Tag Archives: Red Road

AMC UK: BT taking on Sky with new channel

As AMC launches in the UK with big hitters including Fear the Walking Dead and Into the Badlands, Stephen Arnell assesses the channel’s opening line-up and its potential threat to Sky Atlantic.

Not content with vying with Sky for football rights in the UK, BT is set to challenge Sky Atlantic in the field of upscale drama with the launch today of AMC UK as part of AMC’s strategy of rolling out across the world.

Although limited in terms of audience by initial exclusivity to the BT platform (and as part of the BT Sport package on Sky), AMC is a clear statement of intent that the platform is set to up its game across all genres. BT MD Delia Bushell calls drama a “key motivator” for driving customer growth in what she describes as a “golden age” for TV series.

Fear the Walking Dead will air on AMC UK
Fear the Walking Dead will air on AMC UK

Irrespective of its actual audiences, Sky Atlantic has dominated the high-end imported drama market in the UK, with the likes of Fox and Universal generally perceived (with a few exceptions) as providing little in the way of real competition.

Details of the actual schedule are relatively sketchy at the moment, but the channel has secured some heavy hitters in the shape of The Walking Dead ‘companion piece’ Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) and the martial arts mash-up Into the Badlands.

Set in LA and starring the familiar faces of industry veterans Cliff Curtis (Once were Warriors, Live Free or Die Hard), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Deadwood) and actor/musician/politician and all-round renaissance man Reuben Blades (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Counselor), FTWD looks set to capitalise on the worldwide success of its parent show and help kickstart the fledgling channel.

Advance reviews have been fairly positive – with the usual caveats about pilot episodes, which tend to be chiefly involved in scene-setting.

According to Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC Global and SundanceTV Global, social media reaction to the first transmission of FTWD on August 23 has been “phenomenal in its scale.”

This was backed up when overnight figures for the show were released – 10.1 million Live+SD viewers, the highest audience for a cable launch ever in terms of individuals and all key demos.

FTWD will debut three days after AMC UK’s launch, on Monday, August 31 at 21.00 – where Sky Atlantic traditionally airs its heaviest hitters (Game of Thrones, True Detective), but in this case the opposition will be David Simon’s Yonkers public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, justifiably hugely praised but of strictly niche appeal in the UK.

The six-part Into the Badlands, vaguely reminiscent of the 1970s David Carradine-starrer Kung Fu, follows the quest for enlightenment of Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists) and his young companion in a dystopian-future US ruled by warring feudal barons.

Eminently promotable, Into the Badlands is pencilled in for a 2016 run on AMC UK after its November 2015 transmission in the US and a first window on Amazon Prime.

Rectify follows the story of a man released from Death Row
Rectify follows the story of a man released from death row

Meanwhile, now in its third season (and already commissioned for a fourth run) on AMC’s SundanceTV, the critically acclaimed Rectify – created by Ray McKinnon (probably most familiar to audiences here as the tragic Reverend Smith in Deadwood) – is a slow-burning drama concerning the events surrounding the release of a death-row inmate after 19 years in prison when conflicting DNA evidence is discovered.

Rectify’s challenging script and occasional longueurs probably mean it’s unfortunately unlikely to be more than an acquired taste in the UK, but it is well worth checking out.

AM UK will also be premiering Sony’s Cleaners (previously shown on VoD platform Crackle in the US), a two-season actioner starring Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage, The Mentalist), Gina Gershon (Bound, Face/Off) and David Arquette (Scream).

Another title new to the UK via AMC will be Manhattan (Lionsgate, pictured top), a critically well-regarded drama shown on WGN America in the US. Centred around the development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos in 1943, the show features some well-known faces including William Petersen (CSI) and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, The Ghost Writer).

Some of AMC’s most popular series are already tied up with other UK broadcasters (Humans on Channel 4, The Walking Dead on Fox and Hell on Wheels on TCM), which means the channel will rely on movies, Mad Men (also on Sky Atlantic in the UK), Breaking Bad (Spike), FX’s rogue-cop series The Shield and the cult hit Weeds to bulk out the schedule.

Older AMC series such as the short-lived conspiracy thriller Rubicon (2010) could also get some airtime.

Humans already airs on Channel 4 in the UK and so won't appear on the new AMC channel
Humans already airs on Channel 4 in the UK and so won’t appear on the new AMC channel

The US network also has a couple of hybrid docudramas – this year’s eight-part miniseries The Making of the Mob: New York and the forthcoming The West, a Sundance production that profiles the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Crazy Horse.

