The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.
The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.
Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.
Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.
On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.
Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.
“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”
Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.
The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).
Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
A lot of scripted TV has a derivative feel about it – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When people sit down to watch something, they generally want to know roughly what they are going to get, in the same way they gravitate towards the same brands and restaurants.
That’s why, even in this ‘golden age’ age of risk-taking drama, so many shows are based on pre-existing properties or work within well-understood genres or situations (cop, hospital, romance, period and so on).
But the audience’s preference for the familiar only goes so far. Once viewers are within a story world, they expect to be surprised and delighted. If a drama turns out to be a poor copy of a previous show then they will desert in their droves. This explains why so many scripted series fall off a cliff between episodes one and two – because they have been rumbled.
One writer who seems pretty adept at balancing the familiar with the fresh is Josh Safran. After working on The CW’s hit series Gossip Girl and NBC’s short-lived Smash, he has now achieved a strong start with Quantico, a fast-paced thriller that debuted on September 27 on ABC in the US.
Airing in a 22.00 slot, the show attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49. This audience was 36% up on its lead-in and well ahead of the CSI finale on CBS. In addition, it was much higher than Revenge’s performance in the same slot last year. In fact, ABC says the show is the strongest ‘regular programming’ performer in this slot since May 2012 (i.e. not a special event such as a live sports match).
Quantico is about a group of young trainees learning to become FBI agents. It turns out that one of them is a terrorist planning a major attack – but we don’t know who.
So far, so familiar. In the run up to the show’s launch, it was described as “a garden variety whodunnit” and a cross between Homeland and a Shonda Rhimes drama.
What helps Safran’s show stand out from the crowd, however, is a clear decision to avoid obvious character stereotypes. The trainees, for example, are ethnically diverse, with a central role handed to Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who plays Alex Parrish. There is also a leading position for black actress Aunjanue Ellis, who acts as mentor to the new recruits.
Forbes Magazine was especially impressed by the show’s start, pointing out numerous examples of how the female characters assert their independence and demonstrate their capabilities. “The best and most refreshing parts of this programme are the strong females leads,” it said. “Quantico highlights the fact that female leads can have more to their plotlines than love, pregnancy or rape. And it shows that when better roles are written for women, the programme benefits as well.”
It’s early days, of course, and some of Quantico’s reviewers were a bit more skeptical. But as long as the show can maintain momentum with its terrorist whodunnit plot, it will probably come out as one of this year’s top-performing new series – which would be good news for international broadcaster such as CTV Canada and UKTV that have already acquired it.
As for Safran, he is also working on an updated version of the Fame, which first appeared as a 1980 movie before becoming a hit TV series and then being revived as a movie again in 2009. Destined for Lifetime in the US, the new Fame is being written and executive produced by Safran for MGM TV. Other exec producers include Nigel Lythgoe, Chad Gutstein and Charles Segars.
On paper, its looks like a dead cert hit (for the reasons stated at the start of this column). But it will actually be quite a challenge for Safran. Just how do you revive such a show in a world that has been exposed to Glee, wall-to-wall TV talent shows and YouTube? This is a situation where the ability to blend the familiar with the fresh will prove decisive.
Another writer entitled to feel pleased with himself this week is London-based Joshua St Johnston, whose three-part miniseries The Enfield Haunting is to air on A&E Network in the US from October 9, following its acquisition from eOne.
Adapted from Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, The Enfield Haunting is a dramatisation of the terrifying real-life events that took place in a London home during 1977. Starring Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, it first aired to critical acclaim on Sky Living in the UK.
St Johnston’s first TV writing credit came way back in 1996, when he penned an episode of UK doctor drama Peak Practice. After a period where he focused more on producing, St Johnston wrote a couple of TV movies in the middle of the last decade, including the Ray Winstone-starring Sweeney Todd. After writing a short film for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, he scripted the poorly reviewed musical film Walking on Sunshine.
However, with Eleven Film-produced The Enfield Haunting he certainly seems to have found his métier.
Represented by Harriet Pennington Leigh at Troika Talent, St Johnston is now developing new TV series with Clerkenwell Films and Eleven Film and working on a movie with Christopher Sweeney entitled Good Boy, Hung. He is also reported to be working on a TV series with Artists Studio called Deviant. As a footnote, it’s interesting to see A&E going back into the paranormal realm so soon after its failure with The Returned – it’s obviously a genre in which it sees plenty of mileage.
