YouTube Premium drama Origin tells the story of 10 strangers who wake up on a deserted spaceship after agreeing to journey to a distant planet on the promise of leaving their past behind. The abandoned passengers must then work together to survive – but they quickly realise one of them is far from who they claim to be.
In this DQTV interview, showrunner Mika Watkins discusses the genre-bending story, which blends sci-fi and horror with romance, noir and more.
She talks about taking on the series – the pilot was the first script she was ever paid to write – and the challenges that came with developing the drama.
Watkins also opens up about her writing process, running a writers room and the differences between being a showrunner and a lead writer on a series.
Origin is produced by Left Bank Pictures, Midnight Radio and CiTVC, in association with Sony Pictures Television, for YouTube Premium.
First-time showrunner Mika Watkins tells DQ about building Origin, a 10-part space thriller commissioned by YouTube Premium that mixes sci-fi and horror to tell the story of a group of people dreaming of redemption but left fighting for survival.
From script editor to showrunner in just two years, Mika Watkins’ ascent has been rapid.
In 2016, she was an aspiring screenwriter working for The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures when she was offered the chance to join the writing teams for BBC1/Netflix epic Troy: Fall of a City and Sky1 fantasy drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.
And now Watkins is the showrunner of Origin, a 10-part original series launching on November 14 on YouTube Premium, the web video giant’s subscription service. A sci-fi thriller tinged with horror, it opens as a group of strangers find themselves stranded on a spacecraft bound for a distant planet. The abandoned passengers must work together to survive, but quickly realise that one of them is far from who they claim to be.
“It’s quite a strange one because it’s the first script I ever got paid to write,” Watkins says of Origin. “I knew I wanted to write a show set on a spaceship but, rather than it being Star Wars or Star Trek, a space adventure, I wanted it to be about people who are the opposite of astronauts and scientists and are trapped in this dark place beyond our solar system, and how that would feel, and to pull all the horror elements out of that.”
The passengers on the ship are all looking forward to starting a new life, their previous indiscretions wiped away in return for their labour to help build mankind’s second home. Of course, their pasts will soon come back to haunt them. Each episode contains a serialised story following their journey through space, while also pausing to dip into the backstory of an individual character. That structure opens the doors to bring other settings into play, with storylines including a Mafia tale in Tokyo, a German spy noir and a VR love story.
“Early on, I knew I wanted it to be lots of different things. I wouldn’t write a show that’s just a spaceship horror for 10 hours. I think I’d find it a little restrictive as a writer, so I knew I wanted to find a way of breaking away from that,” Watkins says of her show, which also plays out in multiple languages, depending on the nationality of the character speaking.
The central theme at the heart of the series remains the question of whether a person can ever leave their past behind. “That’s the heart of the show and the heart of every episode,” Watkins says. All the other elements have been built on that, whether it’s the spaceship itself or the lives of the crew before they set off on the ill-fated voyage. “I knew I wanted to go to Japan – that was the anchor of my show because I’m half-Japanese. I really wanted to get into that world and I knew I wanted to do a bunch of different stories,” the writer continues. “When [lead director] Paul WS Anderson came on, he wanted to do one that was a bit more action- and military-based, so we did something like that with very cool fight sequences. The story just sort of developed and changed as we went.”
YouTube loved Watkins’ pitch – she laid out the first three seasons of the series – and greenlit the show a couple of months later. The video platform has been slow to enter the subscription space, with established SVoD players such as Netflix and Amazon well ahead following their voluminous assault on the television market. But Watkins says she was thrilled by the opportunity to create what will be one of the service’s defining series.
“I found that a really exciting proposition,” she says. “They threw so much money at the show, which, for a first time showrunner like me, is a really big deal. They just said run with it, but then they gave really good and detailed script notes, so they’ve been amazing to work with. They were committed from the beginning.”
Having just completed production on a 10-hour premium drama and now well advanced in post-production, Watkins seems entirely unfazed and incredibly upbeat about her role as showrunner – a position many claim is too much work for two people, never mind one individual on their first original series.
But Watkins says transitioning into the role – which is commonplace in the US industry but has yet to be so keenly adopted elsewhere – felt effortless. “I’ve had so many people around me, I’ve got such a good script team and amazing execs at Left Bank and, with YouTube’s support, it felt like I was really empowered to step into that role,” she explains. “I am probably a bit of a control freak, so being across everything, whether it’s casting, costume or music, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to have a vision and to be able to shape it as completely as I can. It was definitely the best experience of my life and I feel really lucky to have been given that opportunity so early.”
