As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.
At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.
‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.
Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.
Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.
This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.
US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.
The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.
The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.
It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.
As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.
“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”
Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”
Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.
Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.
“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”
Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.
“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”
With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”
If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.
“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.
“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”
But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.
“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”
Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”
For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.
“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.
“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”
After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.
“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”
Executive producer Frank Spotnitz discusses the real-life origins of hostage thriller Ransom – commissioned by CBS in the US, Canada’s Global, German broadcaster RTL and French network TF1 – while star Luke Roberts describes the life-and-death stakes in play for his character, negotiator Eric Roberts.
Ransom is produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions, and distributed by eOne.
There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.
The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.
Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).
The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.
And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.
Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.
For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.
As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.
Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.
Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision
Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”
Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”
In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).
The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.
Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”
Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.
Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.
Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”
Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.
“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”
White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.
Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.
Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.
The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.
Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).
HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.
While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.
Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.
Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.
All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.
Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”
In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.
Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.
In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.
This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.
Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.
NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.
And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.
One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.
One of the most important jobs a drama producer can do is read the news. Everyday there are so many bizarre and unusual stories taking place around the world that news can be a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
There are challenges, of course. Some stories are so shocking it seems indecent to write them up too quickly. But the risk of moral hesitation is that someone else will beat you to market. There’s also the possibility of wandering into a legal or PR minefield.
The best stories require producers/writers to make tough judgement calls about how to portray living or recently deceased characters. Even the most subtle manipulations of the truth can blow up into career-wrecking controversies.
One solution, of course, is to create shows that are similar to high-profile news stories but not exactly the same. This way you can capture the zeitgeist of the real-world events but create enough distance that it doesn’t look like a commentary on real figures. This, for example, is what ABC Family is doing with Guilt, a one-hour drama series about an American abroad in London who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her roommate. No prizes for guessing the inspiration for this production.
In the UK this week, Channel 4 (C4) announced plans for a similarly conceived series called National Treasure. Produced by George Faber’s new indie The Forge, National Treasure is about a fictional high-profile comedian who is accused of committing a historical sexual crime – a subject that has been front-page news in the UK for the last couple of years. Over the course of four episodes, the show will explore how the central character, his family, manager and partner are affected by the resulting police investigation.
The show will be written by Jack Thorne, whose credits include the This is England franchise, Glue and The Last Panthers. It was commissioned by C4 head of drama Piers Wenger, who said: “It’s a powerful drama that goes beyond recent headlines, exploring the human and emotional impact when a whole life is called into question. In Jack’s hands it’s an insightful and thought-provoking exploration of memory, truth, age, doubt and how well we really know ourselves and those closest to us.”
There’s no question this is an interesting subject – and in Thorne’s hands it is likely to be a powerful piece of drama. But it does enter complicated territory, with so many sex allegations against British celebrities still subject to judicial proceedings. No wonder Faber is keen to reiterate it is a “fictional drama” that “tackles the complex relationship between celebrity, sex and power.”
As for Thorne, he’s pleased C4 is willing to keep up its reputation for tackling such subjects: “What I’ve always loved about Channel 4 is that it’s a place to discuss big ideas. National Treasure is a piece about doubt, about the smell of abuse, about how we as a society live in Yewtree times (Yewtree is the name of the UK police operation handling such allegations). Paul (the central character in the show) is a man who could be innocent or guilty. We’re going to examine him from all sides and ask that big question – how well do we know the people closest to us?”
Of course, one way of ensuring there is no possibility of any kind of legal challenge is if the central character is found to be innocent.
Over the in US, meanwhile, it is notable that there has been a bit of a swing in favour of legal dramas recently. This isn’t new territory, of course, as fans of Petrocelli, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Law & Order and Damages will attest. But the success of How to Get Away With Murder and Suits seems to have inspired US networks to go back to the pool.
ABC, for example, is now developing The Jury, a project being executive produced by Carol Mendelsohn. The series will follow a murder trial from the perspective of individual jurors over the course of a single season. On paper it sounds like the latest in the current trend towards anthologies.
CBS is working up a legal series called Doubt. In this case, the centre of attention is a defence lawyer who gets romantically involved with one of her clients, who stands accused of killing a teenage girl. Katherine Heigl stars in this one.
Over the last week, all eyes have been on the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. Historically a conflab for UK-based executives, the event is now as likely to present a few visiting dignitaries from the US TV business. So for the last few days there’s been a steady drip feed of trade press stories about what US execs are doing about diversity, how they feel about the differences of the UK TV writing model andwhy they think the BBC should be protected.
