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Appy days

There’s more drama than ever – but small-screen storytelling is not just being confined to television. DQ speaks to some of those involved in changing the way drama is made and watched.

This might be the golden age of television drama, but it’s not just the black mirror in the corner of your living room that’s getting in on the act. And while services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have changed the game in terms of the quality and quantity of drama series being produced, they’re no longer at the forefront of the digital age when it comes to storytelling.

Apps and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are now also bringing stories to viewers in ways that open up new avenues for creative talent to thrive while further eroding memories of communal viewing and watercooler moments.

Social media giant Facebook went global last summer with its video service Watch, a year after it launched the platform in the US. It has steadily been building up its slate of programmes, produced in-house and from third parties, with half-hour drama Sorry for Your Loss arguably the biggest success so far among its 2.2 billion worldwide users. It has been renewed for a second season.

Skam Austin is an English-language remake of Norwegian teen series Skam

But its drama slate was originally led by Skam Austin, an English-language remake of the hit Norwegian teen series that featured characters posting short videos on Facebook as if in real time. Other dramas include Chicago-set teen series Five Points, book adaptation Sacred Lies and high school-set Turnt.

“Our approach is built on a goal to drive meaningful conversations and community, which plays to our strengths,” says Facebook head of global creative strategy Ricky Van Veen. “When it comes to any of our programming, it isn’t about strictly the talent or storyline; the driving principle is ‘what will engage our audience, create a community and inspire conversation?’”

To that end, Facebook’s goal is to create immersive experiences unique to the platform. “We have developed shows that aim to bring people together within the show pages, groups and other interactive elements,” Van Veen adds. “Advancing a show’s storyline through social posts, texts and teaser drops like with Skam Austin is not standard practice, and the fans absolutely love it.”

The original Skam’s approach of adding video clips throughout the day made it a natural fit for Mark Zuckerberg’s company, with the story also integrating with characters’ profile pages on Facebook-owned Instagram.

“Our criteria is simply ‘is this better because it is on Facebook?’” Van Veen says of the types of stories he is seeking. “The content must pass this litmus test of being exponentially better and different because of us. We strive to have shows with community potential as we aim to create new viewer experiences built on our technology and social fabric.


“With specific formats as well as tools only available on our platform, we’re seeing engagement evolve and changing the current state of content consumption. Fans have the ability to interact with the show, commenting on the episodes and telling their story, so it’s a different way of engaging.”

With a second season of Skam Austin confirmed last summer, producer XIX Entertainment’s founder Simon Fuller says he knew the series would be “perfect” for Facebook, admitting Watch was “my first call and my only call.” Since then, every part of the series has been tailor-made for Facebook.

“The main creative challenge was trying to resist changing the pace and atmosphere of a dramatic moment, even though you only have a few minutes to capture the attention of a viewer,” he explains. “We wanted to challenge the viewer to go deeper than most programme makers on other social media platforms. It was important to push the boundaries with Skam Austin. I am delighted with the results. Julie Andem, the creator, is a real genius and has an inate understanding of her audience.

“New platforms like Facebook offer many alternative ways of making shows and telling stories. It has been fascinating experimenting with shortform content and it forces you to rethink how a viewer might best engage with content in this ever-changing world.”

Photo-sharing platform Instagram launched its own video service, IGTV, in June this year. But producers are also using the app to create dramas around character profiles, uploading videos and images and utilising its ‘Stories’ feature. The most recent example was Buzzfeed’s Romeo Likes Juliet (see below). Another example is Karma (pictured top), from Finnish public broadcaster YLE.

(click to enlarge)

YLE has a history with new forms of storytelling, experimenting with transmedia formats on its own streaming platform, Areena. In Karma, it created a story about three young women living together and sharing their lives and their secrets via Instagram. Using only mobile phones, shooting was completed in just three days. This resulted in a trio of episodes ranging from five to 15 minutes long, all broadcast via Stories, which allow users to upload multiple video clips and images that then disappear after 24 hours.

“The content was 100% mobile, both done by mobile and used by mobile. The nature of the media itself was interactive and the content was easy to share. It was an event,” says executive producer Hyppe Salmi. “On the other hand, we had to deal with the vertical picture and quite a small screen, while the content was available only for 24 hours, so we had to reach the audience very fast. Maybe the most important thing is there was no kind of post production.”

