Tag Archives: Texas Rising

Bob the builder

A+E Studios’ Bob DeBitetto outlines the new company’s mission statement as DQ takes a look at some of the shows emerging from the fledging production entity.

In June 2013 US broadcaster A+E Networks announced it was going to launch an in-house production studio under the leadership of Bob DeBitetto (pictured above), the president of brand strategy and business development at the parent company.

Two years down the line and the company has started making its mark with a string of scripted productions, including Houdini, Texas Rising, Sons of Liberty, UnREAL and a US adaptation of French supernatural hit The Returned. According to DeBitetto, there’s also a substantial development slate that will enable the studio to step up a gear in the next year or two. Among titles close to getting the green light is The Liberator, a wartime drama shaping up as A+E’s answer to HBO’s Band of Brothers.

Sons-of-Liberty

Sons of Liberty
A six-part miniseries for History from A+E Studios and Stephen David Entertainment, Sons of Liberty follows historical figures Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Joseph Warren as they secretly join forces to make America a nation. Written by Stephen David and David C. White, the show was helmed by Kari Skogland and features a title theme by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. The production is distributed internationally by A+E Networks.

DeBitetto has long been an advocate of an A+E-owned production entity because “it makes good economic sense. Under the traditional model, our US networks (which include A+E, History and Lifetime) pay around 70% of the cost of production for a licence fee. The producer of the show – let’s say MGM or Warner Bros – then deficits the remainder and takes the worldwide rights. For me, this has always been problematic, because we are building programme brands but not participating fully in their success.”

This issue has become increasingly acute in the last three to five years, says DeBitetto, “because there are more platforms around the world consuming drama content, including SVoD players like Netflix and Amazon. So before the launch of A+E Studios we were in a position where we had a strong global distribution business (the international division of A+E Networks, headed by Sean Cohan), but didn’t own shows like Vikings (property of MGM). That meant we were losing out on potential revenue but also faced the prospect that shows we helped build in the US would appear on rivals elsewhere.”

Against this backdrop, the purpose of A+E Studios is to rebalance that relationship. “The studio is the vessel for us to own the content supply and exercise greater control over the programming,” DeBitetto says. “We will develop shows, deficit-finance them and put them through distribution ourselves.”

Texas-Rising

Texas Rising
Texas Rising is an eight-part miniseries that airs on History in the US and is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It tells the story of the Texan revolution against Mexico and the rise of the Texas Rangers, the oldest law-enforcement group in North America. Exec producer is Leslie Greif, who has already had a hit Western in the shape of Hatfields & McCoys. The cast includes Bill Paxton, Olivier Martinez, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Kris Kristofferson. The show was produced by A+E Studios and ITV Studios America, in association with Thinkfactory Media.

It all makes sense. But if there is a countervailing argument, it’s that studios cost a lot to build and support. As DeBitetto acknowledges, A+E Studios is “not just a name on a letterhead, it is a proper studio with 25 to 30 executives in LA and another team based with me in New York, covering all the functions you’d expect across production, development and business affairs. So, yes, it involves a sizeable capital investment.”

But, for DeBitetto, “the real risk is the old model, where we had our hands wrapped around the worst part of the business. Our view is that even if a show doesn’t get renewed, it’s still possible to recoup the deficit internationally. Besides, the real risk is that we create shows that make $100m for someone else. A critical part of building an international business is being able to sync it up as much as possible around content. Just imagine if we make the next Walking Dead but don’t control it outside of a US licence.”

In a perfect, friction-free world, A+E Studios would make great scripted shows for A+E, History and Lifetime in the US and then pass them over to the distribution division to sell around the globe (ideally to the international arms of A+E’s own channels). But in reality the market is much more complex.

UnREAL

UnREAL
UnREAL is the first show that sees A+E Studios in complete control. Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, the series is set against the backdrop of a hit dating competition show, whose young producer manipulates contestants to get dramatic and outrageous footage. The programme is produced by A+E Studios and Frank & Bob Films II, with Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Grey’s Anatomy) as co-creator and executive producer. Distributed by A+E Networks, the show is airing on Lifetime US and has already been picked up by a number of networks including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.

The first tier of complexity involves A+E’s US networks, which need to be able to buy drama from multiple sources: “Our CEO is clear that content ownership must be a key tentpole of this business. But the people running our networks need to be free to do business with other suppliers. For us, a quid pro quo of this is that A+E Studios should be able to sell content to third parties. If content ownership is a good and profitable business, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be selling our shows to other networks and the SVoD platforms. I could see us partnering on a show with Netflix.”

Another issue is what A+E Studios should do when another company already has its hands on a property that it wants to participate in. A case in point is The Returned, whose first season concluded last month on A+E in the US. “FremantleMedia were very smart and managed to get hold of the format rights to the show,” says DeBitetto. “We were interested in the show and took the creative lead, but that had to be set up as a coproduction where we shared the risk and the rights with them.”

DeBitetto has actually been doing quite a lot of sharing since launching his studio: “The first project we got involved with was Houdini, which was pretty much fully developed when we stepped in. So in that case we were involved as a co-financer. Then there was Texas Rising. In that case, ITV got involved when they acquired the show’s producer (Thinkfactory).