One of this year’s star turns was Michael Ellenberg, HBO’s executive VP of programming, who gave some insight into what is coming up on the premium cabler in the near future. He showed the first promotional reel of Westworld, a remake of the 1973 movie that will star Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright. He also said the channel is getting close to finalising Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated drama about the A&R scene in the 1970s.
Sticking with the subject of movie remakes, Amazon Studios has signed up to develop a TV series based on the 1999 sci-fi movie Galaxy Quest. For those who haven’t seen it, Galaxy Quest is an amusing film about a group of TV sci-fi actors who are abducted by aliens who think they are genuine space adventurers. In some ways it is a precursor to films like Land of the Lost and Guardians of the Galaxy. With Guardians proving to be such a huge film franchise, Amazon probably reasons that a TV version of Galaxy Quest can ride the coattails of this kind of retro-comedy sci-fi concept.
Other interesting greenlights this week include the news that ABC is backing a ballet-themed comedy drama to be written and executive produced by Liz Heldens (Mercy), with Sue Naegle also on board as an exec producer. The origin of this one is a C4 reality series that focused on 18 amateur, plus-sized dancers, many of whom were told they were too fat to dance when they were young. The scripted show is expected to have the feel of Billy Elliott, but has presumably also been made possible by the love directed towards Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in the recent Pitch Perfect film franchise.
News out of Germany this week is that leading producer Christian Becker and Beta Film are joining forces to revive Western series Winnetou. Based on the best-selling books by Karl May, Winnetou became a series of cult movies in the 1960s. The new 3×90’ version will air on RTL in Germany while Beta will launch the production to the global market at Mipcom next month.
Finally, proof that TV is a cruel world came this week with VH1’s decision to cancel its scripted show Hindsight, despite previously having greenlit it to season two. The channel said: “Scripted series have been a successful part of VH1’s primetime line-up since 2010 and will continue to be in the future. We love Hindsight and couldn’t be more proud of the series. But in this overcrowded and rapidly changing climate, we need to carve out VH1’s distinct place in the scripted marketplace and deliver the biggest audiences possible for our series.
“As a result, we’re no longer moving forward with a second season of the show. We’re so appreciative of show creator Emily Fox, the cast and the teams and look forward to working with them again.” Reports suggest that the production team is looking for a new home for the show.
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.
Built on a new willingness to tackle historical subject matter and increasing viewer acceptance of English-language shows, German drama is making international headway. DQ finds out how it’s all coming together for this growing industry.
In recent years the global dominance of Anglo-American TV drama has been challenged by a wave of innovative scripted shows from Scandinavia, France, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Korea.
But one country that should now be added to this list of emerging drama hubs is Europe’s powerhouse economy Germany. So long regarded as a creatively conservative market, Germany triumphed at 2014’s International Emmys with acclaimed miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, pictured top). Other German-language dramas that suggest this will not be a one-off include Babylon Berlin, Shades Of Guilt and Deutschland 83.
All of this activity around German-language scripted content comes in parallel with the rise of German-backed English-language drama. Companies like Tandem Communications, Red Arrow Entertainment and Tele Munchen Group (TMG) have all become major players on the international drama scene with scripted series such as Pillars Of The Earth, Crossing Lines, Bosch, 100 Code, Moby Dick and Rosamunde Pilcher-penned miniseries. In addition to this, federal and regional incentives for film and TV have made Germany a popular production site (see panel).
To understand the German drama market in its entirety, however, it’s important to start by looking at the free-to-air public broadcasting market – which is where most of the drama audience and investment still resides. And the message here is that TV movies continue to dominate schedules. “Our audience loves TV movies,” says Susanne Mueller, head of feature films at one of Germany’s two public broadcasters, ZDF. “ZDF has been the overall leader in the German market for the past two years, and a lot of that is due to the success of our TV movies, which play in the traditional primetime slot of 20.15. We have two or three primetime slots for TV movies every week and typically get an audience of five million or more, which is very good in Germany.”
According to Mueller, there are three main categories of TV movie on ZDF: “Crime, romance and dramas dealing with contemporary social issues (such as drugs, stalking, adoption and sexuality). Sometimes we will also air comedy in the middle of the week, though that is less regular. We also sometimes acquire miniseries like The Borgias and reformat them to fit our TV movie slots.”
