Tag Archives: Sonar Entertainment

War on the waves

Thought working with children and animals was hard? Try a U-Boat. DQ lifts the hatch on forthcoming war drama Das Boot to find out how the series was built, more than 30 years after the iconic film that inspired it.

When HBO miniseries Band of Brothers first aired in 2001, it revolutionised the way war stories were realised on television. From executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it encapsulated the nerve-shredding tension and dynamic sound and visuals seen in their earlier big-screen collaboration, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.

More than a decade later, another series is set to change the way we watch war on television all over again. Enter Das Boot, inspired by the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated film by Wolfgang Petersen, which was based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s bestselling novel of the same name.

“This is a very big statement but I think Das Boot could potentially do the same for us now,” Bavaria Fiction’s executive producer Moritz Polter says. “Again and again, you need to reach audiences and show them what war is really like and also show them different aspects of war that one was not able to portray 10 years ago.

“One of the great things about the original movie is it showed Germans as human beings rather than just villains, and that’s something that hasn’t really been done on an international level in the television world ever since.”

Das Boot the series opens in occupied France in autumn 1942. Submarine U-612 is now ready for its maiden voyage, preparing to head into the increasingly brutal conflict with its young crewmen, including new commander Klaus Hoffmann. As the 40 young men take on their first mission, they struggle with the cramped and claustrophobic conditions of life below the surface, and their personalities are pushed to the limit as tensions rise and loyalties begin to shatter.

A scene unfolds within the claustrophobic conditions of the U-boat interior

Meanwhile, at the port of La Rochelle, navy translator Simone Strasser’s world spirals out of control as she is engulfed in a dangerous liaison and forbidden love, torn between the Resistance and her loyalty to Germany.

The origins of the Das Boot series can be traced back to Bavaria Fiction’s decision to mine some of parent company Bavaria Film’s IP. The classic 1981 movie immediately stood out, but then it was a question of how it could possibly be brought to the small screen. With ambitions to tell a serialised story set six months after the film, a pay TV partner was the natural choice and Marcus Ammon, Sky Deutschland’s senior VP of film and entertainment, was “overjoyed” at the prospect of a Das Boot drama.

“We know our history and we are aware of what happened. We are very conscious of our heritage and knew we needed to be very careful with the story we are telling, and we were from day one,” Ammon says. “But Das Boot was a perfect fit for Sky’s European drama strategy, which seeks out properties that are bold enough to play across Germany, Italy and the UK.”

Backing was then sought from an international partner that could also provide a non-German editorial voice, with Sonar Entertainment quick to sign up and put both its production and distribution capabilities into the mix.

Sonar’s David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions, counts the Das Boot film among the top 10 Second World War movies of all time. He admits part of the challenge in making the series was to create something new while respecting the heritage of the original feature. “Going into this project of eight hours and two parallel storylines, one 100% German-language and the other story split between French and English, it had to feel really authentic,” he says. “That’s the only way it could be done.”

Hollywood actor Lizzy Caplan is part of the international cast

So at the start of development, the biggest question concerned the relationship between the film and the US$32.8m series. “We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to do a remake, a sequel or something in the vein of Fargo, where basically the series is set in the same world as the film,” Polter says. “We were conscious of the fact it’s a beloved property and, especially for a German audience, it’s iconic and is part of our cultural heritage. So we didn’t want to do a remake; we wanted to create something in the world that would create a buzz for the people who know the film. They will find themselves in the world but they will not compare it to the exact characters of the movie.”

That task was handed to co-head writers Tony Saint (The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (Die Cleveren), who agreed they would have been “on a hiding to nothing” had they tried to emulate Petersen’s film.

“We had several thoughts [about the story],” says Betz. “We wanted to start the show in the time when the war changes, 1941/42, before the Battle of Stalingrad, the golden time of U-boat warfare. Then things changed and we wanted to set it in that crisis. And because Das Boot is a man’s movie somewhat, we were also thinking about female characters, as there are no female characters on the boat. So we tried to create a connection between the boat and the town of La Rochelle.”

The action within the story takes place over just a few weeks. But the eight-hour runtime afforded the writers the chance to point the series in new directions that couldn’t be explored in a feature film.

“The thing we grappled with a lot and then embraced was the reality of the U-boat situation,” reveals Saint, who describes his joy at writing ‘Ext – U-boat’ for the first time. “There is absolutely no contact between a U-boat and the people it leaves behind, so when you’re first struck with that reality, trying to construct a drama, you think, ‘What do we do here?’ Then that becomes the USP. These people cannot contact each other. So the fact they have no understanding of the other side of the story means it becomes about hope and fear and all those exciting, dramatic things we like to exploit.”

On set during a torpedo-loading scene

The connection between the two storylines is the relationship between Simone, played by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and her brother, who is aboard U-612. They grew up together in Alsace, a region that has historically changed hands between France and Germany over many years, leading the series to raise questions over nationality that will likely strike a chord with modern-day audiences.

The Resistance storyline also confronts the dilemma of who to trust in a world of fake news and propaganda – another contemporary theme. And as with any war drama, Das Boot also serves as a warning to the audience that global conflicts should never be repeated.

“Every good and serious war movie is a big warning to everyone that this should never happen again, particularly for a younger audience represented by our crew on board,” Ammon notes. “They were young and full of enthusiasm, they had their whole lives in front of them and went to a war that couldn’t be won. This is the big warning for young audiences and young people.”

Alongside Krieps, the international cast from Germany, France, UK and the US includes Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones), Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) and James D’Arcy (Marvel’s Agent Carter). Rick Okon (Tatort) plays Captain Hoffmann.

Arguably the biggest star, however, is the sub itself. Across a 105-day shoot, filming took place in Prague and Munich, with scenes featuring the U-boat shot in the harbour at La Rochelle and in Malta.

Game of Thrones’ Tom Wlaschiha in Das Boot

The internal U-Boat set, which was based in Prague and brought to life with hydraulics, took 15 weeks to build. The 45 metre-long set comprised a control room, radio room, torpedo room, petty officer’s bunks, diesel and electric engine rooms, galley, hydrophone room, conning tower and captain’s quarters. The U-boat itself, weighing 240 tonnes, took two months to refurbish before it could take to the water, with scenes off the Mediterranean coast of Malta doubling for the Atlantic Ocean.