Watkins is also an executive producer of Origin alongside Andy Harries, Suzanne Mackie and Rob Bullock from Left Bank Pictures; Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg from Midnight Radio; and director Anderson. The series is a Left Bank and CiTVC coproduction in association with Sony Pictures Television.
When Watkins says she was across everything, she means everything. A typical day would involve being on set with the director, leaving to write or polish a script, returning to meet with the costume team and then heading home to watch the latest edit. “It was 24 hours a day, but if it’s something you love, it doesn’t feel like work in the way anything else would,” she adds.
If there was any moment Watkins felt under pressure, it was arguably during casting when she sought the perfect actor to play Shun, the half-Japanese main character who speaks fluent Japanese and English. “I don’t even know how many auditions we saw but I wasn’t ever going to budge on who that character was,” she says. “That’s my anchor into the show, and in the end we managed to find someone incredible.”
That person was Australian newcomer Sen Mitsuji, whose agent sent an audition tape that led to an invite to LA to read with Anderson and then a chemistry read with co-star Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter). “I had a very distinct idea of who I wanted and when I saw actors’ auditions or their reels; I knew if they were the one,” Watkins explains. “That wasn’t always the same as what YouTube imagined, but they were really supportive. If there’s one thing we really nailed, it’s the casting.”
Tena plays Lana, while fellow Harry Potter alum Tom Felton also features in the main cast as Logan. The regular series cast is rounded out by Nora Arnezeder, Fraser James, Philipp Christopher, Madalyn Horcher and Siobhán Cullen.
During the writing process, Watkins led a writers room that comprised a script team and several additional writers. But the series is undoubtedly her own vision, owing to the fact she wrote six scripts herself and co-authored the other four. “Tonally, the show is quite distinct and it also rockets along,” she says. “It was probably quite difficult for other people to come in and capture that so quickly because our schedule was so demanding. So it was just good to have one voice across all 10.”
With the green light coming in July 2017, filming began in February and wrapped this July. Production took place in Cape Town, South Africa, where most of the sets were fully built and decorated, with Watkins noting there was very little use of green screen. Part of the scale of the build was down to Anderson, who the showrunner suggested for Origin after catching a late-night airing of his 2002 video game-based blockbuster Resident Evil. Anderson came on to helm the first two episodes, with four more directors also shooting two episodes each.
“The ship I’d envisaged at the beginning was much smaller and more underwhelming. He just made it really cool and brought loads of ideas. The ship doesn’t look like any other spaceship I’ve ever seen,” Watkins reveals. “He really liked the scripts, and we clicked instantly. I’ve never had such a good relationship with a director.”
Origin will go into orbit surrounded by a plethora of other space shows, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Orville, Lost in Space and The Expanse. Watkins believes the setting affords writers the chance to bring a disparate group of people together, but that’s just where Origin begins, with the show featuring horror, aliens and monsters and themes of mistrust and savagery reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.
“The series just gets better and better as it goes along,” the writer enthuses. “What’s exciting for me is the first three or four episodes are very genre-based, set in the present day, so it’s a lot about space and horror and monsters. Then from that point, there’s a shift and it becomes more about the fact these people are all together and they can’t trust each other, but they rely on each other to survive.”
The granddaughter of a poet, Watkins grew up with ambitions to become a writer, penning her own poetry and “terrible” teen novels. She wrote her first screenplay at university and later sold a comedy script to Objective Fiction (Fresh Meat, Peep Show). It was then while working for Left Bank as a script editor that the company got wind of Origin. She now has several series in development, including a female-led ninja series with Sister Pictures (The Split) and projects at US cablenet FX and UK pubcaster the BBC.
“As a young woman who didn’t have any contacts in the industry, it can be very difficult to get your stuff read. I think that’s something we need to improve and something I want to help do,” Watkins adds. “But things are improving. Five years ago, would I have got a 10-hour series commission? I don’t think so. I do think people are aware of it and they’re trying to change it. But there’s definitely a long road to go to support new writers.”
Web series The Skinny tackles dramatic subjects like eating disorders with a heavy dose of comedy. As part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler explains why budget remains the only separator between online and TV drama.
Eating disorders might not be the first topic that springs to mind for a new comedy, but it’s the dramatic nature of the subject at the heart of web series The Skinny that makes it stand out from the online crowd.
A 2016 Webby Award winner, The Skinny sees writer/director Jessie Kahnweiler play a fictionalised version of herself as wannabe YouTube star Jessie, who attempts to face up to and overcome bulimia – an illness Kahnweiler herself has struggled with.
