Tag Archives: StudioCanal

Converging on Cannes

The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.

Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.

The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.

Beta Film’s Morocco – Love in Times of War

Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.

Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.

Russian drama Road to Calvary

Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.

Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.

Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.

Nippont TV format My Son

From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.

While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.

All3Media International drama The Miniaturist

From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.

Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.

If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.

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Time for a change

Benedict Cumberbatch takes centre stage in The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting novel about loss and grief. The star tells DQ about shaking off his more famous alter-ego and stepping into a producer role.

As the eponymous detective in Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is used to playing an extraordinary character in ordinary situations. So his latest role, starring in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, is something of a reversal.

“He’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” the actor says of Stephen Lewis, the character at the heart of the BBC1 film, which airs this Sunday. “It was a challenge. There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ The engagement with the material is there but it feels very strange.

“I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude or mindset, skill set or cultural background, or all of those things. So the transformative aspect of what I’ve done in a lot of those roles is very far from me and I was bringing a lot more of myself – as I sound, move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times but it was also great because of that.”

The Child in Time is the first TV adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel

The Child in Time follows Stephen, a children’s author, two years after the disappearance of his daughter as he struggles find a new purpose to his life without her. His wife Julie (played by Kelly Macdonald) has left him and his best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside, battling demons of their own.

In a slight departure from the dystopian source material, which also has a strong political strand, The Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard’s adaptation focuses on the characters at the heart of the story, producing a film about the loss of childhood and themes of grief, hope and acceptance.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts and encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time, and what happens in trauma with time and how the conscious and subconscious can slide. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor, who is as comfortable on screen as on the stage, admits the role is “a million miles” from some of his best-known work – “particularly the more famous one” — but says that was part of what drew him to the drama.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who also exec produces, stars alongside Kelly Macdonald

“That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned; not doing the usual or the unusually usual. And the extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it. [I didn’t think] I could get my teeth into something emotionally raw just because I’m a new dad for the second time, it just happened that way.”

The Child in Time marks the first television commission from Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch TV label, which coproduces with Pinewood Television and Masterpiece for PBS. StudioCanal is the distributor. As such, the actor is also an executive producer on the film.

“It’s different when you’re there with a producer’s hat on because you’re there thinking about who would be right to direct it. I’ve never been at that stage of things before,” he explains. “So it’s intriguing. It’s the first time; we’ll see how it worked, but everyone had a great experience making it, which is a great testament to us doing something right as a production team.

“I really enjoyed it. It’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, in a raw very state, to then give feedback about what you feel as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance. It’s very peculiar. It’s always horrible, it’s never nice. The way you look, the way you do things, it’s horrible and, trust me, the internet is full of hate but it’s nothing compared with the self-critic in your head for brutality. I’ve said it all before they have.”

L-R: Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock

SunnyMarch is already building up a slate of projects, which began with documentaries and is now expanding further into high-end drama on the back of The Child in Time. Cumberbatch will also star in Melrose, an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“It’s one thing with me at the front of it,” he says of Melrose. “There are lots of things we have on our slate that do fulfil the promise of diversity and giving a bolder place for women both behind and in front of the camera. What I’m doing in the immediate future doesn’t reflect that because we’re trying to get it off the ground and do things that are probably a bit more expected in the tundra and with me involved.”

Until those projects evolve, The Child in Time is “a big deal for us,” Cumberbatch admits. “It’s the first McEwan adaptation for television so that was a huge boon for us. We were very excited about that.” Looking toward the future, SunnyMarch is seeking “diversity in every sense,” the actor adds, “not just to do with opportunities for all but also the range of material with those opportunities, so genre-wise, large screen, small screen, live events, found material as well as published or unpublished fiction or biographical work. We’re trying to create as diverse a slate as possible in every way.”

But after three seasons and 13 episodes as Sherlock – and a somewhat series-ending epilogue to the most recent instalment – is there more to come? “Maybe,” he teases.

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Storm brewing

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adam Price’s first major TV project brought the machinations of a coalition government to Danish screens with Borgen, which picked up an International Bafta during its three-season run.

Now he is taking on religion in Ride Upon the Storm, with two seasons of the show already commissioned by Denmark’s DR and Arte France.

Sitting alongside star Lars Mikkelsen, Price tells DQ how he hopes to address the big questions of life and religion in the show, which ostensibly focuses on the family of Mikkelsen’s priest Johannes, his wife and, in particular, their two sons, who each choose different religious paths.

Ride Upon the Storm is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal.

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Doctor who?

New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.

Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.

The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.

Writer and part-time doctor Dan Sefton advises Jodie Whittaker on set

Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.

She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.

Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.

“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”

Trust Me sees new Doctor Who star Whittaker as a nurse who fakes doctor qualifications

It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.

“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”

Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”

Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.

The Inbetweeners’ Blake Harrison also plays a role

“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.

“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”

Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”

Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.

“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”

Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.

“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.

“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”

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France’s finest

From a pair of mystery dramas and the introduction of the ‘female Columbo’ to the story of a film director forced to make a new version of King Kong for a power-mad dictator, French drama is set to enjoy a breakout year. DQ casts its eye over some of the new series coming to the small screen.

Baron Noir season two
The ‘French House of Cards’ returns. Produced by Kwai for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.

Why was Baron Noir season one so successful around the world?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon
: Politics is back – and even if Baron Noir is about French politicians, it deals with the same problems every politician has to face. That’s the reason the show reaches a global audience. The style of the series also had a great impact. Baron Noir is a thriller, a very tense drama with a cinematographic style, a dramaturgy you can’t escape, and editing that makes it as addictive as possible. The performance of the actors is also astonishing. It’s a universal story of revenge, which is one of the most powerful motivations in a drama.

How does season two move the story forward?
We shot season two during the French presidential and legislative elections. No one is capable of predicting what is going to happen, so we have decided to follow our own story. What’s important is that the preoccupations and the big picture of the politicians’ lives are accurate and realistic, whoever is running the country in real life. So in season two, Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis) is elected president and Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad, pictured) is her special advisor. But democracy is threatened by two evil forces: jihadism and the far right. Our two lead characters become ever more divided and separate from each other and fight to save the republic.

What are the biggest challenges in producing the series?
We started shooting with four scripts out of eight, because of the availability of the cast. It was a challenging race to have the final scripts ready to shoot and keep the quality.

Zone Blanche (Black Spot)
A local sheriff seeks the truth about a mysterious town. Produced by Ego Productions and Be-Films for France 2 and distributed by AB International Distribution.

Where did the idea for Black Spot come from?
Series creator Mathieu Missoffe
: Based on initial conversations with producer Vincent Mouluquet, I originally set out to build a strong mystery set in an isolated place that would feel familiar and strange at the same time. We knew this had to be a very visual show to stand out, so we moved away from traditional urban crime shows, instead focusing on a small, colourful community surrounded by hostile and untamed nature. This is how our fictitious town of Villefranche came to life, a place that has its own rules and atmosphere, with a blend of influences ranging from Twin Peaks to Nordic noir.

What is the style or tone of the series?
The show borrows from different genres to create its own unique identity. It doesn’t shy away from gritty crime scenes, but we twisted familiar crime show elements by adding a western movie look and occasionally flirting with fantasy as far as the surrounding nature is concerned. A slight touch of comedy is also part of the mix – a necessary addition to create the kind of entertainment we feel is relevant for today’s general audience.

