In September 2016, the BBC announced that it had commissioned three event dramas based on JK Rowling’s crime novels, which she publishes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. This week, HBO announced it had also come on board for the US and Canada.
The three dramas are being produced by Rowling’s UK-based company Brontë Film & TV, which previously adapted her novel The Casual Vacancy for the BBC and HBO. They will star Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, a battle-scarred war veteran who is now a private detective. All told, nine hours of television will be extracted from the three books: The Cuckoo’s Calling (3×60’), The Silkworm (2×60’) and Career of Evil (2×60’).
Commenting on his casting, Burke said: “I’m overjoyed to be immersing myself in the role of Cormoran Strike, who is as complex as he is larger than life. I know I’m joining an extraordinary team of people on a series that, for me, is peppered with moments of real emotional depth and meticulously grounded in the page-turning momentum of these novels. Cormoran Strike’s world is rich and raw.”
JK Rowling added: “I’m thrilled about the casting of Tom Burke, a massively talented actor who’ll bring the character to perfect life. Strike is pure joy to write and I can’t wait to see Tom play him.”
Also this week, US cable channel Spike TV acquired a six-part drama about the Waco siege that left 76 people dead in 1993. Waco is a Weinstein television production and is based on the events surrounding the two-month siege of a cult headquarters in Texas, which ended in tragedy when the FBI stormed the complex. The show will start production early next year and is being written by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.
This is not the only project Spike and The Weinstein Company are working on. Also coming up are Time: The Kalief Bowder Story and The Mist, slated for 2017. The latter is based on a Stephen King story.
Cults are becoming something of a theme in the US scripted business. Recently, we reported that Vince Gilligan and HBO had joined forces on a scripted series about the Jonestown massacre, while Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) has been attracting critical acclaim for his role in Hulu’s cult-based drama The Path.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has handed a straight-to-series order to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and The Weinstein Company. The show will be Weiner’s first project since Mad Men finished its seven-season run on AMC last year, and is reported by Deadline to have a budget of around US$70m.
Details on the new eight-part show are sparse, but it is believed to be a contemporary anthology series set in multiple locations around the world. Weiner is reported as saying: “In a time when there are so many options for entertainment, it’s been tremendous to see how [Amazon Studios boss] Roy Price and Amazon have taken centre stage by distinguishing themselves through bold choices.”
Elsewhere, indie producer Eleventh Hour Films has signed a coproduction deal with Luti Media to develop a slate of distinctive, exciting and original television dramas. Jill Green, MD of EHF and producer of hit dramas including Safe House, Foyle’s War, New Blood and Vexed, has teamed up with Luti Fagbenle, the founder of Luti Media, an award-winning production company known for music videos for artists such as Zayn Malik, Rita Ora, One Direction and Kanye West.
The intention is to pool their expertise to develop a slate of projects – both fiction and non-fiction – and work with some of the most exciting up-and-coming talent in the entertainment industry.
The partnership has already secured its first script commission with Channel 4, in the form of Laylah and the Universe, a comedy drama penned by actor/writer/director O-T Fagbenle (who recently played one of the leads in Sky1 drama The Five). They are also working with Director X on a music-driven project.
Green said: “Luti and I are very excited to produce content that will push boundaries, resonate with different broadcasters and attract a large, diverse audience. Our skill sets are very different and I know we’ll make a formidable team.”
Luti Fagbenle added: “We are blown away by the prospect of working with Jill Green and EHF. I know that this partnership – with our background in producing high-end visuals and understanding of youth and music culture combined with their enormous wealth of experience in television – will produce some distinctive work.”
While there haven’t been many new commissions this week, there have been a few interesting stories on the finance and development front. One doing the rounds is that BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) is close to doing a £50m (US$60.9m) deal with Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment to create a portfolio of high-end dramas.
If the deal comes off, it won’t be the first time BBCWW and Access have come together. In August, they backed the launch of Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell’s new production company House Productions, which plans to build a slate of television and feature films. BBCWW took a 25% stake in House and will act as the company’s global distributor. Should the Access deal go through, the plan would be for BBCWW to act as distributor for any shows Greenlit by Access.
Also notable this week is the news that the Paris-based Series Mania Coproduction Forum has created a €50,000 prize for the best TV series project in development – available from 2017. The Coproduction Forum, which will take place from April 18 to 21 next year, chooses around 15 projects seeking additional financing, which are then presented to more than 400 decision-makers from some of the world’s leading production companies and broadcasters.