“The Skinny is about our desire to avoid discomfort,” Kahnweiler tells DQ from her parents’ home in Atlanta, Georgia. “In season one we’re watching what effect that has on your life. You cause yourself a world of pain to try to avoid discomfort so we’re setting up those seeds and [examining] how those issues become a security blanket. We’re just setting up this rollercoaster ride of insanity and a lot of fun.
“My goal for the first season was to create a character who has a problem but has an amazing life and sex and dreams. We’re all like that. We all have so much stuff that’s horrifying and amazing, we’re not one-dimensional.”
Kahnweiler is no stranger to filmmaking. She has her own YouTube channel filled with videos such as Jessie Gets Arrested and Meet My Rapist.
And for her next project, she wanted to confront her experiences of bulimia by putting a humorous spin on a very personal story.
“Looking back, everything came together really organically, even though at the time it felt like a fucking mess. It felt like a hurricane,” Kahnweiler says of The Skinny’s origins.
After failing to find success in shopping the pilot she had written, the comedian decided to let the camera do the talking and film it herself.
“Whenever I have an idea, people are like, ‘That sounds like the worst idea ever,’” she declares. “My pitches often leave people crying in the room horrified. I did a comedy about sexual assault. So people were like, ‘Bulimic comedy? Absolutely not. That will never work.’”
Kahnweiler grouped together some friends to make a half-hour spec pilot that landed in the hands of Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon’s award-winning Transparent, who suggested some editing work to get it into shape. The resultant promo, paid for via a successful Kickstarter campaign, was watched by staff at style website Refinery 29, which ended up picking up a six-part series.
“Having Jill was really a turning point for me,” she admits. “Yes, it’s very personal but it’s not a documentary. When I first sat down and started working with her, she was like, ‘This isn’t therapy – this is not ‘hey world look at me’.’ This is creating something that everyone can identify with and that feels emotionally solid. The story really connects and you’re wondering what’s going to happen and you care about these people, so it’s not just this girl is puking. That is the difference between Transparent and a lot of shows – you actually give a shit, and it’s hard to make people give a shit.”
Kahnweiler confesses that the biggest thing she learned from the process is that she needs to be able to talk through stories and plot points when she writes, rather than writing in isolation. Soloway paired her with two associate producers from Transparent who would break down story with her and build episodes in a way that makes viewers want to continue watching after the credits roll.
“For me, it was so important to have people around me that really called me on my shit, because I think sometimes people can be so positive,” she notes. “Sometimes I could get really funny or really crazy, so it was great to have people around me – imagine a bunch of judgemental British people! I would yell and scream because you don’t want to write another draft but The Skinny wouldn’t have been what it is without those conversations. That’s what I learned – writing isn’t about sitting down at the typewriter and just having it all pour out. It’s really wrestling and struggling and it was kind of the moments that came out of those really hard conversations.”
With unrestricted freedom granted by Refinery, which encouraged Kahnweiler to always push the show harder and further, she admits she would impose her own limits to create boundaries for the series to live within. This included keeping a handle on the levels of nudity and swearing, to ensure the show was as accessible as possible to all audiences.
One note from Soloway also instructed her to focus on ‘bubble scenes,’ those “money shots” in each episode that drive the plot and the characters forward.
But how did she manage writing, directing and starring in her own web series? “I love it because I’m a masochistic control freak,” she jokes. “I love it because you’re writing throughout the process. Fifty percent of writing is done in the editing – I don’t think people realise that. It’s amazing how much is done in editing. So I find it, as a writer, really amazing to be able to be there.
“But the most helpful thing I found was locking those scripts. It might not be perfect, or you might not know if it’s going to work, but just being able to give yourself the grace of locking the script so then you can go on set and you’re not worried about rewriting. You can work those kinks out on set but I wouldn’t have been able to make it with directing and writing if I was still rewriting on set.”
However, the nature of the subject at hand meant Kahnweiler had to be frank and confess to her producers that this isn’t a story that could be neatly wrapped up at the end of its first season.
“The biggest challenge we had was convincing the producers and Refinery [that Jessie is] not going to get better in the first season. These kinds of things, you don’t wrap them up in six neat little episodes. It’s a long road.”
Though traditional television networks didn’t pick up her ideas first time around, Kahnweiler is now once again shopping The Skinny to broadcasters. But whether a linear channel or another online outlet picks up season two, the writer is in no doubt that web series and TV are crossing over and the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurry.
“Netflix has web series now and pretty soon you’ll turn on Netflix and there will be a 30-second episode,” she explains. “I think time is this revolutionary thing – it’s whatever the content, whatever the episodes want to be. There’s still a separation, mostly by budget, but there are all the opportunities in the world and there are no excuses not to be making your own content. I’m very grateful to be on this path.