How is French drama evolving?
The good news is that most of the old taboos that used to drag down French fiction have now collapsed. Politics and religion are back on the map, while darker and edgier stories are gaining traction. It’s definitely an exciting time, with our traditional realistic auteur shows now able to coexist with series that are trying to open new doors in entertainment with exotic locations, big-budget coproductions or new genres. At the same time, talents in front of and behind the camera are finally crossing over between film and television, resulting in even more opportunities.

Capitaine Marleau (Chief Inspector Marleau)
A ‘female Columbo’ tackles crime with her own offbeat methods. Produced by Passion Films for France 3 and distributed by France TV Distribution.

What are the origins of the show?
Producer Gaspard de Chavagnac
: Our lead actor Corinne Masiero (far left) first portrayed Capitaine Marleau in French miniseries Entre Vents et Marées (Between Winds and Tides), directed by Josée Dayan. She played the part with such wit and originality that we immediately decided to pitch France 3 the character as the heroine of a new cop series. The network did not hesitate long before ordering a 90-minute pilot.

How was the series developed with France 3?
After the success of the pilot, written by Elsa Marpeau and again directed by Josée Dayan, France 3 agreed to develop two more episodes and then three others. We are currently producing the second season.

How did you cast the series?
As Masiero was not very well known, we sought famous guest stars for each episode. Gérard Depardieu agreed to appear in the first episode, followed by other actors familiar to French viewers – including Victoria Abril, Muriel Robin, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pierre Arditi. The result was an average of 4.3 million viewers for our first four episodes.

La Forêt (The Forest)
A small town is gripped by fear when people begin to disappear in a mysterious forest. Produced by Carma Films for France 3 and distributed by About Premium Content (APC).

Tell us about the show.
APC founder and joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart
: The Forest is a modern crime series with a gripping story set against a mysterious background. An audience-friendly thriller at heart, it does not, however, shy away from social themes, setting out to provide a realistic portrayal of issues surrounding today’s youth.

How would you describe the writing process?
Contrary to the current writers room trend, The Forest was written by a single screenwriter, Delinda Jacobs. She came to us with a very precise idea of what the show would look like and the commissioning channel, which wanted to modernise its line-up, was very supportive from the start.

What was the biggest challenge during production?
The biggest challenge for us was finding the right actors. We wanted the story to feel real, with life-like characters and true emotions, so we spent a lot of time looking for people who were able to convey this feeling to the audience. We think we found the right team with Alexia Barlier (pictured left, 13 Hours), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Samuel Labarthe (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) for the main roles.

What new stories are being told in French drama?
French drama has always had a social focus and a taste for realistic and intimate stories. What’s changing is that there is now a new appeal for modern narrative forms, new genres and writing techniques. The Forest is definitely part of that movement, keeping in line with parts of the French cinematic tradition but opening up to new and highly effective ways of telling stories.

Les Témoins (Witnesses) season two
The return of the atmospheric crime thriller. Produced by Cinétévé for France 2 and distributed by Newen Distribution.

Why was Witnesses season one so successful around the world?
Director Hervé Hadmar
: The plot, the atmosphere and detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier, below right). The audience just wants to know who this woman is.

How does season two move the story forward?Witnesses is, of course, the story of Sandra. In season one, she has learned that the ‘ideal family’ does not exist. Her husband is not Prince Charming – and Sandra herself is not so perfect. At the beginning of season two, she’s living alone with her two daughters. She still believes in love, of course, but has to ask herself, ‘Is love the greatest danger?’ As for the main plot, it centres on unravelling what happened to 15 men who are found dead, totally frozen, on a bus. It emerges that they all loved the same woman, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot, below left). Who is Catherine Keemer? Is she responsible for their deaths? Season two explores the relationship between Sandra and Catherine.

How would you describe your directing process?
I do not fight against the ‘principe de réalité’ – pressures of time or accidental events. I’m trying to use those little incidents, bad weather, for example, to create something new. I have learned to be excited by asking myself, ‘What the hell is going to happen today?’

What is the style or tone of the show?
A Nordic noir with a delicate, strange and almost hypnotic atmosphere.

How is French drama evolving?
With more mature themes and artistic values. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience is very important. We have learned to take risks but there is still a lot of progress to make. For that, let’s hope success will continue to knock on our doors.

Transferts (Transfer)
Five years after a man drowns, his mind is transferred into someone else’s body. But at a time when ‘transfers’ are outlawed, he must live undercover to avoid detection. Produced by Filmagine, Be-Films and Panama Productions for Arte, and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.

What are the origins of the show?
Producer/co-writer Patrick Benedek
: The series grew out of my friendship with Claude Scasso. For a while we’d been wanting to make a thrilling sci-fi series, aware that in France, at the time, no network wanted to go down that road. It was very liberating for me – I could give free rein to all my beginner’s mistakes! I didn’t imagine for a minute that the project would see the light of day.

How would you describe the writing process?
Claude and I worked on the conception and construction of episodes together, in meetings and with notes. We spent entire days projecting ourselves into our characters and our universe – with a creative purpose but also with a keen critical eye on each other’s proposals – until we got that exhilarating feeling that we had something. That’s the advantage of knowing each other well, of not having an oversized ego and of being a team. After that, Claude would write a first draft of the treatments, which I would then rework. Finally, he would go over what I wrote, and I would go over what he did, until we were both satisfied.

What were the biggest challenges during production?
In France, it’s always the same problem – do as much as possible as well as possible with the little financial resources we have. This means always knowing how to get the most out of your resources; knowing how to distribute them while maintaining your artistic vision.

Kim Kong
While filming in Asia, a director is kidnapped by a neighbouring dictatorship and ordered to make a new version of King Kong. Produced by Kwai and Armance for Arte and distributed by FremantleMedia International.

What are the origins of the series?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon
: The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and told to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which was called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie. The other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel with a similar theme, being about an author who’s kidnapped by an deranged fan and forced rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. But our story is not about a specific regime or specific country; it’s really about creativity and constraints.

How do you balance the drama with elements of comedy?The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end, but in a similar style to movies like Gold Rush, M.A.S.H. or The Ladykillers. The subject is very serious and dramatic but we build in several contradictions that create comedy. It’s a question of life and death but the director has to deal with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the leader, so there are lots of elements where you can do nothing but laugh.

What was the biggest challenge?
Mostly the casting and the language (with the show being filmed in French and Chinese). But also working out where we were going to shoot. As our dictatorship doesn’t exist in real life, we looked for a location for months before deciding to film 90% of the series in a studio in Paris.

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Perfect Storm

A family of priests are at the centre of Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), Danish writer Adam Price’s follow-up to political drama Borgen.

From a topic that may not immediately seem the most exciting – coalition politics in Denmark – Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured above) crafted a captivating drama that gripped audiences around the world. And now, turning his attention to religion in the forthcoming Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), the writer is hoping lightning will strike for a second time.

The series reunites Price with producer Camilla Hammerich and Danish broadcaster DR to tell the story of a family of Danish priests. While one son has followed his father into the priesthood, his brother has chosen another path.

The cast is headed by Lars Mikkelsen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as the parents, with Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen as their grown-up sons.

“I can think of no other broadcaster in Denmark that would be willing to tell a story that is as tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative as this will be,” Price says. “My last show dealt with politics and I thought, ‘Where do I move from this?’ You can [take inspiration from] so many emotions as a writer – the emotion for this show is definitely curiosity.

“In the times we are living in now, it’s almost more political to write about religion than about politics – because when we’re talking about integration, immigration, social issues, geopolitics and terrorism, we are in fact dealing with religious issues. It is one of the great topics of our time.”