“Since its beginnings, the Series Mania Coproduction Forum has set out to identify ambitious projects with international distribution potential. Through this prize, we want to make this aid more concrete by putting a spotlight on and giving a significant financial boost to the writing of the winning project,” said Laurence Herszberg, MD of Series Mania.
On the acquisition front this week, Canadian broadcaster Quebecor has acquired the thriller series Shooter from Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing. The show, which is based on a 2007 movie of the same name, stars Ryan Phillippe as a US Army-trained sniper who is coaxed back into action after learning of a plot to kill the president.
“This gripping series has everything our audiences look for: great acting, superb production values and a compelling, binge-worthy story,” commented Yann Paquet, VP of acquisitions and partnerships at Quebecor Content.
The show is due to launch on USA Network in the US on November 15.
Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.
Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.
The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.
Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”
The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.
Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”
As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”
All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.
Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).
Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).
The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.
David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”
Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.
MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.
This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.
Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.
The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”
Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.
The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.
Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.
Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.
This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
Klaus Zimmermann and Clive Bradley reveal how they kept crime thriller Trapped grounded in its Icelandic setting while navigating the tricky waters around this intricate international coproduction.
While international coproductions perhaps no longer seem the terrifying prospect they once were, the story of how Trapped came to air may still send shivers down the spines of some television executives.
With nine different broadcast partners on board, making the series – created by renowned director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) – looks a frightening task from the outside. But executive producer Klaus Zimmermann (Borgia) and writer Clive Bradley (The Killing Gene) say those fears are misplaced, as all partners worked together to create an authentic Icelandic drama that takes the popularity of Nordic Noir into new territory.
The 10-part series opens with snow falling as a ferry from Denmark pulls into a small Icelandic port. With 300 passengers stranded until the storm passes and with the main road into town impassable, a mutilated and dismembered body washes up on the shore – leaving a local police chief convinced a killer has arrived. As word of the death spreads, order descends into chaos as the ferry’s passengers and the town’s residents realise they are all possible suspects and that a killer is trapped among them.
Produced by RVK Studios and distributed by Dynamic Television, Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Bjarne Henriksen, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Zimmermann joined the show in 2013 when Kormákur approached him with a project that he couldn’t get off the ground.
“I looked at the material he had worked on and the general idea was already there,” Zimmermann explains. “I took on the development and started to look for a team of writers who could make this more international without breaking the authentic charm of the show.
“Besides the original Icelandic writer, I identified Clive, with whom I’ve worked before. We went to Iceland and worked from scratch by imagining what a show needed to please an international audience. It took us a while to go back to the material, to develop the strong story arcs and strong characters, and after two months we had a new script.”
Several broadcasters had already turned down the project but, undeterred, Zimmermann went back to them with the new script. Germany’s ZDF joined as a coproducer, with plans to air the show in its popular Sunday evening Nordic Noir slot. France Télévisions also came on board, followed by the BBC.
They joined Iceland’s RUV, SVT in Sweden, DR and DRK in Denmark and Finland’s YLE, while The Weinstein Company took rights for the US.
Trapped launched in Iceland in December 2015 to a 90% share of the audience – the biggest in the country’s TV history. Launches followed in Norway in January and France and the UK in February this year, while March saw the show’s arrival in Sweden and Denmark. The German debut is set for this autumn.
“The idea was never to make an international show set in Iceland, like Sky did with Fortitude,” Zimmermann says. “We wanted to do something that specifically made the audience come to Iceland and witness how people live, what the troubles are; to create a really authentic drama.”
Trapped had originally been plotted in Icelandic, the language in which the show is filmed. But an English treatment was written up and sent to Bradley. He then wrote the script in English as part of a mini writers room that also included Zimmermann, French writer Sonia Moyersoen and the original Icelandic writer Sigurjón Kjartansson – who translated the finished scripts back into Icelandic for filming.
Bradley, who describes joining the project as a “no-brainer,” explains: “Klaus set up a fantastic system where, after I wrote two episodes, we’d meet for a week and plan the next two, and then I’d go away and write them in English.
