Tag Archives: Sarah Barnett

Gently does it

Step aside, Sherlock. Dirk Gently, the star of BBC America’s latest original drama, is turning the detective genre on its head.

When Sarah Barnett became president of BBC America (BBCA) in November 2014, she quickly identified the need for an original drama that could stand alongside the network’s established big hitters – namely Doctor Who and Orphan Black.

Just under two years later, she is overseeing the launch of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series based on Douglas Adams’ novels about eccentric ‘holistic’ detective Dirk Gently and his reluctant assistant Todd.

Created by Max Landis, the first season opens as Todd discovers the scene of a gruesome murder – kickstarting a chain of events that sees him team up with the fast-talking Gently to investigate the case and meet a collection of wild and dangerous characters.

“Dirk Gently was a no-brainer for us,” Barnett says of the comedy thriller. “It’s so fresh and different – all the things we’re looking for at BBCA. Douglas Adams is like royalty and it’s fantastic source material. I was really bowled over by Max’s interpretation of it.

Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set
Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set

“You cannot slavishly adapt it but to take the heart of Adams’ bonkers, brilliant version and interpret it in a way that’s unique and fresh is brilliantly cool. For us, that added up to a belief that shows on this network should be smart, have depth of character and be immersive. But they also shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Doctor Who, Orphan Black and now Dirk Gently all have that wit and character that’s fun and super entertaining.”

From its title and the budding relationship between Dirk and Todd, viewers might expect a new take on the dynamic that has served Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) so well in Sherlock, the recent revival of the legendary detective story, which also airs on BBCA in the US.

However, audiences will soon discover that Dirk Gently is about to turn traditional detective stories upside down. “The thing about Dirk is that, unlike Sherlock or Miss Marple or any other detective, he is singularly bad at being a detective,” explains executive producer Arvind Ethan David. “He’s not a genius, he’s not physically brave, he’s not good at clues. He is funny, absurd and overly dramatic, but what makes him truly unique is he has an innate, almost paranormal sense of the connectedness of all things.

“This means you’re not constrained by the limits of the possible. In season one, you think you’re in an ordinary murder investigation after the death of Patrick Spring, but what’s unusual is that Dirk was hired by Patrick six weeks before his death to investigate his murder.”

For David, the launch of Dirk Gently last Saturday (and later this year on Netflix around the world) brings his relationship with Adams’ novels full circle, having adapted the story for the stage both at school and later during his time at Oxford University. The latter version starred Rory Kinnear, now known for roles in Penny Dreadful and the James Bond films, and cemented David’s friendship with Adams.

“We did it as a school play and I knew it was something special, so we did it again when I was at Oxford, bigger and better,” he recalls. “That was the one [Adams] really liked and was when our friendship started. It also starred Rory, who has just finished on Penny Dreadful with Samuel Barnett, who plays our new Dirk.”

The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and
The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and Samuel Barnett

Thirteen years after Adams’ death in 2001, the author’s estate asked David if he would consider rebooting the series, following an earlier adaptation for BBC4 in the UK.

“Each season is one case but there’s a bigger mystery around Dirk, who he is and where he comes from that will be explored across multiple seasons,” David explains. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for in terms of my career. I wasn’t going to return to Douglas’s work until I felt there was a way to do him justice and I think American cable television is the place to do that.

“You get to tell a detailed story with tonnes of digressions and tonnes of interesting characters. We have something like 20 lead cast members in this season. It’s not quite Game of Thrones scale, but it’s pretty close!”

The series is produced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion, with Landis and David executive producing alongside showrunner Robert Cooper, Zainir Aminullah, Ted Adams, David Ozer, David Alpert and Rick Jacobs. It is distributed by IMG.

Cooper, whose credits include Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, came on board to help steer the production and develop Landis’s take on Adams’ characters.

“Dirk Gently was just so incredibly different,” says the showrunner, who was looking for a new project to join when Landis’s script came across his desk. “It was so unique and defied definition in so many ways. It’s indescribable – it’s a thriller, it’s a character drama and it’s funny.