L-R: Ride Upon the Storm stars Lars Mikkelsen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen

It’s the family at the centre of the story through which such issues are explored. “If you want a compelling story, you need to tell it from the point of view of the characters,” says Price. “It would be very difficult to talk about religion from too aloof a position, to talk about great ideas, religious history. It’s too big. You need to pull it down to a human level. The characters must always be at the heart of the story.”

DR is producing Ride Upon the Storm as a coproduction with French-German network Arte and SAM le Français, in association with distributor StudioCanal. The series, which is being filmed in Denmark and Spain, will debut this fall with 10 episodes, while DR has already ordered a second 10-episode season scheduled to air in autumn 2018.

Alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen is regularly held up as one of the TV dramas that brought Danish – and Scandinavian – drama front and centre on the world stage.

“Nobody ever thought Borgen would travel or moderately interest an audience because, when you pitch the series, everybody should be running away screaming,” Price jokes of its niche political content. “Religion is definitely just as difficult a main topic as politics, but if you have captivating character stories then you can talk about all the difficult things on top of that. That was the way we told the stories of Borgen so I’m delving into the same bag of tricks. I hope it will still work.”

Price (centre) surrounded by the cast of his political drama Borgen

With the show in development for two-and-a-half years, Price spent six months working on Ride Upon the Storm by himself before setting up a small writers room, just as he did with Borgen, which was penned by just three writers for the first two seasons. Staff writers Karina Dam and Poul Berg joined Price in writing the first 14 episodes across Ride Upon the Storm’s two planned seasons, while Price and Dam are completing the final six episodes together.

The writers room, however, was more than just a collaborative effort. Price explains: “It was very important for me to have different attitudes of faith in the writers room – Karina is a Christian, Poul is probably an agnostic and I guess I am a non-believer myself, but a very curious one. It’s important in a show
like this that we take religion and faith extremely seriously.

“I’m not here to make people not believe, and the show is also not there to make people believe. What we really want with the show, apart from telling hopefully compelling, character-driven stories about faith and religion, is to make viewers wonder about
faith and religious issues and to make people discuss them.”

As the head writer, Price is typically hands-on across the entire project, overseeing up to six drafts of each script before they are approved for shooting. “I try to sketch out the full season because we need to know what we are moving towards so we don’t invent the world anew every time we storyline and pitch an episode,” he says. “It’s very important to know the end point on the map, so that while we can make many interesting and meaningful detours, there is a very clear course set for the whole story.

Ride Upon the Storm is ‘tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative,’ says Price

“The actors know the characters’ mid-points and end points in the season. We discuss that vividly with them every time we meet. If a character is to suffer a nervous breakdown in two or three episodes’ time, the actor has a right to know so they can build up to that moment and it won’t be a steep mountain to climb in the actual episode. It’s so important that we can see small traits of [such a plot point] in the way the character behaves a few episodes in advance.”

Research is another part of Price’s writing process, but he says it’s important not to become “lost” in details that can limit creativity in the writers room. A priest has also been on hand as a religious advisor, sitting in the room once a month to listen to pitches for the next block of episodes.

“With reference to Borgen, it’s one thing to step on a person’s political beliefs, but it’s another entirely to step on their religious faith,” Price explains. “We need to know when we’re stepping on any toes; we can’t step too wildly and in all directions without researching or planning quite thoroughly. This is definitely territory where people can be very upset. It can and will probably happen.”

After the success of Borgen, which ran on DR for three seasons and starred Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister, Price admits he tries not to concern himself with the expectations over his follow-up series, which is coproduced by the SAM label founded by Price, fellow writer Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) and producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (A Royal Affair) in 2014.

Also on SAM’s slate is Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface), a hostage drama for Denmark’s Kanal 5, and Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a radio station-focused show that launched in March on TV2 Charlie. The company also has projects in development in Denmark and the UK, as well as the US with HBO and AMC.

“The Danish industry has changed – it has become much more international,” Price says. “We should just be grateful that we’re able to finance these shows with big countries in Europe and across the world.

“Now they know our shows – and if we can do something as good as The Killing, they want to be a part of it. That’s a great privilege because it allows us to tell even more ambitious stories. We are standing on the shoulders of our own success, which is very demanding but also a great privilege.”

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Land of the Midnight Sun

While locations often bring a series to life, few had as much impact as the setting of Midnight Sun, both on and off screen, as the drama’s leading actors tell DQ.

The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon that occurs each summer north of the Arctic circle and south of the Antarctic circle, where the sun is still visible at midnight. Around the summer solstice, there is 24 hours of daylight.

On television, it has been the subject of an episode of Canadian drama Northern Exposure, which examined the impact of the midnight sun on the residents of an Alaskan town, and an episode of The Twilight Zone, whereby the effect was created when the Earth was put on collision course with the sun.

The setting was taken to the extreme on Swedish-French coproduction Midnight Sun, known locally as Midnattssol and Jour Polaire respectively and currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic following a deal with distributor StudioCanal. The story sees French police officer Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) travel to Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, to investigate the brutal murder of a French citizen during the midnight sun period.

L-R: Midnight Sun actors Leila Bekhti, Gustaf Hammarsten and Sofia Jannok at Mipcom last year

With the help of Swedish DA Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten) and a member of the Sami (Sofia Jannok), a local indigenous tribe, she comes to realise the killing and more that follow are part of a 10-year conspiracy involving many of the town’s inhabitants.

The series, produced by Nice Drama and Atlantique Productions, comes from co-creators, writers and directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, who were the main draw for Hammarsten (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to sign up for the eight-episode series.

“Sweden is a small country so if there are talented directors, you know them or know of them. I had wanted to work with Måns and Björn for a long time because I respect them,” the actor tells DQ. “Then they asked me to read something and I was just thinking, ‘Yes please.’ And when I read it, I was even more pleased because they had something really fantastic and special. I was really happy.

“Some things just look good on the paper but the way they worked, it was very important to keep it local and not make it too flashy. For an actor, that’s fantastic. You know you have a good part and there is fantastic scenery around.”

The appearance of the Sami people in a story set in their homeland, located inside the Arctic Circle, was also an attractive proposition for Jannok, who is herself a member of the indigenous tribe.

The series centres on a murder investigation

“Sami is a small community and we had been hearing about these guys doing research for a couple of years, so I knew they had done their homework and I had seen who they had been speaking to,” Jannok reveals. “That’s why I thought it was an interesting project – it gives an image of today and brings issues to the surface that aren’t talked about ever, like the racism against Sami people. People started to debate these issues, both in Sami communities and in Sweden. That’s a bonus if you get people to think about not only the thriller story but also identity, diversity, the many languages and the collisions between the different characters.”

Hailing from the region where the series is shot, and with personal experience of the midnight sun phenomenon, Jannok believes it’s a breath of fresh air to see a story like this told in this unique landscape.

“For people who live there every day, it’s not extraordinary,” she says. “We don’t even have a word for it, it’s just the sun. It’s nice to change the perspective and to not always be in the capital or the cities.”

Hammarsten continues: “It would be very easy to make it a French-Swedish series where there’s a clash between the two cultures, but all of a sudden you go the third way. It’s almost like the landscape has its own part. It’s like the settings have a role.”

Bekhti adds: “The main character is nature and everything around it. This has somehow fed my role and my character. The scenery seems to be moving literally and figuratively as well, fermenting somehow, just as what’s happening to my character and this impression of endless day. It fed the character and invites the viewer to discover a new part of the world.”