Salmi is now working on new Instagram dramas Goals, about eight young people connected by a swimming team, and Nofilter, about the secret lives of several social media influencers.

“New forms of drama and platforms will not override but enrich the traditional drama,” she adds. “You have more freedom with online content that is not restricted by channels, slots or even the length of the story. The production is faster, more flexible and less expensive. The audience is hard to find but the audience is out there in the online world. You just have to combine the right pieces: the storytelling, the platform and the target audience.”

Meanwhile, in October, multimedia messaging app Snapchat announced Snap Originals and the debut of serialised dramas on the service. They include crime drama Class of Lies, supernatural soap The Dead Girls Detective Agency and horror anthology V/H/S.

Pineapple, an Adaptative Studios series for streamer Blackpills

Before then, mobile-first content studio Vertical Networks produced murder-mystery drama Solve. Each episode is based on a true crime case, with viewers adopting the role of the detective tasked with reviewing the evidence and solving the murder.

“We believe in a movement towards context-aware programming, where stories are shaped in relation to the platforms on which they sit and the content, behaviours and windows of time they sit alongside,” says Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright. “Catching somebody’s attention has never been easier, but turning this casual curiosity into deep and committed engagement has never been harder.

He says if producers want to engage with Gen Z or millennial audiences, Snapchat “is currently the only relevant platform for serving short- and mid-form premium content to audiences who care.”

But the rise of app dramas doesn’t mean the end of another often-overlooked medium – shortform web series. With former DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s latest venture, NewTV, attracting more than US$1bn in its initial funding round earlier this year, it’s an original drama space that looks set to grow and grow.

Adaptive Studios has produced several series for streaming service Blackpills, including crime drama Pineapple, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Simi Valley, about a high-school student who starts a drug courier business.

“It’s a very exciting and invigorating time creatively because there are no rules to follow and you’re really going with great story, great vision and the creative experimentation of trying to do something that’s never been done before,” says Adaptive co-founder and CEO Perrin Chiles.

Homecoming Queens is set to launch in April

Fellow co-founder TJ Barrack likens the business to what Miramax (Reservoir Dogs, Clerks) was doing in the film industry in the 1990s when it experimented with a group of young directors. “It’s very difficult for a young director or writer to piece together a couple of million dollars to go try to do something,” he says. “In shortform, you can do it for a lot less and we’ve found that creators are really energised.”

With Netflix releasing an interactive episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror at the end of last year, this type of choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is also an area of evolution that also excites Adaptive, having previously produced projects for augmented-reality platform Eko. “It’s still early days in terms of people’s comfort level from an executive side of things, but we love the idea of multiple narratives,” Perrin says. “Anything that’s world-building, we absolutely love. We’re certainly developing a few of our own series with that multiple-narrative opportunity in mind.”

Elsewhere, launching in April last year, shortform drama Homecoming Queens was the first commission for Australia’s SBS On Demand. Produced by Generator Pictures, the seven-episode series stars Michelle Law as a fictionalised version of herself who returns to her home town after being diagnosed with alopecia. Her best friend, played by Liv Hewson, is recovering from breast cancer and is determined to make up for lost time. Law co-created and co-wrote the series alongside Chloë Reeson, with Corrie Chen as director.

“I feel like we were all really reaching for something better than everyone thinks a web series can be,” says Generator producer Katia Nizic. “We thought the advantage of shortform would be less control from a broadcaster, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all – they were very interested in making this the best it could be. That focuses you into the constraints of what you can do in the time you have and really makes sure everything you put in is essential to the story.”

Having enjoyed the creative opportunities afforded to Homecoming Queens, Nizic says this is the type of television she wants to make in the future. “It’s got very little to do with length; it’s got to do with the creative risks. Whether that’s a 30-second, 10-part series or not, it just depends on what you’re trying to say with it,” she says. “I really think that’s where TV is going – not something that’s scheduled at all. When’s the last time you sat down to watch something at the time it was premiering?”

Australian shortform period drama Wrong Kind of Black

Melbourne-based Princess Pictures is behind another Australian shortform series, Wrong Kind of Black, a period drama retelling the real-life story of Boori Monty Pryor and his brother Paul and the struggle facing Aboriginal culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The four-part series is available on ABC iview.

