Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has found a new home on Netflix. Can viewers expect more of the same from the dark anthology, or does the new platform mean it’s all change?
The fact that the first face you see in the opening episode belongs to Hollywood’s own Bryce Dallas Howard (pictured above) perhaps tells you all you need to know about the return of Black Mirror.
Having aired for two three-episode seasons and a Christmas special on the UK’s Channel 4, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series is now exclusive to Netflix, with a bumper run of six episodes landing on the US-based streamer today.
The move to Netflix means a bigger budget for Brooker and co to play with, and this is visible from the off.
As well as Jurassic World star Howard, debut episode Nosedive, seen by DQ, also features fellow Hollywood actor Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness) and UK heartthrob-of-the-moment James Norton (Happy Valley, War & Peace), while familiar faces in other episodes include Game of Thrones duo Jerome Flynn and Faye Marsay.
But for the team behind Black Mirror, the biggest difference has been the increased freedom offered by the show’s new home.
“Anthology shows like this have been waiting for a platform like Netflix to come along,” says creator and exec producer Brooker. “We don’t have cliffhangers; we don’t have recurring cast members or characters. Shows that reinvent themselves every week have struggled in the ratings.
“On Netflix we can put the whole thing up and it’s kind of like a short story collection. We have effectively got a bigger canvas and we’re not constrained by ad breaks or running times. One of our episodes, Hated in the Nation, is kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir. It’s 90 minutes – it’s like a movie! We could do two-hour episodes or two-minute episodes.”
Fellow exec producer Annabel Jones echoes Brooker’s sentiment. “Netflix loved the show and stepped in to commission six films. That allowed us to play out on a bigger campus, take more risks and explore more worlds without destabilising the Black Mirror sensibility. It’s great, and we’ve got another season coming up too,” she says, referring to the six further episodes due on Netflix next year.
In addition to the acting talent, there’s also a more Hollywood feel behind the camera following the Netflix move. One episode, Brooker reveals, was scored by celebrated feature film composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon), while episodes two and three were directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) respectively.
Helming Nosedive was Joe Wright (Pan), who was already a fan of Black Mirror’s aesthetic before coming on board. “Be Right Back [season two] was one of the most exquisitely shot episodes, and so was Entire History of You [season one],” he says. “They’ve all been very cinematic; they’ve all been beautiful.”
Brooker admits to giving little visual direction in his scripts, and is full of praise for the ability of directors such as Wright to bring his words to life. “Often what happens is we’ve got a script, but what’s not in the script is the whole visual layer. That wasn’t really described at all in the Nosedive script,” he says.
“Joe gave it a level of artistry that is frankly embarrassing. When I first saw the rushes, I thought, ‘This is either going to work or this is mental.’ As soon as I saw it all come together, I was flabbergasted. It was the best possible outcome.”
Black Mirror’s move to its new home didn’t come without ruffling a few feathers, however. In August, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt criticised producer Endemol Shine Group and the show’s creators for a perceived lack of loyalty to her network.
But Brooker fails to see what all the fuss is about. “It’s quite interesting, let’s put it that way,” he says of the suggestion of bad blood after the deal. “Somebody didn’t come out and wave a cheque and we ran away from Channel 4 towards it. It’s been interesting watching that play out. We still talk to Channel 4 – we’re still friends!”
Leaving the Netflix move and its implications aside, does the new Black Mirror stay true to the show that built a cult following with its nightmarish visions centred on Western society’s ever-increasing reliance upon and obsession with technology?
While the short answer seems to be yes, with Black Mirror continuing to focus on the same themes, Brooker highlights a deliberate move towards “more variety of tone” in the new season.
“Because we’re doing six stories this time round, we wanted to not always fling you into a pit of despair. Sometimes we kick a few hope biscuits at you on your way down,” he says. “Having said that, there are stories in which we do fling you into a pit of despair and then piss on you – because people seem to like that.”
Indeed, while maintaining Black Mirror’s trademark frighteningly believable vision of a world gone a little bit madder, Nosedive stands apart from older episodes thanks to its heavy dose of comedy.
Brooker adds: “This season we were almost imagining we were creating different-genre mini-movies. Nosedive is a kind of poignant satire. We’ve also got a detective movie, an outright horror movie, one is a romance… they’re so different.”