Midnight Sun was shot during the darkness-free period from which it takes its name

French actor Bekhti admits she was particularly affected by working in the unique environment, describing the shoot – which took place during the midnight sun – as a “strong human experience.”

“I forgot where I was, I lost my bearings almost,” she explains. “I slept very little. But instead of being scared by the experience, I thought I would exploit it and make use of it for my character. It was an amazing experience to live there in that space, even if it was physically demanding. It gave more insight into my character and the location helped me.”

Hammarsten picks up: “Leila was the hero of this show. I could go home to my apartment in Stockholm in the weekends but she was up there all the time with the sun and these crazy Swedes! Leila was really up there on her own, so I felt she also needed me – we had a pact. I knew of Måns and Björn but I didn’t know who this French star was. But she’s totally down to earth and a fantastic actor.”

Despite the challenges of the setting, Hammarsten balks at the thought of filming the series anywhere else. “How could you shoot this in a studio?” he says. “Maybe you could if you had an enormous amount of money. For me, it was the same but less of a struggle. We were there for a long time, in the midnight sun. It gave us something.”

For Jannok, though the location may have been familiar, the task at hand was not, with Midnight Sun being her first acting job.

“The new thing for me was acting, that was the challenge,” she exclaims. “So I was glad I was being taken care of. Everyone was so nice and friendly. It was good doing my first time acting at home. I used to ski past the house of my character, so this was home. We don’t sleep during the summer! We’re better at sleeping during the dark winters, but it was nice being home.”

Though herself an experienced actor, with credits including The Prophet and All that Glitters, Bekhti also faced a new challenge when scenes called for her to speak in English – the shared language used by Swedish and French characters in the series, which also features the native Sami language.

“I didn’t speak English at all,” she says. “I was coached for two or three months, six hours a day. It meant I was really thrown into the deep end, I was immediately immersed in that character. I didn’t want to lose the actor’s part in it all. English was an instrument, so when I was frightened, the first thing that came out was in French. That meant it was more realistic.”

Midnight Sun made waves as the first ever French-Swedish coproduction, with many similar cross-border partnerships now in the works. It remains to be seen whether anyone else will attempt to stage another series in this dazzling environment.

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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Our friends in the frozen north

Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.

next-summerNext Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.

Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.

downshifters_1Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.

The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.

midnight-sunMidnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.

nobelNobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.

heartless-emilie-claraHeartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family –  a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”

Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.

Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.

Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”

Hassel-Ola-Rapace_small-1Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.

springtideSpring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.

Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.

skamSkam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.”  Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.

Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.

Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fonds primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.

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Buyers stick to the scripted in Mipcom

The sequel to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit was screened in Cannes
The sequel to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit was screened in Cannes

The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.

The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.

There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.

Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.

Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.

Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.

Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.

Timeless
Timeless was picked up by Channel 4

Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.

SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.

The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.

Midnight Sun
StudioCanal thriller Midnight Sun

Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”

Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.

Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.

Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.

Jude Law in The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).

Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.

While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”

Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.

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Mipcom showcases global writing talent

Malin Lagerlof
Malin Lagerlof

Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.

At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.

French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.

Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.

Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.

Jesse McKeown
Jesse McKeown

Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.

Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.

Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”

Chris Haddock
Chris Haddock

This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.

StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.

Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK  as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.

Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind
Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind

Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.

From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”

Ortega
Sebastian Ortega

RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.

Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.

It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”

Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.

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Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

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Asia awaits Korea’s Moon Lovers

The original version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
The original Chinese version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.

The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.

In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.

The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.

The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.

Doctors has done well on SBS
Doctors has done well on SBS

The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.

The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.

The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.

There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.

Descendants of the Sun
Descendants of the Sun

There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.

A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.

Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).

Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.

The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures
The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures

Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”

This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.

The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.

The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.

Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky
Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky

In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.

Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.

Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.

In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.

Mr Robot will return to USA Network
Mr Robot will return to USA Network

Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.

There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?

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Rola Bauer

The StudioCanal executive’s contemporary selection includes her firm’s darkly compelling drama Spotless alongside global mega-hits like HBO’s Game of Thrones.

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-s2-ep13-1How to Get Away With Murder
Viola Davis’s Emmy win last year for her performance as Annalise Keating was well deserved. Davis is a consummate actress who maintains an authoritative presence and tranquil demeanour that keeps this series grounded with its many plot twists. The ever-moving, breathless pace of the storyline and time-jumping devices provide a captivating thrill ride. Steadily rising dramatic stakes that excite and surprise are sustained by excellent writing and stellar performances. The development and complex evolving relationships of the principal characters are riveting and dizzying and keep the viewer absorbed in the story.

game of thrones-s7Game of Thrones
The cinematic scope of this adult epic fantasy, with memorable characters and rich storytelling, has succeeded brilliantly in making Game of Thrones one of the top drama series worldwide. It is ruthlessly brutal in its dynastic battles and there is so much texture to the series with its supernatural elements. The themes are universal – Game of Thrones is rife with treachery, heroism, honour and loyalty, all woven through a vast geography. And, of course, I love our Crossing Lines star Tom Wlaschiha, who portrays Jaqen H’ghar.

Spotless2Spotless
I must be a little self-serving as an executive producer of Spotless. The overwhelming critical acclaim the show has received has been validating and rewarding. Writer Ed McCardie has created morally ambiguous, complex characters – who are a delicious mix of dark and repellent while also charming and sexy – and a storyline peppered with black humour. Ed manages to hold, tether and build a compelling story that is, at its heart, a family drama, centring on two very disparate, though lovable antihero brothers, while they become increasingly entangled with perverse gangsters in some of the most absurd situations. Series leads Marc-Andre Grondin, Denis Menochet, Miranda Raison and Brendan Coyle give remarkable performances.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

Fargo
Living up to the Coen Brothers’ iconic film version is no easy feat. To even attempt and risk the criticism of adapting a film that was not only nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but also features on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Movies is quite audacious. But the superlative writing and cinematography have captured the look and feel of the source material, with the addition of a refreshing storyline. It’s still a crime series and the juxtaposition of humour and horror is done brilliantly. In season one, Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful as the inscrutable bad guy Lorne Malvo.

empire-cast-thatgrapejuice-600x310Empire
Empire engages with its sizzling and delicious soapy drama themes that the writers and actors bring marvellously to life. It works well and raises the stakes with great storyline twists that keep it fresh. It’s got everything: feuding characters, romances gone sour and the brilliant Terrence Howard holding it all together. And there is lots of slick, wonderful music with catchy tunes from Timbaland. The series quite simply has balls and is not afraid to break new ground.

mr-robotMr Robot
This show features a very unusual hero and unique premise that draws in the viewer. Rami Malek’s breakout performance succeeds in making a delusional, morphine addict with social anxiety disorder sympathetic as the cleverly and creatively developed lead character Elliot. This prickly character, who also serves as narrator of the story, to someone who exists only in his head, is made vulnerable and human by Malek without glamorising him. The brisk pace, editing, plot twists and intrigue keep the story moving and the audience thoroughly engaged.

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Two of a kind

Castle executives Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller tell DQ how they plan to put some fun back into television with new series Take Two, which aims to replicate the light-hearted tone of the recently cancelled procedural.

US television viewers are used to seeing their favourite shows hauled off the schedules at a moment’s notice when a broadcaster wields its axe to halt poor ratings and critical maulings.

Yet for fans of Castle, ABC’s long-running crime procedural, the decision to bring the series to an end after its recent eighth season was still something of a shock.