“Sigurjón was always the one to check what I wrote. In my first draft, I had some people with umbrellas because the weather was terrible – but apparently people in Iceland don’t use umbrellas. There were other interesting points, like if you write that a cop goes home and has a glass of whisky – well, no, he doesn’t in Iceland. Instead, he has a glass of milk, which is a lovely detail. Because it was an Icelandic project in the first place and because of Sigurjón’s involvement, we were always grounded in Icelandic reality.”
Zimmermann adds: “We worked out the stories together and then Clive would execute the script. We would all comment on that and once the English script was finished, it was translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón. There were some changes because of the translation. Icelanders speak with fewer words – there’s one scene where there’s a big drama and lots of dialogue and the actor just makes a ‘hmm’ noise. This is the translation, but it works.”
Despite the number of broadcast partners, Zimmermann says the success of the series’ development came down to the amount of time the four-strong creative team spent in the writers room. “We had eight months to write 10 scripts, in a team of four with Clive doing the writing,” he says. “Every two months we spent the week together and two or three times we went to a small cabin in Iceland. In the evening we watched TV shows and in the daytime we plotted terrible things happening in Iceland.
“This atmosphere and working structure is part of how this project was generated. The show has a very nice pace. It starts slow but it picks up more and more speed, and in every second episode there is something happening you wouldn’t have imagined – someone jumping out of a helicopter or an avalanche coming down on the village, for example. Hopefully the audience will wonder what will happen to the town and the hero in the next episode because they’ll be thinking it can’t possibly be more terrible than what has already happened.
“It was quite an unusual development process but it’s an encouraging example of how television works today where you have a very original story, setting and a solid first script, with everything you expect for a primetime drama. In Iceland the production process is terribly complicated but the price is quite competitive. Part of the equation was that we weren’t asking broadcasters for a fortune. We were asking for a reasonable proportion of the risk to be taken by several parties at the same time, and that’s how the budget slowly came together.”
Costing more than double the average production in the country, Trapped wasn’t cheap by Icelandic standards but Zimmermann says the results justify the outlay: “A normal Icelandic production can be produced for as little as €300,000 (US$326,200) an hour, and this is more than €750,000 – but the standard of the production is comparable to any high-end Scandinavian drama.
“The reason for that is the production company behind this is owned by Baltasar, who is mainly a feature film director and only works to the highest quality standards available. So the equipment was top, there was enough time to produce and some of the actors have international careers. The lead actor, Ólafur, is working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG so it’s the crème de la crème of Iceland on screen.”
Key to getting the broadcasters on board was convincing them Trapped would be unlike anything they had seen before, and the combination of Kormákur’s back catalogue, the Icelandic setting and Zimmermann’s experience in international drama completed the package.
“They were not commissioning broadcasters. Their level of commitment was below the commission, with less control, but the process was still very collaborative,” says Zimmermann, revealing how the broadcasters fell into the production process together.
“The director does his cut, I give my input. You send it to a few of the broadcasters and you get a feel for who wants to be more involved. A channel like BBC4 expects something authentic. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be hands-on, so it relies on the mechanic to work.
“ZDF, however, was very hands on. The slot where it wanted to air Trapped is very competitive. We also had a lot of discussions with France Télévisions, which has similar needs for its audience. It came to rough-cut screenings, so that was the heart of the process in the end.
“We had some difficult moments, especially when things became very Icelandic. We had a comment on the first rough cut where someone said there was too much snow. The weather starts to get very bad after the first 10 minutes because the village is trapped by an ice storm, so there’s really terrible weather in the rest of the episode.
“The first reaction was, ‘We can’t have all this snow,’ but it looks fantastic with the effects, sound and music. We had to go through that process of saying this is a winter show, an Icelandic show.”
For Bradley, Trapped marked his first venture into a writers room, and he says he would happily repeat the process – perhaps during season two, which is under discussion. “The four of us would be in the writers room for several days. In the UK, you don’t do that. More and more projects are starting to have a version of the American writers room but it’s still quite rare. It was the first time I’d done anything like that. Rather than spend several hours with producers and script editors, spending days thrashing out the details was one of many things about the experience that I want to repeat.
“It’s an incredibly productive way of proceeding with developing a story. I’d never done 10 hours before and it’s amazing having that length of time. Obviously you have to find a story to fill it but to then have characters you can develop compared with an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s a great experience.”
When I read, in December, how RVK Studios’ Trapped had become the top-rating drama in Icelandic TV history, I must admit I didn’t bat an eyelid. While a 90% share sounded high, the fact that this only converts into 130,000 to 140,000 viewers made me question the scale of the show’s achievement.