“All these projects I’m working on, a couple of years ago people would have been like, ‘Absolutely fucking not, no way’ – and people still are, but you have to keep proving yourself. These are the stories I want to tell and only I can tell. The coolest thing about The Skinny is that the Kickstarter was funded by all these women with eating disorders. It’s amazing because it brings the conversation closer. Everyone’s talking to each other. You want to watch real shit? You want to make real shit? OK, let’s get to work!”
Focusing on the story for season two, “whether that’s on HBO or tampons.com, I don’t really care but it’s going to be out there for sure,” she adds. “I have a feature I’m working on and I’m working on two web series about fertility and women’s issues. I’m just taking all this collective trauma – sexual abuse, eating disorders, infertility – it’s a party!”
Now in its third season, People Just Do Nothing has come a long way from its YouTube roots. Continuing our Digital Drama Season, DQ chats to series producer Jon Petrie about why he tuned into Kurupt FM.
Though it is firmly rooted on the comedy side of the scripted television spectrum, People Just Do Nothing can be hailed as a great example of a shortform series finding its way into the mainstream.
The mockumentary series began life in 2010 as a series of YouTube episodes – largely improvised and without a script – that introduced viewers to the lives of MC Grindah and DJ Beats, who run pirate radio station Kurupt FM in West London.
However, it was when the show caught the attention of Roughcut TV producer Jon Petrie that the show was put on the fast track to the television success it enjoys today.
The BBC commissioned a pilot episode in 2012 as part of its Comedy Feeds strand, which aims to showcase new talent, and from there, a full series was commissioned. It became the first show to premiere exclusively on BBC iPlayer when the four-part first season debuted in July 2014, before episodes were repeated on terrestrial BBC2 the following month.
A five-part second season aired in July 2015, before the BBC announced it had ordered third and fourth seasons, both consisting of six episodes. Season three debuted earlier this month as part of the new online-only BBC3, with repeats again landing on BBC2, and season four will air next year.
Speaking about the show becoming the first BBC iPlayer exclusive, Petrie notes: “They had a big following with their YouTube stuff so it totally made sense. This [third] season is about just trying to get it to a bigger audience. We’ve tried to make efforts to broaden it out a tiny bit without losing the heart of what makes the show special.
“I certainly think the reason people came to it was the garage music, so you get diehard fans, and the advantage of those people is they spread word of mouth. But because there’s a lot of people who don’t like garage music, the battle is trying to convince them that’s part of the show but that it’s really about family and not wanting to grow up.”
Petrie was running a comedy film night that showcased videos under three minutes long when he was sent the People Just Do Nothing clips by Asim Chaudhry (who plays Chabuddy G), who created, writes and stars in the show alongside Allan Mustafa (MC Grindah), Steve Stamp (Steves) and Hugo Chegwin (DJ Beats).
Though the eight-minute films were too long to screen, Petrie says they immediately struck a chord with him. “The characters were really strong,” he explains. “Although I knew nothing about garage music at the time, I felt like I knew people like the people portrayed in the show.”
Petrie shared it with Roughcut MD Ash Atalla, who produced The Office, and then set about piecing together a four-minute showreel to shop around to the networks. The BBC happily ordered a pilot.
Then came arguably the biggest challenge of the development process. People Just Do Nothing relied heavily on improvisation, without piecing together the kind of script the BBC now wanted.
“Steve is a brilliant writer but we didn’t know this was the case before we started because they’d never written anything down,” Petrie reveals. “Before scenes, Steve would write down any lines that made him laugh but he didn’t have structure or anything. Luckily he’s an amazing scriptwriter and the boys are really good at improvisation and they have great ideas.
“Obviously they were very nervous about giving their baby over and we had to reassure them they were very much in control and that it was our job to try and help shape it and point them in the right direction.”
Petrie talks about going on a “voyage of discovery” with the Kurupt FM team and admits they didn’t get every decision right from the start.
“My job was just sitting down with them, working out the characters and the little tweaks we made,” he explains. “We felt that Beatz and Grinder were a bit too similar in the YouTube stuff and we needed to differentiate them. We certainly didn’t get it right first time. They wanted to go a slightly different way with the direction and when we got the first season, they weren’t entirely happy with the look of the pilot but luckily we were able to make more.
“What we kept saying is with the scripts, we’ve got a safety net there. If it’s just not working, you can always improvise. And we always encourage them to improv but it’s just knowing when you go into filming that there’s something there that feels funny on the page. The advantage with those guys is that, because they improvise so much, you get loads more jokes on top when you record it. When we first go into the edit, our episodes are about an hour long, so a lot of time is spent chopping it down a bit and it means you get these moments of comic brilliance we hadn’t anticipated. The challenge is trying to fit them in.”
