Swedish drama Eldmärkt (Hidden), commissioned by Nordic streaming platform Viaplay, is based on Filip Alexanderson’s novel in which dark secrets, unsuspected identities and supernatural forces converge in modern-day Stockholm.
The eight-part urban fantasy thriller stars Isabella Scorupco (GoldenEye) and August Wittgenstein (Das Boot), which mixes the paranormal, hard-hitting realism and psychological drama.
In this DQTV interview, Scorupco describes her character in the series as “the most empathetic person I’ve ever come across” who doesn’t care about looks or appearance.
The actor also discusses her love of working with directors, and opens up about her experiences in Hollywood after finding fame as Natalya Simonova in 1995 James Bond thriller GoldenEye, which was also Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007.
Hidden is produced by Yellow Bird (Wallander) in association with Tele München Gruppe and Lumière for Viaplay and Sweden’s TV3, and distributed internationally by Banijay Rights.
Writing for DQ, Alexandra Modestova, director general of Russian film and television consultancy Expocontent, explains how series such as The Road to Calvary and An Ordinary Woman are leading the rise in female-led dramas in the country.
The global market has started to open up to Russian drama. As stories have focused on the domestic market for the past 10 years, Russian series were known to offer traditional values – strong, powerful men who rule the world and drive the story, and women filling mostly secondary roles.
But times are changing. Since top Russian producers now focus on the global market and make series intended for worldwide audiences, they have to adapt the way Russian women are seen and presented by local television.
Female-led shows where women drive the story have begun appearing over the past few years, and that’s quite a step forward for the local industry. Among the most recent examples are Mata Hari, Mathilde, Ekaterina (pictured top), Sophia, The Road to Calvary, Better than Us and An Ordinary Woman.
The latter is a compelling example of another major change for Russian female characters: they can now be complex. Produced by Look Film and 1-2-3 Production for TV3, An Ordinary Woman centres on a married woman with two kids and a small flower shop. It turns out she is secretly running a prostitution network to fully cover her family’s needs, which her husband is incapable of doing. That might seem a radical way to help one’s family, but the story carries a great deal of irony and deep thought, depicting a strong woman in a world of weaker men.
The heroine is a mother of two daughters and a caring wife, yet she can be cynical, cold-headed, even cruel in her secret (but very real) life. She is a complicated, independently minded woman who has flaws and doesn’t fit into that typical kind of ‘perfect’ female characters who are too good to play by their own rules. So the title is significant – any ‘ordinary’ woman watching the series in any part of the world shares her character and complexities, her flaws and private thoughts. It’s no surprise that the series was immediately picked up by an international distributor, Cineflix Rights.
The series may seem to broadcast a new message for the local audience, but in fact women have always been strong in Russia, so it’s not only down to contemporary stories.
Several period dramas from Russia television and radio revolve around female leads based on real women in different times and circumstances. Ekaterina tells the story of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. She arrives in the country as a young girl and becomes the most powerful woman in Europe. Another drama, Sophia, is dedicated to the first influential woman in Russian history, Sophia Palaiologina, grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, who managed to survive in a harsh world filled with conspiracies. She supported the integration of a divided country and helped to push out invaders and build the Kremlin in Moscow.
These memorable heroines make their own way in a male-dominated world. They are smart and decisive enough to hold power and influence during periods when this was extremely unusual for women. These productions provide accurate historical context but with a modern look, so these women are similar at their core to women today: ambitious, intelligent, independent, passionate and imperfect.
Other compelling examples of shows where women dare live, feel and make mistakes are The Road to Calvary (NTV Broadcasting Company, distributed internationally by Dori Media) and Mathilde (Rock Films). The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy and follows Russian intellectuals through the revolution of 1917 and the Soviet era, telling the story of two sisters. Here an absolute classic is reinvented by and for a younger generation. The young still read classic literature but nowadays they need to look at the story through a different lens.
