Tag Archives: Sharon Levy

Viewers fine with the end of the world

The Leftovers
Despite critical acclaim and a cult following, The Leftovers is far from certain for renewal on HBO

Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.

I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.

At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.

Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”

For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.

Damon Lindelof
Damon Lindelof

Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.

Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.

Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”

Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike

Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.

Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.

“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”

Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End hits screens next week

Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.

Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.

As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy  is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).

Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.

James Patterson
James Patterson

The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.

Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.

As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.

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Spike leads sharp increase in Viacom drama

Egyptian drama Tut has just launched on Spike
Egyptian drama Tut has just launched on Spike

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.”

X-Men director Bryan Singer is exec producing Spike's World War III
X-Men director Bryan Singer is exec producing Spike’s World War III

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.

ITV's Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is being adapted from a novel by Neil Spring
ITV’s Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is being adapted from a novel by Neil Spring

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.

Stitchers performs well among young female viewers
Stitchers, which has just been given a second season, performs well among young female viewers

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.”

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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