This summer, TV schedules around the world have been dominated by sports events such as Euro 2016, Test Cricket and Formula1 and now the Rio Olympics. But for some reason, our collective love of sport has rarely translated into a memorable scripted TV series.
Shows that have tried and failed to capture the essence of sport include FX boxing drama Lights Out, which lasted for a single season in 2011, and ESPN’s Playmakers – a series that managed to attract the ire of the NFL during its 11-episode lifespan (2003).
Faring better, USA Networks’ Necessary Roughness lasted three seasons, while NBC’s Friday Night Lights managed five. But neither really scored heavily in terms of TV audience interest. The Game, a comedy drama that launched on The CW and then transferred to BET, is one of the few successes in this space, running for eight seasons before its 2015 cancellation.
The situation hasn’t been that different outside the US, with examples of sports-themed dramas few and far between. In the UK, Footballers’ Wives was a modest success between 2002 and 2006, while Australia produced an entertaining cricket series called Bodyline in 1984. But, overall, sport is massively under-represented in drama when you consider its wider appeal.
In contrast to TV, the film industry has delivered a steady stream of pretty good sports-themed movies. There are, for example, several stories in which the central character succeeds against the odds – a line of attack that has given us both comedies (Cool Runnings, Eddie the Eagle) and dramas (The Blindside, The Natural, Tin Cup).
There are also plenty of films set against interesting periods in the history of sport (Chariots of Fire, Ali, Invictus, Eight Men Out, Rush). When you also factor in Jerry Maguire, The Mean Machine, The Bad News Bears, Foxcatcher and Million Dollar Arm, it’s not a bad track record compared to TV.
So what’s the difference? Well, one factor seems to be that the pacing of movies is more like that of live sport. Executed well, the twists and turns of a 90- or 100-minute film are not that different to a good football, basketball or baseball game. Both have an adrenaline-boosting immediacy that appeals to audiences. Sitting in a movie theatre also resembles sitting in a sports arena much more closely than the typical home-viewing experience.
Another factor is the issue of authenticity. One thing that causes problems for any film or TV series focusing on contemporary sport is that we know the protagonists are not real, because we see the real versions doing amazing things all the time. Even with the benefit of fast-cut editing, actors struggle to replicate the magic of true athletes.
Similarly, the fans that sports stories are aimed at generally have deep-rooted loyalties to real teams. As a fan of Arsenal FC, I have no interest in dramas that attempt to portray fictionalised football teams (though I get that there are legal and branding issues that make the use of real talent and clubs a challenging area).
The same reality gap must also be an issue for fans of other football teams or of NFL, NBA and MLB clubs. This is why, when TV does get interested in sport, it is currently more inclined to aim for behind-the-scenes sports documentaries (though a potential problem here is that the subjects of such stories often have editorial control, leading to sanitised shows).
The movies have tended to avoid the authenticity issue by dealing with historical subject matter (so we have a less acute sense of who the protagonist is) or stories about ‘triers’ as opposed to ‘winners.’ But historically, when they have tried to tackle hardcore sports subjects head on, they have had an advantage over TV – access to A-list talent.
If, for example, you are going to portray Muhammad Ali then it’s not so hard to accept Will Smith in that role because he has a star status that suits the subject. Similarly, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers in 2014’s hit movie Foxcatcher.
Having said all this, there has been a shift in the way we perceive TV recently. While a TV drama might still struggle to replicate the immediacy and adrenaline of the movie experience, it can now attract A-list talent. Perhaps that’s why we are finally seeing a decent sport-themed series in the shape of HBO’s Ballers.
True, Ballers is not securing massive audiences – but it is one of HBO’s top-rating shows and has just been commissioned for a third season. For anyone not familiar with the show, it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – who has all the necessary attributes to front a sports-themed series (sporting background, big-screen image). He plays a former NFL superstar who now acts as an adviser to young talent coming to terms with their new lifestyles.
Subject-wise, the show is smart. It doesn’t focus on the games themselves, which would be an editorial mistake. Instead it tries to explore the lifestyle of those involved in the world of NFL. It does, however, reference teams like the Miami Dolphins – rather than alienating the audience with fictitious alternatives.
Other sports-themed shows that are holding their own on TV including Starz basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse, which benefits in the authenticity stakes from the fact that LeBron James, basketball’s biggest star, is an executive producer. Also doing pretty well is Kingdom, which operates against the backdrop of the mixed martial arts world. Aired by AT&T’s Audience Network, it was recently renewed for a third season. Here again you can see reasons why this show might work. One is that it stars Nick Jonas, a music industry heartthrob who has successfully reinvented himself as a charismatic screen presence. The other is that MMA isn’t NFL or Premier League soccer.
In other words, the authenticity bar isn’t quite so high for the audience, which can enjoy the drama without having to worry too much about the sport itself. Besides, it’s easier to film the tightly cropped world of one-on-one combat than a major team-based sports event (where we are used to 60-plus cameras covering every aspect of the live action).
The TV industry’s shift towards limited series should also, in theory, make it easy to pull off a sports-based story. Not many would justify a returning series model. But there are some great period stories that could be told over six or eight episodes – rather than as a feature film. One series that perhaps shows the way is Rivals Forever, a German drama for ARD about the Dassler Brothers, who founded the rival Puma and Adidas sporting brands.
As the film industry has demonstrated, there is great subject matter in sport that could form the basis of a limited series. Andy Samberg and Murray Miller, for example, are making a sports doping mockumentary for HBO. But this is surely a subject that would make also brilliant TV drama. Imagine an The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story-style approach to the life of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Or a Billions-style drama exploring recent allegations of systematic state-sponsored doping by Russia.
Possibly, with the demand for scripted series showing no sign of letting up, now is the time for drama producers and writers to revisit their relationship with sport-based storytelling.
The lazy summer month of August doesn’t seem like an obvious time for new scripted commissions ABC, Starz and National Geographicto be announced. But it’s actually pretty active in the US, thanks to the Television Critics’ Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour.