“I loved Max’s voice – it was energetic – and there’s a real pull to doing a short run of episodes. It feels like a long movie – one with a heavily surrealist angle.”

But despite the absurd elements of the source material that carry over into Landis’s scripts, Cooper says it was important to introduce these slowly – at least at the beginning – to give viewers time to warm to the characters.

“While this show definitely has some strange things to it, it’s still grounded,” he explains. “Both Max and I wanted people to fall in love with the characters and feel the world was very real, so as it becomes more unusual, we have these characters to hang on to.”

The expansive cast includes Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete, Michael Eklund, Osric Chau, Viv Leacock, Zak Santiago, Richard Schiff, Neil Brown Jr, Aaron Douglas, Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan, Mpho Koaho and Fiona Dourif.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is based on the books by Douglas Adams

But in particular, it’s lead duo Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings), who plays Todd, to whom the creative team hope viewers will warm as much as they have.

“I cannot imagine other people in those roles,” says BBCA’s Barnett. “Sam and Elijah had this fantastic chemistry. They play so well together. It wasn’t super easy to find our Dirk. We looked for a while but when Sam read, Max said he was the Dirk he had imagined in his head.”

Cooper continues: “From the moment Sam and Elijah were in the room together, we felt there was magic. I have never worked with two people who are so easy, professional and never miss a beat. With so many other challenges, it’s such a pleasure to know the one thing we don’t have to worry about is the leads nailing the dialogue.”

Though the show is packed full of stunts and effects, the other challenges to which Cooper alludes refer largely to the complicated filming schedule in Vancouver, which doubles for the show’s Seattle setting.

“You can bring a certain amount of experience to the table but there are always challenges,” he reflects. “In this case, the show was based in several locations and they were locations that didn’t always recur – and we were doing this in Vancouver, which is incredibly busy [with other film and television productions].

“There’s a tremendous amount of production going on and it’s stretching the capacity and talent in terms of what was doable. There was a point towards the end where Panavision was just out of cameras. You’re literally desperate for crew and it means you pay considerably more.”

David reveals that the creative team wanted to produce a series that celebrated the filmmaking traditions of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) and the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) – an aspiration that led to executive producer Dean Parisot, who helmed the hit sci-fi comedy movie Galaxy Quest, directing the first two episodes. Michael Patrick Jann is also on directing duties.

“Dean famously directed Galaxy Quest and one of the reasons I wanted him to do it was that blend of science-fiction and comedy, of serious and absurd, which is really hard to pull off – but Dean has shown repeatedly that he can do it,” David says. “We’re definitely bringing talent to the game. Max is certainly the lead creator but it was important to him and us that we hired the most talented people we could and that everyone’s vision was integrated.”

The absurdist nature of Adams’ writing leads Cooper to admit adaptations of his work – such as the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – haven’t always been successful, owing to his ideas being “inflammable.” But David, a self-confessed “fanboy” of the author, believes Dirk Gently will have enough to attract those less familiar with Adams’ work.

“We know there’s a specific audience that will turn up for the first few episodes,” he says. “As a fanboy myself, I know we’re making something those people will like. What we’re hoping, though, is that we’ve also made something that has enough intrinsic heart and is funny enough that we won’t be limited to just that community. I’m sure people will say they don’t watch science-fiction but I hope they give us a chance and see we’re much more than that.”

As for BBCA, the network is confident Dirk Gently can break through the vast number of TV shows competing for viewers. “In the intense mountain of content, there’s something smart, moving and really refreshingly different about Dirk Gently and I hope that continues to rub off on how viewers see BBC America,” Barnett notes. “It’s a blend of audacity and pleasure that makes for a unique and entertaining cocktail.”

Cooper adds: “On the surface it looks like a detective show – Sherlock and Watson on a peculiar day – but when people watch, they will see very quickly that it’s something fresh and different, and they’ll have no idea where it’s going.”

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Spirited display from pay TV

Outcast was given a cross-platform launch

The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.

The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.

Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.

The Enfield Haunting
The Enfield Haunting could come back to Sky in the form of a franchise

Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.

On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.

