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Rise and shine

Michael Ellenberg, the former head of drama at US premium cablenet HBO, is looking to build his Media Res production company with more big-budget shows for streamers following the success of Apple’s The Morning Show.

It’s somewhat ironic that as traditional television execs fret about tech companies coming to destroy their business plan, Apple launched its streaming service with a drama about a staple of broadcast and cable news networks – The Morning Show.

The 10-part series stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell and focuses on a fictitious daily news programme being broadcast from Manhattan, where a sexual misconduct allegation breaks apart a 15-year presenting partnership.

Michael Ellenberg

The project grew out of Media Res, the production outfit set up by Michael Ellenberg after he left his job as head of drama at premium US cablenet HBO. His timing turned out to be perfect, with a number of streaming players coming online looking for the sort of big-budget, premium drama he wanted to produce launching soon after.

Media Res is not only behind Apple TV+’s The Morning Show but is also working on an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s New York Times bestselling novel Pachinko for the tech giant.

“We were fortunate that there were a number of networks in the business of high-end series – we had a number of suitors,” Ellenberg says of his debut project. “Helping to launch a new network and service seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“The biggest change there has been in the business is there are now more homes for premium series and storytelling opportunities. The explosion of innovative work you see in the US shows isn’t through one single commissioner anymore. As a seller, what’s most exciting is that when you’re putting something together that you feel is exciting and unique, you feel fairly confident someone is going to get it.”

TV drama has had a prolonged fascination with news rooms, both newspaper and television, producing some brilliant shows – the BBC’s original State of Play – and some slightly less so – Aaron Sorkin’s uber-Sorkin cringe-fest The Newsroom. It was an area that had fascinated Ellenberg and came straight to mind when thinking of his new company’s fledgling slate.

“I’d always been a fan of the morning shows and interested in them,” he says. “In an era when America seems to want to rip itself apart, I thought it was interesting to take a look at these shows as one of the last things trying to appeal to the entire country. Everybody else has kind of given up trying to appeal to the coasts and Middle America, the cities and rural communities. What’s it like starting every day trying to represent an idea of what America is and what America should be thinking about?”

Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell in The Morning Show

Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV provided further inspiration and the idea began to germinate.

“Every few years in the US, a high-profile female anchor in one of these shows goes through some horrible high-profile public spectacle where she’ll be ripped apart in the press,” Ellenberg says. “Some of the most powerful women in America have been brought to heel. I wondered whether there was an axis between the unique pressure of representing an American family and the pressures brought to bear on these amazing women anchors.”

Having worked with Ellenberg on HBO’s Big Little Lies, Witherspoon and Aniston quickly signed up to the new project, which has been renewed for a second season. “They saw the same things I saw in the project – social ideas to explore and cultural ideas to explore,” he says. “We also engage in what it means to live in the public eye. These are two of the most beloved women in the country and the ideas were very personal to them, so they were keen to explore them.”

Although Media Res has worked exclusively with Apple to this point, the company’s ‘three-year plan’ is to become an independent supplier to all the big players, similar to the way Nicole Clemens has set up Paramount Television (Jack Ryan, 13 Reasons Why, Catch-22).

The Apple TV+ drama also stars Reese Witherspoon

“The state of change in the industry is so rapid it’s hard to have more than two-year timelines,” Ellenberg says. “We’re looking to be the leading indie studio supplying sophisticated, contemporary, provocative drama and other series.

“We want to expand into unscripted and other genres, and do more international series. Both as a business matter and creative matter, we find ourselves drawn to international stories, so we’ll do more of those.”

He’s also keen to take advantage of audience willingness to embrace foreign-language content. “We’ll maybe look to do some more foreign language. We’re doing some of that with Pachinko and you’ll see us do more of that,” Ellenberg says.

“What’s pleasantly surprising is how intrepid audiences have become. Their hunger for new and different storytelling is more avant garde, adventurous and curious. They’re pushing studios, creatives, producers to be that much more innovative and creative.”

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Apple eyes TV collaboration with Dr Dre

Dr Dre
Dr Dre is developing a scripted series with Apple, according to reports

Assuming it turns out to be true, the biggest content story of the week comes courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, which says that tech giant Apple is making a six-part TV series with rap legend and Beats Music co-founder Andre Young, better known as Dr Dre.