Mathilde, presented at Mipcom in Cannes last year with support from Made in Russia, tells a classical love story: the last Russian emperor and his affair with an attractive ballerina. Again, it shows a woman full of passion who follows her desires boldly. The whole world is against her but she is able to stand up to it.
It seems that science fiction is also seen as a place for women. Better Than Us, from Yellow Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, centres on an android who seems to have her own thoughts and intentions, and looks at the impact she has on the humans around her. She is perfectly beautiful, yet any evil intentions towards her end badly for any potential offender. The series has just been acquired by Netflix from Start Video, the rights holder, and will become the first Netflix Original from Russia.
The android woman is played by Paulina Andreeva, a rising star of Russian TV and cinema. She also plays the lead female role in Method, a series by Sreda that was among the first Russian projects acquired by Netflix. Andreeva appears as an ambitious young law enforcement graduate who is taken on as a trainee by a famous detective, her idol. But his methods of tracking down dangerous criminals and maniacs aren’t anything like she imagined.
The past few years have seen a range of high-end shows from Russia that are driven by female leads. Although there may not be many of these yet, the Russian TV industry is going international and following global trends. This includes the necessity to let women have a distinct voice and fair representation on the screen. These days fair means complex. Like real women and like the new, younger audience, female characters have to live life on their own terms. The choices they make may be different – they might be married or single, a tender mother or child-free, a successful business woman or a housewife, even a criminal, or a combination of all these.
Scandinavian thriller The Lawyer may bear many of the hallmarks of Nordic noir, but this brighter series adds a new dimension to the ever-popular genre.
Despite the opening scene involving the brutal death of two people in a car bomb, it is difficult not to observe the warmth of Scandinavian drama The Lawyer.
Paradoxical though this may sound, it’s what gives the SF Studios-produced legal thriller a different feel to the long list of Nordic noir series of recent times.
The Lawyer centres on Frank Nordling, a young and promising defence lawyer who, along with his sister Sara, witnessed his parents’ death – the victims of the aforementioned car bomb – as a child. When he finds out who was responsible, he feels compelled to seek revenge.
So far so Scandi, but unlike its predecessors, The Lawyer’s action is not perpetually set in half-lit offices or dark, dank landscapes where the protagonists’ faces are obscured by shadow or washed out in monochrome. From the locations appearing in the first episode – a modern courtroom, a legal office in the centre of town, a nouveau riche mansion complete with pillars and swimming pool – you might think you are watching a daytime soap instead of a revenge thriller involving Stockholm’s criminal underworld. Even a murder on a boat is set in a prettily lit marina with a backdrop of distant, colourful fireworks.
Producer Nicklas Wikstrom Nicastro says this is no coincidence but, instead, part of the creative team’s desire to “add something to that [canon of] Scandinavian noir.”
Part of the show’s look can be attributed to Geir Henning Hopland, who directed the first five episodes. “He really has a sense of visuals,” says Nicastro. “We didn’t want to follow; we can use colour, we’re not all about everything [being in] different shades of grey, you know? We’ve found something here that has its place, it has an edge, even though it’s in the same camp of Scandinavian noir.”
Yet the series, produced for Viaplay and TV3 (Sweden and Denmark respectively) and distributed by StudioCanal, bears the hallmarks you would expect of the genre: corrupt police, psychologically damaged lead characters, murder and drugs. It’s clear the creators have gone to great lengths to depict the tension and intrigue Scandi noir commands, but the audience will feel it is still rooted in real life rather than the cinematic world of shows like The Killing. And this is not solely achieved by the lighting.
Jens Lapidus, internationally bestselling Nordic noir author and one of the people behind the concept for the series, believes a show must respect art and reality.
“There’s always this balance between real-life authenticity and dramaturgical effect,” he notes. “So, are you talking here about a documentary or some sort of reportage [style] or full-scale SFX, fantasy science-fiction stuff? You always have to land somewhere in between if you’re describing a real city, a real crime case or real human beings.
