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.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
It’s a regular cause for discussion that feature film studios and talent are moving into the scripted TV business. But there’s an equally significant trend involving archive movies being reinvented as TV series.
Already out in the market, and doing pretty well, are classic titles including Fargo, Sleepy Hollow, Transporter, Hannibal, 12 Monkeys, Teen Wolf and Parenthood. And this autumn will see the floodgates open still further, with TV spin-offs launching across a wide range of US channels.
Examples include Limitless, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Supergirl, Scream, Ash vs Evil Dead and Uncle Buck, all of which are just weeks away from launch. Coming down the line soon after will be a TV version of Shooter, the 2007 film starring Mark Wahlberg.
The main reason for this spate of remakes is the need to cut through the clutter of competition. With around 400 TV dramas a year vying for attention in the US market alone, any kind of in-built brand awareness is extremely valuable at launch. While a movie’s heritage can’t, in itself, make an audience like a TV show, it can at least encourage viewers to sample it – especially if some aspect of the originating film crosses over (thus adding authenticity).
MGM, for example, made much of the fact that the Coen brothers had a hand in the scripts for the Fargo reboot. And Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper is lined up to appear in some episodes of Limitless, having starred in the movie.
The future prospects for this film-to-TV business model may well depend on the hit rate of this year’s batch of remakes. But it’s worth noting that all of the existing film-to-TV productions mentioned in the opening paragraph made it to season two at least. Teen Wolf, for example, is at season five. This hit rate compares pretty favourably with shows based on foreign scripted formats, where successes are few and far between.
Ironically, one issue that may affect film-to-TV adaptations is the current shift in the TV industry’s favour. With the film industry polarising between blockbuster and low-budget independent productions, the mid-market where many of the above film titles lived is under pressure. In other words, films capable of adaptation may prove a precious resource that gets over-mined by the industry.
For now, though, there is no sign that the future pipeline is drying up, with confirmation coming this week that Denzel Washington movie Training Day is being lined up for a remake at CBS (initially as a pilot from Warners Bros TV and Jerry Bruckheimer).
CBS, it should be noted, is a fan of this approach, having already greenlit Supergirl, Limitless and Rush Hour – which has also been picked up by E4 in the UK.
Meanwhile, it was revealed last week that NBC is backing a TV adaptation of RED, a cult film series starring Bruce Willis that was itself based on a comic book franchise. There is also talk of a third movie in the RED franchise, so we may be seeing an era of parallel development emerge.
As a footnote, last week also saw the announcement that cult TV show Baywatch is being brought back as a movie with Zac Efron. That is sure to revive interest in the library rights of the TV show – NBC-owned Cozi TV and Telemundo’s TeleXitos both recently relaunched the series – and could even stimulate a TV reboot down the line.
Other TV-to-film stories this week centred on Downton Abbey. With the iconic period drama having just wrapped production on its final season, producer Carnival is now considering continuing the franchise on the big screen –possibly taking the show into the pre-Second World War financial crash.
All of the recent talk about there being too much scripted TV doesn’t seem to have unsettled Viacom-owned channel Spike. Having recently finished airing ancient Egyptian miniseries Tut, Spike has just ordered its first one-hour drama series in nine years – a 10-parter from Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Horizon Television called Harvest.
The show is being written by Ian Sobel and Matt Morgan (12 Monkeys) and tells the story of a cemetery caretaker who finds his quiet life in jeopardy when his estranged criminal father tracks him down. To protect his daughter, he works with his father in the illegal trade in body tissue.
This week also saw Australian subscription VoD platform Presto pick up rights to USA Network thriller Mr Robot, which has Christian Slater among its cast. Presto, which acquired the show from NBCUniversal, will show the first seven episodes of Mr Robot immediately before adding the last three after they air stateside on USA.