ZDF’s reliance on TV movies in primetime is mirrored over on ARD, Germany’s other public broadcaster. Despite a self-inflicted financial crisis that severely dented budgets at the broadcaster’s drama division, ARD Degeto, in 2012 and 2013, ARD continues to air a large number of TV movie-length dramas in primetime. Some are standalone titles and some are set up as branded franchises. An example of the latter is Tatort (Crime Scene), which has been airing at 20.15 on Sundays since 1970 and invariably rates well. Another long-running police franchise that continues to perform for ARD is Polizeiruf 110 (Emergency Call 110), on air since 1990.
ARD Degeto came out of its financial crisis with a dynamic new chief, Christine Strobl, who has a budget of around €400m (US$455m) a year to spend on drama. While ARD’s basic reliance on TV movies hasn’t changed, Strobl has made it clear that she wants to up the creative stakes at ARD, telling local media that the formula “‘beautiful landscape plus complicated family history equals success’ is no longer enough.” One title that underlines the new agenda at ARD is The Barschel Case. Produced by Cologne-based Time Warp, the show looks at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of German politician Uwe Barschel in 1987, who may have been killed by Israeli secret service the Mossad.
Other ARD greenlights include biopics about Hans Rosenthal and Bernhard Grzimek, high-profile German figures whose career paths were dogged by personal difficulties. Rosenthal was a Jewish radio and TV host who overcame anti-Semitism in his youth to become one of Germany’s best-loved celebrities, while Grzimek was a zoo director and conservationist who was accused of being a Nazi but later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Like the Barschel film, both subjects show a growing appetite from German television to explore the country’s recent tumultuous history through the prism of character-based storytelling.
Germany’s fascination with domestically oriented TV movies has presented challenges from a content distribution perspective for a couple of reasons. First, international buyers tend to favour long-running series, because it is easier and more cost-effective to build a marketing program around them. Second, TV movies don’t lend themselves well to scripted format adaptations.
Nevertheless, leading distributors such as ZDF Enterprises, Global Screen and Beta Film have all had success selling German TV movies to markets like Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Beta Film MD Eric Welbers cites recent examples such as Anatomy of Evil (a five-movie franchise) to back the point. “The Anatomy Of Evil series has sold to RAI2, Antena3 and broadcasters in Scandinavia,” he says.
Welbers is also optimistic about the prospects of Murder by the Lake: The Celtic Mystery, the first part of a TV movie trilogy produced by Rowboat Film in partnership with Graf, ZDF and Austrian pubcaster ORF. Set on the shores of Lake Constance, the trilogy depicts German and Austrian police forced to work together on a murder case. The film attracted 6.6 million viewers on ZDF (20% share) last winter, and Welbers is confident it will do well with international buyers.
Global Screen, meanwhile, has had success with A Faithful Husband (Männertreu), an ARD primetime movie that was sold to Italy (RAI), Slovakia (STV) and Hungary (MTVA). It has also done well with Naked Among Wolves, which was pitched at Mipcom 2014 and the German Screenings last December. Directed by Philip Kadelbach (Generation War) and set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, the show aired in April and has since been sold into France, Poland, Benelux and Lithuania.
With TV movies occupying so much of their primetime schedules, ZDF and ARD tend to place series in afternoon, access primetime or late evening slots. “When we acquire British or Scandinavian drama series they usually go into the Sunday 22.00 slot,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “That’s also where we put our German crime series called The Team (which began airing in February).” An eight-part series, distributed internationally by ZDFE, The Team follows an international police unit on the trail of a cross-border crime network.
As with TV movies, German-language series have historically tended to appeal most to neighbouring markets. Betafilm’s Welbers cites Homicide Hills, a Tuesday night series on ARD that is also a strong performer on RAI in Italy, as an example. Also popular in Italy and Eastern Europe is another classic series, For Heaven’s Sake. One show that has travelled widely, says Welbers, is Kommissar Rex, a long-running police procedural centred on a police dog called Rex. Originally produced in German for Austrian pubcaster ORF, Rex has sold around the world and been remade in Italy and Poland. According to Welbers, there are also plans for a Canadian version.