Perhaps I should have been more attentive, because the show has now proved to be a big hit for BBC4 in the UK. Launched on February 14 with the first two episodes aired back to back, it came in around the 1.2 to 1.3 million mark. This compares to shows like The Bridge and Deutschland 83, which both rated strongly in the UK.
The critics also like Trapped, with The Guardian calling it “seriously, toe-tinglingly good.” The Telegraph added that Trapped is “so absorbing that within five minutes I’d forgotten it was subtitled, and tried turning the volume up.” The Daily Mail also approved, saying: “If you like crime stories set in tight-knit communities, from Broadchurch to Fargo, you won’t want to miss this.”
The reason why ratings on BBC4 matter is that international buyers pay close attention to what happens on the channel. Interviewed at the C21 Drama Summit last December, Danmarks Radio (DR) head of drama Piv Bernth was asked what the turning point was in terms of her own company’s rise to international prominence. Her response was that it was BBC4’s decision to air The Killing – “From then on, it did amazingly well.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that in the case of Trapped, a strong BBC4 performance is more of a validation of the show’s quality than a call to action for the international community.
This is because the series is based on an idea by Hollywood director Baltasar Kormakur, who is also one of the principals at RVK Studios. The involvement of Kormakur, who directed a couple of episodes of Trapped and serves as a producer, encouraged a number of leading broadcasters to jump on board at an early stage.
Aside from the BBC, for example, Trapped has been acquired by France Télévisions, ZDF in Germany, SVT Sweden, YLE Finland, NRK Norway and DR1 Denmark.
Like BBC4, France TV has already started airing the show and, if anything, is achieving even better ratings. The first episode on its France 2 channel drew more than five million viewers (18.5% share), making it the second most popular programme of the evening after the new drama Le Secret d’Elise on TF1.
Interestingly, Trapped has also been picked up by The Weinstein Company (TWC) in the US, in a deal brokered by Dynamic Television. There’s no word yet about where TWC will place the show in the US but, thanks to the initial buzz, it stands a good chance of following Deutschland 83 into the US cable market or being picked up by one of the big SVoD platforms.
So my somewhat belated New Year’s resolution is to watch more Icelandic TV, starting with Global Screen-distributed series Prisoners and Red Arrow International-distributed Case. Also keep an eye out for RVK’s next projects, which include a film called Oath, a psychological thriller about a father who plans to commit the perfect crime to save his drug-addicted daughter.
Elsewhere in the world of TV, Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files finished with a respectable average of 9.5 million viewers (same-day ratings, which means you can expect an uplift once time-shifted viewing is factored in). The show did drop quite considerably from its opening episode, ending with 7.6 million, but this was still strong enough for everyone to start speculating about whether there will be a follow-up.
Given that the show ended with a huge cliffhanger, there is clearly an intention on the part of show creator Chris Carter to make another season. And Fox would certainly like another instalment, given that the new X-Files is also rating well internationally.
In the UK, the show seems to be settling down at around the 2.5 million mark on Channel 5, which is a strong showing.
As discussed before, the big challenge with making another batch of The X-Files is co-ordinating the diaries of lead actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. So while everyone waits to see if that can be sorted out, there is also a debate around whether a spin-off might be the best approach.
This possibility has been fuelled by the fact that the last two episodes of the reboot introduced a new pair of agents that were very similar to Mulder and Scully at the start of the Fox series.
The question of a possible spin-off series was put to Carter by The Hollywood Reporter, but he played a straight bat, saying: “I really love those guys [the new characters]. They’re terrific actors, and excellent to work with. It would be nice to include them. But, at the same time, we didn’t make series deals with them. I can’t imagine they’re not going to be scooped up and be somewhat unavailable to us. It will just be practical about how we’re able to work with them in the future.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a no, however. More important than the actors’ intentions (who would say no to starring in an X-Files spin-off?) is whether Fox gets positive feedback on the Mulder and Scully mini-me’s.
Meanwhile, there’s no particular evidence that the audience is finding its way to Martin Scorsese’s new series Vinyl, which is set in the 1970s music business. The show, rumoured to have cost $100m to produce, has already been gifted a second season by HBO in the US – despite the fact that the first two episodes of its first series have come in at just 764,000 followed by 667,000. This is some way short of other HBO shows like True Detective, Silicon Valley, Ballers, The Brink and Veep.