“So, in certain parts it’s not what would happen in the real world working as a police officer or a lawyer. Sometimes that’s itching to me, because I’m from the real world and I’m thinking, ‘No, this is not how it would work.’”
Part of this obsession over authenticity comes from Lapidus’s other career as a criminal defence lawyer, a position he has held for more than 15 years. As such, the environment of The Lawyer has been his “playground.” Lapidus says that, after seeing the input from the real courtrooms and underworld of Stockholm, and watching the finished product, “there’s so much in there that happened in real life.”
Lapidus’s attention to detail did not simply benefit the writers and the production team. Alexander Karim, who plays Nordling, says having the series based on real life was rewarding for the actors, allowing them to immerse themselves in the world their characters inhabit.
“I could move into the courthouse in Stockholm and just stay there – I was there for three months and I saw everything, every single case,” he says. “You have a lot of different sources to get your inspiration from. A small detail, for instance: Frank is supposed to be clean-shaven, and then I met with [bearded] Jens and I thought, ‘I want to look like that.’
“I want to base Frank on Jens. When I went into the fitting, they said you’re supposed to be clean-shaven, you’re supposed to be this young lawyer. But I’d been watching these defence attorneys in real life and none of them are clean-shaven, especially the young ones – they grow beards. The older they get, the more clean-shaven they get. It’s all about respect in the courtroom; it’s about not looking like a little kid, because no one’s going to believe you.”
Of course, this is still a piece of drama and Nicastro notes the setting for the series changed during the script development, with Viaplay wanting the show to be “bigger, greater.” It started out as a Stockholm-based programme, but with Sweden and Denmark so close, it became a Copenhagen- and Malmo-set series.
So where does The Lawyer sit in the pantheon of Scandi noir? Nicastro thinks it has evolved the genre through its modern take on the classic revenge tale.
“It has so many angles,” he enthuses. “Besides being a well-built thriller, we had this character Frank, all the rows, conflicts he has; he needs courage. This character is in an extreme situation seeking revenge.
“The story of revenge is so simple, but if the protagonists have moral issues, it adds a dimension. Take Hamlet – the great stories of revenge have these. We renew ourselves all the time. If you look at Scandinavian noir 10 to 15 years ago, we had all those police officers in trench coats solving crimes and everything.
“And if you compare that to The Lawyer, it’s still Scandi noir, the arena people know – the psychology, the inner demons – but we needed a new way to express it [and I think we’ve done that].”
Karim agrees that by making Frank a lawyer, it bucks the convention of the genre, which tends to focus on police officers.
“We’ve chosen another setting – we’re going into the courtroom. Courtroom dramas there are plenty of, but this is a courtroom thriller with elements of the police force, brothers and sisters, the family, so what makes it stand out is the setting.
“Law, and what it is in its essence, is such a beautiful way of telling a story of revenge. I went back to the movies of the 50 and 60s and watched every single lawyer movie there was before we did this. The one that falls closest to this is The Firm [the 1993 film starring Tom Cruise], that sort of infiltrating place where you have no friends and you have to get in there and find your way out, the good guy turns bad. Putting a lawyer in a morally ambiguous place is very interesting.”
Lapidus says The Lawyer twists the conventions of legal practice as much as it twists the genre. As a criminal defence lawyer, he adds, you have a set of rules to follow, set out by the Bar Association, the foremost of which is “loyalty to the client.”
“Not loyalty with the court, nor the police force; it’s not loyalty to society, or the truth,” he continues. “Now what happens if you take that rule and you twist it 180 degrees.”
In the series, which debuted last month on Viaplay, Frank’s faithfulness to this mantra is tested “in every scene,” Lapidus adds.
Despite The Lawyer’s creators believing they have added something different to the Nordic noir canon, some in the wider industry speculate the genre has had its day and the drama world has moved on.
Understandably, the team behind The Lawyer disagree, but Lapidus concedes that the unstable world we live in could be the reason for opinions changing.