Despite falling to its lowest ratings (averaging around six million) and suffering the departure of popular leading actress Stana Katic, reports suggested the cast had signed on for a ninth season in 2016/17 – Katic’s co-star Nathan Fillion among them.

The series followed Richard Castle (Fillion), a bestselling mystery novelist, and Kate Beckett (Katic), an NYPD homicide detective, as they worked together to solve unusual crimes in New York City.

But as ABC juggled its plans for the year head, the network decided it would not push ahead with a new season and instead dropped Castle. The series concluded on May 16 this year.

Fans of the show’s comedy-drama tone and its leading double act shouldn’t fret for too long, however, as creator Andrew W Marlowe is busy in development on a new series with the potential to eclipse Castle’s global popularity.

Alongside his Castle writer/producer wife Terri Edda Miller, Marlowe is setting up Take Two, a new procedural that sees a private investigator solving crimes with the help of the former star of a hit cop show.

Castle starred Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion
Castle starred Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion

“With Take Two, we thought that after working on a procedural show, what would we be able to bring to a crime scene and what would the actors bring to a crime scene having done so many?” explains Marlowe (pictured top alongside Miller). “We thought it would be an interesting pairing to have a PI, somebody who’s a former cop who’s serious about the job, and somebody who’s been living in this imaginary world but thinks they know everything and also has all these amazing plot lines to draw upon.

“We thought we had some really great elements for an amazing show because we could take a very familiar procedural format but populate it with these new and interesting characters and watch what happens when they’re forced to be together.”

While the premise might seem stranger than fiction, it may not be that far from the truth, according to Miller. “Living in LA and doing what we do, you actually run into that all the time,” she reveals. “What happens after coming off a show – where do you put all that energy after having been a star for eight or 10 years and then having all that go away? You have so much to give but then your energy becomes defused and it can go to a really bad place or, if directed more interestingly, can go to a really good place, which I think is what’s going to happen with our main character.”

Having created a hugely successful show that ran on US network television for eight years. Marlowe says the secret is having great characters – but with the understanding that they will have to be reinvented as the show progresses.

“You have to allow those characters to grow in ways that keep them in conflict and keep them moving towards each other and away from each other,” he says. “If you don’t have those ingredients, the show can peter out very quickly. It will just be a conceptual show. So the time and diligence really has to go into crafting a longer-term arc for all of your characters so that when people get to the end of a season, they can feel a satisfaction and a pay-off but also a desire to see the characters grow in new and interesting ways in the next season.

“Some of it is alchemy, some of it is just luck and some of it is the TV gods smiling down on you with a particular project. But you can stack the deck in your favour through smart casting, finding people who genuinely have chemistry that you can see on camera, and making the show aspirational for the audience.

Rola Bauer
Rola Bauer

“But we also know the audience has seen so many procedurals that you have to deliver great stories with great twists and turns. You always have to try to be out in front of your audience, given everything they’ve seen, to try to figure out how you can play fair and be surprising at the same time. Those are all the things you look at and then you cross your fingers.”

Though the pitch for Take Two might echo that of Castle – a cop teams up with an unlikely partner to solve crimes – that’s where the similarity ends, Miller says of the new LA-set series. In particular, while Castle’s homicide detective dealt only with murder, having a PI at the heart of Take Two opens up a wider range of crimes for its characters to investigate.

“You have new characters with a fresh and different point of view, so that changes the territory right away,” she continues. “You can have somebody like our main character Emma, who’s an actress and has been through 300 of these cases in her show – but what about the first time she actually sees a body? Her reaction is going to be really different from what Beckett’s reaction would have been or Castle’s reaction would have been. The audience is going to be living through her eyes and that will make it a completely different experience.”

The show’s creators believe procedurals are growing in importance as an alternative option for viewers in a market dominated by serious, hard-hitting drama. “There’s this desire in the US among the broadcast networks to compete with cable, but there is appetite for all sorts of different shows,” Marlowe observes. “When they compete with cable, they generally have a watered-down version of what you can do in a subscription or cable market. What we’re seeing is the result of that cycle, of that desire to compete. But it’s left the audience with a hole that we hope a show like this can fill.

“Audiences are still hungry to have some fun, to be able to be closed-ended, to not think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch all 12 episodes.’ So the ability to have closed-ended fun, to just drop in for the episode, have a really good time and have a fulfilling experience, still holds significant value for viewers. We totally get binge-viewing – we binge stuff ourselves – but sometimes you just want not to have that kind of commitment. Doing that, you can actually grow a fanbase over time.”

Marlowe says he and Miller share a love of classic screwball comedies and Hollywood power couples such as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, which have influenced their own screen careers.

“One of the things we love about our creative process is sometimes it mirrors our characters, with sparks flying,” he explains. “We each come at things from a different point of view so we naturally gravitate towards those sorts of stories. Part of it is in our artistic DNA but part of it is also in our relationship DNA.”

The pair are executive producers of Take Two for their MilMar Pictures label, alongside Tandem Productions’ Rola Bauer. StudioCanal will distribute the series.

It was the strength of Castle’s international popularity that persuaded Marlowe and Miller to set the show up with Munich-based Tandem. Looking back at their first meeting, Bauer recalls: “I had followed Castle for many seasons and I loved the lightness of it. We have a little too much serialised, dystopian, negative drama. The biggest challenge was really not talking about story but getting our respective reps to move on making the deal. We did and it got made and it’s really wonderful.”

Miller continues: “We listened to Rola talk about Castle internationally and how it was received. Her thoughts about what the foreign market was like and all the things she was looking for fitted with something Andrew and I had in our back pocket and really wanted to do.”

Unusually – but representing an increasingly common practice in today’s global television market – Take Two was announced without a broadcaster. Tandem and StudioCanal are scouring the globe to see who’s interested in picking up the story, at a time when European broadcasters are crying out for the type of light procedurals US broadcasters no longer appear to be interested in making as they instead pursue high-concept dramas in their battles against the dominant cable and SVoD platforms.

Bauer adds: “We have maybe sidelined the entertainment aspect of television, and that’s a shame because there has been a desire to dig more into our weaknesses and our desire to find a certain type of redemption. I get that, and that’s important. But it’s also important to be entertained. That’s what we’re looking for – to have a good, entertaining show. But there aren’t going to be ‘popcorn crime’ cases. There are going to be some really interesting crimes that are fresh and that will resonate with viewers. Combine that with the entertainment of the double-act lead characters – the banter, the potential love – and it will be fun.”

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Nashville gets encore on CMT

Nashville stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton
Nashville, which stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton, is moving to CMT

These days, when a network cancels a scripted show, there is often a call from the creators, the acting talent and the hardcore fanbase for someone else to step in and save it.

Usually, this plea falls on deaf ears, but there have been a few instances of shows saved from extinction by third-party channels and platforms. Among the best examples are Ripper Street, The Mindy Project and Longmire, all of which were saved by the intervention of SVoD platforms (Amazon, Hulu and Netflix respectively).

To this list of last-minute rescues we must now add country-and-western scripted series Nashville, produced by Lionsgate TV, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment. The show aired for four seasons on ABC before being cancelled last month.

However, weeks of frenetic wheeler-dealing by Lionsgate TV group president Sandra Stern has resulted in the greenlight for a fifth season, which will air on Viacom-owned country-and-western channel CMT and Hulu (which will stream episodes of Nashville the day after they appear on CMT).

“CMT heard the fans,” said CMT president Brian Philips. “The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. Nashville is a perfect addition to our line-up. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. Nashville belongs on CMT.”