Unsurprisingly, these scenes were the most challenging part of the production. At sea, a supply boat with a crane and a drone shadowed the submarine, which itself was wrapped with a frame to support the camera crew on board. “There were different structures on the sub so that we could move around with the handheld camera,” director Andreas Prochaska explains. “But it had to be precisely planned because we couldn’t change it once we were out at sea. We also had a mock-up [of the submarine] in a water tank at the studio in Malta. It was 40 metres long, with the stern, tower and gun for scenes where the submarine was being refuelled and given supplies from a support ship.”

If filming inside a U-boat was challenging, the production team found the right director in Prochaska, who has experience filming in confined spaces. His International Emmy-winning TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) spent its 90-minute running time inside an operating theatre.

To prepare for that film, Prochaska reveals, he researched a lot of submarine movies. But the director says going on to film in an actual sub was “a completely different cup of tea,” due to having 25 actors, a camera and lots of fog in a very confined space.

“I can be honest and say it brought me to my limits in every way,” he says. “It was challenging and rewarding; exhausting and adventurous. When I agreed to do it, I knew it would be long and rough and adventurous but I was willing to do it. Taking this challenge was simply one I had to do.”

Directing all eight episodes, Prochaska created a visual language for the two different storylines, with the scenes in La Rochelle drawing on Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho) and Paul Greengrass (the Jason Bourne movies) inspiring the action aboard the U-boat. “It was very physical, almost like a documentary,” he says of scenes on the submarine. “We tried to keep it as authentic as possible. In La Rochelle, there was much more psychological tension.”

The course Das Boot has set means it could return for a second season, either as a continuation of the story from season one or as a new story set in the same ‘universe.’ The series will premiere at the end of this year in Sky territories Germany, Austria, Italy, the UK and Ireland, with Sonar selling to the rest of the world.

Ammon concludes: “There is a story that is told to the end so there won’t be any question marks or a prompt desire to keep going. But, of course, as in every Second World War story, there are different options on the table. We are discussing that but no decision has been made yet.”

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Breaking Taboo

Best known for seminal Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), director Kristoffer Nyholm tells DQ why Tom Hardy-led thriller Taboo is like nothing ever seen on TV before.

Ever since Forbrydelsen (The Killing) became a worldwide sensation, Kristoffer Nyholm has become synonymous with the Danish crime drama. The director led the first two seasons of the series, shaping its dark, moody atmosphere and shining a new light on its Copenhagen setting.

But while directors are often household names in cinema, television continues to be considered a writers’ medium. It’s rare for a director to helm every episode of a small-screen series, with all the credit placed at the feet of the writer or showrunner whose fingerprints are indelibly inked across hours of storytelling.

Kristoffer Nyholm

Thanks to the iconic standing of The Killing, however, Nyholm can be considered among those directors whose names stand out from the crowd – and it’s the increasing importance of the role of director in television that he believes has led to the current slate of groundbreaking, ambitious drama being produced around the world.

“In the film business the main focus has always been on the director, and scriptwriting comes in second. So it’s important that a lot of new wonderful television series are bringing focus to the writer,” he explains. “But in order to develop the language of television, the director is an important part of that process because those scripts can be interpreted and filmed in many different ways.

“There’s a tendency now for fewer long-running series and more limited series, which means they can become more cinematic, and that’s clearly where good directors come in and become part of the development process. We’re in a place where there’s a hybrid between television and films – we’re only at the beginning of that process and it’s very exciting. But it’s very important that, at an early point, directors can be a part of a process where drama is created because the collaboration between writers and directors is underdeveloped and there is so much more to gain.”

Collaboration between the creative team was key on Nyholm’s latest television project, Taboo, an eight-part series starring Tom Hardy that debuts on BBC1 on January 7. It launches stateside on cable channel FX on January 10.

Set in 1814, the story follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself.

Taboo is a passion project for its star and executive producer, Tom Hardy

But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice and, with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.

Hardy is also an executive producer along with writer Steven Knight, Ridley Scott, Kate Crowe and Dean Baker. Scott Free London and Hardy Son & Baker produce for BBC1 and US cable network FX, with Sonar Entertainment distributing the series worldwide outside the UK.

Nyholm first met with Hardy and the producers last summer and says he was inspired to join the series by the actor, for whom Taboo is a passion project co-created with his father Chips Hardy and Knight.

“I loved the first two scripts,” Nyholm says, “and Tom told me about his motivation for the series – he wanted to make a story about looking at historic London as a barbaric place at a time some consider to be the cradle of the modern world we know today.

“In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story – a fusion of understanding your own life and understanding the world you’re born into, and that idea to connect those psychological, emotional depths in a character, together with his awareness of the political system, was really exciting and a new way of making a drama.

“Tom put words to this main character and then said, ‘We don’t know exactly where we’re going but, if you want to go on this ride, we would really love to have you with us.’ That was very exciting – and he said if it breaks down, I hope we can say we tried. I thought this artistic, brave commitment was something that I felt strongly for and that Tom had really thought about this. It was a very inspiring meeting that set off the whole thing.”

Nyholm joined the project at such an early stage that the series was yet to be cast or crewed. But that allowed him to become an integral part of the creative team, helping to bring Hardy’s vision to life around the central character he would play himself.

“He takes a very big responsibility,” the director says of the Hollywood star. “Like a Renaissance man, he cares about all the elements and he’s very open in the process. He’s also a very kind person, a gentleman, so that was a big inspiration. Part of the story came from him so he was like having an extra page of the script.”

Jonathan Pryce plays a major role in the series

A tattoo-covered Hardy dominates the screen every time he appears – in fact, he’s rarely out of shot – while the captivating sets bring the hustle and bustle of 19th century London to life. Helming the first four episodes, Nyholm worked closely with director of photography Mark Patten to bring an unconventional shooting style to the production, one that let the actors do their job as the cameras recorded them unobtrusively.

“We kept things open in many ways so when we came into a new set, we didn’t just go and do the classical setups – big picture, two cross-angled close-ups and maybe a little travelling. Instead, we made it a priority to stay in a certain angle to capture a mood or, if there was something very characteristic in a scene like a big fireplace, we’d say every shot will have the fireplace in the picture. This is the magnet of the scene and we’ll go around that. Sometimes people would walk out of picture and we’d just leave them there.