“Why do you have the great interest still? Why don’t you see French, German stuff coming out the way you see [Scandinavian noir]?” he asks. “The reason the world has been so interested in Scandi noir in all its forms is because Scandinavia is probably one of the safest places on Earth, and out of that comes the most stories about killing and crime.
“I think that paradox has played very well because that makes people interested. I wonder whether that’s going to change, because we live in very insecure times. Now things [like murder and terrorism] do happen in Scandinavia because we don’t belong in secure times anymore.”
As such, people are looking for different kinds of drama, and Lapidus suggests that perhaps in a few years we might see the Scandinavian version of The Wire – gritty social realism that reflects today’s society.
If that is to be the next iteration of the genre, you can be sure it will extend the Scandi noir shelf-life, akin to the length of a Stockholm winter night.
Celebrated Russian writer Nikolay Gogol is the star of his own novels in gothic fantasy drama Gogol, which has been launched on the big screen before its debut on TV3. DQ finds out more.
While the film business is coming to terms with streaming platforms such as Netflix bypassing the big screen altogether and putting movies straight into subscribers’ homes, a new Russian drama is reversing that trend by making its debut in cinemas.
Gogol: Origins was first released in theatres last August, with two further instalments due to get big-screen releases in April and August respectively before the whole eight-episode series airs on Russia’s TV3.
An unusual move, perhaps, but a financially rewarding one. Within the first two days of its cinema release, it returned its production costs and closed its opening weekend by breaking national box-office records.
One of the most expensive projects ever produced for Russian TV, Gogol’s “revolutionary” roll-out echoes that of Marvel’s Inhumans, which was released on IMAX screens in the US before making its debut on ABC.
After its theatrical release and subsequent digital release on platforms such as iTunes, the full series of Gogol is expected to air on TV3 three months after last theatrical release. Importantly, the TV series will feature two extra episodes that will not have been seen in cinemas in order to attract new viewers and those who have already seen it on the big screen.
TV3 marketing director Lily Sheroziya says: “Gogol is both a TV series and a movie. It’s a revolutionary approach. Most channels strive to produce high-quality content. We want to do the best content for our viewers but, to do that, you need a lot of money. We decided that our product deserves the large screen and Gogol became the first series ever to get a full theatrical release before it ran on television.
“In the first weekend, Gogol earned all its production costs back. It really inspires us to believe it’s not just a standalone event but something that will revolutionise the way we work with high-quality series.”
Sheroziya adds: “The budget was a little bit more than the normal series budget in Russia but not a film budget. That’s why it’s a real success, because we managed to have a great box office with the budget of a series.”
A gothic mystery thriller, Gogol centres on real-life figure Nikolay Gogol (1819-1898), one of Russia’s most acclaimed and popular writers, who is planted in a ghastly world of fairy tales and his own stories.
“The story is based on an original Ukrainian folklore because Gogol was [of Ukrainian origin] and he wrote all his novels to his mother,” explains Evgeny Nikishov, TV3 general producer. “There are some creatures, some mystic cases. It’s unique, featuring very original Ukrainian folklore.”
For TV3, it was key that the series not be a biography of Gogol but should instead take the character and his stories further in a bid to attract a younger audience. The visual result is something akin to US drama Sleepy Hollow and the film of the same name.
“Gogol was developed for three years, during which we were dedicated to making and shooting the pilot,” says Fedorovich Valeriy, director of TV3. “Then when we saw the pilot, we understood it had a certain cinematographic quality and value – it would look as good on the big screen as it would do on TV sets.”
Nikishov says it was clear early on in the development process that Gogol should become the hero of his own novels. “Gogol is a very famous writer, like Edgar Allan Poe, and his novels are very gothic and mystical,” he explains. “That’s why we thought it was a great idea that everything he wrote, he saw through his own eyes and that was the start of this project.