“We gravitate to projects that do or see things differently and that seek to connect with both the hearts and minds of the audience,” says producer Andrea Denholm. “We aspire to be entertaining, thought-provoking and to make people feel something. We are constantly looking for stories that reflect social diversity and support social inclusion, and we champion diversity on and off screen.”

Production of the period drama involved marrying a low budget with high ambitions, as well as filming in two locations and depicting two time periods. “Fortunately, the project attracted an incredibly talented and enthusiastic cast and crew who went way beyond the call of duty because they cared deeply about the project and knew this was an important story,” says Princess commercial director Emma Fitzsimons. “Working out the best way to do justice to Boori’s story and to capture his unique perspective took a great deal hard work, collaboration and goodwill from everyone involved. It highlighted the importance of development funding and the benefits of supportive partners and creative flexibility.”

Denholm says that in an era when time is at a premium and content is accessible anywhere, shortform drama is “creating its own special place in the fabric of society. Platforms that highlight shortform, such as ABC iview, are increasing in relevance.” However, she adds: “It remains to be seen whether shortform drama will break into the mainstream, but it naturally lends itself to being watched on mobile devices in short bursts. So if the content is engaging, there should be opportunities to grow the audience.”

It all means that while writers and directors are moving beyond television to bring their stories to the screen, the death of traditional TV schedules and overnight ratings just moved one step closer.

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Watch this space

The global nature of the television business was on show at Mipcom in Cannes this week as stars from around the world presented their latest projects. DQ editor Michael Pickard offers his thoughts on a busy week in the South of France.

When you first walk into the Palais des Festivals, it can be quite overwhelming to see the sheer number of posters, billboards and signs promoting hundreds of new drama series from around the world. The experience, of course, begins long before you have navigated through the security checkpoints, seeing as La Croisette is transformed into a mile-long red carpet of promotions for dozens more shows.

To be a drama buyer in the current market must be both a daunting and thrilling experience, with the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours searching for the next big hit and watching the contenders, whether they are produced in your broadcaster’s local tongue or a language from further afield.

What, then, can producers and distributors do to make their projects stand out from the crowd? Well, the quickest shortcut to making some noise is to add a sprinkling of star power.

Catherine Zeta-Jones came to Mipcom to promote Lifetime’s Cocaine Godmother (picture via @Mip)

TV movies are much maligned, but could Catherine Zeta-Jones bring the format back into fashion? She was here in Cannes to promote forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, a project she helped develop and bring to the screen. The Oscar-winning actor also plays the lead role of real-life Miami drug lord Griselda Blanco, who was involved in the Cocaine Cowboy Wars that plagued the city in the late 1970s.

“Years ago there used to be such a stigma between television actors, film actors and theatre actors,” Zeta-Jones said this week. “I was stuck in the theatre actor box. It wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film – and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV.

“That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television], they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.”

Adding an A-lister to a TV movie is a well-worn path for Lifetime parent A+E Networks, which has also previously cast James Franco (High School Lover), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late & a Dollar Short), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Heather Graham (Flowers in the Attic), Harvey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Susan Sarandon (The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) in such projects.

David Morrissey was in town to talk Britannia (picture via @Mip)

It’s a tactic others are clearly employing too. Zeta-Jones wasn’t the only star to light up the red carpet this week as a plethora of other famous faces travelled to the South of France. David Morrissey joined fellow cast members Nikolaj Lie Caas and Eleanor Worthington-Cox for the world premiere of Roman-era drama Britannia, the first series coproduced by Sky Atlantic and Amazon US.

James Norton and Juliet Rylance were talking McMafia, Kristin Kreuk chatted about making Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth, Mark Strong marked his return to television in Fox espionage thriller Deep State and Philip Glenister was Living the Dream with his new Florida-set comedy drama.

Elsewhere, Jeremy Sisto (Ice season two), JK Simmons (Counterpart), Daniel Sharman (Medici), Jessica Brown Findlay (Harlots season two) and Jon Beavers, Michael Kelly and Darius Homayoun (The Long Road Home) were also enjoying the sunshine in Cannes.