“Steven wrote some really wonderful scripts – but he’s not loyal to one genre in one episode, he would go from one to another. So when you think this is really a high-paced drama, suddenly it’s very different, it’s a man on an expedition searching for something, and now it’s a love story. He would switch moods very often, which means we would also be very open to the scenes and try to not fit them into a system.”

With only very quick rehearsals for each scene – “I don’t like to empty the bottle” – the director prefers to shoot just three or four takes before moving on. “There’s a truth in the acting and you want to protect that,” he explains. “It’s a very subtle thing but that’s the main part of my work, that’s what I love doing. They don’t have to act exactly how I want them to act, because they’re the actors. They have a feeling for what they want to do but I have to respond as a person watching and, for me, it’s like watching something truthful for the first time and it has to work for me as well. I love actors – it would be strange not to, but it’s a sacred moment when they do their work and I feel privileged to be close to that process.”

Pryce is joined by fellow Game of Thrones star Oona Chaplin in the main cast

Nyholm might call himself an actor’s director, choosing to use his time on set with his cast – which also includes Michael Kelly, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Franka Potente, Stephen Graham and Tom Hollander – instead of fretting over “the small things that aren’t important.” And as a result, there wasn’t a day on set when he wasn’t happy with what they had produced, despite some other challenges.

“There were some days that were more tough than others, of course, because we also work physically, under the influence of weather and sometimes things that technically were more difficult. We had to do a lot of work with limited time and with a lot of locations, so there was a lot of moving around and setups in places we hadn’t been before. We had a crew that very quickly found a way of moving into a spot and knowing what was important and what was not important – that was a big thing.”

Nyholm is currently in pre-production for his next project, feature film Keepers, but admits he now feels at home working across Europe, particularly in England. Other credits include Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and European crime drama Jo.

“When I work in England, I feel at home and it’s close to Denmark,” he adds. “The big thing is the world is becoming smaller and working as I do today would have been much more difficult 15 years ago. My world has become much bigger and I really enjoy being in England. Hopefully I’ll do more.”

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Fan power

Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?

Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.

You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.

It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.

“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”

Starz series Outlander was developed from novels by Diana Gabaldon

For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”

Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.

This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.

As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”

For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”

One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”

Like Outlander, Preacher is based on source material with a legion of loyal fans, whose reaction to the adaptation is crucial

Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”

Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.

“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”

A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”

While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.

This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.

Darren Prew and Kerry Ford (second and third from right) dressed as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targayen after they won a Blinkbox Movies competition to hold a Game of Thrones-style wedding at Eastnor Castle

“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”

Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”

Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.

In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.

That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.

A costumed fan meets The Flash himself, Grant Gustin

Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”

Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”

However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”

While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.

These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”

Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.

“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”

Supergirl’s David Harewood poses with a fan of the show

This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.

At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”

While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.

If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.

However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.

This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”

Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.

Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”

This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

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Creative heavyweights step up development

 

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

Fox in the US is developing a drama based on the 2015 Netflix movie Parallels.

Entitled The Building, it centres on a group of people who enter a skyscraper that transports them into parallel universes, which are similar to but not quite the same as our own. In one, for example, Russia has dropped a nuclear bomb on the US.

The idea is being adapted for TV by Neil Gaiman and Chris Leone (the latter wrote and directed the movie). Albert Kim, whose writing and production credits include Sleepy Hollow and Nikita, is the showrunner. The project caps off a busy year for Gaiman, who has also been adapting his novel American Gods for Starz.

Also in the news this week is Alan Ball, creator of HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball is reported to be teaming up with HBO again on a series that will star Holly Hunter as the mother of a non-traditional progressive family.

According to Deadline: “Once a therapist in private practice, Hunter’s Audrey now reluctantly utilises her skills as a psychologist in the corporate world, balancing her more progressive personal philosophy with the need to make money. She is a smart, caring woman who believes she knows what’s best for everyone and has no problem telling them. But with her husband now fighting depression and her children mostly grown, she finds herself somewhat adrift.”

Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter

Other high-profile stories this week include the news that Sonar Entertainment has signed a first look deal with Robert Downey Jr and Susan Downey’s production outfit Team Downey. As part of the deal, Sonar and Team Downey are working on a project called Singularity. Also involved in the creation of the series is Anthony Michael Hall, who will star.

The deal is the latest link-up between Sonar and star talent. The company is also working with George Clooney and Tom Hardy, with the latter starring in upcoming period series Taboo.

Commenting on the new deal with Team Downey, Sonar CEO Thomas Lesinski said: “We are excited about Team Downey’s vision for developing and producing a broad scope of original premium content. [This] is another example of our commitment to forge creative collaborations with the most dynamic talent in the industry.”

In terms of commissioning news, US network NBC has renewed its military medical drama The Night Shift for a fourth season. The series, produced by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), follows the medical team at the fictional San Antonio Memorial Hospital. Season one of the show averaged around 6.5 million viewers, followed by 5.3 million for season two and five million for season three.

Night Shift
The Night Shift has been given a third season

At Fox, meanwhile, there are reports of a new dance drama being developed with director McG, who began his career in the music industry. The project, which sounds little bit like the Channing Tatum movie Step Up, is called The Cut and is set in a dance conservatory. It’s the latest in a line of Fox scripted projects with a musical theme – possibly inspired by the success of Empire. For example, Empire creator Lee Daniels has been working on a series called Star for the network, while last week we reported that Glee star Darren Criss was working with Fox on Royalties.

Also this week, it was announced that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of BBC3’s Fleabag, is to write and star in a spy drama for BBC America. The network has ordered eight episodes of Killing Eve, a thriller about a psychopathic assassin and the woman hunting her. The show is based on a novella by Luke Jennings called Villanelle.

“[The show] is a brilliantly fresh take on the cat-and-mouse thriller from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a major talent,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Underneath the deceptively simple and entertaining surface is a subversive, funny, obsessive relationship between two women, that plays out across some of the most and least glamorous locations imaginable.”

Bull
First-window rights to Bull in the UK have been taken by Fox Networks Group

It’s also been a busy week on the distribution front. Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Asia, for example, has secured exclusive first-window rights to CBS legal drama Bull in the UK from CBS Studios International. This follows a previous deal that gave FNG rights to Bull in markets including Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Sweden.