The Last Kingdom
Netflix is coproducing the second season of The Last Kingdom, replacing BBC America

Equally effusive was Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu. “Nashville has long been a fan favourite show on Hulu and we are so proud to continue to make new episodes available for fans to stream the day after they air. We look forward to bringing more episodes of this series to its passionate and devoted audience.”

“CMT and Hulu are the perfect combination for Nashville and we want to thank the incredible fans for their unwavering support – #Nashies, you helped make this possible,” added Kevin Beggs, chairman of the Lionsgate Television Group. “We also want to extend our appreciation to the state of Tennessee, city of Nashville, and Ryman Hospitality for their unending support.”

While the resurrection of the show has very much been presented as a victory for fan power, there’s also a strong business case for all involved.

CMT, for example, will be drooling at the show’s audience. In a press statement, the partners on season five said: “The recently wrapped fourth season of Nashville attracted more than eight million weekly viewers across all platforms and ranks as one of television’s most DVR’d series. The series is particularly strong with women 18-34. Out of more than 180 broadcast dramas since fall 2012, Nashville ranks in the top 20.”

While it’s highly unlikely that all of the ABC fanbase will follow the show to CMT, Nashville is almost certain to deliver CMT an audience that is at the upper end of its usual anticipated viewing range.

The Bureau
The Bureau is heading to Amazon

For Hulu, the risk of getting involved is minimal because it already shows Nashville and will have a good idea of the kind of audience it can expect to attract. As for Lionsgate, the deal is about much more than just the US TV market. The series airs in 82 international territories, making it a significant asset in the distribution arena.

There is also the small matter of music spin-offs. Since its launch, the show has inspired 10 soundtracks, which have collectively sold more than one million album units and more than five million single-track downloads. As an added bonus, it has been nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards.

The question is, will we see more deals like this? Well, it seems pretty likely. With more and more cable and SVoD channels in the market for scripted content, it stands to reason that they will be attracted to franchises that have built up brand awareness.

Another story that kind of underlines this point is the news that Netflix has replaced BBC America as the US coproducer of season two of The Last Kingdom, a historical drama that also involves BBC2. For Netflix, the beauty of this deal is that it has some tangible evidence of the show’s appeal in the US (the first season aired on BBC America). Armed with that knowledge, it has secured rights to the show in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain and Portugal. It will also add season one of the Carnival Films-produced show to its US portfolio later this year.

Aside from these deals, this week has more of an acquisition than a production feel to it. In the UK, for example, Amazon Prime Video has acquired two French dramas – spy thriller The Bureau and political drama Baron Noir from StudioCanal. The Bureau follows agents who assume false identities as they seek out and identify targets and sources, while Baron Noir centres on a French politician seeking revenge against his political enemies.

Rosewood
Alibi has picked up Rosewood

StudioCanal has also sold a package of shows to SBS Australia, including The Five, Section Zéro and Baron Noir. Previously, SBS acquired Spotless and The Last Panthers from StudioCanal. Commenting, Marshall Heald, director of TV and online content at SBS Australia, said: “Gritty crime thrillers like The Five, political dramas like Baron Noir and dark sci-fi series like Section Zéro bring something fresh and exciting to our world drama slate.”

Back in the UK, UKTV-owned channel Alibi has acquired crime series Crossing Lines from StudioCanal. It has also picked up US medical crime drama Rosewood from 20th Century Fox Television.

In Canada, meanwhile, Bell Media streaming service CraveTV has acquired exclusive SVoD rights to a slate of new US broadcast dramas. Among these are the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Notorious, film adaptation Training Day and romantic drama Time After Time. Also in Canada, specialty channel Vision TV has acquired the first season of comedy drama Agatha Raisin, which just aired on Sky1 UK.

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Five high: Mark Tonderai on his new Sky1 series

Director Mark Tonderai talks to Michael Pickard about helming every episode of new Sky1 drama The Five and finding inspiration from football managers.

A former radio DJ, Mark Tonderai made his name as a director in feature films – most notably 2012 thriller House at the End of the Street, starring a then relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence (it was filmed before but released after The Hunger Games).

He’s now about to break out on the small screen after directing all 10 episodes of Sky1’s latest original drama, The Five.

The series, created by novelist Harlan Coben and with Danny Brocklehurst as lead writer, follows a group of friends who are haunted by the disappearance of a young child while he was in their care. Years later, they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.

Produced by Red Production Company (Happy Valley) and distributed by StudioCanal, it stars Tom Cullen, O.T. Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.

Mark Tonderai
Mark Tonderai

It’s rare for a TV director to helm every episode of a single show, especially one that runs to 10 parts – still an unusually high number of episodes for a British drama.

“Most people don’t do 10 episodes. It’s a real ask,” Tonderai admits. “I come from features and it’s equivalent to three films. It’s a long time to shoot – it took over 127 days. It’s a massive deal.”

The director was initially brought on board to oversee three episodes of The Five, which launches tonight, but says the material and the team around him gave him the confidence to take on the whole season.

“You are only as good as your producer, and Karen Lewis has got a wonderful way of leading – she just lets you be,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could go into battle with this lady because, if I’m honest, she’s stronger than me.’ I had the right foundations to go forward, and I thought it would really help to have one person immersed in all of the creativeness.”

In particular, Tonderai says he was drawn to the project because he could relate to the idea of a group of people who haven’t been able to move on with their lives and are in a position in life where they don’t want to be.

“I lived like that for years,” he explains. “I used to put up posters in football stadiums. The job wasn’t beneath me but I didn’t want to be putting up posters in urinals in football stadiums. I wanted to be making films. That feeling of living in limbo, stasis and ambiguous grief that the characters have is where I was. It was a form of grief. So it was a combination of the material, the personnel involved and thinking I had to go for it because I might not get an opportunity to do all 10 with this sort of platform again. Sky were fantastic about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

A self-confessed fan of Coben’s thrillers, Tonderai shared the author’s intention to replicate his page-turning plot twists on television: “My goal was I didn’t want people to go to the toilet. I want people to sit there or, if they do go to the toilet, they rush back because they want to know what happens next.

“What you get is this rollercoaster where every episode is better than the one before. By the time you get to eight, nine and 10, you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s really good. I really believe that. I’m hoping that people just hook into it.”

He also praises Brocklehurst – “a really class writer” – who was one of the key contributors to what Tonderai describes as a “perfect storm” of talent behind the scenes.

The Five centres on
The Five centres on a group of childhood friends who are reunited when a troubling event from their past resurfaces

It’s that collaborative effort that resonates most with Tonderai, who believes everyone on set should work for the story, rather than any individual. “I always say to the crew, ‘You’re not working for me and I’m not working for you, we’re working for the story.’ I come into work and say, ‘We’re going to do this right and we’re going to do it from the story’s perspective.’ I don’t care who’s got an opinion. If it’s not about the story, I don’t want to hear it. That’s my philosophy.

“A lot of my inspiration for how to direct comes from football managers because they all have ways of getting the best out of their players. You need a strong philosophy and everyone has to buy into it. If they don’t, you get clashes. But if everyone does, and they know what’s going to happen and exactly how you’re going to do it, it’s OK.”

Tonderai gets a new tattoo after every job he does, this time choosing to have the words ‘Take a position’ inked on his skin. The phrase represents his directorial style on The Five, he explains, because “you have to do that in life and you have to do that when you film. You have to take a position. You can’t be mediocre, cute or middle of the road. We live in mediocrity. Take a position because if it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter.”

