Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.
The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.
What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?
Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.
But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!
The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.
Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”
The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.
“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”
For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.
“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”
One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.
“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.
“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”
The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.
Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.
Go behind the scenes on Top of the Lake: China Girl, which sees Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie join director Jane Campion and star Elisabeth Moss for the sequel to the 2013 original crime mystery.
It seems more likely that casting directors would be beating a path to Nicole Kidman’s door, as opposed to the Oscar-winning actor pitching for roles herself. But such was her desire to play a role in Top of the Lake: China Girl that she visited co-creator Jane Campion and requested a part in the show a whole year before production was due to begin.
The director was keen to accommodate Kidman, with whom she had first worked on 1996 romantic drama The Portrait of a Lady, but there was a problem: the character she had in mind was a side player.
Kidman, who admits she was a huge fan of the first season of Top of the Lake, accepted nonetheless but then Campion and Gerard Lee, the co-writer of the six-part sequel, decided to expand her character, Julia Edwards, who in the story adopted the daughter of the central character, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).
As revealed in the 2013 original, Robin gave up her daughter Mary after being the victim of a rape at the age of 16. The set-up sees a battle of the mothers between Robin and Julia, who is having an affair with a female French teacher.
Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in the Kings Cross red light district that houses a brothel.
Speaking in the Bondi Pavilion overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Campion says of Kidman: “It’s really fun for her to play a character when she can really stretch herself emotionally and humorously. When you are tall and good-looking like she is, you can get trapped in that beauty. It was lovely to work with her again because she is so damned good, an extraordinary actor.”
Campion directed the first and fifth episodes of the drama, produced by See-Saw Films’ Libby Sharpe and Philippa Campbell for the UK’s BBC2, SundanceTV and Australia’s Foxtel and BBC First, while Ariel Kleiman handled the other four instalments. The series has already launched in the UK and down under but will debut on September 10 in the US.
The main plot follows Robin as she investigates the murder of an Asian girl whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach – an investigation that takes her into the city’s darkest recesses and to the secrets of her own heart. British actor Gwendoline Christie plays Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin.
For the role of Mary, Campion cast her daughter Alice Englert, who has an impressive list of credits including the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Channel 4’s New Worlds and the movies Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures. Campion explains: “The character is a little bit younger than she is but Alice has the depth and the experience to carry off quite a difficult role.”
However, she asked Kleiman to direct most of the scenes involving Mary. Englert suspects that’s because those were the times when she had to wear fewer clothes and her character faced difficult, complicated situations. “I viewed the first season as a fan,” says the 22-year-old actor. “The women’s camp [in season one] was huge because, prior to the making the series, the producers were nervous as they didn’t know if viewers would like it; people really liked it. It meant a lot to me to be able to feel so emotional and not feel manipulated by a drama.
“Season two is very romantic in a way. There are some great and complicated love stories and there is the true romance of human connection.”
Englert relished the chance to work with Kidman – praising her generosity, kindness and engaging presence – as well as Moss and Christie. “Lizzie [Moss] is inspiring as a leading lady,” she says. “You feel confident when she is there, and Gwendoline is such a beautiful, adorable human being.”
Campion cast Christie after receiving an email from the actor explaining that she had been a fan of the director since she saw An Angel at My Table on television when she was 12, adding that she had watched the first season of Top of the Lake four times. Christie also emphasised she is very tall, pale-skinned and has whitish hair – the very characteristics Campion needed for her character.
Christie had initially sent the email to a friend to gain her advice, asking her not to forward it to the director if she thought it made her look foolish. The friend promptly sent it to Campion nevertheless, with Christie doubtful it would result in her getting the role.
But when Christie and Campion met, the deal was sealed. “She has so much humanity, it’s like a baby elephant coming into the room,” Campion says of the actor.
Englert has an interesting perspective on why her mother has shifted her focus to TV drama after a lengthy career directing features including The Piano, Bright Star, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. “She found doing the press for films so difficult and she wanted the opportunity to tell a story like a novel and to have freedom in doing that,” she explains. “TV is giving people that freedom.”
Campion, Moss and Emile Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films who executive produces with Campion, first discussed the idea of a sequel to Top of the Lake when they dined in a Japanese restaurant during filming of the first season in Queenstown, New Zealand.
“We started talking about a lot of what-ifs, like what if they moved to Thailand?” Campion recalls. “It’s such hard work that you don’t want to do it to yourself again, but I started to think [of a follow-up]. We did not know the show would be as successful as it has been. There seemed to be an appetite for a boutique, event-type series like that, so that was really encouraging.
“There are a lot of people who are not going out to see films but they are enjoying more challenging television or wanting smart television. Every now and again a film will break through, but that’s so rare for mid-budget or low-budget features. It’s more relaxing doing TV series.”
After Top of the Lake screened to critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin festivals and was nominated for seven primetime Emmys (it won the gong for Outstanding Cinematography) and for Bafta, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America awards, financing the sequel proved relatively easy.
BBC2, SundanceTV, BBC First and Foxtel were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development. SundanceTV brought in Hulu to replace Netflix, which had the second-window rights to the original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
As happened with the first season, Lucy Richer, senior BBC commissioning editor for drama, and Sundance reps met with the creative team before production started for a week-long brainstorming session, reviewing the scripts and discussing ways to improve them.
Sherman says: “What allows shows like these to be made is to have broadcasters that want to be involved in something that gets the highest level of publicity and awards focus, rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people. That different focus results in different sorts of shows being made.
“The series was always intended as a one-season show. But we all fell in love with the characters and started thinking, ‘What next for them? Is there a future?’ Some ideas were thrown around at the end of making the first season. We all went back to our lives, but we kept needling Jane slowly but surely over the years, and getting Jane and Gerard [Lee, co-writer] together to see if creative sparks would fly and stories would emerge.
“Philippa [Campbell] spent some time with them in Jane’s hut in New Zealand and thankfully they engaged. It all comes from the creative centre. This series is the tableau that allows Jane and Gerard to paint and really explore what they find fascinating about contemporary society.”
Moss is currently one of TV’s hottest talents, having starred in AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy. But she had to be convinced that the sequel would be even more challenging than the original, observing: “When Jane asked me to do this season, I said, ‘Yes, but it has to be more challenging than the first’ – otherwise why do it and why watch it? I told Jane, ‘Go deeper, go darker.’ I wanted Robin to be really fucked up. Everything is ratcheted up from 10 to 100.
“It was slightly less scary than the first season but this one is so much more challenging for Robin and for me, material-wise and emotionally. This is a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, as well as allowing the show to have its own tone and mood, which are unlike anything else.
“That bloomed fully in the first season and the audience loved it. In season two it goes deeper into that tone and those directions. It’s that Jane Campion thing where it’s dark and creepy but also grossly hilarious at times.”
Campion told Christie she had written the role of Miranda for her, but Moss doubted she would be available. Moss only discovered Christie had signed on after they met by chance in London one month before production was due to start. At the time, both felt too awkward to ask each other if she was on board, so Moss emailed Campion, who confirmed they would work together.
In a clear case of mutual admiration, Moss says of her co-star: “She is a spectacular actress. She is so great for the role and I knew she would bring something that nobody else could. It’s been an eye-opening, illuminating and inspiring performance that I have had the pleasure of watching for the past four-and-a-half months.”
Christie said of her first experience of working in Australia: “We have moved out of traditional comfort zones to get the best out of each other and to achieve something a little less ordinary.”
The Game of Thrones star, who also plays Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enjoyed the opportunity to work on a contemporary, real-world story, noting: “The show gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour and a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality.
“Jane’s work is so much about reality. Something they achieved so brilliantly in season one was dealing with the extraordinary in terms of subject matter, drama and relationships, but in a way that felt so real. That was magical to me and that’s what I wanted to explore.”
Both Moss and Christie were full of praise for Kleiman, who makes his TV debut after directing several shorts and the 2015 feature Partisan, a bleak thriller that starred Vincent Cassel and Jeremy Chabriel.
“What he might lack in experience he makes up for in vision, passion, his precision of what he wants and his willingness to communicate with you and for you to take it in turns of where you push it,” Christie says. “Also, he shares a similar kind of sense of humour to Jane, which is why this relationship works in terms of directing styles.”