Elsewhere, SPT has sold the much-anticipated new ITV period drama The Halcyon to broadcasters in Scandinavia, while Vimeo has continued its move into longform TV content. Among scripted titles that will now be available on its platform are All3Media International comedy Fresh Meat and seven seasons of Company Pictures’ cult youth series Skins, available globally excluding Australia.

Paul Corney, senior VP of global digital sales at All3Media International, commented: “Vimeo has a strong presence around the world with a great brand that reaches consumers in all key markets. Its team has a dynamic outlook on content delivery and we’re looking forward to working with them to bring more fantastic new shows to the Vimeo audience.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag

In terms of new book rights deals, the big story this week is that BBC Worldwide-based indie producer Baby Cow has acquired the rights to Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith has been lined up to adapt the novel for TV alongside her husband Nick Laird.

Swing Time is Baby Cow’s first major acquisition since Christine Langan, ex-head of BBC Films, took over as CEO this month. She said: “Zadie Smith is the voice of a generation and Swing Time is a thrillingly ambitious story of friendship, rivalry and fame.”

Smith added: “I am absolutely delighted at the prospect of working with Baby Cow on an adaptation of Swing Time. Their extraordinary track record in both drama and comedy I have always admired from afar and it’s a thrill for me to get the chance to collaborate with [founder] Steve Coogan and Christine Langan.”

Smith burst onto the literary scene with her first novel White Teeth. Swing Time, only released this week, is her fifth novel.

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Williams brothers plot deceitful drama

The Williams brothers
The Williams brothers’ Liars is coming to ITV

Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.

Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.

The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.

Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”

The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.

Das Boot is being adapted as a television series
Das Boot is being adapted as a television series

Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”

As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”

All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.

Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).

Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).

The Heart Goes Last
Rights to The Heart Goes Last have been picked up by MGM Television

The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.

David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”

Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.

MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.

This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s works will be reimagined in Welcome to Hitchcock

Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.

The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”

Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.

The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.

Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.

Dynasty
Dynasty is set to be reborn on The CW

Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.

This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.

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Film producers flock to TV

Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady
Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady

Number 9 Films is teaming up with Red Production Company on a TV adaptation of Henry James’ seminal 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the third time the novel will have been adapted for the screen, following a 1968 BBC miniseries and a 1996 feature film directed by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman.

The story focuses on Isabel Archer, a vivacious New World ingénue who leaves America for Old World Europe, keen to experience all that life has to offer. She rejects a series of marriage proposals from eager but safe lovers for a life of independence, but when she inherits an unexpected fortune that will grant her desires, she falls prey to two American ex-pat schemers, the elegant Madame Merle and the charming but cruel and calculating Gilbert Osmond. She is then lured into a marriage with unfortunate consequences.

Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films will executive produce alongside Red’s Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley). StudioCanal will handle worldwide distribution.

Elizabeth Karlsen
Elizabeth Karlsen

Karlsen said: “We have long been admirers of Nicola’s groundbreaking work in television. She has built an extraordinary company and creative team that we feel privileged to be collaborating with on our first outing into TV. We believe we share a sensibility with Nicola of being drawn towards material with complex and compelling female lead characters, which is one of the defining elements of Portrait of a Lady.”

Shindler added: “Elizabeth and Stephen have produced some of the most acclaimed and engaging feature films of recent years and I am delighted to be working with them on their first television project. Having been originally published as a monthly serial, and addressing themes of personal freedom, betrayal and modernisation, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady lends itself perfectly to the longform storytelling that only TV can offer.”

No broadcast partners have been named yet, but with the story set against the backdrop of New York, Boston, London, Florence and Rome, it lends itself to international coproduction.

James’ works have a track record of being adapted for TV and film – with The Bostonians, The Europeans, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw having also been reimagined for the screen. However, Turn of the Screw is the only one of his novels to have been adapted in recent times.

Maigret-Sets-A-Trap-3FEAT
Rowan Atkinson as Maigret

Also this week, UK broadcaster ITV commissioned two further Maigret films with Rowan Atkinson again in the title role.

ITV said: “Following huge audience appreciation and critical acclaim for Maigret Sets a Trap, which aired on ITV earlier this year and achieved a consolidated rating of 7.2 million viewers and a 28% share of the audience, writer Stewart Harcourt will adapt Night at the Crossroads from Georges Simenon’s novel. Simenon’s son, John, returns as an executive producer of the new films. The second of the new films will be Maigret in Montmartre – set, once again, against the backdrop of 1950s Paris.”

The 120-minute films will go into production in November 2016 until February 2017, and will be produced by Thompson & Thompson Productions and Georges Simenon Limited.

The films have been commissioned by controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “It’s an absolute privilege to commission two further Maigret films for ITV. We were thrilled to welcome Rowan Atkinson to the channel as Maigret. His superb performance, and the filmic execution from the production team ensured the audience greatly appreciated the first Maigret film which aired earlier this year.”

The two new films are actually the third and fourth in ITV’s Maigret series. Maigret’s Dead Man, based on Maigret et son mort, has already been filmed and will air on ITV later this year.

George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)
George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)

The recommission is also good news for BBC Worldwide, the show’s international distributor. Broadcasters including France 3, ARD Germany and TV4 Sweden have picked up the first two films.

In other news, Sonar Entertainment has entered into a first-look deal with Smokehouse Pictures, the independent production company founded by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The first project under the new arrangement is America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, based on a serialised Huffington Post article by Steven Brill. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Making a Murderer) will adapt alongside Nicki Paluga, with Ricciardi and Demos directing.

America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker is the true story of a venerable pharmaceutical company that created a powerful drug and marketed it aggressively to children and the elderly while allegedly manipulating and hiding data about its terrible side effects. The drug company was investigated and agreed to pay more than US$2bn in penalties and settlements, but made a reported US$30bn from sales of the drug worldwide.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be in business with George and Grant and their talented team at Smokehouse,” said Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski. “Smokehouse has a stellar track record of delivering commercial and critically acclaimed content. It will be a great partner for Sonar Entertainment, as the two companies align perfectly in our approaches to premium TV programming.”

The deal is another significant step into the TV business for Smokehouse Pictures, which is better-known for its movie output (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Monuments Men, Argo, Money Monster). Other television titles coming out of Smokehouse include Ms, a miniseries about Gloria Steinem and the founding of Ms Magazine, set up at HBO, and The Studio, an ongoing series about a movie studio in the 1990s, set up at Showtime.

Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder
Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder

The deal is also a coup for Sonar, which already has a number of hotly anticipated series coming through. Current series on air, in production or slated to commence production include season two of The Shannara Chronicles, for MTV; Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, for FX and BBC One; The Son, for AMC; and Mr Mercedes with AT&T’s Audience Network for DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.

Meanwhile, Seven Network in Australia has begun production on a sequel to Blue Murder, a miniseries that aired way back in 1995 on public broadcaster ABC.

The original miniseries starred Richard Roxburgh as real-life disgraced policeman Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson. Roxburgh will again play Rogerson, who was convicted of killing university student Jamie Gao just last week. That ruling is reported to have triggered production of the sequel, which had been sitting in development for two years.

In further interesting news this week, the BBC is poised to debut its supernatural drama The Living and the Dead on its on-demand platform iPlayer. All six episodes of the show, created by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), have been available to watch since Friday (June 17). The episodes will then receive a weekly airing starting from Tuesday, June 28 at 21.00. The BBC has rolled out a similar release for Anthony Horowitz’s new drama New Blood, which became the first BBC primetime drama  to debut episodes online.

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Networks and streamers look for laughs

The 2014 movie Dear White People
The 2014 movie Dear White People

This week there has been a lot of movement on the scripted comedy front. Netflix, for example, has given a series order to Dear White People, a 10-part adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name.

Due to air on the US streamer in 2017, it tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students. Like the film, the series will be produced for Netflix by Lionsgate.

Commenting on the deal, Chris Selak, executive VP of television at Lionsgate Television, said: “We’re proud to expand our partnership with our friends at Netflix on a comedy that tackles racial themes with a combination of intelligence, honesty, irreverence and wit. Our original film with Roadside Attractions catapulted Dear White People into the national conversation about race, and Justin and the rest of the creative team have an opportunity to expand this world and bring its timely and universal themes to a global television audience.”

Another comedy in the news this week is E4’s Foreign Bodies, which follows a motley gang of travellers on a three-month trip around Asia. The show, which is being produced by indie company Eleven and is backed by eOne, was first unveiled by E4 in January. But this week it was announced that US cable channel TNT is coming on board as a partner.

“Foreign Bodies is a terrific opportunity for TNT to work with eOne, Eleven and E4 on a series that will appeal to young adults not only in the US and the UK but also around the globe,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT. “It’s also a great chance to bring (the show’s creator) Tom Basden’s voice to our stateside viewers.”

The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall
The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall

Hulu, meanwhile, has announced that there will be a new season of The Mindy Project. The show aired on Fox in the US for three seasons before moving to Hulu for season four. The new run will take the total number of series to five (and the total number of episodes over 100).

A number of critics have been watching season four closely since it launched in September to see how the show has changed under new management. The general conclusion has been ‘not much’ – although the Hulu episodes are two to three minutes longer. This has led some observers to suggest that The Mindy Project has benefited as a result, because it can dwell a little longer on comic scenarios or character development.

Hulu’s announcement about Mindy was part of its Upfronts, which also included some news about its drama slate. It has, for example, ordered a pilot set in prehistoric times called Dawn. Created by Hank Steinberg (The Last Ship, Without a Trace) and Ken Nolan (Transformers 5, Black Hawk Down), the show centres on a tribe of Neanderthals and their battle for survival after meeting a group of Homo Sapiens.

The company also announced there will be a second season of The Path, which centres on a religious cult.

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path
Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path

Among other major scripted stories this week is the news that FX in the US has ordered Feud – another anthology drama series from Ryan Murphy. The eight-episode show, which also involves Fox 21 Television Studios and Brad Pitt’s prodco Plan B Entertainment, will star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Based on a script by Jaff Coihen and Michael Zam, it explores the rivalry between iconic US actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

This week also saw National Geographic in the US move forward with Killing Reagan, a TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book of the same name. Playing Reagan, the actor who became US president, will be Tim Matheson (The West Wing). His wife Nancy will be played by Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City). The script for the adaptation is from Eric Simonson, a documentarian who is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The Killing franchise has been a remarkable success for Nat Geo in recent years. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, which were also based on books by O’Reilly and Dugard, were the most watched shows in the channel’s history. Kennedy and Jesus were also Emmy-nominated. The new show is different from the other Killing productions in that it deals with an unsuccessful assassination attempt (by John Hinckley in 1981). The other three stories famously ended with the deaths of their protagonists.

The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronal Reagan
The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

There are also a couple of stories this week about planned book adaptations. Sonar Entertainment is developing a show about the contraceptive pill based on a book by Jonathan Eig. Called The Birth of the Pill, the show centres on the four people who were involved with the development of the birth control during a period of sweeping social change and rapid scientific advances. Eig has previously written three non-fiction books, two based around baseball players and one about the plot to capture gangster Al Capone. The TV adaptation is being written by Audrey Wells, who has penned a number of popular movies including The Game Plan, Shall We Dance and Under the Tuscan Sun.

In the UK, meanwhile, there are reports that production firm Rooks Nest is developing Joseph O’Neill’s acclaimed novel Netherland for TV. The project is Rooks Nest’s first move into TV drama after success with recent movies such as The Witch and Obvious Child. Netherland is set in post-9/11 New York and London and centres on Hans, a Dutch expat working on Wall Street who rediscovers his love of cricket when he joins the Staten Island cricket team. However, he soon falls under the spell of the team’s charismatic Trinidadian coach Chuck Ramkissoon.

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Coben sees Red with new prodco

The Five writer Harlan Coben
Author Harlan Coben has formed Final Twist Productions alongside Red Production Company

As we’ve discussed previously, there’s a growing trend in the TV business for producers to go in search of talent and ideas from theatre, film and the book world. A good example was Red Production Company’s decision to link up with author Harlan Coben on The Five, an original series for European pay TV broadcaster Sky.

The primary rationale for this is to get access to good ideas. But there is also a commercial advantage in being able to add a name like Harlan Coben to your package. Producers regularly bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough top rank writers to go round, so this is one way of sprinkling sufficient fairy dust on a project to help it pass muster with the commissioning broadcaster.

