With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, comic book publisher Marvel successfully transplanted its cinematic universe to television with two spin-off series based on characters from its big-screen blockbusters.
Marvel Television then made a groundbreaking deal with US SVoD giant Netflix to bring The Defenders to the small screen. First came solo series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, followed by a drama that brought them all together.
Speaking to DQ TV, Marvel TV senior VP of original programming Karim Zreik explains how Marvel rolled out its series across television, bringing fans of the cinematic universe with them to the small screen.
He then reveals details of a development process that aims to find the right character for a new series, while trying to keep things fresh to avoid superhero saturation.
Zreik also looks ahead to new Marvel series including Inhumans, Clock & Dagger, The Runaways and The Punisher as the company seeks to break the mould with each new show.
In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.
Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.
According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.
Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.
The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.
And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.
US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.
There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.
However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.
There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.
Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.
In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.
Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.
Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).
Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.
However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.
In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”
Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.
Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.
Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.
The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.
In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.
Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.
The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.
“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it some obvious assets such as The Avengers and Iron Man. But the real genius of the partnership is the way Disney has managed to mine Marvel’s wider universe, which extends to 5,000 characters.
The success of the deal is especially evident in the movie business, where the Avengers franchise has performed beyond all expectations under Disney’s stewardship.
No less impressive has been the way Disney has developed hit movies out of thin air – examples being Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. The company also benefits financially from the success of franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, which, although Marvel-created, are controlled in the film sector by Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the latter two). Add all the above together and the total Marvel box office take since Disney took over easily tops US$10bn.
Disney being Disney, the deal was never just about film, of course. With the world’s best IP exploitation infrastructure already in place, the company has also managed to squeeze value out of its Marvel assets across video games, theme parks, TV and more.
As with film, Disney is using TV to unleash an ever-expanding array of characters onto the market. However, there are a few notable differences in approach. One is that TV seems to be a more tolerant environment for female superheroes, making it easier to set up shows with women as central characters rather than sidekicks. The same is true in terms of diversity, with TV more inclined to showcase non-white and LGBT characters.
Another is that TV can take more risks with character selections and stories. Marvel characters that could never support a movie franchise are more than capable of attracting one million-plus viewers on cable TV in the US.
There’s also more of a narrative drama feel to Marvel on TV. In part this is because TV can’t compete with the movies in terms of special effects. But it’s also because TV needs to develop characters fully to sustain them over several seasons.
Disney’s biggest Marvel TV excursion to date is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was launched to huge fanfare in 2013 on Disney’s flagship free-to-air channel ABC. Created by Joss Whedon, the show is based around an ensemble cast of characters, some of which have appeared in the modern Marvel movie franchise and others from the comic book canon. Testament to the strength of the Marvel universe is that the central character in the show (Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) was killed off in one of the films but has now bounced back to lead the show for (a minimum) four seasons.
The show started very strongly – trading on the Marvel name – but has settled into a kind of solid mid-table performance, averaging around 3.4 million viewers for its 2015 third season. Despite this, it has a value to Disney that goes beyond the headline audience. One is that it does well among younger viewers. Another is that it has sold to around 135 countries worldwide. And finally it has also proved useful for Disney in terms of trying out new TV ideas.
For example, it provided the platform for ABC to launch Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Avengers franchise that lasted two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off called Marvel’s Most Wanted, which featured the characters Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse from S.H.IE.L.D. Although this didn’t get further than pilot phase, it’s an indication of how Disney can work its Marvel assets through ABC.
It’s not just ABC that’s benefiting from Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. In April, Disney-owned cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) announced it had greenlit a straight-to-series order for Cloak and Dagger. Based on Marvel comic book characters, the show will tell the story of an interracial superhero couple – underlining the freedom that TV allows to break down barriers.
There are also important relationships beyond the bounds of the Disney empire. The most significant to date is Disney’s multi-series pact with Netflix, which has had a storming start. The first show from the partnership was Daredevil (2015), a critically acclaimed series that has just been renewed for a third season.
This was followed by Jessica Jones, another well-received show that has recently been renewed for a second season. Starring Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Jessica Jones completely encapsulates the points made above – namely a female lead and tough storylines that deal with topics such as rape, assault and PTSD.
Coming up next are series based around Marvel characters Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Then, in true Marvel fashion, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the latter two will be bundled together for a series called The Defenders. Given that Marvel’s comic book iteration of The Defenders also includes Doctor Strange, there’s also a neat cross-over with the forthcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
On top of all this, Netflix is working with Marvel on a series based around its anti-hero The Punisher – a decision perhaps made easier by the massive success of the Deadpool movie, which also has an anti-hero at its core.
Alongside its in-house activities and the Netflix partnership, Disney’s Marvel TV division, which is headed by Jeph Loeb, is also building up a warmer relationship with Fox and FX. In past years, the two companies have not got on that well because Fox controls the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four and has no intention of relinquishing them back into the Marvel fold.
However, this summer it was announced that Marvel and Fox are collaborating on as as-yet-untitled X-Men-themed series starring two parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. They are then forced to go on the run from a hostile government and join up with a group of mutants in order to survive.
In parallel, Marvel and FX are working on an eight-part series called Legion, another X-Men spin-off. Written by Noah Hawley (Fargo), this show follows a schizophrenic who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after an encounter with a fellow patient, he realises the voices and visions is his head may be real. Significantly for this show, it has also been picked up by Fox’s international channels, meaning approximately 125 countries, including the UK, will air it day-and-date with the US.
For Disney, the possibilities of the Marvel universe don’t end here. US streaming service Hulu, for example, is planning a series based on the Marvel comic book Runaways, about six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but must unite against a common foe – their parents. And there are also reports that Disney XD is planning an animated spin-off based on Guardians of the Galaxy.
All in all, then, that looks like US$4bn well spent.