While anthology shows that reset with new stories and characters each season have become increasingly popular in recent years (True Detective, American Horror Story), anthologies like Black Mirror, which does this every episode, are much less common.
One of the most famous examples of such a series is The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1959 and is cited by Brooker as a major inspiration for Black Mirror.
“I’d always loved shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and all the weird and wonderful one-off plays that the BBC used to put on,” he explains.
“It felt like those kind of ‘what the fuck?’ stories didn’t have a place on television anymore.
“Primarily, the intention was to create a show that gave you that frisson you get when you watch something like The Wicker Man, a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone, or [BBC’s 1984 nuclear winter drama] Threads – anything that provokes a strong reaction in people.”
Brooker’s earlier TV writing credits were for comedies such as Brass Eye, The 11 O’Clock Show and Nathan Barley, which he co-created. And perhaps surprisingly, he believes writing dystopian drama requires a similar skillset. “It’s kind of therapeutic – it uses the same kind of muscle as in comedy writing,” he explains. “A lot of our stories are about the worst-case scenario unfolding, which is the same as in something like Fawlty Towers. We know we’ve got a good idea if I’m laughing and Annabel’s going, ‘That’s horrible.’”
So, as someone who is now best known for cautionary tales about the rise of technology, does Brooker truly fear for our future?
“I’m quite optimistic about technology, actually, which you wouldn’t get from the show,” he says. “I like video games. I’m an early adopter of stupid electric toothbrushes and that sort of nonsense.”
If not all-powerful tech, perhaps something else will herald the end of days? Brooker concludes: “If you’d told me at the start of the year that, by October, half our cultural icons would be dead, we’d have voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump would be hovering near the White House – oh, and The Great British Bake Off won’t even be on BBC1 anymore, I’d be digging a fucking bunker!”
This summer, critics couldn’t decide whether M Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge’s 10-part mystery-thriller Wayward Pines qualified as a hit. But the show’s host network Fox has now answered that question by giving the production a second season.
Fox Broadcasting Company’s entertainment president David Madden said: “Wayward Pines was a huge hit for us. We were absolutely blown away by the mysterious and surprising world that Night and his team created, and the twisting-and-turning storytelling that drew viewers in from day one. Season two is going to take the suspense, the vision of the future and the haunting character drama to whole new levels.”
A same-day audience of three to four million wasn’t especially impressive. But Fox has crunched the numbers and come up with the following analysis: “Season one of Wayward Pines ranked as summer 2015’s number-one broadcast scripted series among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.2/8 in the key demo. The series – about a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in a sleepy town, and the shocking results of his investigation – ranked among summer 2015’s top 10 broadcast programmes overall among adults 18-49. It earned a multiplatform average audience of 9.4 million, which represents a +145% increase versus its Live+Same Day audience – the largest multiplatform lift versus Live+Same Day ever for a Fox drama.”
According to Fox, the second season will pick up in the wake of season one, when a new arrival in Wayward Pines finds himself in the middle of a serious rebellion, as the residents battle over how to preserve the endangered human race. Season one stars Matt Dillon and Toby Jones will not return, so there will be a lot of interest in who gets cast as the new lead.
This week has also seen renewals for Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair. This confirms our hunch that Homeland had done enough in season five to warrant a renewal, though the announcement has come later than expected.
Season five is finishing strongly, which appears to vindicate the decision to move central character Carrie (played by Claire Danes) to Berlin. Co-creator Alex Gansa has suggested that this could be the model going forward, with each season placing Carrie in a new geographic location.
There was also a renewal this week for NBC’s The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as a criminal mastermind working with the FBI. The drama, which will go into season four, averages a same-day of audience of around seven million. It’s also popular internationally, featuring on networks such as Sky Living and TF1 in France.
The timing of the announcement makes this an early renewal for the show, and creator Jon Bokencamp says he has known about The Blacklist’s return for a while. Speaking in a podcast interview this week, he commented: “We knew about that a while ago. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep quiet. But yes, we’re renewed through to the fourth season. Hopefully we don’t tank that out – we’ve got a lot of story to tell.”