For a couple of weeks, network execs give the media a frank and detailed insight into some of their plans for the coming year.
ABC, for example, has given a straight-to-series order to Ten Days in the Valley, a 10-part drama series that plays out over a 10-day period. Produced by Skydance and created by Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue), the series focuses on a television producer and single mother whose young daughter goes missing in the middle of the night. The show was originally set up with Demi Moore in mind but the lead will now be The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick.
The show is reportedly part of ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey’s ambition to re-introduce more procedural dramas into the network’s schedule. If that is the case, it will be welcomed by European buyers, who have been complaining about the lack of decent procedurals coming out of the US.
Premium pay TV channel Starz has also used the TCA tour to unveil plans for a number of shows, one of which we referenced in last week’s Writers Room column (Pussy Valley). Another greenlight announcement is a second season of The Girlfriend Experience, based on the film by Steven Soderbergh. The series will tell a new story with new characters, putting it firmly at the heart of the current trend for anthology drama.
Carmi Zlotnik, MD of Starz, said: “The first season of The Girlfriend Experience [GFE] allowed us to accommodate all viewing appetites with the traditional weekly episodic premiere schedule as well as a bingeing option for the entire 13 episodes. We’re excited to offer Starz subscribers a second season that will explore new GFEs, clients and relationships as we take viewers back into this world that questions the price of intimacy and its emotional consequences.”
Another player making a big scripted statement at the TCA tour was National Geographic Channel (NGC). Although best known for its factual content, NGC is boosting is scripted profile with a show based on a manuscript from the late Michael Crichton.
Crichton died in 2008 but he was such a remarkable creator of sci-fi adventure series (Jurassic Park being his seminal work) that the TV and publishing industry has continued to mine his creative archive for gems. In 2009, for example, a novel called Pirate Latitudes was released, followed by Micro in 2011.
Dragon’s Teeth will be released as a novel next year and is being developed for TV by Amblin Television, Sony Pictures Television and CrichtonSun. Set in the American West in 1878, it follows the intense rivalry between real-life palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
Carolyn Bernstein, exec VP and head of global scripted development and production at NGC, said the story was an “epic tale of science, adventure and exploration” that would be “the perfect project for the network.”
NGC has also ordered a miniseries called The Long Road Home, based on the novel by Martha Raddatz. Set up as an eight-hour production, the show tells the story of a US Army unit fighting for survival after being ambushed during the Iraq War.
Other US-originated dramas to hit the headlines this week include ICE, a drama for AT&T Audience Network that will “focus on the treacherous and colourful world of diamond traders in downtown Los Angeles.” A 10×60′ series from Entertainment One (eOne) and Antoine Fuqua’s Fuqua Films, ICE will be written by Robert Munic (Fighting, The Cleaner). International rights to the show will be managed by eOne.
Christopher Long, SVP of original content and production at AT&T, says: “ICE has truly been a labour of love for us as we have been cultivating and evolving this project with Antoine Fuqua for more than two years. With Antoine, our amazing team of writers, as well as eOne, we know that ICE will capture the attention of viewers who are looking for exciting new shows with compelling storylines to add to their line-up.”
HBO is also in the news this week with reports of two miniseries. The first is from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and has Nathalie Portman lined up to star. Called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it is based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel about a university student who loses her twin sister during childhood.
The premium cable channel is also developing miniseries Black Flags with Bradley Cooper. This show is based on a book by Joby Warrick and explores the rise of ISIS. The Cooper connection is presumably an attempt to inject the project with an air of American Sniper.
Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, meanwhile, has given a season two commission to Queen Sugar, before the show’s first season has even begun.
Created by Ava DuVernay, the show is about a group of estranged siblings who are forced to work together to save their family’s struggling sugarcane farm in the Deep South.
“When we saw the first cut from Ava we knew right away that we wanted a second season,” said OWN president Erik Logan. “We think viewers are going to connect with the deeply layered characters and powerful story. We are proud to be a network that supports a filmmaker’s creative vision.” Season one launches in September with 13 episodes and the second run will have 16.
Finally, from the US, USA Network has awarded a seventh season to its legal drama series Suits. The news comes just three episodes into season six and is an indication of the importance of the show to the channel.
Suits continues to be USA’s top-rated show and is currently generating an audience of around 1.7 million, rising to three million when time-shifted viewing is factored in. Suits has arguably become more important in recent weeks given that season two of Mr Robot has slipped in the ratings. The critically acclaimed hacker show started season two with around one million viewers, down from the season one average of 1.39 million. Subsequently it has slipped to around the 700,000 mark, which is surprising given its recent high profile on the awards circuit.
Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.
Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.
Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.
Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.
This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”
It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.
The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.
The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.
In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”
Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.
Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.
Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.
Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.
Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”
This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.
The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”
As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.
From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.
Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:
Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017
BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist
Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)
But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two
If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast
Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock
Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17
ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time
But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last
Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.
Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder
Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow
The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer
Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season
It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.
The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe
Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30
Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage
The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser
But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are
Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.
As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.
The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.
The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.
As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.
Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”
There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.
Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”
Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.
So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.
San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.
Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.
At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.
In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.
Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.
Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”
Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.
Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”
There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.
A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.
Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.
One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).
Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”
Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”
The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).
Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.
Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.
Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.
Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.
In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.
Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.
And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.
Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.
Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.
Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.
Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”
Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.
At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.
Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”
Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).
Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”
The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.
In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”
The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.
Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”
Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”
The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.
Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.
The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.
The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
We’ve talked frequently about the importance of brands in this golden age of drama. A while ago we also discussed Stephen King’s appeal to the film and TV business.
So it was no huge surprise this week when Viacom-owned cable network Spike greenlit a series adaptation of the horror-meister’s 1980 novella The Mist. The show is scheduled to go into production in the summer and will air in 2017.
Those of you who watch a little too much film and TV will know that The Mist also had an outing as a movie in 2007. That version was directed by Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) and produced by Dimension, which is also behind the TV version.
The novella (and film) tells the story of a small town in Maine that gets shrouded in a Mist that conceals a group of murderous monsters. The film was okay, without being spectacular, so a little more effort will need to be taken to turn this into a hit.