On the differences between the original Top of the Lake and the sequel, Sherman says: “It has the same DNA underneath, with a different expression. The second season is more internal, a really sophisticated character and relationship story with a great crime story pulled through it. Having a new cinematographer in Germain McMicking gives it a distinctive feel, elegance and a lit quality that is different to the first season.”
Lee and Campion first met at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, going on to co-write her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Lee likens their relationship to that between brother and sister.
Campion clearly enjoyed filming at the beach, Sydney’s nightclubs, red-light district Kings Cross and other locations in the Eastern suburbs. Pointing to the Pacific Ocean, she says: “Forget the lake, we’ve got a whole ocean here.”
Asked if she and Lee have left the door open for a third edition, Campion is unequivocal: “We have.”
The biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. Now, ahead of the show’s television debut, Top of the Lake: China Girl producer Emile Sherman tells DQ about reuniting with writer Jane Campion.
Emile Sherman and Jane Campion were pretty confident they had a winner in the sequel to Top of the Lake when they got the thumbs up at the first screening for its commissioning broadcasters, which include the BBC, SundanceTV and Foxtel.
But it wasn’t until Top of the Lake: China Girl had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim, alongside the first two hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series for Showtime, that they knew for sure.
“It was a gamble because Cannes is that prestige-level festival and as a TV series you are an outsider to all those films,” says Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films, which co-executive produced the six-hour miniseries with Campion.
“We just didn’t know how it was going to be received. It is always incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking to launch your baby into the world. We felt Cannes was a wonderful opportunity and platform to position the TV series as the highest quality and to differentiate it from so many of the TV series around the world.”
Typifying the rave reviews, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the sequel co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee “bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings.”
Variety’s Brett Lang hailed a twisty mystery that will keep audiences guessing until the final credits roll, another knockout turn by Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and stellar work from Nicole Kidman as a mother dealing with a volatile teenage daughter.
Campion directed episodes one and five and, in his TV debut, Aussie Ariel Kleiman directed the other four. The producers hired Kleiman after being impressed with his short films and his first feature, Partisan.
Sherman describes deciding on the co-director as the show’s biggest creative choice, involving a search for likely prospects in Australia, the US, the UK and parts of Europe.
“We needed a director who respected and understood the tone of the series. It is slightly heightened in some ways but for Jane it is not heightened because that is how she views the world. Ariel understands that and he also brings out the humour in the story; he has that Australian/European sense of the absurd but always grounding everything in the truth.”
Sherman was keen to do a follow-up while the first season was shooting in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012. But Campion decided she would only revisit Top of the Lake if she and Lee could come up with a compelling idea. That emerged from brainstorming sessions at the director’s holiday home in New Zealand, also attended by producer Philippa Campbell.
BBC2 in the UK, US cable channel SundanceTV and BBC First/Foxtel in Australia were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development, with BBC Worldwide again distributing. SundanceTV then brought in Hulu, which will start streaming the show the day after its Sundance premiere, replacing Netflix, which had the second window to the 2013 original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
“Broadcasters want to be involved in shows that get the highest level of publicity and awards focus rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people,” Sherman says.
The plot follows Moss’s Griffin as she returns to Sydney and tries to rebuild her life after the events of season one. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer – until she discovers “China Girl” didn’t die alone.
Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie (pictured top alongside Moss) plays Miranda, a fellow cop who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin. Kidman plays Julia Edwards, who adopted Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up at birth after being the victim of a gang rape when she was 15, as chronicled in the first season. Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in Kings Cross that houses a brothel.
Sherman rates the length of the shoot (16 weeks), the number of takes, the cinematography, the lighting and design as comparable to the highest levels of the movies he’s worked on.
Campion adds: “The attraction for Gerard and me was to make something entertaining and enjoyable, which is also the way we see the world and the things that scare us and the things we find moving. It’s about our lives, parenting, reproduction, IVF, kids, being mothers and fathers…”
Lee interjects: “And we’re passing it off as a detective story so people will watch it.”
Would Sherman like to do a third chapter? “I would, but I am being patient,” he says. “Jane always toys with a range of ideas and, at a certain point, she and Gerard decide if there is something they are really excited about telling.”
There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.
The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.
Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).
The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.
And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.
Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.
For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.
As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.
Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.
Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision
Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”
Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”
In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).
The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.
Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”
Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.
Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.
Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”
Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.
“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”
White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.
Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.
Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.
Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.
Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.
The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.
Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”
The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.
Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”
As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”
All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.
Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).
Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).
The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.
David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”
Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.
MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.
This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.
Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.
The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”
Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.
The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.
Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.
Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.
This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?
Hard-hitting Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been hailed as one of the best TV shows of the decade. Michael Pickard speaks to the series’ writer and co-creator Stefano Bises.
If you believe Ricky Gervais, there’s an Italian drama that stands side by side with critical and popular hits such as The Wire, The Bridge and The Sopranos and could even be the “TV show of the decade.”
Gomorrah (or Gomorra as it’s known in its native Italy) debuted to huge success when it launched in spring 2014, drawing 700,000 viewers to Sky Atlantic and Sky Cinema – twice the number achieved by established crime drama Romanzo Criminale.
The ratings justified the hype surrounding the series, which had already been sold around the world – Sky in the UK and Germany, Canal+ in France and HBO in Scandinavia and Latin America were among the buyers – before an episode had aired.
And it continued to grow through its first season, with 900,000 viewers tuning in for the 12th and final episode in season one, according to overnight ratings. That figure grew to 1.2 million after replays were included. Season two then kicked off in May this year with 1.3 million watching the season premiere, the highest ratings ever for a Sky Italia series and above and beyond the number of Italian viewers watching US shows such as Game of Thrones.
While series such as Romanzo Criminale and Inspector Montalbano have established themselves as international hits, it is Gomorrah that has now become the calling card for Italian drama worldwide, with distributor Beta Film selling the fast-paced and explosive series into 130 territories.
The show is now set for its US debut on SundanceTV on August 24 – but what it is about this Mafia story that has proven so popular at home and abroad?
Based on the book by Roberto Saviano (which also inspired a 2008 film directed by Matteo Garrone), the series follows the members of the Savastano clan, one of the most powerful and influential Neapolitan crime families. When the head of the family, Don Pietro, is jailed, second-in-command Ciro Di Marzio is forced to adopt his mentor’s violent methods while grooming Pietro’s son Genny to take control of the empire. Along the way, he must deal with Genny’s impulsiveness, Don Pietro’s wife Lady Imma, the family’s growing unrest without its godfather and rival organisations set on claiming Savastano territory.
Produced by Sky Atlantic, Cattleya and Fandango in association with La7 and Beta Film, Gomorrah is written by Stefano Bises and directed by Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini.
The series was developed for television by Saviano, Bises, Giovanni Bianconi, Leonardo Fasoli and Ludovica Rampoldi – and Bises says he never expected the acclaim Gommorah has received since its debut two years ago.
“The book by Roberto is surrounded by different feelings,” he explains. “Part of the country is for him and supports him and his job, but there’s another part that is against it because they say he’s always writing and telling stories that show the worst part of our country. It’s not good publicity. So we didn’t know how people would receive it. We had a lot of problems from politicians and people who were saying, ‘You’re speculating on our problems, you’re picturing Naples like Hell,’ but there were many other people who said the standard of the series was, for the first time in Italy, an international standard.
“We had a huge success with the second season, much better than the first – and the second season is always more difficult because you lose the freshness and viewers have already seen that world. But Sky doubled the audience from the first to the second season, which was huge for us. We were trending on Twitter the evening Gomorrah was broadcast – that’s unbelievable for an Italian series.”
One of the initial challenges of the project was separating the series from not just Saviano’s bestselling book but also the movie of the same name, which meant Bises and director Sollima had to find a new story to tell in the same Neapolitan setting.
“We had to give a new picture of that world so we said, ‘Let’s choose a family, let’s tell a basic story with an old boss who’s feeling he’s getting too old to maintain power,’” Bises explains. “He has a son who’s not ready to take his place and we introduced an illegitimate son who is brave and capable of driving the kingdom. There were very classical elements used to build the story and then we dropped it in Scampia Secondigliano [a northern district of Naples] and it works. It was very simple; it was a very basic plot. The characters were very classical to watch – it was like Shakespeare in Naples.”
During development, Bises and Sollima visited Scampia Secondigliano together before building the characters and the story. But the writer admits it wasn’t until they began watching the daily shooting footage that they began to fully understand the characters they had created.
