Kate Rowland, creative consultant at Red Planet Pictures and former creative director of new writing at the BBC, discusses the challenges of developing new writers for television as Red Planet seeks submissions for the latest round of its writing competition.
Television drama is more popular than ever; a creative medium that continues to evolve and innovate. As platforms proliferate and broadcasters ring-fence their drama output, it would appear that this is a great time to be a television writer. But how big a challenge is it for someone to break through? How do they make their idea stand out and persuade a commissioner to take a risk on their project?
In the current climate channels are more likely to focus their money and attention on writers they trust – experienced talent with a track record of producing drama that makes standout television like Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.
There is a genuine appetite for stories and characters that capture our imagination and make us look at the world in a fresh way. As a writer, you need to not only write a brilliant script but also to understand the art, the craft and the business of being a writer. You need to be relevant and resonant. In a complex market where drama is expensive, broadcasters have to balance the needs of the UK audience along with the potential of coproduction deals to serve a global market and reach international viewers. There is no doubt that it is a demanding landscape to cut through and get that first original commission.
However, the UK has an incredibly engaged industry, where producers and commissioners recognise that television is a writer’s medium. They are interested in the next generation of talent and want to find ways to support, nurture and mentor writers who can gain experience from open competitions and targeted shadow schemes offering training and commissions on the big returning shows. You have to think what best suits you, look at the kind of stories and worlds you want to create and see whether you are the right fit.
Many of our most exciting writers have written across platforms, for the theatre, radio and film, alongside their TV output. You only have to look at the likes of Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster) and Jack Thorne (Kiri, pictured top), both of whom I gave first radio commissions to. Don’t pigeon-hole your talent or your ideas too early on, as online and social media have opened up a whole new arena of potential digital platforms for new drama.
Red Planet Pictures’ Red Planet Prize is a great example of how new talent can be uncovered by commissioners and producers. Launched in 2007, the prize is searching for emerging writing talent who can create fresh and inspiring popular drama content, and this year is being held in partnership with ITV Drama for the first time.
The prize offers shortlisted writers a unique, ‘money can’t buy’ invitation to take part in a masterclass, giving finalists the opportunity to network with established television writer Tony Jordan (Life on Mars, Hustle, Dickensian) and ITV commissioners Polly Hill and Victoria Fea, who, along with actor Adrian Lester (Trauma, Spooks), make up the judging panel. Along with key executives and script editors from both Red Planet and ITV, the shortlisted writers will have time to hone their pitch and develop the series potential of their idea. The winner will get a script commission and development opportunities with ITV.
Previous finalist Robert Thorogood created the BBC1 smash-hit series Death in Paradise, now starring Ardal O’Hanlan and produced by Red Planet Pictures, which is currently airing its seventh season and has been recommissioned for an eighth run next year. Last year’s winner Tom Nash is developing his winning series, Percentages, and has been commissioned to write on the eighth season of Death in Paradise – his first professional engagement.
Alongside The Red Planet Prize, I recommend that writers keep across the different opportunities on offer in the UK from the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, as well as those promoted by independent companies. Recently Sister Pictures and Kudos North both hosted new schemes.
Professional bodies such as Creative Skillset and the British Film Institute are also a great place to look for advice and inspiration. These tailored schemes bring work to the experts where development is tailored to the needs and wants of that organisation. There is no better place than BBC Writersroom to find out about the creative business of being a writer.
Over the years, I have read thousands of scripts and I am acutely aware when someone has that indefinable thing called talent. But how that then translates into a commission is more complex. Personal taste also plays a part and affects the way your script is received. It might be well written but lack originality, compelling narrative or a big idea that makes the story complex and rich. Can the idea sustain more than one episode? Is it distinctive enough to engage an audience? Will anyone care?
There are always several questions that need to be answered, firstly by you, the writer, about what drives your characters and their story, and then by the reader. Be aware of the innovations happening on the digital platforms. Remember, content is king so think carefully about where your drama starts its journey and how you can develop it from there. Never underestimate the importance of a great calling card script – that’s what grabs the attention. Once people are interested in you, you can pitch them your killer idea. Be passionate and be thoughtful. Write what you want to see and have more than one good idea.
Submissions for Red Planet Prize 2018 are being welcomed until Monday, February 12 2018 via the Red Planet Pictures website. The winner will be announced in summer 2018.
