Set in 43AD, anarchic drama Britannia follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
David Morrissey stars as Roman general Aulus, alongside Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid and Mackenzie Crook.
In this DQTV interview, Morrissey reveals what drew him to the unusual role and how he was captivated by the show’s stunning set design.
The actor and executive producer James Richardson also discuss working with co-creator Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright behind Jerusalem and The Ferryman, and explain why this isn’t just another historical drama.
Britannia is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video in the US. Sky Vision is the distributor.
As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air.
For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.
The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.
Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?
Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.
“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”
That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.
HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”
The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”
When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.
“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”
UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).
“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”
As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”
“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.
“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”
Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.
“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers. We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”
Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.
Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.
“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”
The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.
“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”
Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.
“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”
A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.
What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.
“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”
Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.
Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”
Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”
Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”
Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”
Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.
When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.
In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.
But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.
“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.
“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”
In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.
All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.
“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”
That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.
“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”
Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.
“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.
“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”
At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.
“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”
Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.
“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”
Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”
Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”
With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.
“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.
“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”
Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.
“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”
Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.
The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.
Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.
Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.
“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”
Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”
Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.
“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”
With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”
The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”
And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”
The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.
“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”
In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”
Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.
“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”
Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.
“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”
Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.
“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”
In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”
This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”
And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”
For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”
Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.
Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.
They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.
Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.
Tony Grisoni enthuses about the merits of collaboration as he discusses career highlights including Southcliffe and Red Riding and reveals more about new projects The City & The City and Philip K Dick anthology Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
The best thing and the worst thing about being a screenwriter is that it takes a lot of people to make a film – it’s no good unless it’s actually made into something,” Tony Grisoni (pictured above), the award-winning writer of The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding and Southcliffe, explains thoughtfully. “I love that social part, that collaboration, but if you’re spending a lot of time writing and nothing’s happening, it can be tough.”
It’s fair to say that’s not a problem the 64-year-old Grisoni faces too often these days. Since his breakthrough feature Queen of Hearts back in 1989, he’s had something produced at least once every year – from 1998’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, through 2009/10’s purple patch of Red Riding and Southcliffe, to his collaboration with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope.
And yet one crucial part of his overall writing process effectively depends on dry spells – his unpaid collaborations with conceptual artists like sculptor Brian Catling. “There’s no money involved – it’s just somewhere to play,” he says, grinning widely. “We’ll make the kind of films no one would commission. But the important thing is that it stirs the cauldron. There are lots of ideas that begin there – in Southcliffe there’s an old lady with Alzheimer’s who had her beginnings in a piece I did with an artist Oona Grimes, for instance. It keeps you alive and it keeps you inventing.”
It’s the kind of spirit that took him from sound assistant, through production manager, to runner, then assistant director on commercials and music videos across the 1970s and 1980s. “I spent my spare time writing ideas for films, or sometimes collaging images, and I shot bits of Super 8,” he explains. “It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people. Then a friend who had risen up the ranks got me a commission, but it was five years before Queen of Hearts got made.”
Queen of Hearts’ story of Italians immigrants wasn’t exactly autobiographical but it was rooted in a lifetime of research growing up in London’s Italian community. Since then, deep research has been the core of half of Grisoni’s work. In 2001, he made the trek along the people-smuggling route from the Pakistan/Afghan border, through Iran and Turkey, to Europe with director Michael Winterbottom.
“When Michael said he wanted a refugee journey shot documentary-style with non-professional actors – or what we call real people – it meant I had to think carefully about the writing,” he recalls. “How are you going to write dialogue when they can’t deliver it? The starting point was to meet a lot of people who had been smuggled overland into London. Then we went out and tested the route – dangerous things happened to us and I thought that was such an exciting way to write, because instead of me making stuff, it’s about real experiences.”
The resulting film, In This World, won the 2002 Berlinale Golden Bear. Similar research infused 2008’s Kingsland, a collection of short films that Grisoni directed as well as wrote, based on a gang fight in his Hackney neighbourhood. Even the modern gothic thriller Southcliffe was based on his research into shooting sprees such as those that occurred in Hungerford (1967) and Dunblane (1996).
“I started with the idea of writing a series set in Faversham, a market town in Kent, and I wanted to explore how a community coped with a number of people dying in this small town,” Grisoni explains. “The most interesting thing was to have someone from within the community have executed these people – it makes it more complex. All credit to Channel 4, they agreed to that when I didn’t know if it was three, four or five parts. I didn’t know what happened, I knew a lot of people died and that was kind of it.”
From Southcliffe’s first draft, the writer opted to identify the killer in the first scene – “because it was about how it happened, not who did it,” he explains. “I knew that if you saw someone doing something atrocious and then you saw him repairing a radiator, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him. That non-linear approach engages me as a viewer because I’ve become part of the storytelling. I’m not just being fed stuff; I’m trying to puzzle it out.”
If research is roughly half Grisoni’s writing practice, adaptations are effectively the other half. “I think it’s unlikely that a production company will come to me with an idea they’ve researched as a package and say, ‘Are you up for this?’” he explains. “I find it very difficult to get into those projects. I always feel they’ve been very thought out by someone else. But if someone brings me a book and asks if I’m interested then it could happen.”
For Grisoni’s remarkable Red Riding trilogy, that’s exactly what took place. “I knew Anne Reid and Revolution Films after In This World,” he says. “They came with this quartet of books by David Peace and asked if I was interested in adapting them. I started reading the first one. It’s difficult to describe them, they’re so angry and they’re full of literary experiment but they’re also exciting, with images that repel you but draw you in at the same time. I was scared of them, to be honest, and so I said I’d only do the first one.
“Then I kept reading and had conversations over meals and drinks and, finally, I gave in and did them all. I just waded in and started to take the books to pieces. It helps to have someone – a producer – who’s on top of the books and effectively plots which character is where for you, who you can check in with every day. That’s the main thing about adapting.”
Grisoni clearly loves working on books that would scare other writers. His version of the China Mieville novel The City & The City – which will air on the BBC as a four-part drama later in 2017 – is a case in point. “It’s a noir-ish detective story in two cities – one Eastern European and crumbling, and one all glass and steel. But they coexist in the same geographical space,” he grins. “The populations of each city know it’s a sin to see the other. Once you’ve got that wrinkle, you’ve got your detective story and it becomes very interesting and very complex. And almost impossible to adapt, by the way,” he bursts out laughing. “That’s when you need a good director to fix everything.”
If Grisoni likes working with good directors, they love working with him. He’s written for and with Monty Python member Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. “Working with Terry is like a hard play,” he nods. “For Fear & Loathing he’d seen loads of scripts – including one by Hunter S Thompson [the author of the autobiographical novel] – but he didn’t like them, so we tore the book in half. He took the front half and I took the second half and we collaged it. When we needed lines or events or anything, we took them from the book. It’s about people trusting you, people being willing to take a risk.”