“Often in the night I went to Naples when Stefano was shooting,” he recalls. “We saw the dailies and then we understood a lot of things – for example, the friendship between Genny and Ciro is born not in the script but from viewing the first footage. We decided to do it like they were two brothers because they work so well together. It was day by day, building brick by brick, and on the second season we were much more aware of what we were doing.”
One of the show’s strengths is its Neapolitan setting, grounding the characters and their actions against a real location – though filming in Mafia-run districts of Naples was not without its problems.
“It’s one of the main characters of the series,” Bises says of the show’s location. “The director of photography, Paolo Carnera, did a great job photographing those neighbourhoods because they are an unbelievable set – and they’re real. The first season was very difficult to realise because while we were shooting there was a war on the streets. We would have a plan [for the next day’s filming] and during the night someone would call us and change the plan because two people had just been shot and killed on the street, so it would not be a good idea to shoot there tomorrow.
“There were 10 or 12 deaths during shooting for the first season but for the second season, the major problem was we were always surrounded by kids with smartphones who wanted to film our actors.”
The shocking real-life events that took place in this northern hub of Naples often informed the series, however, with Bises explaining that true stories were always the starting point for the show.
In fact, writers from the show would regularly venture into the city to collect and research stories. But this meant they often had to find two or three sources to collaborate the same information, such was the possibility that sources would present a version of events that could help them in a fight with another Mafia family.
“There are so many unbelievable stories right there,” he continues. “Our problem was working out how to make things authentic for viewers. People would never believe they were true! Another problem was the real people who inspired the characters. [We had to make sure] they wouldn’t recognise themselves in those characters because that might put [people involved in the show] in danger, but we always took inspiration from reality. It’s much more powerful than any imagination.”
Looking ahead to season three, Bises, who has written the plot outline, admits that while the show’s success has meant production is now a much smoother process, new challenges often emerge.
“The only problem we have now is keeping people away from the set,” he reveals. “We had a problem on the last season finale when there was a big plot secret that we kept for months. On the day of broadcasting the last episode, we discovered someone was on a roof where we were shooting and he was able to catch some pictures of two guys in a duel. So on the internet they were saying, ‘Who’s killing who? Who’s dying?’
“So that’s the biggest danger right now on the production side. On the writing side, when you come from big success, you always fear being unable to reach the same level. You have to not think about that and think of doing something surprising, like we did in season two when we killed off many main characters. People were so upset, they called us crazy for killing their favourite character. But it’s always the reality that drives you – we were telling a period of that struggle where all the bosses were killing each other.”
Bises is now dividing his time between other film and TV projects, including an adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel Anna. He is also involved in planning for a potential second season of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and will air on HBO, Sky and Canal+ later this year.
There are also plans for a fourth season of Gomorrah, with the writer adamant that there are plenty of as-yet-untold stories capable of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.
“I don’t feel comfortable comparing it to masterpieces like The Wire or The Sopranos,” Bises adds. “It’s just an Italian gangster movie, but it shows we can do something good when we tell our own stories. This is a country that is full of stories. The Mafia is strong everywhere in the country. We would be missing our duty if we were not telling these stories.”
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
In September 2014, Fox in the US introduced a new scripted series set against the backdrop of DC Comics’ Batman mythology. Gotham takes the death of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman)’s parents as its starting point and effectively positions the show as a Batman prequel, with detective James Gordon (later Commissioner Gordon) as its central character and introducing Bruce/Batman as a teenage boy (looked after by a youthful version of manservant Alfred).
The show had a strong start, with the very first episode generating 8.21 million viewers at launch, rising to 14.15 million once the time-shifted audience was factored in. Season one stayed solid until around episode 18, whereupon the live audience dropped to around the 4.5 million mark. This might have been low enough to justify cancellation, but with time-shifted viewing taking the show up to around 7-7.5 million, Fox decided there was enough in the show to give it a second run.
The second season started in September 2015 and drew roughly the same numbers as the end of the first. There has been some further slippage, but the show has settled into a relatively stable pattern. After 14 episodes of a 22-episode run, it is attracting a loyal audience of 4-4.5 million (6.5-7 million after adding in time-shifted viewing).
At this point, Fox has decided to greenlight a third season of the show. Commenting on the decision, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “It takes a very special team to tell the tales of Gotham. For the past two seasons, Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon and John Stephens (the chief creatives) have masterfully honoured the mythology of Gotham and brought it to life with depth, emotion and memorable high drama.”
The headline ratings don’t especially justify Fox’s confidence in the show. Airing on Monday nights at 20.00, it is outgunned by The Voice, The Bachelor and Supergirl. However, it does perform strongly among men aged 18 to 49. And it has sold pretty well internationally, with clients including Channel 5 UK, CTV Canada, TVNZ New Zealand and TF1 France (though this is of more significance to Warner Bros, owner of DC Comics, which distributes the show).
Possibly, Fox is hoping that young Bruce’s gradual transformation into the formidable Batman will energise future seasons. Or maybe it is hoping all the current background Batman noise provided by the forthcoming Batman vs Superman movie will help boost Gotham’s performance. Either way, Fox is clearly still committed to the show for the foreseeable future.
An easier call in terms of renewal is AMC’s Better Call Saul, which has just been greenlit for a third season. The Breaking Bad prequel is currently five episodes into its 10-part second season and averaging 2.2 million (same-day ratings). That’s a solid performance for AMC, supported by the fact it is also getting good reviews from critics and audiences. The current IMDb rating of 8.8 puts it at the upper end of new drama.
An enthusiastic AMC president Charlie Collier said: “What (the team) has accomplished with Better Call Saul is truly rare and remarkable. They have taken one of the most iconic, immersive and fan-obsessive (in the best possible way) shows in television history and created a prequel that stands on its own. Watching Jimmy McGill’s thoughtful, melodic and morally flexible transformation into Saul Goodman is entertaining and delighting millions of fans, whether their starting point was Breaking Bad or not. This series has its own feel, pace and sensibility and we can’t wait to see what this incredibly talented group comes up with in season three.”
In another of the week’s standout stories, Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been picked up by AMC’s sister channel SundanceTV for broadcast in the US. Sundance previously acquired the German drama Deutschland 83 – making it a pioneer in bringing foreign-language drama to the US.
The first season of Gomorrah was a surprise hit around the world and the second is due to be launched at MipTV by German distributor Beta Film. Commenting on the pickup, Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said his channel “prides itself on presenting distinctive stories from unique points of view, and Gomorrah’s gritty exploration of the Comorra mob families in Naples is no exception.” Other channels to pick up Gomorrah include Sky Germany, HBO Nordic and HBO Latin America.
Last week, much of this column was dedicated to the excellent performance of the BBC’s 2016 drama output. Since then, Happy Valley season two has come to a conclusion with super-strong ratings of 7.5 million (a figure that will rise once time-shifted viewing has been factored in).
On the whole, season two was very good, though not quite as explosive or gripping as season one. The key story arc, which centres on Catherine Cawood, Tommy Lee Royce and Ryan Cawood, seemed to be put on hold for another day, while the resolution of the main criminal case (involving the murders of four women) was relatively understated. There was also a sense that some strands didn’t fully develop (Ann Gallagher’s alcoholism and the trafficking of Eastern European women by a gang, involving another murder).
Nevertheless, Happy Valley is still superior to most things on TV and the audience is now clamouring for a third season. Writer Sally Wainwright has said she would like to pen a third instalment, though didn’t put a timeframe on it.
Elsewhere, Turkish drama continues to be in strong demand around the world. This week Eccho Rights picked up the Aka Film drama Black Heart (Oyunbozan) for global distribution. The series, which will debut in Turkey at the start of April on Show TV, tells the story of a brother seeking justice for the murder of his journalist sister who exposed a powerful media tycoon as a gangster. To get his revenge, the brother enlists an orphaned girl who needs his help in order to save her dying sister.
A new Australian drama blends Aboriginal history with contemporary culture in a futuristic landscape. DQ meets the team behind Cleverman.
It’s a groundbreaking new genre drama heading to screens in Australia – but just how can one describe Cleverman?
Set in the near future but rooted in Aboriginal history, and using a blend of CGI and traditional make-up and prosthetics, the show sees a group of non-humans (the ‘Hairies’) battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior to them – and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
In particular, the story focuses on two Indigenous brothers who are forced together to fight for survival in a land that is also home to otherworldly creatures.