Tony Jordan, CEO of Red Planet Pictures, got his break writing for BBC soap EastEnders before creating shows including Life on Mars, Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, Hustle, The Passing Bells, Dickensian, Hooten & The Lady and Babs.
In this video, the showrunner offers his views on the drama boom, why the genre continues to define television networks and why there will always be an appetite for scripted series.
He also talks about the challenges of balancing broadcaster ambitions with strict budgets, how he learnt his craft on EastEnders and why he’s most excited about merging genres.
Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.
If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.
And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.
Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.
“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”
There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”
The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.
This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.
The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.
“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”
From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”
This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”
The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.
So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”
Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.
Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”
Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.
Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.
Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.
It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”
The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.
“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”
Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”
French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”
Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”
Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”
Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”
Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”
Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”
Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.
There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.
Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”
A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”
Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.
With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.
Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”
The team behind globetrotting new drama Hooten & The Lady want viewers to escape reality with a mix of daring adventures and intriguing characters.
In television, adventure series can be something of a poisoned chalice. As our heroes cross the globe in search of secret treasure, historical remains or ancient relics, only a few have lived up to the popcorn capers enjoyed by Indiana Jones and tomb raider
US series Warehouse 13, Alias and The Librarians have enjoyed success, while the Tia Carrere-fronted Relic Hunter was cancelled after completing its three-season contract. UK drama Bonekickers was buried after just one season.
Now comes Hooten & The Lady, an ambitious new series that follows the adventures of maverick Hooten and fearless historical expert Lady Alexandra Lindo-Parker as they travel the world in search of hidden treasures from the past.
From the mythical Amazonian golden City of Z to the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great, each episode in the eight-part series follows the duo on a new adventure through jungles, deserts and underground cities.
Michael Landes and Ophelia Lovibond star as Hooten and Lady Alexandra respectively, with support from Jane Seymour, Jessica Hynes, Jonathan Bailey and Shaun Parkes.
“Adventure is seen everywhere as a movie genre because television sometimes struggles with the lighter tone a show like this needs,” explains series creator Tony Jordan. “Luckily, that’s my style of writing, that’s what I do.
“There’s nothing else in this space. That’s what’s exciting about it. I love films like African Queen and Romancing the Stone – but I haven’t got anyone with a hat and a whip!”
Hooten & The Lady is fully funded by broadcaster Sky1 and distributor Sky Vision, which has given Jordan the freedom to push the series to its limits while taking in locations such as Rome, Moscow, Cambodia and Cape Town. It’s a huge undertaking for his production company, Red Planet Pictures, but Jordan says this show represents the kind of television he has always wanted to make.
“I’m a bit fucking fed up with serial killers,” he admits. “I’m fed up with how many different ways you can kill someone and how fucking long you can draw out finding out who killed all those children. I don’t mind that, let’s do that as well, but there was a time when television had both ends of the spectrum. There’s nothing like ‘Hooten.’
“When people have done this genre in the past, I always feel like they’ve tried to make an excuse for it. So they thought, ‘We can’t just do fun or adventure, can we make it supernatural?’ The thing about Hooten & The Lady is we’ve said there’s no supernatural. These are real things they’re looking for – the lost city of Eldorado in the Amazon, the missing scroll of Buddha, the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. All these real things, but with romance and imagination. You want to be with Hooten and the Lady. You just want to spend time with them and watch ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
With a £2m (US$2.64m) budget for each episode, the show is also filled with an array of dazzling stunts. “We’re killing the actors on a daily basis,” jokes Jordan, who co-writes the series with James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. “As a writer and producer, I want to do big shows. I want to set the world on fire.”
Having previously appeared in shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Love Soup and CSI: Miami, Landes has enjoyed “the adventure of a lifetime” starring as Hooten.
“It’s got a bit of the Indiana Jones-style genre and treasure hunting,” he says of the show. “There’s a bit of mystery about Hooten, which is fun. Tony gave me a whole backstory. Audiences want more than banter and we slowly peel away the story. You don’t even know his first name. He’s a mystery man and Tony does a great job to reveal his story.”
Landes jokes that while he’s “no Tom Cruise,” he enjoyed the opportunity to do his own stunts as often as possible – though on one occasion he was left grounded when the script called for a skydive.