“Clearly, I’d like to move towards a model where we fully own shows. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that, particularly when you are starting up a studio. I see our future slate as being a mix of partnerships and wholly owned shows, but with the wholly owned shows taking a bigger percentage.”

houdini_chained1_080

Houdini
This four-hour miniseries from Gerald W. Abrams aired on A+E’s History in 2014. Written by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek), Houdini starred Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as the famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. A Lionsgate/A+E Studios coproduction, the show debuted on History to 3.7 million viewers, making it one of the network’s strongest scripted shows ever. Houdini was distributed internationally by Lionsgate and sold to networks including Seven in Australia.

Probably the biggest deciding factor in whether A+E Studios thrives will be the quality of talent it attracts. DeBitetto is aware of this and has started signing up showrunners on development deals. “We’ve done deals with Michael Hirst and Carlton Cuse. What we like about these two is that they are both phenomenal talents who have produced great shows for A+E’s networks (Vikings and Bates Motel). We’d rather be in business with creatives where we know the chemistry works.”

Again, flexibility is the watchword when putting together deals like these: “We aren’t like the big studios, which can put people on huge exclusive deals. We need to be smart and not try to keep these guys in a walled-up dungeon. They need to be able to work with others too. That’s another reason why it’s important for us to sell to third-party networks. We can’t be in a position where shows developed here are never used because they are not picked up by our channels.”

DeBitetto is cautious about discussing future projects by name – with the exception of The Liberator, an eight-hour production that will follow the progress of US WW2 soldiers as they battle up through Italy and into Germany before getting involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “The project has been written by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), which is really exciting,” says DeBitetto. “If you think about how much CGI and SFX have come on since Band of Brothers, this will be a really spectacular piece of TV.”

As for the rest of the development slate, he says: “We have eight fully developed screenplays in front of A+E and six in early development with History. I don’t want to say too much yet but there is one time-travel project and another set around the time of the Crusades. Overall it’s an eclectic mix.”

In terms of the studio’s capacity, DeBitetto adds: “Put it this way, if A+E, Lifetime and History sent everything our way over the next three years, we could handle it. More realistically, if we get half to two-thirds of their scripted orders then we could handle those and have room to work on third-party orders. I don’t think you’re going to see us turning work down.”

The-Returned

The Returned
A coproduction between A+E Studios and FremantleMedia North America, The Returned is based on the successful French drama Les Revenants. It focuses on a small town that is turned upside down when several local people come back from the dead. FremantleMedia is distributing the series internationally, excluding the US and Canada, which are being handled by A+E Studios. Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) wrote the first episode, and alongisde Raelle Tucker wrote and executive produced the series. The show debuted on A+E in the US on March 9. Just prior to that, FremantleMedia agreed a deal that will see The Returned debut on Netflix outside of the US and Canada. Netflix will add the show to its US service next year.

While A+E Studios is centred on LA and New York, DeBitetto says international plays a key role in the studio’s thinking. “Firstly, there are the ideas out in the market, like The Returned, which started in France. It doesn’t always work out, as we found the previous year when A+E in the US adapted Danish crime drama Those Who Kill. There are a lot of good titles out there and an appetite to adapt them in the US.”

Then there is the financing, continues DeBitetto: “When you think about that deficit I referred to earlier, it’s the financial projections coming back from Sean Cohan’s international team that underpin our productions. They are the ones with the market-by-market expertise, so their judgments are critical when assessing affordability and likely returns.”

So where does that leave the ambition to build A+E’s channel brands with wholly owned programming assets? What’s the correct play if a third-party network in the international market is willing to pay more to licence a show than an A+E network? “It’s case by case,” says DeBitetto. “If the option of selling to a big commercial network comes along then that’s clearly more attractive than selling to a smaller A+E network, particularly if our channel’s emphasis is more on factual. But here’s the thing – all we are selling is a window. Ownership means we can have our cake and eat it too. That’s where we are heading.”

In terms of how he wants the A+E Studios brand to be perceived, DeBitetto stresses that it is not a consumer-facing brand like the channels for which it produces. “But as a B2B brand I want people to think of us as small, smart, nimble, creative, eclectic, culturally relevant with an independent spirit,” he adds.

“The truth is your brand is defined by what you do. But we’re definitely material driven. For us, it’s what’s on the page, and then the screen, that matters.”

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Ladies first

Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter
Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter

When Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik attended the C21 Drama Summit in London last Autumn, he talked about wanting to grow his channel’s subscriber base by targeting underserved audiences. Citing an example, he explained how Starz would reach out to the female audience with Outlander, a historical time-travel scripted series based on the best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon.

The first 16-part series of Outlander concluded at the end of last month. And while its final two episodes focused on tough subjects such as brutality, torture and male rape, the series has achieved its objectives. With Zap2it referring to Outlander as “Game of Thrones for Soccer Moms,” the show has attracted an average of around 2.5 million women per episode. What’s more, Nielsen estimates 64% more women than men watch the show, which is an unusual profile for a fantasy-based project.