With the People Just Do Nothing creators having authored their own show on YouTube, Petrie says it was important their voice remained at the heart of the show.
“That’s why it’s so special, it’s so authored,” he admits. “They’re just very conscious of who their fans are and staying true to what the show is. Sometimes some of the sillier stuff might come from people like Chubuddy or Miche (Lily Brazier), who you have more licence to go silly with. It’s important the pirate radio stuff feels real and believable.”
The discovery of People Just Do Nothing is testament to Roughcut’s early recognition of YouTube as a hotbed of untapped television talent. And as digital becomes more ingrained in mainstream television, Petrie believes the show’s Bafta nomination earlier this year gives its path to television a welcome boost of credibility.
“It was important for the boys because it made them sit up and realise people were noticing them,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s quite hard bringing critics to the show because a lot of them just think it’s about pirate radio or garage music and it’s just a youth show. But the themes are way more universal. The Bafta nod really helps to get people to pay attention so they’ll be more likely to give it a chance – and it gives other people wanting to do the same journey confidence that it can be done.”
Shortform web drama Blue made its name as one of the first digital series to find a following online. In the first part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Michael Pickard speaks to writer/director Rodrigo Garcia about the show’s birth on YouTube and its journey to ‘traditional’ TV.
In today’s television landscape, the rise of catch-up services and binge-watching means more and more content is being pushed online. One series, however, is swimming against the tide, having made the opposite journey from YouTube to so-called ‘traditional’ television.
Blue began life in 2013 on WIGS, one of dozens of channels set up as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative that invested US$100m in fresh programming for the video-sharing platform. Starring Julia Stiles (above) as the titular character, Blue follows a single mother trying to keep her double life as a call girl a secret from all around her, including her 13-year-old son.
The series was one of a number of scripted and documentary shortform projects launched on the female-targeted channel, which was set up by Rodrigo Garcia, Jake Avnet and John Avnet.
“Back then – and we’re talking before iPads came out, so it feels like the Middle Ages now – there was this idea that if you were doing something for the internet, there was really no need to try to do it with quality,” Garcia says about their desire to create a high-spec online drama.
“But we thought, ‘Why can’t something be done that’s scripted and well produced, even if it’s in small instalments?’ The idea was to produce content that could eventually become part of a library and have a longer life and a longer way to jump from platform to platform.”
Garcia also wanted to shake up the general consensus that people didn’t watch drama online, so began work on a story that would be spread across 12 seven-minute episodes during its first season. A bulked up second season of 26 episodes followed.
Then when YouTube lifted its exclusive distribution deal, both seasons were picked up by Fox Broadcasting for its US SVoD service Hulu, which cut the short episodes together to make hour-long instalments. A third season, consisting of four 40- to 60-minute episodes, also debuted on Hulu in 2015.
Last year, FremantleMedia International picked up distribution rights and the series travelled to Lifetime in the UK. Then, earlier this year, the show was also acquired by Lifetime Movie Channel in the US, debuting last month under the new title Blue: A Secret Life.
Taking this online series to television hadn’t always been the plan, however. “It was always part of this YouTube channel,” Garcia explains. “Fox came in as a partner but it was always destined to be on that platform. Once the series did well, it had limited lives on Hulu and other platforms. Fremantle started distributing it around the world in a longer form, it aired on Lifetime UK and we re-edited it for Lifetime US.
“When we were writing season two and season three, we were still writing them in seven-minute instalments but we were always thinking, ‘Let’s keep in mind that they might come together, six might make a 42-minute broadcast hour.’ We were writing both for our platform and a potential future where the instalments could come together in one-hour episodes.”
Initially, writing seven-minute episodes – each with its own, beginning, middle and end – proved to be a tough proposition, especially with the possibility that further down the line they might fit neatly together into a standard hour of television. But from the outset, Garcia and his writing partner Karen Graci treated every seven minutes as if it were a regular episode.
“The fact it was seven minutes did not encourage us to treat it as a lark, to try to make it a funny moment in Blue’s life,” Garcia reveals. “We treated each episode like a longer episode, meaning it had an introduction, a twist, a turn, a reveal. There were cliffhangers at the end, even within the seven-minute form. That was a challenge.
