Tag Archives: The Get Down

The bumpy road to success: Drama’s most troubled productions

With HBO preparing to debut the much-anticipated Westworld, Stephen Arnell finds that, despite its troubled production history, the show looks certain to be the cable channel’s latest hit.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s eagerly awaited re-imagining of Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi movie Westworld premieres on HBO on October 2.

The 1973 hit film has already spawned both a lacklustre sequel (1976’s Futureworld) and a short-lived CBS TV series, Beyond Westworld (1980).

Now Nolan and Joy’s Westworld (pictured above) has been plagued by production woes – including a two-month shutdown earlier this year, the departure of cast members Miranda Otto and Eion Bailey and a protracted development process since HBO ordered the pilot way back in August 2013.

At one point it was reported that HBO had persuaded Nolan to ‘put aside his ego’ to get the show back on track.

Earlier rumours of graphic rape and sex scenes in Westworld also gave fuel to widespread condemnations of HBO’s depictions of sexual violence against women, with critics citing other shows such as The Night Of, Game of Thrones, Rome, Deadwood and The Sopranos, in which this appeared to be a recurring theme.

Anthony Hopkins (left)
Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jeffrey Wright are among Westworld’s high-profile cast

Despite this, word of mouth around the show is exceptionally strong. Early reviews have given Westworld an aggregated score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics predicting a Thrones-style worldwide success for HBO.

In his September 19 review, IGN Movies’ Eric Goldman wrote: “From its standout cast to its excellent visuals to one hell of a hummable score by the great Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), this is top-notch television in every respect.”

In SFX magazine on September 14, Patrick Goss also heaped praise on the show, commenting: “The first hour audiences spend in this park is, to my mind, one of the finest pilots of the last decade. A stellar cast certainly helps.”

With a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, the series is certainly not stinting on talent, while the trailer’s eye-popping visuals confirm Westworld’s hefty budget (rumoured to be north of US$54m) should be plain to see on screen.

Of course, troubled TV productions are hardly rare – and a fair percentage defy initial misgivings to go to become hits.

Game of Thrones original pilot was branded 'shit'
Game of Thrones’ original pilot was considered disastrous

Indeed, the original unbroadcast Game of Thrones pilot was deemed “a piece of shit” by Craig Mazin, a screenwriter associate of showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, whom the duo asked to give his thoughts on the show.

After rewrites, reshooting and some recasting, Winter is Coming (the pilot’s title) hit the ground running and the rest, as they say, is history.

BBC2’s epic ‘state of the nation’ drama Our Friends in the North (1996) gave Daniel Craig his breakthrough role and is generally regarded as a TV classic, but production was anything but smooth.

Numerous re-shoots, re-writes, apparent clashes between cast members, directorial changes, legal complications, budget problems and an off/on attitude from senior BBC management should have created a disaster, but the alchemy of the cast and its ambition created a show remembered fondly by many, albeit with the acknowledgement that Our Friends could be a trifle po-faced at times.

In the same year, with the epic period drama Rhodes, BBC1 unhappily experienced some of the same problems as it did with Our Friends – this time without the upside of either high audiences or favourable reviews.

In development for the best part of a decade and costing £10m (US$13m) for 10 hour-long episodes, Rhodes was one of the UK’s most expensive dramas but found little traction with viewers.

Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who
Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who

Perhaps this was unsurprising, as the titular character of empire builder Cecil Rhodes (played by Martin Shaw) has a dubious place in British history, regarded by some as a racist imperialist fuelled by greed, with an alleged unhealthy penchant for underage male company.

So, all in all, a difficult character for viewers to warm to, especially in a Sunday evening timeslot usually reserved for undemanding period drama.

The Sunday Times critic AA Gill wrote: “Rhodes, the epic story, started with everything against it and then they made it all worse,” while David Aaronovitch in the Independent on Sunday said: “The BBC’s Rhodes is a man who cannot take a leak without the assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic.”