The series hasn’t started especially well in the UK either, with 178,000 (seven-day rating) tuning into Sky Atlantic for the first episodes. HBO can console itself with the fact that Game of Thrones is poised to return – and that Vinyl may eventually find its fanbase.
Still, this hasn’t prevented observers from asking whether Vinyl’s under-performance is symptomatic of a bigger creative challenge for HBO.
The Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, taking place this year between January 5 and 19, is a star-studded event during which broadcasters, producers, writers and actors talk about new programme launches, imminent cancellations, casting announcements and ideas for turning around underperforming shows. As such, it is one of the key dates in the scripted TV industry’s annual calendar.
A+E Networks-owned History is one of numerous networks to have unveiled new shows during the tour. The pick of the bunch is a 10-part series about the Knights Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. Knightfall is being produced by The Combine – the prodco from Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) and Don Handfield – alongside Midnight Radio and A+E Studios. It is expected that Renner will guest star in the show, with additional cast and production details to be announced.
The show was unveiled by Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, who said: “We are thrilled to partner with Jeremy Renner, The Combine, Midnight Radio and A+E Studios to tell the intriguing story of the Knights Templar, which has been shrouded in mystery until now. Premium scripted content continues to be a growing part of the History portfolio, with an eye towards quality historical fact-based storytelling, and Knightfall is the perfect fit for our brand.”
The channel also announced an eight-episode order for military action-drama Six, from A+E Studios and The Weinstein Company. Written by William Broyles (Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead) and David Broyles, a military special operations veteran, Six follows Navy SEAL Team Six, whose 2014 mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan goes awry when they uncover a US citizen working with the terrorists.
“The backdrop surrounding this elite team of American soldiers – from their lives at home to the bravery they display serving our country – provides an amazing canvas for stories that deserve to be told,” said Buccieri.
The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein added: “The idea originally came to me when I read about Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. It brought on the idea of creating a series about the world of SEAL Team Six because the story felt as poignant and timely as ever. We brought in Bill (Broyles), whom I have long admired, along with David to write the pilot. They took my idea and developed a brilliant script for the project and added authenticity to the world in a way that only first-hand experience could possibly bring.”
Interestingly, Weinstein said the show will be set up as a kind of anthology drama – echoing a recent trend. “Each year will feature a different theatre of war – the first starting in Africa,” he explained.
There was also news of a greenlight at AMC, the US cablenet behind The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands. Reports coming out of the tour suggest AMC has ordered a 10-part series from Sonar Entertainment called The Son, based on the acclaimed oil industry-focused book of the same name by Philipp Meyer.
The series, which will involve Meyer as a co-writer, is about America’s birth as a superpower, told through the rise and fall of one Texan oil empire. It will be interesting to see how the show fares after ABC’s lack of success with Blood & Oil, another drama set within the US oil industry.
Elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about Turner’s plans to refresh its cable networks TBS and TNT by shaking up their scripted content. At TCA, it was revealed that TNT is teaming up with M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines) to reboot HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. In the new TNT version, Shyamalan will curate a two-hour block made up of both long and short stories of suspense and horror.
“This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT.
Shyamalan added: “To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into.”
Meanwhile, with the massive success of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before one of US networks hit upon the idea of a TV drama based around cars. This week, it was revealed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who stars in the Fast franchise) is working with Fox on a new show called Boost Unit.
Described as “Fast and the Furious meets Rescue Me,” it will be written by Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt.
Over at ABC, there was official confirmation of another Marvel-based show in the shape of Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
On the streaming front, there was news from Hulu, which has ordered two 10-episode seasons of Chance, a psychological thriller in which Hugh Laurie will play a medical expert.
Set in San Francisco, the show follows forensic neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance (Laurie) as he gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. For Laurie, it’s another opportunity to play a medical expert following the global success of Fox series House (2004-2012).
Hulu’s upcoming slate of originals also includes 11.22.63, a time-travel drama about the Kennedy assassination from Stephen King and JJ Abrams; The Path, starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul; and Shut Eye, which will explore “the underground world of LA storefront psychics and the crime syndicate that runs them.”