The show follows a young programmer who suffers from a debilitating anti-social disorder. He finds himself caught between working for a cybersecurity firm and the murky world of mysterious anarchist Mr Robot, played by Slater. In the US, the show is averaging an audience of around 1.42 million viewers, though recent episodes are nearer the 1.2 million mark. The show was recommissioned for a second season very early on the basis of a digital preview.
Finally, a week after Showtime Networks president David Nevins criticised some of the current risky investments in scripted TV, Showtime announced it is producing I’m Dying Up Here, a new one-hour pilot being executive produced by Jim Carrey.
Based on the non-fiction novel by William Knoedelseder, the pilot will be directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies) and produced by Endemol Shine Studios and Assembly Entertainment. Written and executive produced by former stand-up comedian Dave Flebotte (Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, The Bernie Mac Show) and set among the famous Hollywood comedy clubs of the 1970s, the dark comedy pilot “will delve into the inspired and damaged psyches that inhabit the hilarious but complex business of making an audience laugh”.
Nevins said: “The 1970s LA comedy scene gave rise to some of the biggest and most influential performers of the last half-century. Who better than Jim Carrey and Dave Flebotte, who were both there, to tell the story of that special era?”
When asked last week about the current situation with scripted programming, Nevins said Showtime is in expansion mode, but he questioned networks that were rushing into new shows – giving two-season commitments on the basis on pitches, for example. He said brands like Showtime that “stand for something” will survive.
Jill Blotevogel, creator and executive producer of the TV version of Scream, tells Michael Pickard how she brought the iconic horror franchise to the small screen.
When Scream was released in 1996, it slayed audiences with its mix of scares, gory killings, sense of humour and its awareness of classic horror movie tropes.
The film was credited with revitalising the horror film genre and – like other classics before it, such as Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street – it spawned several sequels, most recently with Scream 4 in 2011.
Now the film franchise is winning new fans after being adapted for the small screen.
US cable network MTV greenlit a pilot in April 2013 and, produced by The Weinstein Company’s Dimension Films, it was subsequently ordered to series in October last year. The show, which had earlier been teased online after the first eight minutes of the pilot were released, debuted in the US on June 30 this year.
The cast includes Willa Fitzgerald, Amadeus Serafini, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Carlson Young, Connor Weil and John Karna.
Scream’s creator and executive producer Jill Blotevogel, whose credits include CBS murder-mystery Harper’s Island, was brought to the project to write the pilot script and she says Scream is part of a renaissance currently being experienced in TV at the expense of the movie industry.
“It’s a great time to be a writer in Hollywood,” she says. “Features have really become polarised. They only do a few big tentpole movies and some indies so writers who used to be able to express themselves a lot more in features have been flocking to TV, and you’re also seeing this amazing calibre of actors and actresses coming to TV.
“I think it’s a real renaissance in TV and the rise of cable networks trying to make their mark has been the drive behind that.”
Blotevogel says the idea of a Scream series hadn’t initially occurred to MTV executives when they were looking through Dimensions Films’ back catalogue for possible adaptation ideas: “MTV had been speaking to Dimension and Bob Weinstein about properties to develop from his film catalogue. MTV had just done Teen Wolf and had great success with it. They talked about various things and then jokingly said, ‘What about Scream?’ and they both laughed and said, ‘You can’t do that.’
“Then they thought about it for a bit and said, ‘Maybe we can.’ That was the beginning of a two-year journey, where various writers came in to pitch ways to do it.”
However, MTV was yet to find the right fit for its version of Ghostface, the killer clad in the iconic white mask and black robes. Previous writers had brought in supernatural elements to try to bring a new edge to the franchise, but Blotevogel explains that it was essential that what made the original film so popular remained at the heart of the television series.
What she did do, however, was insert contemporary issues, such as the dangers of social media, which she could mould into a modern-day horror story.
“They brought me in a year-and-a-half ago to read the script and pitch what my take would be, and I just said you have to go back to what works about Scream,” she says. “It is a human character, it’s a very visceral thing. You can’t have a ghost in the machine for Scream. It’s a story but it’s not Scream.