“From the content point of view, being online gave us complete freedom. I didn’t want it to be like an NC17-rated series. I was very conscious and sensitive to the fact the lead was a woman and she had a secret life as an escort, which I really did not want to be exploitative. Obviously I have Julia as a terrific filter there. She would never do anything that seemed to exploit or degrade the character. But we had complete creative freedom – much, much more than we would have had on any other platform.”
However, the very nature of shortform online drama three years ago meant Garcia and his producing partners at Ingenious Media had a budget to match their limited running time.
“YouTube gave every channel its own budget and, within that, as long as we delivered the hours of content, they knew they could count on the quality we were hoping for,” he says. “A downside was our budgets were really tiny. We did literally hundreds of episodes, not just of Blue but the others, so there’s a lot of stuff that amortised with production. Each one of our seven minutes was somewhere in the $30-60,000 range, depending on the episode. But, you know, it’s tough.”
Key to the success of Blue, both online and later on television, was casting Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, the Jason Bourne franchise) in the central role, alongside fellow cast members including Uriah Shelton, Sarah Paulson, Eric Stoltz, Kathleen Quinlan, James Morrison and Carla Gallo.
“When we did our first season for WIGS, it was a very good time because everyone knew the web was here to stay,” Garcia recalls. “Everyone was quite open to experimenting on it. Our initial group of Blue episodes was 12 seven-minute episodes, and Julia was always someone I wanted to work with. She was very open to it. Back then, it was a short commitment. She liked the material – of course, that has to always come first – and she was willing to say, ‘OK, let’s do something that’s quality for the internet and let’s see where it goes.’”
Unlike broadcast television shows that sign actors up to long-term contracts, Blue’s shortform nature meant it presented a friendly commitment to Stiles and her co-stars.
Garcia continues: “Julia was happy with the results [of season one] so she came on board [season two] and, in fact, she wrote and directed another series for our channel, called Paloma. It was all very much based on interest and availability, and you’re always encouraged by a good reception. The series was very well reviewed and it attracted a lot of attention just for its production values and the performances, so that encouraged her to stay.
“It was a time when people were willing to experiment. If you’re making a digital series now, actors will be asking if it’s on Netflix or Amazon. The budgets have become bigger. Julia, like all good actors, is always going to be interested in good material. It was great moment to be experimenting.”
Now the experiment is over and online platforms boasting shows such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black have turned the entire TV industry upside down as broadcasters scramble to catch up with their digital competitors.
But Garcia sees Blue’s transformation into a ‘traditional’ TV programme as an added bonus stemming from the show’s success in an era when quality content will always find an audience.
“A few years ago, if someone said there would be a quality series on Amazon, you would have found it laughable,” he admits. “Now, after Transparent, Bosch and The Man in the High Castle, I would never underestimate any platform. Great work can be done anywhere. It’s great to travel from platform to platform; it’s great to start online and end up on Netflix or HBO, but that’s just a sign of the quality of the work. Content will always win out – if the content is good, people will see it.”
But can fans now look to a fourth season of Blue, either on television or on WIGS’s dedicated website? “We’re not quite sure yet what shape it’s going to take,” reveals Garcia. “We’re very pleased it’s doing so well on the Lifetime Movie Channel. It’s gone through many incarnations so we’re waiting to see what’s next.
“Obviously I’m happy Blue’s had such a long life. It keeps on giving. We had very good actors on it and we did a lot with very little money, so I’m just happy it’s still going. It’s had a longer life than a lot of stuff made a lot more expensively. And, as always, Julia’s work is really excellent, so I’m always happy about that.”
Now that MipTV 2016 has come to an end, DQ editor Michael Pickard looks back on a week where drama continued to reign supreme – and Netflix was again among the major talking points.
With its place in the events calendar so close to other major markets, buyers and distributors have become used to absence of the US studio giants from MipTV each spring.
Yet this year, in what perhaps is representative of the international television industry at large and the growth of the global drama market in particular, it didn’t seem to matter.
The sheer amount of content on display in Cannes – from the traditional posters and billboards lining La Croisette to the inaugural Mip Drama Screenings that presented 12 series from around the world – showcased the current strength of international storytelling that is rivalling US drama.
Distributors selected for the screenings certainly felt the benefit, with several reporting a surge in interest in their shows following their presentations in front of more than 350 acquisitions executives on Sunday – none more so than Zodiak Rights, which is selling Belgian drama Public Enemy, the show that scooped the event’s top prize.
But despite the largely absent US studios, those who hoped Netflix might also take the week off were sorely disappointed when the SVoD platform flexed its financial muscles once again.
On Monday, it announced a deal that saw it pick up global rights outside the UK and Ireland for ITV drama Marcella, the first English-language series from The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt.