Back at Fox, one show that is certain to get a renewal is breakout hit Empire, which is now in the middle of its second run. However, the new season has been bumpy ride, akin to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. After opening to 16 million viewers (22.5 million when you add in the multiplatform/time-shifted figures), the music industry-based show dropped as low as 9.2 million (same-day rating) for episode nine. Episode 10 saw a bounceback (11.8 million) but the underlying critical narrative suggests the show has lost its way slightly.
The biggest complaint seems to be that this year’s plots and characters lack authenticity, with USA Today summing it up like this: “On social media, fans are griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (‘cartoon garbage,’ sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in (one) episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor. There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, from Chris Rock to Ludacris.”
Having said all this, Empire is still the strongest US network show by far. To put it in perspective, its rating among the all-important 18-49 demo far exceeds that of new shows such as Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico. So a renewal is as certain as anything can be in this life.
A likely beneficiary of its success is Rosewood, which airs straight after Empire. Having seen its ratings boosted as a result of Empire’s strong lead-in, it’s another show that is pretty much guaranteed a return.
Continuing on this topic, this week provided a superb example of the impact that a strong lead-in can have on a title’s ratings. Until recently, AMC’s Into the Badlands had been benefiting from airing directly after The Walking Dead. But with the latter now on a winter break, Badlands has seen its audience plummet. Same-day ratings for the first four episodes of the show go like this: 6.4 million, 4.8 million, 5.2 million, 2.4 million – the latter figure being the first week in which it didn’t have a boost from The Walking Dead.
This isn’t necessarily a problem for Badlands. It’s possible that, without TWD in the schedule, fans of the futuristic martial arts show have decided to record it and watch it another time (maybe earlier the next day). The real test of whether the show has managed to build a loyal audience will come with Live + 3 Day or Live + 7 Day ratings. That said, even at its new lower level, it’s still a strong shout for a renewal.
Moving away from renewals, this week saw the launch of a show that may soon be talked about as the latest Scandinavian hit.
Gasmamman (Mother Goose) is being described as Sweden’s answer to Breaking Bad. The story follows a mother-of-three who takes over the family’s illegal marijuana business after her husband is shot in a drug deal gone wrong.
The Endemol Shine-produced show is currently airing on pay TV platform C-More and will shift to Kanal 5 in spring 2016.
In an interview with Reuters, lead actress Alexandra Rapaport said: “When we pitched this we talked about it being a kind of Erin Brockovich meets Breaking Bad. The Bridge and The Killing were big inspirations for us. But I think we also add some humour to it, which is why we compare it to Breaking Bad.”
The Reuters report says the show’s producers plan to make four seasons in total.
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
US cable channel Syfy is developing a new horror series with Universal Cable Productions called Channel Zero. Scripted by Nick Antosca (Hannibal), it tells the story of a mysterious children’s TV show from the 1980s and its role in a series of murders.
As interesting as that concept is, Channel Zero is an anthology series, meaning season one will tell a self-enclosed story. If the show is commissioned for a second season, it will keep its overall series brand – but tell an entirely new tale.
This anthology approach is not new, having been utilised by classic US shows such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, it is certainly on its way back. Current examples of scripted anthology series include True Detective, Fargo, American Horror Story and the upcoming Scream Queens. The implication from the above titles is that the anthology approach works best with horror and crime, but it will be interesting to see if this style catches on in other genres, and in other territories. Series two of British drama The Missing will, for example, go down a similar route – keeping the title but exploring a new setup.
The big renewal news of the week is that USA Networks has greenlit a 16-episode sixth season of Suits. Also produced by Universal Cable Productions, the show is an extremely slick drama that centres on a fast-paced Manhattan corporate law firm led by super-sharp lawyer Harvey Specter. Season five of the show has only just premiered – but with an audience of 3.4 million it continues to be a stalwart performer for USA. Commenting, USA Network president Chris McCumber said: “Suits has set the bar high in every way and continues to be a strong performer and marquee property for USA. From incredible on-screen performances and brilliant writing to the aspirational lifestyle portrayed, we look forward to continuing to bring viewers into the world of Suits.”
NBC, meanwhile, has cancelled Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s AD: The Bible Continues, a decision that has been on the cards for some time. With an average audience of around 6.5 million viewers, it fell well short of the ratings achieved by its predecessor The Bible (which brought in higher numbers despite being aired on cable TV).