“So for me it was finding a way to make what they did in 1996 feel fresh for 2015. Certainly a lot of it came down to how teenagers make themselves vulnerable to technology and social media, and how they don’t even realise how much they’re putting things out there that could be used against them or could open up their lives to someone who they may not want knowing so much about them.
“In the pilot, the idea of putting a sequence in a glasshouse where there’s no place to hide was part of the metaphor we were going for of teenagers making themselves vulnerable and wearing masks.
“We all put out these images of ourselves on social media that may not be our true selves and that was a really good jumping off point for the story, looking to create a big diverse cast where they all have secrets, they all have stories they’re trying to keep hidden.”
With Scream’s success as a slasher film, seeing a large proportion of characters die during its feature-length running time, one of the main challenges to overcome in the adaptation process was keeping true to the spirit of the original without killing off the entire cast.
Blotevogel explains: “The killer is not just slashing and piling up bodies. On a TV series you’ve got to have a longer-term mystery. Your killer has to have a long game in mind, rather than just running round racking up bodies. You can’t have the FBI descend and place a curfew on the town in episode two because then you can’t have the Friday Night Lights part of it, you can’t have the teen drama.
“That’s been the biggest balance taking a slasher movie to TV – finding a way to keep the world normal enough to keep the teen dynamic and your soap opera elements, but also reminding people that it’s Scream.”
Blotevogel’s blend of horror and drama has obviously impressed MTV executives and viewers alike, as last month, midway through Scream’s debut run, the cable channel renewed the show for a second season.
It also revealed that season one had attracted more than 21 million viewers and another 7.9 million streams online.
Announcing the renewal, Mina Lefevre, MTV’s executive VP of series development and head of scripted programming, said: “It has been a wonderful experience working with Bob Weinstein and his team, who are such connoisseurs of this genre, and we are thrilled by how our viewers have responded to the reinvention of Scream. We look forward to another season filled with suspense, horror and more twists and turns.”
Weinstein added: “The Scream franchise has been such a huge part of our history and to watch it evolve, find a new generation of fans and succeed at MTV makes this all the more sweet. We promise even more scares, surprises, romance and of course kills in season two.”
Blotevogel says the show has been mapped out to feature the same story with the same characters in the same town over several seasons.
“You get to go deeper into the story (in every season), but we are going to give you satisfying revelations at the end of every season,” she says. “There are things that will satisfy you and keep you coming back.
“If you think about a show like (AMC drama) The Killing, how that ended its first season was not very satisfying. People did not get the answer that they were looking for. I think a lot of TV shows have learnt their lesson from watching what happened there, and you now know you’ve got to have an ending for season one that still has the potential for the future, and the realisation that it’s not completely over.
“Because we have two levels of mythology in our show – we have the things that happened 20 years ago and the things that are happening in the present day – we have a lot of places to go to. We’ve built in a lot of possibilities knowing we’re going to extend this world.”
The finale of Humans’ first season airs in the UK this weekend and the show continues to do exceptionally well for Channel 4. BARB ratings for the first six episodes show there was an inevitable dip after stellar ratings for the first two parts, but that the show has stayed remarkably consistent since then. From episodes three to six, it recorded between 3.63 million and 3.93 million viewers (seven-day figures) – way ahead of anything else on C4.
With the show now approaching its climax, it would be a major surprise if it didn’t equal or surpass those figures for episodes seven and eight. And then a commission for a second season would look highly likely.
The only cloud on the horizon for Humans is that AMC in the US is not getting such good ratings with the series (which may place a question mark over its involvement in a second season), but the strength of the C4 showing ought to be enough to see it through.