“The action stuff is fun but it’s physical and that becomes tiring,” he explains. “Fighting in a helicopter sounds like a great idea but after 10 hours it’s physically demanding. Just the
grind of working all day every day, you have to have stamina.
“But I love to travel so I enjoyed that aspect. We went to the Kremlin and I love Rome so spending a week there was great. I got to travel through the city with a police escort on the back of a Vespa.”
“I watched Michael for years,” Jordan says of his leading man. “He’s this clean-cut American boy and I thought, ‘One day someone’s going get hold of him and mess him up.’ But no one ever did. So when Hooten & The Lady came around, I got hold of him and he’s a revelation. He’s a movie star.”
On Lovibond, the writer adds: “I was always a huge fan of Ophelia – she’s just got this quality about her; she’s really watchable. I think she’s got a touch of Katharine Hepburn about her. And then you put them together and watch Hooten & The Lady and you think you’re watching a movie. The dynamic between them and the way they spark off each other – American alpha male adventurer cut against an aristocrat lady – it’s great, it’s fun.”
The task of creating the world of Hooten & The Lady was handed to Michael Ralph, a long-time collaborator with Jordan who has previously worked on Red Planet series Hustle, Death in Paradise and Dickensian.
Ralph says he was immediately thrilled at the concept of Hooten, which he compares to Saturday-night matinee adventures shown on television during the 1950s and 1960s.
His challenge, however, was to create locations and sets around the world that viewers hadn’t seen before. “That meant we had to go deeper underground and further into the jungle, and higher and farther away,” he says.
“People are willing to embrace that and the genre means you can get away with more and have a rollicking good time. Scale was everything for me on this show – but people also have to believe it. That was the key.”
Alongside location shooting, Cape Town doubled for the desert, the Himalayas and the Egyptian city of Alexandria. For one scene that featured a village found on the edge of cliff, Ralph and his team built the set beside a dam and reservoir in the mountains.
“The characters are larger than life and where they go is more adventurous than ever before,” he says. “I had licence to create locations as big as the characters. Once I did the concept art, people would say, ‘Does that exist?’ and I would say, ‘No, but we can do it.’ People got such a thrill on the set. The actors thought they had walked into a 1940s black-and-white film and expected to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. That’s the joy of it.”
For another scene in which Hooten falls through a rope bridge, a quarry was found to double as a deadly gorge. The steel frame of the bridge was subsequently pre-built and then transported by road to the location 12 hours away from the production base.
“Sometimes we have got to stop people from being too serious and remove them from the concept of realism,” Ralph says of Hooten & The Lady’s escapist ambitions. “It was like doing science-fiction for me because that’s the most exciting form of design. No one knows what it will look like. It’s something I can invent. I had the freedom to create a fantasy. Don’t do it by numbers, do it by heart.”
Working with Ralph was locations manager Luke Longmore, who says the concept of the series “took my breath away.”
“A massive amount of research is part of it,” he says of his role. “Most of the locations I hadn’t been to, but Google becomes your best friend. You research pictures of locations, but you’ve also got to understand the different lifestyles and cultures. You start with the research and then you marry the script to what you’ve researched and then try to find a local location. And once you’ve found it, other elements come in like logistics, permits and catering.
“With Hooten & The Lady, it was very challenging. It’s 90% planning, 10% work. When you’re shooting in the Cambodian and Amazon jungles, you’re dealing with the rain and trying to keep everyone warm and dry. Each location has got its own challenges but we had a fantastic production team and locations team, which made my job much easier.”
In practice, the real locations were used for exterior shots, while matching landmarks were found across South Africa for other scenes.
“Michael Ralph is a master of it,” Longmore continues. “He had seen most of the locations and we would take his lead on it, knowing what he wanted and trying to marry locally in South Africa with what was needed and what he required. Marrying up locations was fun. We’re privileged and blessed to have the whole world in South Africa. You can be in Bangkok or in the jungle.”
Landes adds: “The production value of it was very ambitious and we accomplished a lot during the seven-month shoot. When we call it a globetrotting, treasure-hunting drama, it really is. Alias never left the lot. There’s no faking what we did. It’s going to be a fun adventure.”
As networks invest in drama to define their channel, it’s this fun adventure that Jordan believes could become Sky1’s calling card when it launches tomorrow. “Look at what Mad Men and Breaking Bad did at AMC, and House of Cards at Netflix,” he concludes. “Sky Atlantic has done really well with the HBO vibe but then you think, ‘What’s Sky1?’ I think Sky1 is Hooten & The Lady.”