The series is produced by Goalpost Pictures in Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for ABC TV Australia, with SundanceTV and distributor Red Arrow International coproducing. Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, pictured directing on set above) is the lead director, with Leah Purcell also behind the camera.
Cleverman features an all-star ensemble cast, headed by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Frances O’Connor (The Missing), Deborah Mailman and Hunter Page-Lochard (both The Sapphires), Rob Collins (The Lion King) and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games).
And it is exactly the uniqueness of the series that drew Glen to the project. “It’s just a very original script, which is where it always begins for an actor,” he says.
“It started with one of those very happy emails you get. It was very intriguing. I read the first two episodes and asked for more information about where the series was headed, and it took no persuasion.”
Goalpost also needed little persuasion to take the project on after receiving a pitch from series creator Ryan Griffen.
It was during an internship with Goalpost that Griffen first suggested a kids’ show called Dreamtime Detectives, which was based on storytelling traditions rooted in Aboriginal mythology and aimed to help children understand different cultures.
But when the project went out to public broadcaster ABC, “they kept asking to age it up, and with Dreamtime stories, a lot of the consequences are death,” Griffen explains. “You can’t put that in kids’ television, so we progressively aged it up until we got to a point where ABC said if we really wanted to push it, this would be the home for it. We jumped for that opportunity straight away.”
In Aboriginal culture, the title of Cleverman often refers to a man of power within a clan who provides the conduit between dreams and the real world.
Speaking about the show’s origins, Griffen says: “Early on, it was about creating an indigenous superhero but also looking at the idea of identity and how change in even the smallest form affects everyone. And we’ve kept on building that from when it was something very small to where it is today.”
Goalpost producer Rosemary Blight adds: “It’s just so distinct. It’s 60,000 years of storytelling. Ryan, as an Aboriginal man, comes from this line of stories. There aren’t books that provide the chance to sit and read these stories, so they haven’t really been explored. There are thousands of different dramas but there’s no Cleverman, because of where this story comes from.”
Blight describes the partnership with coproducer Pukeko Pictures as “like a glove; it was a very natural fit.” But what was it about Cleverman that ensured Pukeko, too, wanted to come on board?
Chief creative officer Martin Baynton explains: “Great genre stories are actually adult fairytales, and adult fairytales work because they speak to the heart of today’s moral issues. Science fiction and genre have always done that. They’re the ones that stay with us, that speak to the heart and to everyone in the audience.
“This is about cultural issues we’re facing now – the integration of cultural difference, how we get on as a people, how we go on that journey of bringing others in and not being scared of them. So while it’s a genre piece, it’s absolutely and most amazingly an engaging story of now.”
Glen echoes Baynton’s views: “Fundamentally, the series is about how you live with others in society, which is really pertinent today as we see swathes of people leaving their homelands and trying to belong in other areas of the world. That’s the strongest theme within Cleverman and it’s why it should be very universal. You don’t wish it to be the case but it has a horrible relevancy.”
The universal themes contained within Cleverman also resonated with Henrik Pabst, MD of Red Arrow International, who believes the story holds huge international appeal. The series received its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month and is set to debut down under in mid-2016.
“As a distributor, I think about how I can differentiate,” he says, reflecting the need of broadcasters around the world to offer programming that stands out from the crowd. “I can have the next cop show or I can try to reposition myself and find a niche. Broadcasters tell me they need an audience to come to them, so they can’t have average programming. They need something different – and Cleverman is that. I’m really interested in seeing the results. I’ve got interest from broadcasters I’d never thought of. Commercial broadcasters are looking broader and asking if Cleverman provides something for their audience because the topic is so relevant, and that’s what we love.”
To create the look of the Hairies, Cleverman’s creative team sought out Pukeko’s Oscar-winning sister studio Weta Workshop, which together with production designer Jake Nash brought the creatures to life.
Initially, Nash worked with Griffen, Goalpost and Pukeko to begin exploring what these characters and the world they inhabit looks like. “It’s such a great project and something I connected with strongly,” Nash explains. “As it’s an Aboriginal story and I’m an Aboriginal man myself, it connected personally and culturally in a contemporary world. For Ryan to tell this story, it’s the continuation of our culture, which is so exciting.”
One Cleverman creature in particular, the Namorrodor, described as a flying serpent, also comes from Aboriginal culture, so the team had a starting point from which to build the character. “Ryan came forward with a good brief and there were some original artworks that we used to inspire us, and that was really important,” says Nash, who also took on the role of Cleverman’s Indigenous advisor.
“With everything on this project, we started from the bottom and worked our way up. What does this character eat? How does he move? What’s his attack mode? We had this list of questions that we had to answer and that began to shape what our characters looked like, which was a really fun process. You learn so much about the characters.”
Ideas and designs were then sent between the team and Weta’s New Zealand base as the creatures began to take shape. Many of the special effects were achieved on camera, ensuring a balance between CGI and traditional character design.
“The creation of the Hairy family is pretty special – you’ve never seen anything like them,” Nash adds. “They are amazingly unique and I think we’ve done a great job.
“For Australia, Cleverman is a first. It takes us out of realism and into genre TV, and that’s really exciting. It’s a story rooted in Aboriginal culture, it’s genre-based and has
an international and Australian cast. Viewers are going to eat it up – it’s great, it’s the next big thing.”
Of course, HBO’s Game of Thrones is often cited as the benchmark for contemporary genre fiction – and Glen admits the show, in which he plays swashbuckling knight Ser Jorah Mormont, has been a game-changer in the industry.
“It took what was perhaps a tired genre, or one that people were nervous of, and made it the biggest global hit ever,” he says. “It’s blown out of the water any notion that TV is a small-screen affair because there are film budgets for pretty much every episode. Not every drama needs vast amounts of money to make it look good, but Game of Thrones changed what was possible and raised the bar.”
He adds of Cleverman: “When you start trying to describe what Cleverman is, it’s quite hard. But at its roots, it’s a character drama. It’s about families, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And it’s about their relationships, which are universal and to which people can relate very easily.”
The Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, taking place this year between January 5 and 19, is a star-studded event during which broadcasters, producers, writers and actors talk about new programme launches, imminent cancellations, casting announcements and ideas for turning around underperforming shows. As such, it is one of the key dates in the scripted TV industry’s annual calendar.
A+E Networks-owned History is one of numerous networks to have unveiled new shows during the tour. The pick of the bunch is a 10-part series about the Knights Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. Knightfall is being produced by The Combine – the prodco from Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) and Don Handfield – alongside Midnight Radio and A+E Studios. It is expected that Renner will guest star in the show, with additional cast and production details to be announced.
The show was unveiled by Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, who said: “We are thrilled to partner with Jeremy Renner, The Combine, Midnight Radio and A+E Studios to tell the intriguing story of the Knights Templar, which has been shrouded in mystery until now. Premium scripted content continues to be a growing part of the History portfolio, with an eye towards quality historical fact-based storytelling, and Knightfall is the perfect fit for our brand.”
The channel also announced an eight-episode order for military action-drama Six, from A+E Studios and The Weinstein Company. Written by William Broyles (Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead) and David Broyles, a military special operations veteran, Six follows Navy SEAL Team Six, whose 2014 mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan goes awry when they uncover a US citizen working with the terrorists.
“The backdrop surrounding this elite team of American soldiers – from their lives at home to the bravery they display serving our country – provides an amazing canvas for stories that deserve to be told,” said Buccieri.
The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein added: “The idea originally came to me when I read about Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. It brought on the idea of creating a series about the world of SEAL Team Six because the story felt as poignant and timely as ever. We brought in Bill (Broyles), whom I have long admired, along with David to write the pilot. They took my idea and developed a brilliant script for the project and added authenticity to the world in a way that only first-hand experience could possibly bring.”
Interestingly, Weinstein said the show will be set up as a kind of anthology drama – echoing a recent trend. “Each year will feature a different theatre of war – the first starting in Africa,” he explained.
There was also news of a greenlight at AMC, the US cablenet behind The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands. Reports coming out of the tour suggest AMC has ordered a 10-part series from Sonar Entertainment called The Son, based on the acclaimed oil industry-focused book of the same name by Philipp Meyer.
The series, which will involve Meyer as a co-writer, is about America’s birth as a superpower, told through the rise and fall of one Texan oil empire. It will be interesting to see how the show fares after ABC’s lack of success with Blood & Oil, another drama set within the US oil industry.
Elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about Turner’s plans to refresh its cable networks TBS and TNT by shaking up their scripted content. At TCA, it was revealed that TNT is teaming up with M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines) to reboot HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. In the new TNT version, Shyamalan will curate a two-hour block made up of both long and short stories of suspense and horror.
“This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT.
Shyamalan added: “To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into.”
Meanwhile, with the massive success of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before one of US networks hit upon the idea of a TV drama based around cars. This week, it was revealed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who stars in the Fast franchise) is working with Fox on a new show called Boost Unit.
Described as “Fast and the Furious meets Rescue Me,” it will be written by Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt.
Over at ABC, there was official confirmation of another Marvel-based show in the shape of Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
On the streaming front, there was news from Hulu, which has ordered two 10-episode seasons of Chance, a psychological thriller in which Hugh Laurie will play a medical expert.
Set in San Francisco, the show follows forensic neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance (Laurie) as he gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. For Laurie, it’s another opportunity to play a medical expert following the global success of Fox series House (2004-2012).
Hulu’s upcoming slate of originals also includes 11.22.63, a time-travel drama about the Kennedy assassination from Stephen King and JJ Abrams; The Path, starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul; and Shut Eye, which will explore “the underground world of LA storefront psychics and the crime syndicate that runs them.”
In terms of renewals, E! has ordered a third season of original scripted series The Royals, which stars Elizabeth Hurley as a fictional queen. A coproduction between Lionsgate and Universal Cable Productions, the show is now getting up to the volume of episodes that appeals to international and SVoD buyers.
In terms of shows that are coming to an end, SundanceTV has revealed that Rectify will finish after its upcoming fourth season. TNT, meanwhile, will call time on Rizzoli & Isles after its 13-episode seventh season, which will air this summer.
JJ Abrams also used the TCA tour to speculate that the fifth season of CBS crime/sci-fi series Person of Interest (which he executive produces) will be the last, though he would “love it to continue.”
The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.
Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).
HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.
While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.
Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.
Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.
All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.
Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”
In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.
Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.
In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.
This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.
Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.
NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.
And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.
One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
Amazon has dominated the drama headlines over the past few days, with the e-commerce giant’s subscription VoD platform Prime Instant Video continuing to bolster its original content.
On Friday September 4, it launched edgy new thriller Hand of God, in which a morally corrupt judge (played by Ron Perlman) suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. The show, which has opened to mixed reviews, starts when the judge is found naked in a fountain speaking in tongues.
There has also been a steady drip-feed of news about forthcoming programmes on the platform. Sneaky Pete, for example, is now going to series. The show, which credits Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a co-creator, stars Giovanni Ribisi as a conman who, after leaving prison, takes cover from his past by assuming the identity of his cellmate, Pete.
There was also good news for Electus-backed period production Casanova. With the pilot having recently aired, more scripts have been commissioned by Amazon (though this doesn’t guarantee that the production will be taken forward to series).
The platform also recently announced that Billy Bob Thornton is to star in a legal drama called The Trial, which will have David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) as its showrunner. Aside from the talent attached, an interesting point about The Trial is that Amazon has ordered a full series, whereas it usually orders pilots and makes its final decision about whether to go to series based on audience feedback.
It’s a significant change in approach that suggests one of two things: either top talent is refusing to commit to shows on the basis of a pilot – forcing Amazon to make more attractive offers; or Amazon is feeling pressure to get shows to the consumer market quicker. Either way it’s a move that contributes to the current scripted feeding frenzy.
As for subject matter, The Trial focuses on a once-respectable lawyer who is ousted from the firm he co-founded. He spends his days getting drunk until a big case comes his way that pits him against the head of his former firm. On paper it sounds very much like a John Grisham story and joins the rising number of legal-focused scripted shows hitting the market.
This feeding frenzy shows no sign of stopping, despite recent expressions of concern from channel execs in the US. The last week has seen reports that Apple and UK telco/pay TV provider BT are both planning to invest in original scripted content to distinguish their services.
The BBC has also announced plans to invest an additional £50m (US$76m) a year in drama, with BBC director general Tony Hall saying the corporation must ensure drama continues to form the “backbone” of its output.
David Nevins, president of premium US cable channel Showtime, recently said there may be “too much TV.” But this hasn’t stopped the network pursuing its own high-end scripted agenda. Reports this week suggest it is developing a new drama about the life of former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Called the Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt, the limited series is being written by David McKenna, with Electus and Authentic Entertainment producing.
Elsewhere, AMC-owned cable channel SundanceTV has proved itself very receptive to dramas with a non-US perspective in recent times – examples including The Honourable Woman and Deutschland 83. It is continuing to pursue this bold strategy with the acquisition of Australian/New Zealand series Cleverman, which is distributed by Red Arrow International.
The six-hour drama, which will launch at Mipcom next month, is produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures in coproduction with SundanceTV and Red Arrow International. Based on an original concept by Ryan Griffen and starring Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), the story follows a group of non-humans who are battling for survival in a world where humans feel inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Meanwhile, as anticipation builds for the launch of Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner – which debuts on FX on September 15 – there are reports that Sutter is working on a spin-off of biker drama Sons of Anarchy, the show that firmly established his reputation.
If the spin-off goes ahead, it is like that Sutter will not be as hands-on as he was with Sons, thus enabling him to juggle more projects. It’s no surprise that FX is interested in a Sons spin-off. The show ran for seven years and ended as the channel’s most successful series to date.
Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox International Channels appears to be redoubling its interest in the UK. Following the announcement that it is to launch a female-focused free-to-air channel in the UK called YourTV, FIC has also acquired six-part Australian series Jack Irish for its pay TV channel Fox UK. Based on the books by Peter Temple, Jack Irish follows a former criminal lawyer who now spends his days as a part-time investigator, debt collector, apprentice cabinet maker, punter and sometime lover.
The Jack Irish books first came to the screen as three TV movies, which aired on ABC Australia and ZDF in Germany. Fox UK also aired the TV movies and will transmit the spin-off TV series in 2016. Both the movie and TV versions of the property star Guy Pearce, whose career to date has mainly focused on film (LA Confidential, Memento).
“We’re thrilled to be premiering Jack Irish dramas first on Fox in the UK,” said Fox UK head of programming and scheduling Toby Etheridge, who brokered the deal for Jack Irish with DCD Rights. “We’re massive fans of the compelling, entertaining and intelligent books and TV movies.”
Finally, there was an interesting funding story for producers this week as the Scottish government launched a £1.75m “production growth fund” in association with public body Creative Scotland. Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop announced the initiative as a way of stimulating the country’s television and film production industry. Applications are expected to be open by the end of October, with the initiative lasting at least until the end of the 2016/17 financial year.
Aimed at indies, funding awards will be based on criteria that are currently being drawn up. “The Production Growth Fund will help to attract new inward investment, further support homegrown productions and will boost Scotland’s economy as well as our international reputation,” said Hyslop. Next month, Drama Quarterly’s Mipcom issue takes a deeper look at the issue of locations and the factors that drive the places where producers decide to make their shows.
As AMC launches in the UK with big hitters including Fear the Walking Dead and Into the Badlands, Stephen Arnell assesses the channel’s opening line-up and its potential threat to Sky Atlantic.
Not content with vying with Sky for football rights in the UK, BT is set to challenge Sky Atlantic in the field of upscale drama with the launch today of AMC UK as part of AMC’s strategy of rolling out across the world.
Although limited in terms of audience by initial exclusivity to the BT platform (and as part of the BT Sport package on Sky), AMC is a clear statement of intent that the platform is set to up its game across all genres. BT MD Delia Bushell calls drama a “key motivator” for driving customer growth in what she describes as a “golden age” for TV series.
Irrespective of its actual audiences, Sky Atlantic has dominated the high-end imported drama market in the UK, with the likes of Fox and Universal generally perceived (with a few exceptions) as providing little in the way of real competition.
Details of the actual schedule are relatively sketchy at the moment, but the channel has secured some heavy hitters in the shape of The Walking Dead ‘companion piece’ Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) and the martial arts mash-up Into the Badlands.
Set in LA and starring the familiar faces of industry veterans Cliff Curtis (Once were Warriors, Live Free or Die Hard), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Deadwood) and actor/musician/politician and all-round renaissance man Reuben Blades (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Counselor), FTWD looks set to capitalise on the worldwide success of its parent show and help kickstart the fledgling channel.