Still in the UK, there was a strong showing for BBC1’s Agatha Christie adaptation Partners In Crime, which attracted 6.5 million viewers for its first episode (Sunday at 21.00). Starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine as amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, the six-part show is the channel’s biggest new drama launch since Poldark, demonstrating that Sunday evening is still a time when audiences like to spend time with familiar faces and brands.
Earlier in July, Sky Atlantic and Showtime announced plans for a third season of gothic horror drama Penny Dreadful. Looking at the final ratings for season two of the show on Sky Atlantic, it’s easy to see why. According to BARB’s seven-day data, the final episode attracted an audience of 544,000 – up from 450,000-500,000 for the previous few episodes.
With Game of Thrones finished for another year, Penny Dreadful became channel’s top-performing drama, some way ahead of The Affair (433,000) and True Detective season two (352,000). In the week following Penny Dreadful’s departure, nothing on Sky Atlantic managed to attract more than 315,000 viewers. The show has also been attracting attention internationally, securing a deal with Australian subscription VoD platform Presto last week.
In the US, MTV is halfway through the first 10-part season of Scream, a horror series that has been spun out of the iconic feature-film franchise. A strong debut saw the show attract six million viewers (live plus three), making it “the most watched new series premiere of the summer on cable with millennials,” according to MTV. In an added bonus, the first episode was also streamed more than 500,000 times on MTV.com and the MTV app.
Since then the ratings have dropped a little but stayed strong enough for MTV to announce a second season. At the midway point, 21 million viewers have tuned in to Scream on air while the series has generated 7.9 million streams across other platforms.
Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s summer event this week, MTV head of scripted programming Mina Lefevre said: “It has been a wonderful experience working with (Scream exec producer) Bob Weinstein and his team, who are such connoisseurs of this genre, and we are thrilled by how viewers have responded to the reinvention of Scream.”
Meanwhile, the US TV industry’s love affair with Scandinavia took a double hit this week. Following the news that Netflix has cancelled Lilyhammer, NBC announced that it has canned eOne’s low-rated comedy Welcome to Sweden. The show, created by Greg Poehler, did moderately well in season one but has fallen away badly in season two, with NBC pulling it from the air after just four editions of its 10-episode run.
Commenting on Instagram, Poehler said: “Due to some craptastically low ratings in the US, WTS is officially done. I am eternally grateful to all of our fans. When you make a show – and write, produce, obsess and act in it – all you want is for someone, somewhere, to tell you they appreciate it. There have been so many of you in both Sweden and the US that have done so, and every compliment has made me immeasurably happy. So, thank you. Thank you, thank you…”
In the Hispanic US market, Telemundo continues to make inroads into the audience share of its major competitor Univision. DQ reported on the success of El Senor de los Cielos last week, and now Telemundo says the finale of Tierra de Reyes (Land of Honor) attracted 2.39 million total viewers.
This helped make Telemundo the number-one Spanish-language network in primetime, beating Univision. It has also just launched Bajo el Mismo Cielo (Under the Same Sky), the story of a hard-working Mexican immigrant who crosses the border illegally and settles with his family in LA. Episode one attracted 1.72 million viewers and also hit 3.3 million global Facebook users with a 30-minute preview.
On the corporate front, the TV market is waiting to see the implications of the US$1bn merger between Banijay Group and Zodiak Media (announced this week). Between them, the two companies own approximately 45 prodcos.
While there are some complementary areas between the two businesses, there is also a lot of overlap in markets like the US, France and Scandinavia. In drama terms, the deal brings together companies including Touchpaper (UK), Yellow Bird (Scandinavia), Magnolia (Italy), Marathon Media (France), DLO Producciones (Spain) and Screentime (Australia and New Zealand).
Finally, this week’s big corporate ‘miss’ is Ryan Kavanaugh’s film and TV studio Relativity Media, which has filed for bankruptcy after racking up $320m in unpaid loans. Kavanaugh’s next-generation studio model, with its strong emphasis on data analysis, enthralled the industry for a few years but in the end couldn’t survive a number of high-profile box-office failures.