Grisoni also wrote the script for Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a movie that famously collapsed back in 2000 while a documentary crew were following the making of the film. “Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were documenting us not making this film – there was one point where it was clearly collapsing and they said to Terry, who was mic’d up all the time, do you want us to stop filming?” Grisoni recalls. “He said, ‘No, someone has to get a film out of this.’”
The resulting 2002 doc – Lost in La Mancha – appealed to Grisoni and he worked with Fulton and Pepe on Brothers of the Head, a dark tale of conjoined twins. “But Don Quixote is finally due to shoot next year – I’ve been re-writing it twice a year for the past 17 years and the script’s getting OK now,” he laughs.
If there’s one project that knits together all Grisoni’s technique and learning, it’s his contribution to Channel 4’s forthcoming Philip K Dick anthology series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. His script is part research, part adaptation and part lived experience. And, in a way, he’s been working on it for years.
“Ages ago I came across a Philip K Dick interview about a story he hadn’t got around to writing, about a really crap film composer who’s kidnapped by aliens so fascinated by sound that they biochip one of their kind into his head and send him back out into the world where he starts to compose amazing avant garde music,” Grisoni explains enthusiastically. “I wanted to write that story and dovetail Philip K Dick’s life with it, so I went to California and met his five ex-wives and his friends, and [visited] the places where he saw God.
“It was the most intensive bit of research I’d ever done. Towards the end I was staying with ex-wife three and every time I used the bathroom there was this frog sitting watching me. On the last day, I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s something about that frog’s face that looks a bit like Phil K Dick.’ The moment I thought that, the frog just disappeared and I thought, ‘I have to go home now, this project is too much.’”
Recently, Sony and Channel 4 approached Grisoni to contribute to the anthology – “and I’ve never written anything faster,” he grins. “It’s purely because that frog story was there waiting to go into something. Very often someone gives you a book or suggests something and you pick up on it because it connects with something you were thinking earlier but just couldn’t crack,” he smiles. “That’s the other best/worst thing about being a screenwriter – everything is material.”
For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.
For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.
Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.
The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”
Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.
Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.
NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.
Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.
And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.
In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.
It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer. Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”
For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.
Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.
The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.
Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.
Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.
Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.
Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).
Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”
FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.
One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.
It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.
More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.
Anyone familiar with the work of UK writer Jez Butterworth will know that he has established his reputation primarily through theatre and film.
Although he co-wrote a couple of short films for ITV and Channel 4 in the early 1990s (both with his brother Tom), his breakthrough moments were the 1995 play Mojo and the 2001 movie Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman. Subsequently, career landmarks include the play Jerusalem (2008) and movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass and Spectre.
Now, however, he is set to make a major impact on the small screen as writer of Britannia, the first coproduction between Sky and Amazon. The lavish 10-part drama will star Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, The Hollow Crown), Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Stanley Weber (Outlander).
Butterworth will again team up with his brother (who has already established his reputation as a TV writer with Fortitude and Tin Star), as well as Richard McBrien (Spooks, Merlin), on the writing.
According to Sky, Britannia is “set in 43AD as the Roman Imperial Army – determined and terrified in equal measure – returns to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.”
The series is shooting on location in Prague and Wales and will appear on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video in the US in 2017. International distribution rights (excluding the US) for Britannia will be handled by Sky distribution arm Sky Vision.
Commenting on the show, Butterworth said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic. Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned round and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back. I’m fascinated in what happens when gods die. When an entire, ancient faith stalls, topples, collapses – and a whole new one grows in its place. New names, new faces, to suit the new times. Here we have a war between two pantheons – the Roman gods v the Celtic gods. It’s the heavyweight clash of all time, the one which most shapes who we are today. And we see it all from a human perspective, of individual survival, ambition, courage, lust, loss, revenge. All the stuff the gods have always loved us humans for the most!”
Another high-profile writer in the news this week is Patrick Harbinson. Although Harbinson’s most recent credit is as a writer-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, he is actually a Brit who broke into the business writing episodes of UK dramas Soldier Soldier and Heartbeat. Since then, he has managed to carve out an impressive career working on both US and UK series such as Person of Interest, Lewis, 24, The Day of the Triffids, Wire in the Blood, Dark Angel and Hornblower.
Now he is working with producer Mammoth Screen on a six-part series for ITV entitled Fearless. The show, starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), centres on Emma Blunt, a solicitor known for defending lost causes. She is investigating the killing of a schoolgirl in East Anglia and trying to free the man she thinks was wrongly convicted of the girl’s murder. But as she digs deeper, she begins to sense powerful forces, in the police and the intelligence services at home and abroad, who want to stop her uncovering the truth. Harbinson calls Fearless “a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide.”
Harbinson said he was first approached by Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer three years ago: “[He] asked me if I was interested in writing a legal series inspired by the work of lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Helena Kennedy. I immediately said yes. Much of the work I’ve done in America in the last 10 years has been about life in the post-9/11 world. The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the ordinary workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach – and the great majority of us are prepared to accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions, who fights for those outside the normal run of society, and who is uncompromising, difficult and indifferent to unpopularity and danger. The result was Emma Blunt and Fearless.
“I’m delighted Helen McCrory has agreed to play Emma. She is a complex and contradictory character, and I am lucky to have someone of Helen’s wit, warmth and intelligence bringing her to life.”
Fearless will be produced by Adrian Sturges (Houdini and Doyle, The Enfield Haunting, The Disappearance of Alice Creed). Filming will begin in London and East Anglia in September 2016.
Butterworth and Harbinson are currently two of the film and TV industry’s most in-demand writers. However, breaking into the industry in the first place continues to be a struggle for most. One company that has a good track record for unearthing diverse new talent, however, is Disney-ABC though its writing programme.
Organised on an annual basis, the Disney-ABC writing programme accepts submissions from May and selects writers in around December. These writers then participate in a one-year programme that starts in February. If they turn out well, then they are given jobs on Disney-ABC series, examples being Veena Sud (The Killing, Cold Case) and George Mastras (Breaking Bad).
This week, Disney-ABC announced today that all eight of the writers selected for the 2016 programme have been given jobs on TV series. These include Dayo Adesokan (Downward Dog), Amanda Idoko (Imaginary Mary), Andrew Mathieson (Dr Ken), Ron McCants (Speechless), Miguel Ian Raya (Famous In Love), Janine Salinas Schoenberg (American Crime), Christina Walker (Still Star-Crossed) and Jeffery Wang (Notorious).
Commenting on this year’s bumper crop, Tim McNeal, VP of creative talent development and inclusion at Disney-ABC Television Group, said: “We’re proud that our selection of writers proved appealing to not only creative executives but also showrunners.”
One particularly impressive aspect of the programme is the number of writers who continue to build their career after that initial lift-off. For the coming year, 50 alumni will be employed at various levels in the industry, from staff writers to executive producers. Zahir McGhee, for example, is co-exec producer on ABC’s Scandal.