ZDF Enterprises drama VP Tasja Abel says crime has historically been the strongest seller in her company’s catalogue. In particular, she points to classic series Derrick, a ZDF production that sold to markets including Australia, India, South Africa, France and Scandinavia. Global Screen has also done well with cop show Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been airing on RTL since 1996. A perennial seller, Cobra was most recently farmed out to Thailand.
Away from crime, another German-language show that has been exported widely is Storm of Love, an afternoon soap based in a five-star hotel at the foot of the Alps. Launched in 2005, the show is produced by Bavaria Film for ARD. To date, it has racked up more than 2000 50-minute episodes and been sold by Global Screen to 24 territories, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy. With format rights also sold to Turkey, the show was named by Madigan Cluff and Digital TV Research as “one of the 10 most valuable drama series in Europe” in 2012.
Undoubtedly the most interesting export of all, however, has been 2013’s Generation War, a high-end production that tells the story of five young German friends (one of them Jewish) living through the trauma of the Second World War. Described as Germany’s answer to Band of Brothers, the miniseries has sold to around 150 countries and, unusually, managed to secure slots on mainstream English-language networks like BBC2 in the UK.
At home, Generation War was adapted into a TV movie format and played in ZDF primetime, an unusual move for such an edgy production. For Nico Hofmann, producer of the show and head of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Films, Generation War is indicative of a new style and energy in German drama: “We have a very strong business in traditional TV movies and crime dramas, thanks to titles like Soko (ZDF) and Donna Leon (ARD), but there is a growing appetite in the market for high-end drama storytelling.”
In part, this is because broadcasters need special events to showcase their schedules, says Hofmann. But it is also a response to the fact that young German audiences are increasingly attracted to the slick narrative style of US cable drama. “The good news is that we have a wave of young talent coming over from cinema that can make great drama,” he explains. “But the unknown question is whether this kind of drama can get the kind of ratings to appeal to a mainstream primetime audience.”
This isn’t just a question for the public broadcasters, says Hofmann. Commercial broadcaster RTL (which owns RTL, RTL2 SuperRTL and Vox) has tended to rely more on factual and entertainment in primetime, “but it is expanding its interest in drama. We are making Deutschland 83 for them, a series about a young East German spy who is sent to West Berlin during the Cold War. If that can get around four to five million viewers in primetime then it might encourage broadcasters to commission more primetime series.”
Like ZDF and ARD, RTL’s upcoming drama plans focus heavily on historical subject matter. Aside from Deutschland 83, the broadcaster is also working with UFA on an epic eight-part series that looks at Adolf Hitler’s life as a soldier during World War I (a project that is likely to stir up as much debate as Generation War).
More typical for RTL is the TV movie Iron Fist, which was introduced to the international market by Global Screen at Mipcom 2014. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of Götz von Berlichinge, a charismatic knight who fought for the Holy Roman Empire. According to Global Screen, the film has attracted interested from markets such as France, Benelux, Eastern Europe and Asia.
While RTL doesn’t commission as much drama as ZDF or ARD in primetime, it has done extremely well in daytime with reality dramas from Filmpool, a subsidiary of All3Media. Filmpool’s Felix Wesseler says the company first hit on the idea of reality drama a decade ago and now produces around 1500 hours a year, primarily for non-primetime slots on RTL and its main rival in the free-to-air commercial TV market, Sat1. “The idea is to take real-life situations and amateur actors and then place them in a scripted drama scenario. The result is a very compelling drama at an efficient production cost, with format potential,” he explains.
Wesseler cites examples like Cases of Doubt, a family-based whodunnit in which an unsuspecting husband or wife is confronted with the possibility that a family member might have committed a crime. Now up to 600 episodes, Cases of Doubt doubled RTL’s share in its daytime slot and has been sold on to Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other examples of this approach include Families at the Crossroads and Berlin Day & Night, a youth-based series that airs in post-primetime on RTL2.
A big hit on TV, Day & Night also has a strong online following and has spawned a spin-off series, Cologne 50667. Both series are hitting audience shares of 16-17% of 14-49s against a channel average that is generally sub-10%. “I think this is one of German drama’s mega-trends,” says Wesseler. “We’ve just been commissioned to make a new series for primetime (details regarding subject matter and broadcaster still under wraps) which will allow us to see if this format can extend to those commercially important slots.”