“It was very odd,” added Lynne Truss in The Times.

Back in 2005, the rebooted Doctor Who suffered from on-set tensions and the exit of star Christopher Eccleston (who had also starred in Our Friends) after just one season, with additional rumours of budget problems due to the then relative inexperience of showrunner Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Casanova).

Despite these setbacks, the show went from strength to strength, with the Doctor now in his fourth incarnation (played by Peter Capaldi) since Eccleston’s sole season.

Netflix's The Get Down cost US$120m to make
Netflix’s The Get Down cost US$120m to make

Downton Abbey is a genuine copper-bottomed international hit, but the show had more than its fair share of problems, including the sudden departures of stars such as Dan Stevens, together with unresolved and increasingly soapy storylines all adding to the impression of a production that was seen by some commentators to occasionally be running on fumes.

The worldwide success of Sherlock is belied by the troubles surrounding the pilot, A Study in Pink, which was junked (at a cost of almost £1m to the BBC) and completely reshot, seeing its running time extended from 60 to 90 minutes in the process.

Most recently, Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s rap/disco drama The Get Down has been seen as something of a folie de grandeur. Its huge US$120m budget is the highest ever for a Netflix original drama – caused in part by a lengthy production process, music costs and frequent changes in creative direction as the show progressed – and earned it the nickname ‘The Shut Down’ among the writing team.

And finally, AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most popular drama series in the US and a huge show around the globe, has at times had almost as much drama behind the scenes as on screen.

The firing of showrunner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) before the debut of season two, when the show had already become AMC’s breakout hit, was a shock, with multiple explanations circulating as to exactly what happened.

Accusations of budget cuts and interference from executives beset The Walking Dead’s early seasons, also leading to a parting of the ways with Darabont’s successor Glen Mazzara after season three.

So Westworld is not alone in its travails – but on the strength of initial reviews, it will have been worth the struggle in getting the show to our screens.

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How to be an SVoD audience sleuth

Netflix's Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit

Some producers and distributors like to sell their shows to SVoD giants Netflix and Amazon because no one gets to see the audience figures aside from the platforms themselves. While this might seem to run counter to standard industry practice when selecting a platform partner, there is a certain logic to it.

Such is the range of entertainment options these days that drama launches on free and pay TV often disappoint when judged purely on the basis on same-day or live+3-day ratings.

A producer might have made the best show in the history of the small screen, but there is still a strong likelihood that the target audience won’t discover it for weeks, months or even a couple of years. In my case, I’m about to watch Penny Dreadful, which debuted in May 2014 and came to an end this June. But I’m still excited.

This delayed reaction would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that influential media outlets will be tempted to report that a show’s launch was ‘modest,’ ‘lukewarm’ or ‘below station average.’ Three or four episodes in, this media scrutiny may actually start to damage the show’s prospects.

Potential audiences might pick up on the show’s modest numbers and decide to give it a miss – reasoning that it isn’t going to survive to season two. And that might have an impact on the channel executives who have the ultimate say over the programme’s future. Sure, they’ll have their own strong opinions about it, but they’re only human.

House of Cards' popularity is evidenced by its renewals
House of Cards’ popularity is evidenced by its renewals on Netflix

In the world of Netflix and Amazon, however, it’s harder to judge whether a show is successful – because neither platform is willing to share its audience data. Without data, there is a lack of certainty over criticising a show. Instead, the industry has to watch and wait for news of a recommission – the SVoD industry’s equivalent of the Papal Conclave’s fabled white smoke.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this lack of SVoD data. Aside from the fact television is a very nosy industry, data from Netflix and Amazon would be a big help to the studios that license their shows to the platforms. It would also provide some guidance to producers about whether their creative instincts are right. As a result, a lot of time and effort goes into finding other ways of assessing the performance of a Netflix or Amazon show.