Advance reviews have been fairly positive – with the usual caveats about pilot episodes, which tend to be chiefly involved in scene-setting.
According to Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC Global and SundanceTV Global, social media reaction to the first transmission of FTWD on August 23 has been “phenomenal in its scale.”
This was backed up when overnight figures for the show were released – 10.1 million Live+SD viewers, the highest audience for a cable launch ever in terms of individuals and all key demos.
FTWD will debut three days after AMC UK’s launch, on Monday, August 31 at 21.00 – where Sky Atlantic traditionally airs its heaviest hitters (Game of Thrones, True Detective), but in this case the opposition will be David Simon’s Yonkers public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, justifiably hugely praised but of strictly niche appeal in the UK.
The six-part Into the Badlands, vaguely reminiscent of the 1970s David Carradine-starrer Kung Fu, follows the quest for enlightenment of Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists) and his young companion in a dystopian-future US ruled by warring feudal barons.
Eminently promotable, Into the Badlands is pencilled in for a 2016 run on AMC UK after its November 2015 transmission in the US and a first window on Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, now in its third season (and already commissioned for a fourth run) on AMC’s SundanceTV, the critically acclaimed Rectify – created by Ray McKinnon (probably most familiar to audiences here as the tragic Reverend Smith in Deadwood) – is a slow-burning drama concerning the events surrounding the release of a death-row inmate after 19 years in prison when conflicting DNA evidence is discovered.
Rectify’s challenging script and occasional longueurs probably mean it’s unfortunately unlikely to be more than an acquired taste in the UK, but it is well worth checking out.
AM UK will also be premiering Sony’s Cleaners (previously shown on VoD platform Crackle in the US), a two-season actioner starring Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage, The Mentalist), Gina Gershon (Bound, Face/Off) and David Arquette (Scream).
Another title new to the UK via AMC will be Manhattan (Lionsgate, pictured top), a critically well-regarded drama shown on WGN America in the US. Centred around the development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos in 1943, the show features some well-known faces including William Petersen (CSI) and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, The Ghost Writer).
Some of AMC’s most popular series are already tied up with other UK broadcasters (Humans on Channel 4, The Walking Dead on Fox and Hell on Wheels on TCM), which means the channel will rely on movies, Mad Men (also on Sky Atlantic in the UK), Breaking Bad (Spike), FX’s rogue-cop series The Shield and the cult hit Weeds to bulk out the schedule.
Older AMC series such as the short-lived conspiracy thriller Rubicon (2010) could also get some airtime.
The US network also has a couple of hybrid docudramas – this year’s eight-part miniseries The Making of the Mob: New York and the forthcoming The West, a Sundance production that profiles the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Crazy Horse.
From details released so far, post-watershed movies playing on the UK channel will not at first include blockbuster hits, with a relatively low-key opening night line-up that includes George Clooney’s debut directorial effort Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and the Jim Thompson Noir thriller The Killer Inside Me (2010).
AMC US also plays host to retro-appeal series such as The Rifleman and The Three Stooges, which unsurprisingly will not cross the pond.
Upcoming John Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager (starring Hugh Laurie) as a coproduction with BBC (as Humans was with Channel 4) will also not be aired on AMC UK. AMC Global plans to continue these coproductions.
There exists the possibility of raiding the SundanceTV larder for shows such as The Red Road, a Banshee-style drama starring Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian), which ran to two six-part seasons, and the Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83.
2016 will see Sundance transmit the eagerly awaited adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s popular Hap & Leonard crime novels, with cast that includes the UK’s own James Purefoy (The Following, Rome), Michael K Williams (The Wire, Broadwalk Empire) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).
Also in development is Seth Rogen’s long-gestating comic book adaptation Preacher, set to air in the US next year.
Eager to use its existing libraries and distributor partnerships, AMC is unlikely to consider the Sky Atlantic route of international coproduced commissions in local territories, at least for the foreseeable future.
And, of course, the channel could always bolster its schedule with Nordic noir, which is pretty much a sure-fire way of attracting viewers. Scandi detective period series AD 1790 has yet to find a home – perhaps it will at last get an airing in the UK?
In recent years there has been a small but significant trend for non-English-language drama to be aired in its original form in English-speaking markets. This began with the export of Nordic scripted content, such as Borgen, but has since expanded to encompass French, German and Italian shows – including Les Revenants, Generation War and Inspector Montalbano respectively.
For the most part, this trend has involved the sales of shows to British broadcasters and subscription VoD platforms. But there was a major breakthrough earlier this year when US cable channel SundanceTV picked up the original version of Deutschland 83, an eight-part drama from UFA Fiction set in during the latter years of the Cold War.
Nico Hofmann, producer and chairman of UFA Fiction, said of the deal: “Never has a German-language series received so much attention before broadcast. Sundance TV’s reputation for exceptional series is yet further confirmation of Deutschland 83’s high quality. This is a milestone for German TV production.”
The arrival of Deutschland 83 in the US brought a lot of mainstream PR and a positive critical response. For example, Variety called it a “taut spy thriller” that “mixes coming-of-age material for the protagonist and intrigue from the tense political climate that Germans on both side of the (Berlin) Wall faced in the 1980s.”
It also scored well on IMDb, securing an 8.6 rating out 10. To put this in perspective, it is higher than Orange is the New Black (8.4) and Sense8 (8.5) – albeit based on a much smaller voting sample.
Deutschland 83’s positive reviews, however, haven’t transformed into very high ratings for Sundance. With the last episode airing on August 8, the website ShowBuzzDaily has the show’s ratings coming in at around 70,000-100,000.
Clearly, caveats need to be made regarding time-shifted viewing, repeat airing and the ferocious competitiveness of the US market, but this figure suggests the US cable audience isn’t quite ready for non-English language drama.
To compare with the UK, an equally competitive but much smaller market, this kind of content would probably secure an audience somewhere in the region of 500,000.
Deutschland 83’s ratings may have been impacted by the fact it is at the forefront of a new wave, and Sundance is to be applauded in this respect. So it may be that the AMC Networks-owned channel will need to persist with foreign-language drama in order to build up a loyal audience base. In the meantime, the best bet for foreign-language producers will continue to be the formats route.
All of this shouldn’t, however, have a negative impact on Deutschland 83’s sales performance elsewhere in the world, where language is not such a barrier.
Distributor FremantleMedia International has, for example, sold the series to Canal+ France and numerous mainstream broadcasters across Scandinavia.
Still with the AMC family, this Sunday will see AMC air the last episode of Humans. A bona fide hit for Channel 4 in the UK, which recently renewed the show, Humans has proved a steady but not spectacular performer for AMC. After debuting with 1.7 million viewers, it has been running at about 1.1-1.2 million ever since. AMC is already on board the second season.
Meanwhile, this was a big week for ABC Family’s long-running hit series Pretty Little Liars, with Tuesday’s Game Over Charles episode involving a big reveal. For six seasons, the show’s central characters have been hounded by a mysterious enemy, whose identity was finally revealed this week.
The result was a two-year ratings high for the show among its target 18-34 and 18-49 demographics. With 3.1 million total viewers and 1.8 million viewers among 18-49s, the show was also the top performer across all US cable viewing.
The ABC group has established a good reputation for its ability to build social media buzz around its shows, and Pretty Little Liars is a prime example. With 1.6 million tweets, the latest episode became the third most tweeted-about scripted show in cable TV history, accounting for 50% of all TV tweet activity for the day.
Significantly, the only shows ahead of it in this list are also episodes of Pretty Little Liars. All told, the show has three million Twitter followers and 3.4 million Instagram followers.
Commenting on the programme’s social media performance, Jenn Deering Davis, editor-in-chief of social analytics firm Union Metrics, said: “Pretty Little Liars’ finale was a true Twitter triumph. ABC Family continues to innovate in how it encourages fan participation across social media, never content to let its social strategy stagnate. Before the finale even started yesterday, Pretty Little Liars fans had already posted more than two million tweets about the show, breaking previous all-day records. Pretty Little Liars still has one of the most active and engaged Twitter fandoms in existence.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, ABC Family has already commissioned two further seasons.