“Just as we pride ourselves by introducing new diverse voices to the creative process at the lower level, we find it equally rewarding to champion the staffing of programme alumni as a means to career longevity,” said McNeal.
In another piece of Disney news, its Freeform channel (formerly known as ABC Family) has greenlit a new scripted pilot called Issues. Inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, it follows three young women who set out to conquer New York City together.
Issues is the brainchild of Sarah Watson, who worked for more than 100 episodes on NBC’s Parenthood, rising from mid-level staff writer to executive producer during that time. Having broken into the business on That’s So Raven (2004), she then worked on shows like Monarch Cove, The Unusuals and About a Boy before her career-transforming six-season stint on Parenthood.
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
As HBO says goodbye to Game of Thrones for another year – and edges closer to the show’s end – it’s time for the storied network to look towards life after Westeros.
With the sixth season of Game of Thrones (GoT, pictured top) now concluded, rumours abound that the final two chapters of the fantasy drama may only run to a total of 13 episodes. It’s time for HBO to contemplate life after Westeros.
For HBO (and other channels that air the series, like Sky Atlantic in the UK), the prospect of saying goodbye to such a ratings juggernaut must be daunting, with thoughts of what – if anything – can take its place.
Doubts have been raised about the appeal of some HBO’s upcoming slate of shows. Sci-fi series Westworld and 1970s/80s New York-set porn industry drama The Deuce (from The Wire’s David Simon) should attract high sampling, but others may fall by the wayside.
Succession, about a super-rich dynastic American family, and Somali-American drama Mogadishu, Minnesota could find less traction, as might historical miniseries Lewis & Clark and American Lion (starring Sean Penn as the seventh US president, Andrew Jackson), which might struggle outside the US.
Back in 2008, the UK’s Channel 4 played HBO’s other presidential biopic miniseries, John Adams, to critical praise but few viewers.
For Sky Atlantic, some of HBO’s more US-centric shows – such as public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, Olive Kitteridge, The Brink and the recently cancelled Vinyl – have failed to resonate with viewers.
Political dramas based on real-life events such as Game Change, Too Big To Fail and Recount have also struggled to connect with audiences outside the US, as have biopics You Don’t Know Jack (about assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kervorkian), Temple Grandin (the autistic inventor of the ‘hug box’) and Phil Spector (the famous The Beatles producer now in prison for murder).
So for Sky Atlantic, GoT is an essential part of its long-running deal with HBO, wisely beefed up earlier this year by a similar agreement with Showtime.
Returning to the show itself, its approaching end in 2018 has prompted inevitable speculation about a possible prequel, with two distinct possibilities.
Through the visions of the Three-Eyed Crow (played by Max Von Sydow) and other flashbacks, season six has already given us tantalising glimpses of King Robert’s rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, including Ned Stark’s epic duel with Ser Arthur Dayne and Jamie Lannister’s slaying of Aerys.
For a GoT fan, the prospect of seeing the young (non-corpulent) Robert Baratheon and his deadly clash with Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford must be enticing, as well as earlier incarnations of Tywin Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Arryn, the latter seen only as a corpse in the series.
Another possibility would be to adapt other work from GoT author George RR Martin. Novella series Tales of Dunk & Egg, set 90 years before the events of the books on which GoT is based, is somewhat lighter in tone. The stories provide further insights into the complicated world of Westeros and how the seeds of rebellion were planted decades before Robert Baratheon began his campaign to oust the Targaryens and avenge the ‘abduction’ of Lyanna Stark.
If so, will current showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss be heavily involved, or will they take a backseat and explore other, non-Martin projects?
Furthermore, will the success of the show prompt HBO to develop works in similar territory? This is a risky path but one that may be worth treading, despite the inevitable comparisons to GoT.
After all, GoT started well but it only become a phenomenon in season three, a fact that may persuade HBO to persist with the long haul involved in commissioning another serious fantasy show.
Other networks’ attempts to exploit the success of GoT with dramas of a similar style have had varying levels of success.
History’s Vikings has carved out a distinct identity and proved a ratings winner, but others have paled in comparison, including The Bastard Executioner (FX), Beowulf (ITV/Esquire), The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America), The White Queen (BBC1/STARZ) and ABC’s Of Kings & Prophets – all of which have failed to ignite the same interest as GoT.
Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the books on which The Last Kingdom is based, took a swipe at HBO’s fantasy behemoth in the Radio Times, saying of the show: “This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all, they’re called ‘sex-planations’ in the trade. My programmes won’t need sex-planations.”
Sky and BBC1 are going back to the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery well, with The Last Dragonslayer and Troy: Fall of a City respectively, but industry expectations are currently not especially high for either show.
Long-gestating plans for a film followed by a TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s popular Dark Tower series of novels have now been abandoned solely in favour of a cycle of movies, with stars including Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey attached.
There are also a number of serious fantasy novels in development as series; the trick for HBO will be to order something that shares some of GoT’s DNA without being a copycat. Perhaps a fresh take on a known property may do the trick.
Could there be mileage in looking at ‘classics’ of the fantasy genre that could benefit from a new HBO-style spin without the accusations of aping the GoT formula?
Possibly one of Robert E Howard’s characters Conan, Kull and Soloman Kane, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, which has a legion of fans despite the poorly received 2012 movie adaptation titled John Carter. Maybe even Michael Moorcock’s lesser-known Elric could also get a TV spin.
After all, Elric’s blade is referenced in GoT – when the obnoxious King Joffrey Baratheon is presented with a new sword at his wedding feast, he asks the crowd what should he name it, and someone shouts out “Stormbringer.”
For a more female-skewing audience, Ursula K Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels, which possess a unique aesthetic, clearly distinguishable from the world of GoT, could be worth a pop. Syfy’s 2005 miniseries did little justice to the books and was quickly forgotten.
To some minds, HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus acted as trailblazers for GoT – perhaps HBO will return to the apparently shelved remake of I Claudius.
With their dynastic blood-letting, perversion and intrigue, the time may well be ripe for a big-budget take on Robert Graves’ novels.
The scripted TV business received another boost this week with the news that YouTube has moved into original scripted programming for the first time.
Unveiling a slate of six shows across a range of genres, it revealed that its paid-for service YouTube Red has ordered a TV adaptation of Step Up, the popular street dance movie franchise that featured Channing Tatum.
The series, to be made by Lionsgate TV, will follow dancers in a contemporary performing arts school. Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum, who starred in the original movie, will executive produce.
So far, the US$10-per-month service has focused on shows starring top YouTubers such as Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie. However, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has given a strong indication that scripted content will play an increasingly big part in her plans.
Unveiling the slate, which also included a scripted comedy called Rhett & Link’s Buddy System, she said original series and movies are one of the leading drivers of YouTube Red subscriptions, “with viewership that rivals similar cable shows.” Interestingly, more than half of people watching Red originals are doing so via mobile phones – suggesting there may be a future for vertical video.