The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.
But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.
The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.
As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.
Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”
Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”
For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.
Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”
Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”
On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.
Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.
Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”
The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.
Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”
In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.
The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.
Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.
Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.
Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.
He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?
Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.
Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.
It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.
Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.
The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).
Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.
The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.
“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”
Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”
The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.
“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.
“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”
Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.
“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”
Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.
“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”
Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”
With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.
“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”
Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”
Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.
Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”
Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.
Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”
But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”
As BBC1 prepares to air Dickensian, which brings together multiple characters from across Charles Dickens’ works, DQ highlights some of the other shows to have taken the shared-universe approach.
At first glance, Tony Jordan’s mash-up of some of Charles Dickens’ most memorable characters in BBC1’s upcoming Dickensian (pictured above) appears particularly novel. However, the idea of multiple characters from writers’ various works appearing in a wholly original script is, in fact, not especially new.
And the idea of spinning-off or reimagining Dickens’ characters has actually been undertaken before – witness the late John Sullivan’s four-part series Micawber (ITV, Christmas 2001), which starred David Jason, and the previous year’s modern-day take on A Christmas Carol (also ITV), with the network’s then ‘actor de jour’ Ross Kemp.
Back in 1998, Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron helmed a contemporary version of Great Expectations, boasting a cast including Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.
But with 20 30-minute episodes over the Christmas period (echoing Jordan’s EastEnders origins), there is certainly a risk for the BBC in commissioning Dickensian. The corporation must be hoping that viewers will make the commitment to watch at such a competitive time of the year.
Furthermore, there’s always the risk that the series will merely be a clever pastiche, when compared with viewers’ recollections of the novels or previous TV versions and films.
Dickens’ work has long provided a steady stream of adaptations for TV, the episodic nature his novels ideally suited to the medium. Most recently there has been the BBC’s Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012) and 2011’s three-part Great Expectations, which starred Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone.
John le Carre’s Circus spy novels provide an example of an author’s shared universe of characters appearing in multiple stories – sometimes in leading roles, sometimes as support. For example, George Smiley’s relatively small amount of page time in The Honourable Schoolboy and The Looking Glass War contrasts with his dominance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.
Returning to the subject of mash-ups, these shows have become increasingly popular recently, no doubt aided by the fact that many of the characters featured now reside in the public domain, meaning no fees are due to the estate of the authors.
Both Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic/Showtime) and Jekyll & Hyde (ITV) feature or will feature a number of the characters from the novels of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Dr Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and generic figures or urban myths such as werewolves, witches, Spring Heeled Jack and other supernatural beings.
Season three of Penny Dreadful will apparently see the debut of HG Wells’s warped geneticist Dr Moreau.
The progenitor of these shows was, of course, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, which were unfortunately marred by a weak movie version back in 2001 (incidentally providing a rather sad finale to Sean Connery’s on-screen career).
Recent rumours over the summer were that the books were going to be re-booted as a TV series by The Blacklist producer John Davis – this time with a brief to stay faithful to the source material. Fans are waiting with bated breath, but don’t expect Alan Moore to be involved in the production process – numerous bad experiences on previous movie adaptations of his work having soured him on the idea.
The world of the police procedural has always been fecund in terms of shared universes, with the CSI/Law & Order franchises, Hawaii Five-O and others featuring crossovers; the character of Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) has incredibly managed to appear in Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files, The Wire and Law & Order: SVU.
Similarly, Dick Van Dyke’s Dr Mark Sloan has featured in both Diagnosis: Murder and Jake & The Fat Man.
Diagnosis: Murder also showcased a bewildering array of characters from other shows, including Ben Matlock (Matlock), Cinnamon Carter (Mission: Impossible) and Joe Mannix (Mannix).
The Simpsons have met Family Guy and Futurama, while Aliens have battled Predators on the big screen. Fox’s The X-Files, meanwhile, had a phenomenal tour of duty in its first nine seasons, sharing an on-screen universe with Millennium, The Lone Gunman, Picket Fences, Homicide: Life on the Streets and, of course, the aforementioned Simpsons.
But the real market leader in terms of cinematic/TV shared universes is Marvel, with company president Kevin Fiege’s long-term strategy paying off in spades, judging by the stellar box-office returns achieved by Marvel-produced movies since 2008’s ground-breaking Iron Man.