Like RTL, Germany’s other major commercial broadcaster Pro7Sat1 (owner of Sat1, Pro7 and Kabel 1) doesn’t air as much primetime drama as the pubcasters. However, Jochen Ketschau, its senior VP of German fiction and coproduction, stresses that “German drama has always been and still is a crucial element in the portfolio for Sat1. Key slots on Sat1 are Monday night (20.15 and 21.15) for serial drama. And Tuesday is Movie Night. For more than 20 years, Sat1 has been showing German fictional movies in this same timeslot.”
Sat1 is well known for historical movies as well as romantic comedy, comedy and drama, says Ketschau. Successes include Die Hebamme, the story of a young woman in 1799 whose ambition to train as a midwife sees her embroiled in a murder-mystery in university town Marburg.
Among other titles that have worked well for Sat1, Ketschau picks out Der Letzte Bulle and Danni Lowinski, “both of which are very successful and unique shows that have won several prizes over the past five years and have also been licensed for international markets.” In ratings terms, Ketschau says: “A good share is more or less 10% in our main target group of women aged 30-49.”
Recent times have seen Sat1 inject a new kind of energy into its primetime schedule with politics-based dramas, says Ketschau. One is Der Rucktritt, a docu-drama that follows the events leading to the resignation of former German president Christian Wulff (2010-2012). Another is Der Minister, a satire on the rise and fall of a young political star. The TV movie, produced by UFA-owned teamWorx, is loosely based on the plagiarism scandal that engulfed former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
As with RTL (owner of FremantleMedia), it’s important to keep in mind that Pro7Sat1 has positioned itself as an international TV business. In terms of drama, this manifests itself in two ways. First, the company sometimes joins projects as a coproduction partner. For example, it has teamed up with Munich-based Tandem Communications on a number of projects, including Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, Labyrinth and Crossing Lines.
Second, it is directly plugged into the English-language drama market through its international production/distribution division Red Arrow, whose projects include Bosch, 100 Code and Esio Trot.
Strategically, this approach allows Red Arrow to build up a slate of titles that are more attractive to buyers than the majority of German drama. It also means there is a significant level of German input on any English-language drama that is sold back into the German market.
This latter point reflects the pragmatism of the German TV market. While German drama is still the most popular form of scripted content, years of exposure to Hollywood movies and series have created a familiarity with and acceptance of dubbed English-language content. A good example of this is TMG’s run of TV movies/miniseries based on the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (recent examples being The Other Wife, Unknown Heart and Valentine’s Kiss). These are aired on ZDF but shot in English so that TMG can sell them internationally. It’s a strategy that works. ZDF gets good ratings, while TMG sells the shows to more than 20 countries, including the likes of Spain, Scandinavia and Australia.
With more and more successful international coproductions, there’s increased willingness among German broadcasters to see this as a primary route to sourcing content. “A growing number of German producers want to see their drama succeed internationally but are restricted by the language,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “So we are seeing more projects that feature German actors and locations but are shot in English.”
Like its commercially owned counterparts, ZDF Enterprises is also investing more time and money in the international drama arena. In June 2014, it joined forces with executive producer Uwe Kersken to form G5 fiction, a joint venture designed to create original drama (miniseries, long-running series and event productions – predominantly history) with German and international market potential. Among G5’s first projects for the international market are the series Alexander the Great, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Vikings) as showrunner, and a miniseries called Ellis Island.
One interesting feature of the German market over the past two decades has been the strength of its free-to-air market compared with those of the US, UK and France. From a drama perspective, this has meant German pay TV has not really been a major contributor to drama investment when compared with US cable, Sky UK and Canal+.
Beta Film’s Welbers believes this might be about to change, and points to Babylon Berlin as evidence: “Babylon Berlin is a coproduction between X-Filme, ARD, Sky Germany and Beta Film that is an example of the creative risk-taking we are starting to see.”
Based on novels by Volker Kutscher, the show is set in 1920s Berlin and centres on police inspector Gereon Rath. The TV version will be headed by showrunner Tom Tykwer, whose directing credits include Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
All the partners involved see Babylon Berlin as a groundbreaking project. It is, for example, the first time ARD has gone down this kind of coproduction route with Sky Deutschland. “In order to realise this costly and intricate project, we wanted to try out a new form of co-operation with Sky,” explains ARD Chairman Lutz Marmor. “It could also be a viable model for the future.”
As for Sky Deutschland, Gary Davey, executive VP of programming at Sky, says of the show: “The story is perfectly suited to our mission statement to offer our customers high-quality productions. It describes a very special place at a very special point in history. Babylon Berlin will be the perfect addition to our successful US series.”
