Though international coproductions now seem ubiquitous, this hasn’t always been the case. Rola Bauer explains how Tandem, an early adopter of copros, put them at the centre of its drama strategy to impressive effect.
In the past couple of years producers and broadcasters around the world have become increasingly reliant on international coproduction partnerships to secure the budgets necessary for high-end drama series. But one company that based its business on copros is Munich-based Tandem, the production powerhouse behind epic historical miniseries The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End.
Formed in 1999 by Rola Bauer (a Canadian), Tim Halkin (an American) and Jonas Bauer (a German), Tandem’s first major success was The Ring of the Nibelungs, a €20m (US$24m) fantasy miniseries commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, Sat1 in Germany and SyFy in the US.
“We realised after Rings of the Nibelungs that we had satisfied a need in the market that the US was no longer providing,” Tandem president/partner Rola Bauer tells DQ. “That encouraged us to build on this success and continue to supply the international market with high-end long-form dramas that broadcasters could create an event around.”
A run of drama productions followed, but the real game-changer for Tandem was The Pillars of the Earth, an 8×50’ miniseries based on the classic novel by Ken Follett. “Along with several others, we chased after Ken for years to option this book,” says Bauer. “He had pushed back on all theatrical offers, finding the format too limited for the richness of the novel, and held out for a solid commitment of a longer limited series, which we offered.”
In hindsight, securing the rights was the easy part. The real challenge was coming up with a viable financial model. Explaining Tandem’s thinking, Bauer says: “Along with our coproducing partner, Scott Free, we were hoping to pioneer a new way of producing television on a global basis without depending on having the first key broadcaster out of the US market. We needed a US$40m production budget to create the kind of eight-hour event not only that the book deserved, but that would have a cinematic quality to it.”
Unfortunately from a financial perspective, the Nasdaq had recently crashed and the German stock exchange segment, Neue Markt, had virtually folded – putting pressure on the production from the outset. “With French, German, Spanish and Canadian partners on board, we went into production with an US$8m gap and the hope that our years of combined experience would enable us to create a programme that we could later sell into the US market and not only cover our deficit, but also make a profit,” Bauer explains. “Two years of development, production and sleepless nights later, the risk we took did pay off: Starz supported the programme and enabled it to become an Emmy-winning show.”
The show also proved to be a success for the European and Canadian partners, says Bauer, “and that paved the way for World Without End, with a US$46m production budget.”
While Tandem’s event miniseries had put it on the global map, it was clear the company needed to diversify its output and secure additional financial resources to stay competitive in the rapidly consolidating drama market.
The good news was that Tandem’s success had started to alert potential suitors: “Three years ago Tandem was approached by two studios, one in the US and one in Europe, interested in making a strategic acquisition of Tandem. We spoke intensely with both, but were ultimately convinced to enter into a relationship with StudioCanal, which became Tandem’s majority (51%) shareholder.”
StudioCanal appealed for a number of reasons: it had the same European-led creative sensibility as Tandem; its TV production ambitions aligned with Tandem’s; and it provided assets Tandem could tap into.
Bauer adds: “There are so many synergies, such as remake rights from the StudioCanal library, producing originals for Canal+ and coproductions with our ‘cousins’ in the TV production unit, RED Production Company and SAM. We are already in coproduction with RED in the development of a format idea for the US and Germany.”
With StudioCanal backing, Bauer says Tandem has “set a benchmark to increase the programme hours we produce and sell per year.” The emphasis is clearly on one-hour series with potential for renewal. “The international market was in need of procedural series. Hugely successful US shows were coming to an end and that market was not showing signs of gearing up for the next generation of procedural shows. With StudioCanal, we were able to enter the narrative of one-hour drama very quickly. The relationship enables us to move fast and go straight to series once we have put certain basic elements together.”
The first idea to gain traction after the StudioCanal takeover was Crossing Lines, a series centred on a special crime unit that functions as a kind of European-wide FBI. “We wanted to create a show that focused on the very real and dangerous situation in Europe of criminals being able to escape justice simply by crossing over borders,” explains Bauer. “Showrunner Ed Bernero saw the similarity to the historical situation in the US before the inception of the FBI. Europe still has no proactive law enforcement agency that can effectively handle cross-border crimes and bring criminals to justice. This includes everything from drug and human trafficking to smuggling and serial killing.”