Still in the world of streamers, SVoD behemoth Netflix announced that it is backing a true crime drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.
The novel follows Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant living in Canada who, along with stablehand James McDermott, was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employers. The six-part miniseries will be written and produced by Sarah Polley and will air on Canadian public broadcaster CBC in Canada. Netflix will stream it worldwide.
Also this week, JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has linked up with US talkshow host Tavis Smiley on a miniseries about the death of music icon Michael Jackson.
The series is based on Smiley’s book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days. Abrams and Smiley are also working on a TV version of the Smiley’s 2014 book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for ITV’s pay TV channel ITV Encore, which has announced a series renewal and a miniseries commission. The renewal is for Rainmark Films’ well-received period drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which stars Sean Bean and was created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford.
Billed as a “thrilling and terrifying reimaging of the Frankenstein story,” the first season followed detective John Marlott, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo who was battling his own demons and is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. In pursuit of a chilling and diabolical killer, Marlott’s investigation took him into the most exalted rooms and darkest corners of Georgian London, a world of body snatchers, anatomists and scientists whose interests came together in the market for dead bodies.
The new series has been commissioned for ITV by controller of drama Victoria Fea and commissioning editor Sarah Conroy. Production is set to begin in Northern Ireland in January 2017.
“We are thrilled to be working once more with Sean Bean in the role of John Marlott, who is a returning hero like no other,” said executive producer Tracey Scoffield. “With the continued support of ITV and (the show’s distributor) Endemol Shine International we want to be more ambitious than ever.”
ITV also announced a new two-hour crime thriller for ITV Encore entitled Dark Heart. In this production, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s Demon, Monroe) plays Will Wagstaffe, a workaholic detective leading the investigation into the deaths of two unconvicted paedophiles.
The two-hour drama, set in London, is written by acclaimed writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten, A Mother’s Son) and based on the novel Suffer the Children by Adam Creed.
Dark Heart is an ITV Studios production for ITV Encore. It is executive produced by Lang, Kate Bartlett (Jericho, Vera) and Michael Dawson (Vera, Holby City). The producer is Chris Clough (The Missing, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) and the director is Colin Teague (Jekyll & Hyde, Da Vinci’s Demons).
ITV Studios’ Bartlett said: “Chris Lang has written a truly compelling and atmospheric script. Adam Creed created a fascinating character in Will Wagstaffe with so many layers, and Chris has brilliantly brought him to screen. We’re thrilled Tom Riley is playing him.”
Still on the subject of novel adaptations, there are reports this week that Endemol Shine-owned drama label Kudos has picked up the rights to Robert Harris’s best-selling Ancient Rome-based Cicero Trilogy, which comprises the novels Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator. No broadcaster is attached and Kudos is yet to decide on the format of the adaptation, but the project is likely to attract interest given the calibre of those involved.
In a busy week for new production announcements, pan-European satellite broadcaster Sky and Germany’s Bavaria Film announced that they are developing a €25m (US$27.5m) TV series based on the classic wartime submariner novels Das Boot and Die Festung by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. The series is being set up as a sequel to the 1981 film version of Buchmein’s novels.
Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the eight-hour series will focus mainly on the German point of view as submarine warfare became increasingly ferocious. Tony Saint (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (The Tunnel, The Spiegel Affair) have been signed up as head writers, while Oliver Vogel and Moritz Polter are attached as executive producers.
Christian Franckenstein, CEO of Bavaria Film, said: “The 1981 film Das Boot is unique, and we are approaching our work with the greatest of respect for this masterpiece. We want to build on the strong brand of Das Boot, telling the story in a contemporary manner by making use of every filmmaking and storytelling technique available to us.”
Still in Germany, UFA Fiction has just unveiled plans to make a film biopic based on the lives of magicians Siegfried and Roy, two of the few truly global celebrities Germany has ever produced.
The film, which will likely be extended into a miniseries for television, will be directed by Philipp Stölzl (Winnetou, Young Goethe in Love, North Face) and scripted by Jan Berger.
Nico Hofmann, UFA producer and co-CEO, commented: “The prospect of working with Siegfried and Roy is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. It’s not only the story of two Germans who became world famous but a plunge into the world of magic and illusion. The lifework of Siegfried and Roy derives from an almost inexhaustible store of energy and creativity. This is the story of two men who set new, never repeated standards in the tough world of show business.”
Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Uwe Horn met on a cruise ship in 1960, where they developed their first joint show, driven by their shared passion for the art of magic and illusion. They had their international breakthrough in 1966 at a charity show in Monte Carlo. From 1990, they had their own show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas featuring white tigers, which became their trademark. The spectacular Siegfried and Roy Show was one of the most elaborate stage shows ever. On October 3, 2003, however, the artists’ unique career was brought to an abrupt halt when Roy was critically injured by his favourite tiger, Montecore.
Alongside all of the above production activity, it has also been a busy week for distributors. ITV’s Maigret has been sold by distributor BBC Worldwide to broadcasters including Channel One in Russia, NRK in Norway, TVNZ in New Zealand, RTÉ in Ireland, Finland’s YLE and Prima TV in the Czech Republic. Simultaneously, StudioCanal has sold Section Zéro to Channel One Russia.
AMC’s international network AMC Global, meanwhile, today announced that it has acquired the upcoming anthology drama series The Terror, an adaption of the bestselling novel by Dan Simmons. Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360 are producing the 10-episode drama, which will premiere globally within minutes of its broadcast on AMC in the US.
Written for TV by David Kajganich, the series is set in 1847, when a Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks the ships and their crew in a desperate game of survival.
“We’re very excited to bring this gripping dramatic story to AMC Global,” commented Harold Gronenthal, exec VP of programming and operations for AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “With a distinctive combination of science fiction and historical non-fiction, The Terror will complement AMC Global series as Fear the Walking Dead, Humans and Into the Badlands.”
Finally, there are reports this week that showrunner Bryan Fuller is still hoping to revive serial killer drama Hannibal. The show was cancelled by NBC after three seasons but Fuller said there might be room for a revival in late 2017 – once he has dealt with the small matter of a Star Trek reboot for CBS and Starz’ American Gods.
The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.
The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.
Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.
Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.
On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.
Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.
“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”
Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.
The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).
Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”
In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.
At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…
Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.
In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”
News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”
The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.
Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”
Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”
Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.
In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.
Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.
“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”
As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.
In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.
This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).
Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.
And those successes are spreading confidence across the industry.
One of the most ambitious new series coming out of Germany is Babylon Berlin, which starts filming next month.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, it centres on police inspector Gereon Rath in 1920s Berlin – a hotbed of drugs and politics, murder and art, emancipation and extremism.
It was created by showrunner Tom Tykwer (Sense 8) and his writer/director team Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, and stars Volker Bruch (Generation War) and Liv Lisa Fries.