Other writers who can look forward to a period of full employment include Graham Roland, who is attached to a new Paramount TV production based on author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. The show, which has Carlton Cuse (Lost) attached as showrunner, is heading to Amazon, according to Deadline.
Roland’s major credits to date include Prison Break, Lost and the US version of The Returned, the latter two of which he worked on with Cuse. He was also involved in Fox’s sci-fi/crime drama Almost Human, which only lasted for one season in 2014 before cancellation.
Elsewhere, showrunner Stephen Kronish is working with Televisa US on its upcoming remake of Gran Hotel. An industry veteran whose credits stretch all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1985, Kronish has had some big hits in the last decade with 24 and The Kennedys. He has also recently finished writing the TV movie Manson’s Lost Girls and the moderately well-received Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.
UK producer Eleven Film is building on the scares in The Enfield Haunting by plotting new true horror stories to bring to television. Michael Pickard reports.
Viewers yet to re-emerge from behind the sofa after watching Sky Living’s three-part drama The Enfield Haunting (pictured above) might want to make themselves comfortable – television could be about to get much scarier.
The Enfield Haunting, which aired in May this year, dramatised events purported to have taken place at a house in Enfield, north London, in 1977. Based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, it starred Timothy Spall as a paranormal researcher who is drawn to the house after disturbing reports of a desperate family terrorised by unseen malevolent forces.
The miniseries, which recalls the most documented account of poltergeist activity in British history, also starred Juliet Stevenson and Matthew Macfadyen. It was directed by Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing) and written by Joshua St Johnston.
But beyond the spooky events replayed on screen, the series represents a change in attitude for its producer Eleven Film.
Known for its work across comedy, drama and factual, Eleven is using The Enfield Haunting as a platform to investigate more true horror and true crime stories and bring them to television.
Campbell, who co-founded Eleven with Joel Wilson, says: “Our background was making documentaries and, before that, working together on comedy sketches. We were lucky enough to make a documentary for Channel 4 in 2000, but since that time we’ve been interested in finding ways into different genres.
“There’s a presumption that if you’re strong in one genre, diversifying is not the thing to do. But we’re curious about all genres and we like working in all of them. Across our developments we’ve probably got a dozen or so dramas across different broadcasters, mostly in the UK and one with (US network) Fox about a teenage Jesus of Nazareth. We have fewer comedy developments and some documentary developments. Drama is our biggest department by some distance.”
Within drama, Eleven hopes to carve out a niche on the back of the success of The Enfield Haunting by developing a number of stories based on true horror.
“There’s an overlap between true horror and true crime, which is interesting to us,” Campbell says. “So we’ve been developing heavily in that and we hope we’ll become a specialist in the UK, if not the world, in that quite tight genre of true horror where it overlaps with true crime.
“We’ve begun to pitch to broadcasters in that space, not just in factual but also in drama. All the broadcasters are interested in finding a way of telling factual in a credible and exciting way in drama in some form, and we think we’re well equipped to get that product into the marketplace. We have a keen sense of what works in factual and we know how to make high-end drama. That’s something we’re focusing on.”
As a result, Eleven has been putting hours into researching stories from the UK and around the world that fit this billing, though Campbell admits it hasn’t thrown up as many possible plots as you might imagine.
“I wouldn’t say there are loads of stories out there,” he says. “We’ve put in a substantial amount of research in the last six months and finding stories that are best told in the horror genre and that you can fundamentally say are based on true events is not a straightforward task.
“You have to find something that’s exciting and unusual in some way – something that you can structure in the genre with compelling horror genre beats that will make sense in synthesis with the story. A lot of the time you look at a story and think maybe it would be good to tell in horror, but actually it’s much better to tell as a true crime story as a documentary. We’re looking at them internationally, not just in the UK. We’ve found a lot of the best of (these stories). There aren’t thousands of them, probably hundreds.”
The notion that the television industry is currently enjoying a ‘golden age’ is not a new concept, but it’s one that Campbell believes has largely been confined to the US – until now.
“The golden age of drama is quite a specific idea and it really, if we’re honest, applies to America first and foremost,” he says. “But the UK is on the cusp of a golden age of drama. The scale and ambition of some shows going into production at the moment is very exciting.