It’s clear the scale of Netflix’s ambitions and depth of its pockets no longer surprise any of the executives found taking back-to-back meetings inside the Palais. Now that the service has established itself as a major player and rolled out in more than 190 countries, said execs are likely to be heard discussing the next challenge facing the industry – how to fight back against Netflix’s dominance.
In particular, this involves producers deciding whether to work with Netflix and attempt to hold on some of the rights, alternative licensing windows and future earnings from the series. As British producer Justin Thomson-Glover, MD of Artists Studio and a founding director of boutique financing service Far Moor, said during a drama financing panel on Wednesday: “Platforms like Netflix write a cheque and you make it (the series). But there’s no back end.”
For distributors, the question is whether global rights deals with the SVoD giant and its online competitors are preferable to piecing together deals with broadcasters on a territory-by-territory basis.
We’re also now seeing the emergence of local SVoD platforms targeting original content in a bid to win subscriptions and eyeballs from Netflix. During the same drama finance panel, About Premium Content’s Emmanuelle Guilbart revealed the distributor is working on a new drama with Swedish broadcaster SVT, with finance from a domestic SVoD player. “They are becoming real commissioners with real money,” she said.
Netflix’s influence, and that of its competitors, in the distribution of content around the world also posed an interesting question during the scripted formats panel that I hosted on Tuesday: If original series (in most cases the best versions) are available worldwide, what is the future of scripted formats?
It was clear from the presentations given by Eccho Rights, New Media Vision and Comarex that local remakes of international hits are still immensely popular and profitable across Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, while New Media Vision’s ambitions to act as a “gateway to the US” is evidence that, despite the drop in adaptations ordered by the big networks this pilot season, the US is still keen on non-English-language formats. NBC, for example, is launching Game of Silence, based on Turkish series Suskunlar, on April 12.
One deal confirmed this week was for The Department of Time, which was announced as the first Spanish drama to be adapted in China.
The eponymous department is a secret government institution tasked with guarding the ‘gates of time’ and preventing intruders from travelling to the past to change the course of history for their own benefit.
The series was originally produced by Cliffhanger and Onza Entertainment for TVE in Spain and the format has been sold by Onza Distribution to China’s Guan Yue International.
Circling back to SVoD, one executive told DQ here in Cannes that Netflix, Amazon and the large number of increasingly confident local SVoD platforms could, in fact, turn to scripted formats in an effort to boost their original production slates.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution is also building in the form of shortform series that are throwing traditional broadcasting structures to the wind. That series with no set running time or episode order are being produced across publishing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo is nothing new – with the latter’s Sam Toles describing YouTube as WalMart compared with Vimeo’s Bloomingdales during a web series panel on Wednesday.
But the session, which also included executives from New Form Digital in the US and France’s Taronja Prod, posed a pertinent question – if a YouTube channel that has 30 million hits still isn’t in the mainstream, how do you measure success?
Canadian prodco Shaftesbury might have the answer. One of its original digital series, Carmilla, which is available on the KindaTV YouTube channel, will this month be shopped to US networks as a 13-hour drama on the back of its success online – three seasons and 41 million views. Showrunner Sandra Chwialkowska (Lost Girl) is attached to the series, which is based on J Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel about a young woman’s attraction to a female vampire.
With ready-made brands known to millions of fans, who participate in fan art, fiction, online debates and more, web series are primed to serve as ready-made pilots for traditional TV networks looking for their next big hit. Just don’t tell Netflix.
By now, the TV industry is used to SVoD giant Netflix breaking the rules. But even by Netflix’s standards, the decision to order three additional seasons of Lionsgate’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) in one go is a surprise. It must take some special kind of data algorithm to be able to judge a show that far into the future.
Season four of the Jenji Kohan-created comedy drama about an eclectic group of female prison inmates hasn’t even been released yet (it launches in June), but this week’s announcement means OITNB will now have a minimum of seven seasons.
Commenting on the decision, Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “Jenji and her team have produced a phenomenal and impactful series that is funny and dramatic, outrageous and heartfelt. Audiences around the world have come to love the ladies and men of OITNB, and we are eager to see where three more seasons will take them.”
Kohan, who has signed up to be OITNB’s showrunner for the new seasons, added: “Three more years! Not quite a political term, but still plenty of time to do some interesting things. In some cultures, ‘May you lead an interesting life,’ is a curse, but I don’t live in those cultures. Here’s to keeping it interesting. Thanks Netflix! Both thanks and you’re welcome Lionsgate! And kudos to the stellar cast and crew and writers and producers and editors and musicians and mixers and shleppers with whom I have the honour of crafting this show. Three more years! Three more years!”
