Tag Archives: Genius

Journey towards Mars

Drama on National Geographic Channel will go out of this world with the launch of Mars later this year. As DQ’s Digital Drama Season concludes, National Geographic Channel’s Andy Baker discusses the show’s online drama spin-off Before Mars.

While television networks are embracing the internet as a place for viewers to catch up on single episodes or whole seasons of a particular show, there are few examples where they have launched a series entirely online.

Following its move online, former terrestrial channel BBC3 launched psychological drama Thirteen across the digital airwaves, while NBC dropped every episode of the first season of Aquarius online following its network debut.

Mars-3
Mars airs on National Geographic Channel later this year

Until now, broadcasters have largely used the digital space as a way to extend their programmes online, either through bonus footage or mini-episodes, otherwise known as webisodes.

One example is Flight 462, a 16-part miniseries that aired on AMC.com ahead of the second season of Fear The Walking Dead, focusing on a group of survivors onboard a plane in the earliest moments of the outbreak.

In 2013, the BBC also dropped a mini-episode of its hit drama Sherlock, while sci-fi favourites Doctor Who and Heroes have also extended their stories online. The latter launched five batches of webisodes between 2008 and 2009.

National Geographic Channel is now using the same tactics for its groundbreaking drama Mars. Set in both the future and the present day, the six-part series will use a blend of drama and documentary sequences to imagine the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033.

Andy Baker
Andy Baker

But ahead of its debut this November, when it will air in 171 countries and 45 languages, Nat Geo has also produced its first ever web series that will serve as an online prequel to the main event.

Set in the present day, Before Mars introduces twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung – central characters in Mars – as young girls struggling to fit into their new school in a small rural town. Joon discovers an old ham radio in the attic and eventually develops a long-distance radio friendship with a female astronaut who has grown homesick while serving on the International Space Station. While the friendship between Joon and the astronaut grows stronger, Hana begins to thrive at school and makes her own friends on Earth.

Before Mars is produced by Variable, with executive producer Tyler Ginter and director Lloyd Lee Choi. Mars comes from Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, with executive producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg, Jon Kamen and Robert Palumbo.

“The way content is consumed now, it’s not just linear TV,” says Andy Baker, senior VP and group creative director of National Geographic Channels. “Things are online, whether it’s YouTube, Amazon or Hulu. We wanted to create something to support that show that they can watch on different devices.

“Very early on, as we started to look at stories and plots for Before Mars, we found we had these two characters in Mars, which is set in 2033. But what motivated them to become these pioneers that would land on Mars [back in] 2016 when they are young teenagers? What inspired them and motivated them to take this giant leap for mankind?”

 Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars
Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars

Baker reveals the creative team read through dozens of potential scripts and storylines for Before Mars. “It was pretty wide open,” he says. “The characters are shown 15 to 20 years earlier than the main story. It starts with Hana on the launch pad. She’s looking back at this one moment in her life so we wanted to make something that lived up to that. There’s a lot of opportunity and options. We wanted to tell a story people enjoy and has a bit of nostalgia to it. We just wanted to write something that feels compelling, interesting, relatable and emotional for the audience.”

With Joon and Hana set as the focal point of Before Mars, the writers were tasked with coming up with a backstory for them that would become an origin story for their relationship in Mars.

“We wanted to create a fairly simple story,” Baker explains. “We’re making a shortform digital series, so we wanted to tell one moment in time from their youth. But you don’t need to watch Mars to appreciate Before Mars. It’s just a shorter piece of content around that same subject.

“In the series, Hana goes to Mars and Joon stays behind. That same theme is in the prequel when one sister goes on a big adventure while the other stays behind, so their personalities become clear.”

Like Mars, Before Mars also comprises six parts, though the running time for the web series is still to be determined ahead of its October launch.

“As we got into the story, the running time got a little bit longer,” Baker admits. “It will total 40 to 45 minutes and each episode will be six to nine minutes. One of the best things about creating a digital series is that running time takes a back seat. You don’t have to cut it a certain way. Longer or shorter is OK as long as it’s compelling storytelling.”

Baker says the look and tone of Before Mars will differ from the main series, simply because one is set on Earth in the present day and the other is in the future on another planet. However, scripts from Mars were used to inform the prequel and ensure the character’s featured remained consistent throughout.

Ultimately, though, whether on terrestrial TV or online, he says the success of any project comes down to the story. “There’s such a proliferation of great content that the single most important focus is to tell a great story, whatever length that might be or wherever the show is consumed,” Baker notes.

National Geographic is pushing further into TV drama next year with Genius, an anthology series that will feature the story of Albert Einstein in season one. Before then, however, viewers will get to journey to Mars in what Baker describes as “the biggest series ever that we have launched.”