What was particularly notable about this year’s Mipcom, however, was the truly global nature of the market. Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (Kurara), Belgian actor Veerle Baetens (Tabula Rasa), Australian stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda (Pulse), Turkey’s Erkan Petekkaya, Songül Öden and Dolunay Soysert (City of Secrets), Swedish actors Charlie Gustafson and Hedda Rehnberg (The Restaurant), and Zion Baruch, creator, writer and star of Israeli vampire thriller Juda, were also in town.

The Road to Calvary stars Yulia Snigir and Anna Chipovskaya (picture via @Mip)

Mipcom’s Russian Content Revolution was also celebrated with appearances by The Road to Calvary’s Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir plus Gogol’s Yulia Franz and Taisiia Vilkova.

For several years now, the globalisation of television has also been represented by the types of coproductions being brought to screen. Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) is probably the best example of two countries coming together in the last few years, in that case France and Sweden joining forces. But more ambitious pairings are now in evidence.

In particular, producers and broadcasters from China, France, Germany and Australia have teamed up for Farewell Shanghai, a period drama set at the start of the Second World War that recounts the shared destinies of a group of European Jewish refugees and Chinese characters in Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.

It will be shot in China in the English language and has been written by Radu Mihaileanu, based on Angel Wagenstein’s novel. K’ien Productions, Banijay Studios France, Breakout Films, France Televisions, Shanghai Media Group Pictures, China’s Holy Mountain Films, AMPCO Studios in Australia and Germany’s NDF are all involved.

L-R: Dolunay Soysert, Erkan Petekkaya and Songül Öden of Turkey’s City of Secrets (picture via @Mip)

Another global project announced at the market was Straight Forward, an eight-part series produced by Screentime New Zealand and Mastiff in Denmark. It is coproduced by broadcasters Viaplay and TVNZ, with Acorn TV also on board in North America and the UK.

Created by writer John Banas and set in Queenstown and Copenhagen, Straight Forward sees a Danish woman attempt to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small New Zealand town to start a new life. It will premiere on Viaplay in 2018.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that producer and distributor Banijay Group is central to both Farewell Shanghai and Straight Forward, utilising its production companies and distribution partnerships to bring these series to air.

The future of television was also on display, from Japanese broadcaster NHK’s stunning 8K presentations to the keynotes from executives at Snapchat and Facebook.

Facebook’s Ricky Van Veen on stage at Mipcom this week (picture via @Mip)

Sean Mills, senior director of content programming at Snapchat parent Snap Inc, talked about the firm’s desire for the messaging app to move into original content following the announcement it had teamed up with NBCUniversal to create a studio that will focus on producing scripted series.

The fruits of that partnership may still be some time away. More immediate are Facebook’s plans to bring original content to its Watch platform, launched six weeks ago and currently only available in the US, though an international roll-out is planned in the future.

There were audible gasps in the Palais’ Grand Auditorium when Facebook head of global creative strategy, Ricky Van Veen, revealed that the social media giant would be the home of the English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam (Shame), with original creator Julie Andem showrunning the remake.

The buzz around the NRK series has steadily increased over the past year and it’s a huge statement of intent that Facebook has picked it up – though, in many ways, it is the perfect home for a show that is made up of short video segments that are posted at the times of the day that match when the action plays out.

At the end of the four-day market, it’s clear the drama boom shows no sign of slowing – yet. It seems unlikely that every series is making its money back, meaning it is inevitable there will be a downturn at some point in the future. Until then, the debate surrounds the new players picking up scripted series and the challenge of luring star names to help a show to break through to audiences. Facebook original series? I’ll be Watching.

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Chain reaction

Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.

For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.

A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.

Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.

BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.

An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.

BBC1’s Jamaica Inn led to the so-called ‘Mumblegate’ inquiry

But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.

The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.

Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.

Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.

Some viewers complained of being unable to comprehend Tom Hardy’s dialogue in Taboo

Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”

After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).

Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.

Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.

Many fans were appalled when the The Walking Dead killed off two beloved characters in this scene

SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.

After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”

And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.

That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.

The Good Wife’s showrunners changed a storyline in response to audience disapproval

Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).

Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.

On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.

The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.

Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.

Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat regularly responds to fan reaction

In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.

Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”

Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.

Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.

Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.

Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.

Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.

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