Interestingly, the Spike version of The Mist is being adapted by Danish writer Christian Torpe, whose previous credits include Rita. This is another indicator of the high regard in which Nordic talent is now held.
Sharon Levy, Spike’s head of original series, said: “Christian and the entire team at TWC-Dimension TV have crafted the framework for a compelling and distinctive series that will resonate with Spike’s expanding audience.”
Spike will be hoping this show goes smoothly. Last year, the network announced its intention to move more aggressively into scripted TV – but since then it has encountered a couple of bumps in the road.
First, it pulled the plug on a Jerry Bruckheimer drama called Harvest, which it had given a straight-to-series order. Then, a couple weeks ago, it suspended production on Red Mars, another straight-to-series order based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed science-fiction trilogy.
With regard to that project, Spike said in a statement: “We will continue to develop Red Mars with (producer) Skydance. The Red Mars trilogy is one of the most beloved modern science-fiction properties, in part because of its tremendous scope and ambition. We are pausing to ensure we get the script right and to deliver fans what they want – a fantastic show that fully captures the spirit of these wonderful books.”
Another novelist in high demand by the TV and film business is Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods is currently in production for Starz. This week, The Guardian reported that another Gaiman project, Good Omens (co-written in 1990 with Terry Pratchett), is also being adapted as a limited TV series.
This one follows an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, as they try and prevent the end of the world because they’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of Earth. Apparently, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Gavin Scott looked at making a TV series based on Good Omens in 2011, but that project was later scrapped. If this one goes ahead as planned, it will be adapted by Gaiman. According to The Guardian, Gaiman decided to adapt the book after reading a posthumous letter from Pratchett asking him to do so.
Perhaps not surprisingly, US cable network AMC has announced there will be a third season of Fear The Walking Dead, consisting of 16 episodes. The news follows the successful launch of season two, which attracted an impressive 8.8 million viewers in Live+3 ratings.
“What Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman have invented in Fear The Walking Dead is to be applauded,” said Charlie Collier, president of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. “Watching Los Angeles crumble through the eyes of our characters and seeing each make decisions and try to figure out the rules of their new world – it’s fresh, eerie and compelling and we’re all in for the ride. We thank the fans for embracing this mad world and look forward to sailing far into the future.”
As the above titles demonstrate, horror/fantasy is still very much in demand. Another illustration of this is Hulu’s decision to acquire the exclusive rights to Freakish from AwesomenessTV. Freakish was created by Beth Szymkowski and is set after a meltdown at chemical plant. It sees a group of highschoolers battle against the predatory mutant freaks that have taken over their small town as a result of the accident. The 10-episode first season is in production and is being lined up for 2017 transmission.
There are also reports this week that Lionsgate is preparing a drama for Amazon based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Entitled Time Out of Mind, the project will be headed by writer-director Josh Wakely – who has secured a rights deal that gives him access to Dylan’s vast music catalogue. The idea is that the show will be inspired by characters and themes within Dylan’s work. The news continues the trend towards scripted series based on musical subjects, discussed here, with Amazon itself also developing a series about legendary band The Grateful Dead.
Among other stories doing the rounds this week, there are reports that CBS’s new Star Trek series will be a seasonal anthology. It’s not clear exactly what that means in practice. Other seasonal anthologies shed their cast each season but it’s hard to imagine a show that jettisons the entire USS Enterprise crew after every season. Possibly the anthology nature of the series will relate to the challenges faced by the crew. So star names could be brought into new adventures as non-recurring characters, while the Enterprise cohort is kept broadly the same each season.
On the international distribution front, Denmark’s DR has sold its financial crime series Follow the Money to France Televisions. The show has already been sold to BBC4 UK, CBC Canada and SBS Australia. Other DR-distributed dramas to have secured sales in the wake of the recent MipTV market include SF Film’s crime drama Norskov, acquired by on-demand platform Walter Presents, and Happy End’s Splitting Up Together, which was licensed to NRK Norway.
Family drama The Legacy, which was explored in detail at C21’s Drama Summit at the end of last year, was also sold to SBS. In terms of shows to look out for, TV2 Denmark’s DNA should be a major event, since it has been created by Torleif Hoppe of The Killing fame.
It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).
Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.
The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.
Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.
In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.
Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.
It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.
The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.
If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.
Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).
“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”
One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.
Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.
On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.
This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.
“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”
Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.
A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.
Assuming it turns out to be true, the biggest content story of the week comes courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, which says that tech giant Apple is making a six-part TV series with rap legend and Beats Music co-founder Andre Young, better known as Dr Dre.
According to the story, which has subsequently been picked up by a number of major US media outlets, the show will be a semi-autobiographical “dark drama” that will be liberally laced with sex and violence. Apple and Dr Dre have not yet commented on the nascent project, which will be made available via the subscription service Apple Music.
The prospect of Apple moving into content has been mooted for some time. But with Amazon and Netflix rapidly ramping up their original content slates, the company is clearly starting to get anxious it is falling behind. Working with Dr Dre is, however, a great way to signal its ambition. The movie Straight Outta Compton, which looked at Dre’s involvement with the band NWA, grossed US$200m worldwide – suggesting there is a large potential audience for the new show (which will be executive produced by Dr Dre, just like Straight Outta Compton). Fox’s success with Empire and Starz’s success with Power reinforce the idea that the black music industry is fertile creative ground.
Meanwhile, SVoD platform Amazon Prime Instant Video has announced a couple of interesting commissions this week. Echoing developments at its arch-rival Netflix, it is now getting into non-English-language production with a German-language series called Wanted.
Wanted will star German actor-writer-director Matthias Schweighoefer and tells the story of a Berlin convention centre project manager who becomes the victim of a mysterious hacking attack. Schweighoefer’s company Pantaleon Entertainment, Warner Bros Entertainment and Warner Bros International Television Production Deutschland are attached to produce.
Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Video Germany, said: “With our first regional Amazon original production we implement not only the desire of many of our customers for exclusive German content but also extend our service to new audiences and establish Amazon Prime as an important partner for producers and creative professionals in this country.”
This week also saw Amazon order a third season of its Golden Globe-winning series Mozart in the Jungle. Mozart is a show about the politics and relationships in a leading symphony orchestra. Season two began streaming in December 2015.
Over at Netflix, meanwhile, there was also a renewal for Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The show stars Ansari as Dev, a 30-year-old actor attempting to make his way through life in New York City. Netflix doesn’t release viewing data, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the show has picked up a pretty loyal audience.
Premium pay TV network Starz has been talking about doing a sequel to period drama The White Queen for two or three years now. Finally, it has committed itself to an eight-episode limited series called The White Princess, which will air in 2017. Like the previous series, this one is based on the novels of Philippa Gregory and will be adapted for the screen by Emma Frost.
The White Princess, which is told through the eyes of a female protagonist, concludes the story of England’s War of the Roses and charts the rise of the House of Tudor. Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “There is a dearth of programming that tells women’s stories and The White Queen was embraced with great success by audiences worldwide. The fanbase for Philippa Gregory’s historical novels is undeniable, and we are confident The White Princess will become the next must-see fandom drama series.”
The show will be produced by Company Pictures, with Playground’s Colin Callender on board as an executive producer.
In recent months there has been a lot of activity among Italian producers seeking to raise their profile on the international market. One of these is FremantleMedia-owned Wildside. This week, the company announced it is developing a series based on Elena Ferrante’s four acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. The plan is for each of Ferrante’s four female-centred books, which are set against Italian society changes from the 1950s to the present day, to become an eight-episode series (32 episodes in total). The show is being coproduced by Wildside with Domenico Procacci’s Fandango, which owns the rights and originated the project. Fandango was one of the producers on the hit series Gomorrah.
Deadline has also been running an interest story this week suggesting James Bond star Daniel Craig is to star in a new drama series called Purity, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Franzen. Showtime, FX, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all still in the running to secure the series, according to Deadline.
Meanwhile, Hulu is reported to have linked up with UK producer Stephen Garrett, who has recently launched a new drama indie called Character Seven. Garrett is developing a London-set supernatural series for Hulu called The Rook, in partnership with Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s company Fickle Fish and Lionsgate.
Finally, BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) has announced a slew of new sales for its adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Pick of the bunch is the sale to Russia’s Channel One, though the show has also been sold across Asia and Scandinavia and to France.
BBCWW president of global markets Paul Dempsey said: “It is fitting that Russian audiences will get the chance to enjoy this thoroughly modern adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. They’ll join millions of viewers around the world who have been enthralled by Andrew Davies’ stunning interpretation of War and Peace.”
Previously, the Weinstein Company licensed the series to the A+E Networks in the US.
By now, the TV industry is used to SVoD giant Netflix breaking the rules. But even by Netflix’s standards, the decision to order three additional seasons of Lionsgate’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) in one go is a surprise. It must take some special kind of data algorithm to be able to judge a show that far into the future.
Season four of the Jenji Kohan-created comedy drama about an eclectic group of female prison inmates hasn’t even been released yet (it launches in June), but this week’s announcement means OITNB will now have a minimum of seven seasons.
Commenting on the decision, Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “Jenji and her team have produced a phenomenal and impactful series that is funny and dramatic, outrageous and heartfelt. Audiences around the world have come to love the ladies and men of OITNB, and we are eager to see where three more seasons will take them.”
Kohan, who has signed up to be OITNB’s showrunner for the new seasons, added: “Three more years! Not quite a political term, but still plenty of time to do some interesting things. In some cultures, ‘May you lead an interesting life,’ is a curse, but I don’t live in those cultures. Here’s to keeping it interesting. Thanks Netflix! Both thanks and you’re welcome Lionsgate! And kudos to the stellar cast and crew and writers and producers and editors and musicians and mixers and shleppers with whom I have the honour of crafting this show. Three more years! Three more years!”
And there was more eulogising from Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs – who was so excited he upgraded the current age of drama from gold to platinum. “We’re proud to continue our long-standing relationships with Netflix and the incredibly talented Jenji Kohan and delighted that one of the most acclaimed shows on television will continue on Netflix for three more seasons. Jenji’s brilliant creative vision and a truly amazing cast have catapulted OITNB to the forefront of the platinum age of television, and we’re pleased that fans around the world will be rewarded with another three seasons.”
It’s not unheard of for broadcasters to commission two seasons of a scripted show at once, but three is a remarkable show of support – and not without risks. For a start, Kohan could simply run out of steam over the course of the next four years. Or the security of so many episodes could reduce the urgency and hunger that comes with needing a renewal. Or the audience could start to lose interest – either because they’ve seen enough or because something even better comes along.
So the question is – why do it? Why not just stick with the more usual pattern of commission, transmission, ratings, renewal? Well, it can’t be to do with subscribers, because people don’t make decisions based around such long-term programme planning. So it must be the fear of losing either Kohan or the show to a rival.
If it’s the former, then perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that showrunners trusted by networks/platforms are in short supply. At conference after conference, producers tell stories of how they have to wait for years for A-list showrunners to become free. The obvious solution would be to improve access for new writers, but this reckons without the fear factor that still underpins so much network decision-making. It’s ironic that, at the very same time we talk about industry innovation and creativity, there is so much money being spent on film-to-TV adaptations and reboots.
If it’s the latter, then maybe Netflix is reacting to the news that Lionsgate may be about to merge with Starz. If that deal goes ahead as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Lionsgate would choose to sell future series of OITNB on Starz. So maybe this is a way of Netflix pre-empting that eventuality. Whatever the thinking, it will be interesting to see if other companies start to make similar commitments. If they do, then this will truly go down as the golden age for scripted TV writers – the gold bullion age.