In terms of renewals, E! has ordered a third season of original scripted series The Royals, which stars Elizabeth Hurley as a fictional queen. A coproduction between Lionsgate and Universal Cable Productions, the show is now getting up to the volume of episodes that appeals to international and SVoD buyers.
In terms of shows that are coming to an end, SundanceTV has revealed that Rectify will finish after its upcoming fourth season. TNT, meanwhile, will call time on Rizzoli & Isles after its 13-episode seventh season, which will air this summer.
JJ Abrams also used the TCA tour to speculate that the fifth season of CBS crime/sci-fi series Person of Interest (which he executive produces) will be the last, though he would “love it to continue.”
Writer Andrew Davies has slimmed down Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace into a new six-part drama for the BBC. DQ hears from the creative team behind this lavish production.
For anyone who’s always wanted to read War and Peace but never found the time, Andrew Davies might just have the answer.
The acclaimed writer has previously adapted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, among others.
But now he has turned his attention to Tolstoy’s weighty tome, condensing it into a lavish six-part drama for BBC1 that will premier on January 3.
“I’d never read War and Peace; I’d been saving it up for my old age,” he jokes. “So I was pleased when Faith (Penhale, then head of BBC Wales Drama but set to become joint CEO of Lookout Point in February) invited me to read it with a view to adapting it. I took it on holiday and read it on a beach in Antigua and came back very enthusiastic about the book and very positive. It’s a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning but I’ve sorted it out.
“You have to remember the names of three families, that’s all it is. Nobody need bother reading it now because I’ve got all the best bits out of it! I didn’t find it too daunting. You have to be very arrogant to take on these jobs with these great works of literature and not be frightened of them. I give my own interpretation, take the bits that I love and express them as well as I can.”
Described as “a thrilling, funny and heartbreaking story of love, war and family life,” War and Peace features an ensemble cast headed by Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano. It also stars Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Barnard, Tuppence Middleton and Stephen Rea.
It’s produced by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point, while Tom Harper is on directing duties.
“It’s the weight of it – everyone looks at it and goes ‘Oh, no!’ People don’t even want to start it,” producer Bethan Jones says of Tolstoy’s 1,300-page book. “How many of us have it on our shelves and have never read it? But we were looking for a piece that hadn’t been done for a long time, something we thought was due, that we needed to make, something we felt had a contemporary feel.
“It’s all about young people – their lives, their loves and the mistakes they make; the things they go through and the process of growing up, emotionally as well as physically.”
Rea, who plays Prince Vassily Kuragi, adds: “Sometimes the translations of War and Peace are very poor or heavy-handed, but the first thing I saw with Andrew’s script was how easy it would be to play. The language was light and easy. It’s an incredible piece of work.”
Davies focused the story around three characters in particular. Pierre, Natascha and Andrei are at the heart of the story, with their families and their relationships built into the wider narrative.
The writer’s preference for focusing on youth was shared by Harper. Jones says: “Tom’s brilliant. He’s very young and he brings youth to the piece so it feels very contemporary – not through any wobbly camera style but through the real, young heart he’s brought to the show. Tom also works so well with the actors and draws out interesting, fresh performances.”
Filming for the production took place across six months in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania as the production team quickly decided that 19th century Russia couldn’t be replicated on the backlots at studios such as Pinewood.
“It felt important for the creative direction of the show that it should feel very authentic,” says Penhale. “If we were building, we would have had to build five Russian palaces, which, given the budget, wouldn’t have been feasible. But it also mattered to us that we shot in St Petersburg, that we went to some of the locations where some of these events would have taken place. It adds to the sense of truth and naturalism to the production. I hope viewers get a sense of Russia as a character in the piece.”
The seven-year timespan during which the story takes place also meant the crew was always on the move to film scenes at each location in both summer and winter.
“We started in January in winter in St Petersburg and moved to Lithuania, and we did some in Latvia as well,” explains Jones. “As the seasons wore on, in the beginning of the summer we went back to St Petersburg, so it was a very well-thought-out shoot. The crew were brilliant.”
Overseeing such a huge production did have its challenges, of course, and none so big as the language barrier. “We’d be doing a big scene with lots of extras, either military or a huge dance scene, and we’d have English, Lithuanian, Russian and Latvian speakers,” Jones recalls. “If we had any huge challenge, we couldn’t move as swiftly because we were having to tell everybody in their own language what to do. It was fascinating, though, I really enjoyed it. A couple of us are also Welsh speakers, so we threw that into the mix and really freaked them out!”
Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein might be best known for award-winning films such as The Artist and The King’s Speech, but within 24 hours of BBC1 announcing its plans to adapt War and Peace, he was on the phone to Penhale to help bring his “passion project” to life.
“Harvey tracked me down to my office in Cardiff and was ringing repeatedly on the hour,” Penhale says. “We had a great phone call where he said, ‘If you’re doing War and Peace, I want to do it. This is my favourite book of all time,’ and it went from there. It’s really born out of his passion for it.”
Negeen Yazdi, president of international production at The Weinstein Company, says of the coproduction process: “The project matches the ambition, scale and material we want to be working on. With the BBC, we discovered very quickly our tastes were aligned, our ambitions for the project were aligned and that we’re not that different in the way we work. We’re all committed to the show and, above all, the show comes first. Like any working family relationship, there were disagreements and discussions but all in a very healthy way.”
Once The Weinstein Co was onboard, War and Peace was subsequently picked up in the US by A+E Networks-owned Lifetime, A&E and History, which will all simulcast the series from January 18 next year.
“The BBC and Weinstein marriage has been a surprisingly effective and powerful thing, in terms of both attracting talent and cast and making a statement to the industry that this is a big deal and you’d better pay attention,” says Simon Vaughan, CEO of Lookout Point. “That’s what it takes to get heard in a marketplace where thousands of new hours of TV are being produced each year.”
Vaughan adds that while coproductions of this magnitude can be tricky to navigate, all parties united behind Penhale’s leadership to bring the series to air.
“It’s about leadership – who’s the boss?” he says. “Faith was the boss and we all work for Faith. That is how it was from the beginning. As difficult as some moments were, when a call needed to be made, it got made. Somebody has to drive the train and if you don’t have that, run a mile. I’ve been around the block and done difficult coproductions and if there isn’t one clear leader, forget it. Don’t make it.”
As with any adaptation, plot points and character details have been chopped and changed, but Jones says Davies’ War and Peace is “very true” to Tolstoy’s original text.
“Inevitably there are some changes and characters that aren’t there – otherwise we’d be doing a 95-part series,” she says.
On the back of Doctor Who and Sherlock, BBC Wales has built up an impressive drama slate, and War and Peace is set to be the most ambitious yet.
“It is a great place to work,” Jones adds. “It started some time ago with the regeneration of Doctor Who. We’re quite bold. It’s very small but tight and hardworking team. We like to push ourselves.”
US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.
When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.
In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.
He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”
Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.
But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.
Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.
WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.
Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.
Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.
“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”
Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.
“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.
“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”
Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.
“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.
Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.
“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”
While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.
With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.
Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.
“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.
“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”
Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”
It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”
Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.
“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”
That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.
“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”
Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).
“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.
“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”
Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.
This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?
“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”
The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.
“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”
At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.
“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”
One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?
“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).
“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”
Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”
Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.
“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”
From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.
“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”
Following the PBS path
US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.
For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.
The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.
“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”
Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.
More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.
Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”
Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.
“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”
PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.
It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.
“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.
“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”
PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.
Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.
Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”
Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”
That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”
Jill Blotevogel, creator and executive producer of the TV version of Scream, tells Michael Pickard how she brought the iconic horror franchise to the small screen.
When Scream was released in 1996, it slayed audiences with its mix of scares, gory killings, sense of humour and its awareness of classic horror movie tropes.
The film was credited with revitalising the horror film genre and – like other classics before it, such as Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street – it spawned several sequels, most recently with Scream 4 in 2011.
Now the film franchise is winning new fans after being adapted for the small screen.
US cable network MTV greenlit a pilot in April 2013 and, produced by The Weinstein Company’s Dimension Films, it was subsequently ordered to series in October last year. The show, which had earlier been teased online after the first eight minutes of the pilot were released, debuted in the US on June 30 this year.
The cast includes Willa Fitzgerald, Amadeus Serafini, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Carlson Young, Connor Weil and John Karna.
Scream’s creator and executive producer Jill Blotevogel, whose credits include CBS murder-mystery Harper’s Island, was brought to the project to write the pilot script and she says Scream is part of a renaissance currently being experienced in TV at the expense of the movie industry.
“It’s a great time to be a writer in Hollywood,” she says. “Features have really become polarised. They only do a few big tentpole movies and some indies so writers who used to be able to express themselves a lot more in features have been flocking to TV, and you’re also seeing this amazing calibre of actors and actresses coming to TV.