According to the story, which has subsequently been picked up by a number of major US media outlets, the show will be a semi-autobiographical “dark drama” that will be liberally laced with sex and violence. Apple and Dr Dre have not yet commented on the nascent project, which will be made available via the subscription service Apple Music.

The prospect of Apple moving into content has been mooted for some time. But with Amazon and Netflix rapidly ramping up their original content slates, the company is clearly starting to get anxious it is falling behind. Working with Dr Dre is, however, a great way to signal its ambition. The movie Straight Outta Compton, which looked at Dre’s involvement with the band NWA, grossed US$200m worldwide – suggesting there is a large potential audience for the new show (which will be executive produced by Dr Dre, just like Straight Outta Compton). Fox’s success with Empire and Starz’s success with Power reinforce the idea that the black music industry is fertile creative ground.

Meanwhile, SVoD platform Amazon Prime Instant Video has announced a couple of interesting commissions this week. Echoing developments at its arch-rival Netflix, it is now getting into non-English-language production with a German-language series called Wanted.

Wanted will star German actor-writer-director Matthias Schweighoefer and tells the story of a Berlin convention centre project manager who becomes the victim of a mysterious hacking attack. Schweighoefer’s company Pantaleon Entertainment, Warner Bros Entertainment and Warner Bros International Television Production Deutschland are attached to produce.

Mozart in the Jungle has been given a third season
Mozart in the Jungle has been given a third season

Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Video Germany, said: “With our first regional Amazon original production we implement not only the desire of many of our customers for exclusive German content but also extend our service to new audiences and establish Amazon Prime as an important partner for producers and creative professionals in this country.”

This week also saw Amazon order a third season of its Golden Globe-winning series Mozart in the Jungle. Mozart is a show about the politics and relationships in a leading symphony orchestra. Season two began streaming in December 2015.

Over at Netflix, meanwhile, there was also a renewal for Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The show stars Ansari as Dev, a 30-year-old actor attempting to make his way through life in New York City. Netflix doesn’t release viewing data, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the show has picked up a pretty loyal audience.

Premium pay TV network Starz has been talking about doing a sequel to period drama The White Queen for two or three years now. Finally, it has committed itself to an eight-episode limited series called The White Princess, which will air in 2017. Like the previous series, this one is based on the novels of Philippa Gregory and will be adapted for the screen by Emma Frost.

Aziz Ansari's Master of None will return to Netflix
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None will return to Netflix

The White Princess, which is told through the eyes of a female protagonist, concludes the story of England’s War of the Roses and charts the rise of the House of Tudor. Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “There is a dearth of programming that tells women’s stories and The White Queen was embraced with great success by audiences worldwide. The fanbase for Philippa Gregory’s historical novels is undeniable, and we are confident The White Princess will become the next must-see fandom drama series.”

The show will be produced by Company Pictures, with Playground’s Colin Callender on board as an executive producer.

In recent months there has been a lot of activity among Italian producers seeking to raise their profile on the international market. One of these is FremantleMedia-owned Wildside. This week, the company announced it is developing a series based on Elena Ferrante’s four acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. The plan is for each of Ferrante’s four female-centred books, which are set against Italian society changes from the 1950s to the present day, to become an eight-episode series (32 episodes in total). The show is being coproduced by Wildside with Domenico Procacci’s Fandango, which owns the rights and originated the project. Fandango was one of the producers on the hit series Gomorrah.

Deadline has also been running an interest story this week suggesting James Bond star Daniel Craig is to star in a new drama series called Purity, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Franzen. Showtime, FX, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all still in the running to secure the series, according to Deadline.

War and Peace has sold to channels around the world
War and Peace has sold to channels around the world, including Russia’s Channel One

Meanwhile, Hulu is reported to have linked up with UK producer Stephen Garrett, who has recently launched a new drama indie called Character Seven. Garrett is developing a London-set supernatural series for Hulu called The Rook, in partnership with Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s company Fickle Fish and Lionsgate.

Finally, BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) has announced a slew of new sales for its adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Pick of the bunch is the sale to Russia’s Channel One, though the show has also been sold across Asia and Scandinavia and to France.

BBCWW president of global markets Paul Dempsey said: “It is fitting that Russian audiences will get the chance to enjoy this thoroughly modern adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. They’ll join millions of viewers around the world who have been enthralled by Andrew Davies’ stunning interpretation of War and Peace.”

Previously, the Weinstein Company licensed the series to the A+E Networks in the US.

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