As it happens, Coben didn’t write The Five. He provided the idea, which was then turned into TV by Danny Brocklehurst (with Coben an active participant in the creative process). Potentially there’s a double benefit here. If The Five does well, Coben-backed projects have greater appeal. At the same time, Danny Brocklehurst also becomes an increasingly in-demand writer.

Anyway, the point of all this speculation is that Coben has just announced that he is launching his own independent production company in partnership with Red. Coben will be joint CEO of the new company, Final Twist Productions, alongside Red founder Nicola Shindler, with StudioCanal handling international distribution of any original content that emerges from the firm.

The new company is already in development on a series called Six Years, adapted from Coben’s bestselling novel. It tells the story of Jake, a college professor who six years earlier watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. But when Natalie’s husband is murdered and Jake goes to find her, he discovers the grieving widow is not Natalie at all, but a woman he’s never seen before. As Jake seeks to uncover the truth, his search takes him on a dark journey that puts his life at risk.

Shindler: 'We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky'
Red Production Company’s Nicola Shindler

Significantly, the new firm will be based in the US and will develop “contemporary, thrilling drama for American broadcast networks.” This is a significant step both for Red and StudioCanal, both of which take pride in their European DNA.

Coben said: “Nicola and I had such a terrific experience creating The Five for Sky1. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve made. Final Twist Productions will take our American-British teamwork to the next level by bringing Nicola’s daring new outlook and producing style to the USA.”

Shindler was equally enthusiastic: “I am excited about our upcoming projects for US audiences, which will have Harlan’s characteristic blend of suspense, humour and hope.”

The race to lock in great writing talent has also seen Zodiak Rights, part of the newly enlarged Banijay Group, sign a first-look finance and distribution deal with Arise Pictures this week. Key to this deal is access to an original slate of programming created and written by Arise’s co-founder, LA-based British writer/director David Raymond (The Other Man, Sins, Absence of War).

Tim Mutimer, head of distribution at Banijay Group, said: “David is brilliant at creating original, returnable series with global appeal, and Arise comes equipped with a slate of content that perfectly aligns with the Banijay Group scripted strategy. We are delighted to be working together to utilise the international distribution channels of the newly merged group to help bring these projects to the market.”

David Raymond working on set
David Raymond working on set

Raymond added: “For me, the great thing here is the creative support. By collaborating with a global partner, we have been able to create a flexible commercial framework that puts the creatives first and moulds the finance plan around the project’s individual requirements. It’s liberating and gives us a platform to focus on narrative and hopefully create content that audiences are going to want to return to.”

The first series under the deal is expected to go into production later this year – details to follow.

Other interesting announcements this week include Sonar Entertainment’s decision to option the rights to bestselling graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J Tiwary. The critically acclaimed novel will be developed as a multi-part event series, with Tiwary adapting his work for TV and serving as executive producer.

The Fifth Beatle recounts the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and his effort to drive the unknown band from playing in a cellar in Liverpool to international superstardom. Epstein overcame great obstacles, being a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.

Tiwary says: “Brian Epstein’s story is rich in inspiration and is set amid a backdrop of great cultural change and the legendary history of The Beatles, so an event series feels like the only way to do Brian justice. We’re going to do wonderful things with the extra creative room afforded to us and I’m thrilled to be working with Sonar to take advantage of all the exciting elements this format has to offer.”

The Fifth Beatle
Vivek J Tiwary’s The Fifth Beatle is being made into an event series

News of the adaptation comes as another man often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – legendary producer George Martin – passed away aged 90.

Another interesting project in the works is a series about Grand Duchess Anastasia, which is being prepared for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the US. Anastasia was probably executed with the rest of the Russian royal family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But there were rumours in the following years that she had actually escaped with her life. This project supposes she did survive and went to live in Paris, where she became a spy.

The idea is from Daniel Mackey and Seth Fisher. We’ve talked about Fisher in this column previously. Having made his name as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, he moved on to co-write National Geographic Channel’s four-hour Mayflower pilgrims miniseries Saints and Strangers. In January he was also named as co-writer of Discovery Channel’s Harley & The Davidsons, a limited series about the origins of the iconic motorcycle brand. Clearly he is seen as being good at spicing up history. His partner on the new project – Mackey – is less well established. His major credit to date is web series Aim High.

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Hitting the right spot

Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.

Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.

A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade's End, which was filmed in Belgium
Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End, which was filmed in Belgium

Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.

“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”

He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”

However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.

Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”

Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”

The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.

“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”

Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland
Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland

There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”

Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.

A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.

Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”

Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”

Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”

Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania
Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania

Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”

Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”

However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”

Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”

Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”

Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.

The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco
The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco…

Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.

With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.

Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).

Gene Stein,  the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”

However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”

This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.

In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.

...as did Spike TV's Tut
…as did Spike TV’s Tut

Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”

There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”

One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”

While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.

Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.

For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”

Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand
Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand

Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.

It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.

Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”

While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.

Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”

So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.

Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.

Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.

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Novel approach

Turning books into TV is a well-trodden path, but as pressure for hits increases, development execs are reading more novels than ever before.

This may be the disruptive age of digital, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry mining the fusty old world of books for drama ideas. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, The Pillars of the Earth and The Walking Dead (a graphic novel) are just a few of the high-profile projects that have made stunningly successful transitions from paper to pixel.

Yellowbird chief commercial officer Berna Levin
Yellowbird chief commercial officer Berna Levin

Coming soon are adaptations of the likes of Russian classic War and Peace, fantasy series Shannara and Sharp Objects, based on an early novel by marriage-noir queen Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), while Fox is currently airing Wayward Pines, M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Blake Crouch novel Pines.

Ask drama producers why they are still so enthralled by books and they tend to cite similar reasons. One of the most obvious, says eOne TV senior VP of creative affairs Tecca Crosby, is that “you’re starting with something that has a built-in fanbase or name recognition. All of us are challenged by how to break through, so if you secure a well-known book, that’s an advantage when talking to networks or introducing the project to audiences.”

Just as significant, adds veteran producer Sally Woodward Gentle, is the fact that there is a ready-made story, world and characters to play with. Woodward Gentle, whose company Sid Gentle Films is adapting Len Deighton classic SS-GB for BBC1 in the UK, says: “It’s easier for the commissioning editor to visualise the end result when you have a book to show them. It’s also attractive to screenwriters. Many don’t want to start an idea from scratch. With strong source material, they can get straight into developing their interpretation of the story.”