Why, you may ask, are we discussing a cancellation in a Greenlight column? Well, the answer is that the show may yet continue. Echoing the discussion around another recently cancelled NBC show, Hannibal, Burnett and Downey have said they would like to continue the franchise on a new OTT channel they are planning to launch via United Artists Media Group, a partnership with MGM.
Although details are sketchy at present, the idea is for the online channel to be a hub for faith-based content. As such, it would be an ideal platform for AD – if Burnett and Downey can devise a viable business model for what is, after all, a big-budget show.
One of the biggest stories in US TV over recent years has been the increasingly high profile of black talent. Following on from Shonda Rhimes’s groundbreaking work with ABC (most notably with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder), and the astute multi-ethnic casting of The Walking Dead and Orange is the New Black, we’ve seen recent success for Empire and Power.
The latest project to try to take advantage of this trend is Atlanta, a comedy pilot for FX that revolves around two cousins trying to make their way up through the Atlanta rap scene. The pilot was created and written by Donald Glover (Community, 30 Rock), who will also star in the show. Named this week, the rest of the cast includes Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Lee Stanfield and Zazie Beetz. Tyree Henry’s TV credits include The Knick, Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife and Law & Order. (Click here for a good article on black TV from Vanity Fair.)
Meanwhile, continuing another increasingly widespread trend, US premium pay TV channel Showtime has announced that it is giving US viewers the opportunity to sample the third seasons of drama series Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex via non-standard platforms ahead of their official TV launches. While both shows launch on Sunday July 12, they can currently be viewed for free via YouTube, Kindle Fire, Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, Apple TV, various mobile platforms and several Showtime-branded digital platforms (such as SHO.com).
In terms of content acquisitions, there was good news for Endemol Shine International this week, with the sale of The Frankenstein Chronicles to French pay TV platform Canal+. The 6×60’ show is being produced for ITV in the UK by Rainmark Films in association with Far Moor. Starring Sean Bean and set in London in the 1820s, the show was created by Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook) and Barry Langford (Torte Bluma).
There was also an important breakthrough for Brazil’s Globo, which licensed its latest hit telenovela Helena’s Shadow to EPG in Korea last week. The 75-episode show was launched at Natpe 2015, having hit a 55% share (44 million viewers) in its home market. Although it has previously sold to broadcasters in Mongolia and Vietnam, the Korea deal will significantly boost the show’s profile in Asia. The agreement with EPG also includes other recent Globo telenovela hits, including Precious Pearl and Avenida Brasil.
Finally, there were some sobering statistics from UK media regulator Ofcom this week, showing that spend on UK-originated drama by public service broadcasters (defined by Ofcom as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) has dropped by 44% in the last six years. In cash terms, this represents a drop from £484m investment in 2008 to £278m in 2014.
Interestingly, this coincides with the global drama boom, suggesting that this severe downward trend must have been offset by increased dependence on international coproduction and greater investment by pay TV and, latterly, SVoD platforms (with perhaps some upside from production efficiencies). The question going forward is whether this paradigm shift away from traditional broadcasters towards a kind of globalised, subscription-supported business model will be sufficient to sustain the current boom in scripted production (as well as its creative diversity).
Turning books into TV is a well-trodden path, but as pressure for hits increases, development execs are reading more novels than ever before.
This may be the disruptive age of digital, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry mining the fusty old world of books for drama ideas. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, The Pillars of the Earth and The Walking Dead (a graphic novel) are just a few of the high-profile projects that have made stunningly successful transitions from paper to pixel.
Coming soon are adaptations of the likes of Russian classic War and Peace, fantasy series Shannara and Sharp Objects, based on an early novel by marriage-noir queen Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), while Fox is currently airing Wayward Pines, M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Blake Crouch novel Pines.
Ask drama producers why they are still so enthralled by books and they tend to cite similar reasons. One of the most obvious, says eOne TV senior VP of creative affairs Tecca Crosby, is that “you’re starting with something that has a built-in fanbase or name recognition. All of us are challenged by how to break through, so if you secure a well-known book, that’s an advantage when talking to networks or introducing the project to audiences.”