Feed the Beast
Feed the Beast stars David Schwimmer (left) and Jim Sturgess

The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.

Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.

Orphan Black
Orphan Black has been given a fifth and final season

“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”

Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”

Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.

Day and Night Berlin
Day and Night Berlin

The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).

Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”

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Getting engaged: Sarah Barnett of BBC America

BBC America’s Sarah Barnett is looking for returnable hits that appeal to a generation of social media-driven viewers and keep them coming back to the cable channel.

Tatiana Maslany received her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress after three seasons playing multiple roles in the science fiction series Orphan Black (pictured above).

And although she ultimately lost out to Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) at the 2015 awards, her nomination proved a winner for US cable channel BBC America (BBCA), which airs the Canada-produced series.

It transpired that Orphan Black was the second most Tweeted-about show during the ceremony – behind only Game of Thrones, which dominated the list of award winners – and BBCA president and general manager Sarah Barnett says this is exactly the type of engagement she is looking for when deciding what new shows to bring to the network.

“There is this crazy social engagement our audience has with our shows,” she says. “Doctor Who is the sixth most social show in America, but it’s not the sixth most watched show at all. It’s becoming really hard to gauge success with overnights, and even with live+3s and +7s. It’s difficult to aggregate viewing because it happens in so many different ways but social engagement and passion is crucial. For programmers, it’s uniquely satisfying to see that kind of love and identification. Those stories are very emotional journeys and they’re about outsiders, and the millennial crowd engages with that.”

Sarah Barnett
Sarah Barnett

Barnett is a year into her role at BBCA, having previously run its AMC Networks-owned sister channel SundanceTV, where the business model didn’t require huge audience numbers and executives focused on finding “remarkable” television. Things are slightly different at BBCA, where viewing figures are more important, but Barnett says discovering the level of engagement fans have with the channel’s shows has been a welcome surprise.

“One of the amazing things we have is a level of passion and engagement from this millennial crowd that comes to the Doctor Whos and Orphan Blacks, and it’s actually kind of extraordinary,” she says. “When I first arrived, it blew me away.”

Although it carries a lot of content from its UK namesake, BBCA is not limited to acquiring series from the public broadcaster. It also buys in other British shows such as Broadchurch and Prey, which both aired on ITV in the UK, while also pushing into original series of its own. Three have aired so far – Copper, Orphan Black and Intruders – with the promise of more to come.

“It’s never been just a home for BBC content in the US,” Barnett says of the channel. “I don’t want it to be something that’s respected and well thought of but slightly away from anything super relevant. I want it to feel very confident about its Britishness and to feel very energetic, vital and relevant to an American pop-culture audience.

“Since I’ve been doing this job, there seems to have been an increase in the conversation about returning series and shows that have some of the complexity of storytelling in terms of plotting and depth of the best US cable in terms of character and grounding.”

Barnett outlines the differences between the US and the UK markets by comparing the audiences for different channels. In particular, she says US viewers will largely exclusively watch either broadcast (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) content or shows airing on cable, which are generally niche, often edgier stories.

“Most of the storytelling in cable, certainly since AMC pioneered premium storytelling (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), is much edgier, much more bold and has pushed the boundaries in terms of subject matter,” she explains, citing other examples including Amazon’s Transparent, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Homeland on Showtime. “But when you look at BBC1 and BBC2 and even Channel 4, the same audiences watch everything – broad shows and edgier shows (From Darkness, London Spy).

“In the US it’s somewhat different – essentially you either watch the broadcast shows that are less deep in their storytelling or you identify with cable. It’s all much more mixed up in the UK.”

In the past year, Barnett says she has simplified the BBCA’s schedule, stripping non-scripted shows such as Man vs Wild and Top Gear and playing drama in primetime.

And when it comes to original commissions, Barnett says her priority is returning dramas that have more than eight or more episodes per season.

Doctor Who, ‘the sixth most social show in America’
Doctor Who, ‘the sixth most social show in America’

An example of this is Dirk Gently, which BBCA greenlit in January. An adaptation of Douglas Adams’ comic novels Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the eight-hour series is written by Max Landis (Chronicle) and coproduced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion.