A number of factors explain Outlander’s female appeal. At a superficial level, it helps that the show has a hunky male lead in the shape of Sam Heughan (similar to Poldark in the UK). But more important is the fact the show is told from a female perspective, with a romantic narrative and solid moral values at its heart. Contrast that with Game of Thrones, which (brilliant though it is) is fundamentally a story about power and patriarchy, in which the women are either are either damsels in distress, psychotic megalomaniacs or exotic mystics. Even the women that run counter to gender stereotype (Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte) are all recognisable female subsets of the fantasy genre.

So Outlander has done its job, the reward for which is a second series that will have a minimum of 13 episodes. Should that also prove successful, it could run and run – because there are currently nine books in the series. Internationally, the show is distributed Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has sold the title to an estimated 87 territories across Latin America and Europe.

Texas Rising's premiere pulled in five million viewers
Texas Rising’s premiere pulled in five million viewers

Quite a few of SPT’s deals are with SVoD players such as Clarovideo, Viaplay, Sohu and Lightbox, so it’s not easy to get a sense of how well the show has resonated with audiences outside the US. But there are a couple of indications that Outlander can travel in space as well as time. In Canada, for example, it attracted almost one million viewers per episode for specialty channel Showcase. Reinforcing the results from the US, it has been the number-one specialty programme among women aged 25 to 54 this year. In Australia, meanwhile, it debuted strongly for Foxtel’s drama channel Soho in autumn 2014, delivering the second highest audience of the year.

An interesting side story is that Outlander also generates a lot of social media traffic. For the first season, Starz ran eight episodes and then gave the show a break. It then brought the show back on April 4 (episode 9 – aka the mid-season premiere). When it did, the show trended on Facebook for more than 12 hours. It also ranked second in Nielsen Ratings for Twitter conversation volume among all television series on premiere day, and trended at number five on Twitter during Saturday’s 21.00 ET/PT premiere screening.

This fits a wider pattern. Most social media stats in the last couple of years have supported the thesis that women use Facebook and Twitter more than men to talk about TV shows (both before and during transmission). So there’s clearly the potential for an audience amplification effect if you can get women to take ownership of a scripted series – because they are then more likely to champion it via social media than men are.

Another show that demonstrates the cross-platform power of female-centric shows is ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which returned for a sixth season earlier this week. Although the new season kicked off with slightly lower ratings than in previous years, it remains one of the top shows in the US among females aged 12-49. It’s also a social media phenomenon, with new stats showing it has topped 110 million tweets, 2.6 million Instagram followers, one million Snapchat friends and 13 million Facebook fans.

No Offence's ratings have dipped below 1.3 million
No Offence’s ratings have dipped below 1.3 million

Lest men should start to feel there’s no room for them in the living room with all this fem-centric drama, let’s turn to the History channel’s testosterone-fuelled Western Texas Rising, which secured five million and 4.1 million viewers for its first two episodes (May 25, May 26, Live+3 ratings) respectively. According to History, this is “the best cable miniseries start in Live+3 since The Bible.”

Directed by Roland Joffé and starring Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez, Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media. It is distributed outside the US by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. In terms of its editorial setup, History has clearly struck gold with Bill Paxton, an articulate and charming actor who was at MipTV to help promote the show. He previously starred in Hatfield & McCoys, another storming success for History. In terms of where History is going next with its dramas, try reading Clive Whittingham’s Q&A with Dirk Hoogstra, the general manager of History and H2.

A couple of weeks ago we expressed our concern that the BBC’s period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might not recover from a modest opening on May 17. Episode two on May 24 confirmed these fears, with the show sliding from 4.5 million to 2.6 million. Already lagging behind the average for its slot (Sunday 2100), the seven-part series will struggle to regain momentum.

Channel 4’s offbeat procedural No Offence, penned by Paul Abbott, is also drifting. Having started strongly with 2.5 million (way ahead of the slot average), episode four recorded the series’ lowest rating to date at just under 1.3 million (though there’s no information yet about any boost from time-shifted viewing).

Hopefully, the No Offence’s ratings have now bottomed out, because it would be good to see a second series. Abbot and his US-style writing team have created a distinctive piece of work, which centres on a strong group of female characters who are not constantly having to justify their status to male colleagues. The show, which has attracted positive reviews in the UK, has also introduced a superb cast of Down’s syndrome actors. All in all, it’s done enough to deserve a second bow.

Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14
Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14

In scripted terms, the next few weeks are important for Channel 4. Aside from the climax of No Offence, it has the launch of Humans to look forward to. Based on the acclaimed Swedish drama Real Humans, it imagines a world in which families own ‘synths,’ highly developed, artificially intelligent servants. Produced by Kudos, the eight-part series will air on C4 on June 14. It will then air on AMC in the US on June 28.

The original version ran on SVT in Sweden for two seasons (20 episodes total). The last episode aired in February 2014 and there has been no news since about whether a third series will be greenlit, though there is an outline and scripts should SVT decide to revive the production. Real Humans has sold to 50 countries worldwide, but has not hit English-language markets yet, presumably because of fears it will interfere with the launch of the English language spin-off.

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