“I remember (former BBC drama commissioner) Ben Stephenson five years ago saying Britain was producing world-class drama, and I thought that was pretentious at the time. But I think it required people like him creating ambitious shows over the last five years to push the industry into a place where, in the last couple of years, material really is, and has the potential to be, world class. That really does excite me.
“We’re working in the world’s most exciting marketplace for drama and some of our projects could be up there. Hopefully they will be. We’re developing on a bigger scale in the true horror space and we’re really excited about some of the stories we’ve found. If you loved Enfield, hopefully you’ll love what we do next.”
This week, BBC1 in the UK launched Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part drama based on the period fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke. Scheduled at 21.00 on Sunday evenings, the first episode attracted 4.5 million viewers. While it is highly likely that this number will be boosted once time-shifted viewing is included, the live audience is probably at the lower end of expectations.
It is lower, for example, than Poldark and The Casual Vacancy – both of which previously occupied this slot. And it’s also less than the slot average for the last 12 months (which is just over five million).
UK newspapers were divided over the appeal of the show. The upmarket titles were generally upbeat, with The Independent calling it “a real treat” and The Daily Telegraph describing it as “a brilliant adaptation of the novel.” However, The Daily Mail was not impressed, acerbically noting that: “If your idea of a racy evening is chit-chat in the dons’ common room at an Oxbridge college, then perhaps you found this entertaining. For the rest of us, it was so deathly dry it might as well have been dehydrated.”
The Spectator, meanwhile, hedged its bets, concluding that: “In theory, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention. In practice, it hasn’t yet banished the feeling that it might end up seeming a bit silly.”
As a public broadcaster, the BBC is not compelled to chase ratings. But it seems likely that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from the fact that there was no compelling PR hook on which to hang its launch. The Casual Vacancy benefited from the fact it was based on a book by JK Rowling (who takes Harry Potter fans with her whereever she goes), while Poldark had two things going for it. Firstly, it was a remake (thus appealing to older audiences). Secondly, there was a lot of media interest in lead actor Aidan Turner’s six-pack (thus appealing to younger female audiences). Having failed to ignite audience interest for episode one, JS & Mr N is now in a fragile position and the BBC will need to hope that The Daily Mail’s assessment is wide of the mark. If so, it may regain momentum from word of mouth/social media.
Of course, all of the above might prove to be overly pessimistic if the show does pick up a lot of additional viewing via time-shifting technologies. In this respect, there is encouragement from the US this week, where Wayward Pines has just recorded the highest ever percentage increase of any Fox debut show as a result of time-shifted viewing. Having debuted on May 14 with around 3.75 million viewers, live plus-three ratings surged by 65% to 6.2 million.
As is the way these days (to avoid piracy), Fox made Wayward Pines available to the international market as soon as possible after the US launch. It then pumped out a series of figures that suggest the show has been well received. In Australia, says Fox, the show “increased the performance in its primetime slot by 683% and outperformed The Walking Dead’s season five premiere.” In Germany, meanwhile, the show increased its slot average by 158%. As for Norway, the Wayward Pines premiere is the best series premiere for a new show ever for Fox Norway among viewers aged 12-plus. Portugal also tuned in. Here, the premiere was the most watched show of the day on pay TV.
Channels around the world debate endlessly about the relative merits of local versus international TV. The orthodox view is that audiences prefer local content because it better reflects their own life experience. One area where this thesis seems to break down, however, is in the world of scripted series. Here, there are still plenty of examples of US shows outperforming local rivals.
One case in point is UK pay TV channel Sky Living, which recently saw its origination budget cut for exactly this reason. In this case, the origination budget has been handed to sister channel Sky1 (so it can fund more ambitious projects), while Sky Living will place its emphasis on acquired shows. This decision makes a lot of sense when you see how Sky Living’s US dramas fare compared with its home-grown shows. Typically, US dramas like Bones and The Blacklist pull audiences of around one million-plus on the channel. By contrast, a recent showing of Eleven Films’ original three-parter The Enfield Haunting pulled in around 676,000.