Babylon Berlin is particularly groundbreaking as it’s a collaboration between pay TV platform Sky, X-Filme, public broadcast group ARD and Beta Film, which is distributing the series worldwide. Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018.
Furthermore, the parties have all signed on for two seasons of the series. X-Filme producer Stefan Arndt says: “We’re particularly happy that we’ll be able to complete two seasons of eight episodes each during the first shooting. This shows how enthusiastic and confident all of the partners are in our joint project.”
That Sky and ARD have come together on the project is particularly unique, signalling both Sky’s ambitions to break into original German drama and the unique financing strategy in place to bring the series to life.
Volker Herres, programme director at ARD-owned Das Erste, which will air the series, says: “We would like to build on the incredible success of Volker Kutscher’s novels. These are exciting stories with a historical background, and we want to present them to German television audiences in a serial production that holds up to international standards. With this goal, we benefit from a collaboration between three strong partners so X Filme and Tom Tykwer can implement the detective series in grand style.”
Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto continues: “Due to the subject, the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, the first international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
For Sky, Babylon Berlin is just the start of its original drama strategy, which is being built on top of exclusive acquisition deals for content from US premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime.
Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Deutschland, says the series “is an exceptional project and a perfect match for Sky – bold storytelling, an outstanding cast and Tom Tykwer’s incredibly creative team.
“The co-operation between X Filme, ARD Degeto and Beta Film is an impressive example of a fruitful and fair collaboration where all the partners are striking a unique path for Germany and Austria. With Babylon Berlin, we are adding an in-house German production segment to our exclusive international agreements with such major partners as HBO and Showtime – a direction we will be moving in even more in the future.”
Christine Strobl, MD of producer ARD Degeto, adds: “Babylon Berlin is a special project and very important for ARD. With this series, ARD Degeto will be offering Das Erste audiences a real treat that can stand up to international comparison from both narrative and visual points of view. With regard to co-operation and financing, such an exceptional project deserves an exceptional approach. I am looking forward to the upcoming start of filming – judging from the screenplays, we can expect some outstanding television.”
For Tykwer and his colleagues von Borries and Handloegten, the project marks the end of a search for a unique story to tell on Germany television.
“For a long time, we were searching for subject matter that could tell the story of this era in all its facets,” he explains. “We finally found it in Kutscher’s novels. And after Achim, Hendrik and I spent three years working intensively on the screenplay, I can hardly wait to get started.”
Von Borries picks up: “The final years of the Weimar Republic were a time of continual crisis and constant attacks from political extremists. A rapidly growing city with immigrants from all over the world was in the middle of it all – Berlin, the international melting pot, with the pressure constantly mounting. This was a source of inexhaustible material for us as authors. And to finally have the opportunity to portray the atmosphere of the late 1920s is a challenge to us as directors – absolutely huge and incredibly exciting.”
Of course, one of the central characters in the series is the city itself, which Handloegten says was characterised at the time by its fast pace, freedom and diversity.
“But soon it was too much speed, too much freedom, too much diversity,” he adds. “It was a city that was always becoming but never was. In Babylon Berlin, the city is the protagonist. And Berlin in 1929 is a bestial, monstrous, famished and satiated, exalted and down-to-earth, elegant and degenerate, perverse and chaste… and mysterious protagonist. It is the best thing that could happen to an author and director.”
German drama is also set to receive a boost from Netflix and Amazon, which have both ordered their first original German-language series.
Matthias Schweighofer will star in, direct and produce Amazon series Wanted, about a man who becomes the target of a mysterious hacking attack that puts him and his family in danger.
Dark, described as a family saga with a supernatural twist, comes to Netflix from producers Widermann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and is directed by Baran bo Odar. It is due to air in 2017.
The story is set in a German town in the present day where the disappearance of two young children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. It goes on to take a supernatural twist that ties back to the same town in 1986.
“Dark is a milestone for the German market and for us as a company,” says producer Quirin Berg. “Baran bo Odar and (writer) Jantje Friese are outstanding talents and we are glad they shared this amazing idea with us. We feel privileged to continue our collaboration with both of them and we are all thrilled to join forces with a great team at Netflix to create something truly unique.”
By pushing the boundaries of its homegrown series, both in terms of story and where they can be found, German drama is going from strength to strength at a time when there is a growing demand to see its stories played out on the international stage.
From talking the talk to walking the walk, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky has put its money where its mouth is in the search for compelling original drama.
It was in 2011 that Sky group CEO Jeremy Darroch said the UK pay TV giant would be investing £600m (US$909m) a year in original content by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its previous spend.
Now that money is being seen on screen in the guise of an enviable slate of original series, including You, Me and the Apocalypse, The Last Panthers and Fungus the Bogeyman, which aired over Christmas. New series coming up include The Five, created by crime author Harlan Coben, and second seasons of The Tunnel (pictured above) and Fortitude.
And as Sky moves into a new era of year-round drama commissioning across three channels – Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts – there is only the promise of more to come.
“We are a pay TV platform so we have a mandate from our CEO to make sure we can provide drama that people want to pay for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. “What’s brilliant about that relationship with our customers is that it’s a mandate for distinction. Everything we do is about being the boldest, the most distinctive, the most innovative drama in the UK, specifically for our customers. We have one drama after another and they all have that ambition to be absolutely best in class, but also good fun and really watchable.”
Sky is best known for its acquisition of rights, predominantly for sport, movies and US television – in particular series from HBO. Last month, Sky tied up exclusive UK rights to content from Showtime, which will include Billions and the revival of Twin Peaks.
And Mensah compares Sky’s original drama ambitions to that of the film business: “We look at television like movies. In the same way you’re working really hard to get an audience to get out of their chair and go to the cinema and buy a ticket, you buy a ticket for Sky. We treat our customers in the same way, with the same production values, the same stars and the same sense of event.
“On Sky1, it’s a blockbuster experience; on Sky Atlantic, it’s more of an art-house cinema experience. But Sky Atlantic is not niche – it’s an art-house cinema experience with wine.”
Cameron Roach, Sky’s drama commissioning editor, takes the identities of Sky’s channels further by describing them in terms of how viewers watch them.
“On Sky1 we want to promote shared viewing in households, whereas Sky Atlantic is not about the overnights and is much more like reading a novel – you might watch two or three episodes at once,” he explains. “The on-demand platform (Sky Go) is really important for that viewing experience.”
But when viewers are watching Sky’s output in a variety of ways, how does the broadcaster measure success? Mensah says it’s about what the programme makers wanted their show to achieve in the first place.
“Some shows are built to be consumed like novels, to be massive critical successes and to talk to an audience that want to get into real think-pieces. Others are built to be super entertaining,” she says. “Everybody’s obsession with how you measure success is totally reductive because every show does something different. Particularly when you’ve got a pay TV platform – on a basic level our jobs are to bring people to Sky and keep them at Sky, and to give them a good experience of being Sky customers. That’s not one show, that’s the whole offering.”