Just as significant, adds veteran producer Sally Woodward Gentle, is the fact that there is a ready-made story, world and characters to play with. Woodward Gentle, whose company Sid Gentle Films is adapting Len Deighton classic SS-GB for BBC1 in the UK, says: “It’s easier for the commissioning editor to visualise the end result when you have a book to show them. It’s also attractive to screenwriters. Many don’t want to start an idea from scratch. With strong source material, they can get straight into developing their interpretation of the story.”
Interestingly, though, this is about as scientific as it gets. Ask producers if they scrutinise international sales spreadsheets or conduct focus groups before making a decision and the general consensus is that this isn’t the priority. “We are in business, so you have to align your project to the needs of the marketplace,” says Paula Cuddy, partner at indie producer Eleventh Hour. “But you can’t embark on this process unless it’s a personal passion. Producing drama is such a long, arduous, treacherous process that you have to love what you’re doing.”
She cites the example of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which she worked on in her previous role as head of development at Hat Trick Productions: “The literary agent gave me a galley proof of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale on a Friday. I read it over the weekend and pitched it to the head of drama at Hat Trick on the Monday. He loved it. I then approached the film and TV agent representing the rights, and on this occasion was granted a limited window of exclusivity to pitch it to a broadcaster (ITV/Laura Mackie was the natural home) and get a writer on board. Upon me achieving this, the agent and Indie swiftly formalised the contract for the rights.”
As Cuddy’s comment indicates, enthusiasm is swiftly followed by the pursuit of rights to the book (assuming it is still in copyright – we’ll come to classic works later). Typically, this is handled by the producer, though sometimes they’ll come with the backing of a broadcaster or a programme distributor.
The exact process varies project by project, says Tally Garner, founder of Mam Tor Production, “but typically you’d be looking to get an 18-month to two-year option on the TV rights, with a holdback on film rights so that you don’t end up competing with a rival project. If you are successful in getting the project into production then usually you’ll acquire the rights on the first day of principal photography, working to a fee structure that you agreed when you took out the original option.”
Garner has been immersed in this process for years. Initially a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, she was then tasked with setting up the agency’s in-house production company Cuba Pictures. At Cuba, she adapted Boy A and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before leaving to form Mam Tor, which has a first-look deal with Endemol Worldwide Distribution (now under the new Endemol Shine International banner). In her experience, the course of options negotiations is inevitably affected by the level of competition for rights, though money is not the only consideration: “As an agent, you want there to be a market value to the rights – so you tend to have a rough figure in your head. But the final decision really hinges on a combination of cash, enthusiasm and vision. When I was an agent, I was always wary of selling rights where there wasn’t a creative producer involved in the pitch, someone who had a real sense of how the elements might come together.”
The issue of whether the proposed producer truly understands the book comes up a lot. Even when there isn’t a bidding war over option rights, most producers have to undergo a beauty parade to persuade the author and agent they are the right people for the job.
ITV Studios creative director Kieran Roberts says he engaged in a pretty thorough creative dialogue with author Phil Rickman when ITV decided it wanted to adapt his book series Midwinter of the Spirit (which features Merrily Watkins, a country vicar with exorcism skills who helps the police with crime cases). “It wasn’t too difficult for us to establish our commercial credentials. But, understandably, Phil wanted reassurances about how we would approach the project and whether we would be faithful to the world.”
A key issue was the fact that the books are based around the UK town of Hereford, which is not the easiest place to mount a major production. “He’d had offers to relocate to the Home Counties but wanted to keep the stories where they were set,” says Richardson. “We were happy to go along with him because that part of the country has a special, quite magical quality – even though it will present a few more practical challenges.”
Richardson stresses, however, that producers also need to come to projects with a clear vision of what they are trying to do – because ultimately they are responsible for producing a show that works: “I enjoyed the first book, but didn’t come away with a real sense of how it might develop as a returning series. However, I really felt that the second book delivered on the premise. So I had a conversation with Phil and we agreed that it made sense to begin the series with the second book.”
eOne’s Crosby says a proactive approach to projects can help win the author over. She cites the example of Canadian author Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, which is being adapted for CBC Canada. “We were trying to persuade her that we were the right people to adapt the book. She was keen on the fact that Alan Hawko (star of Republic Of Doyle) would be involved. But I also talked to her about the fact that one of the minor characters in the book had an interesting back-story that could be explored more in a TV series. She loved that idea.”