When Marvel made a serious move into TV with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC) in 2013, it was generally felt to be a rare misstep, as although the show has made it to a third season, it has never really set pulses racing.
Rushed writing schedules to capitalise on the success of the movies may have had something to do with season one’s perceived problems.
Generic storylines and a rather dated approach (reminiscent of Marvel’s Mutant X in the early 2000s) have hampered what on paper looked like a sure-fire hit.
As ever, Marvel learned from its mistakes, and when Netflix ponied up for a number of series, the company rose to the challenge, with the first Daredevil hitting a home run in terms of critical and fan reaction, which has since been overtaken by the recent release of Jessica Jones, which has prompted talk of Emmy nominations.
The two series, together with upcoming shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, will culminate in the team-up miniseries The Defenders, which will apparently have a wider role in the Marvel Universe than the environs of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district.
And, of course, an honourable mention should be made of ABC’s Agent Carter, a series filler that is felt to have surpassed its bigger-budget sibling, boasting some critically praised performances and a strong sense of place in its late-1940s US setting.
Never one to miss an opportunity, DC Comics has recently enjoyed great success in TV, with Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl all performing well internationally. Interestingly, unlike Marvel, the DC cinematic universe will be standalone, so there’ll be no Arrow, Flash or Supergirl appearances in the current movie production slate – or at least not in their TV incarnations.
Red Planet Pictures, the UK indie behind productions such as Dickensian, Stop! In the Name of Love and Hooten and the Lady, has launched the latest edition of its scriptwriting competition.
First held in 2007, the Red Planet Prize aims to kickstart the career of new writing talent by optioning their television pilot script in the hope of turning it into the next hit series. The winner will receive £5,000 to have their screenplay exclusively developed by Red Planet Pictures and will also have six months of intensive development with an experienced script editor.
Announcing this year’s competition, Belinda Campbell, head of drama at Red Planet Pictures, explained: “The Red Planet Prize is about finding hidden writing talent and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills through an unrivalled mentoring scheme. Red Planet Pictures is all about the writer and we are committed to finding new voices, original stories and ambitious scripts from upcoming talent.”
Red Planet head of development Judith King added: “We’re looking for ideas that burst with character, people and worlds we’ve never seen before, new spins on genre or totally new genres. But, most importantly, ideas that are deeply truthful and personal to the writer – stories that only they can tell.”
Last year, the competition (held in partnership with Kudos) was won by documentary editor Paul McIntyre and former film art executive Tracy Ann Baines, the first time there had ever been joint winners. McIntyre’s project The Family Next Door was about a woman who discovers family secrets after finding a hole leading to her neighbour’s house. Baines, meanwhile, was singled out for her period drama Iron Roads, which looked at the men on the frontline of the industrial revolution.
There’s no news yet on whether either of these projects is going forward into production. But if you delve a bit further back into the history of the prize, it’s clear that it can deliver on its promise to kickstart writing careers. The most celebrated example of this is Robert Thorogood, who won the 2008 prize with his ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea. Three years later, it hit the screens as BBC drama Death in Paradise. Thorogood wrote five episodes of the first season, which immediately proved popular with UK audiences. He went on to write episodes across the next three seasons and also wrote a series of Richard Poole murder mystery novels (Poole was the central character in the first couple of series of Death In Paradise).
So what does it take to win the prize? There is an interesting interview here with 2013 winner Jonathan Neil, where he outlines how he approached the competition. And there is also a useful blog here, from someone who got to the second phase in 2009.
One interesting point to take away from both these articles is the issue of the first 10 pages. The way the competition works is that you enter 10 pages of your script in the first round. If the judges like those, you’ll be asked to send the rest of your script. Neil’s assessment of this was that it was important to be dramatic and bold and to “set the tone quickly.”
However, what’s also clear is that you need to have made some progress with the rest of the script as well. The message from the second blog is that there is no point having a great 10 pages if you haven’t got the rest of the script in shape. This is because the turnaround time between finding out you have made the second round and submitting the rest of the script is too tight.
With that warning, for anyone interested, submissions are being welcomed here from 12.00 on Monday January 4, 2016 until 12.00 on Friday January 22, 2016. You’ll also find full details about what the competition requires from you.