As far as development goes, Sky doesn’t have a number of projects waiting in the wings. Instead, its drama team puts its money only on shows that are likely to make it to air, rather than taking scripts on and passing on them further down the line.
Mensah notes: “If we know we want to do a show, we think we shouldn’t put other things into competition with it. I would hope the talent comes to work with us and knows we’re backing their show and not slightly playing the odds like some other channels can do. It can be quite hard to get stuff into development with us, but once we’re in development with something, we’re doing it because we intend to make it.”
Roach adds that Sky’s drama team turns down lots of projects. “Before I started working with Anne, she said her ambition was to run a narrow slate,” he says. “Lots of people say that but it is genuine. We’re a small team but if something is in funded development with us, that means one of the team absolutely loves it. We’ve all got different tastes so it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but we have an absolute ambition to see that show made and we will support that production company.”
Funding from the pay TV broadcaster is also dependent on the type of project in question. With its use of CGI, Fungus the Bogeyman required extensive research and development, while horror story The Enfield Haunting also required commitments in terms of research and script development.
Sky’s development process has also become slightly more complicated since Sky UK’s acquisition of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, creating a single company that broadcasts to 21 million customers in five territories across Europe.
Both Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland have retained their own drama teams, however, with forthcoming series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, offering the first example of how the trio will work together.
“The Young Pope is a coproduction through all three but editorially it goes through Sky Italia, because what you don’t need is 7,000 voices on something,” Mensah says. “There’s one editorial voice but the backing of the whole weight of Sky. The Last Panthers was simultaneously transmitted across all of our territories, as was Fortitude. What you’ve got is the best of all possible worlds, which is clear editorial focus but with the weight of this massive company backing your show.”
Sky is also a committed coproduction partner, working with NBC on end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, Showtime on horror Penny Dreadful and France’s Canal+ on cross-Channel drama The Tunnel and pan-European crime thriller The Last Panthers.
“We love coproductions but luckily with Sky, it’s not about the money as much as creativity. Working with Canal+, not only do we like them personally but they also brought creative talent to us that we couldn’t find ourselves. I’d never worked with Haut et Court (Les Revenants) before Panthers. The Warp Films-Haut et Court partnership is why Panthers is so unique. As for The Tunnel, we had worked with Kudos before but working in France with French directors was new to me.”
Looking ahead, Roach says The Five is a good example of how Sky wants to take an existing genre – crime, in this case – and give it a different hook for Sky1.
The show follows a group of four friends haunted by the disappearance of one of
their younger brothers some years earlier while he was in their care. The group is forced to revisit the past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. It is written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company.
“Anne and Nicola started talking about the hooky novels that come from the likes of Harlan Coben,” recalls Roach. “It was a really innovative development process and it was the same with Fungus and Lucky Man (now airing on Sky1), which was an original idea from (Marvel Comics’) Stan Lee.”
The prospect of year-round drama also looks set to create a new story for Sky’s channels, with their individual identities no longer being separated by strict boundaries.
“There has to be fluid boundaries between the channels, particularly as we’re aware of the growing importance of our on-demand offering,” says Roach. “We’re planning two or three years in advance and we’re not sure how platforms will emerge. Sky1 and Sky Atlantic have a very clear identity but as we go to year-round drama we can diversify our output.”
Mensah says anyone hoping to pitch a project to Sky should simply talk to her and her team. “A pitch should feel like a conversation,” she explains. “Too often people put too much emphasis on the formal pitch – anything we’ve got in funded development began as a conversation. People can over-think that process. We’re working with Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, and he simply called us. We bought the idea on the phone. He then won an Oscar. Equally, other people send us full scripts. There are seriously no rules.”
No rules, then, but if one were to offer potential partners some guidelines, it would be to avoid generalised stories and to throw caution to the wind in a bid to offer big, bold, epic tales.
“If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left,” says Mensah. “With The Five, everyone else was doing lovely, languid thrillers so we thought, ‘how can we do it as quickly as possible?’ It turns on a dime every five seconds and the producers have done such a good job.”
Ultimately, to have a drama land on Sky, you’ve got to reach for the stars. “If you feel a show could sit on ITV or the BBC, they’re brilliant so that’s the space it should be in,” Mensah adds. “We really do look for stuff that feels like it could only be us.”
Sky1’s adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer suggests the scripted market is swinging back towards TV movies and miniseries, as Crackle announces a follow-up to The Art of More.
There are reports this week that UK pay TV channel Sky1 has greenlit a TV adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel The Last Dragonslayer.
Set in a world where the power of magic is being eroded by technology, it centres on a teenage girl who finds herself mixed up in a prophecy about the death of the last dragon.
The project is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it underlines the continued interest in fantasy projects – The Magicians, Shannara, Game of Thrones and American Gods being a few others – and secondly, because it is reported to be a two-hour single as opposed to an event or returning series.
A few executives in the drama business are starting to support the idea of shorter-run productions because of the sheer volume of scripted content now on the market. Although the received wisdom is that singles are harder to promote than series and offer fewer long-term return, there’s no real point spending tens of millions of dollars on a series that is going to fail because viewers can’t be bothered investing eight or 10 hours of their lives in it. It will be interesting to see if there is now a renaissance in the TV movie format.
Another of this week’s major scripted TV stories is that Sony-owned on-demand service Crackle has commissioned its second original drama series. Following up on The Art of More, starring Dennis Quaid, Crackle has now greenlit a project called Start Up.
Set in Miami and starring Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock, The Hobbit), Start Up explores what happens when a brilliant but controversial tech idea gets incubated with dirty money. The message seems to be that Crackle is mainly interested in backing high-concept thrillers with proven theatrical talent attached.
There are a couple of stories with a Canadian flavour this week. In the first, Canadian broadcaster Global TV has ordered an original drama after partnering with producer/distributor Entertainment One. Called Mary Kills People, the six-parter has been created and written by Tara Armstrong and is set in the world of assisted suicide. It tells the story of a nurse who helps people with terminal illnesses.
The other project is a production partnership between Macmillan Publishers’ in-house film and TV unit and Toronto-based Wildhorse Studios. This one will see the two partners collaborate on a TV adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson. Written in 1957, the book tells the story of Jewish exiles in New York City just after the Second World War and just before the creation of the state of Israel. It was first published in serial form by a Yiddish newspaper called The Forward.
As previous DQ columns have demonstrated, the US TV market offers an almost constant pipeline of new scripted shows. However, this time of year is especially prolific because it is when the major networks greenlight shows from paper to pilot. Like baby turtles heading for the ocean, there will be lots of casualties before we finally see full series being commissioned. But pilot season is a useful indication of the way networks are thinking.