“I think it’s a real renaissance in TV and the rise of cable networks trying to make their mark has been the drive behind that.”
Blotevogel says the idea of a Scream series hadn’t initially occurred to MTV executives when they were looking through Dimensions Films’ back catalogue for possible adaptation ideas: “MTV had been speaking to Dimension and Bob Weinstein about properties to develop from his film catalogue. MTV had just done Teen Wolf and had great success with it. They talked about various things and then jokingly said, ‘What about Scream?’ and they both laughed and said, ‘You can’t do that.’
“Then they thought about it for a bit and said, ‘Maybe we can.’ That was the beginning of a two-year journey, where various writers came in to pitch ways to do it.”
However, MTV was yet to find the right fit for its version of Ghostface, the killer clad in the iconic white mask and black robes. Previous writers had brought in supernatural elements to try to bring a new edge to the franchise, but Blotevogel explains that it was essential that what made the original film so popular remained at the heart of the television series.
What she did do, however, was insert contemporary issues, such as the dangers of social media, which she could mould into a modern-day horror story.
“They brought me in a year-and-a-half ago to read the script and pitch what my take would be, and I just said you have to go back to what works about Scream,” she says. “It is a human character, it’s a very visceral thing. You can’t have a ghost in the machine for Scream. It’s a story but it’s not Scream.
“So for me it was finding a way to make what they did in 1996 feel fresh for 2015. Certainly a lot of it came down to how teenagers make themselves vulnerable to technology and social media, and how they don’t even realise how much they’re putting things out there that could be used against them or could open up their lives to someone who they may not want knowing so much about them.
“In the pilot, the idea of putting a sequence in a glasshouse where there’s no place to hide was part of the metaphor we were going for of teenagers making themselves vulnerable and wearing masks.
“We all put out these images of ourselves on social media that may not be our true selves and that was a really good jumping off point for the story, looking to create a big diverse cast where they all have secrets, they all have stories they’re trying to keep hidden.”
With Scream’s success as a slasher film, seeing a large proportion of characters die during its feature-length running time, one of the main challenges to overcome in the adaptation process was keeping true to the spirit of the original without killing off the entire cast.
Blotevogel explains: “The killer is not just slashing and piling up bodies. On a TV series you’ve got to have a longer-term mystery. Your killer has to have a long game in mind, rather than just running round racking up bodies. You can’t have the FBI descend and place a curfew on the town in episode two because then you can’t have the Friday Night Lights part of it, you can’t have the teen drama.
“That’s been the biggest balance taking a slasher movie to TV – finding a way to keep the world normal enough to keep the teen dynamic and your soap opera elements, but also reminding people that it’s Scream.”
Blotevogel’s blend of horror and drama has obviously impressed MTV executives and viewers alike, as last month, midway through Scream’s debut run, the cable channel renewed the show for a second season.
It also revealed that season one had attracted more than 21 million viewers and another 7.9 million streams online.
Announcing the renewal, Mina Lefevre, MTV’s executive VP of series development and head of scripted programming, said: “It has been a wonderful experience working with Bob Weinstein and his team, who are such connoisseurs of this genre, and we are thrilled by how our viewers have responded to the reinvention of Scream. We look forward to another season filled with suspense, horror and more twists and turns.”
Weinstein added: “The Scream franchise has been such a huge part of our history and to watch it evolve, find a new generation of fans and succeed at MTV makes this all the more sweet. We promise even more scares, surprises, romance and of course kills in season two.”
Blotevogel says the show has been mapped out to feature the same story with the same characters in the same town over several seasons.
“You get to go deeper into the story (in every season), but we are going to give you satisfying revelations at the end of every season,” she says. “There are things that will satisfy you and keep you coming back.
“If you think about a show like (AMC drama) The Killing, how that ended its first season was not very satisfying. People did not get the answer that they were looking for. I think a lot of TV shows have learnt their lesson from watching what happened there, and you now know you’ve got to have an ending for season one that still has the potential for the future, and the realisation that it’s not completely over.
“Because we have two levels of mythology in our show – we have the things that happened 20 years ago and the things that are happening in the present day – we have a lot of places to go to. We’ve built in a lot of possibilities knowing we’re going to extend this world.”