Valeriy continues: “His life was full of mysteries. Gogol was a weird person himself. He had many phobias. One of his key phobias was being buried alive and apparently it really happened to him. He was very popular among other writers, and Mikhail Bulgakov in particular was a big fan. At some moment they decided to open his grave and, when they opened the coffin, there were scratches on the inside of the box.”
“We think it’s a legend but it’s a good story,” Nikishov adds. “And there was no head in the grave.”
Addressing how the series will differ from the theatrical releases, Nikishov says every episode that will air on TV3 will be different in some way from the films, offering added value to what has already been released. “It’s not the movie,” he says. “The movie is much shorter than the TV series. That’s why I think it’s really two different products. Also, TV3 is a national channel. Many people will watch it who did not see it at the cinema.”
Produced by Seda (Trotsky), much of Gogol was filmed in and around St Petersburg with substantial visual effects also involved. “The filming schedule was like that for a series, rather than a film, in terms of the amount of minutes shot daily,” Valeriy says. “In the series we have three different seasons, and last summer was very cold in Russia and everyone was complaining. Only the producers were happy because it gave this gothic mood on the set. We had to shoot the final scenes in May and usually it’s summertime and the leaves are bright and beautiful, but this May we had snow.”
With Gogol: Origins utilising a release schedule similar to that used by Marvel’s Inhumans, Marvel’s extended family of comic book superheroes may also inspire future dramas to air on TV3.
“At the end of the series, other Russian writers appear,” Valeriy adds. “So if we wanted to make a Marvel universe of Russian writers, there is the possibility to feature people like Chekhov and Dostoyevski.”
Swedish horror thriller Svartsjön (Black Lake) sees a group of friends experience a series of disturbing events when they visit an abandoned ski resort that was once the scene of a horrific crime. Jarowskij producer Emma Nyberg offers six things you need to know about the eight-part series with the help of writer Ulf Kvensler.
1. Black Lake is about student Hanne, 25, who follows her boyfriend Johan and some other friends to an abandoned ski resort in the northern part of Sweden. Johan plans to buy the place and reopen it. But strange things soon start to happen at the resort, leading Hanne to investigate why it was closed down on the eve of its opening 20 years ago. Johan is convinced locals are simply trying to scare them away, but Hanne feels there’s a deeper meaning to uncover. Soon, solving the mystery at Black Lake becomes a matter of life and death for the group and forces Hanne to confront demons from her past.
2. The show stars Sarah-Sofie Boussina as Hanne; Filip Berg as Johan (pictured top); Mathilde Norholt as Mette, Hanne’s elder sister; Valter Skarsgård is Filip’s younger brother, Lippi; and Victor von Schirach as Osvald, Johan’s best friend who is involved in a secret love affair with Lippi. Other cast members include Philip Oros as Frank, childhood friend to Johan and his new girlfriend Jessan (Aliette Opheim); Odin Waage and Anderz Eide as Norwegian brothers Jostein and Dag, who live in the area; and Nils Ole Oftebro as the mysterious caretaker, Erkki. Casting was carried out by Lovisa Bergenstråhle.
3. Ulf Kvensler, creator of the show, was inspired by films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity: “I’m a big fan of horror movies, and especially the psychological kind where you don’t get to see very much but build the monster yourself in your head. It’s also a very cost-efficient sub-genre of horror. Paranormal Activity cost like US$15,000 to shoot and has grossed some US$200m worldwide. And it’s scary as hell!” He adds: “In the end, we didn’t go full ‘found footage’ for Black Lake. The broadcaster wanted a little more production value, and they also wanted to scale back the horror a bit to broaden the appeal. More focus was put on the mystery and on the relationships between the young people in the group. This was also necessary to have enough story for eight episodes. I think we found the right balance between the elements. Horror buffs probably think Black Lake is pretty lame stuff, but the regular audience definitely thinks it’s scary enough.”