Wooing the author is critical when securing rights. But producers then need to make a judgement call about how much they should be involved in the adaptation. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Berna Levin, chief commercial officer at Swedish film and TV producer Yellowbird, because it depends on the character of the authors in question. “The writers we work with are very cool. All of them say, ‘The books are my children, but the film/TV productions are my grandchildren – someone else is responsible.’ They want to be convinced you know what you are doing, but then they will let you get on with your job.”
Yellowbird has established a global reputation for its adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, Liza Marklund’s Anneka Bengtzon and Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. In Levin’s opinion, having some distance between author and production is useful because it allows the screenwriter the time and space they need to establish their own vision: “But it isn’t like we want to exclude the authors from the process. They are brilliant writers of crime and sometimes they have 10, 20 or 30 ideas that never made it into their books, which makes them a great resource. For example, it was very exciting for us to work on Occupied, which was an original idea from Jo Nesbo, not from a novel.”
Yellowbird is unusual because of the impact it has made from its Swedish base. Aside from the quality of its shows, a couple of practical factors have underpinned that progress. “Firstly, we have focused almost entirely on crime novels, because that seemed to us to be the genre with the best potential to travel internationally,” says Levin. “And we also make sure we secure global rights when we option a novel. We need to do this to ensure we aren’t competing with international versions.”
For every author who doesn’t want to be involved in the adaptation process, there is another that does. “I think there is a generation of writers such as William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and Ben Richards who are equally comfortable in both forms,” says Cuddy. “We’re working with Sebastian Faulks on an adaptation of his novel On Green Dolphin Street. He is so bright and brilliant that he can manage the transition very well.”
Authors who write the screenplays to their own books tend to have two main challenges. The first, says eOne’s Crosby, is that “novels are often based around the interior world of characters, but screen storytelling is about action and dialogue. Writers who cross over have to be able to translate that.”
The other, says Cuddy, is the need to avoid over-attachment to the source material – since not all of the book’s content will work on TV. William Boyd and Gillian Flynn are both reputed to have this ability “and Sebastian Faulks is also demonstrating a real pragmatism with our project,” she adds.
This challenge is even more intense when dealing with book series. Jenna Glazier, senior VP of TV series at Sonar Entertainment, is currently overseeing an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy epic Shannara for MTV. Shannara consists of 14 books written between 1973 and 2013, “so there is a big challenge in knowing where to start and where to end; what to include and what to leave out,” she says. “We’ve decided on the second book, Elfstones of Shannara, as our starting point because it’s a fan favourite that has a love triangle at the centre of the story.”
On the author/screenwriter issue, Glazier says: “It’s always of value to have the author involved because they’ve spent years with the work. With Shannara, Terry is executive producer and Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) are on board as writers.”
One way of addressing the above issues is to have a team that combines the author and screenwriters, says Glazier, “We’re adapting Philipp Meyer’s 2013 best-seller The Son for AMC. Philipp is adapting it with the support of two screenwriters.”
Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne makes an interesting observation on this issue, which is that a lot of contemporary writers have grown up absorbing the grammar of film and TV in their daily lives. This has led to a growing number of novels that are written with a sparser style, punchier dialogue and a more visual sensibility. This in turn lends itself to screen adaptation.
As hinted at earlier, the nature of the book optioning process will depend to some extent on whether the book is a new title subject to an intense bidding war, an older title that has slipped slightly off the radar, or a work that’s no longer subject to copyright (i.e. anyone can adapt it without permission). Books that are subject to a bidding war tend to have strong in-built awareness, “but you have to be sure you’re bidding for something that will fit the requirements of broadcasters,” says Cuddy. “Not all books, no matter how good, fit the schedule.”
eOne senior VP of global production Carrie Stein, who worked at agency ICM earlier in her career, also advises caution. “There’s always a buzz around a new book and that can seem like a reason to go out and bid for it. But I urge my team to think about all the books that got optioned for $100,000 10 years ago and are still sitting on the shelf. When you chase best-sellers, you can lose focus on creativity and passion.”