The first useful measure of whether an SVoD show is any good is the ratings it receives on services like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This may sound a bit like sticking a finger in the air to test the strength of the wind, but it’s proven to be a pretty effective tool.

IMDb, for example, places House of Cards, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Daredevil, Narcos and Making a Murderer as the top five shows on Netflix. Most TV observers wouldn’t disagree too much with this list, which is, frankly, excellent. And the fact Netflix has recommissioned all of these shows (some more than once) suggests there is a correlation between IMDb scores and the secret ratings data these SVoD shows are generating.

It’s a similar story with Amazon. While its shows don’t tend to get as high scores as Netflix’s on IMDb, there is again a link between high IMDb ratings and recommissions.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Cases in point include Bosch (8.3), Mozart In The Jungle (8.2) and The Man in the High Castle (8.1) – all of which were renewed. By this logic, I’d guess there will be a second season for Sneaky Pete (rated 8.4).

IMDb is perhaps less accurate in the very early stages of a show’s launch, since its ratings can be skewed by early adopters. But it’s interesting to note that the website’s ratings for Baz Lurhmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down seem to echo the view of critics.

The New Yorker, for example, was disparaging in its assessment of the first four episodes but said the show burst into life around episode five. IMDb’s ratings for the first six episodes were 8.5, 8.6, 8.8, 8.8, 9.2, 9.6 respectively – directly correlating with The New Yorker.

Another limitation with tracking IMDb scores is that a low rating doesn’t always means a show will be cancelled. Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, for example, managed only 7.3 on IMDb, which implies modest viewing. However, it survived for three seasons.

Amazon’s Hand of God was a 7.5 – but it still got a new season. The best explanation for this is that the platforms are picking up some kind of algorithmic support for these shows. Maybe they have super-loyal fanbases, which makes them valuable in winning new subscribers or preventing churn. Hand of God stars Ron Perlman, who was previously a key figure in FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy. That creative connection may be enough to win new customers.

Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb
Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb

Of course, I’m just a TV hack working on a shoestring budget. But if I had a TV studio/network’s resources and I wanted to know about an SVoD show, I’d also use social media monitoring to check out the audience. There are plenty of agencies out there that can provide insights into real-time demographic and sentiment data, levels of engagement, brand affiliation and trends and the performance of shared social content.

Alongside all of the above, a good real-world indicator of an SVoD show’s performance is how it does at high-profile awards. At the Emmys, for example, Netflix has had a total of 75 nominations and 14 wins. Its top performers are House of Cards and OITNB, with some acknowledgement for Bloodline, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (all of which have been recommissioned). At Amazon, it’s a similar story, with the platform’s most nominated shows (Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle) all getting renewed.

Of course, the timeframe around awards is slower so this is less useful as a way of predicting early renewal patterns. But it is a good indicator of whether a show is likely to build into a powerful franchise over an extended period of time.

Award nominations and wins tend to get good media coverage, which then drives advocacy. This, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle of increased SVoD subscriber numbers and audiences. Again, it’s no accident that shows winning several awards in season one are still alive and kicking after three or more runs (OITNB is now confirmed for a minimum of seven seasons, having received 12 Emmy nominations for season one).

Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos
Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos

None of the above is especially scientific, so there have also been attempts by audience analysis experts to decipher the mystery of SVoD viewing. At this year’s Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, for example, research firm Nielsen revealed some findings about OITNB’s audience numbers.

Its key learning was that OITNB is the big hit that everyone suspected it to be. According to data reported on by The Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers. To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV if it lived within the traditional system. Nielsen can presumably replicate this analysis for any show.

Others to have explored the SVoD universe include San Diego-based Luth Research, which created a panel of Netflix subscribers to monitor their viewing habits. This showed strong engagement with Marvel-produced Daredevil, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in its first 11 days on the streaming service. By comparison, House of Cards attracted 6.5% of subs over its first 30 days and Bloodline 2.4%.