Speaking at Mipcom in 2013, Kavanaugh expressed his intention to get more into the TV business, expounding his theory that films “are perhaps the greatest TV pilots ever.” His goal at that stage was to sell five or six TV series properties a year. However, this never came to pass. The main TV titles to come out of Relativity have been National Geographic’s Act of Valor and Limitless, a spin-off of the Bradley Cooper-starring movie in the form of a series will soon air on CBS.
Viacom’s portfolio of adult-targeted cable channels doesn’t look like an obvious place to find original scripted shows. But, keen not to be left behind in the drama arms race, Viacom brands such as MTV, Spike, CMT and BET are spending heavily on the genre.
MTV’s investment in The Shannara Chronicles and Scream is regarded by many as the channel’s biggest editorial shake-up since it launched in 1981. And now Spike – already committed to Tut – has unveiled plans for a major increase in the number of series it has on air.
In an announcement last week, Spike said its new development slate spans “a wide range of genres and periods, all of it character-driven material set in unique, compelling worlds. These include series about an occupied American heartland during World War III, a family living in a world without privacy, the Gilded Age pioneers of criminal defence law, and medical researchers pushing the boundaries of ethics and legality.”
Sharon Levy, exec VP of original series at Spike, added: “Our slate is indicative of our goal to be a network that creates high-quality and dynamic scripted entertainment with a distinctive edge and point of view.”
The title that has attracted most attention is World War III, which imagines the US as an occupied territory. This is a popular theme at the moment, with titles such as Occupied, SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle also in the works at the moment.
Spike’s project centres on “one man with a troubled past (who) will galvanise a resistance movement, calling upon ordinary citizens to become the extraordinary heroes of WWIII.”
The series is executive produced by Hollywood director Bryan Singer and written by creators Aaron and Matthew Benay. Singer’s involvement is particularly noteworthy, given his strong track record that includes House, Dirty Sexy Money and the X-Men movie franchise.
Spike’s other scripted shows in development include psychological horror series Bad Medicine, dystopian thriller Secret America and Mr In Between, which focuses on a high-stakes courier who traffics sensitive information between people for whom privacy is a matter of life and death, and which perhaps echoes the Transporter franchise.
There is also a period drama called Hummel & Howe. Set in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century in New York City, this series showcases the lives of William Howe and Abraham Hummel – two criminals desperate to escape their past who become the greatest criminal defence attorneys in American history. The series is written by Andy Bellin, whose main credits to date are the movies Trust and Lovelace.
Meanwhile, Spike will be waiting anxiously on the ratings for the first episode of Tut, which aired yesterday (July 19). Early indications from IMDb are that the audience was lukewarm about the opening episode, with a modest 7.8 rating based on 112 users, but we’ll get a clearer picture when the overnights come in.
Across the pond, indie producer Bentley Productions has been asked by broadcaster ITV to make Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, a two-hour special based on a novel by Neil Spring.
Commissioned by Steve November and Victoria Fea, the story begins when a fraudulent ghost hunter is asked to investigate the haunting of the home of a local politician, whose wife will be committed to an asylum if he fails to succeed.
All3Media-owned Bentley is best known as the producer of crime drama mega-hit Midsomer Murders (which has run for 17 seasons and been sold to 225 territories), so it will hope Ghost Hunter can inherit some of that show’s longevity. The task of writing the TV feature has fallen to Jack Lothian, whose credits include Doc Martin, Death in Paradise and Ashes to Ashes.
While various movies have been loosely based on William Shakespeare’s life (Shakespeare In Love and Anonymous spring to mind), the Bard rarely comes up as the subject of a TV series. Now former eOne executive Patrice Théroux and producer Leif Bristow plan to change that with a six-part miniseries about the playwright’s attempt to balance his work life in London with family life in Stratford-upon-Avon. Writer Shane Connaughton (My Left Foot) has been signed up to pen the series, which is called The Family Shakespeare.