According to Welbers, a further illustration of the growing ambition of German pay TV channels is Weinberg, a six-hour psycho thriller series that will air on TNT Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. Produced by Bantry Bay and Twenty Four 9 Films with Gerda Müller, Jan Kromschörder and Philipp Steffens, international distribution is again being managed by Beta Film.
The strength of Germany’s indigenous drama market, combined with its attraction to US and Scandinavian content, means it has never been a big buyer of scripted formats. But there are a couple of important examples produced by UFA for RTL. One is the long-running soap Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, adapted from the Australian series Good Times, Bad Times. Another, more recent example is a local adaptation of female prison drama Wentworth. Produced originally by FremantleMedia Australia, UFA went into production with a German version in March last year.
As evident throughout the above story, a large part of the current drama drive is built around historical subjects. If there are two notable trends here, they are the following: a willingness to tackle subjects previously thought of as taboo (like Hitler and the Nazis); and a greater exploration of periods outside WW2.
One of the richest sources of ideas is the period before the East-West reunification. Aside from Deutschland 83, for example, there has been Annette Hess’s critically acclaimed Weissensee, a family drama set in communist East Germany during the 1980s. The show first aired in 2010 and, having achieved a strong audience of around six million, will return for a third series this year. The show has also proved popular internationally, selling to Benelux, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
Also of note is Bornholm Street, an ARD TV movie that took a light-hearted look at the final few hours of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of an East German border guard. The film attracted 7.5 million viewers and was named TV event of the year at the prestigious BAMBI Awards. Like Deutschland 83, it shows a new side to German drama, by tackling tough historical subjects through an ironic storytelling style more typical of the US and UK.
UFA’s Hofmann cites additional examples to underline the point about the historical flavour of German drama. One is Die Ärzte (The Doctors), which is set at the end of the 19th century in the world-famous Charité hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Another is Berlin Kurfürstendamm, the story of three young women in 1950s Berlin. “A lot of people talk about the fact that modern Germany was created by a generation of strong women, because so many men died in the war,” he says. “So this is a look at the era of sexual and social liberation they lived through.”
One other interesting dynamic worth mentioning in Germany is the existence of a strong bond between theatrical and TV, a situation that makes sense when you take account of ZDF and ARD’s dependence on TV movies. At last count, more than half of all feature films made in Germany had TV money in the budget (though there was a dip during ARD Degeto’s crisis).
A good recent example of this relationship at its best is Der Medicus (The Physician), a €10m UFA Cinema production which was a box-office success before going on to air as a two-part miniseries in ARD primetime. Hofmann says this kind of collaboration is acting as a blueprint with a raft of new projects being lined up for theatrical then television release. Worth noting here is that Der Medicus was shot in English and featured high-profile international stars Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Kingsley.
Echoing developments in other territories, increased quality in the TV market is encouraging some movie producers to place greater emphasis on TV production. A good case in point is Constantin Film, which has announced plans for TV series spin-offs of its Mortal Instruments and Resident Evil movies.
In addition, Constantin subsidiary Moovie, run by producer Oliver Berben, has been making its mark with some strong drama series. Following the success of period piece Hotel Adlon, Constantin/Moovie made Shades of Guilt, a 6×60’ legal/crime series based on true cases and featuring Moritz Bleibtreu. Distributed by Beta Film, the well-received show “is not a crime-solving series but a series that explores the motives of the people who commit crimes,” explains Beta Films’ Welbers.
The growing significance of TV is also having an impact on the European Film Market, which took place this year from February 5-13 in Berlin. This year, an expanded emphasis on TV saw the launch of a Drama Series Day and enhanced opportunities for screening, buying, selling and coproduction dialogue.
Explaining the move, Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the EFM, said: “Unusual, often complex and sophisticated, stories combined with high production values and a first-class acting ensemble are now the trademarks of successful drama series, and they have moved the format closer to film. It was therefore natural for us to offer series producers and creators a platform at the EFM for the first time.”
Finally, it’s impossible to write a drama story these days without some reference to SVoD platform Netflix. Netflix Germany opened for business in September last year with its standard offering of series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and The Killing. There is no news yet on German-language originals, but the strength of the local SVoD competition (Watchever, Maxdome, Amazon) combined with the use of local-language originals during the recent launch in France suggests that may be the next step.