From details released so far, post-watershed movies playing on the UK channel will not at first include blockbuster hits, with a relatively low-key opening night line-up that includes George Clooney’s debut directorial effort Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and the Jim Thompson Noir thriller The Killer Inside Me (2010).

AMC US also plays host to retro-appeal series such as The Rifleman and The Three Stooges, which unsurprisingly will not cross the pond.

Upcoming John Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager (starring Hugh Laurie) as a coproduction with BBC (as Humans was with Channel 4) will also not be aired on AMC UK. AMC Global plans to continue these coproductions.

There exists the possibility of raiding the SundanceTV larder for shows such as The Red Road, a Banshee-style drama starring Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian), which ran to two six-part seasons, and the Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83.

The Red Road, starring Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa
The Red Road, starring Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa (pictured)

2016 will see Sundance transmit the eagerly awaited adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s popular Hap & Leonard crime novels, with cast that includes the UK’s own James Purefoy (The Following, Rome), Michael K Williams (The Wire, Broadwalk Empire) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).

Also in development is Seth Rogen’s long-gestating comic book adaptation Preacher, set to air in the US next year.

Eager to use its existing libraries and distributor partnerships, AMC is unlikely to consider the Sky Atlantic route of international coproduced commissions in local territories, at least for the foreseeable future.

And, of course, the channel could always bolster its schedule with Nordic noir, which is pretty much a sure-fire way of attracting viewers. Scandi detective period series AD 1790 has yet to find a home – perhaps it will at last get an airing in the UK?

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Shining bright

SundanceTV has been steadily building its homegrown drama credentials over the past few years. Christian Vesper, senior VP of scripted development and current, tells DQ why he believes the network has turned a corner.

There is perhaps no other name more closely identified with independent movies than the Sundance Film Festival. And there is no other television network more closely associated with the festival than the Sundance Channel, which is why, when the station decided on a rebrand last year, it stayed well within the halo of the Robert Redford brand.

Christian-Vesper
Christian Vesper, SundanceTV senior VP of scripted development and current

SundanceTV arrived in time for the February 2014 premiere of the channel’s second wholly owned homegrown drama series, The Red Road – signifying another step towards its ambition of becoming better known for scripted television.

The journey began in 2010 with Carlos, a miniseries about the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed The Jackal, originally commissioned by France’s Canal+ and directed by Olivier Assayas – marking the auteur’s first foray into TV. Sundance got involved in the French/German production at the rough-cut stage and took a coproduction credit, though these days such collaborations see it much more heavily engaged in the creative process.

SundanceTV’s senior VP of scripted development and current, Christian Vesper, has been with the network for the past 12 years, playing a central role in its evolution – and Carlos, he says, was a pivotal moment.

“It made a lot of noise. We won best miniseries at the Golden Globes with a US$15m project against the US$150m project that was The Pacific. It led to a realisation in the higher levels of our organisation that the network could distinguish itself in the scripted space.”

At the time, that organisation was in the midst of major change. Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media was being spun out of Cablevision as a separate entity to be named AMC Networks, housing fellow cable outlets AMC, IFC and WE tv.

Carlos-1
Carlos, ‘a genuine differentiator for Sundance’

Carlos stood out as a genuine differentiator for Sundance, which until then had predominantly been seen as an elite, art-house movie destination. For Vesper, the show was a clear statement of intent – aiming to establish the channel as a home to directors, producers, writers and talent with a theatrical vision that could be transposed to the small screen. “We want our shows to look and feel cinematic. We are still part of the Sundance family, and that’s important,” he says.

Restless (2012) came next – another mini – this time an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name about a young woman who discovers that her mother was recruited as a spy during World War Two. Hilary Bevan Jones’s Endor Productions made the two-parter, which garnered accolades including a Best Actress Emmy nomination for Charlotte Rampling.

“We’re big fans of William Boyd and the idea again is to work with artists and writers who are exceptional,” says Vesper. This was Sundance’s “first proper copro,” he adds, and its first alliance with the BBC – a relationship that was to deepen with Top of the Lake (2013), director Jane Campion’s first TV project in more than 20 years. The seven-part series, shot in New Zealand, starred big names including Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and centred on the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival and aired at around the same time as Rectify, the channel’s first wholly owned homegrown series. Vesper describes the dual release as “an inflection point for the network – when we really meant to make a statement that we were in the scripted space for real.” He calls Rectify, heading into its third season next month, “a beautifully rendered piece of art television.” Top of the Lake, meanwhile, which has also been renewed, was “a fantastic opportunity” that BBC Worldwide and producer See-Saw brought to the network.

