They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
Amazon has dominated the drama headlines over the past few days, with the e-commerce giant’s subscription VoD platform Prime Instant Video continuing to bolster its original content.
On Friday September 4, it launched edgy new thriller Hand of God, in which a morally corrupt judge (played by Ron Perlman) suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. The show, which has opened to mixed reviews, starts when the judge is found naked in a fountain speaking in tongues.
There has also been a steady drip-feed of news about forthcoming programmes on the platform. Sneaky Pete, for example, is now going to series. The show, which credits Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a co-creator, stars Giovanni Ribisi as a conman who, after leaving prison, takes cover from his past by assuming the identity of his cellmate, Pete.
There was also good news for Electus-backed period production Casanova. With the pilot having recently aired, more scripts have been commissioned by Amazon (though this doesn’t guarantee that the production will be taken forward to series).
The platform also recently announced that Billy Bob Thornton is to star in a legal drama called The Trial, which will have David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) as its showrunner. Aside from the talent attached, an interesting point about The Trial is that Amazon has ordered a full series, whereas it usually orders pilots and makes its final decision about whether to go to series based on audience feedback.
It’s a significant change in approach that suggests one of two things: either top talent is refusing to commit to shows on the basis of a pilot – forcing Amazon to make more attractive offers; or Amazon is feeling pressure to get shows to the consumer market quicker. Either way it’s a move that contributes to the current scripted feeding frenzy.
As for subject matter, The Trial focuses on a once-respectable lawyer who is ousted from the firm he co-founded. He spends his days getting drunk until a big case comes his way that pits him against the head of his former firm. On paper it sounds very much like a John Grisham story and joins the rising number of legal-focused scripted shows hitting the market.
This feeding frenzy shows no sign of stopping, despite recent expressions of concern from channel execs in the US. The last week has seen reports that Apple and UK telco/pay TV provider BT are both planning to invest in original scripted content to distinguish their services.
The BBC has also announced plans to invest an additional £50m (US$76m) a year in drama, with BBC director general Tony Hall saying the corporation must ensure drama continues to form the “backbone” of its output.
David Nevins, president of premium US cable channel Showtime, recently said there may be “too much TV.” But this hasn’t stopped the network pursuing its own high-end scripted agenda. Reports this week suggest it is developing a new drama about the life of former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Called the Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt, the limited series is being written by David McKenna, with Electus and Authentic Entertainment producing.
Elsewhere, AMC-owned cable channel SundanceTV has proved itself very receptive to dramas with a non-US perspective in recent times – examples including The Honourable Woman and Deutschland 83. It is continuing to pursue this bold strategy with the acquisition of Australian/New Zealand series Cleverman, which is distributed by Red Arrow International.
The six-hour drama, which will launch at Mipcom next month, is produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures in coproduction with SundanceTV and Red Arrow International. Based on an original concept by Ryan Griffen and starring Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), the story follows a group of non-humans who are battling for survival in a world where humans feel inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Meanwhile, as anticipation builds for the launch of Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner – which debuts on FX on September 15 – there are reports that Sutter is working on a spin-off of biker drama Sons of Anarchy, the show that firmly established his reputation.
If the spin-off goes ahead, it is like that Sutter will not be as hands-on as he was with Sons, thus enabling him to juggle more projects. It’s no surprise that FX is interested in a Sons spin-off. The show ran for seven years and ended as the channel’s most successful series to date.
Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox International Channels appears to be redoubling its interest in the UK. Following the announcement that it is to launch a female-focused free-to-air channel in the UK called YourTV, FIC has also acquired six-part Australian series Jack Irish for its pay TV channel Fox UK. Based on the books by Peter Temple, Jack Irish follows a former criminal lawyer who now spends his days as a part-time investigator, debt collector, apprentice cabinet maker, punter and sometime lover.
The Jack Irish books first came to the screen as three TV movies, which aired on ABC Australia and ZDF in Germany. Fox UK also aired the TV movies and will transmit the spin-off TV series in 2016. Both the movie and TV versions of the property star Guy Pearce, whose career to date has mainly focused on film (LA Confidential, Memento).
“We’re thrilled to be premiering Jack Irish dramas first on Fox in the UK,” said Fox UK head of programming and scheduling Toby Etheridge, who brokered the deal for Jack Irish with DCD Rights. “We’re massive fans of the compelling, entertaining and intelligent books and TV movies.”
Finally, there was an interesting funding story for producers this week as the Scottish government launched a £1.75m “production growth fund” in association with public body Creative Scotland. Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop announced the initiative as a way of stimulating the country’s television and film production industry. Applications are expected to be open by the end of October, with the initiative lasting at least until the end of the 2016/17 financial year.