Interestingly, though, this is about as scientific as it gets. Ask producers if they scrutinise international sales spreadsheets or conduct focus groups before making a decision and the general consensus is that this isn’t the priority. “We are in business, so you have to align your project to the needs of the marketplace,” says Paula Cuddy, partner at indie producer Eleventh Hour. “But you can’t embark on this process unless it’s a personal passion. Producing drama is such a long, arduous, treacherous process that you have to love what you’re doing.”

Noomi Rapace (left) starred in the adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium's trilogy
Noomi Rapace (left) starred in the adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium’s trilogy

She cites the example of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which she worked on in her previous role as head of development at Hat Trick Productions: “The literary agent gave me a galley proof of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale on a Friday. I read it over the weekend and pitched it to the head of drama at Hat Trick on the Monday. He loved it. I then approached the film and TV agent representing the rights, and on this occasion was granted a limited window of exclusivity to pitch it to a broadcaster (ITV/Laura Mackie was the natural home) and get a writer on board. Upon me achieving this, the agent and Indie swiftly formalised the contract for the rights.”

As Cuddy’s comment indicates, enthusiasm is swiftly followed by the pursuit of rights to the book (assuming it is still in copyright – we’ll come to classic works later). Typically, this is handled by the producer, though sometimes they’ll come with the backing of a broadcaster or a programme distributor.

The exact process varies project by project, says Tally Garner, founder of Mam Tor Production, “but typically you’d be looking to get an 18-month to two-year option on the TV rights, with a holdback on film rights so that you don’t end up competing with a rival project. If you are successful in getting the project into production then usually you’ll acquire the rights on the first day of principal photography, working to a fee structure that you agreed when you took out the original option.”

Garner has been immersed in this process for years. Initially a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, she was then tasked with setting up the agency’s in-house production company Cuba Pictures. At Cuba, she adapted Boy A and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before leaving to form Mam Tor, which has a first-look deal with Endemol Worldwide Distribution (now under the new Endemol Shine International banner). In her experience, the course of options negotiations is inevitably affected by the level of competition for rights, though money is not the only consideration: “As an agent, you want there to be a market value to the rights – so you tend to have a rough figure in your head. But the final decision really hinges on a combination of cash, enthusiasm and vision. When I was an agent, I was always wary of selling rights where there wasn’t a creative producer involved in the pitch, someone who had a real sense of how the elements might come together.”

The issue of whether the proposed producer truly understands the book comes up a lot. Even when there isn’t a bidding war over option rights, most producers have to undergo a beauty parade to persuade the author and agent they are the right people for the job.

ITV Studios creative director Kieran Roberts says he engaged in a pretty thorough creative dialogue with author Phil Rickman when ITV decided it wanted to adapt his book series Midwinter of the Spirit (which features Merrily Watkins, a country vicar with exorcism skills who helps the police with crime cases). “It wasn’t too difficult for us to establish our commercial credentials. But, understandably, Phil wanted reassurances about how we would approach the project and whether we would be faithful to the world.”

A key issue was the fact that the books are based around the UK town of Hereford, which is not the easiest place to mount a major production. “He’d had offers to relocate to the Home Counties but wanted to keep the stories where they were set,” says Richardson. “We were happy to go along with him because that part of the country has a special, quite magical quality – even though it will present a few more practical challenges.”

Richardson stresses, however, that producers also need to come to projects with a clear vision of what they are trying to do – because ultimately they are responsible for producing a show that works: “I enjoyed the first book, but didn’t come away with a real sense of how it might develop as a returning series. However, I really felt that the second book delivered on the premise. So I had a conversation with Phil and we agreed that it made sense to begin the series with the second book.”

Tecca Crosby: 'A proactive approach to projects can help win the author over'
Tecca Crosby: ‘A proactive approach to projects can help win the author over’

eOne’s Crosby says a proactive approach to projects can help win the author over. She cites the example of Canadian author Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, which is being adapted for CBC Canada. “We were trying to persuade her that we were the right people to adapt the book. She was keen on the fact that Alan Hawko (star of Republic Of Doyle) would be involved. But I also talked to her about the fact that one of the minor characters in the book had an interesting back-story that could be explored more in a TV series. She loved that idea.”

Wooing the author is critical when securing rights. But producers then need to make a judgement call about how much they should be involved in the adaptation. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Berna Levin, chief commercial officer at Swedish film and TV producer Yellowbird, because it depends on the character of the authors in question. “The writers we work with are very cool. All of them say, ‘The books are my children, but the film/TV productions are my grandchildren – someone else is responsible.’ They want to be convinced you know what you are doing, but then they will let you get on with your job.”

Yellowbird has established a global reputation for its adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, Liza Marklund’s Anneka Bengtzon and Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. In Levin’s opinion, having some distance between author and production is useful because it allows the screenwriter the time and space they need to establish their own vision: “But it isn’t like we want to exclude the authors from the process. They are brilliant writers of crime and sometimes they have 10, 20 or 30 ideas that never made it into their books, which makes them a great resource. For example, it was very exciting for us to work on Occupied, which was an original idea from Jo Nesbo, not from a novel.”

Yellowbird is unusual because of the impact it has made from its Swedish base. Aside from the quality of its shows, a couple of practical factors have underpinned that progress. “Firstly, we have focused almost entirely on crime novels, because that seemed to us to be the genre with the best potential to travel internationally,” says Levin. “And we also make sure we secure global rights when we option a novel. We need to do this to ensure we aren’t competing with international versions.”

For every author who doesn’t want to be involved in the adaptation process, there is another that does. “I think there is a generation of writers such as William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and Ben Richards who are equally comfortable in both forms,” says Cuddy. “We’re working with Sebastian Faulks on an adaptation of his novel On Green Dolphin Street. He is so bright and brilliant that he can manage the transition very well.”

Authors who write the screenplays to their own books tend to have two main challenges. The first, says eOne’s Crosby, is that “novels are often based around the interior world of characters, but screen storytelling is about action and dialogue. Writers who cross over have to be able to translate that.”

The other, says Cuddy, is the need to avoid over-attachment to the source material – since not all of the book’s content will work on TV. William Boyd and Gillian Flynn are both reputed to have this ability “and Sebastian Faulks is also demonstrating a real pragmatism with our project,” she adds.