Elsewhere in the world of writing, HBO Europe has announced is now in production on an original idea from writer Stepan Hulik. Called Pustina (Wasteland), the eight-hour drama tells the story of a village on the verge of extinction. The village sits on huge reserves of coal, and foreign companies plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a mining complex.
Commenting on the show, Antony Root, exec VP of programming and production for HBO Europe, said: “We are proud and excited to be producing this major original piece from one of the most talented young screenwriters in our region. Pustina tells a story that goes to the heart of the economic and social changes facing communities in the new Europe. It is also a page-turning mystery. We believe both the story and its themes will resonate strongly with our audiences.”
Hulik’s major credit to date is Burning Bush, a three-part miniseries centring on the true story of a Prague history student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.
That show saw success at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, where Ivan Trojan won a Golden Nymph award for best actor in a miniseries. Hulik himself won screenwriting awards in his native Czech Republic. Hulik, who is also reported to be working on a biopic of the troubled 1960s jazz singer Eve Olmerova, is also known as a film historian. As part of his work, he has looked at the famous Barrandov Film Studio and how it was affected by the Soviet occupation in the period after the 1968 invasion.
Finally, DQ reported a few weeks ago that ABC in the US is leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit of international ideas that can be adapted for its home market. More evidence that this is a concerted drive comes this week with the news that ABC is developing a local version of Spanish drama El Chiringuito de Pepe. The US version will be written by Don Todd, whose writing credits include Sleepy Hollow, Hart Of Dixie, Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty.
The original show is about a famous chef who comes to a small beach town to breathe life back into his father’s failing cafe. However, he quickly finds himself falling in love with the place.
Mexican media giant Televisa is the largest producer and distributor of Spanish-language content in the world. But now it wants to play in the English-language market.
Having recently announced plans for an English-language version of Spanish drama Gran Hotel (to be produced by its US-based Televisa USA division), it has now revealed plans to “greenlight production of multiple English-language series to fuel its own demands as well as those from the global on-demand and TV markets.”
The first title to be announced is Duality, starring Dougray Scott (Taken 3). Working with Vancouver-based Odyssey Media, Televisa says the show will be one of the first to utilise the 1991 Mexican-Canadian tax treaty for scripted series. Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA; Jorge Aragon; Eduardo Clemesha, Televisa´s general director of new content and formats; Odyssey film and television producer Kirk Shaw (The Hurt Locker); and Scott will executive produce.
According to Televisa, Duality will centre on an elite, top-secret team of State Department, CIA and Mexican intelligence agents within Mexico who wage war against the most dangerous villains operating in Latin America. The series, based on an original story from writer-producer Barry Schkolnick (The Good Wife, Law & Order), “depicts characters on dangerous missions while battling their own personal demons.”
Clemesha added: “Televisa brings to this venture access to award-winning producers and directors; the economies of scale of shooting in Mexico with Televisa’s facilities and crew; as well as the latitude to adapt formats from both Televisa’s massive library and third-party rights holders.”
Elsewhere, UK pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered an Indiana Jones-style drama from Red Planet Pictures. Titled Hooten & The Lady, the 8×60’ series follows an adventurer called Hooten who teams up with the British Museum’s Lady Alexandra to track down lost treasures, including an Amazonian city, the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great. Filming will take place in Rome and Cape Town. Writers include Red Planet founder Tony Jordan, James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. The show will be distributed internationally by Sky Vision.
This week has also seen the emergence of another movie-to-TV project, with Fox ordering a pilot from Warner Brothers based on the 1980s/90s hit movie franchise Lethal Weapon. If Warner Bros decides to stick close to the movie storylines then it will have a lot of content to work with. Aside from the original film, there were three sequels – and a fifth that never got out of development.
In other reboot news this week, reports suggest US network CBS is planning to revive 1980s TV series MacGyver.
In addition to new projects, there have been a couple of interesting drama renewals this week. In Denmark, crime series Dicte is about to go into production on a third season. Produced by Miso Films for TV2 Denmark and written by Dorte W Høgh and Ida Maria Rydén, Dicte is a crime series that centres on journalist Dicte Svendsen, plus her family, friends, colleagues and sources within the police.