4. The nature of the found-footage style means there is a documentary quality to the series. Kvensler explains: “Part of the attraction is that it has a documentary feel. When you frame supernatural elements this way, it makes them all the more powerful. So we wanted the dialogue in the show to have a very natural feel. We actively sought actors who enjoyed improvising and finding their own words to express the beats in each scene. And directors who also wanted to work that way.”
5. Kvensler believes that in a ghost story, “the ghost should symbolise something that society as a whole is haunted by, something it wants to hide or forget.” He explains. “In Black Lake, that ghost is the relationship between the Swedish government and the indigenous Sami population in northern Sweden. In the first decades of the 20th century, Sweden was world-leading in racial biology, the purpose of which was to prove that Swedes were superior to the Sami and Finnish populations who also live in Sweden. German scientists, who would later be prominent during the Nazi regime, were inspired by their Swedish counterparts.”
6. Black Lake’s first run was a hit and a second is currently in development with Modern Times Group-owned broadcaster TV3 in Sweden. The series, distributed by Banijay Rights, also aired on MTG’s streaming video-on-demand platform Viaplay.
Echoing a growing trend in the TV business, US cable channel TNT has ordered a fifth season of its hit series The Last Ship before the fourth run has even begun.
Based on the William Brinkley novel, the summer series follows the aftermath of a global catastrophe that ravages the world’s population. Because of its location, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. Now, however, Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and his crew must confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they may be among the few survivors.
According to TNT, the show is currently averaging around 7.1 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms and ranks as one of basic cable’s top 10 summer dramas among adults aged 18 to 49. Seasons four and five (2017/2018) will both have 10 episodes.
TNT executive VP of original programming Sarah Aubrey said: “The Last Ship has taken viewers on an exciting ride through three truly thrilling seasons. We look forward to watching the cast and production team ratchet up the drama, action and suspense even more over the next two seasons through summer 2018.”
The series is produced by Turner’s Studio T in association with Platinum Dunes, whose partners – blockbuster filmmaker Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form – serve as executive producers. Co-creators Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane are also executive producers, along with director Paul Holahan.
Less fortunate this week is ABC’s summer series Mistresses. The show, which has just completed its fourth season, will not be back for a fifth. Based on the British series of the same name from Ecosse, Mistresses revolves around the lives and loves of a group of sexy female friends.
Although the show was never a huge ratings performer for ABC, it has been a decent franchise, selling to broadcasters like TLC in the UK, RTÉ in Ireland and TVNZ in New Zealand. It was also subject of a Chilean remake called Infieles.
Still in the US, HBO is only three weeks away from the launch of its much-anticipated sci-fi reboot series Westworld (October 2). There has been a lot of industry speculation that the show might bomb after filming was temporarily shut down at the start of the year. The rumours at the time were that something must have gone wrong with the series to result in such an interruption.
Now, though, those close to the production are saying that the hold up was to ensure that Westworld has a strong enough foundation to become a long-running returnable franchise.
Actor James Marsden told Entertainment Weekly: “It wasn’t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next five or six years are going to be. We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season. [The production team] could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”
HBO will certainly be hoping that Westworld can run and run – because it will soon be faced with the end of mega hit Game of Thrones.
Also in the US this week, there has been a sudden burst of development news. SVoD platform Hulu is developing a fantasy-adventure series based on the Throne of Glass book series by Sarah J Maas. Kira Snyder will write the adaptation, which comes from The Mark Gordon Company.
USA Network has ordered a pilot for a crime drama that stars Jessica Biel as a woman who commits an out-of-character act of horrific violence. Called The Sinner, this is based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr.
ABC, meanwhile, has commissioned a pilot called American Heritage – about two families forced to work together to run LA’s premiere real estate firm.
Elsewhere in the world of scripted TV, Nordic-based streaming service Viaplay and Swedish TV channel TV3, both part of Modern Times Group (MTG), have linked up with German distributor Beta Film on a new Nordic noir series called Hassel. The 10-part show is based on books by popular Swedish author Olov Svedelid, who died in 2008. It will be produced by Nice, another arm of the MTG empire.