In terms of renewals and pickups, one interesting story this week is that Seven Network in Australia has acquired forthcoming US series Heroes Reborn, a continuation of popular NBC sci-fi drama Heroes. Seven also aired the original series between 2008 and 2010, starting in a primetime slot on Seven but ending its life on digital sister channel 7Two. The plan is for the new series to come into Seven’s schedule as quickly as possible after the launch in the US, which is targeted for late September. Other new US dramas heading to Seven at around the same time are The Player and Quantico.
Meanwhile, US renewal news includes ABC Family’s decision to give a second season to Stitchers, an original drama series in which a young woman is recruited into a covert government agency to be ‘stitched’ into the minds of the recently deceased, using their memories to investigate murders and decipher mysteries that otherwise would have gone to the grave. The show is doing well among young female viewers – always a big positive for cable channels.
Karey Burke, ABC Family exec VP of programming and development, said: “Fans are enjoying the camaraderie of the Stitchers team and a lead character who is unapologetically smart, focused and a great role model to young women.”
On the corporate front, this week’s big story is that Israeli firm Keshet International has opened a studio in Los Angeles that will oversee the development, production and sale of scripted shows in the US. Former Fox director of programming Peter Traugott has been named president of scripted at the company, which will be called Keshet Studios. He will report to Keshet International CEO Alon Shtruzman. Also on board is Rachel Kaplan as executive VP.
Following on from the success of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, which was remade as Homeland in the US, Shtruzman says: “Keshet Studios was a natural progression for our expanding business and we are thrilled to have an official home base in the States with executives who share our programming sensibility. Peter and Rachel both have tremendous instincts for developing and producing compelling and innovative scripted TV. Coupled with (Keshet CEO) Avi Nir’s creative vision and the prolific Israeli-international pipeline, Keshet Studios is set to significantly grow our US slate.”
The streets of San Diego will soon be filled with superheroes and comic book characters as the 45th Comic-Con International descends on the city. Once regarded as a niche event for comic geeks and sci-fi nerds, the event, which takes place from July 9-12, now attracts a staggering 130,000 visitors.
Aimed primarily at fans of graphic novels, superhero and sci-fi franchises, video games and animation series, Comic-Con is viewed as an important opportunity to engage with the kind of key influencers that drive more mainstream audience tastes. For this reason, it’s an event content owners dare not miss.
This year, every TV studio worth its salt will be in San Diego with projects that they believe match the Comic-Con profile. MTV, for example, is in town with long-running drama Teen Wolf and two upcoming series – Scream and The Shannara Chronicles. Like Teen Wolf, Scream is a movie spin-off, while Shannara is a fantasy series based on the best-selling books by Terry Brooks.
Underlining the seriousness with which broadcasters now take the event, MTV’s presence at Comic-Con will consist of a branded booth, sessions and visits by show-related talent including Tyler Posey, Dylan O’Brien, Bella Thorne, John Rhys Davies and Austin Butler. In the case of Shannara, for example, Brooks will join the cast and production team in a Q&A session where a first-look trailer will be shown.
Separately, MTV will also host the second annual MTV Fandom Awards, which honour diehard fans whose excitement has pushed movies, TV shows, books and comics from subculture to mainstream worldwide success in the past year.
Jostling with MTV for attention will be TNT, which is showcasing The Last Ship and Falling Skies. In addition to sessions with cast and production teams, TNT’s offering will include an Oculus Rift virtual-reality experience that will transport fans into The Last Ship’s fictional universe, where they must board a cargo ship taken over by ‘Immunes’ (immune survivors of a deadly plague that has nearly destroyed the entire population of the planet).