This season will have an international dimension, with part of the series taking place in Lebanon and Syria. “We are so happy to be able to present a new season of Dicte,” said Katrine Vogelsang, head of fiction for TV2. “Danish viewers love the character of Dicte and the series has performed fantastically in TV2’s primetime slot on Monday nights. In Denmark, we measure viewers’ evaluations of episodes and Dicte is at the top of all Danish TV series.”
Meanwhile, CBS has greenlit a second season of Zoo for summer 2016. Based on the bestseller by James Patterson, Zoo is a thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans across the planet. “Zoo’s thrilling stories clicked with audiences each week during a very competitive summer,” said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “We’re excited for viewers to see where our writers and cast take them as the adventure continues to unfold during season two in the fight of man versus beast.”
Zoo is an interesting show, because it is part of a deal involving CBS and SVoD service Amazon Prime Instant Video. In a nutshell, Amazon helps fund the series and gets the right to stream the show in the US just a few days after it airs on CBS. The deal works for CBS because audiences are lower in the summer, so it is able to get a decent-quality drama at a relatively low price.
CBS and Amazon first created this model for Under the Dome, which has just ended after three seasons, and also used it for Extant. Now, the two parties have extended the arrangement to cover the next three summer periods. This will give Amazon access to new seasons of Zoo and a new series called BrainDead. “Prime members have loved having access to series like Under the Dome and Extant just four days after broadcast, and we’re excited to continue to offer in-season availability of more great CBS summer series over the next three years,” said Brad Beale, Amazon’s VP of digital video content acquisition.
Another interesting commissioning story this week came from the UK, with the BBC announcing that it has ordered another spin-off from sci-fi drama Doctor Who. Written by Patrick Ness and destined for BBC3, Class (8×45’) will be aimed at young adults and centres on a London school where sinister enemies are “breaking through the walls of time and space.”
It is exec produced by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffatt, Ness and Brian Minchin. Moffat said: “No one has documented the dark, exhilarating world of the teenager like Patrick Ness, and now we’re bringing his brilliant storytelling to Doctor Who.”
With autumn programme market Micom starting today, there has also been a lot of activity in terms of drama acquisition deals. The biggest story of the last week is that US cable channel Esquire has acquired the rights to ITV Studio’s new epic drama Beowulf. This follows a previously announced deal that saw Esquire acquire the Tandem production Spotless.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a 13×60’ series that is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It is set in the mythical Shieldlands, a dangerous place populated by humans and fantasy creatures. The first episode sees Beowulf return to Herot after many years as a mercenary warrior to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane Hrothgar. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt the beast down.
Matt Hanna, EVP of development and production for Esquire, said: “Beowulf exemplifies our commitment to delivering well-produced, vivid and engaging programming. We’re thrilled to bring an impressive assembly of artists and visionaries to our line-up when the series unveils next year.”
Other acquisition deals this week include a raft of sales for German drama Naked Among Wolves, which has sold to Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea others. There’s also been activity around Dori Media’s Ciega a Cita, a romantic comedy format that has been sold to AB Groupe in France.
On the service front, Channel 4’s new foreign drama on-demand service Walter Presents (launching in partnership with GSN) has acquired a number of Nordic dramas from Fremantle Media International, including Dicte and Acquitted. More deals are on the cards from Walter Presents at Mipcom this week. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that it will launch in Spain on October 20, Portugal on October 21 and Italy on October 22.
Finally, there was news of a cancellation this week, with USA Network calling a halt to Graceland after three seasons. The Fox Television Studios-produced series told the story of a rookie agent who had to investigate his mentor. Reports suggest the show was iced because of low ratings.
This week saw the announcement of a new creative company built around the writing talents of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, two of the most iconic names in the British TV business. Backed by FremantleMedia, the new company will see Marks and Gran team up with indie producer Corona Television in a JV called LocomoTV.
According to a press announcement, “the new company will create original scripted programming that will captivate a new generation of audiences all over the world. LocomoTV is already building up a head of steam with a number of projects in development.”
For those not familiar with Marks and Gran, they first began writing for television more than 35 years ago and have an enviable body of hits in both comedy and drama, including Holding the Fort, Shine on Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, Love Hurts and Goodnight Sweetheart.
The pair also created Birds of a Feather, a classic comedy show that returned to UK TV screens in January 2014 after a 16-year absence. The revival launched to 12 million viewers, becoming ITV’s biggest comedy hit in 20 years and confirming that Marks and Gran still have the Midas touch.