Linking back to the earlier part of this column, Daredevil also scores strongly on IMDb – suggesting again a correlation between that scoring system and actual audience data. But think also about Bloodline, which comes without Marvel heritage attached. Luth’s figures show that it had a slower start. Were it a cable show, that might have been cause for some criticism. However, shielded from that kind of exposure, it has been able to grow its IMDb rating from 8 at launch to 9.4 by the end of season two. No real surprise then that the show has been given a third season.

Bloodline
Bloodline has been given a third season

Netflix doesn’t really get involved with all of the debate about its viewing figures. But it does occasionally drop some interesting data about its subscribers’ behaviour. Earlier this year, for example, there was its binge scale blog, which identified the dramas that are consumed most voraciously on the platform.

And before that there was its insight regarding the point in a show when viewers become hooked. This was interesting because it demonstrated that shows often don’t really grab the audience’s attention until episodes four to eight – the equivalent of that point in a novel when you really know it’s good (around page 70?).

Finally, it’s also possible to get a few insights when Netflix’s Ted Sarandos or Amazon’s Roy Price pitch up on the conference circuit. Speaking at this week’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Price described a winner-takes-all scenario in the TV industry: “In today’s environment, having a show that 90% of people think is pretty fair is not that useful because in an on-demand environment people are probably not going to demand that show.

“The key to standing out in such a busy environment is that the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

That’s not as precise as ratings data, of course, but it’s worth thinking about.

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Music shows strike a chord with networks

As a childhood fan of The Monkees, I can vouch for the fact that TV series about the music business are nothing new. But there’s no question that the current success of Fox US’s hip-hop drama Empire has inspired an unprecedented array of music-related scripted shows. So this week’s column takes a look at the writers who are riding the crest of this compositional wave.

Star: After the success of Empire, the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels is planning another music-based scripted show. Working alongside Tom Donaghy, he is making Star, a series about three girls who form a band and their rise to the top. Like Empire, Star is for Fox, at which Daniels has an overall deal. Daniels is good at doing diversity. His band will comprise one white girl, one black girl and one mixed-race girl (half white/half black). There is also a transgender black/Latino central character called Cotton. Donaghy, meanwhile, is a playwright who is also known for having worked on The Mentalist and for creating ABC’s The Whole Truth.

Vinyl

Vinyl has just started airing on HBO (February 14) to pretty good reviews. Based on an idea by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, it tells the story of Richie Finestra, a record executive in the 1970s, played by Bobby Cannavale. The story credit goes to Jagger, Scorsese, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter, who also wrote the screenplay with George Mastras. As you’d expect with a project of this calibre, the writers are TV royalty. Winter, for example, was creator, writer, and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, having previously worked on The Sopranos and written The Wolf of Wall Street. Mastras worked on all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad and is also the author of a novel, Fidali’s Way. There are already reports that Winter wants to do a second season.

The Breaks has just been greenlit as a series by Viacom pay TV channel VH1, having debuted strongly as a TV movie in January. Based on the Dan Charnas book The Big Payback, it’s a history of the hip-hop business. The series story is being developed by Charnas and Seith Mann, with the latter writing, directing and executive producing. Mann’s credits include The Wire, The Walking Dead and Homeland. The story follows three young friends seeking to establish themselves as hip-hop artists in New York City in 1990.

Vital Signs is the new series Apple is reported to be making with rap legend and Beats Music co-founder Andre Young, better known as Dr Dre. The show will be a semi-autobiographical “dark drama.” Apple and Dr Dre have not yet commented on the nascent project, which means it is too early to know who will write it. One option might be Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the Oscar-nominated duo who wrote the screenplay for NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton – though both are embroiled in other projects. Berloff, for example, is writing Sleepless Night, a movie starring Jamie Foxx, whike Herman has been working on the Scarlett Johansson movie Ghost in the Shell.