Aimed at indies, funding awards will be based on criteria that are currently being drawn up. “The Production Growth Fund will help to attract new inward investment, further support homegrown productions and will boost Scotland’s economy as well as our international reputation,” said Hyslop. Next month, Drama Quarterly’s Mipcom issue takes a deeper look at the issue of locations and the factors that drive the places where producers decide to make their shows.
When Disney gets it right, it really gets it right. Currently doing great business for Disney Channel US is Descendants, a modern-day story based around the teenage offspring of Disney’s most notorious villains. Having attracted 6.6 million viewers for its premiere, the live-plus-three-day audience for the show increased to 10.5 million.
Those figures make Descendants the number-one cable TV movie of 2015, which is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that it was directed, choreographed and exec produced by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega. HSM was a huge franchise, spawning three movies and giving the world the adorable Zac Efron.
Descendants is also performing well across other platforms. It currently holds the top spot on iTunes (Top TV seasons), while its soundtrack is at the top of the iTunes soundtrack chart and third on the iTunes album chart. It has also spawned a best-selling prequel novel, The Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz, and an animated shortform series, Descendants Wicked World.
More movie-length productions are presumably an option, although the concept and characterisation might also lend itself to a live-action series.
Hallmark Channel is also celebrating this week following a strong showing from Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, a romantic drama starring Andie MacDowell and Dylan Neal.
According to Hallmark, the latest episode of Cedar Cove became the network’s most watched and highest rated among total viewers and households in its Saturday 20.00 time period. To date, season three of the show is averaging a 2.0 household rating and two million total viewers.
“Over the last four years, Hallmark Channel’s scripted series have become appointment viewing for our audience,” said Michelle Vicary, executive VP for programming and network publicity at Hallmark owner Crown Media Family Networks. “The popularity of Cedar Cove, Good Witch and When Calls the Heart demonstrate the power of our brand and the resonance of our storytelling.”
With so much competition in scripted content, a lot of launch success these days is down to whether you can offer something that piques the audience’s interest.
Today, for example, Amazon launches Sneaky Pete, the pilot for a conman drama written and executive produced by David Shore and Bryan ‘Walter White’ Cranston.
Backed by Sony, the show was originally intended for CBS. But when the network withdrew its interest, Amazon stepped in and greenlit the pilot. The star of the pilot is Giovanni Ribisi, but Cranston will guest star, which is sure to lure in swathes of Breaking Bad fans.
That might be enough to convince Amazon it is worth going to series with Sneaky Pete – particularly if it results in new subscribers for the service.
Amazon’s approach is to show pilots for free and then base its commissioning decisions on audience data and customer feedback. Alongside Sneaky Pete, another pilot hopeful launching today is Casanova, from Jean Pierre Jeunet, Stuart Zicherman and Electus’s Ben Silverman.
In previous weeks, we’ve reported that ancient Egypt drama Tut achieved good ratings for its launch episode on cable channel Spike in the US. It has now aired as a two-part miniseries on Channel 5 in the UK.
C5, which like Spike is owned by Viacom, attracted around 880,000 viewers across two episodes. This is around 28% above the slot average. With Spike having announced its intention to invest more money in scripted shows, Channel 5 may find itself a long-term beneficiary of this.
A less successful acquisition has been thriller series Odyssey, snapped up by BBC2 at the LA Screenings this year after an initial airing on NBC in the US. In this show, British actress Anna Friel plays US army special ops member Odelle Ballard, who is the sole survivor of a drone attack in Mali but has been reported dead after her team discovers a US terrorism funding conspiracy.
On paper, Odyssey looked like it might be a combination of Homeland and The Honourable Woman, but it has received poor reviews and ratings. Already axed by NBC in the US, it has seen its audience on BBC2 slide from around 2.5 million at the start to around one million at the end of its run.
Friel’s acting was praised, but The Guardian summed up the general mood among critics: “Why beat around the bush with subtlety when each coarsely drawn character can spell out plot and motivation so clearly and deliberately? You can practically hear the clunk and ding of the typewriter whenever someone opens their mouth. Even the secret documents kept safe in a USB stick around (Ballard’s) neck are written in Fisher-Price spy language. The writers do not believe you’ll keep up any other way.”
While BBC2 has had a summer to forget regarding drama, BBC1 continues to do pretty well with its Agatha Christie adaptation Partners in Crime. The second episode of six attracted five million viewers last Sunday evening.
While this is down from episode one (6.5 million), it’s still pretty respectable. It bodes well for another upcoming Christie adaptation based on iconic novel And Then There Were None. Due to air later this year, And Then There Were None is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions programme for the BBC, coproduced with A+E Television Networks. RLJ Entertainment has taken US DVD and DTO rights, while A+E Networks will handle international sales via A+E Studios International.