The show, which was backed by broadcasters including TF1 France, Sat1 Germany, NBC in the US and AXN (multiple territories) in season one, sought to combine the best of US and European stylistic elements: “It has a familiarity to audiences worldwide who have enjoyed US procedural series. However, the locations are exotic.” The 12-episode second season has just wrapped, with TF1, Sat1 and AXN still on board and Amazon UK joining the line-up.
Following on from Crossing Lines, Tandem recently entered production on Spotless, its second one-hour drama series since joining StudioCanal. A 10×50’ series for Canal+ Creation Originale, it’s a dark comedy shot on location in London. It stars Marc-André Grondin as the owner of a crime scene cleaning business who gets dragged into a murky gangster underworld by his reckless brother.
“Co-creators Ed McCardie and Corinne Marrinan have dreamed up a storyline and characters that are so special and unique,” says Bauer, whose company is handling global distribution. “We are very excited at the potential of Spotless to engage audiences worldwide.”
Other one-hour format dramas in development include Sex, Lies and Handwriting, a coproduction with Lionsgate based on a book by Michelle Dresbold. “We are currently in development at ABC in the US, TF1 in France, Sat1 in Germany and Bell Media in Canada, with a targeted start of principal photography in early 2015,” says Bauer.
Then there is Rubber Ducks, a 10×60’ ecological/psychological thriller that Tandem is developing with Haut et Court TV (The Returned) and July-August Productions. “The story is based on an experiment by Nasa, exploring ideas of ecological change not only on the environment but also on human behaviour. The series writer is Yael Hedaya, known for her work on Israeli drama series In Treatment.”
Tandem is handling worldwide distribution on this series, and the company clearly sees this side of the business as fundamental to its growth strategy – whether it relates to its own productions or those of third parties. For example, Tandem is sharing distribution duties with Sky Vision on The Last Panthers, a six-part series commissioned by Canal+ and Sky Atlantic, which has been developed and coproduced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films (This is England, Four Lions, Southcliffe).
“The series originated as an idea from celebrated French journalist Jerome Pierrat and the screenplay is from Jack Thorne (Skins, This is England, A Long Way Down, Glue, The Fades),” says Bauer. “It’s based on the world-famous Pink Panthers, a network of jewel thieves. Filming began late October 2014 in the four key shooting locations of London, Marseille, Belgrade and Montenegro.”
Other current third-party distribution projects, include ZeroZeroZero and Pirate’s Passage. The former, says Bauer, is based on Roberto Saviano’s recently released book of the same title and is the follow-up to his international best-seller Gomorrah. “The eight-hour series was commissioned by Canal+ Creation Originale and Cattleya, Italy’s leading independent film and TV producer. It is a compelling and revelatory dissection of the global traffic of cocaine and how it touches lives across an international social spectrum.”
Pirate’s Passage, meanwhile, is an unusual project for Tandem to be involved with: “It is an animated movie coproduced and co-written by, and starring the voice talent of, Donald Sutherland. The book, written by fellow Canadian George Gilkerson, resonated with Donald in a very personal manner – he is passionate about the story.”
Anyone who has been around the TV business long enough will realise there is always a risk attached to ramping up production and getting ahead of demand. But Bauer doesn’t see any imminent danger of that: “The amount of programming needed each year just continues to increase, with many of the US nets’ demands now 12 months a year. With the summer re-run season dying out, channels need fresh programming where they are not carrying the full load of financing. The most attractive option to close these gaps is via an international coproduction, which is what Tandem has been producing since 1999. And, incidentally, every one of our productions has been sold into the US market.”
It’s not just the US market that is driving Tandem’s growth, however. “Another factor that has propelled the current wave of drama is the burgeoning media landscape worldwide,” says Bauer. “There has been enormous growth in media channels, broadcasters and platforms, and everything has become so niche and specific when it comes to programming. This requires a constant flow of new series to accommodate the demand – and there are just so many good stories to tell.
“Also, the industry’s success in producing cinematic television drama has continued to blur the lines between film and TV. Audiences worldwide can now get on TV what they were formerly only accustomed to viewing in the cinema.”
Explaining Tandem’s success with copros, Bauer cites factors such as: “Working with top-level writers/showrunners who have proven themselves as having editorial lines that transcend borders and maintaining budgets in keeping with the successful US one-hour series that have ruled the international primetime slots for years.”
Above all, however, she says: “For us, it always starts with the writing – telling the best possible stories with interesting and well-developed characters. The creative aspect must always come first. When this is sacrificed for the business side, it doesn’t work.”