There was also good news this week for The Last Ship, commissioned for a third season of 13 episodes by US cable channel TNT. According to the channel, the Sunday-night show is “basic cable’s top scripted series this summer with adults 25-54.”
The programme is currently nine episodes through its second season and is a steady performer with ratings of around 2.9 million. TNT has also set things up so that authenticated users can watch all previous episodes of the show on an on-demand basis.
This summer the series is “reaching an average of nine million viewers across TNT’s linear, VoD, digital and mobile platforms,” according to the channel.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, The Last Ship chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly destroys the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy, forcing captain and crew to confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they are among the few remaining survivors.
We’re only a few weeks away from the all-important autumn season and a lot of buzz is building around NBC’s new scripted series Blindspot. The show focuses on a mysterious tattooed woman who has lost her memory and does not know her own identity. On her back is the name of an FBI agent, who soon learns that the other tattoos on her body contain clues to upcoming crimes.
The two-minute trailer shows the lead character, played by Jaimie Alexander (Thor), being found naked in a holdall in the middle of New York’s Times Square. So perhaps not surprisingly it has racked up millions of views on YouTube. The big question now is whether Blindspot can sustain the narrative beyond an intriguing opening premise.
The show was created by Martin Gero and Greg Berlanti, who recently discussed it at the Television Critics Association’s summer press event. Gero’s enigmatic assessment was that Blindspot is “a procedural for people who don’t like procedurals, and a character drama for people who don’t like character dramas.”
He added: “There is an overarching mythology to this show week to week. You’re going to get some great resolution by the end of the year – you’re going to get some great resolution by the end of episode two. As we come through this mythology, there are a lot of twists and turns.”
A spokesman for FremantleMedia International, which distributes Deutschland 83, has provided further viewing figures for the show on Sundance. She said: “Over its eight episodes Deutschland 83 significantly outperformed the Sundance slot average share across several key demographics and more than doubled the average in the channel target audience adults 25-54 (Live+3D). Deutschland83exceeded the Sundance slot average share by 83% for total individuals 2+, 109% among 25-54s, 73% among 18-49s and 59% among women 18+ (Series 1, Live+3 Days).”
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.
Sci-fi drama Humans is now halfway through its eight-episode run on Channel 4 (C4) in the UK and two episodes into its airing on US cable channel AMC. In both cases its ratings are on the slide, but it is doing well enough in the UK that C4 will want a second series.
In the UK, the show generated a huge number of headlines when its opening episode attracted an impressive audience of 5.47 million (live plus seven days). Episode two dropped to 4.45 million, the third outing secured 3.6 million and the numbers are yet to be released for the most recent fourth edition. In the minus column is the scale of the slide, but on the plus side Humans is still massively outperforming C4’s usual drama ratings. Even if figures dip further over the next two to three episodes, the hardcore audience looks strong enough to merit renewal.
The AMC audience, however, has not been so enthused with the show. After a debut audience of 1.73 million for episode one, the show attracted 1.09 million for episode two. That’s a 37% drop, compared with the 19% drop on C4. Of course, we need to give the show a few more episodes on AMC before we reach any firm conclusions. But producer Kudos will be hoping that the US audience stays strong enough to merit an AMC renewal. It won’t want to be in a position where C4 says yes and AMC says no. For comparison, AMC’s version of Low Winter Sun was cancelled after one season, having averaged 1.21 million and a 0.43 rating among 18-49s. Humans is performing at a similar level on AMC.
While AMC will need to think carefully about Humans, its sister channel SundanceTV has announced a fourth season of Rectify. Revealing the renewal on the eve of the season three premiere (July 9), Charlie Collier, president of AMC and SundanceTV said: “Even in an increasingly crowded field of dramas on TV, Rectify has established itself as something special. What (creator) Ray McKinnon, this incredible cast and everyone associated with the show have achieved is remarkable, and we are so pleased to usher in this third season with an order for a fourth.”
Rectify follows the life of Daniel Holden, who returns to his small hometown in Georgia after serving 19 years on death row. It has received good reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly (“TV’s wisest, deepest drama”) and TIME (“Terrific slow-burn drama”). News that it is going to a fourth series will be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which has sold the show internationally to such firms as Sky Germany, Netflix and Arte.
USA Network’s much-hyped hacker series Mr Robot launched this week to a solid start. Live-plus-three ratings came in at 3.7 million, which is at the upper end of recent USAN launches. Elements in the show’s favour include the fact that the audience was pretty strong in terms of the all-important 18-49 demo. It’s also important to take account of the fact that the show had been previewed online a month earlier, attracting 2.7 million viewers. Presumably, some of those early adopters wouldn’t have bothered to watch this week’s linear TV transmission.
Success with the 18-49 demo is also one reason why Lifetime has decided to renew UnREAL, its reality TV-based drama. The opening episode of the first season didn’t rate at all well, but Lifetime’s subsequent decision to put the first four episodes online appears to have revived the show’s fortunes – resulting in a strong showing for the TV airing of episode five. The dynamic at work here seems to be that Lifetime wants shows like UnREAL to attract younger audiences. But the problem is persuading those younger audiences to come looking for content on Lifetime. The online experiment seems to have addressed this conundrum, by allowing non-traditional Lifetime audiences to sample the show. The result is that UnREAL is now being described as Lifetime’s youngest scripted series ever, with a median viewer age of 43.
Commenting on the renewal, network executive VP and head of programming Liz Gateley said: “We couldn’t be more proud to bring back UnREAL. With authentically flawed characters, sharp storytelling and impeccable performances, this show is propelling our brand in a truly exciting direction – an unexpected and bolder Lifetime. We are thrilled to continue our work with (co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) and the A+E Studios team, as we together bring a new generation of viewers to Lifetime.”
Adweek has a good analysis of this story, exploring the way US channel chiefs are increasingly leaning on digital numbers when making their renewal decisions.
Adweek also makes an interesting observation about the tendency for cable channels to recommission shows early (Rectify, Mr Robot and UnREAL all being examples). It says early pickups are a way for networks to “assure viewers who may be on the fence about diving into a new show that might get cancelled that, yes, it’s safe to start watching.” This is a growing problem for channel chiefs – and not just in the US. Audiences don’t want to invest time and emotional energy in shows that may be axed in the near future, so viewers adopt a wait-and-see attitude by banking episodes. The problem with this, of course, is that their reluctance to jump on board may increase the likelihood of cancellation, because it dampens ratings performance. This is another factor channel chiefs need to ponder.
In terms of projects to watch out for, July 19 sees the launch of Spike US’s six-part miniseries Tut. Produced by Muse Entertainment, the drama will tell the story of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s rise to power and the political machinations in his court. There is very little indication yet as to what the show will be like, but it has been acquired this week by Channel 5 in the UK, which – like Spike – is part of the Viacom family of channels.
US remakes of foreign-language dramas have often struggled in the recent past, with shows such as The Returned ending up on the scrapheap. But could this negative trend be fixed with AMC’s forthcoming series Broke?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That seems to be the message from US drama executives who are continuing to look for overseas formats that they can turn into their next drama hit.
Cable network SundanceTV broke the mould earlier this month when it debuted Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 to critical and popular acclaim. Commissioned by RTL, it is the first time a German-language series has aired in the US and the channel should be praised for its decision to air the UFA Fiction-produced spy drama in its original form.
But it does seem to be the exception to the rule that American networks prefer to remake foreign-language dramas, and that trend has continued today with news that SundanceTV’s sister station AMC has gone straight-to-series on another reboot.
Broke tells the story of two best friends who take one last shot at their dream of opening a restaurant together. One is a brilliant chef in trouble with the mob and the law, while the other is the best sommelier in the city and the widowed father of a teenage son.
Based on Danish series Bankerot (aka Bankruptcy, pictured top), which was created by Kim Fupz Aakeson and airs on public broadcaster DR, it will be coproduced in the US by AMC Studios and Lionsgate. The rights were sold by DR Sales.
Nurse Jackie showrunner Clyde Phillips, whose credits also include Dexter, will write and executive produce the 10-part series, which is expected to air in 2016.
“Broke is unique, edgy and sexy. I can’t wait to jump in and help it evolve into a groundbreaking bit of television,” said Phillips. “More than that, I’m looking forward to continuing what’s been a remarkable partnership with Lionsgate, and starting out on an exciting new adventure with AMC.”