FremantleMedia’s involvement is a no-brainer. FM already has a stake in Corona Television and has the rights to much of Marks and Gran’s back catalogue following a series of previous acquisitions. FM says it will “work with the new company on development and has a first look to distribute any titles originated by LocomoTV.”
For Marks and Gran, the new set-up recalls an earlier stage of their TV life: “One of the most rewarding phases of our career was when we had our own company, Alomo, in partnership with Allan McKeown, a brilliant, dynamic and forceful executive. We feel a similar frisson in getting together with the ambitious and enthusiastic production pairing of Richard Johns and Rupert Jermyn (the co-CEOs of Corona). We still generate far too many ideas for new projects, so we couldn’t ignore the opportunity to team up with the Corona boys and bring some extra fizz to TV.”
As for Johns and Jermyn, they said: “Decades of success have not blunted one little bit Marks and Gran’s appetite to bring compelling, deeply human stories and characters to audiences in the UK and worldwide. Lo and Mo’s ability to deliver an emotional and dramatic reach to the broadest audiences, across all the ages, classes and the sexes, is unrivalled in contemporary British TV and is frankly pretty unique worldwide. It is testament to their deep understanding of the human condition and their skill in finding fresh and compelling ways to highlight aspects of it to audiences.”
Another British screenwriting star has also been in the news this week. Red Planet Pictures’ Tony Jordan is to write Stop! In the Name of Love, following 18 months of development. A four-hour Motown drama series for the BBC, it centres on “six smart, diverse 30-something women in contemporary England. The series will reflect the diversity of today’s UK, focusing on the women’s complicated lives as they deal with love, friendship, success and failure. The music of Berry Gordy Jr’s famous record label will be woven into each drama, with characters singing songs at key moments within the spoken narrative. Each song (five per episode) will express the situation and emotions of the characters and be integral to the drama.”
According to Jordan, “Stop! In the Name of Love offers something completely different from any other show on television and I am delighted that the BBC has commissioned it. We’ve been developing the series for the past 18 months and have created a piece of drama that will be unmissable event TV and that truly reflects the multicultural world we’ve become. The music of Motown is iconic and mirrors the rich gamut of human emotion and experience, as well as exploring universal themes that all cultures and ages can relate to. The musical arrangements and cutting edge choreography will give us a uniquely modern take.”
Jordan, who learned his craft by writing more than 250 episodes of BBC soap EastEnders, has become one of the most innovative and important writers in the British TV business. Leaving aside the fact that his company created a high-profile competition for new screenwriting talent, he has written and produced a number of ground-breaking shows in his time. Examples include Life on Mars, Hustle, By Any Means and his own unique look at the biblical story in The Nativity.
Always experimental, he created the ingenious ITV double-header Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper and is now developing a show called Dickensian, which imagines a Victorian London populated by some of Charles Dickens’ most-loved characters including Scrooge, Fagin and Miss Havisham.
In 2013, the Guardian said: “If it were not for snobbery surrounding soap operas, Tony Jordan’s name would be as celebrated as Stephen Poliakoff’s.” A couple of years on, it’s unlikely anyone could find a legitimate reason not to recognise Jordan’s creative impact.
An interesting story from the US this week, meanwhile, is that filmmaker Daniel Barnz has signed up as writer/director of Valentina, ABC Family’s planned adaptation of RCTV telenovela My Gorda Bella Valentina. Described as Revenge meets Ugly Betty, it tells the story of a young girl called Valentina whose rich mother is killed in an accident. When the mother’s family takes over her assets, Valentina realises that her mother might have been murdered by her family for control of her business. So she disappears and returns 10 years later, looking totally different and hell-bent on revenge.
Barnz’s major credits to date include Beastly, Phoebe in Wonderland and Cake, the 2014 movie in which Jennifer Aniston plays a woman who becomes fascinated by the suicide of another woman in her chronic-pain support group. Presumably Barnz has come on board hoping he can achieve the same kind of breakthrough as RCTV recently had with fellow telenovela adaptation Jane the Virgin (a hit for CW in the US).
One connection with that show is RCTV International’s Jorge Granier, who is executive producer on both productions. TV is not completely new for Barnz, who is looked after by uber-agency WME. Earlier this year he directed ABC comedy drama pilot Mix.
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.