This is actually a pretty good audience when compared with the channel’s slot average. And there’s no question it was a great piece of television. With a superb cast headed by Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, The Guardian called it “an outstanding chiller, beautifully directed and packed with big scares and superb performances.” Presumably, however, the problem lies squarely with the economics of pay TV. Acquiring a US show is usually cheaper than making a domestic original. And it typically offers a lot more episodes. Limited-run dramas like The Enfield Haunting require a lot of pre-transmission marketing and have limited amortisation value afterwards. Overall they are better-suited to free-to-air channels which are able to mobilise big audiences more easily. Having said all that, however, hats off to Eleven for a great piece of TV. All eyes will now be on Nazareth, which the company is reportedly developing for Fox in the US.
Still in the UK, BBC4 has become an important staging post for non-English-language dramas hoping to establish a presence in English-speaking markets. Titles to have aired on the channel include Wallander, Spiral, Borgen, The Killing, Inspector Montalbano, The Bridge, Salamander and Hostages. The basic rule is that if a foreign-language show can rate well on BBC4, it stands a chance of selling into the US as either a completed series or a format. And if that happens, it may then pick up interest from other markets that wouldn’t have considered it prior to a US deal. In some ways, BBC4 has become a victim of its own success, because it is now experiencing competition for this category of shows from UK and US pay TV channels (such as E4 and Sundance) and SVOD platforms. But it remains an important player.
All of which brings us to 1864, a Danish drama that has just debuted on the channel with an audience of 642,000 at 21.00 – well ahead of the slot average. An eight-part series that originally aired on DR1 in Denmark, 1864 tells the story of a war between Denmark and the German Confederation (as it then was). The show is significant for the Danes, which are trying to demonstrate to the world that the breadth of their storytelling skills goes well beyond spooky police procedurals. Borgen went some way to proving that point, but 1864 shows a new side to Denmark’s production prowess. Also look out for Follow The Money, another DR series that has been acquired by BBC4. Coming soon, this is billed as “the story of speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.”
Sue Deeks, the BBC’s head of programme acquisition, says: “Follow The Money is a stylish, intelligent, thought-provoking and complex multi-stranded drama. We are delighted to have another superb series from DR on BBC Four.”
Sky Drama senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach says the satcaster needs to provide content different to that of its terrestrial rivals, rather than try to compete, and is eyeing crime, relationship series and coproductions to meet the challenge.
The four broad entertainment channels headlining the subscription offer from UK satcaster Sky have become home to some of the country’s most talked-about drama series of late.
Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire on Sky Atlantic, Scandal and Elementary on Sky Living – the hits are stacking up. The problem is, they’re mostly acquired from the US.
Under the guidance of entertainment channels director Stuart Murphy, Sky has committed to spending £600m a year on original content. It has already coproduced The Tunnel, an Anglo-French remake of the Swedish-Danish noir The Bridge, with Canal+ and Penny Dreadful with Showtime in the US.
Solo, it has commissioned shows such as The Smoke and Charlie Brooker’s crime spoof A Touch of Cloth for Sky1, while medical drama Critical is in the works.
But it’s with these originals, often critically acclaimed, that Sky is struggling to cut through against the terrestrials – and senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach believes the broadcaster has to change tack and offer an alternative to BBC, ITV and Channel 4, rather than trying to compete with them directly.
“The Tunnel was an impeccable piece announcing our ambitions for Sky Atlantic, taking an existing brand and doing something different,” Roach says, pointing to the two International Emmy nominations the series received.
“We need to show our subscribers we are offering them fantastic drama on our channels. Unfortunately, some of the subscribers are still unaware we create original content in drama, and the offering from BBC and ITV is so brilliant that we need to see ourselves not as competition, but as complementing what is there. That’s the mission statement.
“What we need to work hard on for the Sky brand is people knowing that it’s ‘Sky drama’ and attributing it to a channel. Too often when we have a successful show, people attribute it elsewhere because they don’t think we make shows.”
To that end, Sky is looking for its own take on the crime genre following the unrivalled success of ITV’s Broadchurch, while also aiming to take advantage of market gaps left by the sudden rush towards crime commissions.
“We know our audience loves crime. It’s done brilliantly on BBC1 and ITV – how can we do it differently? It’s no good for us to just do another crime show when crime is so available to the terrestrial audience,” Roach says.
“Crime has been so prevalent that the relationship shows have been forgotten, and that’s a really interesting thing. Ten years ago there were significant relationship shows on the terrestrials and that’s not happening now. That feels like an opportunity to me.”