Not surprisingly, fellow cable channel Syfy will also have a high-profile presence at the event, with shows such as The Expanse, Childhood’s End, 12 Monkeys, Dominion and Z Nation, and movie Sharknado 3, in attendance. A good indicator of the emphasis placed on Comic-Con is that Syfy will use it to air a screening of the first two episodes of Dominion season two, with episode two airing one week before it premieres on Syfy.
In the case of Childhood’s End, based on the Arthur C Clarke novel, the cast will join screenwriter Matthew Graham (Doctor Who) as he discusses the transition to screen.
Also seeking the spotlight alongside MTV, TNT and Syfy will be FX, which is bringing a broad slate including Archer, American Horror Story: Hotel, Scream Queens, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, The Strain, and Kurt Sutter’s new project The Bastard Executioner. In a session entitled the FX TV Block, the channel will present a sneak preview of Sutter’s new series, due to debut this autumn.
BBC America’s contribution to the event is a Doctor Who session featuring lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat and the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, who is making his first Comic-Con appearance. Capaldi said: “Tales of San Diego Comic-Con are told in awe on every set around the known fantasy/sci-fi production world. It’s become a fabled kingdom. (Appearing there) is a further twist to the cosplay and comic madness I may never recover from.”
While the above channels inhabit the basic cable market, all of the key competitive sets are in attendance. Premium cable channel Showtime is in San Diego with Penny Dreadful (recently recommissioned for a third season), while its putative rival Starz is bringing Outlander and its hotly anticipated Evil Dead reboot Ash vs Evil Dead. The latter is currently in production in New Zealand and will premiere in the autumn as a 10-part series. It is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, who were all involved in the original franchise and will be at Comic-Con along with series co-star Lucy Lawless.
As for Showtime and Starz’ key rival HBO, the cablenet will bring a swathe of Games of Thrones stars to Comic-Con. There will also be an outing for Outcasts, a new series debuting on HBO sister service Cinemax. A Comic-Con panel focused on the show – which is based on the Skybound/Image comic and produced by Fox International Studios – will include executive producers Robert Kirkman and Chris Black, as well as various cast members.
Among the big four US networks, CBS is bringing its biggest panel line-up ever – featuring talent behind the likes of Limitless, Zoo, Extant, Scorpion, and Under the Dome. Illustrating the emphasis placed on in-event marketing, CBS has organised a Limitless café where attendees can get complimentary coffee, ‘Limitless’ refills, phone-charging services and free wifi. There will also be a screening of the first episode of the new show, which is based on the Bradley Cooper-starring movie.
ABC, meanwhile, is bringing hit series Once Upon a Time and newcomer The Muppets, while sister division Marvel will have its own dedicated conference activities to discuss Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, Marvel’s Agent Carter and other upcoming projects.
NBC’s line-up includes Heroes Reborn, Blindspot, The Player, Hannibal, and Grimm. In the case of the Heroes reboot, there will be a panel featuring creator Tim Kring plus various production and cast members. Alongside a trailer, NBC is promising a Heroes Reborn “4D interactive experience where fans will have the opportunity to access their own pyro-kinetic ability. Through a multi-sensory experience of interactive visuals and kinetic effects, fans will enter the world of Heroes Reborn and use their power with fire to escape a dangerous scenario.” Ooh err.
20th Century Fox’s focus will be on Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse, while Warner Bros will headline with Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, Gotham and animation series Teen Titans Go!
Reiterating the effort put into in-event marketing, Warner Bros is featuring these characters on 40,000 limited-edition hotel keycards at top hotels in the San Diego area. In terms of the event itself, a big focal point is Warner Bros Television Presents a Night of DC Entertainment, a three-hour session that will feature a pilot screening of new action series Supergirl, followed by a Q&A with stars and producers.
So what does it all amount to? Well, the truth is that there is no concrete evidence that a strong showing at Comic-Con influences the performance of a show once it hits the screen. But ignoring the impact of pre-launch social media commentary from fanboys and journalists is just too big a risk to take. So the best advice is – pull on your Supergirl cape and go enjoy the party.