This week, for example, ABC ordered two new legal-themed drama pilot (no real surprise given that one of its biggest hits at present is legally themed show How To Get Away With Murder – congratulations, by the way, to Viola Davis for her latest SAG Awards success). The first of the two pilots is Notorious. Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan, the story follows the relationship between “a charismatic attorney and a powerhouse television producer as they attempt to control the media, the justice system, and ultimately, each other.”
The second is the aptly named Conviction, which comes from The Mark Gordon Co, the firm behind ABC political thriller Quantico. This one focuses on the prodigal daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job at LA’s ‘Conviction Integrity Unit.’ Here, her job is to investigate cases where there’s reasonable suspicion the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.
The CW, which is the US market’s fifth broadcast network, has also announced a bunch of new pilots including comic-based project Riverdale, Transylvania and an untitled Mars project. These new projects join a previously announced paranormal drama called Frequency from Kevin Williamson, which is a reboot of the 2000 time travel movie of the same name but with a female lead.
Transylvania continues the trend towards fantasy Victoriana (with examples including Penny Dreadful, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Ripper Street, Dickensian and Jekyll & Hyde). Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of a young woman looking for her missing father who goes to Transylvania and she teams up with a wrongfully disgraced Detective. Once there, the duo encounter the usual suspects.
The Mars project is not actually new, having first been talked about in 2013 when it was called Colony. A reimagining of the 400-year-old Roanoke ‘Lost Colony’ mystery, it follows a team of explorers who arrive on Mars to join the first human colony, only to discover that it has vanished. The show is not the only Mars project in the market, with Syfy currently making Red Mars, based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction series.
In the UK, meanwhile, the Radio Times quotes director Peter Kosminsky saying there will be a second season of Wolf Hall – but it’s not possible yet to say when. According to Kosminsky, nothing can happen until author Hilary Mantel finishes the novel upon which the sequel will be based. Then it needs to be adapted for the screen and slotted into the busy schedules of actors Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. “She [Mantel] has still got at least a year of writing on the novel,” says Kosminsky, “and we have to get it adapted, which will take quite a while because it’s probably going to be quite a thick book. It’s not going to be any time soon I’m afraid. Two years down the road I would think, probably.”
Usually when we talk about greenlights, it’s six to 12 months before a show actually appears. But US comedian Louis CK surprised us all this week by releasing a new series on his website without any advanced warning. Entitled Horace and Pete, it stars Louis CK, Steve Buscemi and Alan Alda in what is being described as a black comedy version of Cheers. The 67-minutes show revolves around an Irish bar and the people who work there and frequent it.
Given the quality of the talent involved it will be interesting to see how it is received and whether it encourages other creatives to drop surprise series via the internet. (Actually, there is something vaguely similar here to the recent story about JJ Abrams making a Cloverfield sequel without telling anyone.)
Finally, on the distribution front, Australian streaming service Stan has become the exclusive home of Showtime’s brand and programming, echoing a similar deal with Sky in Europe.
In 2011, US programme market Natpe moved from Las Vegas to Miami to be closer to the Latin American TV community. So it’s fitting that Natpe 2016 (held between January 19 and 21 last week) provided a platform for so many Latin American scripted TV announcements.
Pick of the bunch was the news that Brazilian media giant Globo is moving into Spanish-language production with a thriller called Supermax. Although Globo has previously coproduced Spanish-language shows with the likes of Azteca in Mexico and Telemundo in the US, Supermax marks the first time it has fully funded a drama in Spanish.
The 10-part series, being produced in-house with Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman as showrunner, follows eight characters who travel to a remote prison to participate in a reality show. Although production doesn’t start until April, it has already been picked up by Azteca for broadcast in Mexico.
Commenting, Globo executive director of international business Raphael Corrêa Netto said: “We’ve taken a strategic look at the market and worked out how to leverage our creative capabilities. We wanted to develop and produce (this show) based on our thinking for the global market – from script development to production and design.”
In other Latino news, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa has revealed that it is to adapt four Keshet International Israeli dramas from the original Hebrew into Spanish. One of them is a title we discussed last week, Loaded, which is also being remade by Channel 4 in the UK. The other three are yet to be selected but will be produced over the course of the next three years.
Televisa is also involved in a coproduction with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) that will focus on the life of Alejandro Muñoz Moreno, a Mexican wrestler better known as the Blue Demon. The 65×60’drama, simply called Blue Demon, will air across Latin America on Televisa platforms and before being distributed worldwide jointly by SPT and Televisa.
The show is the latest title to come out of a coproduction alliance formed by the two partners in 2014. Angelica Guerra, senior VP and MD of production, Latin America and US Hispanic for SPT, said: “There is a growing demand in the region for stories about real people and events, a trend that started in Colombia and has made its way to Mexico. Blue Demon will offer audiences an intimate look at one of (freestyle wrestling’s) greatest legends, exploring a complex and turbulent world that few knew about.”
Also coming out of Miami was news that producer Ben Silverman is teaming up with Eric Newman, the showrunner behind Netflix hit Narcos, on a series about Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, the Colombian singing sensation better known as Juanes. The show, whose English title is Chasing the Sun, will follow Juanes’s early life in Colombia through to his arrival as an aspiring musician in Miami.
The goal is to produce an edgy series, with the press announcement saying it will “stylistically be in the vein of an Entourage-meets-Narcos bilingual drama.” No network is attached as yet, but Silverman has a good track record for bringing Latin American ideas to the world with series such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. Note that it is being set us as a bilingual series.
In other greenlight news this week, USA Network has given a straight-to-series, 10-episode order to Eyewitness, a drama based on Norwegian crime thriller Øyevitne. The US version will be created by Adi Hasak, whose credits include Shades of Blue. He will work alongside Norwegian series creator Jarl Emsell Larsen.
Øyevitne, which aired on NRK, was one of the most talked-about Scandinavian shows of 2015. It focuses on two gay teenage boys who secretly meet up in a forest. During one such liaison, they witness a shooting and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the perpetrator, they remain silent.
Commenting on the decision to pick up the show, Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming at USA, said: “Eyewitness takes a horrific crime and, in compelling fashion, uses it to examine a whole network of unique character relationships. We were immediately drawn to the source material, and Adi has found a very smart way to adapt it into a universal and engaging story.”
The dark tone of the show fits a broader agenda at USA, which is reinventing itself as a more exciting destination for young viewers. Alongside the Eyewitness project, it has Golden Globe-winning hacker drama Mr Robot and Carlton Cuse-produced series Colony. Earlier this week, it also announced another new drama called Falling Water. This series centres on three strangers who realise they are dreaming separate parts of the same dream that has major implications for problems in each of their lives.
“Today’s world demands shows that challenge and reward the audience in spectacular ways,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at USA Network’s parent company NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Falling Water is the type of show that can move the needle of popular culture with its thrilling exploration of the dark side of the mind.”
