to the key players involved in the translation of German hit The Last Cop into Japanese.

With local versions produced in France and Estonia and a Russian adaptation in the works, German drama The Last Cop has proven to be a worldwide hit.

Originally produced by ITV Studios Germany for Sat.1, it tells the story of a policeman who ends up in a coma after being shot – and wakes up many years later in the present day.

Most recently it has been translated for Japanese audiences after Nippon TV and VoD platform Hulu Japan agreed a format deal with distributor Red Arrow International. The show debuted in June, achieving a 20.8% viewing share.

It stars acclaimed Japanese film star Toshiaki Karasawa as Kyogoku, the cop who has been comatose for 30 years. His partner is played by Masataka Kubota, with the cast also including Emi Wakui, Ichirota Miyakawa and Nozomi Sasaki.

Jamie I, Red Arrow International’s VP of sales for Asia Pacific, explains: “The Last Cop has been incredibly successful in Germany. It’s been running for five seasons in a Monday primetime slot. For that slot, it’s topped the channel average by more than 180%.”

But what makes this show a good fit for international remakes? I says the simple storyline can resonate well with audiences, particularly those in Asia.

The original German version of The Last Cop
The original German version of The Last Cop

“Given that TV audiences in Japan skew quite old, the format is perfect because it really evokes that nostalgia,” she says. “It’s perfect for the demographic. We have had a number of different versions. The French version is quite different from the German version, set later in the 1990s. It’s a bit more serious and more serialised. The German version is more procedural and a little bit tongue-in-cheek. There’s a humorous part to it with the fish-out-of-water storyline.”

Mikiko Nishiyama, senior director of international business at Nippon TV, says the broadcaster had worked with Red Arrow before so when the channel was looking for new dramas, the distributor was a natural partner.

“Two or three years ago, one of our producers was quite interested to look for new drama IP,” she recalls. “I took him to Red Arrow and they showed us some of the titles. One of them was The Last Cop. We liked it a lot but there wasn’t the atmosphere for remakes.

“Then when Hiroyuki Ueno (producer and manager at the programming division of Nippon TV) went to see Red Arrow at MipTV 2014, he also really liked The Last Cop. Then we brought it back to Japan and we started work.”

I then travelled to Japan several times to meet with production staff. “The legal side was quite complicated. It was really about timing and patience, but we got it done and the show looks fantastic,” she says.

“In Asia, local domestic drama is so strong, particularly in Japan, so it’s very unusual to have a European format in these territories. But it’s certainly an area that is opening up as broadcasters and production companies look for new ideas.

“They’re definitely more open to it, so we’re exploring that. On the back of The Last Cop Japan, we’re talking to broadcasters in Korea, Vietnam and India, and there’s also a lot of interest in the Japanese version in new territories.”

The simple premise of The Last Cop allows local broadcasters plenty of room to adapt it for local sensibilities. Ueno says he and his production team focused on how to characterise the cast, particularly the main character and his partner, for a Japanese audience.

“That was the most important point in creating the Japanese version,” he says. “The Japanese audience is not used to very serious or complicated drama, especially if it is new, so we had to make it easier to understand and easier to attract the audience. So we put a lot of comedy into the drama.

“The original The Last Cop focuses on the main character, but we made it more of a buddy series to get the audience into it and make it easier to understand. Also in the original, the main character wakes up after 17 years, but we changed it to 30 years, because in Japan 30 years ago it was a special time we call the ‘Bubble Age’ because the economy was very high but there were no computers, no smartphones.

The story follows a police officer who awakes from a 30-year coma
The story follows a police officer who awakes from a 30-year coma

“The partner is a younger guy so the younger generation can understand the younger character and the older ages can understand the main character’s reactions (to the present day). So we can get both audiences.”

It wasn’t just Nippon TV’s audience the producers had to consider, however. The Last Cop Japan was Hulu Japan’s first original drama, and the first coproduction between Nippon and Hulu Japan.

Ueno says: “After we aired it on terrestrial TV, it was delivered on Hulu. Hulu’s main target is men aged 20 to 30, so that’s why we put more action in it. But if we put too much in, women would not watch – so we made it very balanced.

“It’s very rare that we adapt foreign drama to make a Japanese version. Foreign drama has a lot of action. The original The Last Cop doesn’t have that many action scenes but everyone thinks foreign drama must have lots of action, so we added more.”

Hulu Japan launched in 2011 and is now owned by Nippon TV, making it an attractive coproduction partner. Earlier this year the service hit one million subscribers.

Kazufumi Nagasawa, chief content officer of HJ Holdings, which operates Hulu Japan, says The Last Cop has performed well on the back of its terrestrial run. The platform also picked up the original German version, Der letzte Bulle, in April.

“Anything that performs well on terrestrial will generally be successful on Hulu too,” he says. “Given the nature of the service, audiences are ready to follow serialised drama. Some customers are used to binge-watching using DVD rentals, but we have made it easier for them.

“The Last Cop has generated strong customer feedback. The drama is very well done, but it was also boosted by heavy promotion from Nippon TV. The combination of the quality of drama and the huge promotion delivered a great result for us. So we’re very willing to continue on that kind of project.”

Nishiyama says that if a broadcaster in Japan wants good ratings, it must have good dramas. This means targeting older demographics, as she says younger people are no longer watching live TV.

“They’re watching on catch-up or through their VoD systems,” she explains. “The main audience for the TV market is still around 40. So we have to target them to get good ratings – but at the same time we have to target the younger generation to get the VoD market. VoD platforms are doing very well with animation and variety shows, but drama is the most important thing.”

Japan's version stars film actor Toshiaki Karasawa (left)
Japan’s version stars film actor Toshiaki Karasawa (left)

Nishiyama adds that while genre series like The Walking Dead might be popular online, terrestrial Japanese audiences prefer their drama rooted in real life.

“People like drama that’s more real life-based, not about zombies or space,” she says. “It’s more everyday-life drama that’s really important on terrestrial TV. It’s a very different market from Hollywood drama. From an international sales point of view, the Japanese like things based on Japanese life. That’s why everybody calls us the Galapagos market. Because the Japanese love their own life and customs.”

But on Hulu, 50% of content is taken from the US, Nagasawa reveals. “We have some European content, mainly from the BBC. The rest is domestic. Japanese drama is very strong in Japan and given that we are a subscription service, foreign drama is the main driver for customers. That’s not something you can watch for free.

“The Walking Dead is a title that gets the biggest number of customers because it’s not something you can watch on terrestrial TV.”

In the future, Ueno says he is looking for titles from the Nordic region or other countries that can follow in The Last Cop’s success and become Nippon’s next adapted drama.

“Ten or 20 years ago we did lots of foreign dramas on terrestrial TV,” he says. “We don’t do that much now, only late at night. So I’m looking for primetime series, and that means remakes.”

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