Roach knows all about the challenges posed by the terrestrial channels, having been part of ITV2’s launch team and a producer on long-running ITV prison drama Bad Girls. He also worked on BBC’s smash hit Life on Mars while at Kudos Productions, as well as the corporation’s Waterloo Road series. He joined Sky’s drama department as a senior commissioning editor in 2013.
He believes it’s important producers start thinking about new places to uncover writing talent. In this vein, Sky is working with online drama producer PurpleGeko to produce a TV version of its Venus vs Mars drama, two seasons of which have aired online. Roach hopes to create a UK version of the HBO hit Girls with the show, and says the online world is an untapped resource in the drama space.
“The message to the production community is ‘seek more diverse talent.’ It’s an industry responsibility – it’s not about me and (drama head) Anne Mensah ticking diversity boxes. If you look at the hits YouTube channels are getting, it’s phenomenal. Producers can be too narrow. The top writers are so oversubscribed – we need ideas to come from other areas as well. We’re always excited when producers have different ways into subject matters.”
Sky, more than any other broadcaster in the UK, is known for its On Demand and catch-up services either through the Sky Plus DVR recorder or Sky Player online. Roach says viewers tend to watch Sky1 as a linear channel, while the series on Sky Atlantic are more binge-viewed as box sets – but he’s still sure Sky can create “event television” like the Broadchurch finale and is eyeing a Sky Living commission starring Timothy Spall – The Enfield Haunting – as a test case.
“I’m excited by how Line of Duty became an event for BBC2 and the Broadchurch finale became an event for ITV,” he says. “It shows we can have that emotional investment from the audience. We’d be naive to think it’s just in the on-demand space.
“When The Enfield Haunting happens as a three-parter on Sky Living in May, we’re looking at how we can use social media to make it an event. People will want to watch that live.”
Sky’s drama team is working hard on clear branding and distinct direction for the four channels under its control – Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living and Sky Arts.
Controller Adam MacDonald has spoken about Sky1 being more “life affirming,” coining “enjoy the ride” as a mission statement. “It can go to dark, difficult places like The Smoke and Critical, but ultimately the lead characters are heroic,” says Roach.
“Pushing forward, we want a place that has more humour and comedy within content. We will do emotional, challenging pieces but we will enjoy the ride a bit more.”
Sky Living remains female-skewing but has undergone a rebrand, with its pink colour scheme swapped for a silver look to help change audience perception.
Sky Atlantic, which recently came under the control of former BBC3 controller Zai Bennett, premiered Fortitude January and was previously the home of The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful. It’s also where Sky’s HBO acquisitions sit.
“We want to be ambitious with our pieces there,” Roach says. “We want them to be talk-about TV. We want the Sky subscriber to have absolute value in that channel.”
Sky Arts, meanwhile, is viewed as “more of a playground.” Roach explains: “We’re saying to the creative community ‘we enjoy working with you, come and have a play and we’ll see what happens.’”
While The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful have been successful, headline-grabbing coproductions, Roach says Sky thinks very carefully about when and where to get involved in such arrangements, preferring to fully fund where possible.
“What we like to do is fully fund our developments, working closely with indies in the UK, Europe, the US or Australia,” he says. “We want to work with creative teams to understand the idea, take it to a pilot script stage before we start talking to too many partners. What’s important to us is a singular vision that makes drama stand out; involving too many partners early on can harm that.
“Another track we can take is where partner broadcasters have developed pieces and we see an absolute appeal for our subscribers within them – with Dracula and Penny Dreadful, they were Showtime shows and we were minority partners. Penny Dreadful had a largely British cast, it was shot in Dublin and it was set in London. For our subscriber it felt like their show, not an acquisition, and therefore it’s a relevant coproduction for us.
“Those are the questions we’ll always ask when a coproduction opportunity comes to us. Is it right? Can we claim ownership in the UK and Ireland? If we can, we’re likely to go for it. If we can’t but we like the content, we’ll work closely with our acquisitions team and advise them of our enthusiasm for it.”
Sky will be hoping its slight change of strategy, and considerable ongoing investment, can bring it results throughout the rest of the year.
With Sky’s merger with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, creating a pan-European pay TV brand, now completed – producing a commissioner on a colossal scale – this could be a formidable drama player in years to come.