It’s also interesting to note that many creatives from the Danish series are retaining a role on the US adaptation, with Henrik Ruben Genz, Malene Blenkov and DR head of drama Piv Bernth all named as executive producers.
Describing Bankerot as DR’s “little gem,” Bernth said: “There’s no doubt Kim Fupz Aakeson’s story of Thomas and Dion – who really is bankrupt, mentally, emotionally and financially – hits something universal. The series’ message that if we stand together and help each other against all odds, we should be fine, fits well all over the world and especially in the US. It’s great that the series will have a new life in multiple languages.”
The show has already been sold in its original form to French/German network Arte, but the deal with AMC marks the first time remake rights have been secured.
DR can now expect a flood of enquiries from other international networks interested in picking up Bankerot, such is the power of a US acquisition – whatever its form.
But that doesn’t mean the remake will be an instant success, as US networks have a decidedly chequered history with their adaptations of international hits. Most recently, A&E scrapped The Returned, its reworking of French zombie drama Les Revenants, after one season, while AMC has previously adapted another DR drama, Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing). It survived for three seasons, with a fourth picked up by Netflix. But it never translated into the breakout success the original series enjoyed.
FX also ran two seasons of The Bridge, a reworking of the Swedish/Danish crime drama Bron/Broen, before it was cancelled last October.
Of course, there have been successes, most notably Homeland, Showtime’s take on Israeli drama Hatufim that’s now heading into its fifth season.
But while all eyes will be on whether Broke takes off after its launch next year, it is more intriguing to see whether Sundance’s gamble on a foreign-language series will see more US channels following its lead and opening the floodgates to a wave of subtitled drama reaching American shores.
SundanceTV has been steadily building its homegrown drama credentials over the past few years. Christian Vesper, senior VP of scripted development and current, tells DQ why he believes the network has turned a corner.
There is perhaps no other name more closely identified with independent movies than the Sundance Film Festival. And there is no other television network more closely associated with the festival than the Sundance Channel, which is why, when the station decided on a rebrand last year, it stayed well within the halo of the Robert Redford brand.
SundanceTV arrived in time for the February 2014 premiere of the channel’s second wholly owned homegrown drama series, The Red Road – signifying another step towards its ambition of becoming better known for scripted television.
The journey began in 2010 with Carlos, a miniseries about the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed The Jackal, originally commissioned by France’s Canal+ and directed by Olivier Assayas – marking the auteur’s first foray into TV. Sundance got involved in the French/German production at the rough-cut stage and took a coproduction credit, though these days such collaborations see it much more heavily engaged in the creative process.
SundanceTV’s senior VP of scripted development and current, Christian Vesper, has been with the network for the past 12 years, playing a central role in its evolution – and Carlos, he says, was a pivotal moment.
“It made a lot of noise. We won best miniseries at the Golden Globes with a US$15m project against the US$150m project that was The Pacific. It led to a realisation in the higher levels of our organisation that the network could distinguish itself in the scripted space.”
At the time, that organisation was in the midst of major change. Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media was being spun out of Cablevision as a separate entity to be named AMC Networks, housing fellow cable outlets AMC, IFC and WE tv.
Carlos stood out as a genuine differentiator for Sundance, which until then had predominantly been seen as an elite, art-house movie destination. For Vesper, the show was a clear statement of intent – aiming to establish the channel as a home to directors, producers, writers and talent with a theatrical vision that could be transposed to the small screen. “We want our shows to look and feel cinematic. We are still part of the Sundance family, and that’s important,” he says.
Restless (2012) came next – another mini – this time an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name about a young woman who discovers that her mother was recruited as a spy during World War Two. Hilary Bevan Jones’s Endor Productions made the two-parter, which garnered accolades including a Best Actress Emmy nomination for Charlotte Rampling.
“We’re big fans of William Boyd and the idea again is to work with artists and writers who are exceptional,” says Vesper. This was Sundance’s “first proper copro,” he adds, and its first alliance with the BBC – a relationship that was to deepen with Top of the Lake (2013), director Jane Campion’s first TV project in more than 20 years. The seven-part series, shot in New Zealand, starred big names including Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and centred on the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.
It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival and aired at around the same time as Rectify, the channel’s first wholly owned homegrown series. Vesper describes the dual release as “an inflection point for the network – when we really meant to make a statement that we were in the scripted space for real.” He calls Rectify, heading into its third season next month, “a beautifully rendered piece of art television.” Top of the Lake, meanwhile, which has also been renewed, was “a fantastic opportunity” that BBC Worldwide and producer See-Saw brought to the network.
“We got involved very early in the script stage. It turned out to be a terrific brand signifier and audience generator, and we received a ton of award nominations – which we need to make some noise in such a crowded marketplace,” Vesper says, again emphasising the desire for projects with genuine artistic merit but also critical and commercial resonance.
After all, the competition is only getting stronger. SundanceTV is a sibling of AMC, which has been responsible for some of the greatest drama successes of the past decade – notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in October 2014 it gained a new sister, after the AMC Networks mother ship paid US$200m for a 49.9% stake in BBC America – home to originals including Copper and, more recently, Intruders.
Outside of the family the world has been moving fast, with Starz (another regular BBC partner) stepping up efforts to displace HBO and Showtime, while History Channel, A&E and others have been moving into scripted against the backdrop of Netflix and Amazon redrawing the landscape completely.
SundanceTV last year aired the original version of French supernatural drama The Returned (Les Revenants), and together with Canal+ has become a coproduction partner on the upcoming second season – but in the meantime an English-language version penned by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse is in the works at A&E.
Vesper acknowledges the difference in reach between the two channels (A&E is in close to 100 million households, whereas SundanceTV is available in around 60 million) but believes his own network has several advantages over newer entrants. “It’s not as if we’ve shifted from comedy to drama or anything like that. Drama has always been our focus and it is our brand,” he says.
“We have a pre-existing relationship with Sundance, and the niche we seek to fill is somewhere between our big brothers at AMC and the kind of content associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute.
“We’re looking to work with and highlight the auteurs. We want heavily character-based storytelling that is distinct, perhaps because of the unique tales we tell or progressive kind of storytelling we’re willing to engage in.”
The Honourable Woman (main image), Hugo Blick’s political spy thriller, fell squarely into this category. It follows an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business and with it all the trappings of his Middle Eastern dealings.
Maggie Gyllenhaal took the lead role, again underscoring the importance to SundanceTV of having big-name draws. “She’s a movie star, which guaranteed the series would be written about. And once people knew to pay attention, they realised the show had enormous quality. It’s an essential element to making things work,” says Vesper. The eight-part series was made by UK indie Drama Republic and Blick’s own business, Eight Rooks, again via the BBC’s commercial arm. It premiered on BBC2 in the UK on July 3, 2014 and on SundanceTV stateside on July 31, winning Gyllenhaal Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.
In an age of simulcasts and collapsing release windows, a four-week transatlantic gap seems like a long time for a series around which so much anticipation was built. But Vesper argues this only helped build interest in the US, as UK buzz about the show began to travel.
The tables were turned with One Child, Guy Hibbert’s miniseries about an adopted woman who is suddenly called back to China by her birth mother to save the brother she never knew she had from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It was coproduced with the BBC’s in-house production team, and although BBC2 was the lead broadcaster, SundanceTV aired the show on December 5 and 6 ahead of the BBC. “It’s a discussion on a per-show basis,” Vesper says.
Straight acquisitions are still on the agenda, with SundanceTV recently becoming the first major US network to pick up a German-language drama in the form of Deutschland 83, a Cold War thriller made by FremantleMedia’s UFA Fiction for RTL.
In wholly owned originals, The Red Road came from Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the hit 2013 movie Prisoners. Martin Henderson and Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa led the cast in another character-driven study, this time focusing on conflict between Native Americans in a deprived neighbourhood on the outskirts of white middle-class Manhattan. However, the show was cancelled after the end of its second season last month.
Meanwhile, in the pipeline is Hap and Leonard – SundanceTV’s third wholly owned original show and its first solo book adaptation, based on a series of novels by Joe Lansdale. The script is being penned by Sundance Film Festival alumni Jim Mickle and Nick Damici – again underscoring the ongoing importance of that association – with the show due to air next year.
Sundance Channel may have become SundanceTV and gone a significant way down the road to being recognised as a serious scripted TV player, but it will always owe a 10-gallon hat tip to Butch Cassidy’s notorious sidekick.