Starz show Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon's series of novels
Starz show Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of novels

This challenge is even more intense when dealing with book series. Jenna Glazier, senior VP of TV series at Sonar Entertainment, is currently overseeing an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy epic Shannara for MTV. Shannara consists of 14 books written between 1973 and 2013, “so there is a big challenge in knowing where to start and where to end; what to include and what to leave out,” she says. “We’ve decided on the second book, Elfstones of Shannara, as our starting point because it’s a fan favourite that has a love triangle at the centre of the story.”

On the author/screenwriter issue, Glazier says: “It’s always of value to have the author involved because they’ve spent years with the work. With Shannara, Terry is executive producer and Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) are on board as writers.”

One way of addressing the above issues is to have a team that combines the author and screenwriters, says Glazier, “We’re adapting Philipp Meyer’s 2013 best-seller The Son for AMC. Philipp is adapting it with the support of two screenwriters.”

Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne makes an interesting observation on this issue, which is that a lot of contemporary writers have grown up absorbing the grammar of film and TV in their daily lives. This has led to a growing number of novels that are written with a sparser style, punchier dialogue and a more visual sensibility. This in turn lends itself to screen adaptation.

As hinted at earlier, the nature of the book optioning process will depend to some extent on whether the book is a new title subject to an intense bidding war, an older title that has slipped slightly off the radar, or a work that’s no longer subject to copyright (i.e. anyone can adapt it without permission). Books that are subject to a bidding war tend to have strong in-built awareness, “but you have to be sure you’re bidding for something that will fit the requirements of broadcasters,” says Cuddy. “Not all books, no matter how good, fit the schedule.”

eOne senior VP of global production Carrie Stein, who worked at agency ICM earlier in her career, also advises caution. “There’s always a buzz around a new book and that can seem like a reason to go out and bid for it. But I urge my team to think about all the books that got optioned for $100,000 10 years ago and are still sitting on the shelf. When you chase best-sellers, you can lose focus on creativity and passion.”

As if to underline the point, Stein is currently shepherding a 1983 novel by Harry Crews called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (ranked 1,127,231st on Amazon US’s best-sellers list as this sentence was written). For Stein, the relative obscurity of the book is offset by the original, idiosyncratic nature of the story, Crews’s cult following and the fact that a rising screenwriting star is committed to the project. “Matt Venne (currently writing The Devil’s Advocate for NBC – which started as a book, then became a film and will now be a TV series) has read it and is on board the project.”

Rights-free classic novels are, of course, fair game – with BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point currently working on two prestigious projects, War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. At first sight, they seem like manna from heaven, but there are two potential problems. The first, raised by Cuddy, is that they can be creatively restrictive: “We’re interested in period stories but would probably want to take a more revisionist approach than a classic novel would allow. So instead of adapting Bleak House, for example, we’re currently working on an adaptation of Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. That is set in the 1700s but was published last year and has real contemporary resonance as well as being a great mystery story.”

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke's book, airs on BBC1
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke’s book, airs on BBC1

Tally Garner, meanwhile, points out that classics are non-exclusive, which means you get to spend lots of time and effort developing a version, only to find that someone else has got there first. Exactly this happened a couple of years back when a Great Expectations miniseries and movie hit the market within a few months of each other. This rush to exploit IP is particularly common when copyrights initially expire.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the book business has not made its own changes as a result of digital media. So how does this impact on the book-to-TV transition? One way, says Garner, is that there is now a vibrant source of content available in the e-publishing market (EL James and Hugh Howey both started in this space): “We’re developing a property called Confessions of a GP, which started out as an ebook before going to traditional publishing. I still tend to see the agents/publishers as the key relationships but there is this growth of great content coming through on the internet.”

eOne’s Crosby says the new landscape also opens the producer up to a more real-time dialogue with the author’s fanbase, something that can be beneficial from a marketing perspective: “We developed fantasy TV series Bitten (pictured top) out of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld book series. She has a huge online fanbase and they really let us know what they think when we take decisions about who to cast in key roles.”

With TV in the ascendancy at the moment, another key question is whether the medium is starting to secure rights to books that might previously have been picked up for film. Payne is not convinced of this, arguing that the love affair between books and TV goes back decades. For her, one of the key points that has to be reiterated is that basing a story on a book can only take you so far, “because ultimately it has to work as TV. We have properties like Cider with Rosie on our slate. That’s pretty well known in the UK but not outside. When it goes into distribution it will be judged on its own merits.”

Books in development
Mam Tor’s Tally Garner has a few projects bubbling away, including an adaptation of The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and another of Mary S. Lovell’s Bess of Hardwick, about the creation of Chatsworth. The latter has Harriet Warner attached (Call the Midwife) as writer.

Sally Woodward Gentle, former creative director at Carnival Films and now CEO of Sid Gentle, is working with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall) on Len Deighton’s SS-GB for BBC1. Based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain, SS-GB takes place in Nazi-occupied London. Deighton is back in vogue at the moment, with Simon Beaufoy reported to be adapting novels featuring Cold War spy Bernard Samson.

Lookout Point is close to going into production on War and Peace with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. It’s also developing a mega-budget version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities with another screen heavyweight, Alan Bleasdale.

FremantleMedia is working with Corona Pictures on an adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s Bird of Prey, with the script written by JJ Connolly (Layer Cake). It’s also working on Ugly (based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) with Roland Joffe, while FMNA is adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with Starz.

Yellowbird’s upcoming productions include an adaptation of Johan Theorin’s novel Echoes from the Dead (with Fundament Film) and a third Swedish Wallander series. It is also developing an English version of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters with HBO.

Donna Wiffen, formerly of FremantleMedia, is now MD at indie producer Duchess Street Productions. Backed by investment firm Bob & Co, she is working on a saga about two families based on The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer.

Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott are behind an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle. The project has been linked to various channels, but is currently positioned as a pilot for SVoD platform Amazon. Amazon is also behind the adaptation of the Bosch novels.

Netflix, following its breakout success with House of Cards (the second adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ acclaimed series of novels), has announced plans to make a series based on Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Red Planet Pictures’s Tony Jordan is developing a major BBC drama called Dickensian which will bring Charles Dickens’ characters together into one world. Expect Tiny Tim with Miss Havisham and
so on.

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