The central character of the series is Roland Hassel (played by Ola Rapace), a police detective who is the protagonist of 29 books by Svedelid. So if the show is successful there is plenty of scope for it to come back.
Hassel will be the third Viaplay original series following Swedish Dicks and Occupied. It has been created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, with scripts by Bjorn Paqualin and Charlotte Lesche. Shooting starts this year.
Over in Australia, Network Ten has commissioned an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s classic 1961 novel Wake in Fright. The two-part show will tell the story of a young schoolteacher who becomes stranded in the small outback mining town of Bundanyabba.
It will be produced by Lingo Pictures in association with Endemol Shine Australia, with backing from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. It has previously been remade as a movie, released in 1971.
Network Ten head of drama Rick Maier said: “There are few Australian stories as original or compelling as Wake in Fright. Kenneth Cook’s novel, now re-imagined for a new generation, deals with the biggest themes. Provocative, morally complex and brilliantly realised, this story is guaranteed to stay with you long into the night and – possibly – for years to come.”
Finally, Endemol Shine-owned production company Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude, The A Word) is adapting Lisa McInerney’s debut novel The Glorious Heresies, with Entourage’s Julian Farino attached to direct and exec produce. McInerney will adapt the novel, which was first published in 2015 and looks at the lives of a collection of misfits living in modern-day Cork in Ireland. It won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
New Zealand isn’t the most prolific TV drama-producing nation in the world. But it does have a good skills base and some fantastic locations (Jane Campion’s exquisite Top of the Lake miniseries was shot on the island, as were high-profile movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
The country also has a decent level of funding support from the government. Media funding agency NZ On Air invests around NZ$80m (US$56m) a year in local TV shows, of which NZ$36m is allocated to drama and comedy. This money is accessed by applications from broadcasters.
Under the Broadcasting Act that guides NZ On Air’s investment decisions, priority is given to drama as a way to reflect and develop New Zealand culture and identity. The goal is to produce “high-quality local drama that competes with the best international programmes” says NZ On Air, with “most funds invested in programmes to be broadcast during prime time on the mainstream channels that reach the largest audiences.”
Recent high-profile examples of shows to have secured investment are outlined below. Some have already aired, some are coming soon:
Filthy Rich, which aired earlier this year on TVNZ’s TV2, follows three illegitimate children who each discover they have a claim to the fortune of one of New Zealand’s wealthiest men, John Truebridge. It received more than NZ$8m of funding from NZ On Air, making it one of the most expensive dramas to come out of NZ. But it didn’t get a good response from critics and saw its ratings decline steadily from a 400,000 debut to around half that total. Nevertheless, the show has just been granted a second season, with NZ On Air stumping up another NZ$6.9m. TVNZ says it is not uncommon for domestically-produced shows to take time to build and is keen to give Filthy Rich another chance. To give a flavour of the opposing viewpoints over the show, NZ Herald critic Duncan Grieve called it “a caricature of New Zealand, with heartless wealth and plucky poverty and a cynical pimp and a conniving businesswoman,” while NZ On Air said: “The brilliantly made first series had an average five-plus audience of 250,000 and a total of more than 700,000 on-demand streams across the series, meeting NZ On Air’s objective of a bold local drama engaging its audience.”
Outrageous Fortune is a comedy drama that ran on TV3 from 2005 to 2010. The popular show followed the fortunes of a criminal family that decides to go straight. In 2014, TV3 greenlit a prequel called Westside, which also proved popular. Last year NZ On Air contributed NZ$7.5m towards a second season of the show. Both series are from South Pacific Pictures, which is one of the key players in the New Zealand business. It is owned by All3Media and also makes NZ’s iconic soap Shortland Street.