The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)
The Emmy-nominated Restless (2012)

“We got involved very early in the script stage. It turned out to be a terrific brand signifier and audience generator, and we received a ton of award nominations – which we need to make some noise in such a crowded marketplace,” Vesper says, again emphasising the desire for projects with genuine artistic merit but also critical and commercial resonance.

After all, the competition is only getting stronger. SundanceTV is a sibling of AMC, which has been responsible for some of the greatest drama successes of the past decade – notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in October 2014 it gained a new sister, after the AMC Networks mother ship paid US$200m for a 49.9% stake in BBC America – home to originals including Copper and, more recently, Intruders.

Outside of the family the world has been moving fast, with Starz (another regular BBC partner) stepping up efforts to displace HBO and Showtime, while History Channel, A&E and others have been moving into scripted against the backdrop of Netflix and Amazon redrawing the landscape completely.

SundanceTV last year aired the original version of French supernatural drama The Returned (Les Revenants), and together with Canal+ has become a coproduction partner on the upcoming second season – but in the meantime an English-language version penned by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse is in the works at A&E.

Vesper acknowledges the difference in reach between the two channels (A&E is in close to 100 million households, whereas SundanceTV is available in around 60 million) but believes his own network has several advantages over newer entrants. “It’s not as if we’ve shifted from comedy to drama or anything like that. Drama has always been our focus and it is our brand,” he says.

Top of the Lake, SundanceTV's 'first proper copro'
Top of the Lake, SundanceTV’s ‘first proper copro’

“We have a pre-existing relationship with Sundance, and the niche we seek to fill is somewhere between our big brothers at AMC and the kind of content associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute.

“We’re looking to work with and highlight the auteurs. We want heavily character-based storytelling that is distinct, perhaps because of the unique tales we tell or progressive kind of storytelling we’re willing to engage in.”

The Honourable Woman (main image), Hugo Blick’s political spy thriller, fell squarely into this category. It follows an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business and with it all the trappings of his Middle Eastern dealings.

Maggie Gyllenhaal took the lead role, again underscoring the importance to SundanceTV of having big-name draws. “She’s a movie star, which guaranteed the series would be written about. And once people knew to pay attention, they realised the show had enormous quality. It’s an essential element to making things work,” says Vesper. The eight-part series was made by UK indie Drama Republic and Blick’s own business, Eight Rooks, again via the BBC’s commercial arm. It premiered on BBC2 in the UK on July 3, 2014 and on SundanceTV stateside on July 31, winning Gyllenhaal Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.

In an age of simulcasts and collapsing release windows, a four-week transatlantic gap seems like a long time for a series around which so much anticipation was built. But Vesper argues this only helped build interest in the US, as UK buzz about the show began to travel.

The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled
The Red Road starred Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) but has now been cancelled

The tables were turned with One Child, Guy Hibbert’s miniseries about an adopted woman who is suddenly called back to China by her birth mother to save the brother she never knew she had from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It was coproduced with the BBC’s in-house production team, and although BBC2 was the lead broadcaster, SundanceTV aired the show on December 5 and 6 ahead of the BBC. “It’s a discussion on a per-show basis,” Vesper says.

Straight acquisitions are still on the agenda, with SundanceTV recently becoming the first major US network to pick up a German-language drama in the form of Deutschland 83, a Cold War thriller made by FremantleMedia’s UFA Fiction for RTL.

In wholly owned originals, The Red Road came from Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the hit 2013 movie Prisoners. Martin Henderson and Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa led the cast in another character-driven study, this time focusing on conflict between Native Americans in a deprived neighbourhood on the outskirts of white middle-class Manhattan. However, the show was cancelled after the end of its second season last month.

Meanwhile, in the pipeline is Hap and Leonard – SundanceTV’s third wholly owned original show and its first solo book adaptation, based on a series of novels by Joe Lansdale. The script is being penned by Sundance Film Festival alumni Jim Mickle and Nick Damici – again underscoring the ongoing importance of that association – with the show due to air next year.

Sundance Channel may have become SundanceTV and gone a significant way down the road to being recognised as a serious scripted TV player, but it will always owe a 10-gallon hat tip to Butch Cassidy’s notorious sidekick.

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