He adds: “Every moment in life is unique and I believe every scene should be unique. You look around and find the angles. That’s what we did with every scene, so it meant sometimes we used a whole lot of operating styles – steadicam, handheld, we used the crane a lot and filmed in widescreen as much as we could. We took a position.”

But the thing the director is most proud of? That everyone came to the wrap party. “It means everyone enjoyed the experience,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. Everybody had a really good time on it.”

Jennifer Lawrence in Tonderai's biggest movie project, The House at the End of The Street
Jennifer Lawrence in Tonderai’s biggest movie project, House at the End of the Street

As a director, Tonderai’s career has been mostly in features, with one episode of Syfy drama 12 Monkeys also to his name. And he says the changing film business in the US prompted his move into television and the opportunity to join The Five.

“House at the End of the Street made US$66m – a lot of money. It only cost US$3.5m,” he reveals. “I couldn’t make that film now. That isn’t because I couldn’t get it made – the point is I couldn’t get it distributed. The whole distribution model has changed because studios now control a lot of release dates because of their blockbusters.

“We now have global releases, whereas five years ago you had this slow roll-out. So the nature of the film business has changed. Really you only get three sorts of films being made – low-budget horror, massive blockbuster and Oscar-bait, which actually is a genre now. The latter is only triggered by actors; you’ve got to get the right actors. So I started to realise that if I didn’t adapt, I was going to starve.”

The former BBC Radio 1 DJ, who helps his actors get into character by playing music on set, first looked to the US TV market but admits that once he broke through, “I hated it because you’re basically there just to collect footage. You have four days in the edit and you just work out what you’ve done.”

That led Tonderai to leave his LA home and return to England, where he says a television director is still central to the creative process. After The Five, his next step is to have ownership of the content he’s creating, either in television or film.

“There are lots of directors but very few storytellers,” he says. “David Fincher, Ang Lee – these people are allowed to tell their own stories. It’s very hard to be in that camp –writers who direct their own stuff – and that’s the space I want to be in. You have to earn that right and you can’t do too much of other people’s work. You’ve only got so much juice in the tank as a director.”

In particular, he’s passionate about stories from Africa that reflect his own heritage and is working on a project about asylum seekers travelling from the continent to Europe.

“I’m from Africa and I’m very passionate about African stories, but they don’t get a look in because they don’t sell, especially in America,” Tonderai notes. “I’m an immigrant over there. I’m there by their grace so this idea I went to America to better myself, my position and my standing is something I really relate to. So when I see all these people coming from Africa, all they want is a better life. They’re not coming here to steal our money, our jobs or our women; they want a better life for themselves and that strikes a chord with me.”

He adds: “But you’ve got to dress it up in genre or something else so people hook into it. The best example is (Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi movie) District 9 – a fantastic film that uses allegory and metaphors to say something quite profound about Apartheid. That’s a space I would love to be in.”

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Oscar winner goes to war with Amazon

Charles Randolph
Charles Randolph

Oscar-wining writer Charles Randolph (The Big Short) has signed a development deal with Amazon Studios. His first project will be a 10×60’ drama series that will explore what it would take to create a present-day civil war in the US.

There are no further details on the project yet, but presumably Randolph will be able to draw inspiration from the current US presidential election process. Prior to The Big Short, the writer was best known for movies including Love & Other Drugs and The Life of David Gale. But he has written for TV before, with pilots for HBO and ABC.

Another writer in the news this week is Sam Catlin, who is getting rave reviews for his work on AMC’s forthcoming supernatural series Preacher. Deadline, for example, is predicting that the show has the potential to be the channel’s next The Walking Dead (though that accolade maybe should already have gone to Fear the Walking Dead or Into the Badlands).

The latest show in the ongoing comic-based series trend, Preacher revolves around a reformed criminal called Jesse Custer who is scratching out an existence as a preacher in a dusty Texas town. Jesse is visited by a higher spiritual power that gives him the power to make people obey him just by speaking to them.

Preacher
Preacher is exec produced by Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Caitlin’s main credit to date is AMC’s Breaking Bad, of which he wrote 10 episodes. However, he did also pen an episode of Fox’s Rake, the US adaptation of an Australian show of the same name. That series (created by Peter Duncan) followed a criminal defence lawyer whose personal problems and self-destructive behaviour have him owing money to everyone around him. Catlin is also an executive producer on Preacher alongside Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

Also in the news this week is WGN’s Outsiders, which has just been greenlit for a second season. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, Outsiders centres on a family called the Farrells who have turned their back on society and live by their own rules.

The show, which has been a hit for WGN, was created by Peter Mattei and is executive produced by Peter Tolan. While Tolan has extensive writing credits (including long-running drama Rescue Me), Outsiders is a breakthrough project for Mattei, whose only other writing credits are Love in the Time of Money (2002) and Clarissa Explains It All (1991). Other writers credited with working on season one of Outsiders include Ryan Farley and William Schmidt.

While the international TV market is still dominated by US shows, an increasing number of European-originated series are selling well around the world. An interesting case in point is Spotless, which was this week picked up by Globosat Brazil.

Outsiders
Peter Mattei’s Outsiders has been given a second season on WGN America

An unusual production, Spotless was made by StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions for Canal+ in France. However, it was shot in English and filmed on location in London. Adding to the intrigue, it stars French actors Marc-André Grondin and Denis Ménochet as a pair of brothers – one a criminal, the other the owner of a crime scene cleaning business.

Prior to Globosat, the show was picked up by Esquire Network in the US and has also sold to DirecTV Latin America and M-Net South Africa. The goal behind the series was to give it European roots but enough of a sheen to resemble a fast-paced US drama. To achieve this, Tandem used a writer/creator team of UK-based Bafta winner Ed McCardie and Academy Award winner Corinne Marrinan.

This combination drew on two distinct schools of creativity. While McCardie’s writing credits before Spotless included London’s Burning, The Last Detective and Shameless, Marrinan’s background is as a US-based writer-producer on CSI. The Spotless setup resembles that of Red Production Company’s The Five, where the US talent (Harlan Coben) constructed the idea and was involved in story development while the UK talent (Danny Brocklehurst) did the actual writing. In the case of Spotless, McCardie was responsible for the writing while Marrinan is cited as the show’s creator.

Spotless
Spotless follows a criminal and his brother who runs a crime scene cleaning business

Interestingly, Tandem took a slightly different route with its other key procedural-type thriller, Crossing Lines, now in its third season. In this case, the show was set up with Ed Bernero as a US-style showrunner – though it still centred on European locations. The show then employed a US writers-room model involving a number of different writers – including Marrinan. Overall showrunning responsibility for the show shifted in season three to Frank Spotnitz, but the writers-room model has been retained. Both seem to work, however, with Crossing Lines being aired on Sat1 in Germany, NBC in the US, Canada’s CBC and TF1 in France, among others.

In other stories this week, Australian broadcaster Network 10 has acquired a high-end drama about adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary that is billed as the most ambitious and expensive series to ever come out of New Zealand. Entitled Hillary, the TVNZ series has been written by Tom Scott. In NZ, Scott is quite a celebrity, having established himself as a leading satirical cartoonist before writing several films, books and TV screenplays.

The new series is based on a biography of Hillary that Scott wrote in 1996 and involved a lengthy shoot in Nepal. It’s a six-part series that will air this year.

Finally, Fox International Channels has set a date for the launch of Outcast, an exorcism drama from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and based on the Skybound/Image comic by Kirkman and artist Paul Azaceta. The 10-episode series will debut on June 3 on Fox channels in more than 125 countries as part of a day-and-date launch outside the US. Within the US it will air on HBO-owned channel Cinemax.