As if to underline the point, Stein is currently shepherding a 1983 novel by Harry Crews called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (ranked 1,127,231st on Amazon US’s best-sellers list as this sentence was written). For Stein, the relative obscurity of the book is offset by the original, idiosyncratic nature of the story, Crews’s cult following and the fact that a rising screenwriting star is committed to the project. “Matt Venne (currently writing The Devil’s Advocate for NBC – which started as a book, then became a film and will now be a TV series) has read it and is on board the project.”
Rights-free classic novels are, of course, fair game – with BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point currently working on two prestigious projects, War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. At first sight, they seem like manna from heaven, but there are two potential problems. The first, raised by Cuddy, is that they can be creatively restrictive: “We’re interested in period stories but would probably want to take a more revisionist approach than a classic novel would allow. So instead of adapting Bleak House, for example, we’re currently working on an adaptation of Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. That is set in the 1700s but was published last year and has real contemporary resonance as well as being a great mystery story.”
Tally Garner, meanwhile, points out that classics are non-exclusive, which means you get to spend lots of time and effort developing a version, only to find that someone else has got there first. Exactly this happened a couple of years back when a Great Expectations miniseries and movie hit the market within a few months of each other. This rush to exploit IP is particularly common when copyrights initially expire.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the book business has not made its own changes as a result of digital media. So how does this impact on the book-to-TV transition? One way, says Garner, is that there is now a vibrant source of content available in the e-publishing market (EL James and Hugh Howey both started in this space): “We’re developing a property called Confessions of a GP, which started out as an ebook before going to traditional publishing. I still tend to see the agents/publishers as the key relationships but there is this growth of great content coming through on the internet.”
eOne’s Crosby says the new landscape also opens the producer up to a more real-time dialogue with the author’s fanbase, something that can be beneficial from a marketing perspective: “We developed fantasy TV series Bitten (pictured top) out of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld book series. She has a huge online fanbase and they really let us know what they think when we take decisions about who to cast in key roles.”
With TV in the ascendancy at the moment, another key question is whether the medium is starting to secure rights to books that might previously have been picked up for film. Payne is not convinced of this, arguing that the love affair between books and TV goes back decades. For her, one of the key points that has to be reiterated is that basing a story on a book can only take you so far, “because ultimately it has to work as TV. We have properties like Cider with Rosie on our slate. That’s pretty well known in the UK but not outside. When it goes into distribution it will be judged on its own merits.”
Books in development
Mam Tor’s Tally Garner has a few projects bubbling away, including an adaptation of The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and another of Mary S. Lovell’s Bess of Hardwick, about the creation of Chatsworth. The latter has Harriet Warner attached (Call the Midwife) as writer.
Sally Woodward Gentle, former creative director at Carnival Films and now CEO of Sid Gentle, is working with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall) on Len Deighton’s SS-GB for BBC1. Based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain, SS-GB takes place in Nazi-occupied London. Deighton is back in vogue at the moment, with Simon Beaufoy reported to be adapting novels featuring Cold War spy Bernard Samson.
Lookout Point is close to going into production on War and Peace with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. It’s also developing a mega-budget version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities with another screen heavyweight, Alan Bleasdale.
FremantleMedia is working with Corona Pictures on an adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s Bird of Prey, with the script written by JJ Connolly (Layer Cake). It’s also working on Ugly (based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) with Roland Joffe, while FMNA is adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with Starz.
Yellowbird’s upcoming productions include an adaptation of Johan Theorin’s novel Echoes from the Dead (with Fundament Film) and a third Swedish Wallander series. It is also developing an English version of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters with HBO.
Donna Wiffen, formerly of FremantleMedia, is now MD at indie producer Duchess Street Productions. Backed by investment firm Bob & Co, she is working on a saga about two families based on The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer.
Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott are behind an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle. The project has been linked to various channels, but is currently positioned as a pilot for SVoD platform Amazon. Amazon is also behind the adaptation of the Bosch novels.
Netflix, following its breakout success with House of Cards (the second adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ acclaimed series of novels), has announced plans to make a series based on Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Red Planet Pictures’s Tony Jordan is developing a major BBC drama called Dickensian which will bring Charles Dickens’ characters together into one world. Expect Tiny Tim with Miss Havisham and