He adds: “We’re excited and hope everyone enjoys the story. We’re in the middle of the rough cuts but we’re really excited by where it’s going.”

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Hulu tells Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale has previously been made into a feature film
The Handmaid’s Tale has previously been made into a feature film

Inevitably, the current TV drama boom has resulted in a lot of formulaic, derivative and half-baked series. But that has to be balanced against the impressive ambition of the industry.

This week, for example, Hulu announced that it has commissioned an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The only bad news about this is that it didn’t come two years ago so it could help my daughter with her English exams.

Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale centres on Offred, a reproductive slave who lives in the male-dominated totalitarian regime of Gilead. In Hulu’s TV version, Offred will be played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake), with Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, and Warren Littlefield serving as executive producers (Wilson was also the producer of a 1990 film version of the story).

The adaptation will be written by Bruce Miller (The 100), with Atwood also on hand as a consulting producer.

Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu, said: “Hulu has established itself as a home for blockbuster television events and what better way to expand our originals offering than with a series based on this acclaimed, best-selling novel? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was seen as ahead of its time and we look forward to bringing it to life on our platform.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is produced by MGM TV and marks the first collaboration on an original series between Hulu and MGM. It will go into production later this year and will premiere in 2017. In a joint statement, MGM’s Mark Burnett, president, television and digital group, and Steve Stark, president, television development and production, said: “The Handmaid’s Tale is a project we have been committed to bringing to life as its story remains as powerful today as it did when Margaret first published her novel. It has inspired a film, a graphic novel, an opera, a ballet and, finally, for the first time, a compellingly immersive drama series.”

Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)
Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)

Attwood added: “I am thrilled MGM and Hulu are developing The Handmaid’s Tale as a series, and extra thrilled that Elisabeth Moss will be playing the central character. The Handmaid’s Tale is more relevant now than when it was written, and I am sure the series will be watched with great interest.”

This week’s other big story is that National Geographic Channel has greenlit its first scripted series (as opposed to docuseries or miniseries), with the first episode to be directed by Ron Howard.

The plan is for the show, called Genius, to be a multi-season anthology series, with a different subject in each run. The first season, based on Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, will be adapted by Noah Pink. Production is expected to begin this summer in Prague and the series will premiere on Nat Geo in 171 countries.

Genius is being made by Fox 21 TV Studios, Imagine TV, OddLot and EUE/Sokolow. Fox 21 president Bert Salke said: “Genius is a franchise with infinite possibilities. We think this instalment, which tells the fascinating back-story of the man who articulated the theory of relativity, is just the beginning of a long and successful partnership between our companies.”

Howard said the show will be “an ambitious but intimate and revealing human story behind Einstein’s scientific brilliance,” adding: “I hope his story, as well as those of other geniuses, will entertain and inspire the next generation of Einsteins.”

Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel's first full drama series
Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel’s first full drama series

Meanwhile, the migration of movie heavyweights into TV continues apace. Last week, it was Mel Gibson, and this week it’s Sylvester Stallone, who is set to star in a TV adaptation of Mario Puzo mafia novel Omerta (Puzo is best-known as the author of The Godfather).

The drama has yet to be attached to any network, but with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) also on board as director, it presumably won’t be too long before that is sorted out. Omerta was published after Puzo’s death and had its fair share of critics. However, the halo effect of The Godfather will prove appealing to would-be suitors who can use it as a marketing hook.

While Hulu has stolen this week’s headlines, the other SVoD platforms have also been in the news. Netflix, for example, has ordered a second season of its new Ashton Kutcher comedy The Ranch – just a few weeks after the first season premiered. Set in modern-day Colorado, the series stars Kutcher as a failed semi-professional football player who returns home to manage the family ranch. There will be 20 episodes in the second season.

Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta
Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta

Meanwhile, Deadline reports that John Krasinski (The Office) will play the title role in a new Amazon series based on Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan. The new series, created by showrunner Carlton Cuse and writer Graham Roland, is reported to be “a new contemporary take on the character in his prime as a CIA analyst/operative, using the novels as source material.” For Amazon, the franchise will sit neatly alongside Bosch.

Finally, US indie studio IM Global has unveiled a slate of new TV projects this week. The company, which first got into the TV business in 2014, is working on five titles including Muscle Shoals, a project that has been in development for a while with partners Johnny Depp and Virgin Produced.

The other titles on the slate are I Rebel, LD50, The Lesser Dead and Planetoid. The Lesser Dead is an acclaimed vampire-themed novel from Christopher Buehlman, while Planetoid is a graphic novel first released in June 2012 by Image Comics. Written and drawn by Ken Garing, it focuses on Silas, a space pirate who crashes onto a planetoid where he must fight off various mechanical creatures, cyborgs and aliens.

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