And there was more eulogising from Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs – who was so excited he upgraded the current age of drama from gold to platinum. “We’re proud to continue our long-standing relationships with Netflix and the incredibly talented Jenji Kohan and delighted that one of the most acclaimed shows on television will continue on Netflix for three more seasons. Jenji’s brilliant creative vision and a truly amazing cast have catapulted OITNB to the forefront of the platinum age of television, and we’re pleased that fans around the world will be rewarded with another three seasons.”
It’s not unheard of for broadcasters to commission two seasons of a scripted show at once, but three is a remarkable show of support – and not without risks. For a start, Kohan could simply run out of steam over the course of the next four years. Or the security of so many episodes could reduce the urgency and hunger that comes with needing a renewal. Or the audience could start to lose interest – either because they’ve seen enough or because something even better comes along.
So the question is – why do it? Why not just stick with the more usual pattern of commission, transmission, ratings, renewal? Well, it can’t be to do with subscribers, because people don’t make decisions based around such long-term programme planning. So it must be the fear of losing either Kohan or the show to a rival.
If it’s the former, then perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that showrunners trusted by networks/platforms are in short supply. At conference after conference, producers tell stories of how they have to wait for years for A-list showrunners to become free. The obvious solution would be to improve access for new writers, but this reckons without the fear factor that still underpins so much network decision-making. It’s ironic that, at the very same time we talk about industry innovation and creativity, there is so much money being spent on film-to-TV adaptations and reboots.
If it’s the latter, then maybe Netflix is reacting to the news that Lionsgate may be about to merge with Starz. If that deal goes ahead as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Lionsgate would choose to sell future series of OITNB on Starz. So maybe this is a way of Netflix pre-empting that eventuality. Whatever the thinking, it will be interesting to see if other companies start to make similar commitments. If they do, then this will truly go down as the golden age for scripted TV writers – the gold bullion age.
There is another possible factor involved in Netflix’s decision – which is that networks increasingly want to signal to the audience that they should stick with a show, because it is going to be around for a long time. The beauty of Game of Thrones or Outlander, for example, is that you know it is worthwhile investing emotional capital in the stories. There’s nothing worse than watching a show that gets axed just as you are getting into it.
We’re seeing this more and more with networks that commission season two of a show when season one has only just begun. This week, for example, USA Network greenlit a second run its alien invasion drama Colony after just four episodes of its debut season. It made a similar move with Mr Robot (and, for the record, commissioned season six of hit series Suits very early).
On the face of it, this early commissioning trend runs counter to the risk-aversion referred to above. But the reality is that scripted TV will never be entirely without risk. So it’s better to back a project in a meaningful way than spend tens of millions of dollars on something that the audience doesn’t bother to turn up for.
Another interesting story doing the rounds is that YouTube is about to launch its first exclusive series, Scare PewDiePie, starring the phenomenonally popular YouTube gaming star. Produced in partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios, the series will be part of the video-sharing site’s new subscription-based service YouTube Red.
Scare PewDiePie is a reality show – which begs the question why we’re highlighting it in a column about scripted TV. Well, the significant point is that YouTube is getting into origination backed by subscriptions. So it won’t be long before we see YouTube stars appearing in scripted series and movies on the new YouTube Red service. In fact, YouTube already has a deal in place to stream films from Dreamworks Animations’ AwesomenessTV on its platform.
From here, it’s not a great imaginative leap to suppose that YouTube Red will start to enter the more mainstream scripted business alongside Netflix, Amazon and the big pay TV brands.
Other greenlights this week include a 13-part order from Syfy for Incorporated, created by David and Alex Pastor and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
There’s also been a second-season order for NBC’s Shades of Blue, which stars Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt NYPD detective turned FBI informant. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “We want to thank Jennifer, who is the hardest-working woman we know, for her incredible efforts as both the star and producer of this show, as well as our other amazing producers and cast for all their tireless work in creating one of the most compelling dramas on television today. We’re so excited to find out where this story will lead and have them raise the stakes even higher in (season two).”
Last week, we talked about how ABC in the US had backed two legal show pilots. Well, rival CBS has decided to focus more on medical shows. Two new pilots announced include Bunker Hill and Sensory, about a neurologist who has ‘mirror-touch synesthesia,’ a condition that causes someone to experience other people’s sensations. Already airing on CBS is medical drama Code Black, a moderately successful series set in an LA emergency room.
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine-owned production outfit Bandit Television is making a show about the notorious Rillington Place murders for BBC1. Based around the actions of 1940s serial killer John Christie, the story was previously the subject of an acclaimed 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.