Outcast, which has already been greenlit for a second season, is exec produced by Kirkman, Chris Black, David Alpert, Sharon Tal Yguado and Sue Naegle. The showrunner is Chris Black, who has a string of high-profile writer/producer credits including Red Widow, Mad Men, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and Star Trek: Enterprise.

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The Last Panthers: More than meets the eye

Ahead of The Last Panthers’ world premiere at Mipcom in Cannes this week, Michael Pickard discovers there’s much more to the drama than its classic jewellery-heist plotline suggests.

From the opening scenes featuring a daring diamond heist, The Last Panthers appears to carry all the hallmarks of a classic crime caper.

But that’s where the pretence ends, as viewers are plunged into a pan-European thriller set across three countries and portrayed in three languages.

Based on real events, the story begins with a robbery that looks to be the work of the notorious Pink Panthers gang, but the inadvertent death of a little girl sets off a chain of events across Europe that places British insurance loss adjuster (Samantha Morton), her nefarious boss (John Hurt), a French-Algerian cop (Tahar Rahim) and a Serbian gang member (Goran Bogdan) on a dangerous collision course.

The Last Panthers is based on real events
The Last Panthers is based on real events

Commissioned by Sky in the UK and France’s Canal+, The Last Panthers is written by Jack Thorne, based on an idea by Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme Pierrat. It is produced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films, and distributed by Sky Vision and StudioCanal.

If the plot seems misleading from the start, that was entirely the intention of the producers, who wanted to create a layered and far-reaching drama in which the action spans countries and decades.

Warp Films executive producer Peter Carlton says: “Our deliberate idea was to start with a classic crime story – a heist – and look at the ripples that go outwards and backwards. Through these three characters it takes you into a crime thriller with action and tense drama sequences in each episode but it also becomes more and more a personal drama and a tragedy around those three characters.

“The big attraction for us was not a crime series but using the crime to take us into another place. But if you do lure people in with a crime, you can’t forget that completely. You have to keep the audience with you and if you put a diamond heist at the front of something that turns into a very worthy, dull, wordy political drama, you’re not going to get thanked and no one’s going to follow you. You have to deliver on that promise of excitement and the thriller element while also bringing the audience with you through every twist and turn.”

Haut et Court’s Caroline Benjo, who also exec produces the six-hour series, adds: “We want to tease the viewer because there’s something very smart and sophisticated about TV audiences and this is where we want to go.

British actor Samantha Morton plays a lead role
British actor Samantha Morton plays a lead role

“The frustration and teasing is very important. Audiences want to be brought to something they don’t get all at once. Our world is extremely complex and this is what’s interesting. Our characters are going through a complex world and they intimate an inner world that’s even more complicated. You have to have a certain level of entertainment – it’s very action driven. There’s one quite spectacular action sequence in each episode but it was very important to link these to the story and the characters’ emotional trajectory.”

Benjo was approached by Pierrat and Laban with an idea for a film about the Pink Panthers, but she quickly identified that their story could go much deeper as a television miniseries. She brought Carlton on board with Warp as a coproduction partner, before Canal+ and Sky both committed to the series. Thorne was then brought in to write the script.

Carlton, who has worked with Thorne before on series such as Channel 4’s This is England, says the writer’s distinctive voice, coupled with his knowledge of European politics, made him a standout candidate for the job.

“Knowing we were making a big European tragedy, we needed a writer who could handle big emotion on a big canvas,” he says. “A lot of British writers sare a bit shy and embarrassed by big emotion and I knew from working with Jack on This is England that this wasn’t the case with him. Although this is a very different show, it’s a melodrama in the best sense of the word.

“He’s a fearless writer, he masters genre and has a distinctive voice, can write sophisticated politics and isn’t scared of big emotions. So when we proposed it to Jack, he bit our hands off.”

Bringing Thorne on board meant The Last Panthers had a writer who would put together a tightly scripted, extremely focused story across six episodes. There will be no vague closing scene that leaves things open for a second season.

“It’s not designed to be a returning series,” says Carlton. “We felt six episodes was the right length for the story. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t get put into it but I don’t think we’d go back to the Panthers again. However, we did become fascinated by this way of storytelling: that one event brings together two or three different destinies, allowing you to explore backwards and forwards at the same time.

The action is spread across London, Marseille and Belgrade
The action is spread across London, Marseille and Belgrade

“So Jack, Johan (Renck, the director) and us are sitting down and talking about new stories. Whether what comes out of that process feels like The Return of the Last Panthers, The Last something else or something completely different, it’s always tempting to follow your success – but we haven’t had any success yet. There’s rich creative ground but it’s quite hard to see what exactly what that is at the moment or what it might turn into.”

As European coproductions become more commonplace, Benjo says they are still “one of the trickiest things” to do, adding that it was integral to the project that everyone shared the same vision for the series.

“Not only was there a shared ambition and approach between us and Haut et Court but we also have, in Canal+ and Sky, an aspiration, an ambition and a desire for a certain type of programme that was very similar,” Carlton explains. “In detail there were differences but we never had either us as producers or them as broadcasters pulling in different directions.

“They wanted something ambitious, something with layers, that on the one hand has excitement and is a thriller but underneath it is finely driven more by character and emotion. We all agreed it was going to be pan-European, and it needed some big names and great actors to carry it and keep it as authentic as possible. We agreed on day one that we would shoot in certain countries and in original languages and we never varied from it. That isn’t always the case.”

The series takes place in London, Marseille and Belgrade and, as such, the action is filmed in English, French and Serbian. Above any other challenge facing the €20m (US$22.4m) production, Benjo says the multi-lingual approach to The Last Panthers was the biggest obstacle.

“The Last Panthers is spoken in the language of the protagonist,” she says. “But when they’re together, the common language is English. So we had to do enormous work on the adaptation because Jack writes in English so we had to do very precise work to turn it into French and Serbian. We also had two broadcasters with their own sensitivities. It was interesting because we tried to meet our broadcasters’ needs as much as possible without going against the project and it’s almost like working for the UN. You are constantly peacekeeping, trying to keep everything as smooth as possible.”

The size of the production budget, coming in at more than €3m per episode, also led to conversations about how best to use it. Benjo adds: “We always put all our money on screen because if we don’t, there’s no more money coming back.

“Everyone’s talking about feature film versus TV production. What’s happening in TV production now is that it’s not ‘how can we make as much money as possible?,’ it’s ‘how can we put all the money on screen?’ And ‘how can we have production values that will be mind-blowing for the people who watch?’ Here I think we have found that level. Everything is filmed in real countries, the action scenes are quite spectacular and it’s very well crafted. It’s definitely a beautiful-looking series.”

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High Five: Harlan Coben on his first original TV show

Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.

A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.

If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.

Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.

Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben

The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.

Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.

Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.

But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.

Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.

He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”

But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.

Shindler: 'We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky'
Shindler: ‘We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky’

“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.

“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”

Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.

Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”

Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.

“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”

TF1’s No Second Chance, adapted from the Coben novel of the same name
TF1’s No Second Chance, adapted from the Coben novel of the same name

For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.

“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”

Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.

“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”

Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.

“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”

To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”

Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”

The Five follows a group of childhood friends who are reunited after a murder
The Five follows a group of childhood friends who are reunited after a murder

As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.

“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”

Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.

The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.

So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.

“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”

Brocklehurst:  All channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing
Brocklehurst: All channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing

The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.

“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”

Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.

“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”

On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”

Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”

If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.

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