There is another possible factor involved in Netflix’s decision – which is that networks increasingly want to signal to the audience that they should stick with a show, because it is going to be around for a long time. The beauty of Game of Thrones or Outlander, for example, is that you know it is worthwhile investing emotional capital in the stories. There’s nothing worse than watching a show that gets axed just as you are getting into it.
We’re seeing this more and more with networks that commission season two of a show when season one has only just begun. This week, for example, USA Network greenlit a second run its alien invasion drama Colony after just four episodes of its debut season. It made a similar move with Mr Robot (and, for the record, commissioned season six of hit series Suits very early).
On the face of it, this early commissioning trend runs counter to the risk-aversion referred to above. But the reality is that scripted TV will never be entirely without risk. So it’s better to back a project in a meaningful way than spend tens of millions of dollars on something that the audience doesn’t bother to turn up for.
Another interesting story doing the rounds is that YouTube is about to launch its first exclusive series, Scare PewDiePie, starring the phenomenonally popular YouTube gaming star. Produced in partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios, the series will be part of the video-sharing site’s new subscription-based service YouTube Red.
Scare PewDiePie is a reality show – which begs the question why we’re highlighting it in a column about scripted TV. Well, the significant point is that YouTube is getting into origination backed by subscriptions. So it won’t be long before we see YouTube stars appearing in scripted series and movies on the new YouTube Red service. In fact, YouTube already has a deal in place to stream films from Dreamworks Animations’ AwesomenessTV on its platform.
From here, it’s not a great imaginative leap to suppose that YouTube Red will start to enter the more mainstream scripted business alongside Netflix, Amazon and the big pay TV brands.
Other greenlights this week include a 13-part order from Syfy for Incorporated, created by David and Alex Pastor and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
There’s also been a second-season order for NBC’s Shades of Blue, which stars Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt NYPD detective turned FBI informant. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “We want to thank Jennifer, who is the hardest-working woman we know, for her incredible efforts as both the star and producer of this show, as well as our other amazing producers and cast for all their tireless work in creating one of the most compelling dramas on television today. We’re so excited to find out where this story will lead and have them raise the stakes even higher in (season two).”
Last week, we talked about how ABC in the US had backed two legal show pilots. Well, rival CBS has decided to focus more on medical shows. Two new pilots announced include Bunker Hill and Sensory, about a neurologist who has ‘mirror-touch synesthesia,’ a condition that causes someone to experience other people’s sensations. Already airing on CBS is medical drama Code Black, a moderately successful series set in an LA emergency room.
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine-owned production outfit Bandit Television is making a show about the notorious Rillington Place murders for BBC1. Based around the actions of 1940s serial killer John Christie, the story was previously the subject of an acclaimed 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.
It’s very much in vogue to talk about the quality of scripted series coming out of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon. But this week let’s raise a glass to Starz, which has picked up Golden Globe nominations for two dramas: Outlander and Flesh and Bone.
When Starz made its first meaningful move into original production with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it didn’t look like it would be a contender for industry gongs. But under the leadership of Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the US channel has really raised its game – delivering shows like Power, Black Sails and, coming in 2016, The Girlfriend Experience – as well as the above-mentioned series.
Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Left Bank Pictures and was developed for TV by Ronald D Moore. Moore also heads a writing team that, in season one, included five credited writers (Moore, Toni Graphia, Ira Steven Behr, Anne Kenney and Matthew B Roberts).
Moore, who wrote the opening two episodes of season one, is still just 51. But his extensive writing credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica and Syfy series Helix. He was also reported to be working on a TV reboot of movie A Knight’s Tale for ABC.
Flesh and Bone, meanwhile, is an eight-part miniseries about the dysfunctional but glamorous world of ballet. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, it started airing on Starz on November 8 and is currently five episodes through its one and only season. Walley-Beckett’s career to date has seen her win a Primetime Emmy for her work as a writer on AMC’s Breaking Bad. She was also a writer-producer on ABC’s short-lived period series Pan Am.
Elsewhere, fans of Fox thriller 24 will be delighted to hear that the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland is to headline a new ABC series entitled Designated Survivor. The drama, which has been ordered straight-to-series, focuses on a junior US cabinet member who is unexpectedly appointed president after a huge attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession. The production company behind the show is Mark Gordon Co Studios (Quantico) and the writer will be David Guggenheim.
Guggenheim’s major credits to date are movies – most notably the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. He is also working on a sequel to Safe House and a new instalment in the cult Bad Boys franchise. The drama is ABC’s first new scripted series for the 2016/17 and follows on from a decent showing for Quantico.
If this is the golden age of TV drama, then one has to ask why so many old movies and TV series are being revived. Still, it’s good news for writers. The latest beneficiary is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former Lost writer (seasons one and two) who was been signed up to write a reboot of NBC’s cult series Xena: Warrior Princess.
The chances of Xena getting into production seem pretty good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the current trend towards action-adventure shows with female leads. Secondly, because the show is popular internationally, suggesting a successful reboot could be a money-spinner for NBC’s distribution division.
Another show to secure a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes is Fox’s ratings hit Empire. Unsurprisingly, Fox has asked the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels to come up with a follow-up series. Daniels, who is currently casting the pilot, is co-writing the new series with Tom Donaghy.
Although the programme doesn’t yet have a title, it will follow the fortunes of a girl group hoping to make it in the music business. Donaghy started his career as a playwright but, like many of his peers, is now active in TV. Credits before now include The Whole Truth, Without a Trace and The Mentalist.
Another project in the news this month is Lookout Point’s Parisian fashion drama The Collection. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the eight-hour show has been picked up by Amazon and will be written by Oliver Goldstick. Goldstick’s credits include Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and, notably, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), for which he has written 30 episodes. He also co-created the short-lived PLL spin-off Ravenswood with I Marlene King and Joseph Dougherty.
One project in search of a writer is AMC’s new adaptation of Joe Hill horror novel NOS4A2. The story centres a young woman with an uncanny talent for finding lost things – a gift that is gradually destroying her mind. She encounters Charlie Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and sucks their souls to keep himself young. The licence plate on the Rolls (NOS4A2) gives you a clue as to what kind of character he is.