The Brokenwood Mysteries is now into its third season on Prime. Comprised of two-hour murder mysteries set in small town New Zealand, the latest batch of four films received NZ$4m from NZ On Air. The franchise, produced by South Pacific Pictures, debuted in 2014 on Sunday nights and attracted 200,000 viewers, a strong performance for Prime. Dubbed as New Zealand’s answer to Midsomer Murders, it continues to do good business for Prime. Brokenwood has also been sold extensively on the international market by All3Media, rating well for public broadcaster France 3.
Dirty Laundry secured NZ$6.8m in July 2015. The 13-hour drama for TVNZ’s TV1 is produced by Filthy Productions, the same company that made Filthy Rich. The show centres on a middle-class family whose mother is jailed for money laundering. It is written and produced by Rachel Lang, Gavin Strawhan and Steven Zanoski. A trailer was released in April 2016, but Dirty Laundry is not due to launch until later this year. The show is sure to receive the same close scrutiny as Filthy Rich.
Hillary is the story of famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, based on the biography by Tom Scott. Produced by Great South Television for TV1, the six-part series received NZ$6.4m in 2014. Given the subject matter, it stands a good chance of being picked up by broadcasters around the world. The show has already been acquired by Network Ten in Australia.
Dear Murderer was given the go-ahead by NZ On Air in May 2016, when it handed a NZ$4m award to TV1. The show is a five-part series based on the life and career of the late criminal lawyer Mike Bungay. Bungay died in 1993 and his wife wrote a book about him in 1997, from which the series takes its name. The show will be produced by Screentime NZ. NZOA boss Jane Wrightson said: “Audiences will delight in the Dear Murderer story about one of the most flamboyant and outrageous men in New Zealand legal history.”
Bombshell – The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior is a two-hour TV movie about the infamous sinking of a Greenpeace boat. It is from Screentime for TV1 and received NZ$2.8m in July 2015. TV movies based on true stories are an important part of the funding programme, with NZ On Air also backing Jean, about the NZ aviatrix Jean Batten. “Each of these is unique to New Zealand. Seeing our own stories on screen, whether they are fictional or bring our history to life, is crucial to our culture. Amid a sea of foreign content, this is New Zealand on air,” said Wrightson. Produced by Lippy Pictures, Jean secured NZ$3.2m.
The Cul De Sac is a dystopian teen drama about a world in which adults disappear. Produced by Greenstone TV for TV2, season one secured just over NZ$1m and season two was granted a further NZ$1.4m in May this year. The sci-fi themed show is a relatively new genre for NZ. Aired on Sunday nights at 18.00 from April 2016, it seems to have had a good first outing.
Step Dave is another South Pacific show. Season one received NZ$6.6m and season two got a further NZ$6.8m in 2015. It sees central character Dave, a 24-year-old Kiwi slacker, face major life changes when he falls in love with Cara, an older woman with three kids and “baggage.” In an interview with NZ On Air, series creator Kate McDermott said this about writing for Kiwis: “NZ audiences are made up of a lot of different types of people, all with diverse preferences and likes. (But) what I’ve noticed is that viewers seem to quite like spending time with down-to-earth Kiwi characters they can recognise or identify with. Humour also seems to be important. I don’t think we like to take ourselves too seriously, so even in moments of high drama, suspense, romance, danger, we always try to find room for a saccharine-cutter.” The TV2 show attracted 189,000 viewers to its finale in November and there is no decision yet on whether it will return.
Step Dave’s Kate McDermott also had this to say about the importance of local drama: “When I was little we all used to play make-believe using American accents, because that was what we heard on television. My daughters have grown up with their own accents on television five nights a week, on Shortland Street. They’ve watched Being Eve, graduated to Go Girls and are now quickly making their way through the box set of Outrageous Fortune. For this generation of young Kiwis, it is a given that they can turn on the television and hear their own voices, see their own cities and scenery and get to know characters that they can identify with. Pride in our own stories, characters, our talent, our music – that matters. And we should be proud because we are not the only ones watching – we get a lot of feedback from other countries where audiences are discovering New Zealand drama.”