The show follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Gently and his reluctant assistant as they become embroiled in a season-long mystery.

“Because of the intensely competitive, cacophonous moment of content in the US, we will have fewer big, buzzy originals and will look primarily for shows that have eight or more episodes per season and that are returning,” Barnett says. “That doesn’t mean we’re not in the business for some fresh, dynamic, closed-ended things. We are, and we’re coproducing a number of things with the BBC right now (including political thriller Undercover and mystery series Thirteen).

“But a lot of our focus is on stuff that is returning and has more episodes. A network like AMC might have 70-100 hours of original content a year. At Sundance we probably had 40-50 hours of originals a year. Next year we have 150-200 hours. We’re primarily scripted – we’re not doing a ton of unscripted.”

Because of its ties with the BBC, most of BBCA’s first-run series hail from across the pond, particularly through coproduction, though Barnett argues that the network’s Britishness is what helps it stand out in the crowded US marketplace.

It is that international outlook that has also inspired a show currently in development at BBCA and set in contemporary Berlin.

“The main story follows an American family that left during the middle of last century. They’re a Jewish family moving back to Berlin, so it’s very much about young contemporary Berlin,” Barnett says of the unnamed project, adding that there may or may not be British characters involved. “From my point of view, I’m not a big fan of inserting them just for the sake of it. I don’t think people watch like that. Our audience sees us as a passport to the world.”

The Last Kingdom
Saxon drama The Last Kingdom

Barnett has also found the much longed-for companion piece to Doctor Who in Class, a BBC coproduction that is written by Patrick Ness and set in London’s Coal Hill School – which viewers will know as the school where Doctor Who’s former companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was a teacher.

“With original commissions, I’m looking to find shows that are going to be up there with Doctor Who and Orphan Black,” Barnett says. “That’s one BBC show and one original. We’re agnostic as to where it comes from. We’d love it to come from the UK but I want those shows that are really going to define the brand, speak to that audience and create a reason for people to continue to come to what is a medium-sized cable network. They’re not going to come unless there’s a real fresh pipeline.”

With more than 400 shows airing in the US alone in 2015, on more platforms than ever, Barnett is candid about the performance of new shows – and returning hits that don’t quite reach the same heights second time around. But BBCA is positioning itself as a trailblazer for new ways to reach audiences, whether through liner broadcasts or making content available on-demand.

“It’s an interesting time in the US with these new platforms stealing share,” she says. “Of all of the returning shows last season, only 15 shows grew when they came back. Everything else declined and there’s 400 scripted shows out there. Broadchurch grew on air, Doctor Who’s season premiere came back with the largest 18-49 audience it has ever had. We’re doing something right and it’s the shows and the way we launch them.

“We launched The Last Kingdom a little ahead of the BBC. With the second episode, we put it online right after the first episode aired. The thinking was to get people hooked. We eroded the second week numbers but then it built to a bigger number in week three. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to cut through.

Fargo’s numbers were down for its second season on FX despite universal critical acclaim
Fargo’s numbers were down for its second season on FX despite universal critical acclaim

“Many would argue there’s an irrationality to this moment of ‘peak TV’ in the US but I think there is space for really good shows to still connect with an audience – Transparent, Mr Robot, Orange is the New Black, Doctor Who, Orphan Black. There’s this weird paradox that there’s so much yet there’s not enough that you really want to actually watch.”

As the for biggest challenge she faces, Barnett is clear that growing shows and keeping an audience is causing the greatest anxiety among US cable and broadcast network presidents.

“A show like Fargo on FX, season one was amazing,” she admits. “Fantastic reviews, good viewing numbers. Then season two came along, heralded with the most extraordinary critical response, and yet the numbers dipped quite significantly. That’s a show that should have grown but didn’t.

“That’s the challenge – how to stay relevant. For us it’s about telling stories that connect with this audience that is so obsessively passionate about the shows they fall in love with that they will come back. That’s the thing that keeps me awake – how to find the shows that fuel the passion of that audience.”

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