Like office workers using up their holiday entitlement before the end of the year, TV channels are rushing to greenlight scripted shows before they shut up shop for the holiday season.
Among those celebrating this festive bounty is UK producer Neal Street Productions, which has just been given the greenlight by the BBC to produce a sixth season of period drama Call the Midwife. The new order comes despite the fact season five has yet to air.
Neal Street executive producer Pippa Harris said: “I am delighted the BBC has decided to commission season six of Call the Midwife even before we have gone on air with season five. It really demonstrates their commitment to and passion for the show. The success of Call the Midwife is down to the incredible writing skills of Heidi Thomas and the talent and dedication of our wonderful cast and crew. I hope the audience will enjoy watching season five, which I firmly believe is our strongest yet.”
In the US, meanwhile, protests in front of HBO’s offices seem to have paid off, with the premium pay TV channel announcing that it has ordered a third season of critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
Fans of the show were so desperate for a renewal that they took to the streets to make their feelings felt – and it seems the channel has listened: “It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome back Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta (the creators) and the extraordinary talent behind The Leftovers for its third and final season,” said HBO programming head Michael Lombardo. “This show has proven to be one of the most distinctive HBO series, and we are extremely proud of its originality, which has resulted in such a passionate following by our HBO viewers. We admire and fully support Damon’s artistic vision and respect his decision to bring the show to its conclusion next season.”
As Lombardo’s comments make clear, next year will be the final season of The Leftovers. This is a neat way of giving the fanbase what they want and allowing the show’s creators to achieve closure, while tacitly acknowledging the fact that the show has not done that well in the ratings.
“On behalf of our incredible crew and superb cast, we are all tremendously grateful that HBO is giving us an opportunity to conclude the show on our own terms,” said Lindelof in a statement. “An opportunity like this one rarely comes along, and we have every intention of living up to it.”
Over in Canada, public broadcaster CBC has greenlit a four-part miniseries from producer Shaftesbury and Sharon Mustos. Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall On Your Knees, the story follows four sisters in the early 1900s.
Moving from Nova Scotia via the battlefields of the First World War to the emerging jazz scene of Harlem in New York City, the show is described as the riveting tale of a family beset by hidden desires, terrible secrets, intolerance and repression.
Mustos said: “I am proud to bring this much-loved, acclaimed novel to the screen in partnership with Shaftesbury. Celebrating the quiet heroism of women in the face of heartbreak, adversity and the sweeping changes of the early 20th century, it is a remarkable story.”
Published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been translated into more than 20 languages and will be adapted by Adriana Maggs.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite a renewal but NBC in the US has given a hefty vote of confidence to freshman medical drama Chicago Med, which has been awarded five extra episodes. Part of a Chicago trilogy of TV shows from Dick Wolf, the first four episodes of Med’s first season have averaged 8.9 million viewers in live + same-day ratings. With the new instalments, the total order for season one is up to 18 episodes.
Still with the US networks, Fox has ordered Shots Fired, a drama that will be written and executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show, set to air in 2016, looks at the tensions that arise when a black police officer shoots an unarmed white teen in a small town in Tennessee.
David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company, said: “Gina and Reggie have crafted a profoundly moving portrayal of a timely and sensitive issue that pervades our culture at this very moment. This is not only an important story to tell, but also an explosive mystery-thriller, and we couldn’t be in better hands both with the creative team behind this and Sanaa Lathan leading the cast.” Lathan plays an expert investigator who digs into the case, alongside a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.
One of the most hotly anticipated series of the new year is Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files, which debuts on January 24. The show has now been picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
“Securing the UK premiere of the hugely anticipated return of The X-Files is a major coup for the channel and will create one of the TV events of 2016,” said Ben Frow, director of programmes at C5. “This acquisition underlines our ambition to deliver a diverse slate of brilliant, must-see programming on Channel 5.”
With Downton Abbey over, the key participants are now out there looking for their next job. Last week, we reported that season five and six producer Chris Croucher is now working on ITV drama The Halcyon, while creator Julian Fellowes has been crafting his version of Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne.
Meanwhile, US cable channel TNT has announced that it is going to series with Good Behaviour, the story of a thief and con artist that will star Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton). It’s not clear if Dockery will have to use an American accent in her new role, but if you’re wondering whether she can, watch this appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
With Downton done, there are reports that the show’s production company Carnival has won a second-season commission from BBC2 for The Last Kingdom, which has just finished its first season. There has been no official confirmation yet but executive producer Gareth Neame has already sketched out the plot and character development for a follow-up. The show is based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, whose work also gave rise to the long-running Sharpe franchise (set during the Napoleonic Wars).
Switching briefly to corporate news, this week has seen suggestions that SVoD platform Netflix is gearing up to launch in the Middle East next year, while rival streamer Amazon has started offering its users access to cable channels such as Showtime and Starz.
Under a new scheme entitled the Streaming Partners Programme, Amazon Prime members can pick and choose SVoD versions of famous TV channels – a move that may well push the pay TV subscribers further towards cord-cutting. Showtime and Starz will be available for US$8.99 per month, with the promise that the latest episodes of series will be available simultaneous with broadcast.
“The way people watch TV is changing, and customers need an easier way to subscribe to and enjoy multiple streaming subscriptions,” said Michael Paull, VP of digital video at Amazon. “With the Streaming Partners Programme, we’re making it easy for video providers to reach highly engaged Prime members, many of whom are already frequent streamers, and we’re making it easier for viewers to watch their favourite shows and channels.”
David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks, said: “By marrying Showtime with the powerhouse retail capabilities of Amazon, we greatly expand our footprint, making sure our service is available to new subscribers whenever and however they want to watch us.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht added: “Starz is excited to offer subscriptions to our premium hit shows like Outlander and Power, as well as our thousands of movies, to Amazon Prime customers.”
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.
The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.
The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.
Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).
This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.
The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.
In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).
Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.
Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”
Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).
Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.
Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.
After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.
Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.
The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.
Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.
With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht and actress Riley Keough tell Michael Pickard why viewers should get on board The Girlfriend Experience.
It’s not often that a writer or director can demand free rein on a new television show. But that’s what happened when Steven Soderbergh first approached US premium cable network Starz about a new project.
The Ocean’s 11 director, who won an Emmy for HBO movie Behind the Candelabra in 2013, had wanted to reunite with Starz CEO Chris Albrecht since they worked together on HBO’s political drama K Street in 2003.
“So he came in and said, ‘Here’s my vision, two filmmakers, all the scripts, you’ve got to give me the money, we’re gonna go shoot an entire film and I’m gonna bring you back the stuff,’” Albrecht recalls of Soderberg. “I was like, ‘OK.’ Not a lot of people would say yes to that deal.
“There are few people as talented as Steven Soderbergh, and any chance to work with him I’m going to take.”
The project was The Girlfriend Experience, which stars Riley Keough as Christine, a law student and an intern at a prestigious law firm who is introduced by a friend to transactional relationships and becomes involved in the world of the ‘girlfriend experience,’ which sees women provide their clients with more than just sex.
Based on the 2009 film of the same name, the 13-part half-hour series is produced by Transactional Pictures. Soderbergh, who directed the original film, and Philip Fleishman executive produce with filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who wrote and directed.
During that first meeting, Soderbergh knew he wanted to bring Kerrigan and Seimetz onto the show and also that he wanted Keough to star, having worked with the Mad Max: Fury Road actress on 2012’s Magic Mike.
Albrecht continues: “Steven said there was this girl he worked with on Magic Mike, she’s fucking terrific. She’s going to be a big star.
“I think when people see this young actress… I got so excited when I watched all the episodes because it’s a brilliant, brave performance and she’s astonishing in it. I think people are going to be blown away by her. I watched all 13 in a row. I said I’d watch some and then go to lunch; six hours later I’m starving.”
Sex might not be an unusual theme for a show on a premium cable network, but Albrecht explains that the subject matter goes far beyond the initial implications of someone providing the girlfriend experience.
“In Steven’s mind, it’s what price intimacy?” Albrecht says. “The girlfriend experience is ostensibly different from just paying someone for sex; you’re paying someone to be your girlfriend. Whether you’re married or not, it’s someone looking for that connection. The other side of it is here’s this young woman, this character who tries to do everything she does in the best way possible. She’s an intern, a law student, she’s working her ass off and she gets introduced to this world and approaches it in the same way she approaches everything else, which is ‘I’m going to be the best at this that I possibly can be.’
“It’s a way to look at the relationships that people seek and to ask whether this is any more honest than many marriages or relationships out there, with both people getting something they want. So Steven had all that in his head, and that’s fertile ground that so many people can relate to – not necessarily the girlfriend experience, but the search for intimacy and the connection with another human being. When you’ve got a guy like him and an idea that could be pretty universal, those are two pretty good starts for doing a film or TV show.”
Soderbergh was also the reason Keough was drawn to the series. The actress hadn’t appeared on TV before, preferring big-screen roles, but she says the director was a big influence on her move to television.
“I don’t think he’s going to make anything that’s shit,” says Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. “Also, there’s a lot of really cool stuff on TV. The content’s getting really interesting and I actually really like watching TV more than movies. The character is really interesting. I liked how shameless she is – she doesn’t care about other people’s opinions and will do anything. She gets into a lot of sticky situations but doesn’t ever think she’s wrong, and that was really funny. I thought you would want people to really like the main character and have someone people aspire to be like, but she’s a realistic person – strong and opinionated and different to anyone I’ve seen.
“I kept reading the scripts thinking there was going to be some big drama, but there’s not. It’s very realistic and naturalistic and that’s the kind of thing I like to watch. When I spoke to Lodge, Amy and Steven about how they wanted to shoot it – the style and the tone, the vibe – I just found it really interesting.”
But that’s not to say Keough had no reservations about the series: “I didn’t want to be promoting sex work; I didn’t want to glorify it or make it look bad. I just wanted to make sure it was very honest and non-judgemental, and that was one of the biggest things all of us agreed on, that we are just showing a piece of this girl’s life.”
Keough also didn’t want it to be “some sex show,” and although she admits the script called for a lot of sex scenes, she says they weren’t gratuitous. “Surprisingly, when you watch it, it didn’t feel like a lot at all,” Keough adds. “And there aren’t sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes. It’s part of her job. Everything I was concerned about or thought would be difficult, I talked through with Amy, Lodge and Steven beforehand. Christine’s not very emotional or self-indulgent. She’s very real. I didn’t have a hard time with it.”
But what about the show’s potential audience? Albrecht believes The Girlfriend Experience will attract young women to the premium cable channel.
“They’ll be really attracted to Riley and her character, and it’s an audience that’s pretty tough to get to premium television,” he says. “Between (forthcoming ballet drama) Flesh and Bone, The Girlfriend Experience and some other things we’re thinking about, we’d like to continue to reach out to audiences that aren’t really coming to premium much and see if we can get them to be Starz subscribers.”
As well as Flesh and Bone, Starz’ ever-expanding original drama slate includes Ash vs Evil Dead; an adaptation of Neil Gaiman novel American Gods; and The One Percent, a 10-part drama about the world of organic farming from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and starring Ed Helms, Hilary Swank and Ed Harris.
“We just respond to the stuff that comes to us but we do have a pretty big variety,” says Albrecht. “The idea that people can binge on these shows is something that’s also fun about premium. We have an on-demand platform, and for Flesh and Bone and (the third season of) Da Vinci’s Demons, we’re putting all the episodes up when the first one airs, so if people want to watch them all, they can – like I did with The Girlfriend Experience.”
Amid the ongoing debate over whether there is too much TV drama, Albrecht jokes that his job would be easier if there were less content. “But that’s why I get excited about a show like The Girlfriend Experience, because even with all the stuff that’s on the air, when you watch this show, you say to yourself, ‘I haven’t seen this on television before,’” he adds.