Meanwhile, Netflix, now up to 75 million subscribers worldwide, continues to commission new shows. Its latest addition is a 10-part sci-fi series based on Richard K Morgan’s book Altered Carbon. Set in the 25th century, Morgan’s novel imagines a world where the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. The series is being produced by Skydance Television and written by Laeta Kalogridis. Kalogridis’s previous credits include the screenplays for the movies Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys.
Elsewhere, there have been rumours circulating in the last few days that Fox in the US would love to commission a follow-up to its six-part X-Files reboot, which debuted last night in the US. However, the big obstacle to that appears to be scheduling the talent.
In an interview with Variety, male lead David Duchovny said: “Gillian (Anderson, co-star) and I have talked about (doing more episodes), and then we just stop because we get to 2023 and we still haven’t found a date we can do it. It’s like, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens after this,’ and then we can start to talk seriously about whether we can make it work again.” Possibly, if the ratings are good enough to justify it, there might be room to squeeze in another short run of six or eight episodes.
Finally, the big story on the drama acquisition front is that pay TV platform Sky has done a deal with CBS that means its Sky Atlantic channel will become the exclusive home to Showtime’s original drama series across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The agreement covers all new and future series including Billions, which premiered strongly in the US this week, and the forthcoming revival of cult drama Twin Peaks.
Commenting on the deal, Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “This is one of the most important content deals Sky has ever agreed, cementing Sky’s position as the market leader in Europe for world-class drama. The agreement means our customers can enjoy an incredible slate of upcoming new dramas and can also explore hundreds of hours of amazing series such as Dexter, Californication, The Affair and House of Lies on demand from the back catalogue.”
Pan-European pay TV broadcaster Sky has just announced that its Sky Atlantic channel will now be the exclusive home to programming from CBS’s premium US cable network Showtime in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.
Previously, Sky licensed select Showtime content on a case-by-case basis – one example being the excellent scripted series The Affair.
The deal is an important one for Sky, which is facing increased competition for content rights (and not just for drama) from the likes of BT, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (owner of Channel 5). It’s also significant for Showtime, which is keen to see its brand better known around the world. This deal gives it access to 21 million European pay TV households at a single stroke.
One of the titles included in the new deal is Billions, an ambitious drama set in the world of New York high finance. The show, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, has just debuted to strong audiences in the US.
According to Showtime, Billions is its best-ever launch, attracting 2.99 million viewers to its premiere. This is marginally more than Showtime’s previous best, which was Ray Donovan in 2013 with 2.91 million viewers.
Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “It’s a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter, the power of its stars and the brilliance of the show creators that Billions has had such a big start.”
The way Showtime derives its 2.99 million figure is an interesting snapshot of how viewing in the digital era is measured. Around 1.6 million of the viewing total was generated by a preview of the show that was offered to Showtime subscribers in advance. The other 1.4 million was the cumulative total for multiple broadcasts of the show on its premiere night (last Sunday). The first of these contributed around 900,000 to the evening’s 1.4 million total.
Notwithstanding this fragmented viewing pattern, the 2.99 million total is a very impressive launch for Billions. The show also got an 8.4 rating on IMDb, which suggests it is in good shape on the audience appreciation front. If it continues in the same vein across its first season of 12 episodes, it will fit in well among other strong Showtime series such as Shameless, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair and Penny Dreadful.
That would also be good news for Sky, which generally does well with Showtime titles – in fact, the two are coproducers on Penny Dreadful.
In recent weeks, we’ve flagged up a number of BBC UK dramas that have done well in the post-Christmas period. Today we can add another one following the successful return of Call the Midwife on Sunday evenings at 20.00.
Now in its fifth season, the show attracted an impressive eight million viewers. Although this is down a bit on the last couple of seasons, it is still well ahead of the slot average of six million. The show also does extremely well internationally, with BBC Worldwide having sold it to around 100 territories including the US, France and Australia.
The show is a classic example of how hyper-local subjects (midwives London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s) can appeal to global audiences if they contain strong stories and universal characters. It’s interesting to note as an aside that both Penny Dreadful and Call the Midwife are made by the same production company, Neal Street (now part of All3Media, which itself is owned by Discovery and Liberty Global).
Still with the BBC, we took the view last week that anything above 4.5 million viewers for episode three of War & Peace would be a solid result. So the 5.1 million that tuned in represents a strong endorsement for the show.
The Andrew Davies adaptation also won numerous plaudits from the British press, with the Daily Telegraph giving it five stars and calling it “utterly captivating.” There’s no question that Davies’ writing is also benefiting from some terrific performances by the likes of Paul Dano, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton and everyone’s favourite fairytale princess Lily James. Being able to call on the likes of Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Ade Edmondson as supporting cast reinforces the credentials of the show yet further.
ITV, by contrast, has been having a more mixed time with its drama recently. After Jekyll & Hyde’s cancellation, the broadcaster’s latest fantasy epic, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, is also struggling to find its footing. The latest episode attracted two million viewers, which isn’t really enough for a mid-evening slot. The performance of the two shows raises questions about whether there is really room for fantasy drama in the heartland of free-to-air commercial primetime. Maybe fantasy works better when it is tucked away slightly out of sight on pay TV (the way it is in most mainstream bookshops).
ITV is, however, on much firmer ground with Victoria, its upcoming eight-part period drama written by novelist and erstwhile TV executive Daisy Goodwin. This week, PBS in the US announced it has acquired the show, which it will schedule in the slot formerly occupied by fellow ITV acquisition Downton Abbey.
The eight-part series, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Colema, follows Victoria from when she first becomes Queen in 1837 at the age of 18 through to her marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece strand, said: “Downton Abbey has proved that millions of viewers will turn up year after year for a beautifully crafted period drama. Victoria has it all: a riveting script, brilliant cast and spectacular locations. And it’s a true story. This is exactly the programming Masterpiece fans will love.”
Finally, an interesting story in the US regarding Netflix and Amazon ratings. The SVoD platforms are notorious for not releasing data on the performance of their shows. But Alan Wurtzel, head of research at rival NBCUniversal, provided some insight at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.
Using data from a company called Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel said that Netflix series Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million 18-49 viewers per episode in the 35 days after its November launch. By a similar count, Narcos attracted 3.2 million and Master of None attracted three million. Amazon’s critically acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle drew 2.1 million 18-49 viewers.
If these numbers are accurate, then all of the above shows would compare favourably with most US cable shows. No real surprise, then, that Jessica Jones has been given a second season.
That said, NBCU’s analysis must be handled carefully. In response to Wurtzel’s findings, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he hoped NBC didn’t “spend any money” on the Symphony research since it was “really remarkably inaccurate data.” However, people will keep speculating until Netflix finally decides to reveals some numbers itself.
The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.
On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.
Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.
Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.
Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”
There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.
Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”
Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.
“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”
Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.
And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.
Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.
He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.
“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”
Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.
BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.
Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.
Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.
The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.
ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.
And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.
“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”
Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).
Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”
Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.
As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.
There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.