Roadies

Roadies is a comedy from Showtime that, as its name suggests, goes backstage with a group of roadies. Directed by Cameron Crowe, the show will give an insider’s look at “the reckless, romantic, funny and often poignant lives of a committed group of roadies who live for music and the de facto family they’ve formed along the way. The music-infused ensemble comedy series chronicles the rock world through the eyes of music’s unsung heroes.” Crowe is a writer/director, mainly known for films such as Jerry Maguire and We Bought a Zoo. Less well known is the fact that he’s a huge music aficionado. After leaving college, Crowe worked for Rolling Stone, where he interviewed the likes of Dylan, Bowie and Clapton. His second film, Almost Famous, was about a teen music journalist who goes on the road with a band in the early 1970s.

New Edition project: Viacom-owned BET is making a miniseries based on the 1980s R&B heartthrobs New Edition – marking the network’s first scripted music-focused TV movie. A three-parter, the show has the backing of five of the band’s members, but not the most famous of the group, Bobby Brown. The film will chronicle New Edition’s beginnings in Boston’s Orchard Park Projects to success with tracks like Candy Girl and Cool It Now. The script is being written by Abdul Williams, who previously wrote the movie Lottery Ticket (which included Ice Cube in the cast).

Nashville

Nashville deserves a mention, even though it predates Empire by a few years. Now up to its fourth season, the show centres on the rivalry between country queen Rayna James and rising star Juliette Barnes. The show was created by Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award in 1992 for the Thelma & Louise screenplay. Until Nashville, she mostly worked in movies, writing films such as Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad Money. For season four, Khouri stepped back from writing but has directed some episodes. Writing was shared among a team of 10 writers, with the opening episode penned by Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin. The final episode, which will air this spring, is set to be written by Taylor Hamra, who was also involved in the recent TNT reboot of oil-industry soap Dallas.

The Get Down, which we discussed in a recent column, is a Baz Luhrmann music-driven drama that focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.” It’s for Netflix, which says the six-part series is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world… forever.” This is similar terrain to Vinyl, so it will be interesting to see how it pans out in comparison. Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis. To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, appearing in movies such as Birdman.

Stop! In the Name of Love is a four-part miniseries for the BBC that will incorporate numerous Motown songs (a la Mamma Mia). The UK drama follows six smart thirtysomething women as they deal with love, friendship, success and failure. The show is a joint venture between Tony Jordan (Dickensian, Life on Mars), Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Antenna Group MD and former president of NBCUniversal International Peter Smith, and music consultant and former chairman of Universal Music UK John Kennedy. Jordan, who is writing the series, says it will “offer something completely different from any other show on television. The music of Motown is iconic and mirrors the rich gamut of human emotion and experience as well as exploring universal themes that all cultures and ages can relate to. The musical arrangements and cutting-edge choreography will give us a uniquely modern take on a timeless genre of music.”

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle is another show we’ve looked at recently following its Golden Globe triumph (Best Series – Music or Comedy). A quirky story of professional musicians working the New York concert circuit, Mozart is based on the memoir of an oboist called Blair Tindall. It was brought to the screen by a company called Picrow, with the pilot episode written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Once the show was commissioned as a 10-part series, a further eight people were credited with either writing scripts or providing stories. The most prominent names among these were John Strauss and Paul Weitz, the latter also directing a number of first season episodes. Season two, which was released on December 30 last year, involved some of the same writers but there were also five new additions – giving the show an ensemble feel both on and off the screen. Since we last wrote about the show, it has been give a third season.

Power isn’t quite a music series but it has strong music connections. Created and written by Courtney Kemp Agboh, the series follows James St. Patrick, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost is the owner of a popular New York nightclub – but also a major player in an illegal drug network. The show, which is produced by rapper Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson has aired for two series on Starz and was recently renewed by the network for a third.

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Netflix nurtures writing talent

Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is one of Netflix’s most recognisable titles

Earlier this week, SVoD platform Netflix announced the launch dates for a raft of scripted shows. Among them is season four of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), which will premiere on Friday June 17. With Netflix now in so many countries around the world, the series is likely to be one of the global TV highlights of the year.

Adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, this acutely observed comedy-drama tells the story of a 30-something PR executive who unexpectedly winds up in a women’s prison.

While no one really has a clue how the show does in terms of ratings, it is widely regarded as a success story for Netflix (based on fan adulation, critical acclaim and an 8.3 rating on IMDb).

The TV series is written by Jenji Kohan, whose career credits read like a millennial generation dinner-party discussion.

Jenji Kohan
Jenji Kohan

In the 1990s, she wrote a handful of episodes for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boston Common, Mad About You and Sex and the City – though her biggest gig at the time was Tracey Takes On. Lift off came during the last decade when she had a lengthy association with Gilmore Girls, a brief flirtation with Will & Grace and, most significantly, created dark comedy Weeds, which ran for eight seasons (102 episodes) on premium pay TV network Showtime.

Weeds told the story of Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of two boys who begins selling marijuana to support her family after her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack. As creator, writer and executive producer of that show, Kohan firmly established her reputation as one of the US market’s most talented comedy drama writers.

OITNB plays in a similar space – an area Kohan is clearly drawn to. In a 2013 interview, she said: “I’m always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other. There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other but they’re not necessarily mixing. I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix – and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”

OITNB was an immediate hit when it launched in the US in July 2013, and also proved popular with European audiences. Its appeal was reflected during the 2014 award season, when the show was nominated for 12 Emmys and Kohan was named one of Time’s Most Influential People.

Weeds
Kohan previously met success with Weeds

The latter may seem a strange accolade for a TV writer, but there’s a general acknowledgement that the show moved the dial on how the LGBT community is portrayed on screen and perceived in wider society.

While OITNB remains her primary project, Kohan has an overall deal with Lionsgate TV (which backed her on both this show and Weeds). Under this arrangement she made a pilot called The Devil You Know for HBO.

Co-written by Kohan, Bruce Miller and Tracy Miller, the pilot was a provocative period drama set around the times of the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England. There’s not much in the public domain about the show but the lack of any additional news suggests it might not have got past the pilot stage – though there’s no confirmation of this. (Click here to see a video of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsden talking about his role in the programme.)

Among new Netflix drama titles that look interesting is Stranger Things, which premieres globally on July 15.

The Duffer twins
The Duffer twins, know for horror film Hidden, are showrunners on Stranger Things

In this eight-hour series, a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family, and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl. Set in 1980s Indiana, it stars movie icon Winona Ryder and is written by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer.

The Duffer twins are currently on a very rapid upwards trajectory. They first caught the industry’s attention in 2011 when, straight from college, they had numerous studios competing for their horror script Hidden. That was ultimately made into a movie by Warner Bros, released in September last year. In the meantime, they also became involved in M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, working on episodes five, six, nine and 10. With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers will also be directing and showrunning.

Another new Netflix title sure to attract a lot of attention is Baz Luhrmann’s music-driven drama The Get Down, which focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.”

Guirgis
Stephen Adly Guirgis

According to Netflix, the six-parter is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the south Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world, forever.”

Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis.

To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. His involvement in this new project reflects a trend of stage writers moving to television.

However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, having appeared in movies such as Birdman. A regular feature on Broadway, Guirgis’s intimate knowledge of New York is sure to be a big benefit to Luhrmann’s Netflix show.

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Max power

Maximilian: ''A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages'
Maximilian: ”A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages’

This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.

A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.

At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.

Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”

Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch
Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch

Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.

From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.

The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.

The film received good reviews, including a broadly positive analysis by The Hollywood Reporter.

Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.

Ripper Street's fourth season is in production
Ripper Street’s fourth season is in production

Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.

Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”

Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.

His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.

Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel's novel A Place of Greater Safety
Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety

The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.

Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.

Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.

Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”

With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.

Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team
Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team

Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”

Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.

Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.

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