“I respond to talent, I get excited by talent. My faith in Steven has just been even more solidified by the team he has and him saying to me, ‘I think this girl is going to be a big star.’ Seeing the result at the end, he wasn’t kidding.”
The Girlfriend Experience is due to air on Starz in early 2016, and while the anthological nature of the show means a second season would involve a different cast and a new story, that doesn’t mean Albrecht is done with Keough.
“Everybody’s going to be talking about Riley’s performance,” he says. “I’m definitely going to try to convince her to do something else on Starz.”
DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.
His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.
A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.
But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.
“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”
Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”
Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”
But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.
Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.
Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”
The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.
But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”
Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.
In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.
“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”
Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”
This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.
While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.
In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.
Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”
While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.
“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”
Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”
One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.
Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.
The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”
This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).
Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”
This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.
“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”
Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”
BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”
For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).
US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.
Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.
Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.
“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”
Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies is primarily known for his superb adaptations of literary classics. Among his many, many TV credits are To Serve Them All My Days, House of Cards (the original version), The Old Devils, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Doctor Zhivago, Tipping The Velvet, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, A Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit and the in-production War and Peace.
To this list must be added film credits such as Circle of Friends, The Tailor of Panama, the two Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited – confirming the view that Davies could probably adapt any book on the planet.
In a 2014 interview Davies was asked why he invested so much time on adaptations and came up with a beautifully succinct answer – that “fuck all happens to you” when you are a full-time writer. “There was plenty of material in the early days about infidelity, friction and all those kind of things. But I’ve settled down to a very even plane. So I haven’t really got material I would want to write about from my own life.”
As if to support this observation, one of Davies’ most famous original creations was A Very Peculiar Practice, a 1980s drama about a young doctor who takes up a post as a member of a university medical centre. This series, reportedly, was based on Davies’ experiences as a lecturer at Warwick University. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Davies didn’t become a full-time writer until 1987, aged 50 – juggling his teaching responsibilities with a burgeoning career as a TV writer.
While Davies’ work on War and Peace shows that he continues to be in demand as a novel adapter, he has entered an interesting new dimension in his work in recent years – dramas based on real lives. The link is obvious, which is that both areas provide source material to work with. But the beauty of the real-life/biopic format is that Davies can take greater liberties with storytelling. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to try to shoehorn any book-based dialogue into his screenplay. On the other, he can enter the central character’s story wherever he chooses, taking a pivotal period in their life and using it as the starting point to provide a coherent character analysis.
ITV’s Mr Selfridge, for example, focuses on Harry Selfridge as he begins setting up Selfridge’s department store in London. But TV movie A Poet in New York looks at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as he moves towards his untimely death (aged 39).
The idea for the Dylan Thomas project was initially brought to Davies by comedian/presenter/producer Griff Rhys Jones via his indie company Modern TV. Davies has talked about it in affectionate terms because of similarities between his own upbringing and that of Thomas. With both Welsh and born into teaching families, Davies says Thomas was “very big in my life.”
Now, Davies is writing another film-length biopic about a Welsh icon, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Once again the idea, entitled A Nation’s Health, has come to him via Modern, and once again he will take a tangential look at his central character’s life.
Bevan is best known as the post-Second World War health minister who founded the UK’s National Health Service in 1948. But that could potentially make for quite a dry piece of TV. So Davies is going to drive the narrative along by focusing on Bevan’s fiery romance with his wife Jennie Lee. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “I want it to be both personal and political. They would argue a lot. She kept him socialist and would have the last word on political matters, last thing at night in bed.”
The timing of the project is interesting, given the polarisation of British politics being witnessed at present. With the BBC also at loggerheads with the UK government over its future funding model and the question of impartiality, telling the story of an ardent Tory-hating socialist could be seen as bear-baiting. So the way Davies handles the story will attract close attention. That said, Davies is the man who adapted Michael Dobbs’ wicked political satire House of Cards for TV, so if anyone can steer a steady course through political controversy it’s him.
There was good news for another of the UK’s screenwriting titans this week with Stephen Poliakoff’s Closer to the Enemy being picked up by pay TV channel Starz in the US.
The six-part series, distributed by All3Media International, is a post-Second World War thriller that sees actor Jim Sturgess playing British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson. Ferguson’s final task for the Army is to convince a captured German scientist (August Diehl) to hand over cutting-edge military technology crucial to national security – the jet engine.
The show will premiere in the UK on BBC2 before appearing next year on Starz, which previously picked up The Missing from All3. Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at the distributor said: “Stephen Poliakoff and this wonderful cast of actors are creating a thrilling miniseries that will enthral audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. We look forward to announcing further deals in the near future.”
Still in the US, there was news this week that Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) has been commissioned to write the script for Time After Time, a TV adaptation of the 1979 novel of the same name by Karl Alexander.
Time After Time, which has already been adapted as a movie, imagines a world in which author HG Wells has invented a time machine that is then stolen by Jack the Ripper. Wells pursues the Ripper to 1979 in a bid to bring him to justice. Williamson is writing the script for Warner Brothers TV with Disney-owned ABC the commissioning network.
Another interesting story to come out of the US is a new Directors Guild of America (DGA) study that shows TV series with female showrunners are more likely to employ female writers, directors, editors and actresses than those exclusively run by men: “The findings suggest that creators and executive producers play an instrumental role in shifting the gender dynamics,” says the report’s author, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
“For example, on broadcast programmes with at least one female creator, women comprised 50% of writers. On programmes with no female creators, women comprised 15% of writers.” It’s not too surprising, but this kind of statistic clearly warrants attention.
From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.
There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.
Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.
There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.
By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.
Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.
With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.
A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.
“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”
At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.
SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.
“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.
“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”
Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”
Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.
“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”
Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”
Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.
“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”
Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”
American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.
As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.
FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”
Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”
Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.
The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.
Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.
“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”
Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”
The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?
That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.
“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.
Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.
By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.
The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.
Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.
NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.
Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.
Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.
Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”
It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”
Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”
Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”
While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”